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.