Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What Are The Bells In Your Life?

“I’ve got to go, the bell just rang.” More than once I’ve ended an e-mail or phone call with those words. Three times a day we hear the bells here at the monastery. Ten minutes before prayer or Mass a designated sister rings the chimes that are broadcast through the phone intercom to the whole monastery and retreat center. It is a time to finish what we are doing to go to chapel.

This is an ancient monastic practice. Benedict didn’t use the phone intercom system but he had designated people and designated times for everyone to get ready for the “Work of God,” for the hours of prayer. Benedict wrote at some length about how this was supposed to happen, how to give people enough time to get to chapel, what happens to people who can’t seem to arrive on time no matter how much time you give them and so forth.

Benedict knew that outward practices are what lead to interior transformation. At first the bell is an interruption, an irritation. We are busy, important people. We have lots to do, things to accomplish. The bells invariably ring in the middle of an important task. Prayer can happen at any time, why can’t I just go ahead and finish what I’m doing? I’ll pray later. Or at least that is our justification, our rationalization when the call to prayer interrupts our work.

But perhaps that is precisely the purpose of the bells. The bells strike at the heart of our most cherished illusion, that we are in control of our life, that we determine our own schedule, our own priorities and we can make our own decisions as to what is most important. When the bells ring and we have to drop everything there is something more important than our own desires, there is something more important than being in control.

The bells are a tangible reminder that our time, our life, is not our own, all that we have is a gift from God. At first the bells seem like a conditioned response. We hear the bell and like Pavlov’s dogs we automatically proceed to chapel for prayer. But unlike the dogs salivating at the bell signaling food, we are able to go deeper, the conditioned response can become an invitation. After many years the bells are no longer a command. The bells become an invitation. The bells become the whisper of God: let go, listen, rejoice, do not fear. I give you all good gifts, I am with you at all times, in rejoicing and in desolation, I am with you says the Lord.

The bells are an invitation, and like any invitation we can choose whether to respond. Frequently I don’t respond, I show up to chapel in body but not in spirit, I don’t always put everything down but carry it with me as I remain preoccupied and distracted. But fortunately God shows up for prayer even when I don’t. God waits in infinite trust and patience for me to catch up, to respond to the meaning of the bells. And so tomorrow the bells will sound again, God whispering: “Come, I am here.”

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Are You a Monk?

Are you a monk? Most people would laugh if they were asked that question. “Monk” conjures up pictures of men in archaic dress who live a deeply ascetic lifestyle in a building removed from “the world.” But I wonder whether we tend to put monks and monasticism in too small a box.

I recently did a presentation about Benedictine spirituality for people in a spiritual direction training program. I suggested that “monk” is really an archetype, a concept or image that crosses time and cultures. Over centuries many cultures, faiths and religions have had some version of monks, people who put the quest for God or the divine above all else in their lives. Monks are people for whom faith is the most important thing in their lives and they structure their lives to make that seeking for God or the transcendent the focus of their lives.

This way of looking at monks and monasticism is very different from focusing on monasticism as one of many versions of vowed religious life in the Roman Catholic Church. While many of us, men and women, are vowed religious, perhaps it is time to really stretch the boundaries of the way we think about putting God at the center of our life.

Books about the spiritual life seem to be proliferating. More and more people are going to retreats, forming groups for prayer and spirituality and joining Third Orders. In a world that seems more and more secular and material there is evidence of many people who feel they are thirsting for God in the desert of our predominant culture.

So perhaps it is time for a renewal of monastic life. The first monks went to the desert to lead a more intense, dedicated Christian life after Christianity became legal and acceptable under Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century. Benedict of Nursia wrote his Rule in the 6th century, a guidebook for monks who wanted to live intense Christian community at a time when the Roman Empire was falling apart. In the Roman Catholic tradition monks have continually adapted to the changing needs of the times.

Today there are still those of us who are called to go to a physical monastery and make the same life promises that Benedictines have made for over 1500 years. But there are many more people, men and women, Catholic and Protestant, single and married, who are being called to monastic life on its most fundamental level, monasticism beyond a traditional, institutional structure. Being a monk is a habit of the heart, a way of loving and a desire to seek God. Being a monk means a focus on God above all else and a commitment to walk on the narrow path of the Gospel, journeying towards transformation and taking on the full stature of Christ.

Being a monk outside the institution is not easy, but neither is being a monk inside a monastery! It is about dedication, creativity and finding the structures that help you seek Christ above all. Being a monk is about gathering with like-minded seekers and making a commitment to the struggle, to always starting over and knowing that God is with you on the journey.

It is an exciting time for the monastic way of life. New ways of being monastic are being born. There will be birth pangs and doubts, struggles and deaths as this ever ancient, always new way of life continues into the future.

Benedict begins his Rule with the word “listen.” It is an invitation, listen, are you a monk?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Empty Tomb

Human beings have a tendency to see what they expect to see. Various psychological studies have shown that people “fill in the blanks,” they see what they are conditioned to see and may completely miss something that is unexpected or out of context. That might be a good insight to keep in mind during this Easter season. What do we see when we peer into the empty tomb?

When we hear the Gospel stories we hear them like people who know how the story ends. We’ve seen this movie, we know how it ends. We jump ahead and anticipate the resurrection. We know it is Jesus on the road to Emmaus, we know it is Jesus whom Mary mistakes for the gardener, we know what it means when Peter peers into an empty tomb. We rush headlong into the resurrection, we aren’t confused, we don’t ponder or wonder or stand amazed, we know.

From our place of certainty it is easy to misunderstand the reactions of the disciples. We think they are obviously rather slow on the uptake for failing to instantly understand the reality of the resurrection. Why did the male disciples dismiss the reports of the women that the tomb was empty? How could the disciples on the road to Emmaus not recognize Jesus? What on earth was wrong with Mary Magdalene that she took so long to recognize Jesus? But perhaps what we have the most trouble recognizing is our own lack of understanding of the truly radical nature of the resurrection.

The resurrection was more than simply the resuscitation of a dead body. Jesus was not brought back to life the same way Lazarus was. Something different, more profound, more radical has happened. The empty tomb means that God is acting in history in a way that our minds cannot even comprehend.

The first disciples could not immediately recognize Jesus because God was doing something completely new, completely unexpected. It was only in hindsight that they remembered Jesus’ cryptic clues. Then as now hindsight is 20/20. The disciples were being called on to see something that they had no context for, something that pushed them beyond all previous boundaries and understandings. Jesus had died but he was still among them. The power of the Roman Empire and the religious establishment had conspired to kill Jesus and his nascent proclamation of the Reign of God. But the power of God burst the human limitations that could only see death. The tomb, and its reality of death, was turned inside out.

The strongest tomb most of us will encounter is not made of rock. It is made of our preconceptions, our assumptions, our arrogance and short-sightedness. Like the disciples we know exactly what we are going to find. We know how things work, we know what to expect and we can see only what we have been conditioned to see. But the resurrection means that the power of God is right here, right now, in front of ours, turning reality inside out. The empty tomb is all around us, but can we see it?