Thursday, May 28, 2009
Benedictine Balance, The Easter Bunny and Santa Claus
The idea that Benedictine spirituality is all about balance seems to be a pervasive one. I frequently hear people say it is why they are interested in coming to the monastery, in learning more about Benedict and applying Benedictine principles to their lives. It is a very admirable goal in our world characterized by frenzy and headlong activity.
I think there is one problem with it. (Warning: this is where I am about to commit Benedictine heresy, the fainthearted among you may want to quit reading at this point and skip to something safer.) After having read and tried to live the Rule of Benedict for a number of years I think the idea of Benedictine balance is a lot like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. It is a wonderful idea that reflects our deepest needs and desires but is ultimately a myth.
Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny speak to our childlike desire for the free gifts, the chocolate eggs and new bicycles that we want so badly. The idea of Benedictine balance speaks to our deep, childlike desire for a life that does not seem to involve intense, unending busyness, a life in which our desire for God is a significant part, not a piece that is shoehorned in-between meetings and obligations. This idea of balance seems to be based on an ideal of a life that would be equal parts work, family, leisure and God. It is not a bad ideal. But I don’t think it is Benedict’s ideal.
For Benedict monastic life is not about achieving a balance of various activities it is about a life in which absolutely everything is centered on God. God is not a significant part of monastic life, a primary priority in a hectic schedule, but monastic life is completely, absolutely, unequivocally focused on God. Work is what monks have to do to support themselves to live a life focused solely on God. Everything in the Rule, everything in monastic life, is about God, how you handle the dishes, how you sleep, how you relate with one another, how you pray and how you eat your food are all about the journey toward God, the ultimate journey to eternal life.
This is usually where people start to despair. They think that if this is the case then Benedictine spirituality cannot speak to ordinary people with families and demanding jobs and all sorts of responsibilities in “the world.” Clearly this kind of total focus on God can only happen in a monastery where all the structures are oriented toward this full-time, wholehearted, immersion in God.
I don’t think that this the only or even the easy answer to the “balance” problem. It is quite possible, even easy to live in a monastery and not be focused on God. It is also quite possible to live an ordinary, hectic life in “the world” and be a true monastic. Perhaps the key is not trying to achieve “balance” as if our search for God were a task on our “to-do” list that we can check off. If I do a certain amount of prayer, lectio and spiritual activities then I have achieved a balanced life. Our search for God may instead be a matter of cultivating mindfulness, awareness of God in all that we do, in all that we are.
This mindfulness is implicit in the Rule. Benedict encourages his monks to be aware of the presence of the sacred in all things, in tools and utensils, in the demands of the sick, in the disruptive visitors. Benedict encourages an awareness of God in all activities. He reminds his monks that the life of faith is about service of God and others in all things. Benedict encourages his monks to make prayer something that not only happens at set times but is a practice of dwelling deeply in God’s word throughout the day.
The Benedictine life is one that structures everything so that God can come first. Even in a monastery that means the hard work of learning to see things differently. We can decide whether or not God will be present in the chores, the irritations, the demands and challenges of the day. Each of us will decide whether our errands, our work, our relationships will reflect God and faith or whether they will be things and activities that are somehow separate from our desire for God.
Striving, running, climbing and making progress are all images that permeate Benedict’s Rule. Being a wise abbot Benedict knew that all of us fallible followers of his wisdom wouldn’t be able to instantly see God in all things at all times. In our overwhelming busyness and distraction we start by longing for balance, for a little more time and space for God and prayer. This is a wonderful goal but Benedictine wisdom challenges us to go deeper. To be Benedictine, to be Christian! is to make God part of the air you breath, the presence you see in everyone you meet, the coming of God’s reign the objective in every task you do. Don’t strive to make God an important part of your life, run your life’s journey striving to make God present in all that you do, in all that you are, that God may be as close as your breath.