Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Rule of Benedict -- Stability

Stability
Stability is a virtue that is at odds with our culture.  We want it all and we want it “yesterday.”  With microwaves, high-speed Internet, email and instant everything, we have lost the ability to be patient and wait.   In my own life, this impatience often manifests itself in expecting a same-day response to an email sent in the morning. (Update: This impatience also manifests itself in expecting an immediate response to a new Facebook status or link.)

Monastic stability consists of centeredness, commitment and relationships (Chittister, Wisdom 150).

To be centered is to have our center focused on something larger than ourselves – to be where God is and to know that God is where we are.  Recently I wrote a poem that describes my own longing for centeredness.
  
Looking for You

I climb a ladder to reach you,
Deep inside my spirit.

The night stars twinkle,
Dazzling light illumines the way.

I reach out my hand,
My fist grasps only air.

You can’t live long without it.

Empty rooms beckon,
I fill them with comfortable words.

Hold me close by your side,
Hold me in your light.

I eat and drink.
You fill me with nourishing hope,
Fill me with delight.

I flounder in the darkness,
Why won’t I remove the blindfold?

I Search.
And you cannot be found.

I Surrender.
And your presence surrounds me.


The last couplet, especially, points to the need to be still, to stop the frenetic activity and allow ourselves to experience the God who has been present all along.

Centeredness is what enables us to weather the changes in life over which we have no control.  This is reflected in the philosophy of twelve-step recovery groups.  Step One reads, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (or any other addictive or problem condition) – and that our lives had become unmanageable.”  Step Two adds: “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”  Step Three continues, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.”  It is that centeredness in something larger than our problems that helps us overcome them.

The next element of stability is commitment.  Commitment is another value that does not mesh with the prevailing values of our culture.  So much of our life is disposable or interchangeable.  We tend to quit when things get tough.  Commitment – sticking it out during the tough times – gives us the opportunity to learn about ourselves and the opportunity to grow.

Committed people are those who strive to be pure of heart – to be the ones who can see God wherever they look.   I wrote the following poem in response to a discussion about the "pure of heart."

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God
In every one and every thing.

In the young and in the old,
In the poor and in the rich,
In the light and in the shadow,
In the heavens and on the earth.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God
In every one and every thing.

In the trees and in the soil,
In sickness and in health,
In joy and in sorrow,
In life and in death.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God
In every one and every thing.


Being able to see God in everyone and everything gives us the ability to respectfully listen to one another because we are responding to the presence of God in each other.  This seems easy as long as we confine this requirement to listening to those whom we like or with whom we agree.  The challenge is to respond to God’s presence in those who irritate us, wrong us, or whose views differ profoundly from our own.

The third element of stability is relationship.  The vow of stability is a call to connect deeply with others.  We confuse “community” with living in groups.  We live in apartment buildings and neighborhoods without knowing one another’s names.  We work for the same companies, attend the same schools, and never see one another (Chittister, Wisdom 155).

How can we maintain stability in a mobile society?   Rev. Lovejoy, the beleaguered pastor in Fox TV’s “The Simpsons,” sums up the lack of stability in our society in his lament: "Today's Christian doesn't think he needs God. He's got his Hi Fi, his boob tube, and his instant pizza pie."  People choose isolation over connection.  Mobility is not the enemy – alienation is.  When we are so disconnected from the world that the sufferings of others do not affect us, we become “a cardboard cutout that breathes” (Chittister, Wisdom 156-7).

So where is our hope for stability?  We hope in the consistency of God, not our own strength or fidelity.  It is God’s fidelity that keeps us going when things get tough.  Stability gives us time in life, time for God and time for others (Chittister, Wisdom 156).



Works Cited
Chittister, Joan.  The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages.  New York: The
Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999.

Chittister, Joan.  Wisdom Distilled from the Daily.  San Francisco:
Harper San Francisco, 1991.

de Waal, Esther.  Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine
Spirituality
.  Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse    Publishing, 1997.

de Waal, Esther.  Seeking God.   Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1984.

Earle, Doug.  Personal Email.  14 May 2004.

Earle, Doug.  Sermon: Sixth Sunday of Easter.  St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
    San Antonio, 16 May 2004.

Earle, Mary.  Broken Body, Healing Spirit: Lectio Divina and Living with Illness.
Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2003.

Vest, Norvene.  Desiring Life.  Boston: Cowley Publications, 2000.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Rule of Benedict -- Conversion of Life

Conversion of Life
Conversion of life – conversatio morum – is a person’s life-long process of being transformed as he follows Christ.  Thomas Merton described it as “A commitment to total inner transformation.”  In the Prologue, Benedict tells us “God in his love will show you the way of life.”  This is a call to metanoia, a real turning around of one’s life (de Waal, Seeking 69).  I remember in the midst of my deepest depression being faced with a decision – to allow my illness to define my identity – or to strive for true repentance, doing everything in my power to regain (and improve) my health.

In my autobiography, I stated that Easter had become a Holy Day of profound significance for me.  Conversatio forces us to face death itself through a series of lesser deaths throughout our lives – such as the loss of health, relationships, abilities, possessions – until we reach that last, ultimate death.  But from death comes new life.  New patterns of life and work grow only through letting go of the old patterns and accepting change (de Waal, Seeking 74).  In my own life I have seen this in the taking on of responsibilities that I would have been less likely to have done before.  My old pattern of being the support person for my partner gave way to a call to lead in some areas that I would not have considered before, such as the re-establishment of Morning Prayer in the parish.

Chapter Four of the Rule, “The Tools for Good Works,” consists of a number of axioms intended to help us face the demands of growth and change.  We are expected to be mature, to take responsibility for ourselves.  Numbers 34 to 42 address psychological well-being, beginning with “You must not be proud.”  Pride hurts my psychological health because it is a need to control – my day, my future, others in my life, my world (de Waal, Seeking 75-6).  Many recovery programs start with letting go of this unrealistic need for control.   
   
We experience conversatio by redirecting our thoughts.  Evagrius says, “Readings, vigils and prayer—these are the things that lend stability to the wandering mind.  Hunger, toil and solitude are the means of extinguishing the flames of desire.  Turbid anger is calmed by the singing of Psalms – by patience and almsgiving.”  The goal of our conversion is to form ourselves – our souls and bodies – toward the Lamb who reigns at the center of the universe, the one who reigns in the center of our hearts (D. Earle, Sermon, May 2004).



Works Cited
Chittister, Joan.  The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages.  New York: The
Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999.

Chittister, Joan.  Wisdom Distilled from the Daily.  San Francisco:
Harper San Francisco, 1991.

de Waal, Esther.  Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine
Spirituality
.  Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse    Publishing, 1997.

de Waal, Esther.  Seeking God.   Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1984.

Earle, Doug.  Personal Email.  14 May 2004.

Earle, Doug.  Sermon: Sixth Sunday of Easter.  St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
    San Antonio, 16 May 2004.

Earle, Mary.  Broken Body, Healing Spirit: Lectio Divina and Living with Illness.
Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2003.

Vest, Norvene.  Desiring Life.  Boston: Cowley Publications, 2000.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Rule of Benedict -- Obedience


I feel incredibly guilty for recycling old material for inclusion into the blog, but most days I've been so mentally exhausted that creativity comes  in the shortest of bursts.  Anyway, I think I have some pretty good material that hasn't been published, so now I'm letting it see the light of day.  The following posts will be excerpts from a reflection paper I wrote about the Rule of Benedict.  Click here for more information about St. Benedict .

Obedience
 
When I hear the word “obedience,” I tend to imagine the soldier who obeys orders without question.  Obedience, in this sense, seems to require that one “checks in his mind at the door.”  So it seems that before I can promise to be obedient, I need to know “What is obedience?”

Obedience has been defined as “holy listening.” The Prologue begins with the word, “Listen,” and continues with the instruction to listen “with the ear of your heart.” 

But what do we listen to?

First, we listen to God because he is the ultimate authority in our lives.  We are to listen to what God wants in any given situation and as the Prologue states, "welcome it and faithfully put it into practice" (Chittister, Rule of Benedict 20).  In the eleventh step of twelve-step recovery programs, a person prays to know God's will and for the power to carry that out.

Next, we listen to those persons who are in positions of authority over us.
However, obedience is not living for the sake of an authority figure.  That is dependence and an abdication of personal responsibility.  The person who is dependent tries to become the other rather than a full expression of him- or herself (Chittister, Wisdom 137- 8).   I see dependence as someone hoping that an authority figure will “shine his light” upon her so that she might be able to reflect that light.  Thus, the dependent person ceases to be herself, but rather becomes merely a pale reflection of the authority figure.

Rather than dependence, listening to those in authority means accepting that I am not the sole judge of right and wrong.  I alone do not possess all the knowledge I need to make right decisions.  Obedience to those in authority means accepting the guidance of those entrusted to lead.

One obstacle to obedience is our Western culture's value of independence, which can be confused with license.  License means that an individual is accountable only to himself.  The individual becomes his own small world, in which he is the sole measure of meaning in his life (Chittister, Wisdom 139).  The medieval notion of sin was curvatos en se or "curved in upon oneself" (D. Earle, Email, May 2004).  This “curving in” is the sin of pride, considered the worst of the seven deadly sins because it takes one's capacity for union with God and turns into obsession with oneself (Vest 81).

We are called to be humble, to recognize our limitations and weaknesses, and to allow others to help us grow. We listen to the voice of God in others. Humility also keeps us from being judgmental of others’ weaknesses (de Waal, Seeking 47).  Monastics choose to place themselves under the authority of a prior or prioress, so that they "no longer live by their own judgment, giving in to their whims and appetites." (RB 5)  They accept the guidance of someone who will help them stay on the right road.  The Rule alone is not enough (Chittister, Rule of Benedict 58). 

On the other hand, obedience does not negate the requirement of personal responsibility.  We have to listen to our consciences – the internal authority that discerns between right and wrong actions (Chittister, Wisdom 138).  When I was in the Air Force, I attended a training course for junior officers.  One of the topics we discussed was the idea that while we were required to obey our superiors, we also had a responsibility to question, and get the guidance of a higher authority if necessary, if an order seemed to go against what we believed was morally correct.  We are still responsible for what we do.  Those who were involved in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners are accountable for their actions.  They, and we, cannot use the excuse of "just following orders" (as the sister of one accused soldier asserts) to justify wrong actions.

Chapter 68 of the Rule addresses when one is assigned an “impossible task.”  When a person disagrees with a task or request, he is to “choose the appropriate moment and explain patiently to the prioress or abbot” why he cannot perform the task.  The Rule allows for discussion and disagreement, but if the request still stands, we must “in love obey.”  Sometimes we have to trust that the people we have entrusted as leaders have the “big picture” in view.  Sometimes we have to be pushed beyond our comfort level in order to grow (Chittister, Rule of Benedict 173-4).

How does obedience differ from “compliance”?  A person can be forced to comply with an order or requirement.  A person can be compliant and still be a detriment to the community by constantly complaining.  In contrast, obedience means that one willingly exercises free choice in carrying out an order or fulfilling a request. (Chittister, Rule of Benedict 59)  To me, that implies that there is a measure of trust and respect in obedience that is lacking in compliance.


So, while I hope I have built a clear case for obedience up to this point – I also believe there is a time to be disobedient.  However, the decision to disobey must not be taken lightly.  There is often a high cost for disobedience, whether in legal consequences or in expulsion from an organization.  And there is also the chance one could be wrong in the conclusions that were made leading to the act of disobedience.  This decision, like other discernment decisions, should be made after prayer and consultation with trusted others to ensure that the decision is being made for the right reasons.  I am reminded of the civil rights movement and the practice of “civil disobedience,” used to peacefully contest unjust laws.  The soldier who became the “whistleblower” and reported the abuse of Iraqi prisoners apparently disobeyed his immediate superiors.  But in both cases, the people involved were trying to be obedient to a higher authority.

We also use holy listening to listen to our bodies.  In our culture, we tend to either be disconnected from our flesh, or we obsess over perfecting it.  Mary Earle, writing about living with illness, says when we are ill we become more conscious of the inner workings of our bodies.  The body “turns out to be a rich and varied text, full of layers of meaning.”  When we read our bodies and tend to them we can become more aware of the intimate presence of Christ, “in whom all things (including every cell of our bodies) hold together” (M. Earle 8-9).

Monastic or not, we are all called to live in community.  The Rule trains people to live in community.  Within the community is sanctification through community values and virtues, mutual support, and examples of life lived well.  Life in community provides its members the opportunity to hear the voice of God in one another, see the face of God in one another, and experience both patience and power.  Members of a community have the opportunity to obey Christ’s command to serve one another (Chittister, Wisdom 140).

Chapter 71 of the Rule addresses the idea of mutual obedience.  Benedict does not say we should only obey those in leadership positions; he also requires that we be obedient to one another, and especially to our elders.  We are to respect one another and listen to one another.  When there are misunderstandings, the Rule requires contrition, forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than defensiveness, justification or excuses (Chittister, Rule of Benedict 176-7).  As our Church wrestles with difficult questions regarding human sexuality, its members would do well to listen intently to one another and to follow the Rule’s teachings on dealing with conflict.
 

Works Cited
Chittister, Joan.  The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages.  New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999.

Chittister, Joan.  Wisdom Distilled from the Daily.  San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991.

de Waal, Esther.  Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality.  Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse  Publishing, 1997.

de Waal, Esther.  Seeking God.   Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1984.

Earle, Doug.  Personal Email.  14 May 2004.

Earle, Doug.  Sermon: Sixth Sunday of Easter.  St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. San Antonio, 16 May 2004.

Earle, Mary.  Broken Body, Healing Spirit: Lectio Divina and Living with Illness.  Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2003.

Vest, Norvene.  Desiring Life.  Boston: Cowley Publications, 2000.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

To a Dear Child



Dearest child,
My wish for you is
That you live your life
Full of adventure,
Eager to find the new and wonderful.

Full of contentment,
Striving for more, yet happy with what you have.

Full of knowledge,
Learning much, but knowing that some things are unknowable.

Full of love,
Loving others and being loved.

Full of holiness,
Certain that you are a child of God.

I wish…That your life is full.

2013

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Discernment: Taking a New Road

I wrote this for my church newsletter after discerning that I was not called to religious life (as in joining a religious order) at that time.  It was a difficult decision, especially after having made a case to the order to accept me as a postulant.  I realize, though, that the purpose of postulancy would have been served, no matter which road I took.




Taking a New Road


Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” is a favorite of mine.  In it, Frost speaks of encountering “two roads diverged in a yellow wood.”  We’ve all had the experience of finding “two roads.”  As Frost says so eloquently, sometimes the choice is not between “good” and “bad,” but between two “goods.”  And, unlike some Harry Potter character, we cannot be in two places at once:



And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could

I have had the experience of encountering my own “roads diverged in a yellow wood.”  These “roads” represented my unique sense of call.  In the poem, Frost realized the direction he chose would lead him to still other roads, yet unknown, as expressed in the line, “Yet knowing how way leads to way...”



There are times when the roads I’ve taken led to unexpected places.  In my experience, I found that volunteering with youth groups while in the Air Force led to my present career in teaching.  My journey from being a Roman Catholic to the Unitarian Universalist Church, to other forms of worship, led me to becoming a member of an Episcopal parish.  Attending the Lenten Quiet Day at my last parish led to my application to become a member of the Companions of St. Luke – Benedictine.  As I underwent the formation process for religious life, I found that being an active layperson was my call.  It was at this time that I decided to transfer to Holy Spirit. (Note: I have since transferred to another Episcopal parish since then.)



Choosing a road forever changes a person.  Frost recognized this when he said, “I doubted if I shall ever come back.”  As a postulant in the Companions of St. Luke – Benedictine, I chose a road less traveled by and, through the process of study, self-examination, and prayer, found myself forever changed.  Although I later decided to take another road, the journey had changed me.



As a community, we are facing two (or more) roads.  Whatever direction we choose will change us forever.  Together we must discern, with God’s help, the path that will enable us to lead others to know, love, and serve Christ.  But we must choose, and choosing may require letting go of some things we value in order to fulfill a greater good. 



Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.



May God guide each of us as we encounter the “roads.”



Monday, June 3, 2013

Favorite Bible Verse: 1 Corinthians 10:13

No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.  1 Corinthians 10:13

For years, this verse has been one of my go-to verses when life's struggles seem like too much to handle.  It begins with the premise that whatever is causing my distress is nothing new.  I've heard of this similarity among people referred to as "terminal uniqueness."  That is, we're all unique up to a certain point.  God has seen situations like mine before.  He's handled these situations before.  It's nothing new to him.

The next sentence is a statement of God's faithfulness.  Not only because it begins with the words, "God is faithful..." but also because it says that whatever we're facing, God will help us find a solution, a "way out", that will help us get through it.  I have found many distressing situations made more bearable by starting a course of action.


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Paul's Letter to the Galatians

Today's epistle (letter) from the Revised Common Lectionary was Galatians 1:1-12.

I like reading the letters of the Bible.  The writers pull no punches when they outline what the problems are in a given community.  However, they don't just point out faults, they also empathize with their readers and tell them how to resolve their problems.

Openclipart.org
This letter, attributed to St. Paul, was likely sent by courier to its intended congregation.  I wonder what it would be like today, if Paul Skyped the congregation.  The writing is so vivid, I can almost see him exhorting the congregation to turn away from the "different" (false) gospel and return to Christ.  

This letter, like the others also shows that people, at the core, have not changed that much in two thousand years:
"Am I now seeking human approval, or God's approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ."
This reading only covers the salutation and beginning of the letter.  But even here, we can see that the solution to the Galatians' problems lies in their focus.  Keeping the focus on Christ and his teachings will lead to becoming a servant of Christ.  Straying from that focus, following a false gospel, will lead to problems, which Paul writes about in the rest of the letter.








Saturday, June 1, 2013

Rest in Peace, Andrew Greeley...

...priest, author, sociologist, complainer.

Catholic priest, Father Andrew Greeley, died May 29 at the age of 85.  I don't have an extensive Greeley library, but his fiction and nonfiction works have given me much food for thought.  Father Greeley was a prolific author.  An extensive list of his books can be found here.

Surprisingly, one paperback that did not make the book list was Complaints Against God, a collection of essays, or "complaints," about issues ranging from Beethoven's Missa Solemnis to the End of Summer, and the Holy Roman Catholic Church.  The complaints, as a whole, address God with the understanding that God is omnipotent, and that there may be reasons for God's actions that are beyond our understanding.  In this sense, these complaints remind me of the Psalms.  

Psalm 10 begins "Why do you stand so far off, O LORD, and hide yourself in time of trouble?"  Father Greeley's complaint number 20 tells God, "...you simply have to do something about your Church.  It's in an awful mess." 

In Psalm 10, the Psalmist ends with a recognition of God's justice and mercy: 
"The LORD is King for ever and ever; *
the ungodly shall perish from his land.
18 The LORD will hear the desire of the humble; *
you will strengthen their heart and your ears shall hear;
19 To give justice to the orphan and oppressed, *
so that mere mortals may strike terror no more."
Father Greeley also, after naming his concerns about the Church, the folly of its members and leadership, and the speed of change after Pope John XXIII's reign, calls upon God to keep his promise to be with his people:

"Your Son, when he was here among us, promised us that he would be with his Church for all the days, even until the end of the world...might I respectfully suggest that now would be a singularly appropriate time for him to manifest himself in as spectacular way as possible that he intends to keep his promise."
The complaints are not so much gripes against God as they are a plea for God to remain with us, despite conditions that are beyond our understanding.  Father Greeley shows that puzzlement and doubt are natural when we encounter God in the midst of all that is wrong (and right) in our world.  But even though our natural inclination is to doubt, living in faith requires that we choose to recognize God's presence in our lives.

I hope you got your answers, Father Greeley.