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.