Saturday, November 21, 2009

Monastic Prayer: Dwelling in God's Tent (part 3)

In the last installment we discussed how Benedict used the image of dwelling in God’s tent from Psalm 15 as an image of contemplation and the goal of monastic life. But there is another important tent image that Benedict may have had in mind. Maybe Benedict thought that as monastics we would be able to do what Peter wanted to do so badly.

Tent of the Transfiguration

In Matthew’s Gospel the account of the Transfiguration Jesus goes up to the mountain where he is “transfigured.” He is in the company of Moses and Elijah and his face and clothes are radiant, transformed. Peter, who is on the mountain along with Jesus, James and John, wants to stay there. Peter offers to build three “dwellings” so they can remain on the mountain in the midst of this transforming experience.

The Latin translation of the Bible which Benedict would have been familiar with uses the term tabernacula for Peter’s offer to build three “dwellings.” Benedict must have remembered Jesus on the mountain in the Transfiguration, a mountain like the holy mountain of Psalm 15. In the account of the Transfiguration Jesus is in the company of Moses, the one who lead the people on the journey with the portable tent of God, and with Elijah the prophet frequently invoked in conjunction with the coming of the Messiah. This combination of symbols could easily be seen as similar to the idea of dwelling God’s tent found in the Psalm.

Peter wanted to build a tent on this mountain and dwell in the presence of the glory of God. In this case though, the invitation and vision of the tent or tabernacle on the mountain was a fleeting one, Jesus and Peter were called to go back down the mountain to fulfill their destiny. But the vision of God’s holiness on the mountain would have been one that stayed with them. Indeed in the spiritual tradition of the Eastern Church the account of the Transfiguration is the basis for the spirituality of the “Taboric light” a personal encounter with God like that of Jesus on Tabor.


So perhaps this is ultimately what Benedict wants us to remember. Although we need to live lives that are blameless and just, the whole point of the running, the journey, is so that we can dwell with God. Monastic life isn’t about whether we live in a monastery or are monastics living outside monastery walls. That isn’t the key to the Benedictine way of life. Ultimately we come to the monastic spirituality to listen and respond to that most delightful invitation, the voice of God, our beloved, who says: come dwell with me, share my tent, abide in my love.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Monastic Prayer: Dwelling in God's Tent (part 2)

Benedict sees that monastic life is all about the journey to dwell with God, to know God deeply and intimately in this life as well as the next. To help his monks understand that this is the goal of their life he uses Psalm 15.

The Tent in Psalm 15

In verse 23 of the Prologue Benedict quotes Psalm 15:1: “Who will dwell in your tent, O Lord, who will find rest upon your holy mountain?” The use of this psalm evokes several layers of meaning. The Latin word for tent in the psalm is tabernaculo. His audience, who knew the psalms and the Bible much better than we do, would have recognized that the psalm referred both to the worship in the temple at Jerusalem but also evoked the memory of the wanderings in the desert.

The word tabernaculo in the psalm was also used for the portable tent or tabernacle of God in Exodus. This tabernaculo, accompanied the Israelites as they wandered in the desert, on their journey from slavery to freedom. God dwelt in their midst in this tent. The tabernaculo, or tent, was the tangible symbol of the reality that God was going with the people on the journey. God did not desert them but was present in their midst, dwelling with them in the desert.

By using Psalm 15 Benedict ties together the journey with “the gospel for our guide” with the journey of Jesus’ forbearers. We are part of a long line of pilgrims accompanied by God on our journey, from slavery to freedom, our way set before us by the Gospel of Christ. The second part of the quotation “who will find rest on your holy mountain” then speaks to the end of the journey. The people of Israel didn’t die out in the desert, they made it to the promised land, they were finally able to rest because God kept God’s promise. They inherited the land and worshiped God in stability. While the psalm alludes to the exodus, it is also liturgical psalm of the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of worship for the Jewish people.

Given the way Scripture was interpreted in the 6th century Benedict wouldn’t have seen this psalm as simply a part of a historical reference to the practices of Jewish temple worship but would have interpreted it from a Christian standpoint. So the question posed by the psalm becomes a question of Christian believers. Are we worthy to worship God? Do we put our faith into practice and not take God presence and action for granted?

This takes us to the second important part of the tent image. We don’t just wander in, plop down and live in the temple. Listen to the verses 24-27:

24 After this question, brothers, let us listen well to what the Lords says in reply, for he shows us the way to his tent. 25 One who walks without blemish, he says, and is just in all his dealings; 26 who speaks the truth from his heart and has not practiced deceit with his tongue 27 who has not wronged a fellowman in any way, nor listened to slanders against his neighbor.

So dwelling with God and being in God’s presence, is something that requires some action on our part. Benedict has built up to a rhetorical peak in this section. The Prologue began with the call to listen, God calling out in the marketplace, setting out on the journey. The questioning seems to build in intensity as we get to verse 23, the quotation from Psalm 15: “But let us ask the Lord with the Prophet: Who will dwell in your tent, O Lord, who will find rest upon your holy mountain?” The answer for the disciple, the climax of the series of invitations and questions, comes in verse 25, the center of the fifty verses of the Prologue. The words of the psalmist provide the answer of God.

The journey to dwell with God is not an intellectual assent of faith. It is made up of concrete actions. We are to “walk without blemish,” and to be “just” in all our dealings. The psalm seems to be speaking of a pattern of behavior and lifestyle. The actions mentioned speak to what it means to live in community don’t they? Do we speak the truth? Do we try to be just and fair and not act out of old hurts and jealousies? Do we listen to “slander against our neighbor?” We hear an echo of Benedict’s prohibition on murmuring. In community it is easy to find all kinds of things negative to say about our neighbors, and it precisely these sorts of actions on which we will be judged worthy, or not worthy, to dwell in God’s tent.

But ultimately the psalm is not meant to scold us, a form of abbatial finger shaking trying to get us to be good. Benedict wants us to dwell in the in God’s tent, to listen to the invitation of the delightful voice. It’s possible that Benedict had in mind another allusion to the tent.

Final installment: Dwelling on the mountain of the Transfiguration