Friday, November 30, 2012

How to be a monk – Lesson three: Balance



It is possible that there are some people today who don’t dream about having a more “balanced” life but I don’t think I’ve met any of them.  The longing for “balance” seems to be a deep, heartfelt theme for many people.  Many of these people also see balance as an integral part of Benedictine life and spirituality.
I wonder whether people have taken much time (have much time?) to really think through what this “balanced” life would look like.  Perhaps for many people it is simply being less out of control, having a little more time for God and family and being less consumed with work and busyness.

All of these are very worthy goals but are they really Benedictine, monastic goals?  Benedict never uses the word balance in his Rule and if we look closely at the schedule he sets out for his monks we would probably blanch.  Benedict has his monks pray eight times a day, do two to three hours of individual prayer (lectio) every day as well as work in the field, do kitchen duty and all the various chores that make up everyday life.  Basically Benedict had his monks praying most of the day, either in chapel or in their private prayer times.  Most modern people are not looking for a “balanced” life that looks like the extreme prayer schedule of Benedict’s monastery.

But perhaps as modern people we miss the point of what Benedict was trying to do.  Benedict created an outward structure in the monastery in which people had to drop everything, interrupt their busy day and go to prayer eight times a day.  He had them devote prime hours of the day to their personal prayer.  Life in Benedict’s monastery was about constantly interrupting daily activities in order to prayer.  What was the result for his monks of this constant interruption day after day, year after year?  Perhaps eventually the habit of prayer would become so internalized in his monks that everything became prayer.  Eventually monks would no longer need to go to chapel to pray, they would no longer need to have scheduled times of lectio to have their personal prayer.  They would still do it, but the monks would come to see all of life as a constant prayer, a continual attitude of awareness of the presence of God.

Perhaps this is the true nature of Benedictine balance.  Balance isn’t about more time for things we like or even more time for prayer and God, it is about a life in which faith and our awareness of the presence of God permeates absolutely everything we do.  Balance is who we are, people who are aware of God in everyone we meet, everything we do, in all our thoughts, words and actions.

Balance is indeed a gift of Benedictine spirituality today, but it is a gift of living a life in which there is no longer a distinction between God, faith and the rest of our lives.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

How to be a monk: Lesson Two – The Journey



Do you ever wonder what the purpose of your life is, where you are going?  At the beginning of Benedict’s Rule (his guidebook for monks) he uses the phrase: “let us set out on this way with the Gospel for our guide.”  In that brief phrase he captures a tremendous amount of wisdom.

We are all on a journey.  Many, perhaps most of us, spend a lot of time blithely putting one foot in front of the other without any real thought of destination beyond the next meal, paycheck, crisis or other immediate, concrete goal.  But often there comes a point in life when something hits us upside the head and we start to wonder about the deeper meaning and point to our life.  We wonder what life is really all about, whether there is a meaning that we have neglected to consider or that we have been oblivious to.

These are precisely the questions that Benedict answers in his Rule.  He is writing for Christians who want to follow the Gospel as a way of life, people who want their faith to inform all aspects of their life, who want their faith to be more than abstract belief or ethical behavior.  Benedict writes a guidebook for people who want the Gospel to permeate all aspects of their lives, who want to listen to what Benedict calls “God’s delightful voice.”

So what is the nature of this journey?  First we have to consciously begin, to set out.  This sounds simple enough but it is a radical step.  To set out on the spiritual journey means that we can no longer take our faith for granted, it can no longer be something that we dabble in or think about once in a while.  The journey is a journey to consciousness.  We seek to become aware of God’s presence in our life at all times and in all ways.  When we set out on this journey we can no longer compartmentalize our faith, putting it in a box that is separate from work, family, leisure and the many concerns of our life.  When we decide to set out on this way we have to look at every aspect of life from the perspective of the Gospel.

But fortunately we have support on this journey.  Benedict assumes that we don’t do this alone, we will be with others and as community we will make the journey together.  We have a road map, Benedict’s Rule, guidebook, is eminently practical and inspiring.  We don’t have to blaze our own trail we read a map that has been used by many generations.  And we walk in the company of the monks who have gone before us and shown us that the journey is possible.

Perhaps it is time: are you ready to set out on this way, the Gospel for your guide?

Monday, November 12, 2012

How to be a monk: Lesson One – Listening



What is a monk?  Above all a monk is someone who listens.  In a world flooded with nattering, chattering, vacuous noise the monk listens deeply and responds fully.  Monastic listening is rooted and grounded in silence, in the place where we let go of the many competing voices and demands of our lives and find a place to hear the voice of God that is heard in silence.

The call to be a monk may first manifest itself in a desire to listen or a realization of how rarely most of us actually listen.  The noise of our lives is pervasive.  There are jobs to go to, children to care for, spouses to pay attention to.  If that isn’t enough the cacophony of the internet, smart phones, television, all the screens in our lives compete for our attention and scream with distractions.

And most of us are happily distracted.  We secretly glory in our busyness, we’re delighted to have one more excuse to avoid the hard work in front of us.  The hard work may be jobs or family or it may be something even deeper.  Listening is hard work but it is the foundation of soul work.

In listening we begin to hear our deepest desires, those secret hopes that we may be afraid to articulate.  In deep listening we hear our desires to be loved, to have meaning, to care for others.  In listening we hear the whispers of God beckoning us to follow our desires to the place where we can all become whole.

St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism began his guidebook on the monastic way with these words: “Listen my child to the master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”  Many people are called to be monks, to seek God above all else in their lives, and listening with the ear of the heart is the first step.

Perhaps it is time: Listen.  Be silent.  Be open.  What is your heart saying?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Art and Monasticism

September seems to be a season for the arts here at the Monastery. We are privileged to have 6 artists, writers and filmmakers joining us for the first ever “Artist Residency” program. Today we welcome back the Gonzaga University Choir for a concert. The arts are everywhere!

At first there doesn’t seem to be much connection between art and monasticism. But by bringing the arts into this sacred space the intersection between people living a life focused on God and the lives of those who are focused on creativity begins to become clear.

Those of us who are monastics lives a simple, disciplined life focused on God. All aspects of monastic life are structured to allow us to make faith the focus of our lives. We order our lives in such a way that we can focus our energy on being open to God’s re-creating, transformative power. We live simply, in community, sharing all our resources and creating structured, consistent time for prayer and contemplation.

 Perhaps the life of the artist, writer, musician is not so different. For people serious about their creative work there is a monastic asceticism as they structure their life around their discipline. To enter deeply into any kind of art means to sacrifice other things. An artist isn’t one who dabbles occasionally but is the person who is drawn, even driven to create, to bring something new to birth. The artist is a person of vision and vision requires discipline, sacrifice, commitment to be made real.

Both monks and artists of all types are drawn, perhaps driven, by the transcendent. Whether the force that beckons them on is named God or is a more personal vision, it is always something beyond, something that transcends the complacent here and now where many people seem content to dwell. Both prayer and creativity are expressions of a primal feeling that there is something more, something that may be hard to express or articulate but powerful and compelling. In prayer and creativity we are drawn to enter the deep realization of trying to express our deepest longings, joys, fears and insights. In prayer and creativity we take the risk of opening ourselves up, of listening, of being transformed and offering our gifts on behalf of the world.

So today and in these weeks the monastics of St. Gertrude’s are given the gift of sharing our way of life. The musicians and artists join us for prayer and Eucharist. We are able to give of ourselves by offering space and the sharing of who we are. And in this mutual gift giving something new is being born as together we are witnesses to what it means to live lives focused on the transcendent.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Living Holy Week Every Week

I think it would be easier if Holy Week was just about historical events. I mean seeing the events of 2000 years ago in Jerusalem as a history lesson is still powerful. We read about the high hopes of the crowd and the disciples as they enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, on Good Friday we feel the agony of crushed hopes and suffering, on Easter Sunday we enter into the unknown of an empty tomb. But even in our liturgies it is easy to do all this from a distance, as if we were watching a movie, seeing this week as something that happened long ago and far away.

But I realized something this year at our Palm Sunday celebration here at the Monastery. This year didn’t look new, it was the same gathering in the hallway with palms, the same singing as we processed into chapel singing, the same reading of the passion and once again I missed the memo that went out for everyone to wear red. On the surface everything looked the same as it does every year. But something shifted in how I understood what this week means.

The events of this week are a microcosm of our monastic life, probably a microcosm of everyone’s faith life. It starts on Palm Sunday when everything is new, exciting and full of hope and possibility. For those of us who entered monastic life this is the time when it feels like our life is about to be fulfilled. Like Jesus riding in on the donkey there is a sense of paradox, this isn’t about a triumphant entry on a white horse. We have entered a monastery after all. We’ve given up a lot to just get here, to enter the doors with our vastly whittled down collection of motley belongings. But what anticipation, what a sense of call and faith to finally be here! The crowds wave palms and shout hosanna, people greet us and welcome us into a new adventure. The sisters look at us as the crowd looked at Jesus, full of promise, full of projected hopes for their idea of what we should do and be.

Then there is an interval of sinking into everyday life. The Passover will be different this year with Jesus but Passover comes every year. Even as someone enters monastic life there are still chores to do, prayers to go to, a new role to adjust to. There is normalcy in the midst of anticipation and newness.

And so Holy Thursday comes. Jesus introduces his frequently clueless disciples to the reality of service. His ministry isn’t about glory or power it is about taking the role of a servant, demonstrating a new reality of upended expectations and the foreshadowing of suffering to come. So too in monastic life the reality sinks in that this isn’t really what we expected. This isn’t the Disneyland version of monasticism, this is real life. People aren’t always nice. We become aware that we are often the people that aren’t nice. The darkness and shadow side emerges. Serving others isn’t easy, it’s messy, it’s frustrating, it doesn’t end. The excitement of the entry into Jerusalem, into the monastery is over, a new, disconcerting reality is taking over.

The time of Holy Week is linear, it is symbolic time where events clearly fall one after another. In real time, in monastic time it isn’t always straight-forward. But Good Friday comes. Jesus enters into the stripping of hope, of expectation, of rescue. Here is the point when the only reality is suffering and torture, the only feeling is abandonment and pain. In monastic life the suffering will come in its own time. It comes in the disconcerting early days of transition, being stripped of one identity, of a previous sense of accomplishment and competence and the vulnerability of a new way of being. It will come around again in sickness, old age, unexpected reversals. Jesus’ anguished cries of abandonment won’t be an historical event they will be a shared reality.

The transition always comes in the night. In deepest darkness, in the place of no hope, when there are no answers, no light, the new fire is lit. At the Easter Vigil we gather in chapel, read the stories of salvation history and light the new fire which is the coming of Christ, the light and life, into our darkness, into our lives. In our monastic lives there are times when a small spark will light a new fire, when we are also able to sing: “lumen Christi, light of Christ.” Something happens in the life-long commitment to this monastic way of life. There is a transition to new life, we bend over, see that the tomb is empty and finally understand. New life isn’t quite what we expect, it happens in God’s way, in God’s time and not our own. Resurrection is a new way of seeing, a new way of being in the world. Resurrection is not resuscitation, it isn’t going back to how everything was before, it is a hope beyond comprehension, a trust that God will act. The light is God’s light not our own.

This is monastic resurrection. When the light comes there are still chores to do, difficult people to live with, prayer to be distracted during. But now there is a new foundation, a new reality, a new way of being, God is present in a new way and we can live in a hope we don’t fully understand, we walk in a light that we see with faith and not our eyes. In the days of resurrection this monastic life is truly life giving and our light is for the world.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Benedict and the Unmentionable Topic

OK, it is time to speak of the unspeakable. When I first came to the monastery I noticed something very odd and frankly rather disturbing. I first saw it working in the archives. For a while I was working on scanning old obituaries. I noticed that it seemed like whoever wrote them had an obsession with death. The obituaries didn’t tend to say a lot about the life of the sister but rather seemed to dwell on how she died. Interestingly enough everyone apparently died a wonderful, happy death full of faith, just waiting to leap into the arms of God. Admittedly I am cynical by nature but I thought “yeah, right!” When I entered the community I certainly didn’t have much experience of death or dying but I knew that there was nothing nice about death even if you were a person of great faith. I thought these sisters were either seriously na├»ve or had some strange, romantic idea of death.

Well it is now fifteen years later and I have seen quite a few sisters die and even written a few obituaries (although none of them described anyone’s death). That, together with the fact that today we are celebrating the death of St. Benedict our founder, makes it seem like a good time to reflect on a subject that is unmentionable in our society, namely death.

We live in an odd society that seems to have no trouble talking about sex, the beginning of life, but seems unable to talk about the other constant in life which is death. If someone were to drop in on our planet, at least on the developed world, they would probably think we were either massively deluded, massively in denial or just plain dense. We spend huge amounts of money on health care for people in the last days of their life, as if somehow with enough extraordinary measures the person will not eventually die anyway. The industry of death, mortuaries and related services, seem to be based on a fundamental need to deny reality with making everyone seem “life-like” without any sense of irony. Even the awful trauma of violent, unexpected death of all sorts is treated with a sense that it should never happen, as if we all have a fundamental right to be free of death in general or at least certainly from violent or traumatic death.

So where does Benedict fit into all this? According to tradition Benedict died on this day, March 21st, in the year 547 which was Holy Thursday. In the only source we have about his life, by Gregory the Great, he is depicted as foreseeing the moment of his own death and then he goes to prayer one last time before “…supporting his weakened body on the arms of his brethren, he stood with his hands raised to heaven and, as he prayed, breathed his last.” This tradition then led to Benedict being a patron of a “happy death.” And to commemorate this event the modern followers of Benedict celebrate him (and his death) today with readings that talk about his glorious passing into eternal life.

So which is it? Is death something horrible, to be denied and resisted at all costs? Is there such a thing as a “happy death? Are those the only two choices, complete denial or Disney-esque romanticism?

Perhaps an honest look at Benedict’s death might provide a third way. Even in the 6th century account Benedict’s death can’t be mistaken for “happy.” As soon as he predicts his death he was said to be overtaken by a terrible fever which completely sapped his strength. He had to be held up by his monks at community prayer for the last time. Death did not come easily, but in weakness and dependence. Benedict didn’t welcome death with open arms, he simply saw it coming and accepted it in faith. There was neither fear nor denial, simply an open recognition that death is no easier than life, but we are born in hope and we die in hope. Neither birth nor death is easy, they involve suffering and pain but both are enfolded in hope of new life, on earth or after this earth. For Benedict, for all believers, death is an end and a beginning. It is not to be resisted at all costs and it is not to be embraced before it is time. Death will not be easy or pain free or fair. It is simply what happens and the best we can hope for is to die in the midst of our community while praying to be received into the arms of our new community, the life-giving Trinity of love. So perhaps today we remember Benedict as the patron saint for accepting death with grace, with hope, with peace.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lent, joy and the heebie-jeebies

Our life should be a continual Lent. Is that a scary thought? I have to admit that the idea tends to give me the heebie-jeebies. Lent often seems to be overlaid with a lot of artificial asceticism and guilt and these are not the attributes I want to characterize my life. But in the Benedictine Rule which we follow Benedict said the life of a monk should be a continuous Lent. Fortunately the idea isn’t quite as off-putting as it first sounds.

Benedict devotes one entire chapter to the observance of Lent. And while he does strongly urge giving up something for Lent, he also says something very interesting about why we should do this. The purpose of Lent is to “look forward to Easter with joy and holy longing.” (RB 49:7) Now there’s an interesting concept, Lent is about joy and holy longing, and not guilt. Frankly that’s a relief because for me giving up things often just leads to failure and guilt. Instead, Benedict implies that the extra disciplines are simply designed to sharpen my sense of anticipation, of deep longing to experience the transformative power of God in my life. Lent is like anticipating a big event by marking off days on a calendar knowing that something wonderful is coming.

These practices of Lent are reminders that Easter is not simply a given, it is not something we can take for granted or be complacent about. By setting aside Lent as a sacred, anticipatory time we will experience Easter as the always new, always unmerited, always transforming gift of God’s grace in our lives. In other words whether or not I even try to give up something this Lent the practice and the anticipation will be about joy and longing.

There is something rather innocent about this attitude toward Easter. It brings to mind the simple excitement of small children anticipating Christmas. For small children the big event hasn’t yet been overlaid with obligation, pressure and guilt, it is still just a wonderful, magical gift. But as we mature we lose our sense of wonder about Easter just as we did with Christmas. We know how the story will end. The emptiness of the tomb evokes a yawn rather than trembling and wonder. Most of us are no longer capable of the earth shattering awe that is the essence of Easter. For most adults Lent has no sense of joyous anticipation but is a rather morbid dirge of sacrifice and asceticism. Perhaps a Benedictine Lent calls forth a peeling away of the attitudes keep us anaesthetized from the true feeling of Lent. Perhaps Lent is an excited anticipation of joy, a deep, wonderful aching for the ultimate gift of new life at Easter. Perhaps life as a continual Lent is a calling that all Christians, inside and outside the monastery, can embrace as we all “look forward to Easter with joy and holy longing.”

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Confession When Everybody Already Knows What You’ve Done


A weekly commentary on the Rule of Benedict: The Fifth Step of Humility (RB 7:44-48)

“The fifth step of humility is that we do not conceal from the prioress/abbot any sinful thoughts entering our hearts, or any wrongs committed in secret, but rather confess them humbly.”

In Benedict’s fifth step on the ladder of humility he says that we have to disclose our sinful thoughts and wrongs we have done to the abbot or prioress. My gut reaction whenever I read this is always “no way!” But my second reaction is to remember a quote I read from an abbot of a Trappist monastery who described community life by saying “we walk around naked.” Obviously no one was physically naked but when people live together in close proximity year after year, there are no secrets. This reality changes what it means to confess thoughts or actions to the abbot or prioress.

My first reaction may be that I don’t want to tell the prioress all the thoughts that are going through my head or the various actions that I’m not proud of but if I am honest I have to admit it isn’t likely I can tell her anything that she (and the whole community!) doesn’t already know. I tend to imagine the prioress responding: “yeah, what else you got?” when I think I am telling her some deep, dark secret. The point and purpose of this disclosure is much deeper.

Several things happen in this process of speaking out loud things that come from within. When I come before the prioress I am consciously stripped of my illusion that I have it together, my illusion that no one is going to notice my short-comings. I am also stripped of my illusion that I am alone on this journey and that everything is up to me. To say out loud what is deep in my heart, especially when it involves things that I don’t like about myself, is to create a new, transformed reality. This stripping of illusions is the basis for humility, creating room for God in my heart.

It is easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we have it together, that since everyone else has the same issues mine don’t really matter. I can get caught in a trap of saying that all my faults are just peccadilloes and the prioress really has better things to listen to. The reality is that one of the most profound things we can experience is to be vulnerable before someone and experience the reality that we are still loved despite what we may have done, said or thought. Without the action of actually saying what is going on in our head and having someone hear it with love, we don’t change, we simply re-run the same thoughts, actions, patterns on our mental hamster wheel without ever changing. To come before someone and say out loud what we would rather not face is the beginning of change.

This disclosure of thoughts is also a correction to the feeling that many of us have that somehow our spiritual growth is entirely up to us. Our culture tends to reinforce the idea that each of us is autonomous and responsible for our own fate. Benedict’s ladder of humility is a reminder that while we are responsible for ourselves we are also responsible for one another. This in turn means that I have support on the journey. The prioress listens not to chastise or punish but to remind each sister that she does not walk this path alone but is supported by an entire community. Benedict has his monks talk to the abbot, we talk to the prioress, to be reminded that we are not alone. When we walk this path together we all share each others burdens and the joys.

Perhaps the most profound lesson for humility in this step is how things change when we say them out loud. Reality changes when words are spoken out loud. Our deepest fears, joys, feelings of guilt or happiness, change when we express them. Joy that is shared expands in the telling. Shame that is exposed to the light of day in the telling begins to dissipate. Thoughts and actions that are shared with the prioress in love take on a new shape. They begin to form the soil of humility, the soil of transformation.

Benedict’s admonitions have an application far beyond any monastic community. We are called to share deeply of our thoughts and actions with someone we trust. It is in risking, trusting, speaking and listening that we open our hearts and cultivate the soil of humility in our lives.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Do we own our stuff or does it own us?

I have been developing a theory that our stuff multiplies at night when we’re not watching. OK, so it isn’t a particularly rational theory, but admit it, how often do you look around and say “where did all this stuff come from!?”

This seems to be a universal problem in the developed world. No one seems to be immune from the plague of ever expanding piles of possessions. It is especially scary that even for those of us who live in monasteries stuff has a way of accumulating, multiplying and taking up all the space that we allot for it. Even monks and nuns aren’t immune from the tentacles of stuff.

St. Benedict, the founder of monastic life in the west, lived long before the era of cheap, disposable goods. But even in the 6th century when he wrote his rule for monks, he knew the dangers of accumulation. Although Benedict is generally very flexible and pragmatic about monastic life he takes a particularly hard line on the subject of possessions (the polite word for “stuff”). He says “….without an order from the abbot [leader of the monastery], no one may presume to give, receive 3or retain anything as his own, nothing at all—not a book, writing tablets or stylus—in short, not a single item, 4especially since monks may not have the free disposal even of their own bodies and wills. Rule of Benedict chapter 33:2-4

Unlike modern people Benedict wasn’t just worried that his monks would run out of room for their stuff, he knew that the danger was much deeper and more insidious. He knew that our possessions change how we think. The more we own the less freedom we have. Our belongings start to control our lives. Pretty soon we think we “need” all kinds of things. Next, our life is oriented towards accumulating those things that we have convinced ourselves we can’t live without. We need to work harder, make more money, spend more time shopping for all the belongings that we “have to have” or that we simply want in order to make us feel better. Before long we need more space for our possessions, we spend all kinds of time caring for them, maintaining them, sorting through them, cleaning them, getting rid of them, worrying about them. In other words pretty soon we don’t own stuff, it owns us.

When our stuff starts to own us, rather than vice versa, we have lost a fundamental sense of freedom. For Christians and other people of faith there is a fundamental freedom in knowing and experiencing the reality that everything, our very lives, are a gift from God. Ultimately, as Benedict reminds his monks, we don’t own anything, all that we think we own is really a gift that we don’t necessarily or even particularly deserve. If we are able to truly embrace this reality then there is a paradoxical freedom. If we aren’t entitled to anything, much less a house full of stuff, then we can begin to be grateful. Instead of complaining, feeling empty, focused on what we want, we can begin to just appreciate the gift of our most basic and fundamental possessions. Most of us live in houses that are palatial by the world’s standards. We feast at vast banquets every day. We have hot, running water on demand. Automobiles take us wherever we want to go, whenever we want to go. And those are just the material possessions.

Even those of us who live the contemporary monastic way of life don’t live up to Benedict’s strict standards. We don’t own a lot (we don’t have enough room to accumulate a lot!) but we do have personal possessions. But we do make a commitment to struggle with the siren song of stuff. In the monastery our temptations may not be much different from those outside the monastery but by living in community with a common commitment to a simple life centered on God, we can perhaps accumulate less stuff and become less enmeshed in its grip. Monastic life is a chance to begin to divest ourselves of a sense of entitlement. We have to take a cold, hard look at what we really need and not just what we want. It isn’t easy, one person’s “want” is another person’s “need.” But hopefully our common struggle is a witness that if we begin to disentangle ourselves from the tentacles of our possessions there is a possibility for a life of freedom, gratitude and peace, a reward that seems more than worth the cost of a lot of stuff. When we begin to really divest ourselves of our sense of entitlement, when we reach a place where we can just give thanks for what we have, then perhaps that is the place where transformation really begins.