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.