Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas: The Irritating Vulnerability of God

Christmas is the celebration of God’s willingness to risk the ultimate vulnerability. In Jesus God becomes helpless, vulnerable, at risk for all the random chaos and cruelty that defines human life. In the Nativity we see the divine stripped of power and control. So perhaps the lesson for us all is that every day is Christmas.

We often say that they key to Christmas is that God is born in our lives. God’s action and presence become real in the world through our work, our becoming the hands of Christ. This is true but there is another reality that Christ does not come in power and might but on the margins, in the rejected and powerless.

So what does this reality of the coming of the vulnerable presence of God mean in our lives? Perhaps we begin by looking around us. In our communities, whether they are families, monasteries, work places, Churches, who are the marginalized, who are the people we brush aside, the people we would rather not deal with? It is always easier to be open to the presence of God as long as God does not challenge us in real, concrete ways right in front of our eyes. The presence of God we need to see may not be the lovable people but the ones who challenge us, who we dismiss, the people we feel justified in disliking or ignoring. In his ministry the people Jesus angered the most were the good, observant, righteous, religious people of his time. These were the ones least able to see God in the form of Jesus. We need to ask ourselves if we too are missing the presence of God in our midst today.

The vulnerable coming of God also happens within as well as in the people around us. The interior birth of God in our lives, the coming of God’s power deep in our hearts can also be unexpected and unwelcome. We prefer our spiritual growth to feel good, we want prayer to be full of consolations, becoming closer to God should be a warm, comforting experience. But God comes in the flesh, comes in our lives to bring us to wholeness, to salvation, to a grace that has no price but is never cheap.

God’s presence being born in our lives often shows in the parts of ourselves that are on the margins, rejected or ignored. God comes to shake up our complacency, our easy presumption that we can be faithful to God’s call while remaining in control of our life. In the midst of our comfort God comes in the form of those parts of ourselves that we would rather not face, that we would rather deny are even part of who we are. In the depths of the anger, fear, bitterness, arrogance, laziness, or other characteristics we are loathe to admit are part of us, Jesus waits for us like the father of the prodigal son waiting on the road to embrace us in all our woundedness. The rejected parts of ourselves are embraced, anointed and welcomed and through God’s love become characteristics that are redeemed and made whole.

It is easy to reduce the Nativity to a “nice” scene, beautiful baby, beaming parents, exotic visitors and sanitized animals. But the birth of God is a radical, dangerous reality in our lives in our world. The incarnation means that God is a vulnerable new presence that turns everything upside down. God will come in the marginalized, difficult people we want to ignore but who invite us to know the deep and difficult reality of love. God is present in the rejected, broken parts of ourselves that we want to deny but that need to be recognized and incorporated for us to be who we were truly created to be.

We easily say “Come Lord Jesus” at this time of year. Perhaps this year we can say it knowing what it truly means, say it with fear, trembling and the deep hope that the Lord will truly come and make us new creations.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Advent Week Four: What Are We Willing to Risk?

What are we willing to risk in our encounter with God? When we read the Gospel for this Sunday, Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, we already know how the story ends. Like little children with a bedtime story we know by heart we’re eager to chime in with “and they lived happily ever after.” But to read the story this way is to take away both its power and its subversive application to our lives.

We forget that Joseph didn’t know how the story would turn out. He hadn’t seen the end of this movie when he had a strange dream. What Joseph had was a fiancĂ© who was pregnant before they had been together. Here is where we tend to be oblivious or squeamish. Joseph faced a fiancĂ© pregnant by someone other than himself. He would have assumed that he had been cuckolded. Whether today or two thousand years ago Joseph’s position would have been one of pain, shame and confusion. As a just and righteous man he didn’t want to cause any more pain than had already been afflicted so a quiet divorce would have been the only way to salvage some shred of dignity enabling both he and Mary to go on with their lives. The alternative would have been to allow Mary to be stoned for adultery.

But then, in the midst of the turmoil Joseph has a dream. This is where we like to skip ahead. Of course he will understand that the dream is of God, of course he will take Mary as his wife, of course the child born will be the Son of God. But was anything certain in those first sleep addled moments when Joseph awoke and wondered what on earth he had just dreamed?

There would have been very little risk for Joseph if he had done as most of us would have, shake his head and think “what a strange dream” and sink back into the pain of his knowledge of Mary’s pregnancy. God had sent an invitation, an invitation that entailed enormous risk for Joseph. Today or two thousand years ago the sudden, strange, incomprehensible messages of God call us to give up our well planned future. Joseph’s future would have entailed a painful divorce and sense of betrayal if he had ignored the dream. But to listen to the dream would have entailed entry into an unknown land.

If we listen to the strange, whispered invitations of God we will risk the unknown, the incomprehensible. No one would have blamed Joseph for thinking his dream was a chimera, a reassuring hope obscuring the difficult reality. Indeed how would most of us react when a friend comes to us, ready to take a huge risk based on a dream that they insist is from God?

But to listen to God is to walk blindfolded on an unknown road. For Joseph it meant facing shame and derision from those who had not heard the news, the dreams or the angels that only we know come from God. For those of us who are Benedictine it means taking the risk of committing ourselves to a way of life that makes little sense in world. Inside or outside the monastery we risk saying that there is nothing more important than to seek God. We commit ourselves to a way of life, a set of values at odds with our predominant culture. If we listen, truly listen and respond to the odd dreams, stirrings and angels that whisper, we will walk down an unknown road.

For Benedictines this risk is echoed in Benedict’s chapter on incorporation of new monastics into the community. In chapter 58 of the Rule of Benedict he describes the process whereby the new, idealist seeker comes to the monastery. Full of hope, the newcomer has probably already given up a tremendous amount to arrive at the door of this house of God. And there, instead of a warm welcome acknowledging the call and the risk to show up on the doorstep of a monastery, Benedict says the newcomer should be left for several days knocking on the door.

Benedict is saying: do you know the risk of responding to this invitation from God? Do you know the risk of entering monastic life where your life will no longer be your own but will belong to God? Benedict says: listen, are you going into this journey with full awareness, with your eyes open? The Rule requires a long period of transition, of formation in this new monastic way. When the probation is finally over and the new monastic is to be received into the community there is a final symbolic process to remind the new member of the risk of listening to God.

The new monastic writes out lifetime promises of stability, obedience and fidelity to the monastic way of life and places the document on the altar. In this action the risk is both symbolized and made real. The monastic profession of one individual is united on the altar of Christ’s sacrifice. The action says are you willing to follow Christ in obedience and sacrifice? Are you willing to take the risk? Can you give up your comfortable, complacent life and walk the unknown road of transformation, taking on Christ in this journey that requires the cross before the resurrection?

But now it is Advent, the time of coming, the time of new birth. With birth everything will change but we stand at a crossroads, will this birth happen in our lives? Will we take the risk of the entry of God in our lives? We make the choice every day. Listen: in strange dreams, in the whispers of angels, in odd and unexpected corners of our lives God is inviting us to risk, to travel an unknown road. Are you listening?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Advent Week Three: What Did You Come to See? The Motley Crew Comes With Singing Into Zion

So what does the coming of the Lord look like in Advent? Like the disciples of John the Baptist we have to ask ourselves what we have come to see in this Advent season. I suspect most of us resonate with the straight-forward wonder of Isaiah’s reading, the joy and rejoicing as the ransomed people coming singing into Zion. But the reading from the Gospel is odd, puzzling, ambiguous. Jesus is talking in riddles, pointing to a strange, coming reality of the Kingdom of God. John’s disciples are skeptical about the coming of Jesus. He doesn’t look like what they expected, where is their triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the vengeance and divine recompense? Jesus reassures John’s disciples and the crowds who came to see him that something amazing is indeed happening, starting with the appearance of this strange prophet in the wilderness.

I suspect Benedict would identify with the questions Jesus asks. In his Rule Benedict has set up the structure for a group of people who are also looking for the Kingdom of God. Monastics are those inside and outside of monasteries who are seeking the deeper reality of God in their lives. Monastics are those who have come to the wilderness of Benedictine life looking for the new reality of transformation and like the followers of John and Jesus in the reading they are sometimes confused by what they see. Did you come to Benedictine life seeking an easy life of comfortable prayer and cheap grace? Did you come to make the journey with a perfect, companionable group of people? Benedict stands in the wilderness and responds that we find the prophetic, we find the way leading to the Reign of God in the midst of the mundane, daily reality of our lives and the motley crew that composes the community that each of us belongs to.

In his Rule Benedict says that he intends to set up “a school for the Lord’s service.” He is equally clear that this way of life, this school, isn’t a post-graduate course for the spiritually talented. His school, set out in his “little rule for beginners” is more of a kindergarten than an advanced degree program. Benedict knows that we are all beginners in the spiritual journey and like a group of kindergarteners we need to be holding hands if we are to make progress and not get lost on our life-long field trip to the Kingdom of God.

This is where we get confused. How can this motley crew of people I am connected with on my spiritual journey really be part of the Reign of God? My monastic community, my oblate community, my Church, my faith sharing group, they aren’t any further along on the journey than I am! Where is the wonderful vision of Isaiah? When I look around at the people with me I’m not seeing much glory and splendor and miracles. Is this what is to come or shall we await something better?

But here is the paradox of the Gospel, of the Reign of God, of Benedictine life. The coming of God does indeed happen with glory and singing and the irruption of God into our daily reality, but it rarely looks like our expectations. The coming of God requires us to learn a new way of seeing, listening, acting and being. Miracles happen in our little kindergarten of the Lord’s service. God enters our lives when we slow down and hold hands with those who are on the way with us. The Reign of God comes about when those of us who are deaf learn to listen to God, one another and our hurting world with the ears of our heart. There is singing in Zion when those of us who are blind come to see the image of God in those who unfailingly get on our last nerve day after day, year after year. The lame will leap for joy when together we take action to bind up the wounds of the world in the name of God’s love.

What did we go out in the wilderness of Benedictine spirituality and the Rule to see? A sophisticated, perfect set of people living without conflict? A way of life that brings instantaneous spiritual progress to my self and the world? No, we go to the wilderness of the monastic way to look around and see a motley crew of people who are frequently lost, scared, anxious and disagreeable who have agreed to hold hands with each other and with God so that together they will know that they are journeying together into everlasting life.

So, fellow children, this is our invitation of Advent. Stay together, hold hands, listen carefully to the instructions of God’s word and pay attention to the sights and sounds of the amazing, unexpected, wonderful birth of God in our lives and in our world.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Advent Week Two: Wisdom and a Swift Kick in the Complacency

What do we hear when we listen? The invitation to listen, be awake, be prepared came in the first Sunday of Advent. And now the message is being revealed in this second week. In Isaiah’s reading we see the figure coming to establish a new order. This shoot from the stump of Jesse will judge with justice and righteous and inaugurate a radically new reality where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb and a little child shall lead them. This call to a new order is echoed in the Gospel reading. John the Baptist is the herald of a new order, calling people to repentance in preparation for the one who is to come for the final judgment.

These readings of Advent call us to radical change, change that will come from the root of our being. In these readings a figure will come and shake us out of sleep, calling us to a life with God is at the center, a life in which all that we do, manifests the reality of God’s transformative presence.

The insistent invitation of these reading are echoed in the Rule. The Rule of Benedict seeks to establish an entire way of life that calls us to live the Advent readings on a daily basis. The Rule creates external structures and practices that guide us on the journey to transformation, the journey to becoming remade in the image of Christ. Over time the practices of the Rule will eventually become a deep and natural part of our selves.

The Advent readings focus on the one who is to come, the figure who will challenge people and judge with righteousness in order to bring about the new Reign of God. In the Rule we see this wisdom figure personified in the abbot or prioress. This is the person chosen by the community to be the one to support and challenge, guide and judge as a way to call all members of the monastic community to become who God is calling them to be. The abbot or prioress is the figure who calls everyone to accountability so that the monastic community may become a group of transformed people who manifest God’s love in the world.

For Benedict the abbot or prioress has to carefully discern the needs of her flock and treat each person individually: “He must know what a difficult and demanding burden he has undertaken: directing souls and serving a variety of temperaments, coaxing, reproving and encouraging them as appropriate.” (RB 2:31) The abbot or prioress is the person in our life who calls us to the hard, inner work of faith. The abbot or prioress is the one who encourages us when we are struggling to see ourselves as beloved of God. They are the ones who call us to accountability when we take our faith for granted, when we are no longer stretching and growing in our journey toward wholeness.

As Benedict indicates this job is difficult because so many of us are unaware of how we need to grow in faith. The abbot or prioress has to support the many people who cannot see themselves as being worthy of God’s love, who struggle with guilt, always finding themselves lacking or unworthy. In any group there are also the Pharisees that John warned so strongly. How many of us are blind to our complacency, like the Pharisees we are good, holy people who do all the right things but take God’s mercy for granted, as an entitlement rather than being overwhelmed by such an undeserved gift?

All of us, those who struggle to believe we are made in the image of God and those who take God’s love for granted, need the presence of the abbot or prioress to nurture and challenge us to growth. The image of the people of God as a flock of sheep resounds throughout Scripture, throughout the Rule of Benedict. We are not individuals before God, we are part of a people, bound together in our journey, needing help and accountability.

The Rule of Benedict is a way of living out the call of the Gospel in everyday life. It speaks to professed monastics and anyone seeking to live a life of deeper faith. Benedict has set up an external structure but the structure is not an end in and of itself. The monastery is not just a building it is a way of life. The abbot or prioress is not just a person in a building, they represent the people and ways that keep us on track in our spiritual journey. The abbot or prioress is the wisdom figure in our life who has been instrumental in our faith life. They can be anybody who is a guide in darkness, a support in despair, the one who challenges our assumptions, who calls us to accountability.

The abbot or prioress is also the deep, interior voice of God in our life. When we listen, are silent, open and awake we will hear the invitation of new life. The abbot or prioress is this deep whispering of God in our soul. When we hear the whispers of restlessness, the deep realization that we are loved, the call to change, this is the voice of the abbot or prioress of our life, the call of the righteous one of Isaiah, the one to come spoken of by John the Baptist. The call is always the call to listen. The call is to live as Advent people, always awake, always ready, because the coming of God in our life is a daily reality.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent Week One: Benedictine Readiness

Benedict has a chapter in his Rule about the life of a monk being a continual Lent, but implicit in the Rule is the reality that the life of a monk should also be a continual Advent. Advent is a season of readiness, becoming prepared, alert and awake. Advent says “get ready,” “be on your toes,” “watch out.” Something amazing, earth shattering and unexpected is going to happen.

The sense of this Sunday’s Gospel is apocalyptic. The coming of God will not be nice, easy or expected. The coming of God will happen suddenly and turn our world upside down. The reading implies that the coming of God is a cataclysmic event that will happen suddenly. This is not a standing invitation, it happens quickly, unexpectedly. No one knows when it will come but everyone will look back and remember the signs, the invitations like those of Noah that were ignored until too late.

To be a monastic, in the monastery or the world, is to be girded and ready for the day of the Lord, for the sudden coming of God in our life. Benedict expects that being a monk means all aspects of life are about being awake and ready. The monastic day is designed and structured to be about constant interruption. Secular work is not the primary aim or purpose of monastic life, the real work is the Opus Dei, the Work of God. For the monk the coming of the Lord happens several times a day, in the midst of a busy schedule and the unending, hurried demands of life. Right then and there, in the midst of important demands the bell will ring. It is time for God, time for prayer, time to drop what had seemed so important just a minute ago. Communal prayer is our daily Advent, our daily readiness for the unexpected moment when God comes and our lives are forever changed.

Benedict’s monks are even to sleep in their clothes so as to be ready in the middle of the night when the bell for prayer rings. The Prologue of the Rule has multiple, urgent images of God calling out, imploring, inviting, coaxing and calling. Wake up! Listen! Respond! Come! Today is the day the Lord is calling you, right now, not next week, next month, next year, when the children are grown or after retirement or when life is less hectic. In Advent and in Benedict the time is always now. The opportunity to respond to God’s invitation is always fleeting and always present.

But in today’s first reading from the lectionary we see the purpose, the reward of our vigilance, our willingness to be awake at the times when we would rather sleep. The passage from Isaiah is a vision of people flocking to Zion, the Lord’s mountain where a new reign of peace will be ushered in. Here on the Lord’s mountain a new day will dawn, the old order has gone and a new day has dawned.

So too we as Benedictines strive to create a new reality, we invite others to become a light of a new way of life in our broken, disordered world just as we too have responded to the invitation. Together as we live the monastic life and monastic values, in our monasteries, in our homes, in our families and monastic communities. Together we become the light that shows a new way, the promise of the Lord’s coming. However we live out the Rule we are witnesses to an Advent way of life. In our lives we seek to manifest the continual invitation of Advent, the urgent summons that today is the day of God’s coming. Today is the day of inviting God deeper into our lives that we in turn may be the presence of Christ in our world. Benedict creates the structure, the values that create a new way of being in the world. Together we model what it means to be a community that is awake, ready, alert and listening. When we live as monastics, both in the world and in the monastery we support one another to be awake, ready for the coming of the day of the Lord. We encourage and support one another, knowing our weaknesses, since as Benedict says “…the sleepy like to make excuses.” (RB 22:8)

During this time of Advent may we be awake, ready to respond to the invitation of God’s coming in our life, the invitation to be light in the darkness, the invitation to the hard and life-giving work of transformation.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Subversive Benedict


It is probably just as well that Benedict doesn’t live in our time or that nobody other than a few monastics and fellow travelers read his Rule today. Benedict has some pretty subversive stuff in there. Today the reading from the Rule was a little short chapter entitled “Distribution of Goods According to Need.” Now that right there is should send tremors down the spine of anyone well acquainted with our culture. The old Tina Turner song was “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” The theme song of our culture should be “What’s Need Got To Do With It?”

Our culture is based on desire and consumption. When was the last time you bought something that you really, truly needed? OK, maybe that loaf of bread, but probably not necessarily the extra fancy, 7 grain artisanal bread that you like so much. Perhaps your last pair of jeans, but did they have to be that one particular brand that frankly makes your butt look less big? Yeah, probably not. We are trained from our earliest days to want more, to desire just the right thing and think that it is our God-given right to have that one particular thing, or masses of things, that we have been conditioned to want.

This in turn is what drives our economy. When we do not consume enough stuff, stuff that most of us don’t need, stuff that we have been conditioned to think we can’t live without, then our economy suffers, and some of us may begin to experience the strange phenomenon of actual need.

Benedict would have no clue what to make of this strange, dysfunctional culture we live in. His community was based on a very simple, very radical premise. First, everyone knew (or should know) the difference between what they wanted and what they needed. And second, they would then be able to get what they needed. Then in turn each person was supposed to be satisfied with what they received.

How can we even begin to unpack what that might look like in our lives? Most of us, even those of us who struggle to live simply, are bombarded with so many choices, so many enticing, intriguing, beguiling forms of “stuff” that we probably can’t really distinguish wants from needs. Just as the abundance of food makes it hard to know when we are really hungry, the easy availability of everything our hearts may desire makes it hard to know how little we really need.

Would you like an easy, quick lesson in humility? Simply look around your house and see how few things you really need to live. It shouldn’t be a lesson in guilt, we did not create this culture and we may be doing our best to change it. The point is what do we do with the reality of all that we have? Benedict says that those who have been given more should feel humbled on account of their weakness, a weakness that has lead to their greater need. Perhaps in our culture of tremendous abundance this is where we should begin, with overwhelming humility and perhaps compunction that our needs, whether real or perceived, are so great.

Perhaps out of that deep realization of having too much at the expense of those who are truly in need, something new can be born in our society. Benedict imagined a society that would imitate the early Church community of Acts: Distribution was made to each one as he had need (Acts 4:35). In a society that has drifted so far from this early ideal maybe the ever ancient, always new ideal of monasticism can bring us back to the society we were meant to be.

Monday, November 1, 2010

All Saints of St. Gertrude's


Today is the Feast of All Saints, and for us a month to remember all the saints of St. Gertrude’s. There are banners hung in the chapel with the names of all our departed sisters. Tonight we will process in statio (lined up two by two) into the chapel and celebrate the feast for another year. We will remember those among us who have departed during this past year and for the past 118 years since our founding.

It is a month when I remember we are indeed surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses” as the author of Hebrews put it. I read somewhere that the image is meant to refer to a coliseum of cheering fans supporting the athletes competing in the games. The athletes completing their race of faith on earth, the martyrs who gave up their lives for their faith, would be able to see how many people were with them in their struggle.

It is a powerful image as I see the names and remember many of the people who have gone before us at our monastery, women who are still with us in many ways. It is good to remember that all of us indeed are saints. Most of the women whose names are on our banners this month, who are now resting on our hill, weren’t extraordinary by most standards. There are some very holy women, a few who were deeply wounded and difficult, many who lived lives of ordinary hard work and hidden faith. All Saints is a day to remind us of this, that sainthood is perhaps most about perseverance in the midst of ordinary life. It is about enduring in the struggles, continuing in the dailyness of our faith journey. For most of us the journey to sainthood will not go through the route of extraordinary feats of piety, martyrdom or holiness. Our way to sanctification will be the way of the old monk who was asked by a newcomer, “what do you do all day in the monastery? The old monk thought for a while and said, ‘well, we fall down and we get up and we fall down and we get up and we fall down and we get up.’”

The saints of monastic life are the saints of desire. The essence of monastic life is a deep desire for God, a desire that compels some of us to live a different kind of life. It isn’t that we or any of those who have gone before us are any holier, if anything we may need more structure and support to seek God than those who are juggling families, spouses and a life without monastic structure. To be a monk is to simply know that somehow the deep longing for God cannot be assuaged except in a way of life in which faith is the focus, the center, the raison d’etre.

Some of our saints left this life deeply transformed. Some seemed to depart still awaiting the transformation that will happen in eternity. But they are all still with us. The saints of the monastery have left the legacy of their desire for God, their struggle to grow into the full stature of Christ, their faithfulness to the daily joys and frustrations of this way of life. Their spirits and their memories are still with us, they whisper in the corner of our minds, we glimpse them in the fleeting dark corners of the chapel. And we know that they are still there, filling our chapel, our halls, a great cloud cheering us on as we continue our race, upheld by the great cloud of our saints.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Are We Hospitable to God?

When people say they are attracted to Benedictine spirituality they often cite hospitality as one of the key values that they resonate with. I certainly hope it is true that Benedictines are hospitable to guests, and to one another (!) but as I reflect on it I wonder whether we are as hospitable to God as we are to guests.

It is interesting that the Rule of Benedict never specifically mentions that the monks should treat one another as Christ. Benedict says that guests and the sick are the ones to be accorded special attention. Perhaps it is because the sick and guests are the ones who tend to interrupt our schedules, have special needs, aren’t predictable and can’t be responsible for their actions the way the rest of the monastic community is. The sick and guests are the ones that Benedict says we have to make a special effort to recognize as the presence of God in our midst as they demand our precious time and attention.

So as Benedictines we have taken this principle of hospitality to heart over the centuries. We warmly welcome guests in our midst, we have them share our meals, our prayer, our lives. In the monastery we treat the sick with reverence, treat them with special care and concern and love them deeply even in their diminishment. In other words we take Benedict at face value and treat our people as Christ. But how do we treat God in our midst? Are we as hospitable to God as we are to the sick and guests whom we are supposed to treat as Christ?

Maybe most people are better at this but sometimes I find it easier to make room for guests in my life than God. If someone comes here and needs my time or attention I put it on my calendar, make arrangements and do whatever it takes to care for that persons needs. I don’t blow off a meeting just because I am tired or I don’t particularly want to or have something I’d rather do. I wish I could say the same about the way I treat my time with God. Prayer and lectio and simply being present to God are somehow easier to put off, to take off my “to do” list, to say there is something else I’d rather do. It is easier to postpone or re-schedule or ignore God than the people who want my time or energy.

But of course the reality is also that God is like the guests and the sick of Benedict’s Rule. God has a way of showing up unexpectedly, when you least plan or expect and demandingly interrupts your day. (I suspect God appreciates the old joke: “Want to make God laugh? Tell God your plans.”) God is not like most of the members of the monastic community who are careful to find an appropriate time to talk, who are careful not to intrude on a bad day, who tiptoe around our weaknesses and foibles. God is more like the guest who arrives unexpectedly and unapologetically three hours later than expected after you’ve gone to bed. God can be like the sick in our midst who can be cranky and demanding and seemingly unable to wait patiently for anything.

So perhaps this is a blasphemous portrayal of God, but perhaps it is just a reminder that hospitality is important because it is supposed to change us. Hospitality is really hospitality when it isn’t easy. When we are stretched, put out, forced to go beyond ourselves for another, then we are truly being hospitable. The question then becomes: are we willing to make this kind of room in our lives for God, to go beyond our comfort level, to be made uncomfortable, to recognize that God may demand more of us than we want to give?

God tends to come and interrupt or comfortable, complacent lives because God is asking for the hospitality that will transform us. God will come into our lives, shake them up, heedless of our likes and dislikes, and will turn our world inside out. But the blessing of this sometimes difficult hospitality to God is that God will be a guest who never leaves, who will be with us always. And that is the ultimate gift of hospitality.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Little Rule?! For Beginners!?!


There is a sentence at the very end of the Rule of Benedict that has probably been perplexing and terrifying monastics for over 1500 years. Benedict asks: “8Are you hastening toward your heavenly home? Then with Christ’s help, keep this little rule that we have written for beginners.” (RB 73:8) You can almost hear the centuries of anguished responses: if this is a little rule for beginners, what does the advanced rule look like?

As I’ve thought about it over the years I’ve come to think that maybe I have a sense of what Benedict is trying to say.

Most people, including most monastics, like to think that people who have chosen to live in a monastery are somehow more spiritually advanced, or at least more committed to the spiritual life. But the reality is that life in a monastery is actually easier in many ways than trying to maintain a deep life of faith in the midst of the world with the demands of family, work and without the support and structure of living in a monastic community.

The whole Rule of Benedict tries to set forth the structures that are needed to allow monastics to focus on the spiritual life without distraction. Benedict tries to make allowance for everyone’s needs and weaknesses so that there will be no excuses for not going deeply into the spiritual journey. People who have jobs in the monastery are given help if they need it, someone rings the bell as a signal to stop and go to prayer, people who are struggling are given wise elders to support them. Even the practical details seem designed to eliminate all the creative excuses we come up with for not staying focused on God. There is variety in meals so that everyone has something to eat. Every monk has his own bed and enough clothing. The daily schedule has specified times for prayer so that it doesn’t have to be fit in around all the other demands. In other words all aspects of the way of life are designed by Benedict to make it easier to grow in love for God and neighbor.

So perhaps “beginners” in the spiritual life are those of us who need more structure, more help to keep on the path. Benedict says that when people need more they should receive it and feel humble because they aren’t as strong as others.

Maybe those of us who live in monasteries need to feel humble when we reflect on the reality that we are very blessed to live a life in which we have the structures and encouragement to grow in relationship with God. In Chapter One Benedict talks about the four types of monks and calls cenobites (monks who live in community) the “strong ones.” But Benedict didn’t know about people seeking to live monastic values while juggling children, spouses, demanding jobs, the hectic pace of the modern world all while living without the structures of a monastery. If he was familiar with all the people living his “little rule” in the midst of so many demands I think he would say that these people are truly the “strong” kind of monks in our world today.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Chores and Love

What do chores have to do with love? Unless we are talking about the occasional person who has a passion for cleaning or doing dishes the two don’t seem to naturally go together. But as is often the case Benedict in his Rule for monks understood that the most ordinary activities of everyday life have a profound significance.

In writing a chapter about kitchen servers he says that no one is to be excused from kitchen service except for a very good reason because “…such service increases reward and fosters love.” (RB 35:2) In a long chapter he explains at length how monks are to serve at meals. There is a ceremony at the beginning of the week to install the kitchen servers of the week and the ceremony echoes the way new members enter the monastery. In other words every week as they begin to take their turn serving meals the monks are reminded of why they entered the monastery, their commitment to seek God and serve one another in community life.

I have been thinking about this because last week a new chore list came out. Like every group of people living together we have to decide who does what chores to keep the place going. There are always dishes to do, rooms to clean, floors to sweep and a thousand other little tasks. Everyone except the most infirm has a job or usually several jobs to do. The chores are changed periodically as peoples schedules change, they move or simply can’t do the job any more.

Of course today or in Benedict’s time probably no one ever came to enter monastic life because they were drawn by the spiritual significance of being a kitchen server or a dish washer. Most of us came with lofty expectations of how we would find God through prayer and ministry. But if we stay here long enough we eventually realize the wisdom of Benedict. It isn’t hard to find God in the chapel and the daily prayer, but the real trick is to find God in the pots and pans, the vacuuming, the common work that makes up daily life.

We don’t have a ceremony anymore at the beginning of the week to designate who will be doing what service. Perhaps that’s too bad, it is easy to lose sight of the purpose of common work. Benedict was certainly worried that the soup would be served hot and on time but he was more worried that the monks realize that by mundane acts of service they were demonstrating their love for one another. The point wasn’t to hurry up and get through the chores, it was do the chores in a way that each monk was serving his brothers as Christ would.

In our chores we are given daily chances to get past ourselves and our sense of self-importance. It is hard to get carried away with yourself while sweeping a floor, re-stocking napkins or being up to your elbows in greasy pots. And that is the way it should be. Each of those things and many more are critical to creating a place where we can be about the spiritual life, where we can be about the work of transformation. Each of the little daily chores gives us a chance to demonstrate love and service in ways that are humble, unspectacular, but necessary. The chores are a way to help us realize that no matter what we may have thought, monastic life is not about great feats of asceticism or spiritual grandeur it is about love that is demonstrated every day in my small, unnoticed ways.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Discernment: God whispers, shouts, nudges and pulls

As I settle in to my new job as vocation director for the monastery it is amazing to listen to and reflect on peoples experiences of coming to the monastery. I listen to a lot of people as they discern where God is leading them, what the next step in their life will be. This can be a confusing, exciting, difficult, wonderful time. When anyone is discerning a major decision, especially regarding entering religious life, it is an adventure through what may seem like uncharted wilderness.

It is the essence of wilderness to be uncharted, but nonetheless there seem to be some patterns that I have noticed in working with people and from having done my own discernment of religious life. Some of the signs of call seem rather obvious, some are very subtle and they all require plenty of time and space and honesty to sit with them in order navigate the wilderness of God-inspired decision making.

Signs of Call


Persistence: It would be wonderful if we could just wake up one morning simply knowing what we were supposed to do next, where God wanted us to be. Sometimes that does seem to happen, but if it does it might best beware. Call is something that tends to take time to become clear and if it is right it will remain right. How many people have jumped into bad marriages because they were instantly sure and wanted to act immediately? A call is something that probably takes a while to become clear, but even if it happens suddenly, it will continue over time. Call is something that won’t let you go. Like Jonah running to Nineveh you can’t escape.

Motivation: Why do you want to make this decision, whether entering religious life or some other decision that you think is God’s call for you? This is tricky. None of us makes a conscious decision to say: “I want to do this because it will feed my ego on a deep level.” It is very difficult to be completely, totally honest with ourselves and recognize our deepest motivations. We have to take the time to keep going deeper, to keep peeling back the layers of motivation. Do I want to enter religious life because God is calling me or because I think it would be a comfortable way of life? Do I want to make this change because God is calling me or because my family always pushed me to do this? Stripping the layers to see our deepest selves and our motivation takes time and work.

Rightness: There is a deep level of recognition that often comes with vocations or other decisions to follow God’s call. On one level the decision may seem unexpected, impractical or just plain crazy, especially on a practical, rational level. But the practical, rational level is often not the level of discernment. After considerable time and searching there may come a deep, intuitive sense that the decision is right. Possibly crazy and unrealistic, but right on a deep level. The rightness does not mean that it isn’t scary, that there aren’t lots of obstacles, but that in the center of your being it is the life-giving way.

Signs to Watch Out For
There are plenty of positive signs in discerning a vocation or any other decision regarding following God’s call, but there are also some warning signs. All of us can be very skilled at deluding ourselves into thinking that we are following God rather than recognizing our own needs and desires at work.

Cost: The poet T.S. Elliot had a line that seems to summarize religious life perfectly: “a condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.” One of the hardest things to grapple with in looking at religious life is what it will cost. Most people can see the simplicity, having to give up some of their belongings or having less contact with their families, but there is more. We come to a way of life that asks us to go from being an individual in control of our life, or at least feeling like we are in control, to a state of being interdependent with others and with God. We come and give up our previous life, the roles we have played, our status and accomplishments and we totally start over again. Coming to religious life will give us more than we can imagine, but it may cost more than we can imagine.

Wherever You Go There You Are: Sometimes people come to religious life thinking that they have finally found a group of people who will really love them and support them. And if anyone comes to a healthy community that will be the case. The problem is that no group of people will be able to fix the hole in your heart. Each of us comes to religious life with our patterns of relationships, our woundedness, our issues and we won’t be instantly changed when we walk through the door. A religious community is not so much a place where we will be healed as a place where we realize we are in need of healing. If your need for healing and affirmation is too great this may not be the way of life for you.

No Generic Religious Life:
When discerning a vocation some people seem to think that there is a generic call to religious life. They feel God is calling them and seem ready to quickly settle on the first place that will talk to them or is willing to let them enter. This is like marrying the first person that comes along who is single and is also looking to get married. The fit of religious life is deeply personal and mutual. There is a long, elaborate dance between the community and the aspirant. Is there a match? Do I like you? Do you like me? Will this work? Religious communities are not like brands of vanilla ice cream, one is not basically the same as the others. You can’t just pull one off the shelf and expect it to be fine.

Conclusion
Maybe the bottom line in discernment is that it is God’s process, not ours. We continue to listen deeply, attentively, honestly. We learn to face our nakedness before God, our deepest wants, needs, desires. We have to face our brokenness and our goodness, our failings and our tremendous gifts. In discernment we get out of the way and listen to God pulling, pushing, nudging and coaxing us into the way of new life. It is a place where the wilderness will blossom with new life.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Would Jesus Tweet? Would Benedict?

Yesterday at prayer we had a difficult reading from 1st Timothy, about household codes and the respective roles of men and women. I began thinking what a challenge it is to look at Scripture in the context of our culture and the culture of the time the New Testament was written. As I was pondering this all of a sudden a question popped into my head: Would Jesus tweet? Or maybe another way to put it: would Jesus think that people who tweet are twits (I couldn’t resist that one).

I don’t use Twitter and I don’t follow anyone’s tweets, but I know that you can only use up to 150 characters and this has become one of the newest examples of social media, allowing people to share with other people almost instantly. Twitter has developed a reputation for allowing people to share their most insipid thoughts instantly with hundreds or thousands of strangers. In the Doonesbury cartoon strip the journalist Roland Hedley famously tweeted: “my shorts r bunching. thoughts?”

All in all such a vapid way of communicating wouldn’t seem to be something that would fit into Jesus’ challenging, life-changing proclamations of the Reign of God or Benedict’s guide for living a life centered on God. But the more I thought about it I realized that maybe Twitter could be a deeply monastic, Gospel centered way of bringing us back to the center who is God.

Profundity has nothing to do with the number of words. Benedict has very little good to say about people who talk too much. He says that silence should be the norm in the monastery and a sign of advanced humility is to be very chary with words. So maybe wisdom can be contained in 150 characters or less. Certainly many touchstones of both Scripture and the Rule of Benedict are short, pithy sayings that would qualify as tweets.

In an early monastic text one wise monk said that the much of monastic life could be summed up in the verse from Scripture: “O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me.” What would happen if that appeared on our Twitter feed every day? Perhaps that could bring us back to mindfulness, our awareness of our dependence on God in the midst of our busyness and self-centeredness.

Maybe just before time for prayer we could receive a tweet that says “O Lord open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise” as we begin to focus on the task of prayer.

Would it help if periodically you could check your Blackberry during the day and see something like: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,” or “I am the true vine.” We could stand in solidarity with Mary as we check in and read: “Let it be with me according to your word.” Perhaps Benedict could bring us up short by quoting Psalm 95 used in the first prayer of the day: “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your heart.”

Perhaps we take Paul’s advice and encourage one another, not just with “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” but with short tweets of thanksgiving, insights, quotations and prayers. Could we simply remind one another and ourselves to simply “Listen!”

Perhaps it is quite appropriate that the name of this new application is Twitter. Unless we stop, pay attention, listen deeply and gratefully, the twitter of birds can simply be more background noise, something we don’t notice or appreciate. But twitter can also be a profound gift of sharing the music of creation. Maybe as we twitter we can also appreciate the gifts of God and call ourselves to mindfulness of God’s presence and love all around us even in the midst of noise and distraction.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Of Time and Bells


Before I entered the monastery time seemed to be bounded primarily by work and weekends. Monday morning was the beginning of the work week and Friday night was a time of anticipated break and relaxation. There were other markers of time but like most people my experience of time was focused on work.

Time in the monastery is quite different. This week I am “on bells” which has made me reflect on what monastic time means. To be “on bells” means this week I am responsible for the signal to community that it is time for prayer. Ten minutes before each scheduled community prayer time I will ring a chime over the phone system signaling everyone to stop what they are doing and come to prayer. I will then ring one of the four big bells in the sacristy that will let everyone in the area know it is time for prayer.

According to Benedict when anyone hears the signal for prayer they are to stop what they are doing and proceed to the chapel for the appointed office of prayer. In other words the day is not defined by work, it is defined by prayer. Work is what is fit in between the times for prayer. Prayer is the primary work of the monastic and everything else is what has to be done in order to support that time to stop, gather together and come before God in praise and supplication.

It can be hard to get used to the “interruptions” in the monastic schedule. It never seems to fail that just when you are finally settling down and getting something accomplished the bell rings. All of us in the monastery are products of our predominant culture, we tend to define ourselves by the work we do and how much we accomplish during the day. So the constant interruption of the bell can be a constant shock and reminder that we have chosen to live in a different world.

The bells say stop, listen, pay attention. What is your priority? What is your real work? Why are you here? The bells create a rift in the seamless day, the bells force us to stop, they can be a violent invitation to a profound gift. The bells say stop, enter another world, a world of silence where God will whisper to your heart, a world where everyone strives to speak in the same voice of praise and lament. The bells puncture our routine, our safe and controlled world and let in our unpredictable God who invites us to transformation.

Listen for the bells in your life. They are all around. Perhaps it is your turn to be “on bells” for the people in your life. The invitation is always there, the chimes are sounding, it is time to go and pray. It is time for the real work of your life.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Receive Me O Lord

Last week our newest member, Sr. Wendy made her first monastic profession. It was a wonderful ceremony and celebration with her family and friends attending and with most members of the monastic community here for the event. This is such a significant event in the life of the community I always think it is worth reflecting on what it means for all of us.

In chapter 59 of the Rule Benedict gives both the criteria for admission to the monastery as well as the elements of the ceremony. First of all he makes the potential member wait. He wants to “test the spirits to see whether they are of God.” This is a process all communities still follow in some way or another. All of us are motivated by so many different things quite often we aren’t even conscious of what we want and why. For this reason all of us who have made a commitment have had to spend a lot of time waiting, discerning, sometimes struggling and wondering before we made our commitment.

Benedict says the new comer must be “eager for obedience, Opus Dei (common prayer) and oppobria (the challenges of daily life in community.) This means that the woman entering the monastery has to look at her motivation, why she wants to be part of a monastery. Does she seek an ideal world of prayer and spirituality without the challenges of messy daily life? Does she seek a community that will fill a deep-seated loneliness? Benedict is wary of motivations like that. He says the deep hearts longing needs to be about desiring the transformation that comes from obedience, from the hard work of dismantling our egocentricity and becoming open to God and others. We have to desire the Divine Office, coming and being attentive to common prayer multiple times a day and being present even when we are tired, distracted and irritated by the people around us. Do we truly desire the struggles of daily life with a group of people we didn’t choose? Are we willing to find God in the midst of the mundane and difficult and not just in moments of prayer and stillness?

These are the questions that we all have to ponder and work with before we make our commitment. We have to ask why we want to make profession, why do we want to live Benedictine spirituality in our daily life? More than that we have to keep asking these questions, keep looking at our motivation and commitment. A key part of this commitment is then stability, we remain with this community, this motley group of people. There will always be a better community down the road, another group of people, another monastery that does things better, where the people are nicer or more committed or whatever it is we are looking for. But Benedict says that the growth comes from staying in the same place, it comes from the daily rubbing up against reality and growing in the place where we were called.

For many of us in monastic life we have come to see the heart and essence of the monastic commitment in the “Suscipe,” the verses from the Psalm that sisters sing at their profession. In the Rule Benedict has the new member sing the Suscipe three times: “receive me O Lord as you have promised and I shall live, and disappointment not in my hope.”

The newcomer sings this verse at the end of a long period of waiting, discernment and testing. She has struggled with her call, with her own limitations and those of the community she is joining. She has finally decided to make the commitment, to live this Benedictine way for the rest of her life. In this context the Suscipe reflects the deep hearts longing that has brought her to the particular chapel and community where she will make her promise. The Suscipe is a plea to God. The newcomer does not come before God or community full of confidence and assurance, having crossed the finish line of the race. She stands before God and her sisters in a place of humility, of trust, ready to make a leap in the hope that the arms of God and her sisters will catch her. She comes before community and God knowing that she has no strength of her own but only that which comes from God, from her community. The verse comes from a depth of pleading rather than assurance. There is no entitlement in our profession or in our relationship with God. The Suscipe is about a naked trust and hope, it is about being stripped bare clothed only with the assurance of God’s presence and love and the strength of the group of people we promise to live with and serve.

Benedict has the community sing the Suscipe back to the newcomer. In this moment, which is profoundly moving for all of us who sing it as we remember our own profession, is the essence of what it means to be community. We welcome someone new into our midst, into our common journey of uncertainty and hope, the journey of the hard work of transformation, the journey through darkness into the heart of God. With the newcomer we stand not in strength and confidence but in the stunning realization that all we have and are comes from God. We enter into our frailty, our limitation, our hope in complete dependence on God. Our existence is dependent on God and not our own force of will and desire.

The ceremony continues, there are hugs and songs and claps and rejoicing. But as we leave the chapel all of us leave with the knowledge that as we welcome a new member in our midst we have also renewed our own commitment to live this way of life in the spirit of the Suscipe.

Congratulations Sr. Wendy!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Why Have Benedictines Survived?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how Benedictine life has both changed and remained consistent over the centuries. In 1980 Benedictines celebrated the 1500 year anniversary of the birth of Benedict. During these 1500 years the sons and daughters of Benedict have spread to every continent and have continued to live according to Benedict’s Rule, a guidebook for living the Gospel.

One might think that people all living according to the same guidebook would look very similar, that Benedictines in England in the year 1000 would look a lot like Benedictines in Cameroon in 2000. Or at the very least Benedictines in Australia and South Korea in the year 2010 would have a pretty much identical way of life.

But the reality is that Benedictine monasticism has proved to be both extremely flexible and extremely resilient over the centuries. It has managed to hold on to the essential while adapting to changing times and circumstances. Whether in the year 1000 or 2000, whether in Europe, North America, Africa, or Asia, Benedictines have managed to maintain a life focused on God in a way that fits with the time and circumstances.

So I wonder what is essential about Benedictine monasticism? What is it that unites Benedictines across centuries, cultures, and types of commitment? I suspect that the answer is very simple and prosaic. We are united by a practical yet flexible structure that allows us to live a common purpose, a life focused on God. The exact nature of the structure changes with time, circumstances and needs, but the key is that it is a way of life in which we get the support we need to seek God. With a flexible structure we can live a life in which prayer is possible, we are accountable for the commitments we have made and we can more easily do the hard work of transformation that draws us deeper into the heart of God.

The scaffolding of Benedictine structure is community. Most of us like to think that we are capable of building our own structures but to be a Benedictine is to admit that we need help in our journey, we need the support and structure of a community. All Benedictines across the centuries have shared this sense of community. For some community may be the very traditional, enclosed, vowed community of everyone living under the same roof their whole adult lives. For others it may be being part of a community at a distance, living and working away but united in commitment and purpose. The key is the commitment to being part of a particular group of people all living this particular way of the Gospel. To be Benedictine means that we go to God together with the unique, motley crew that we have said we would journey with until, in Benedict’s words, we come “altogether to everlasting life.”

If the scaffolding of Benedictine life is community then the foundation and building material is prayer. Prayer, simply being in relationship with God, is the essence of this way of life, this way of living out the Gospel. Prayer is both the Divine Office chanted seven times a day in the common oratory and the prayer muttered while driving to work in the city. Prayer echoes across centuries and continents in an unbroken chain of men and women uniting their hearts and their longing for God in this way of life. Prayer is the structure of our daily life that allows the God whispers deep in our souls to urge us on, to push us ever deeper into the journey of transformation. The ways in which we pray may not be uniform but is the foundation of the structure of our life.

So across continents, centuries and types of commitment we Benedictines are united by simple things, by structures and practices, by a deep, unceasing longing and hunger for God. We journey together knowing that we need one another’s help along the way. Together we are united in the foundation of prayer, formal or informal, eloquent chant or inarticulate groaning, we come before God in our need, and together we will go to God in this ever ancient and ever new way of life.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Cutural Immersion Experience

Earlier this month we had a volunteer come for a week who wanted to do a “cultural immersion experience” for a class she was taking. She thought it would be interesting to immerse herself in our monastery for a week. She had a very good time and was thoroughly immersed in weed pulling, dish washing, other chores as well prayer and community life.

It did make me want to stand back and take a look at what our particular culture is like. Those of us who live at the monastery day in and day out for years can easily lose perspective about how different and unique this culture really is. So I tried to think through what is really different about us, what would someone coming into this new culture notice?

Perhaps the first and most obvious thing is that we are a large, single-sex group living together permanently and voluntarily. There may be other places where large groups of women live together but it may not be voluntary, as in correctional institutions (!) or college dorms (are there still single-sex college dorms?) or perhaps military installations, which are not permanent. Here in the monastery we have a group of women who have chosen this way of life, who have committed to live with, love and learn from one another for the rest of their lives. The fact that we do this permanently and voluntarily means that we are open to being transformed by the experience of community. By living with others we have to face the reality of our own limitations mirrored in those we live with.

Whenever volunteers come they also get quickly thrown into the daily round of chores. When people are only coming for a couple of weeks as a volunteer there are a lot of jobs that won’t be able to do, but there is always a lot of common work. Hopefully new people see that in our culture everyone helps with the common work. There is no one who is too busy or too important to be excused from helping out with dishes, clean-up or the large projects that come along. Living in community is a matter of willingly pitching in and not grumbling about who is or is not shouldering her share. This is an area we struggle with, but perhaps our integrity lies in the struggle, continuing to try to get it right even when we know that we aren’t always measuring up.

Simplicity is another value that people will notice about our culture. We live together and share things in common. Everyone has the same size, small bedroom, which discourages the accumulation of “stuff.” All the money that each of us earns goes into the common pot to support the whole community. We each have a very minimal amount of personal spending money and rely on the community to meet our needs rather than remaining in control of our own money and property. Again, simplicity of life is a goal, not an accomplishment. “Stuff” has a way of accumulating in our lives, a creeping sense of entitlement is something that we always have to watch out for. But in a broader culture that seems obsessed with money, possessions, and control perhaps we can at least be a small witness of another way.

One of the things someone coming for a short period of time may not notice but is an integral part of our culture is how we make decisions. There is very little hierarchy in monastic life and a lot of collaboration. We live together very closely for long periods of time. As a result we try to make sure that everyone is consulted, heard and their needs and desires considered. One of the things that many people do notice about us is that we move slowly and only after interminable meetings! This is very true, but perhaps as a result when we do move we tend to have a maximum number of people invested in the decision and the outcome rather than having a substantial number of people disenchanted and disenfranchised. As our society seems to be increasingly polarized and unable to communicate the frustration of the slow moving monastic way may be an alternative that isn’t easy but offers a way for everyone to be part of decision making.

Among many differences that a new person will notice about our culture perhaps the most important is one that most people pick up on quite quickly. The whole day is ordered around prayer. The key parts of the schedule are the times for communal prayer. Other events revolve around the prayer times. Not only that, but it is expected that people will drop what they are doing and come to prayer when they hear the chimes. Work isn’t the priority, work can wait. The purpose of our life is prayer, seeking God together in community for the rest of our lives. The “interruption” of prayer in our daily schedule, at the times when we were just starting to accomplish something, is the wake-up call that hits us in the head three times a day. This interruption is what brings us back to our center, our purpose. We immerse ourselves in a culture that is about God, together we swim in the ocean of God.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Is Modern Technology Making Us Stupid?

Is modern technology making us stupid? That was the thrust of an article I read recently. The author argued that the amount of reading we do on a screen, rather than with physical books, is making us very prone to distraction and detracting from our ability to do “deep reading.” He contends that the illusion of being able to multi-task and the nature of modern media with its emphasis on links, ads, and other attention grabbers is slowly rendering us incapable of being able to truly read and focus at a deep level.

This fascinating article, which I read online! (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2010/06/20/INL91DU44K.DTL) never used the term lectio divina, the monastic practice of prayerful reading, but the application is clear. In his Rule St. Benedict provides for two to three hours a day of praying with Scripture. This was a practice of spending deep time with the text of Scripture, being open to listening to the Word of God. Benedict doesn’t assume that this focused listening and reading is easy, he knows it is not. But it is essential to the life of a monk. To truly undertake the spiritual journey, to walk the narrow path of the Gospel we have to be willing to do the hard work of being still, open, listening and responding to this voice of God in our life.

This is an invitation to all of us today, monastics as much or more than anyone. It is easy to spend hours a day looking at a computer screen, a TV, a cell phone or any other of the myriad distractions we have at our disposal. It is hard to be still, to try and quiet the incessant chatter of our thoughts, to face our deepest fears and longings that we try to anesthetize ourselves with distractions.

Perhaps the key paradox of the spiritual journey for modern people is that the hardest work is to not work so hard. Reading from screens, whether computers, iPads, cell phones or anything else, and the distractions that come with them, is simply a symptom of our busyness. We easily pride ourselves on how busy we are, using this as a measuring stick of our importance. We can judge others and ourselves by our level of activity. What would we think of someone who took Benedict at face value and spent two or three hours a day in deep contemplation of Scripture? Chances are we would castigate that person for being a slacker and wondering how he or she could get away with not doing enough “real” work.

But that is probably precisely our problem. The work we tend to wrap ourselves up in, the frenetic activity we engage in, is not real work, it is usually a distracting illusion that keeps us from the real work of transformation. Real work is the slow, hard work of cultivating the soil of our soul. The deep reading of lectio divina, taking the time and discipline to allow the Word of God to permeate the clay of our soul is the work that matters.

So I am writing this on a screen and you will read it on a screen. There will be distractions, and pictures and links, but perhaps, for a period of time during the day we can all unplug and spend some time alone with the printed Word that will needs to be written on the page of our hearts.

Monday, June 14, 2010

New Ventures

Benedictines have survived for over 1500 years both because our way of life speaks to the deep desires of the human heart to get to know God more deeply and because we continue to change and adapt to the needs of the times. The ways in which we seek God and share our life with others continues to respond to the needs of the times.
On example of that adaptability is the amazing new project starting here at the monastery. We just opened our new bed and breakfast to the public. We have taken the ground floor of our guest house, totally remodeled it and opened the Inn at St. Gertrude Bed and Breakfast. So far as we can tell we are only the second monastery in the country to operate a bed and breakfast. (The other one is in Chicago, so I don’t think we are competing with each other).

Opening the bed and breakfast has been a long process that highlights both our response to changing times and our continuing values. About six years ago we decided that as a community we need to focus on income development as one of several goals for our future. With fewer members we knew we needed to be creative in generating revenue to support ourselves.

Benedictines do not do things without extensive collaboration. Decisions are not made unilaterally or without consultation. Community is our core value, our future is in the hands of all of us. With this in mind we formed a committee to explore new ideas. One early idea was to take an under-utilized building and turn it into a bed and breakfast. Two of our very creative oblate members proposed what this building could look like if it was re-done. The proposal was discussed by the whole community. Every member was invited to talk about the idea and to give feedback to the committee.

After feedback and more exploration the committee concluded that the building we were considering wouldn’t lend itself to a bed and breakfast. So after more committee meetings (do you sense a pattern here?) someone came up with the idea of using the ground floor of our guest house. Much discussion ensued, the community as a whole was consulted, the advice, help, time and energy of many people went into almost two years of very practical work on this project.

The result is a beautiful set of rooms that are now open to the public and are already proving very popular.

But perhaps the most important piece of this whole project is how we have done it. Opening the bed and breakfast has been an amazing model of generosity and collaboration. There were many frustrating moments when we tried to create a business with a committee, probably not a model that is taught in most MBA programs! But through everyone’s patience we managed to create a new business that combined the efforts and creativity of our monastic community, our employee, our volunteers, our oblate community and many others.

I think this is Benedictine values at their best. Together we are able to create something new that honors both the concerns and the gifts of everyone. None of us got exactly what we wanted, no one was able to impose their will on everyone else. All of us who worked on the project had to practice patience, flexibility, forgiveness and tolerance. This has been a truly collaborative project.

And thanks to the gifts of so many people we are able to share the gift of our hospitality to new people. We will give them a small taste of the gift of the gift that Benedictine community is able to offer to our fragmented world.

Want to experience it yourself? Check out www.innatstgertrudes.org

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Stability: When the going gets tough...

As Americans we are always on the move. We go away to school. We frequently change jobs. We change churches and political parties. Staying in one place, literally or figuratively, does not seem to be part of our makeup. Whether it is because we desire change, we get bored, want new challenges, get frustrated, for whatever reason we tend to be always moving on.

In some ways this is fine but the problem is that when we don’t like how things are going we immediately think of moving or changing. Frustrated with how things are going on the job? Change jobs! The relationship with our spouse or our friends isn’t what it once was? Get divorced or find new friends! Our church or political party has changed and we don’t agree with what they are saying? Leave the church or the party!

In this culture of constant change Benedictines point to another way. One of the promises that we make at profession is “stability.” This means that we commit to be part of this particular community, this monastery, for the rest of our lives. We will change, the community will change, the world will change but we say that we won’t leave.

Making this promise is probably a lot like marriage vows. At the time you make them it doesn’t seem like it could be that hard. But of course the insidious challenge comes years down the line. We don’t live in the same community we enter. We change, everyone else changes, the world changes around us. Our enthusiasm may fade, our understanding of this way of life might change radically. We begin to see the limitations, the brokenness, the pettiness of a group of people trying to live together and frequently failing to be their best selves.

But the real issue is what do we do with these struggles, this disillusionment? To be a Benedictine means to stay and work it through. This is stability. Stability means doing the hard inner work of refusing to leave when things are not what I expected or hoped for. Stability is a source of deep humility when I recognize that my desire for something different, my anger or frustration stems from my own limitations as much or more than anyone else’s. Stability also forces me to realize that I cannot be self-sufficient, I need the support of others. The journey is about us. We are in this journey together and cannot venture off on our own.

We live in a society that encourages us to think that we don’t really need to do the hard work of transformation. We often feel that instant gratification takes too long. But Benedict knew that the spiritual journey is one that happens when we go ever deeper in the same place. By making the public promise to stay with our commitments, to stay within what may feel like the confines of our lives and limitations, only then will we really face our problems which are usually staring back at us in the mirror. In stability we don’t take the easy way out, we stay and face our need for grace. Through stability we come to embrace our limitations which are the source of our need for God.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Monastery and Visitation


Today is the Feast of the Visitation, commemorating Mary’s visit to Elizabeth after saying her “yes” to Gabriel. According to Luke’s account the visit of these two women is a profound moment of grace as they share the wonder and power of God in their lives and in history.

I like to think that the Visitation is a profoundly monastic feast, a feast about community and seeking God together. Mary knows that God’s call in her life is something that is to be shared, that she needs community and support. She doesn’t think that this invitation and journey will be something that she has to do alone. Mary runs to Elizabeth for support, for understanding, for celebration. Together they hold each other up, made stronger by their mutual presence as they acclaim God’s action in bringing to birth the new reality that will turn the world upside down.

In the same way monastic life is a continual journey of the visitation. We go to God together. Together we support one another, we celebrate how God is working in our lives, we support one another when what God is asking of us seems too much to bear. Every day we sing Mary’s Magnificat and our own as God is continually born in and through our lives.

Of course the feast is also a wake-up call and perhaps even a rude wake up for us monastics. Mary and Elizabeth supported, celebrated and challenged each other. They modeled what it means to be strong women who can hear and respond to God’s call as healthy, powerful women. Do we do the same? Perhaps our challenge in monastic community is to truly listen to the songs we sing, are we singing of God’s wonderful deeds or is our song a low murmur of discontent and criticism? Do we run to support one another or undermine God’s work in our sisters lives by backbiting and murmuring?

Those of us who live in community have a wonderful opportunity and challenge. Today each of us is being called to do what Mary and Elizabeth did. We are called to recognize the coming of Christ in our midst. Each of us is called to bear the presence of God in our hurting world. Each of us is called to recognize and support Mary and all those who manifest God’s saving presence. Each of us is called to sing the Magnificat every day with full knowledge that our God is truly doing great things for us here, today, in our presence. The Feast of the Visitation is truly something to celebrate not just today but every day.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Past and Future, Through the Desert

Last weekend I gave two days of presentations to a group of Benedictine novices about the early desert fathers and mothers. These are the texts about the men and women of the 4th century who desired to live the gospel to its fullest, to stretch themselves and to fully experience the call of God in their lives. These men and women went to the deserts as a way to escape the shallowness of conventional life and to truly test their faith and resolve.

As I talked to the novices I encouraged them to see themselves in these ancient stories of men and women who left their conventional lives to serve and seek God. I told them that as monastics they are the modern inheritors of the early desert monastic tradition.

Over the course of the weekend these women were able to make profound connections between their lives and the lives of their monastic foremothers and forefathers. They too experienced the call of God as well as the struggles, the “demons” and the aridity of life in the “desert” of formation. But like the early desert monastics they too are living the integrity of the struggle. Transformation is neither cheap nor easy. God’s grace is real and sustaining but we also experience the parts of ourselves that hold us back, make us want to give up and distrust the presence of God.

Throughout the weekend it struck me that the struggles of the early desert monastics, the struggles of these modern Benedictine novices, and the struggles of modern monastic life are all of one piece. As most monasteries and indeed most religious communities see a decline in numbers we tend to think that this is something new. But perhaps the reality is simply that this is our particular desert, our particular struggle and challenge.

Whether in the 4th century, in the 6th century of Benedict, in the middle ages or 21st century Idaho, monastics have always been called to a life centered on God above all else. The word monk comes from the word “single,” we are the ones who seek God alone. In order to do that we give up things that the world thinks of as indispensable such as possessions, marriage, the ability to always make our own choices. We live in community. We pray at set hours. We try to love and honor those we live with and those we serve. These aspects of our life aren’t easy, they don’t necessarily make sense to “the world” or they may seem too difficult for people to do. This is our desert, this is the place of our struggle.

For the early desert dwellers the desert was a place of asceticism, fasting, vigils, prayer. This asceticism was their means of transformation, of doing the hard inner work of cooperating with God’s grace, being remade in God’s image. Perhaps today our desert is the hard work of sharing the ancient and modern good news of monastic life. In a culture that seems to lack commitment, when people are hungry for spirituality but not religious life, we have to remain and ponder the lessons of the particular desert we find ourselves in. The early desert fathers and mothers tell us that the desert is a place of demons, struggle and doubt. But they also tell us that the heart of the desert is paradox, for truly it is where God is found.

The novices who joined us for two weeks know what the desert is like. They are joining an ancient way of life that sometimes looks like it is in jeopardy. But hopefully throughout their time they learned that monasticism has never been an easy choice, the desert is the place of the deepest challenges, but at the same time we go into the desert seeking the God who alone can make the desert bloom. In the desert we will follow the God who will lead us back to the garden.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Finding God in the Dishes


As I do more spiritual direction with people I usually talk to them about how they find God in their prayer life, in Scripture, in worship, in nature and other ways. I don’t think I have ever asked how they find God in the dishes, but I think I might start.

A contemporary Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn once asked someone who was visiting his monastery and had volunteered to help wash the dishes: “do you want to wash dishes to wash dishes or do you want to wash dishes to have clean dishes?” He meant do you see washing dishes as a means to an end or are you willing to simply be present in whatever you are doing whether washing dishes or going to prayer.

Benedict doesn’t ask that question but I think his attitude is similar. For Benedict every aspect of life is about God, every aspect of life reflects how we are journeying toward God. Everyday tools are to be treated as “vessels of the altar.” There is an elaborate ceremony to acknowledge the monks who will be the kitchen helpers of the week and it echoes the liturgy for welcoming new members. In Benedict’s monastery the most mundane tasks are as important on the spiritual journey as the daily hours of prayer.

Benedict spends a lot of time explaining how the daily tasks and chores of everyday life should work. There are chapters on how much food and wine to have at meals. The clothing and bedding for monks has a place in his Rule. There are lots of “non-spiritual” details that people tend to skip when they read the Rule. But the reality is that these chapters are just as important as the ones that explicitly talk about God.

At first glance many of the provisions of Benedict’s Rule don’t seem to have any immediate bearing on our faith life. What difference does it make what kind of food we have or why does Benedict feel he has to make provision for how many clothes the monk should have or what kind of bedding they are to be given? As modern people we usually skip these parts of the Rule and see them as anachronistic. But perhaps some of the most “non-spiritual,” concrete provisions of the Rule contain some of the most profound wisdom.

Benedict knows that in the spiritual life it is often the most ordinary things that trip us up. We say we want to live a life focused on God but then we get so consumed by the everyday details of life that God is quickly relegated to the occasional special time or place. Perhaps this is why Benedict knows that details matter. He tries to set up an ordered way of life so that all the basics are taken care of and handled in such a way that people can indeed see God in everything.

Everyone, monks and married people, people in the 6th century or the 21st, need to have enough food, enough clothing, a realistic schedule, meaningful work, specified times for prayer, common expectations and consequences for breaking rules, in order to be able to see God in everything. Benedict wants to set up a way of life in which there will be no excuses for not being aware of God. If the monks basic needs are taken care of, if the monk knows that he or she is living a life of security, then there will be the time, the space and the energy to focus on the real work of life, coming to know God ever more deeply and coming to be remade in God’s likeness.

So what does this have to say to us today, to those who live outside monasteries or even those of us who live preoccupied lives inside monasteries? Perhaps it is simply a call to mindfulness, to be aware that we do indeed have space and time for God. Do we have to be preoccupied about the necessities of life? For most of us living in middle-class comfort in an industrialized country the answer is yes. Most of us have enough food, clothing, access to medical care. Most of us already have the life Benedict wanted for his monks, one in which we do not have to be preoccupied with getting the necessities of life.

Most of us are fortunate that we do not have to wash dishes while preoccupied with hunger. Most of us live lives that have achieved Benedict’s ideal of a life with the time and space for God. Now the question is our attitude. How do you wash the dishes? Is it to have clean dishes or to be aware of the presence and gifts of God in the moment? So, how do you wash dishes? How is washing dishes a reflection of your life with God?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What Are The Bells In Your Life?

“I’ve got to go, the bell just rang.” More than once I’ve ended an e-mail or phone call with those words. Three times a day we hear the bells here at the monastery. Ten minutes before prayer or Mass a designated sister rings the chimes that are broadcast through the phone intercom to the whole monastery and retreat center. It is a time to finish what we are doing to go to chapel.

This is an ancient monastic practice. Benedict didn’t use the phone intercom system but he had designated people and designated times for everyone to get ready for the “Work of God,” for the hours of prayer. Benedict wrote at some length about how this was supposed to happen, how to give people enough time to get to chapel, what happens to people who can’t seem to arrive on time no matter how much time you give them and so forth.

Benedict knew that outward practices are what lead to interior transformation. At first the bell is an interruption, an irritation. We are busy, important people. We have lots to do, things to accomplish. The bells invariably ring in the middle of an important task. Prayer can happen at any time, why can’t I just go ahead and finish what I’m doing? I’ll pray later. Or at least that is our justification, our rationalization when the call to prayer interrupts our work.

But perhaps that is precisely the purpose of the bells. The bells strike at the heart of our most cherished illusion, that we are in control of our life, that we determine our own schedule, our own priorities and we can make our own decisions as to what is most important. When the bells ring and we have to drop everything there is something more important than our own desires, there is something more important than being in control.

The bells are a tangible reminder that our time, our life, is not our own, all that we have is a gift from God. At first the bells seem like a conditioned response. We hear the bell and like Pavlov’s dogs we automatically proceed to chapel for prayer. But unlike the dogs salivating at the bell signaling food, we are able to go deeper, the conditioned response can become an invitation. After many years the bells are no longer a command. The bells become an invitation. The bells become the whisper of God: let go, listen, rejoice, do not fear. I give you all good gifts, I am with you at all times, in rejoicing and in desolation, I am with you says the Lord.

The bells are an invitation, and like any invitation we can choose whether to respond. Frequently I don’t respond, I show up to chapel in body but not in spirit, I don’t always put everything down but carry it with me as I remain preoccupied and distracted. But fortunately God shows up for prayer even when I don’t. God waits in infinite trust and patience for me to catch up, to respond to the meaning of the bells. And so tomorrow the bells will sound again, God whispering: “Come, I am here.”