Wednesday, October 28, 2009


When Elizabeth heard that Mary was going to come and visit, did she start to clean the house? That is one of the questions about Luke’s version of the Visitation that I’ve never heard asked. But it makes sense doesn’t it? That is what women tend to do, get the house ready for guests, make sure that the nice towels are put out in the bathroom, the good plates are rescued from their cupboard and everything is dusted and shined.

I’ve been thinking about the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth because we are having our own “visitation” this week. Just as Mary visited Elizabeth to be with her, support her and to be supported and encouraged in return, so too we have holy women coming to share with us. In Benedictine monasteries every 5-6 years sisters from other monasteries come and help us evaluate how we are living our monastic life. This process is called “visitation.”

We welcomed our “visitators” on Monday night with a special prayer service and party afterwards. And of course with a tour of newly cleaned and shined monastery! Since then they have been meeting with most of our departments and committees and reviewing piles of documents. They meet individually with each sister who wants to talk with them. They share our life, coming to prayer, meals and meetings with us.

This is a week of listening. Like the visit of Mary and Elizabeth it is holy listening. Holy listening isn’t always easy listening. I always imagine Mary and Elizabeth exchanging tips on how to cope with vicissitudes of pregnancy, what helps for morning sickness, what to do when you feel like a whale and can’t get comfortable, how to handle perplexed husbands who are still trying to understand what is happening. In the same way we share our hopes and frustrations with our visitators about what it means to bear God in our world today. As monastics we live in community, and that never ending process of rubbing against one another day in and day out, year after year, is how we come to transformation, to new life in the Spirit. Just as Mary and Elizabeth supported one another so we, too, need to be able to share with people who know this way of life, and can reassure us that there is indeed new life gestating in our midst.

At the end of the week, after reviewing and reflecting on all they have heard and seen the visitators will write a report of their impressions that they will share with the community. In many ways this visitation report will be our common “Magnificat.” When Mary and Elizabeth greeted one another Mary’s response was her beautiful, challenging hymn of praise. She sang of what God was doing in her life and in the lives of the people of God. At the end of this week we too will be able to share the great things and the challenges of how God is working in our lives here in the Monastery of St. Gertrude.

Like the Magnificat the report will contain both affirmation and challenge. Mary sang of a God who turns the world upside down and upends the complacency of the self-satisfied. This will be a good thing for us to keep in mind as we hear some specific recommendations for how we can better live into our call to progress on this “Gospel way” as disciples of Christ and daughters of Benedict. At the same time we will hear what we already know but need to be reminded of, that we are a deeply faithful group of women who are doing amazing things for the Reign of God and our faith will continue to flower, mature and bear fruit in our world for many years to come.

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, our visitators will only stay for a week, but in each case we will all be transformed by the event. Together we will retain the memory of a new song of praise to God, a new vision of God working in our lives and a new and renewed sense of hope for the future.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Psalms: A 2x4 Moment

Praying Psalm 95 is like unexpectedly being hit upside the head with a 2x4. I think that is why Benedict wants monks to pray Psalm 95 every morning and why we don’t.

In his Rule St. Benedict provides extensive, specific provisions for how we are to pray the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours every day. The Office is primarily Psalms and while some are distributed randomly others are prayed everyday at the same time. Psalm 95 is to be prayed every morning.

Psalm 95 certainly starts innocently enough, the first several verses are a paean of praise to God the creator, a reminder to give thanks and praise for all we have been given:

1 O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
6 O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! 7 For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.

So far so good. We have an important call to celebrate our relationship with God, a humbling yet joyful reminder that all we have and all we are is from God. We are the sheep dependent on the shepherd and we acknowledge our humility. We would certainly all feel pretty good if the Psalm ended there. It would be a good and appropriate way to start each day.

But then comes the 2x4 upside the head:

7 O that today you would listen to his voice! 8 Do not harden your hearts,
as at Meribah as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, 9 when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work
10 For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray and they do not regard my ways.” 11 Therefore in my anger I swore, “They shall not enter my rest.”

What on earth happened!? Our nice, safe, happy Psalm of praise got ugly didn’t it? We are brought up short by the admonition: “O that today you would listen to his voice.” The Psalm tells us, shouts at us, that the people of God tend to not listen to the voice of God. The Psalm is forcing us to see that the disobedience of the people during the Exodus wasn’t just a far off historical event. Every day we face a choice. Will we listen and respond to God’s voice or will we be like the people in the desert who didn’t trust God, who didn’t listen, who murmured and complained.

This is not an easy Psalm. It is not a safe or comfortable view of God. If we pay attention to this Psalm we will be left uncomfortable, uneasy, chastened and worried. Does this mean that we should fear a terrible God of anger? Should we simply reject the Psalm?

Perhaps Benedict mandated that this Psalm be used every morning simply because he was so deeply aware of human nature. Human nature is not inherently bad or evil, we are created in the image of God, but we easily slip into complacency. We begin to take things for granted. We begin to take God for granted like a building we pass by everyday without really seeing.

This is what Benedict wants us to avoid. He wants us to begin each day with this clashing, discordant Psalm, this beautiful call to praise and disturbing warning that we cannot fail to remember the God of our salvation. Benedict says listen! This Psalm says listen! Listen and pay attention. Listen today. Give praise to God today. God is always present, may we always be open, always thankful for the gifts of God.

Starting every morning being hit upside the head with a 2x4 isn’t easy, but perhaps this urgent wake-up call will allow us to start each day with a new depth of gratitude to the God who will lead us through the day with love.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why The Psalms?

With all the popularity of Benedictine spirituality these days one topic doesn’t seem to be mentioned very often. Lots of books put an emphasis on balance, humility, respect for the material world, silence and all sorts of other things but the Psalms are rarely mentioned. That’s odd because for Benedict the Psalms permeate the life of the monk, the air of the monastery is suffused with the words of the Psalter. Benedict has his monks repeat the cycle of 150 Psalms, in one week. The formation of new monks emphasized memorizing the Psalms. Benedict spends several important chapters of his short Rule setting forth which Psalms are to be said at which prayer times.

So why doesn’t contemporary Benedictine spirituality focus more on the Psalms? I suspect that we don’t really know what to make of the Psalms these days. Most people have a few Psalms that they especially like, usually the ones that seem comforting and hopeful. Some people have a few Psalms that they think really shouldn’t be part of Scripture at all since they are perceived as too violent and bloodthirsty. For the most part we tend to take the Psalms for granted and don’t make a connection between the Psalms and our desire for a deeper spirituality.

How the Early Church Read the Psalms

The understanding of the Psalm in the early Church was much different from our own. Modern people see the Psalms as 150 unrelated little poems that don’t have much in common. We read the Psalms as unrelated to the rest of Scripture or even to other Psalms. Scripture study today emphasizes discerning exactly when the Psalm was written and for what original purpose in the original context of Israel some 3000 years ago.

This way of reading Scripture would be completely and utterly foreign to the readers of Benedict’s time. They saw the whole Bible, all of Scripture, being a single, organic whole. The Bible wasn’t a collection of basically unrelated books composed over a period of a thousand years for a variety of different purposes and audiences, for them it was one book that was to be read as the whole, complete story of God’s plan of salvation. In other words Genesis and Revelation weren’t separate stories they were all part of one story. To these readers everything in the Old Testament, foreshadowed, was a hint of what was to come, in the New Testament. An image from the early church writer Iranaeus helps us understand this idea. He said that the entire Bible was like a mosaic, innumerable individual tiles make up the larger picture of salvation history. In other words each verse or story from Scripture wasn’t to be read as a single entity, each piece of Scripture was a small piece of the whole picture of God’s plan for salvation.

Against this idea the early Church considered the Psalms to represent an especially clear synopsis of the rest of the Bible. The book of Psalms was read to be a summary of all of salvation history. The early writers could see the Paschal Mystery, the saving event of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection contained in the Psalms.

By this point most people reading this are probably wondering whether the early Church writers were reading the same book of Psalms that we do! The reality is that we probably can’t really re-capture the way that our foremothers and forefathers read Scripture. They knew Scripture much better than we did and would form chains of association based on individual words or phrases that are extremely hard for us to even follow today. On word or phrase in a Psalm would remind them of something in Genesis which would in turn remind them of something in the Gospel of Matthew. As an example, try reading some of St. Augustine’s commentaries on the Psalms in which he seems to wander in a stream of consciousness from one apparently unrelated topic to another. Our modern mind set is just very different and we probably cannot delve into Scripture in the same way or to the same depth as these great early writers.

Psalms as “Mirror of the Soul”

However, there is a way the early writers read the Psalms that can be helpful to us. The Psalms were called the “mirror of the soul.” The Psalms reflect the depth and breadth of human experience and when we read the Psalms we see ourselves reflected in their words. You don’t have to know the Psalms very well to see that the Psalmist never holds back in his relationship with God! The Psalms are shouts of effusive praise, they are cries of deepest despair, they recall the wonders of history and call for vengeance against enemies. There is probably no aspect of human experience that is foreign to the Psalms. Early writers saw this and encouraged people to see their own experience in the Psalms and to use the Psalms for the healing and transformation of their soul. The Psalmist always comes back to God, whether is joy and praise or despair and hopelessness, God is the foundation of the Psalmist’s life.

So how can we modern people pray the Psalms? Perhaps the most important thing is to simply slow down and immerse ourselves in the Psalms. We pray with Scripture by not reading it quickly for information the way we would a newspaper, but to read it slowly and let it speak to us. We can allow the words of the Psalms to become our words, they can express our deepest feelings, feelings that we don’t want to express or have trouble articulating. We can let the Psalms speak to us, we can listen deeply as the Psalms speak to us about the action of God in our life and world.

In monastic prayer the Psalms are an ocean of God’s presence. Go ahead and dive into the ocean and see where the tide takes you.