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?