Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas: God Pulls a Fast One

Have you ever noticed how people get absolutely goofy around babies? One small baby in a group of otherwise sane adults and something happens. The center of attention is immediately diverted from everything else and usually articulate, serious people are reduced to making odd faces, strange noises and fighting over who gets to hold the baby. There is something deep and primal that pulls people towards the vulnerability of an infant. Perhaps it is a sense of hope, maybe innocence or possibility contained in such a small and fragile package. Whatever it is about babies is clearly compelling.

So perhaps that is why God chose to enter into human reality as a baby. It is an unexpected message. All during Advent we had powerful readings with an apocalyptic sensibility: wake up! listen! God is coming! repent! The prophets speak of a radical new cosmic order. John the Baptist thunders out in the desert. It is clear that God is coming to turn the world upside down. But then what happens? Where is the thunder, the upheaval, our God coming from on high with power and might?

Instead, as the climax of all these readings we get a baby. A helpless baby born to an unwed mother, in an occupied country, laid in straw in a barn. Once we are (hopefully) prepared, listening, paying attention, God pulls a fast one on us. God doesn’t get us to pay attention by hitting us upside the head, God gets us to pay attention by appealing to our most basic, our best, our most human instincts. The divine comes into our lives as a baby. God comes in vulnerability.

What would it mean if we were to really pay attention to this unexpected message, if we were to treat the presence of God in the world as we would a baby? The message of Christmas is that Jesus was born into history, into time, but the message is also that the divine is being still being born into our world today. And the divine presence is still vulnerable, still fragile, in need of care and nurture.

Look at yourself in the mirror. Look at someone you know, someone you care about deeply, or someone you dislike. You, the person you love, the person you hate, each of you carries the image of God. Each of you were created in God’s image. Each of us carries the vulnerable presence of God in the world. Christmas says that God isn’t somewhere far away, detached, completely removed from human reality. Christmas says that God has come here in our midst and shares our reality. God has come into the depths of the human experience as an infant.

But today as on the first Christmas many of us will fail to recognize the divine presence in its unexpected package. Perhaps this is the source of so much suffering and evil in the world. We know that babies are deeply shaped and formed or malformed by how they are treated. Abuse, neglect, violence in formative years will create lifelong scars that will take years of hard work to heal. To fail to cherish and nurture a baby is to do violence to that new life. In the same way if we do no not recognize the vulnerable, fragile, divine spark that is the meaning of the incarnation, why do we wonder at the broken state of our world?

So today is Christmas but every day is Christmas. The message of that day 2000 years ago is that God shares our human nature. God became an infant. God continues to share our humanity and we continue to be made in God’s image. Here and now the incarnation means that God comes in vulnerability. For the world to be made anew the divine presence in each of us must be protected, nurtured, strengthened. The divine child is in our midst, how will we treat it?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Who Is Shouting At Us?

Who is this scruffy, odd, unkempt maniac who keeps shouting at us? In the first weeks of Advent John the Baptist seems to be everywhere in the Gospel readings. From the story of his birth to his encounter with Jesus at the Jordan there is something odd and disturbing about John. I have to confess that I have tended to skip over the accounts of John, wanting to get to the “good stuff” the real story, the coming of Jesus. But I suspect that on some level I want to ignore John the Baptist because of what he represents.

John the Baptist is more than a historical figure in the drama of salvation, he is more than a literary device to lead up to the birth of Jesus. John is also the voice of the strange, the unexpected, the rejected that shouts in our face and pulls the rug out from under our lives of comfortable complacency. John the Baptist lives deep in our souls, beneath our consciousness, in the dark places we would rather not go, proclaiming the things we don’t want to hear.

Everything about John strips bare the illusion that we know how things work. John heralds a new order in which nothing is predictable, nothing happens the way it is supposed to. John heralds the coming of God who will set the world upside down.

It is no coincidence that John’s birth was unexpected by human standards. Old, barren women don’t give birth. They don’t give birth years after such a thing was deemed impossible. Few of us had our birth heralded by an angel; our fathers were not struck dumb at the announcement of our birth. Everything about this birth shouts: “sit up! pay attention! look! something new is happening!”

After his birth John continues to do the unexpected. He lives in the wilderness, eating and clothed like an animal. The wilderness, the place where he chooses to live, is the place of demons, the place of danger and death. But since this is Scripture there is an inherent paradox here. The desert, the place that people associated with death, demons and danger becomes the place where the announcement of salvation comes from. In other words don’t look for the announcement of God’s coming to emanate from the places of established religion, comfortable faith and clear answers, look to the desert, to the darkness, to the place of fear, that is where the announcement of new life will come from.

So what is the figure of John the Baptist that dwells deep in our inner being, the feared and rejected part of ourselves that stands up and shouts about the coming of the new order? What parts of ourselves do we want to keep in the desert, keep in our deep inner closet and never open the door?

John the Baptist is the shouter, the doubter, the rejecter of social norms, the fearless wild man. John is the one who says that our God has not been domesticated, cannot be put in the box of our expectations. John lurks in our hearts and pokes us viciously when faith becomes easy or judgmental or simply routine and dull. John is the voice that grates like sandpaper and says there is more to faith than a dutiful hour on Sunday. John is the deep suspicion of cheap grace and facile sacraments.

But John is also the one who welcomes the parts of ourselves who are like the crowds who came to see him. There on the shore waiting for baptism are our shame, our fear, our anger, our hurt, our sense of rejection and inadequacy. The message and ministry of John the Baptist says that these rejected and marginal parts of ourselves are simply waiting to be embraced by God, the difficult parts of ourselves that will lead us to God. Faced and embraced our fear will become prudence and discretion. Our anger will be channeled into energy for building the Reign of God. Invited into the light of love our shame, rejection and inadequacy become the deep humility that creates room for God.

Listen! Do you hear him? Look! Do you see him? There on the margins, in the corners, in the wilderness of our hearts John the Baptist continues to shout and interrupt our pleasant lives. Today is the coming of God. Today is the coming of new life.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Feast Days and Black Fridays

Do you sense a deep longing or emptiness deep in your heart? I suspect that most people, if they are able to be deeply still and honest have such a feeling. It’s that feeling of something missing, something incomplete deep in our being.

The question is what we do with that feeling. Recently I spent a little while in a shopping mall. I’ve never been big on shopping, the walls seem to start to close in after about 15 minutes, but something new struck me this time. In this temple of consumerism there was a palpable energy. Large numbers of people were busy, milling about, searching as they plowed through the infinite variety of things they could buy. And all of these people were looking for some kind of satisfaction. Maybe it was something very simple, a new pair of slippers or the fun of watching a movie, maybe it was the more complicated shopping list of Christmas presents, but they all wanted something here at the mall. They all came with some need.

The foundation of our contemporary society is then based on the fulfillment of these sorts of needs. We are told over and over that the economy will not improve until people start to spend. Soon, the day after Thanksgiving, will be “black Friday.” This is the key barometer of our economy, the beginning of the Christmas season. If consumers spend enough on this key shopping day then the stores will be in the “black” and all will be well in the global market place. We live in a world in which we think that our most important needs can be satisfied by spending and consuming.

Before I had gone into the mall I had been reflecting, or maybe worrying, that our monastic life isn’t really that different from anyone else’s. Contrary to popular mis-conception we don’t float around all day smiling beatifically and doing nothing but praying. We work too hard, we aren’t always nice to one another, we may watch too much TV or read trashy books and yes, go to the mall once in a while. So I’d been worrying that our monastic way wasn’t monastic enough.

But today I can see that there really is something different about our way of life. Today is the Feast of St. Gertrude the Great our patroness here at the monastery. We celebrate with a special liturgy, festive meals and decorations and we remember Gertrude, a Benedictine nun in 13th century Germany. Gertrude was above all a mystic, her experience of God was deep, personal and sustaining. Gertrude knew that the need longing of her heart was for God and that in God alone would her longing be satisfied. She expresses this in her writings. “Although my heart distracts itself with perishable things, I must add that even after hours, days or weeks, when I returned to my heart, I always found you there…. My you forever find me living in you as you live in me.”

Today we celebrate a woman who knew the depths of her longing, her sense of incompleteness, her desire to be fulfilled and complete. But she had entered deeply into the source of her need. Gertrude knew that all the things that distract us cannot satisfy us. Even in a 13th century convent there were distractions and temptations, other people to gossip about, food to complain about, work schedules to be overwhelmed by, off-key liturgies and material goods to desire. But unlike most of us Gertrude had a gift of cutting through the illusions of her desires to enter into the reality that her deepest hunger is for God and God alone will satisfy the vague, persistent longing of our hearts.

This is the essence of monastic life whether lived by those in monasteries, oblates living in the “world” or by people everywhere with monastic hearts. To be a monastic is to recognize that what we want cannot be found at the mall, that a healthy society cannot be built on consumption, that in God alone do we know our rest, our belonging, the satisfaction of our desires.

In one of her books Gertrude addressed her readers: “Almighty and most generous God of all goodness, deign to nourish us sufficiently along the way of our exile, until we look upon the glory of the Face of the Lord, no longer veiled and going from glory to glory transformed by your most sweet spirit.” May this be our prayer too as we celebrate this amazing woman and anticipate celebrating Advent in a way that satisfies our deepest heart’s needs.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Is Fall a Benedictine Season?

It is clearly fall. We are busily raking leaves. The sky is gray with a promise of snow. The wind has a cold edge to it. It is a season of letting go. The trees let go of the abundance that was summer. Animals prepare for the letting go of a winters cold and deprivation. We are reminded of this letting go in the chapel where the long banners hang listing the sisters who are now in eternity. Under the high altar the relics are displayed of the saints who let go and have gone before us as witnesses. But perhaps this letting go isn’t something unique to this time of year but something inherent to what it means to be Benedictine.

To be a monastic is to let go of many things. When we enter the monastery we let go of traditional family relationships and the possibility of marriage or a committed relationship. We let go of most private property, personal income, the expectation that we can one day retire and do whatever we want to. As monastics we let go of a lot of what many people feel entitled to, lots of personal space, a life with clear boundaries between work and personal time.

But there is a much more fundamental letting go that is at the heart of monastic life. In the Prologue to his Rule Benedict says his remarks should only be read: “if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all…” If we are really paying attention and taking this seriously we should probably be terrified when we read this. What could it possibly mean to give up our “own will once and for all?” It is difficult enough to imaging giving up property, relationships and opportunities. What is Benedict asking?

Benedict is speaking to an invitation that it is at the heart of the spiritual journey and an invitation that crosses the boundaries of most faith traditions, many schools of psychology and the lived experience of spiritual seekers. Ultimately, if we are to be transformed, and come to experience that we are truly made in the image of God, we will have to let go of the illusion of control that we all cling to so tightly. In modern terms we usually call this the ego, in Benedict’s terms it is “self-will.” It is the mechanism that allows us all to think that we can control our destiny, that we are in charge and determine the outcome of our actions.

This action of self-will or ego is necessary to get us through the day, it allows us to function in our jobs and families, it allows us to be good people and accomplish good things. But our ego, our self-will, tends to expand to fill all the space we will give it. Pretty soon there is very little room for a relationship with God that we do not control, dictating to God through prayer, piety and belief how we expect God to act on our behalf. Our ego or self-will while necessary begins to crowd out an ability to let go, to trust, to simply be open. It is natural, if we are honest, to be scared to let go, as Benedict says, of our “own will once and for all.” After all, that letting go will feel like death to the healthy ego, to anyone with a strong sense of self.

But Benedict and the great wisdom figures across faith traditions know that the only way to true life is through letting go the illusion of control that the ego clings to so mightily. For Benedict this letting go will result in true humility, a state in which “perfect love casts out fear.” It is only in the letting go that we create room for God, room for new life, room for healing and love.

So fall is a season of letting go in the earth, a preparing for the death of winter. But if letting go is truly embraced it creates a deep expectation of hope, of new life. In winter is the promise of spring. As Christians we let go, we do not cling to our own illusion of control or our life because we know that the tomb will be empty and new life awaits.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Dancing, Death and Denial

I suspect that death is to our culture what sex was to Victorian England. It goes on all the time (after all, where did all those little Victorians come from?) but no one talks about it. Death is the ultimate taboo reality. But of course the irony is that death is the one thing we will all have in common, the fate that unites every single one of us.

This reality has become very concrete this last week at the monastery as we have experienced three deaths in the last couple of weeks as well as another death only a little over a month ago. Whatever denial we may have been able to maintain has been quickly stripped away in a flurry of farewells and funerals.

As this denial is stripped away we are left with the deeper understanding of St. Benedict’s invitation. “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” (RB 4:47) Contrary to modern sensibilities Benedict did not have a morbid fixation on death, rather he knew that we have to face death head on, without flinching, if we are to truly live and appreciate life. When we remind ourselves that we are going to die then life becomes less of an entitlement, something we deserve, and more of a wonderful, temporary gift to be rejoiced in every day.

When we remind ourselves daily of death we are more aware that life and death cannot be separated, we only know life because of the reality of death. Death is not something to be denied but held and celebrated as the culmination of life. Perhaps death is the final gift from God. Benedict calls the monastery “the school of the Lord’s service,” and maybe it is in death we finally graduate from this school. Like the other graduations we have known death is a hope-filled, fear-filled leap into the unknown. In death we face the final letting go of all that is familiar into the hope of a new reality.

Of course what makes death so difficult and denial so easy is that death is the ultimate loss of what we know, what we control, of who we are. Part of our denial is the way we fast-forward to our expectations of eternal life and fail to be honest that most people fight death, that death is not pretty or nice, it is seldom easy and painless. We embrace the hope of eternal life but perhaps our hope is too facile, superficial and easy. Paul said: " ….Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience." (Romans 8:24-25) As we affirm hope in the midst of death perhaps we need to admit that our hope is something ultimately unknown, it is the deep, profound hope of letting go into a reality none of us has seen. Death is letting go of all that we have ever known. It is jumping into the darkness based on a promise.

But of course we will all have to make that jump eventually. All of us have the remarkable gift of this life as we walk along the edge of the cliff. On this journey Benedict reminds us not to pretend that there will be no end to the journey, that somehow we won’t have to look over the abyss, but he says keep that reality of death always in mind. Embrace it, walk with it, hold its hand. It is only in death that we have the gift of life. As we walk along the cliff let us dance because we have been give so great a gift, the gift of life, the gift of death that gives meaning to our hope.

This week in the monastery as we remember Aelred, Josie and Mercedes we know that they have entered into the darkness in hope, dancing with death as they are lead into new life. Their death, our death, which is daily before our eyes, is an invitation into the fullness of life.

Monday, October 17, 2011

What is Your Rule?

There is a stereotype or perhaps just a misconception that people come to monasteries to escape the world. However, not only has that never been true but increasingly people are asking how they can replicate the experience of the monastery in their lives in the “world.” People are increasingly coming to monasteries not to join them, nor to escape the world in any way but to take some sense of the monastery with them as they return home to families, jobs, lives that are hectic and where it feels hard to carve out time and space for God.

Perhaps people don’t realize that when they come to the monastery and then want to replicate monastic life at home they are really saying that they want to live by a monastic “rule.” A monastic rule isn’t a book of regulations like the driver’s handbook or a bureaucratic manual for a government department. A rule, from the Latin regula, is a guidebook. It is a guide for people who want to live a life structured around their desire to know God at the depths of their being, a guidebook for a life centered on God.

While there were other monastic rules at the time of Benedict in the 6th century, his became known as a very practical, moderate rule. While some other monastic rules were very short and inspirational they tended to be short on practical details for actually living out such high ideals. Other rules were extremely detailed, covering at great length exactly how a monk was to live. Benedict’s genius was to balance a clear explanation of the values and ideals of a life centered on God with the insights and wisdom of practical experience. Benedict knew that we need to articulate the most important values in our life and at the same time we need to know how we are going to live out those values. This balance of ideals and pragmatism resulted in Benedict’s rule that monastics still live by today.

But people don’t have to live in a monastery to live according to a rule. Most of us have an implicit rule we live by. If family is a key value in our lives then we make sure that we structure our lives in such a way that there are regular family meals, vacations together, regular contact. If there are conflicts that interfere with our family activities we still make family a priority if at all possible rather than letting other activities take precedence. If education is a value then other things will be sacrificed to make sure that this value is put first. Savings may go toward tuition rather than vacations, television may happen only if there is a high enough GPA. These are examples of how a rule of life works: structures are put in place to enable a person to live out their values.

The key value of any monastic rule is the desire to grow closer to God, to be transformed in God’s image. Other key values simply flow out of this. As monastics we value prayer, service, humility, community as ways of expressing our desire to grow in relationship with God. Monastic life then creates structures to make it easier to live out those values. Daily times of prayer, living simply with few possessions, deferring to the needs of the group rather than our own wants are all ways we structure our life to achieve our goals.

No way of life is easy, whether it is celibate life in a monastery, single life, raising children. But we can all use help to become conscious of the deeper purpose of our life. It is easy to simply make choices and take actions without reflection, without looking at the deeper meaning. But if we understand that we can live according to a spiritual “rule” then perhaps life begins to look and feel different. If I can articulate the deepest values of my heart, what is truly most important to me, then I can begin to ask what will help me live out those values. If relationship with God is my deepest desire then how do I structure my life to make that happen? How do I begin with small changes that become habits that become the structures of a life lived for God? In other words how do I become a monastic in the world? Perhaps a monastic rule is something for many people beyond the walls of a physical monastery.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Connections and Beans

It is canning time again at the monastery. Thanks to the great generosity of some Knights of Columbus members from Caldwell, Idaho we have boxes and boxes and boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables to eat, can and enjoy. We are also harvesting from our garden, this week is green beans and cucumbers. The old kitchen is a hive of activity, wonderful sights and smells as many people help out to make the work load lighter.

On special days there is an overlap between canning and baking. We bake all our own bread, fifty loaves a week of brown and white bread in our bakery. So sometimes there is an interesting overlap of smells. Beets and bread anyone?

This commitment to growing, canning, food preservation, baking and similar aspects of self-sufficiency are central to who we are as Benedictine monastics. In an era of agribusiness and huge factory farms it seems unlikely that home canned beets or homemade bread is cost efficient. But there is a much deeper value at play than simple economics.

All that we produce is a witness of a much deeper sense of connection. We know where the bread we eat came from. We picked the raspberries that went on the raspberry jam that went on the bread. We helped to prepare the beans and beets and canned the tomatoes, pears and peaches. We grew the squash and lettuce. We actively participated in much of what we eat, we know where it came from, who grew and harvested it.

We live in a world in which this kind of connection has become a rare thing. We hear the stories of children who don’t know where food comes from except from a grocery store. How many adults have actually seen their food come from anywhere but the grocery store? This disconnect in our society goes much deeper than food. Many of us do not know our neighbors, our families are distant, work is a temporary commitment.

In a world that is disconnected, alienated and disenfranchised, monastics try to witness a new/older reality. Benedict enjoined his monks to be self-sufficient, to have everything they need in one place. While we cannot do that anymore we can still live a life that emphasizes the value of deep connections. As monastics we see these connections and the fragility of connections in ways that most society does not.

When we grow our own food we are reminded that we are at the mercy of nature. The rain doesn’t come or comes in the wrong amount or at the wrong times, we won’t have the home grown food we enjoy. We witness our connection to the earth, our dependence on the earth, and in some very slight way know the joy and suffering of those who do not have the local supermarket as a backup for crop failure.

Coming together to harvest and preserve food is a reminder of those who work in difficult, underpaid jobs to provide the food we take for granted. As we work together we know that we cannot take our food for granted, that it does not appear magically on the table but as the fruit of much work and God’s bounty. When we work together we remember that we are community, we are committed to one another in good times and bad, with the ones we like and the ones we don’t. We are connected, we are committed for life in an impermanent world.

It doesn’t look like much at first, the piles of beans and cucumbers, the boxes of peaches to be canned, the bread cooling on racks on bake day. But there are deep lessons that come from the gift of the most simple things. In the beans we come to know how deeply we are blessed, how intimately we are connected with all things and are reminded of the call to serve those without.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Monastic Prayer: For the World

What happens when monks pray? It is easy enough to simply say: that is what we do. We gather multiple times a day to pray in common because that is what Benedictines have been doing for over 1500 years. But of course that begs the question. What does this prayer mean? What is happening as we come together several times a day, day after day, year after year, with the same Psalms, the same prayers? Benedict isn’t much help. He outlines precisely which Psalms and other readings to prayer at precisely what hours of the day, but he doesn’t do too much to explain what is happening when monks pray.

Maybe it is helpful to simply start with the experience of praying. Multiple times a day a bell rings and the world shifts. When the bell rings the world no longer revolves around me and my needs. I am called to give up being the center of my own private little universe and come in silence, in openness, to a place that is only about prayer, a place where all of us come to sink into the presence of God, to open our hearts to the needs of a hurting world.

I may come into our chapel, the oratory, place of prayer, as an individual, but I become part of a community of God-centered people, a community that jokingly calls itself a “motley crew.” Together this motley crew gathers to enter into the presence of God, of one another and the world. In stillness we become present, allowing ourselves to let go of all that has come before and will come after. We enter the reality of prayer.

In this reality we strive to be one voice, our “minds in harmony with our voices.” (RB 19) The Psalms and prayers become one mind and one voice lifted together in praise, in supplication, in despair and joy. In the Psalms we pray words that that have been prayed across three thousand years, throughout our world, across religious traditions. In prayer we lift up to God words and feelings that may not be our own at the moment, but may be the words of people who have no words, people who do not know how to pray, people to engulfed in despair to pray. For these people we chant and recite words calling to God from the depths, words imploring God to act and bring about justice where there is only injustice and suffering. In the midst of our comfortable world we enter into the pain and despair of people we will never know lifting up our voices as their voices, praying for healing and justice.

In coming together in our prayer we recite the Psalms that remind us how much bigger our world and our God is than our limited ability to imagine. We come together to stretch our hearts in proclaiming the tremendous joy of the Psalmist in praising the God who is creator, sustainer, source of all life and power. The confines of our flat, gray universe are shattered as we join in a wild, exuberant dance of life and energy celebrating the God who reigns and sustains our universe. Our joy becomes the joy of all who celebrate, hope and come singing to the mountain of the Lord.

When we come together we enter into the world of prayer where the deep hurts and divisions of our community are brought to a truce. Together as we pray the Psalms, the prayers of an ancient community, and the Our Father, the prayer of our Christian community, we experience a tentative reaching out to one another, a holding of hands, the beginnings of healing. We come into prayer as broken people, as the stubborn, stiff-necked people of the desert, the Pharisees who have safely domesticated God, the people who cannot see their own limitations and lack of forgiveness. Here in prayer the people of hardened hearts are given another opportunity to receive a heart of flesh, to forgive and be forgiven. We do it for ourselves, we do it on behalf of people who have no such opportunity to come together, in community, to pray multiple times a day, to have their hearts broken open.

And so the rhythm continues, day after day, year after year. The bell rings, we drop everything, come to the place of prayer and silence. Together we pray ancient words, ancient prayers. We pray for those who cannot pray, for those who have no words. We pray for ourselves, lifting up our brokenness in order that our slow, painful healing may be offered for a hurting world. We pray in joy, present and hoped for, that the world may see a glimpse of the Reign of God breaking into the world.

Together we pray.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Adaptive asceticism for the spiritually unathletic

I have been giving a series of classes recently on the early monks of the desert. The stories of these men women are full of great feats of asceticism. They go into the desert, seek to pray without ceasing, fast, live alone, give up material possessions and fight with inner and outer demons. I point out that although the way of life of these early monastics is clearly ascetic, we need to remember that asceticism comes from the Greek root meaning to train like an athlete. In other words these people weren’t out to intentionally make themselves suffer they were training for the great spiritual journey they were on.

It is with that background that I was struck by the reading of a portion of the Rule of Benedict from the other day. We read a portion of Benedict’s Rule every morning at prayer and a couple of days ago we heard that Benedict said in his monastery there should always be two kinds of cooked food at a meal, plus a generous pound of bread and fresh fruit or vegetables if available. This is important so that if someone cannot one kind of dish then they will be able to eat the other dish.

Suddenly it struck me: where is the fasting, where is the asceticism, the discipline of having to deny our food cravings, our desire for special foods or novelty at meals? Isn’t Benedict just indulging his monks weaknesses rather than demanding the spiritual asceticism demonstrated by these early saints of the desert tradition? Benedict clearly wasn’t calling on his followers to train like these early spiritual athletes. So what did asceticism mean to Benedict?

On reflecting on the contrast between the example of the desert fathers and mothers and what Benedict calls his “little rule for beginners,” an image from junior high school came to mind. Back in the days before rigorous budget cuts for public school education, we all had to take physical education every day. For kids with temporary or permanent physical limitations there was something called “adaptive PE” that was designed to accommodate limitations. Being perfectly able-bodied but completely and totally unathletic I was always somewhat envious of this option and hoped that there could somehow be physical education for us uncoordinated klutzes, some way that we could be physically active without feeling like such misfits amidst the athletes.

Now I think that this may be precisely what Benedict was doing for spiritually challenged athletes, creating an “adaptive” form of asceticism. Most of us could not begin to handle the great feats of asceticism recounted in the stories of St. Anthony of Egypt. We wouldn’t get very far in emulating the stories from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. We would fail in obedience if we were told to just sit in our cell and be silent or to go water a dry stick for weeks. And yet there are those of us who nonetheless want to seek God more deeply, more truly in our lives. This then is the way of life that Benedict sets out. He specifically calls for “nothing harsh and nothing burdensome.” He makes sure that everyone in his monastery gets what they need, enough food, enough clothes, enough support.Benedict created a spiritual way of life that average people could live, a way not for aspiring saints but ordinary people with an extraordinary desire to know God with their whole heart and their whole life.

Today, living in an intentional, celibate community with few possessions or money, a structured day, an emphasis on ministry, may seem quite ascetic to people who are used to a life without anyone imposing limits on them. But the reality is that Benedict’s way is still a way that is not designed for the spiritual athlete. Benedict’s way is for the spiritual coach potato who knows she is being called to more, not to run a spiritual marathon next week but to get up, to move, to make slow and plodding progress on the great adventure of the spiritual journey. Benedict’s way is for those who will come to know what he means when he says: “But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

Friday, July 1, 2011

Monasticism, Young Adults and Building Structures of Faith

Recently I reflected on the fact that many people attracted to Benedictine life today seem to be middle-age seekers. While that is certainly true it isn’t the whole picture by any means. There is a whole set of people who also seem to be finding our monastery in particular and Benedictine spirituality in general to be something that feeds a deep hunger in their souls.

We have always had a trickle of young adults coming to the monastery and that trickle seems to be on its way to a small stream. People come and then they come back and bring their friends. This summer we have had a very good response to our first “Monastic Immersion Program” with several young women participating.

It makes me wonder what appeals to 20 and 30-something women and men who come and spend some time with a group of women who are the age of their grandmothers or great-grandmothers. Our music isn’t the same, most of us think social networking is something that happens at parties and all of us not only remember typewriters but we used them well into adulthood and very few of us even know how to spell much less connect to YouTube. So what is the attraction?

In general younger folks seem to be fascinated by the idea of a whole way of life that is structured around faith and the desire for God. Praying three times a day, having time and space for silence, living simply, being committed to a community, these are all novel and impressive characteristics to younger people. This is appropriate since the life tasks in our 20’s and 30’s are mostly about engaging in the external work of becoming a competent adult in the world. During these decades we need to learn how to handle relationships, work, independence, how to be a competent, self-sufficient adult. In other words we need to build ourselves up and create the inner and outer structures that will allow us to be mature and be successful.

Maybe that is why it seems to be the lifestyle and structure that is so appealing to these youngsters (there comes a point in life when anyone under 40 seems like a youngster!). Patterns and habits are still being set. Common questions involve how do I develop a prayer practice that works for me, how do I hold on to my values if they aren’t shared by my peers, is there a way of life that values faith as central rather than peripheral? And these are all questions and issues that are central to monastic life. Perhaps the genius of monastic life and the reason it has survived for centuries is that it addresses the faith questions of every generation. When we are younger we need structures and common values. When we reach middle age we need the support to undertake the inner journey of dismantling the hard won ego accomplishments of youth. In old age monastic life will help us sort through the struggle to make sense of what our lives have been.

It is wonderful to see a parade of young adults participating in our Benedictine balance of prayer, work and community. Those of us who will still be here when they leave are reminded that we offer an experience and vision of a life focused on God for people of all ages and backgrounds. That is a wonderful experience even for those of us who remember when computers required punch cards.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Monasteries: Schools of Middle-Age Meaning

An interesting thing happened somewhere along the line in recent monastic life. Monasteries seem to have become largely about middle-age. Most of the women who are attracted to our way of life are middle-aged. Most of our retreatants are middle-aged. Most of our oblates are middle-aged. If you throw in the employees and volunteers there might be a little more variety but it would still probably average out to middle age. What on earth is going on?

When most of our sisters entered St. Gertrude’s they were quite young, most of them teen-agers or at most young adults. A few of them still talk about being one of the “old” ones if they entered at the ripe old age of 28 or 29. Now today it is a popular topic to wonder what happened to young people entering community or participating in other ways. So what happened to our “chronological diversity?”

As with most questions it is dangerous to posit an easy or simple answer, but perhaps we have trouble seeing the possibility that just as monasteries have always done we are responding to the needs of the times. Monasteries have never been about just one type of ministry, one way of being community, one way of being monastic. The flexibility and adaptability of Benedictine life has been one of the keys to the survival of monasticism. In the Church prior to Vatican II there was a tremendous need for Catholic education. Young women came to religious life, to St. Gertrude’s, to engage in an important, clear, tangible ministry. If you were a young woman who came to our community in 1960 you pretty much knew that you would serve the Church as a teacher or a nurse. It was a commitment to a life that seemed clear, that had answers, that had a specific ministry, that was set apart from and even above that of other people. This promise would have a great appeal to young people. Youth is about certainty and answers. Heroic self-sacrifice for a common ideal is something that stirs deeply in young hearts.

So what happened? Sisters aged along with the incredible winds of change in the Church and life become less simple, the answers less clear, a depth of understanding and maturity began to be required that had not been before. Ministry became a broader concept than it had been and choices proliferated. Religious life began to speak to new needs, new callings, new hungers. And so the world needs the witness and ministry of monastic life today as much as it did fifty years ago, but witness is of a different kind.

Perhaps that is why we often seem over-run with the middle-aged. Middle-age is the fruitful, scary, disconcerting, exhilarating time of life when everything seems up for grabs. Unlike youth this is not a time of answers or trying on new identities. It is a time when the answers seem to dissolve in your hand like cotton candy on a hot day. Middle age is a time when the mountains of achievement have either been climbed or abandoned and it is time to go deeper, to go inside and look for answers that used to be outside. In middle-age is the time for reflection, questions, wondering, slowing down and evaluating. In the middle of life it is time to look for meaning.

This is where monasteries come in. What is a monastery about if not meaning: deep, profound, fundamental, essential meaning. What is my faith; how do I pray; who is God; how do I love; why do we suffer; the questions of meaning that were ignored and passed by blindly are now huge stumbling blocks that seem to loom suddenly out of nowhere and threaten to hurl us headlong into our fears. But what is the school for the middle-aged, the school of meaning?

Perhaps modern monasteries are the new schools for meaning for the middle-aged. Benedict called his monastery “a school of the Lord’s service” and this is really the same thing. When people come to a monastery they are able to ask and explore the important questions of their life. Monasteries are necessarily not about answers but they are about being able to ask and live with the questions. And wrestling with questions that have no answers is perhaps the hallmark of middle-age.
Looking around the monastery there are lots of middle-aged fellow travelers, people on a new journey to know God and their faith in a new way, people who are beginning to suspect that the old answers and certainties are never coming back. Here at the monastery we just stand by the door and welcome people to the first day at this new kind of school.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Prayer of the Monastic Elders

Recently one of our elder sisters has taken a turn for the worse and it is hard to see her become even more diminished. It struck me though, that all of our elders, despite their challenges, come to prayer with us every day, three times a day. They participate to the extent they are able and we help them participate.

They are an example of an important aspect of monastic prayer, it is prayer to the end, the prayer of endurance, the prayer that continues through diminishment, suffering and letting go. For these elders prayer has become the essence of prayer, it is simply being before God in the presence and with the support of community. For many of them it is now prayer beyond words and concepts, it is the prayer at its most simple and real.

Perhaps this kind of prayer is the ultimate fruit of monastic life. Most of us we are about being busy, priding ourselves on how much we are accomplishing and sometimes being secretly resentful of having to interrupt our day with the call to prayer. But this busyness is an illusion, we think that all this work is really accomplishing something, that we are the important people in the community. But that is the advantage of praying in the midst of community. Those of us who are (relatively!) young and active are allowed to see the example of those whose entire lives have become prayer. They don’t interrupt their days to pray, their being has become prayer.

Our culture tends not to value people who whom it considers marginal, people whose diminishment due to age or disability makes them unable to compete in our work and results centered society. But of course monasteries should be an alternative to that culture. Hopefully we can be at least a small witness to that ultimate, alternative society, the Reign of God. In this Reign of God it is not the obvious people who are central but instead the margins become the center. The people who come closest to manifesting this new society are not the ones with the most degrees, the most important titles or who get the most work done. In this little group of people struggling to make the Reign of God become manifest the people at the center are the ones who look like they are on the margins.

I have a ways to go before I really enter into this new reality. I would rather pray with all my distracted faculties, conscious and aware of what I am praying, or at least conscious of my distraction. There will probably come a time when my prayer is as simple as some of our sisters and someone else will take me to prayer as a new generation prays the same Psalms and the same prayers and someone I’ve never met will give me the Body of Christ. I’m not ready for that yet just as probably none of our sisters ever thought she would be ready. The prayer of diminishment, the prayer of simply being is something that usually comes gradually. And that is appropriate since God’s grace is something that works on us slowly and gradually and it transforms regardless of how hard we work and indeed grace transforms us at the deepest level when we are unable to either resist or cooperate with it. So this is the prayer of our elders, the prayer of presence, the prayer of simply being, the prayer of witness. And this is their gift to us, a gift that if we are all lucky, we too will one day experience.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Liturgical Time - Deep Time

On Sunday we began Holy Week, the liturgical commemoration of the historical events in the last days of the life of Jesus of Nazareth 2,000 years ago. But we also entered into deep time, time that is not chronological, that speaks a truth of events that are re-enacted in our lives in an unconscious way.

The American writer William Faulkner once said: “The past is not dead, it is not even past.” Perhaps this insight is nowhere more true than in Holy Week. We do not just commemorate the historical events of Jerusalem two millennia ago, we become conscious of the ways in which we live out Holy Week in our lives every day.

On Palm Sunday we like to think that we are part of the cheering crowd, standing there waving palms and welcoming Jesus the Messiah into Jerusalem. After all, we think, we would have been among those who understood and supported Jesus from the beginning. It is easy to be caught up in the crowd’s wave of adulation, to be part of the energy of the collective, to ride the tide of excitement and fervor.

But in our monastic celebration for Palm Sunday we follow the traditional practice of reading the account of the Passion on this day. We enter into the excitement of the crowd on Palm Sunday but we look forward to the fickleness of the crowd that will shortly be crying for blood. It is interesting that when the Passion narrative is read in public the part of the crowd is read by those in the pews. Those of us who are spectators at the liturgy once again become the spectators who were there in Jerusalem. And this time we are not on the side of the angels. On this day we become part of the crowd who has turned viciously on Jesus in the space of a few days. We go from adulation to retribution, from palms to cries of blood lust. The tide has turned and we along with it. We are the crowd crying out “crucify him, crucify him!”

What has happened in these few days, what has happened to us? There was a palpable sense of hope in the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Here was the Messiah, the Savior, the one who would make everything right, who would come in triumph to inaugurate a new order. But the new order was one of humility and suffering not power and might. The way would be neither quick nor easy. Then as now we are easily disappointed, we want simple answers and we want them now. Like spoiled children with short attention spans we have no patience for anything but having our way and having it now. The anger and disappointment of the crowd wells up in us still today. We want the easy way, the way of someone else doing the hard work for us. We don’t want the way of the cross.

And so most of us sit in comfortable churches and chapels, the words speak of experiences and emotions that are distant, detached, far from our immediate experience. But perhaps the call of entering into the Passion, entering into the events of this Holy Week, is to experience them as real and present. If we enter into the reality of Holy Week we will see that we are part of both the supportive, cheering crowd and the angry mob crying for violence. We will be the ones who feel the poignant service of foot washing on Thursday. The pain of the torture of crucifixion will be ours on Friday. On Saturday the darkest despair will give way to hope as we pass over from darkness and death to light and life.

The call of this time is to be conscious, to be present, to enter into that deep time that is never past bu always present. We are called to live these stories, to know that they are not part of some long-ago, antiseptic past, but the events of Holy Week constitute the dynamic of our everyday lives. The call is to know that if we are not aware, not awake and conscious we will simply become a part of the angry mob. But if we are aware and awake we can enter into the difficult, painful, joyous and astounding reality of Holy Week as it repeated in the ordinary time of our everyday lives. We will learn to live in the present moment when the Paschal mystery is lived out in each of our lives.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A New Model of Politics

A couple of weeks ago we held an election here at the Monastery. But it was a very different type of election than most of people are used to. No money was spent on campaigns, there were no signs, no angry or even particularly stirring speeches and the election was over when everyone came to agreement and felt good about the process. In most elections in our country it frequently seems like the process brings out the worst in everyone but here at the monastery the process seems to bring out the best in us.

In our community the prioress is elected for a six year term and can be re-elected for another four years. Several months before the election the community begins to prepare through prayer. Every evening for at least a couple of months before the election a special prayer is said by the whole community asking for God’s grace and wisdom for the sister to be elected and for the whole community to be open to the movement of the Spirit.

The election process is formally opened in a ceremony in the chapel by the president of our federation, (a group of affiliated Benedictine monasteries that come together for mutual support and accountability.) This beginning reminds us that all decisions are rooted in prayer and the presence of God. The presence of the federation president and two sisters from other monasteries who will facilitate the election reminds us that we are part of a much greater whole, of all who live this Benedictine way of life.

The process begins with a review of the goals the community had already established in previous meetings. The process moves on to discussing the names of sisters who have gifts that may make them good leaders for the community. This discussion is done at tables, respectfully looking at the qualities of quite a few sisters and how they have gifts to serve the community. This is a process of affirmation, there is no debate about who is better, there is no discussion about why someone isn’t suited for leadership.

Out of a long list of names the sisters whose names have been mentioned most often are asked to prayerfully consider whether they would be willing to serve as prioress. This isn’t the same as asking her whether she wants to be prioress, but whether she can see herself serving in this role at this time. This small group of sisters is given time to think, reflect and pray about their decisions.
Those who are willing to serve are then invited to speak briefly about their leadership style, their gifts and limitations. The community members can then ask clarifying questions. The facilitators work with the sisters who are open to being elected and with the community so that the process is smooth, respectful and peaceful. After everyone has had a chance to speak and questions have been asked community members begin to vote. This process continues in silence until the community comes to “convergence” in selecting a particular sister.

In the final step everyone convenes in the chapel, where the process began, and a formal vote is taken. The process is again grounded in prayer, in the place that is the heart of the community, and chairs are arranged in a circle to symbolize the egalitarian nature of our life. Each sister who is mentally able is invited to submit a ballot. After the voting is finished everyone lines up to hug the newly elected prioress and to offer her their support in the days ahead.

In his Rule Benedict says that the leader should be someone elected on the basis of her “goodness of life and wisdom in teaching.” Desire for the job, ability to make grandiose promises and gifts of inflammatory rhetoric are not part of the qualifications. Being prioress is about the gift of service not the desire for power, it is a humble openness to listen, to help, to call others to be their best selves, for the community to be about the Reign of God. For the community it is a process of being open to see the gifts in one another and willingness to allow someone to exercise those gifts. Everyone in the community knows that in order for this process to work she must be her best self in order to serve as a leader or as one who supports the leader.

In a world where many people have no opportunity for any kind of choice in their governance and many others do not appreciate the choices they have perhaps the Benedictine way can be a model that calls us all to be our best selves as we serve others.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Giving Up Complacency For Lent

So what do monastics, whether monks, nuns or oblates have to give up for Lent? Most of us lead pretty simple lives, not a lot of possessions, a dedication to prayer and faith. I’m reminded of the joke that priests tell, that hearing the confessions of nuns is like being stoned to death by popcorn. No one is going to be startled by our attempts to be more holy. In his chapter on Lent Benedict emphasizes ascetical practices for Lent, giving up extra sleep, adding more prayer, that sort of thing. Personally I’ve never been sure that I end up being that much more holy or even that much more prepared for Lent through these kinds of practices.

I suspect that what I need to give up for Lent is something much more fundamental, much more foundational in my spiritual life. Over the years as I’ve read and re-read the Gospels the more I am convinced that for Jesus one of the most fundamental sins was that of complacency. Over and over in the Gospels most ostensibly holy people, the Pharisees, those who observed God’s commandments in the greatest detail and depth, were the ones that Jesus most often took aim at. The Pharisees were the good, holy people of their society but they took the presence, the action of God in their lives for granted. They did everything right, they did what God asked of them but they ceased to be shocked, amazed, stunned, overwhelmed and surprised by God. They were always in control in their faith lives, they had God all figured out. They were complacent.

In the face of this complacency Jesus came along and stripped, shattered and dismantled all their hard won faith and sense of control. Jesus shattered the safe, comfortable faith world of the Pharisees. He said that God cannot be taken for granted, God’s love and grace are meant to shock us and knock us flat on our backside every time we encounter them, day after day. What the novelist Flannery O’Connor described could easily apply to the message of Jesus: "When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."

I won’t assume to speak to the experience of anyone else, Lent and conscience are very personal things. But I know that I tend to wince pretty hard when I encounter the Gospels and the self-satisfaction of the Pharisees. My faith journey tends to become nice and even and well paved, it is easy to coast or to assume that my hard work is the work of transformation rather than just the daily work that needs to be done. I find it easy to become the complacent Pharisee keeping God safely in a box.

So perhaps my Lenten challenge will be to cultivate a renewed sense of the power of God’s presence in my life. Thankfulness, awareness of the gift of God’s presence ought to cause me to tremble down to my toes. The knowledge of how deeply and indiscriminately I and all people are loved by God should take my breath away every time I think of it. The reality of grace is something that should knock me over every time I realize the wonder of the gift.

Perhaps this is the real gift of Lent, the gift of the ashes of Wednesday. Our repentance is not for the trivial sins that characterize most of our lives but for the big sin of taking God for granted. May our asceticism, our penance and our awareness during this season truly lead to the intense joy of Easter, the startling gift of God’s presence in our lives.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


How do we feel about silence? Is it a welcome gift or something that evokes a deep uneasiness? Silence is such a rare commodity in our society and our lives it is possible that we haven’t experienced enough silence to really know how we feel about it.

Silence has always been a deeply monastic value. In the stories of the early desert fathers and mothers silence is one of the principle practices of their life, the rush of words and noise one of the things these early monastics sought to flee. They knew that silence is an integral part of the difficult journey toward transformation, the central metanoia of the Christian life.

It is clear that Benedict assumed that silence would pervade monastic practices. He taught that speech was to be the exception, that monks would speak as they needed to, mindfully, aware of what they were doing rather than unconsciously and constantly. Silence and awareness go hand in hand for Benedict. Without chatter the monks could reflect on why and how they were living their life. Silence is an antidote to unconscious and routine activity and busyness of our daily life.

In the last few months here at the Monastery we have revived the practice of “Recollection Sundays.” These are days of silence from Saturday evening Vigils to Sunday Evening Prayer there is silence in the house and a chance to open a space, a time for reflection and renewal. It can be a hard wake-up call to help us realize that even in a monastery there is an inordinate amount of chatter, noise, busyness. An occasional day of silence may simply be the invitation to awareness of how little silence we all have in our lives.

We have to be honest that silence can also be intimidating. There is a comfort in noise and activity. Silence forces to be aware of what is going on in our lives, deep in our hearts and we may not like what we see. The sharp edges, the shallowness, laziness, anger, and a host of other sharp-tongued demons have a way of manifesting themselves in the silence.

But God is also in the silence, whispering softly beneath the cacophony of our internal chatter. Perhaps God whispers in silence wanting us to stop and strain to hear. Most of us have spiritual attention deficit disorder; we can’t focus or sit still or listen without a great struggle. But fortunately God gives us the gift of silence, a gift that requires practice and patience but one that will root and blooms in our soul.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Monastic 24-Hour Buffet in a Spiritually Hungry World

People today are spiritually hungry. That insight has almost become a cliché. We know it, we say it, but what are we doing about it? If we aren’t careful we are in danger of being like the people that the Letter of James warns about, walking by the hungry and naked while encouraging them to be warm and well fed. Monasteries especially might need to be careful to look at whether we are hoarding food in the midst of a famine.

So what is the purpose of a monastery? What are these places of prayer, silence and community doing in our increasingly fast-paced, individualistic and secular world? What is the meaning of this odd, counter-cultural place and way of life? Monasteries today are not well known or understood. People often seem to think a monastery is a place for the spiritually elite to escape from the world or simply an anachronism from the middle ages.

But perhaps the purpose of monasteries is something that both our hurting world and the declining numbers of monastics need to look at. A monastery is not just about the small number of people who live there and take vows. A monastery is salt, light and leaven in a dark, flat and tasteless world. A monastery is a dynamic center for the spiritual journey, a place of hope and prayer. The monastery is provides support and community for people who are called by God to go deeper in their faith, in their relationship with God. Today monasteries are called to be all night buffets in a spiritually starving world.

Monasteries have always been places for people who have felt a call to put God before all else in their lives. Monastic life has always been centered around God, a life of prayer and service in the context of community. Both in the past and still today this monastic way has been seen as something where only a few could dedicate their life in a company of a small group of others. Monastics have traditionally been seen as a hidden, spiritually elite few.

A monastery is a collection of people, whether sisters, monks or oblates, who commit themselves to put God at the center of their lives. They aren’t people who have perfect spiritual lives, people who don’t struggle and sometimes feel like their relationship with God is in need of some relationship counseling. Monastics are simply people who are committed to the spiritual journey above all else.

Today our ministry as monastics is changing. Monasteries have always been of service, in the Dark Ages providing hospitality and learning in the chaos of the time. More recently many monastic communities have provided services in education and health care. But today those of us who are monastics need to share not just what we do but who we are on a deep level. We need to share the banquet of our spiritual life. It is time to open the doors to our banquet table through retreats, spiritual direction, expanded ideas of membership, forming people in their relationship with God.

It is a time of famine in our land, a time of darkness when all food has lost its savor and lies flat and unleavened on our tables. Into this time of starvation the monasteries of the world need to throw open their storehouses, reveal their light and become a salty, yeasty presence on the banquet tables of the world. Where there is spiritual hunger the monasteries need to become the 24 hour buffet table to feed a world that does not always even recognize its hunger for God.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Future of Religious Life and God’s Preferential Option for the Motley

It is popular today for people inside and outside of the Catholic Church to wring hands about the future of religious life. The number of religious is decreasing, the average age is increasing, fewer men and women are entering religious life to become sisters, brothers, priests. The word crisis is used frequently and a lot of ink is spilled about what to do and what it all means. But perhaps the lens through which we need to look at this “problem” is Scripture.

A number of years ago the Catholic bishops of Latin America said that it is clear from Scripture that God has a “preferential option for the poor.” I suspect that there is an even larger principle at work if we look deeply into how God works in history and the lives of people. God seems to have a preferential option not just for the poor, but also the motley, the unworthy and unexpected. People who seem to be at the top of the social pyramid according to the standards of the world seldom appear as key characters in salvation history.

If you look at key people in the Bible you see people like Sarah who was old and barren with some denial issues, Moses was a cowardly, stuttering murderer, David a murdering adulterer, Mary an unwed teenage mother, Peter, impetuous, cowardly and clueless, Paul had a serious anger management problem, and the list goes on. God doesn’t choose the people who have it all together to change the world. Indeed it seems that God prefers people with significant limitations through whom God can demonstrate divine power and transformation.

If this is the case then there may be hope for religious life. According to the world’s way of looking at things religious life is in trouble. But perhaps according to a divine plan this may be a time of God working to bring about something new and unexpected. Such an idea definitely seems crazy enough to work. Religious are a small group of increasingly elderly people who have intentionally given up a lot of what society thinks is important, family, money, autonomy, and chosen to live at the margins, focused on God above all, living a life of faith.

As people of the margins perhaps we can see more clearly and have something unique to offer from our vantage point. When we look around and see the motley crew that makes up each of our communities we also see that throughout history small groups of religious have made a disproportionate difference in society. Spreading the good news of the gospel, providing education, establishing health care systems, bringing about social change, demonstrating what it means to seek God in everyday life, these are all gifts of religious. These are the gifts of ordinary people who are far from perfect (a fact to which their sisters and brothers in community will readily attest) who have banded together to do extraordinary things by relying on the power of God rather than being an elite group of the powerful. Religious are people who can readily identify with the Apostle Paul who said “my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

So perhaps the reports of the demise of religious life are somewhat premature. This may be a time for a necessary demise of some aspects of religious life. This may be a time for the death of complacency, for the end of a reliance on large numbers, security and easy answers. The future of religious life may be about embracing the difficult paradox of faith, that limited, motley, unexpected people are often or even usually the one’s God chooses. The future of religious life may involve a tremendous freedom of having nothing to lose, of being able to risk new exciting things since the world seems to think we are dying anyway. Perhaps the members of religious life need to say that if everyone is so sure that we are dying then at the very least we can go out in a blaze of glory, creating new visions and new ways of building the Reign of God. Perhaps the future of religious life means embracing the reality that as religious we may finally be marginal enough, motley enough, small and powerlessness enough to truly be instruments of God’s radical healing of the world. After all, it is only through death that resurrection comes.