Monday, February 18, 2013

How to be a Monk: The Surprise of Lent

Most people probably think that being a monk is very hard.  And since most people associate Lent with a rather dour season of sacrifice and penance, it would seem that being a monk during Lent is especially hard.  Our friend Benedict seems to reinforce this picture with the first phrase from his chapter on the observance of Lent:  “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent.”  So,  is anybody else depressed and ready to become a Unitarian (at least during Lent)? (RB 49:1)

Of course you have to watch out for Benedict, he can be tricky.  While his chapter on Lent has plenty of expected asceticism, with fasting, prayer and giving up, there is also a surprise.  The surprise is what underlies the reason for these Lenten practices.  Why does Benedict have his monk take on extra disciplines?

The answer is that Lent is about joy.  No, really, Benedict does have both oars in the water.  Just think about it.  Lent is a preparation for Easter, the event that is the summit and ultimate meaning of our faith, that Christ has conquered death and led us into new life.  Now that is something to be rejoice in.

So perhaps Lent isn’t about wallowing in our sins, especially since most of us don’t need a lot of encouragement to think badly about ourselves, nor is it about feeling virtuous because we managed to give up Facebook for 40 days (or at least a couple of days).  Perhaps the meaning of Lent comes from what Benedict talks about when he tells his monks “… to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times.” 

The “negligences” that most of us are prone to aren’t necessarily the fact that we drink coffee, eat chocolate, forget to prayer regularly, or the other traditional areas we focus on, perhaps we are negligent in our lack of joy.  Do we feel a deep-seated, profound joy at the coming of Easter?  During this Lent we can work on what keeps us from focusing on the most important aspects of our faith life.  What keeps us from joy, from love, from wonder, from passion?

The practices of Lent are designed to re-kindle the earth shattering reality of our faith.  We are invited to re-experience the transformative power of God’s love for us.  We are challenged to be shaken to our depths that we are people who stand at the empty tomb and whose lives will never be the same.

As Benedictine monastics what practices will help us shake off our negligences and re-awaken our joy this season?

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?