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.

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