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! ( 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.