Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pentecost: Communication Transformed by Fire

The feast of Pentecost was celebrated in great style here at the Monastery today. At Morning Prayer and Mass there seemed to be a sea of red blouses and skirts, a great visual allusion to the tongues of fire from Acts. In the chapel streamers were hung from ceiling, bright blues, greens, yellow, orange and red. As the breeze came up they swayed gently and reminded us that the Spirit still moves in our midst. Red flowers and vestments provided reminders of the first tongues that gave birth to the Church. The picture was completed by the “Holy Spirit” picture above the altar, the painting based on a picture from the Hubble telescope, the shape of a dove hovering over the cosmos. Tonight at Evening Praise we had statio. The community slowly processed in while Sr. Cecile played the theme from “Chariots of Fire” and we bowed to the presence of Christ in the tabernacle and to the presence of Christ in one another before going to our places.

The first Pentecost was a marked by diversity as people from all nations had gathered in Jerusalem. Our chapel and dining room this morning echoed the feast we celebrate. I don’t think we had any Parthians, Medes or Eliamites, but we had a great diversity of visitors, retreatants, volunteers and oblates. We came from the Prairie, from Seattle, from Boise, from Central Washington, we were Catholics, Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists and others. Together we celebrated the Spirit that continues to blow in our midst bringing new life.

It struck me that one way to read about the account of Pentecost in Acts is to say it was about communication, communication that is birthed in transforming fire. When the Spirit came upon the apostles they were able to communicate with the diverse, multi-lingual group that had gathered in Jerusalem and share the Good News of Christ. This wasn’t simple or easy communication it required courage, compassion, honesty and trust.

In the cenobitic community we are looking at how we communicate, how we can be honest with one another about the things that really matter. Perhaps the example of Pentecost can be our guide and a guide for all who seek to be Church.

It took courage to speak on that day in the Upper Room. Believers in the resurrection were a minority, what they experienced seemed bizarre and impossible to many people, threatening and frightening to others. The disciples risked ridicule and punishment for speaking their truth and sharing the word. Speaking to the diverse crowd required trust, trust that the Spirit would give them the words to speak and allow the listeners to truly hear what was being said. It required honesty to jolt people awake with the news that in the coming of Christ their safe, known world was being turned upside down. The disciples needed compassion to share their life changing news that would shake each person’s safe and comfortable world.

So this is how we are called to communicate in our communities today. It is the Spirit that gives us the courage and allows us to speak truth to power. Only through the Spirit moving in our midst can we go forth in courage to say the difficult things that need to be said, to one another, to institutions of power. In the Spirit we speak with honesty. We are empowered to name the places in ourselves and others that are broken and need healing. When we speak in the Spirit we can speak the hard things, necessary things with compassion. When we are grounded in the one Spirit and we speak out of love and we hear one another in love and trust.

We don’t know the whole story of the first Pentecost. In Scripture we are given only the smallest glimpse of the communication that spread the fire of the Spirit burning through the world to create the Church, to animate believers and transform our world. As we celebrate this day let us call ourselves to speak in the Spirit, to communicate with compassion, honesty, courage and truth. Let us give thanks for tongues of fire that are still blazing in our midst bringing about the Reign of God.

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.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Scars After the Resurrection

Since tomorrow we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension I thought it was high time to reflect on some of the Easter stories in the Gospels, “Doubting Thomas”, the road to Emmaus, Mary Magdalene at the tomb and others. I’ve heard these stories so many times before but recently I noticed something that I hadn’t seen before.

Many of the stories feature the disciples examining the hands, feet and side of Jesus to examine the scars of the nails and lance. This helps them see that he is not a ghost or a figment of their imagination but he is indeed truly risen from the dead. The stories focus on the corporeality of Jesus, now the risen Christ.
One day I realized, “Wait a minute, Jesus is resurrected. What do you mean he has scars? He’s resurrected, doesn’t that mean perfection?” There was a fundamental incongruity I had never noticed before. Here is Jesus who has conquered death, and yet he still bears the scars of torture and death. Somehow that doesn’t seem quite right. Resurrection should mean that everything has changed, all the reminders, tangible and intangible, of death and pain should be wiped away. And yet the disciples keep touching the scars. Jesus, who is the Christ, the resurrected Son of God, bears the marks of death.

So what does that mean for those of us still living in the reality of everyday, pre-resurrection life? What does the fact that after the resurrection Jesus retains the scars of death mean for us who are still living in the midst of this life? What do Jesus’ scars say to those of us travelling towards resurrection, struggling in the here and now to attain the full stature of Christ? Somehow this bothers me. I want to think that the power of the resurrection in our life means that we shouldn’t have scars, we should be able to be healed of all our pain and be completely new without any reminders of our suffering, our limitations, our wounds.

But perhaps the fact that Jesus still bears his scars is actually a sign of deep hope. Perhaps the scars of the resurrected Christ tell us that even as we grow, change, mature and are being re-made into the image of God our scars remain with us as powerful reminders and testimony to who we are, to how God made us. The reality of the resurrection is that new life happens, God’s power works within us, but we are still our fundamental selves. The power of resurrection in our lives means that we are transformed but we don’t get personality transplants, God gives us new life in the context of our old life. I am changed and healed, my wounds are no longer gaping holes but reminders of God’s work. The reality of Easter is that I am changed but the scars remain to remind me of God’s transforming power.

Here in the monastery this means that we are all slowly, haltingly, in the process of living into the reality of the resurrection. We try to be open to God’s transforming power. We struggle to manifest the grace God freely gives. But we all bear our scars. I try to be open to growth and healing but my scars are reminders to myself and everyone who lives with me that I won’t be perfect. As much as I change I will still be who I am and I will still get on some peoples nerves and have more than my share of limitations no matter how much I change. In turn I will see all our sisters who are also struggling with what it means to manifest the power of the resurrection in their lives and I will see their scars. I will experience how much they have changed and how far they still have to go. They will get on my nerves and be as limited and broken as I am.

But maybe the ultimate meaning of these stories is that each of us becomes Christ for one another. In community we are being called to be the presence of Christ for one another and put our hands into the scars of each sister who is Christ for us. We put our hands into one anothers scars and know the reality that our deepest wounds are also the tangible proof that God’s love conquers the power of death in our lives. By Christ’s wounds we are healed, in our own wounds and the wounds of those around us we touch the reminder that the power of the resurrection is at work in our lives.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Pride and Busyness

I hate it when homilists are right. Not just right about interesting pieces of Bible trivia or right in saying nice, affirming things. I hate it when they are right about things that really strike to the core.

The other day our chaplain gave a homily in which he quoted from a Benedictine abbot (talk about hitting below the belt) who said that busyness can be form of pride. Uh-oh. In fact he linked it to the ancient monastic teaching that pride is one of the patterns of thought that lead us away from God, a teaching that evolved into the idea of the seven deadly sins during the Middle Ages.

So why is busyness linked with pride? I’m not sure I remember exactly what he said, and I don’t need to. In many ways I’m an expert on the subject.

When I first came to community one of the greatest struggles I had was that I had to completely start over. I no longer had my previous identity, no one knew me, what I had previously done or achieved didn’t matter. I had to start over and learn to be a monastic. For those first few years I wanted to wear a sign around my neck: “I used to be a busy, important person.” In starting over I was stripped of my hard earned sense of being a capable, competent person. I had to start from scratch and learn all the things that were important about being a monastic, most of which had nothing to do with my previous life.

Now, almost twelve years later, I have re-gained my sense of being a competent person, but that is not all good. Hard work is a key value in our monastic culture. Whether it is our German and Swiss heritage, simply the fact that it takes hard work to keep a monastery functioning or whatever else, we work hard. And, probably unconsciously, we pride ourselves on how hard we work and judge others according to how hard they work.

Maybe it is an unfortunate part of human nature, the need to distinguish ourselves from one another, to judge others. In a monastery it is hard to tell how someone is praying but it is pretty easy to tell (or so we think!) how hard someone is working. In a culture where we can’t judge one another by how much money we make, there are no strong indicators of status, we are left with work and busyness as a way to distinguish one another. And this is where pride comes in.

A sister complains about how busy she is and I catch myself thinking “doing what?!” Another seems to be everywhere, always helping with what needs to be done and I find my opinion of her as a “good community member” rising. My opinion isn’t based on who they are as people, whether they are committed to the hard, inner work of transformation in a monastery but on how hard they work at the never-ending tasks that comprise modern, monastic life.

It’s a subtle, tricky trap that creeps up and swallows us. The real hard work that all of us should be doing is what is outlined in the Rule. Benedict was concerned about whether monks were growing in humility, growing into the full stature of Christ. He wanted them to commit to the monastic way of deep service, awareness of God, experiencing compunction that would be transformed into the joy of knowing God. This is the real hard work of monastic life. It has nothing to do with how many committees we are on, how many hours we spend in our offices, how many tasks we complete or how hard people think we work. This is the true work of monastic life.

G.K. Chesterson once said: “It isn’t that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and never tried.” One could easily apply the same insight to monastic life. The hard work we should really be about will never lead to pride. The hard work of monastic life is that which leads to humility, the profound realization of grace, that when we cling tightly to our work it will turn to ashes in our hands. Our true work is to open our hands in hope, supplication, praise, ready to receive the grace that requires no work on our part.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Spring: And Money Is In The Air

You can always tell when it is spring in the monastery. We begin to count time according to “before” or “after” Easter. The wildflowers peek out on the hill. The weather seems to be suffering from bi-polar disorder, swinging from snow to sun several times in the course of an afternoon. And budgets are due.

Money is probably one of those things that many people are curious about in monastic life but are hesitant to ask about. The other is probably celibacy, but we won’t go there. Since poverty is associated with religious orders there is a lot of curiosity and misconceptions about money. People assume that we are supported by the Church which isn’t true, we are entirely self-supporting. There are probably a lot of other interesting assumptions that I’m not even aware of. But one of the biggest differences about money in monastic life is the way we are accountable for it.

Money is basically community property not private property. Each sister turns over whatever she earns to the community without keeping any of it. In turn we all rely on the community to pay for our expenses such as health care, food, computers, work expenses, etc. We don’t personally own large items. The monastery owns all the cars and we use them in common. At the same time each of us also gets a small, personal allowance for individual expenses like clothes, toiletries, entertainment, books, that sort of thing. Each of us has to rely on community for our needs and each of us has a say in how community spends money. This is where budgets come in.

Being able to rely on community to pay your bills should lead to a healthy humility. Hopefully we all come to a point of gratefulness for what we have been given. But since human beings don’t always learn the intended lessons sometimes we have to have some imposed accountability. All of us are required to estimate our expenses for the coming year on a budget form. I try to plan and estimate what my health care expenses might be, if I know that I will need some kind of treatment, dental work, glasses, etc. I put down plans to make a retreat, go to conferences workshops or attend classes. If I know I need a new winter coat or special shoes that I can’t afford from my personal budget I put those in my budget for the year.

The process is designed to help me think through what I really need versus what I want. It encourages a mindfulness about expenditures that may not happen if money is readily available. In turn the budgets are reviewed by the monastic Council, the advisory body for the Prioress and leadership team. They review the budgets of individuals and departments and can discuss whether expenses are justified.

After the budget is discussed and possibly revised by the Council the last step is for the community to approve it. At our last community meeting before the new fiscal year the entire community receives a presentation about the coming year’s budget by the staff of the business office. We hear about income, projected expenses, large projects and the “bottom line” of last year’s budget and the current proposed budget. Finally the whole community votes to accept it.

Like any system it isn’t perfect. There are disagreements about expenditures, concern about income, murmuring about how some people always seem to spend more money than others, but overall it is a surprisingly peaceful process with common consensus. The goal, which we may not totally achieve but at least we try for, is for consensus and accountability. In a society oriented toward competition and accumulation we try to model a different way.

Budgets are still not my favorite part of spring, sometimes I need to see the wildflowers on the hill just to get away from budgets and worksheets. But monastic life aims to be a tiny microcosm of a society lived according the promise of the Reign of God. It is in little ways, with little budgets and a lot of accountability that we inch our way to the new reality of transformation.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Hospitality and Creeping Boundaries

Sometimes people love us too much. I know that sounds like a topic for Oprah or Dr. Phil but I don’t think either of them have ever been in monastic life. That’s too bad, it would make a great topic. The issue would go something like this: a group of women is very hospitable and welcoming, making everyone who visits them feel that they are part of the group. The problem comes when the visitors take this welcoming attitude a little too much to heart.

In one example (where the details have been changed to protect the people who probably wouldn’t recognize themselves anyway) a retreatant comes to the monastery for a couple of weeks. She feels very much at home the first time she comes and enters whole-heartedly into prayer and meals with the sisters. One morning I go down to the dining room at 7:15 and see this retreatant. We say clearly in writing and in our orientations that guests are welcome in the dining room after 7:30. I ask the sister who is her hospitality person if she noticed that this person was already in the dining room. She sighed and said that this retreatant had been “creeping up” in terms of time, a couple of days ago it was 7:25, today it was 7:15. But it was also her last day and so we both said “oh well” and let it go.

We are probably victims of our own hospitality. People feel very welcome and accepted and proceed to make themselves a little too much at home. They wander into areas that are private, spread out to make themselves very much at home in common areas. Sometimes they want to move very quickly into doing as much as possible for us as soon as possible. People come here thinking they have found a new home and family and psychologically they want to “move in."

At the monastery we are also victims of our own hospitality. We seem constitutionally unable to say difficult things. When people don’t grasp the nuances of our very nuanced culture we have trouble telling them clearly what the problem is. Of course it is difficult to explain the subtleties of the reality that we are very hospitable but also that people who participate in our life as visitors, volunteers and retreatants are guests, they aren’t family. There is a phenomenon of creeping familiarity and diminishing boundaries that quickly becomes a strain on the monastic community. This happens when guests begin to feel at home and ignore their sense of needing to be careful in someone else's home. Then sometimes people are so thrilled at feeling they have found a new “home” they become a little too grateful and do too much for us, wanting to give back and help in ways that can feel rather inappropriate, intense and overwhelming to those of us who live here.

So what would Oprah or Dr. Phil say about this dilemma? I might have a better idea if I ever watched either one, but since I don’t I will just have to make up my own answers.

Perhaps the deepest kind of hospitality is that which we show to ourselves and encourage other people to create within themselves. We aren’t being hospitable to others if we fail to point out when they are feeling a little too much at home at our place and aren't respecting our boundaries. It is also a failure of hospitality when we don’t let them know when their own attempts at gratitude and hospitality might be too intense for the nature of a casual relationship. We aren’t being hospitable to our selves when we fail to be clear that people who come to our place will be welcomed but they will always be guests; they cannot be family.

Of course it doesn’t help that these are incredibly fuzzy, hard to define issues. Trying to get a handle on healthy boundaries is like trying to catch fog with a butterfly net. Our community mission statement specifically cites “healing hospitality.” as part of our identity. The challenge for all of us, monastic community and visitors alike, is to make sure that our hospitality, whether we are giving or receiving, is healthy and contained since otherwise it may not be healing.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Justice, Monasticism and Nun Travel

Traveling when you are a member of a monastery is very different from traveling by yourself. Over the weekend about a dozen of us went to Seattle for a big Catholic women’s conference, eight sisters, a couple of oblates and employees. It was a wonderful conference with challenging speakers but mostly I am thinking about the phenomenon of nun travel.

Before I entered the monastery travel was always pretty straight-forward. I’d decide where I was going, make reservations, jump in the car and go. I got to decide when I’d leave, where I’d stay, what I’d eat, when I would go and leave and what I’d see along the way.

But now my days of unilateral decision making are long past. Even my days of sleeping in motel rooms are long past. When I lived alone the only criteria of decision making were my personal values. Since I have always been averse to spending money I would choose cheap motels. I love exotic food so that would determine a lot of meal choices, etc. etc.

Monastic travel is a very different story. It isn’t about how I want to travel. It is about how do we travel together. In the weeks leading up to the conference there were sign-up sheets and notes for those who had signed up. Multiple conversations and consultations were conducted about who would go with who. Plans were made and discussed about how to care for those who needed extra care and supervision. Multiple calls and e-mails and conversations were needed to round up enough places to stay in homes and apartments of sisters, friends and relatives. Cars had to be arranged and slips filled out and trips made to the business office to get money for travel expenses. And this was all just for a two conference a day’s drive away. And all that was just in order to get there.

The whole thing would probably look ridiculously complicated and inefficient to most outsiders used to making quick decisions without having to worry about resources. I suspect that even traveling with small children might not be as complicated as our way, noisier certainly, but at least with kids there are fewer meetings and no forms to fill out. However, the rather complicated, organic process of monastic travel has a lot to say about our values and our witness to a world in which a few have a lot and many don’t have enough.

The monastic way is about everyone getting what they need but not necessarily what they want. Every individual gives up a little bit so that resources can be stretched to let everyone have what they need. If everyone got to take her own car and stay in a nice hotel there wouldn’t be enough money or even cars for everyone to go to a conference like this. If, on the other hand, we all travel together, impose on our friends for housing, are careful about expenses, and help one another out, more people can go to a meaningful, life-giving conference.

The monastic way is not the predominant way of our culture. It is a way that emphasizes cooperation over competition, consensus over individualism. It certainly isn’t the quickest, most efficient way of doing things. But the monastic way works on smoothing down the rough edges we all have that come from wanting everything our way, instantly. Eventually it is possible to see that if everyone in the world is going to get what she needs it means the rest of us have to sacrifice a little bit. And so in our inefficient, sometimes frustrating way, our little monastic community models what a more just world might look like.