Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Did Benedict Go To Meetings?

Did Benedict go to meetings? I’ve always liked to think that in the Golden Age of monasticism, when Benedict was formulating his Rule, monastic life operated smoothly without the modern, interminable round of meetings, committees and consultations. I have a vision of a place where monks were able to spend uninterrupted time in prayer and focused on the spiritual life. In other words a vision far removed from the daily reality of modern monastic life.

The problem with this vision is that there are shadows of meetings lurking everywhere in the Rule. Much of the Rule is concerned with very nitty-gritty day to day concerns. How much food to serve in the lunch line; what makes a good business manager; what to do with guests; how to order the daily schedule are all topics that comprise multiple chapters. For many modern readers these chapters are the Benedictine equivalent of the “fly-over states.” Just as many people only know the center of our country while flying from one coast to another, in the same way many people in search of Benedictine spirituality tend to skip over the chapters on daily life. The reality is that some of the most profound insights are contained in these chapters and are probably the result of innumerable meetings and committees.

Benedict knew that life more often flounders on the details than on the big issues. Monks, whether in the 6th century or the 21st are more likely to grumble and murmur about the food and the housekeeping schedule than about the fine points of theology. The fine points of theology may require great Church councils but monastic life requires meetings.

In our monastery one of the forms this takes is the weekly “house meeting.” This is a weekly gathering of the whole community for announcements, celebrations, discussion and input. After big events we discuss what went well and what could be improved. Everyone has a chance to share her wisdom and input on topics that may seem small but loom large such as the songs sung at liturgy, decoration of the dining room and care of guests. Announcements and reminders keep the small issues from becoming great issues. Turn off the map light in the car so that the next person doesn’t come out to a car with a dead battery. How late can someone take a bath without disturbing those early to bed? Thanks are offered for the many people who turned out to can one hundred boxes of donated fruit. These are little reminders, little issues and little thanks, but taken together they are the stuff that makes community thrive or fail.

Other meetings only involve a few people. Benedict understood that a group of people functions best if one person, guided by a Rule, is the final authority. But he also knew that collaboration is essential for people to live together and grow in holiness and maturity. And so consultation is continuous: discussions, opinion seeking, listening and feedback are always happening. It is a slow, ponderous process. It is easy to remember the quip: “meetings are places where minutes are taken and hours are wasted.” But even in the irritation and seeming interminable nature of meetings Benedict’s wisdom is reflected. We don’t go to God as individuals, we journey all together to everlasting life, and if we are to make this journey together in love we will probably have to have meetings to make sure we are traveling together with no one running ahead and no one left behind.

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