Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Promise of Mud Time

A few days ago it was the first day of spring. Since then we have had about three inches of new snow. Someone even built a snowman(person?) near the front entrance. The snow is melting again, leaving large brown patches of dead grass, muddy roads and little rivers of water running through mud clumped fields. As I walk down the roads the old beer cans that have been covered since November are now glaring in ditches, the cattle seem to be mud-caked wonders.

At this time of year I wonder about all the romantic images of spring. The sappy paeans to spring flowers seem inappropriate at best and delusional at worst. Spring seems more like the temporal and geographic equivalent of purgatory, an awful, interminable in-between state that has neither the pristine promise of white snow blankets nor the green fecund reality of summer greenness. It is a grumpy, difficult time of year that shows no sign of ending.

But I wonder whether this mud time, when it is hard to believe much less see the possibility of transformation, is a metaphor for our monastic life. There are frequently days when it seems like living with all these people, each of us with our own unique brand of brokenness, is an interminable slog through mud. There are days when it seems like this mud time won’t end, that flowers will never bloom, fruit won’t bear, the reality will always be dirty snow, patches of brown dead grass and a sea of mud.

There are those days, but then something funny happens. The big picture is only mud, but the closer inspection so easily overlooked shows something else. Little blades of grass poke up out of snow and peek out of the muck, almost lost in soggy ditches they are a subtle hint of possibility.

In the mud of community it is easy to miss the grass. There are little hints of grass when someone patiently answers the same question over and over from the sister who doesn’t remember she just asked the same thing two minutes ago. There is laughter at the dinner table at some shared absurdity. New life comes when someone visits and feels the presence of God in this place. There is a promise of fruit in common worship and prayer when moments of grace pierce through our distractedness.

Living in community is living in mud time. It means living with patience that can be stretched to its limits. It means living in hope, living in promise, waiting for a change that is slow in coming, change that comes in jerks, fits and starts. Living in mud time teaches us to look closely, carefully, deeply. Do you see it? There, the subtle, fragile green of new life. It is coming. Just wait, believe and know that it is God’s work and not your own.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mary the Proto-Benedictine?

Benedictines like to point out that the first word of the Rule is “listen.” Other people like to point out that Benedictines don’t have a monopoly on listening! OK, maybe that is true, but nonetheless today, on the Feast of the Assumption, I would like to nominate Mary as the first, proto-Benedictine.

In Luke’s marvelous account of the Annunciation it is Mary’s deep listening that allows her to be present to the message of God’s unexpected, impossible action in her life. We tend to forget that Mary didn’t have to listen, didn’t have to respond. Personally I think Mary would have been quite justified in saying: “Gabriel, honey, this Holy Spirit coming upon me is all well and good, but I’ve got a wedding to plan, I have to rent a hall, pick out bridesmaid dresses, figure out what to do with my mother-in-law. Could you come back after the wedding?” Who would have blamed her for not having the time or space in her life to listen to strange messengers who probably interrupted her morning coffee?

But listening means being willing to be interrupted, to give up our agenda, to say “yes” to things that are completely, absolutely impossible. Listening means creating the open, vulnerable place in our lives where God can be born. Listening means responding to the deep hunger, the yearning for God’s presence that compels us to enter monasteries, become sisters or oblates and to live according to a Rule.

Of course when we listen to God we will hear impossible things. We aren’t used to hearing much less believing impossible things. I am always reminded of Alice in Wonderland. Alice tells the White Queen that “one can’t believe impossible things.” The White Queen looks at her pityingly and says: “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age I did it for half an hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” The Queen would appreciate Luke’s account of the Gospel. Virgins will hear that they are to become pregnant. A peasant girl on the margins of the most powerful empire known to history will give birth to a baby who will turn the world upside down. God enters the world not in power and might but in weakness and vulnerability.

As Benedictines we will also hear impossible things when we listen. We will hear that the motley collection of people we live with are the leaven of the Reign of God in our culture. When we believe six impossible things before breakfast we will believe that God can be born in our lives like Mary. We will believe that God still speaks to marginal people in the margins of the greatest empire history has ever known. We will believe that God doesn’t work through our power, our achievement, our ability to work hard, but God comes to dwell in our weakness, our limitations, our littleness.

So today on the Feast of the Annunciation our community celebrates listening, openness and the God of impossible things. Hopefully it will be a day when all of us will take the time to be silent, still and open to the places where Gabriel still whispers. Then together we will know what Benedict said and Mary knew: “What, dear brothers/sisters, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us?” RB Prologue 19

Monday, March 23, 2009

"Prayer Ministry"

Periodically we update a list of the different ministries our sisters serve in. For example I am listed as co-director of oblates, volunteer coordinator and vocation team. Other sisters work in leadership, in different offices like development, in health care, in work at jobs away from the monastery, etc. Then there are a number of sisters who are listed as doing “prayer ministry.”

That listing always takes me aback slightly. I mean aren’t we all supposed to be about prayer ministry? Why are some sisters listed as having that as their defining ministry? The reality is that we list the older sisters who are in our infirmary and who no longer have an “active” ministry as the ones who now have prayer as their primary occupation. I always wonder, and worry a little bit that we may think that prayer is what is left when someone can no longer work, that we don’t value their new work of prayer as highly as their previous ministries. Our community works very hard and values hard work so that can color our perceptions.

I suspect the reality is that these sisters are the ones who have graduated to the real work of the monastery, the real work of any of our lives. They are at a place where they have to daily face their limitations, their weakness and frailties. These sisters are at a place where they have to depend on the help of others for daily tasks, bathing, dressing, getting places. They are living in a place of incarnated humility. They can no longer be defined by how hard they worked for many years, how many children they taught, patients they nursed or meals they prepared. Their life is now about essences. It is about the essence of faith: humility in the face of dependence, suffering that is endured in deep hope, prayer that is lifted up on behalf of the world.

In monastic life we live in community seeking to be transformed, seeking to get past our “self-will,” our egocentricity that both helps us to face the challenges of the day but also gives us the illusion that we are the center of the universe. Through the challenges of monastic life, and there are never a lack of challenges, we seek to become transformed, icons of God in a world that needs beauty, salt and leaven in a world that is often insipid and shallow. But most of the time we are taken up with the important, and very necessary chores that need to be done. We need to support ourselves. Daily tasks have to be done. “Active” ministries have to be attended to. God is present but so is the pervasive illusion that we are in charge.

But for the sisters whose primary ministry is prayer, that illusion is being stripped away. Prayer, a deep, naked being before God in supplication, adoration, or simply presence, begins to take over. This is the real work, the deep work of being changed, it is real purpose of monastic life and too often we only come to it in a deep way at the end of our lives. And so I give thanks for these women who are about our most important work.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Feast of St. Benedict

Happy Feast of St. Benedict!

For those of you who are wondering, this isn’t the big, official Feast of St. Benedict which is celebrated by the Church on July 11th. March 21st is celebrated by Benedictines as the date of the death of Benedict. Since it is Benedict and we are Benedictines we figure we are entitled to celebrate twice.

It is a big feast day here at the monastery. That means we have a Sunday schedule, special prayers from the feastday office book, the dining room is decorated, special placemats with Benedict are on every table and everyone is dressed up. It is a day when a number of us made profession, there will be a lot of reminiscing around the dinner table.

Since this commemorates the death of Benedict, I thought I’d reflect a little on what that meant to Benedict.

For Benedict death was very clearly the entry into eternal life, the culmination and goal of a life time centered on the work of conversion and transformation. In chapter 72 of the Rule he entreats God to “bring us altogether to everlasting life.” Everlasting life for Benedict is something that happens in the context of community. We are responsible for one another in our work of conversion. Benedict’s is not a spirituality of “me and Jesus,” he sees this life as a journey in the company of our sisters and brothers and we are responsible for one another. We run this race together. Benedict would say we don’t have an option of leaving the slower ones behind or of allowing the faster ones to go on ahead of us. We are community, we go to God together.

The only information we have about Benedict is a hagiography (biography of a saint) written by Pope Gregory the Great in the 7th century. At the end of this work he describes the death of Benedict:

“Six days before he died, he gave orders for his tomb to be opened. Almost immediately he was seized with a violent fever that rapidly wasted his remaining energy. Each day his condition grew worse until finally, on the sixth day, he had his disciples carry him into the chapel where he received the Body and Blood of our Lord to gain strength for his approaching end. Then, supporting his weakened body on the arms of his brethren, he stood with his hands raised to heaven and, as he prayed, breathed his last.”

Here we see the same motif as in the Rule, even as he died Benedict is literally upheld by his community. They support him as he had supported them to run the way of the Gospel. He ran the way of faith with his community and they would continue to run the way guided and supported by his example.

Our communities, whether cenobitic or oblate, are very different than Benedict’s, but the principle is the same. Our faith life is lived in community. Community doesn’t just mean people we like and choose and who are similar to us. Community often means people that challenge us to grow precisely because we would not have chosen them! Benedict knew this when he called his disciples to support “…with the greatest patience one anothers weaknesses of body or behavior.” In patience we become the presence of Christ for one another, knowing what it is to uphold someone just as they will hold us up at the times we need.

Community is an exercise of humility. We are reminded of our weaknesses, our limitations and at the same time stretched to offer our gifts on behalf of those who share our spiritual commitment. It is humility to continue in commitment even when it is difficult and stretching for any variety of reasons. In the rough edges of community we come to realize that we cannot rely on ourselves, we come to depend on God who often takes the guise of the people who we most like to get away from. Rugged individualism and self-reliance are not Benedictine values.

For Benedict death was the ultimate point of transformation and it happened as he was held up by the same community that had both supported and challenged him throughout his life. Death was the destination of the journey that would now continue into eternity. While we celebrate the moment Benedict ended his race, let us keep in mind that all of us are still on the way, still supporting and encouraging one another toward the destination of our final transformation.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Crossing the Jabbok

22The same night he got up… and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me."
Genesis 32:22-32

The other day at prayer we read the passage from Genesis of Jacob wrestling with the angel. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. There is something about Jacob’s wrestling that is a deep metaphor for monastic life, especially entry into monastic life.

Jacob was in a liminal space, a boundary between his old and new life. He is trying to reconcile with his brother Esau and yet is afraid that Esau will try to kill him. He has sent his family, servants and animals on ahead and is alone, camped by the river. In the night he wrestles with a mysterious stranger, demanding to know his name and thus to have power over him. Jacob prevails in the fight and is himself given a new name to suit his new life.

In coming to monastic life, indeed to any commitment of faith, we have to cross the Jabbok, not just once but again and again on this journey. I remember the last night in my home before I left for the monastery and the last night before I finished driving to Cottonwood. They were nights of anxiety, hope, fear and wonder, nights of wrestling with the mysterious forces that led me to this place. I was standing by my own river, the boundary between my old and new life, demanding a blessing as I went into the unknown.

The monastic life requires giving up possessions, money, previous employment and networks of friends and family. It entails crossing a boundary into a new land, a new culture, a new way of being. When we enter this new way of life we wrestle with mysterious forces in the night, demanding that we be blessed for our willingness to seek God in this new way, demanding that we know the name of the forces that keep us awake at night wondering whether this was the right decision, wondering what we will face in the morning when we cross our own Jabbok.

Perhaps more than anything I resonate with Jacob who came away blessed but who always limped because of the blessing. Every day as he limped, his hip hurting, he was reminded that even though he had “’…striven with God and with humans, and …prevailed’” there was a cost to his wrestling, he prevailed at a price. This was not a cheap blessing, Jacob had to surrender a part of himself at the Jabbok, the blessing was won at the price of loss.

In the journey of monastic life, of any life of seeking God, we will cross and re-cross our Jabbok. At night we will face our fear of the unknown, of being called ever deeper into this life of following God at whatever price, to an unknown destination. In the night we will wrestle and demand that we be blessed by this fierce God who leads us to a fearsome unknown. Again and again we receive a new name, a new affirmation that we are not alone, we are indeed blessed. But each time we limp. We are reminded at each step on the journey that it is God alone who grants the blessing, God alone who gives us our new name and God alone who brings the daybreak and the light by which we will cross our Jabbok again.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Across Continents and Centuries

What makes us Benedictines, across time, continents, cultures and languages? What are the fundamental similarities that unite people who have a made a commitment to live according to the guidelines set out by Benedict in Italy in the 6th century?
Recently our community had some new insights into the gift of unity amid diversity that characterizes monastic life.

Back in the 1930’s the Benedictine Sisters of St. Andrew’s Convent, Sarnen, Switzerland founded a new monastery in Cameroon, West Africa. That monastery is still there, now consisting entirely of women from Cameroon. The Benedictine Sisters of Sarnen previously founded our monastery in 1882. That makes us sisters or cousins perhaps, with the sisters in Cameroon.

Recently we became acquainted with our “cousins” for the first time. Sr. Josephine, the prioress of the Cameroon community stayed with us for four months, from October to February, working on her English so she could attend an education program in Rome next year. She lived and worked with us, taking informal classes from Srs. Evangela and Cecile and participating in all aspects of community life.

It was clear that many things separated us. The language of her community is French, and her country lives with the legacy of French colonialism. The complexities and challenges of English were formidable. One night at dishes one of the cooks had left an Avon catalogue. This lead to some very funny, and rather odd, discussions about Avon products amid our attempt to explain what “Avon calling!” means.

Her community still wears the habit. They are much smaller, consisting of about 12 members, and their average age is much lower than ours. Their challenges are those of the developing world, they don’t deal with the issue of “affluenza” and too many possessions that we have here. They only recently were able to get a consistent supply of clean water thanks to a non-profit organization from Switzerland. They have recently taken in several children who are orphans or whose families cannot care for them, including some with HIV.

But together we are monastics. We come together without fail to pray the Divine Office several times a day. We struggle with common issues of community life and the reality of people who cannot seem to live up to the standards we set. Sr. Josephine has been prioress for 12 years because they do not have enough people who can take over leadership just as we also face a dwindling pool of potential leaders. We all laughed together at the experience we have in common as Sr. Josephine showed the slides of their garden and beautiful carrots. Together we are united to our land. We shared the reality that every day and every meal dishes have to be washed. We resonated with the stories of how they try to come up with creative ways to support the monastery economically.

But there is much that ties us together. For all of us it is together that we seek God. Our monastic “family” stretches across continents and centuries. Together we trace our roots to Benedict and 6th century Italy. Together we claim as our motherhouse a group of women that dates to the 17th century in Switzerland. Our community is an expression of a time when European monasteries were sending missionaries to the new territory of the United States. Sr. Josephine’s community is part of monastic life from a new century on a new continent and a new way of being monastic. We don’t share the same language, the same culture or the same way of interpreting monastic life. But every day we come together to pray, every day we listen to the Rule of St. Benedict and Scripture, every day, for the rest of our lives we will live together and seek God. Together we are united in faith, in monastic life and the realization that we are bringing about the Reign of God in our midst and that transcends all our differences.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Social Networking - Web 2.0

When I first came to the monastery no one had e-mail, there wasn’t a monastery web site and the people who invented Facebook were probably still in elementary school. Back in the Dark Ages of the late 90’s much of what we take for granted today was still relatively new. Admittedly we at the monastery were still slow on the technology curve even then but it was a different, much less connected world.

Today our community communication is largely by e-mail, everyone who needs a computer for work has one and we focus on keeping our website up to date. However, the new phenomenon of “social networking” is a little slower to catch on. A few of us are trying Facebook, although personally this “friending” business gives me some very traumatic flashbacks to the junior high school social pecking order. As far as I know there have not been any “Tweets” coming out of the monastery although someone may have a secret Twitter life I don’t know about. Some of this reluctance or cluelessness about the new networking styles may be age related, some this stuff makes more sense if you’re under 30. But I also wonder about how all this fits with being monastic.

In some ways Benedict invented social networking. When you live together, 24/7, for the rest of your life, you don’t really need a virtual post to tell everyone what you are doing at any given time. Even if they had computers I suspect that Brother Maurus never would have needed to answer the Facebook question: “What are you doing right now?” Everybody would know what he was doing, he would be at prayer, he would have his week as kitchen server, it would be time for lectio (prayerful reading) or everyone would know that he was sneaking behind the kitchen for a cigarette or trying to get a few more minutes of sleep before the bell. In community everyone knows what you are doing at any time.

But our society in general has lost any sense of connection. We live alone or in small families. We value our separateness, our “space.” We want lots of land around our houses, sound-proofing in our apartments. We value our autonomy and independence. We bristle at anyone making decisions for us. We hop from one relationship to the next while both fearing and longing for commitment. In the web of social relationships we are society of spiders dangling from the end of the web not sure how to get back to interconnectedness.

This is probably where the new social networking phenomenon comes in. We have become so isolated, so independent that we don’t really know how to relate in person. We don’t live together. We are fearful of strange people while at the same time we don’t live close to our friends and family. And so we reach out in “virtual” relationships. We long to feel connected, to share ourselves, to know we aren’t alone, that someone is interested in who we are and what we are doing. We are assuaging a deep loneliness we don’t want to admit we have.

In the monastery there are real connections. Not easy connections, not always “nice” connections. The relationships can be as painful as they are profound, sometimes they are superficial, sometimes they reflect a deep sense of God’s presence. But they are very real. This monastic version of social networking is how we are transformed. We live together, pray together, work together and hopefully learn to see the presence of God in one another. It is a struggle, it is hard work, but what is at stake is nothing less than life. Our “network” in the monastery is nothing less than how we travel together on the spiritual journey. In the words of Benedict: “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us altogether to everlasting life.” This is the ultimate “friending.”

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Room for God in Lent

In chapter 49 of his Rule Benedict says that the life of a monk should be a “continuous Lent.” Next, being the realist that he is, he allows that most monks can’t manage to live at such a level of intensity. He urges his community to take Lent seriously, to “wash away the negligences” of other times and to give up some eat, drink, sleep or idle talk during Lent and to add to the usual measure of private prayer. He says that all of this will allow us to approach Easter with “joy and spiritual longing.”

At the monastery every year, following Benedict’s advice, we tell the Prioress what we are going to do for Lent, what spiritual practices we will undertake. This process is called “Bona Opera” meaning “good works.” Benedict mandates that people tell the abbot/prioress what they are going to do for Lent so that there will be accountability. Otherwise he feels that if monks take on some spiritual discipline without approval and blessing it is “presumption and vainglory.”

It has taken me a while to figure out what Benedict means and what Lent is really about for that matter. I’ve always struggled with how giving things up would make more holy. My limited experience has been that it just makes me more cranky. I’ve never been quite sure what to say I’m going to do for Lent, self-discipline is not my strong suit and there are days when I think deeper holiness is a lost cause.

This year though it is making a little more sense (I’m a slow learner.) Lent is not about extra spiritual practices to remind me how undisciplined and far from holiness I am (although that is true) the sacrifices and disciplines are simply about making room. The “negligences” that Benedict refers to are just the little accommodations of daily life that squeeze out God. The television, web surfing, fluffy books, craving for sweets, all those sort of things that seem too inconsequential to worry about, much less give up for Lent, do add up. They add up to time and psychic space that becomes increasingly crowded and busy with less room for God.

Perhaps Lent is simply a vacare Deo, an open space for God. We rein in the busyness, the compulsions, the distractions that consume us and allow ourselves some more breathing space, a retreat space that is carved out of daily life, in order to breath in the love of God that surrounds and enfolds us. Lent becomes a gift, not a burden or even a creative exercise in self-sacrifice, it is a resting place where we pause and realize that indeed we are looking forward to Easter, to new life in God with a deep, aching joy that we usually cover up with the compulsions that creep into our lives the rest of the year.

So this year I’m sure I won’t be any holier at the end of Lent, probably not much more self-disciplined, and there will still be too many distractions. But perhaps there will also be a glimpse of what Benedict was talking about, a deeper sense of the “joy and spiritual longing” that continually help us move toward the reality of Easter and our new birth in God.