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.

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!