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.