What do we hear when we listen? The invitation to listen, be awake, be prepared came in the first Sunday of Advent. And now the message is being revealed in this second week. In Isaiah’s reading we see the figure coming to establish a new order. This shoot from the stump of Jesse will judge with justice and righteous and inaugurate a radically new reality where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb and a little child shall lead them. This call to a new order is echoed in the Gospel reading. John the Baptist is the herald of a new order, calling people to repentance in preparation for the one who is to come for the final judgment.
These readings of Advent call us to radical change, change that will come from the root of our being. In these readings a figure will come and shake us out of sleep, calling us to a life with God is at the center, a life in which all that we do, manifests the reality of God’s transformative presence.
The insistent invitation of these reading are echoed in the Rule. The Rule of Benedict seeks to establish an entire way of life that calls us to live the Advent readings on a daily basis. The Rule creates external structures and practices that guide us on the journey to transformation, the journey to becoming remade in the image of Christ. Over time the practices of the Rule will eventually become a deep and natural part of our selves.
The Advent readings focus on the one who is to come, the figure who will challenge people and judge with righteousness in order to bring about the new Reign of God. In the Rule we see this wisdom figure personified in the abbot or prioress. This is the person chosen by the community to be the one to support and challenge, guide and judge as a way to call all members of the monastic community to become who God is calling them to be. The abbot or prioress is the figure who calls everyone to accountability so that the monastic community may become a group of transformed people who manifest God’s love in the world.
For Benedict the abbot or prioress has to carefully discern the needs of her flock and treat each person individually: “He must know what a difficult and demanding burden he has undertaken: directing souls and serving a variety of temperaments, coaxing, reproving and encouraging them as appropriate.” (RB 2:31) The abbot or prioress is the person in our life who calls us to the hard, inner work of faith. The abbot or prioress is the one who encourages us when we are struggling to see ourselves as beloved of God. They are the ones who call us to accountability when we take our faith for granted, when we are no longer stretching and growing in our journey toward wholeness.
As Benedict indicates this job is difficult because so many of us are unaware of how we need to grow in faith. The abbot or prioress has to support the many people who cannot see themselves as being worthy of God’s love, who struggle with guilt, always finding themselves lacking or unworthy. In any group there are also the Pharisees that John warned so strongly. How many of us are blind to our complacency, like the Pharisees we are good, holy people who do all the right things but take God’s mercy for granted, as an entitlement rather than being overwhelmed by such an undeserved gift?
All of us, those who struggle to believe we are made in the image of God and those who take God’s love for granted, need the presence of the abbot or prioress to nurture and challenge us to growth. The image of the people of God as a flock of sheep resounds throughout Scripture, throughout the Rule of Benedict. We are not individuals before God, we are part of a people, bound together in our journey, needing help and accountability.
The Rule of Benedict is a way of living out the call of the Gospel in everyday life. It speaks to professed monastics and anyone seeking to live a life of deeper faith. Benedict has set up an external structure but the structure is not an end in and of itself. The monastery is not just a building it is a way of life. The abbot or prioress is not just a person in a building, they represent the people and ways that keep us on track in our spiritual journey. The abbot or prioress is the wisdom figure in our life who has been instrumental in our faith life. They can be anybody who is a guide in darkness, a support in despair, the one who challenges our assumptions, who calls us to accountability.
The abbot or prioress is also the deep, interior voice of God in our life. When we listen, are silent, open and awake we will hear the invitation of new life. The abbot or prioress is this deep whispering of God in our soul. When we hear the whispers of restlessness, the deep realization that we are loved, the call to change, this is the voice of the abbot or prioress of our life, the call of the righteous one of Isaiah, the one to come spoken of by John the Baptist. The call is always the call to listen. The call is to live as Advent people, always awake, always ready, because the coming of God in our life is a daily reality.