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.