Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

May you all have a very blessed and Merry Christmas!


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Monastic Wisdom

"The formation of a man is his moral training, his life is the love of God."  William of St. Thierry,  The Golden Epistle, # 169.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

In the Monastery and Out

In the monastery and outside the monastery, most of us lead just ordinary lives, doing our work, reading Scripture and taking time to pray. All of us who follow the Lord Jesus continue to have a life of prayer, no matter how poor that life may be. Into that poverty the Lord Jesus sometimes reaches out and touches us--perhaps in very gentle way or perhaps with a strong indication of His presence. Although generally God reaches into our silence and our searching, there are times when God just comes into our lives even when we are resisting.



God's goodness to us does not depend on our goodness to God. God knows what each of us needs to continue our path to Him. God can leave us in darkness so that we can grow or God can give us light so that we can grow. Most of us probably prefer light but the secret of the spiritual life is always simple confidence and trust in God. What is happening right now is His gift of love to us if we can see it.
This is from Abbot Phillip at Christ in the Desert in New Mexico. Lately, I’ve taken to reading homilys, etc. posted by abbots from various monasteries because I find them so helpful ; they seem steeped in monastic wisdom, which should be no surprise. It may be that Abbot Phillip is a bit optimistic about the daily routine most people follow, even for most Christians, but I still think he’s pretty much on the mark. Most of us just go through our lives following the daily routine, fulfilling the duties of our station. That’s good, and really no different for monks or lay people.

But, it’s also true that, however boring or numbing that daily routine can seem, God is present through all of it. That’s hard to remember in the midst of the daily grind, much less really appreciate the fact. Following a routine that includes even a few Benedictine practices, such as morning and evening prayer, some spiritual reading, and study integrated into the daily schedule helps keep us grounded in that truth. Periodic prayer breaks, no matter how brief, keep us grounded in the amazing reality in which we live.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Simplicity


"For properly speaking simplicity is a will that is wholly turned toward God, seeking one thing from the Lord with all earnestness, without any desire to disperse its energies in the world. Or again simplicity is true humility in conversion, more concerned with the inner reality of virtue than with a reputation for it. The simple man does not mind seeming to be foolish in the eyes of the world that he may be wise in the sight of God."
William of St. Thiery - The Golden Epistle #49.

“One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.”
 Psalm 27:4 (RSV)

I post these quotes because, having read them a few days ago, I can’t seem to get away from them. How difficult it is to keep focused on one thing, it seems our culture today is directed only toward creating distractions. All we see, anywhere we turn, the energy is directed to forcing us, beyond our will, to “disperse our energies in the world.”

So, as Advent begins, I offer these words of ancient wisdom as an aid in remaining focused on this season of hope.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Missing in Action

I’ve been missing in action the last two or three weeks due to a variety of factors. About three weeks ago, I came down with a mild sinus infection. However, it traveled to the drain tube in the corner of my right eye and the lingering infection created a blockage. It was a very unpleasant experience, with watery, messy drainage, which should have gone down into my sinuses and obstructed vision at best, nearly blinded me on the right side at worst. However, with a course of Keflex, it seemed to clear up. Then on Monday, I had to travel to Huntsville, AL, which for several reasons, was both a very worthwhile trip and a trip from hell. I returned home Thursday worn out, with a raging cold and my eye infection back in full force. That’s been the story of my life for the last month or so.


Anyway, as much as possible, to keep my mind off my troubles, I’ve been working on reading and understanding The Golden Epistle, by William of St. Thierry. I have learned to appreciate the faith and wisdom with which William writes. I find, although this was written to a group of Carthusian novices living in a monastery circa the 12th century as a book on monastic life, William is giving a pretty good description of what the experience of conversion really means in the life of any Christian. Too, like any good monastic, William never forgets the practical necessities of every day life. For example, there’s this from the first chapter.

 Sometimes, it’s hard to remember what we're here on this earth for. We get wrapped up in the pressures of building a career, keeping a home together despite so many pressures aiming to fragment family life, that these become all consuming. How seldom do we stop and take a step back to look at ourselves and what’s going on in life; where we are and where we are going. We forget simply because we become too busy.
XXIII 87. “However, the serious and prudent soul is ready to undertake all work and is not distracted by it but rather finds it a means to greater recollection. It always keeps in sight not so much what it is doing as the purpose of its activity and so aims at the summit of all perfection. The more truly such an effort is made, the more fervently and the more faithfully is manual work done and all the energies of the body are brought into play.”


William calls us to prudence, to avoid distraction from the real purpose of our lives, not to build a successful career, but to “aim at the summit of all perfection.” He realizes it’s a task involving, even in a Carthusian monastery in the 12th century, effort, but he calls for fervent effort to keep our real purpose always before our eyes. The irony is, if we do this, if we put our effort in the right place, everything else becomes easier: “All the energies of the body are brought into play.” Take a few minutes today and get your bearings, you might be surprised at the results.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thinking Too Much

I become consciously aware of a slightly ironic situation going on that surprised me when I thought about it. It’s one of those things that you know about but vaguely, and when you do wake up to it, you’re a little surprised.


I need to explain.

I have a study downstairs in our basement. It’s an ideal place to study, read, or write blog posts. It has lots of work space, cabinets, drawers, etc. I have a nice desktop computer with a big screen and great sound system. It really is ideal. The problem is, that for the last year or so, I’ll go down, sit myself in front of the computer, and stare at the screen. I can’t do a lick of work down there. I just go on automatic pilot and become a vegetable.

On the other hand, I have a little space in one corner of our living room with an old Kennedy rocker in it. It’s open to a fairly high traffic area, in fact to most of what goes on in the house. I also have a little net-book computer that has a small screen and touchy keyboard. Yet, when I take that netbook and sit down in that rocker, I could write or read or study all day. It’s crazy.

Oh, and to add a further little twist, one thing I use my study for on an almost daily basis, is lectio. Go figure.

I got to thinking about the situation, and my train of thought led me to think about the very essence of being Christian. If you think about it, the entire basis of our faith is paradox, if not downright irony. First, the very idea of a Messiah who comes as the sacrificial lamb who was slain, not the much expected conquering hero. There is the truth about Christ’s dying destroying death, and that we Christians must die to ourselves to live. Baptism, a sacramental drowning and rebirth is a huge paradox. I could go on, the mysteries are endless.

And that is why I came into the Church, at least one reason. The Church doesn’t deny or try to explain away these mysteries, they accept them as such. Coming from a Presbyterian background with its emphasis on the intellectual, this was a refreshing change and it made sense of things I had struggled with for years, and years, and years. It’s also present in Benedictine spirituality in spades. It is the ultimate paradox that a monk would retreat within cloister walls in order to be truly and finally free.



So, my little paradox has reminded me of many things that are deeply important and that I tend to take for granted in my faith. I think it was a touch of grace, or, perhaps I’m just thinking too much.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Peace and Quiet

One thing that has been on my mind a lot, especially since our recent office move, is how difficult it is in this world to find even short times of silence and solitude. I’m not sure if I’ve written about the move, but the company’s main office is relatively small and, as we grew, finding space for all the folks was difficult. The solution was to rent a small office on another floor of our building and move the Accounting department up there. The problem is that the office is basically 2 rooms with all of us crammed together. There is little privacy and it’s very difficult to find much silence.

I certainly don’t object to this situation, in this economy, I feel myself lucky to have a job, and, since we are on the 14 floor of the building, the view is stunning, overlooking Garden of the Gods and the north end of Colorado Springs. In fact, the view is often itself a distraction. (I hope my boss doesn’t read this).

Still, the situation has pointed up to me the fact that there is little opportunity for silence or solitude anywhere you go these days. Sometimes even in church before Mass, people feel the need to talk and socialize, seemingly unaware of being in our Lord’s presence. I am finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate no matter where I am.

This may be a function of age, but I think it is truly a change in the world around me. It’s almost as if people are afraid to be alone with themselves, and afraid for anyone else to be alone with themselves either.

I don’t know that there is a point to this, except possibly to lament the situation. I don’t know that it’s going to change anytime soon, but perhaps there is a lesson to draw from it. One parallel I can draw is that, as we become an increasingly secular society, noise becomes more pronounced.

It seems, for example in the case of Catholics, as we lose our appreciation of and reverence for the Eucharist, we lose our ability to be alone with ourselves. It seems we become afraid that we may discover who we are deep inside and what that discovery might mean for our lives. We are afraid of the truth about ourselves and are losing the sense of the sacred that would help us to deal with the that truth.

I could be wrong, but I know that I’m going to redouble my efforts just to find a little peace and quiet.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Benedict’s Monastic Work-Out Plan


Chapter 13: How the Morning Office Is to Be Said on Weekdays
On weekdays
the Morning Office shall be celebrated as follows.
Let Psalm 66 be said without an antiphon
and somewhat slowly,
as on Sunday,
in order that all may be in time for Psalm 50,
which is to be said with an antiphon.
After that let two other Psalms be said according to custom,
namely:
on Monday Psalms 5 and 35,
on Tuesday Psalms 42 and 56,
on Wednesday Psalms 63 and 64,
on Thursday Psalms 87 and 89,
on Friday Psalms 75 and 91,
and on Saturday Psalm 142 and the canticle from Deuteronomy,
which is to be divided into two sections
each terminated by a "Glory be to the Father."
But on the other days let there be a canticle from the Prophets,
each on its own day as chanted by the Roman Church.
Next follow the Psalms of praise,
then a lesson of the Apostle to be recited from memory,
the responsory, the Ambrosian hymn, the verse,
the canticle from the Gospel book,
the litany, and so the end.

You're probably asking yourselves, “What the heck does working out and the Rule have to do with each other? Well, I think there's a connection. As I’ve written recently, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time trying to get back into shape. I had begun to let myself go physically and it was hampering me from doing many things I wanted to do. I headed to the gym to start working with a trainer. These work outs haven’t been easy; three evenings a week, for 45 minutes, for the last 4 months of boring, very taxing exercises. Many times, tired from a long day at work, I’ve been sorely tempted to just chuck the whole thing, but I’ve managed to stay with it. And, it’s worked; I’ve lost weight, gotten stronger, and have a lot more energy than I did back earlier in the year.

When I get to passages like this in the Rule, I feel the same way, the temptation becomes very strong to just skip over them, they seem to offer little of interest or use in every day life. But, Benedict put this in the Rule and there must be a reason why he thought it important to do so. Maybe it’s worth a little extra effort to try to understand what he might have been thinking about.

So, digging in, there are a few things I notice in a closer reading. First, as many have pointed out, Benedict’s concern for moderation and taking care of those who are weaker than others. He says, “Let Psalm 66 be said without an antiphon and somewhat slowly . . . in order that all may be in time for Psalm 50.” He doesn’t want the morning office hurried so as to make it inevitable that some of the brothers will end up being late; he wants as many in the community as possible to be present and on time.

It’s also evident that he thinks there should be a definite form to prayer of the hours. He doesn’t want the prayer of the daily liturgies to be willy-nilly events. They require a certain order, discipline and structured approach. It’s also interesting that he wants them to be performed in harmony with “the Roman Church;” the monks aren’t out there on their own; they should be mindful that they are praying with the whole Church.

This holds true today. When we, as Catholics, pray we should try to be mindful of the fact that we don’t pray as isolated individuals left on our own to do our own thing. We are part of one body, the Body of Christ, and that imposes certain obligations and benefits on us. The prayer of any member of the Body strengthens the whole. In our individualistic society, it seems hard for people to grasp that, and yet what a wonderful thing it is.

The lessons I draw from this short reading are that, hard as it is to see some days, and as tempting as it might be not to put in a little extra effort, everything that Benedict put into the Rule has meaning, and even those of us living in the 21st century, can learn something from what he’s is offering his monks of the 5th century. Also, as hard as it is some days, ensuring there is some structure to our prayer life, and following the discipline we have laid out for ourselves, helps us grow closer to God.

Just as we benefit physically from putting in the effort to exercise and diet, just as we get healthier from doing that kind of thing, so there are benefits to exercising our mental and spiritual muscles to strengthen our relationship with our Lord. It takes some time, and results are apparent over night, but sometimes, even before we know it, good changes begin to appear. Just keep heading to the gym.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Born Again . . . and again . . .and again

Are you born again, brother?

If you have any evangelical Christian friends, I bet you’ve heard that question. I’m no theologian, even worse, I’m a former Presbyterian (I’ll share a story on that, below) but I think one of the key tenants evangelical Christians hold to is the idea of being “born again.” It is so important, many of them will be able to tell you the day and even the time they first accepted Christ.

It might surprise many Catholics, but St. Benedict also emphasized the importance of conversion, although in the Rule, he phrased it in a slightly different way. He called it conversatio. Conversatio is one of the three vows stipulated in Benedict’s Rule for the monk to take on final profession. The exact meaning of the word is difficult to translate in English, but the gist of it is that the monk vows to conform his life to that of the monastery. It means, as Fr. Michael Casey  puts it:

By the vow of . . . (conversatio morum) the monk embraces all the traditional observances that contribute to the building up of the monastic spirit: participation in the Liturgy of the Hours, personal prayer, lectio divina, work, poverty, chastity, solitude and silence, and the whole range of communal activities.
This may seem a slightly different idea than that expressed by our evangelical friends, but it is no less a description of conversion – giving up one’s self-will, one’s independence so to speak, to follow the direction of an abbot and according to the traditions of the community, all to conform oneself, finally, to Christ.

Where there is a difference, it’s in the fact that Benedict seems to see conversion as an on-going, life long process. We would not agree at all that conversion is a one time event that, once experienced, is left in the past. Of all the saints in the Church, he seems to have recognized, even emphasized, the weakness that being human entails. That’s why he points up the need for moderation in all aspects of a monk’s life.

Still, this isn’t to say that conversion, expressed either way, is not a painful and difficult process. Many of us have experienced the fact that, once we experience a major change in our lives, it affects most of who we are and what we do. It can cost friendships that previously seemed unbendable; it can mean change or loss of profession, a whole range of things can happen. The key, as Benedict also pointed out, is courage and perseverance. We won’t earn heaven in an instant, but if we do our best to be unwavering in our commitment, there will indeed come an instant when we are truly born again. It’s sometimes hard to be mindful of this, but well worth the effort.

The Story

A very staid and proper Presbyterian minister was invited to attend a conference of Christians on evangelization. Being somewhat innocent of these matters, he accepted. As it turned out, the conference was put on by a particularly charismatic group of evangelical Christians, and the experience was much more lively than he had expected it to be. At the end, the leader of the conference asked the Presbyterian what exactly was the contribution of the Presbyterian church to the history of evangelization. The pastor thought for a moment and said, “Restraint.”

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Obedience in September

I haven’t posted much this month, it has just seemed a hectic time and I have been trying just to maintain some level of sanity. I haven’t needed additional activities.

The result is that I haven’t written much about obedience as I had planned. That doesn’t mean I haven’t thought much about it, I have. The thought has even crossed my mind that not posting here regularly is a violation of both stability and obedience, but we won’t go there.

The idea I keep returning to, when I think of obedience, is attentiveness. Being obedient involves listening, paying attention, to the necessities of the moment. It means being aware of what is going on life and doing what needs to be done in that moment. This can be at times easy or very difficult, even involving sacrificial acts of love. But, at heart, every proper response to the moment is an act of love. As such, it leads us closer to God. Failing to make the proper response to the moment is a act of disobedience and leads us away from God.

The difficult part is that, every day, I seem to be presented with new and challenging opportunities to practice obedience. It seems worse because now I’m aware of the need to practice being obedient and I am not one for whom that comes naturally. I tend to procrastinate, or, worse, to fall back on thinking I know better than another the right thing to do to solve a problem. I simply don’t like having to follow the lead of others. But, I’ve been trying to change that this month.

So, if nothing else, perhaps my focus on the idea of obedience this month has provided some benefits, at least to those co-workers and family members who have had to deal with me. And, maybe, just maybe, I’ll be more obedient to my commitment to post here a little more regularly. I don’t know if that helps you who might read this or not.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Obedience

For no reason other than to impose a little order in my study of Benedictine spirituality, I decided over the next two or three months to focus on one topic important in monastic spirituality each month. This month, the topic is obedience.

I chose this first because, for me, it’s one of the more difficult things to deal with in Benedict’s Rule. None of us likes to lose control of our lives to another. We are told here in America that we’re free and should be able to do whatever we want “as long as no one else gets hurt.” A silly idea, but quite predominant. We like this least of all in spiritual matters, we insist strongly on freedom of conscience.

Too, I’ve read what a number of prominent Benedictine authors have written on the topic and many seem to down play the authoritarian side of this monastic vow. When I started to make notes to myself about this I wanted to too. I wanted to rationalize and say, “Well, it doesn’t mean you have to obey someone or you're under their thumb, it really means (name your option here).

Yet, it’s pretty easy to see that we all live under some form of obedience. Those of us who must earn our living day by day and care for a family have bosses, customers, subordinates, husbands, wives, children who demand our time and attention. It’s not a foreign concept to any walk of life. Then too, in the typical small, enclosed monastic community, not having the authority figure of the abbot and allowing each monk to do his own thing when and where and how he pleases would soon result in the end of the community. It would be nothing but chaos, confusion and eventual dissolution.

I have to conclude that there is an aspect of submission to authority which the monastic vow of obedience encompasses. It’s an ordinary part of every human life and Benedict is the master at seeing the ordinary as the path to the extraordinary.

Benedict also does nothing to hide the difficulties involved.

LISTEN carefully, my child,
to your master's precepts,
and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20).
Receive willingly and carry out effectively
your loving father's advice,
that by the labor of obedience
you may return to Him
from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.
Sometimes, being obedient is a labor, it’s something that must be worked at day in and day out. Benedict sees disobedience as sloth, not for the indolent. Because of the distasteful connotations, however, obedience has gotten a bad name; it’s very little understood, and less sought after or, even, expected. A better understanding of this fundamental Benedictine ideal is much needed, especially by me. Thus, the rest of this month is devoted to it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Why?

One thing I keep asking myself, in order to stay focused on the ultimate goal, is why am I doing this? In other words, why do I want to become an oblate and why am I puttering away at this blog?

The answer to the first question is and has remained clear in my mind. I don’t want to be a monastic; I’m sure most folks who are oblates feel the same way. For me to try to pretend that I am one would be crazy making, at best. But, I (and all baptized Christians) share one goal with those who are living in the monastery, I want to be a saint. This is the goal of every Christian, no matter the particular vocation one is following. That’s not an easy thing to do these days, but trying to adapt and follow St. Benedict’s Rule is something that helps tremendously.

It should be remembered that salvation is not the result of something we do; it is entirely the result of God’s grace in our lives. It is a free gift. But, there are some things we can do to better open ourselves to that gift, and Benedict outlines most, if not all of them in his Rule. Some are difficult and, at first blush, almost distasteful: obedience, stability, humility. Others may seem a bit easier, lectio, the prayer of the hours, silence, solitude. Yet, either way, it’s a complete package. And the real genius of Benedict is that he shows how to incorporate all these things in the everyday routine of our lives. He shows that salvation is not found in superhuman ascetical or mystical practices, but in the ordinary.

I want to become an oblate because it would help me formalize Benedict’s wise instruction as a part of my life.

The reason to blog is to share the wisdom I find in Benedictine spirituality with those who may not be familiar with it, or may never even have heard of it. I probably will never reach very many people, but even if I am able to help just one reach their goal it will have been worth it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A False Impression

I may have given a false impression with a post I did recently. I am still heading in the direction of formally becoming an oblate at Prince of Peace Abbey, a Benedictine monastery that I think will become my spiritual home. I am not considering the Lay Cistercians.

I do enjoy reading many of the early Cistercian texts, but there has been one test that I have always kept in mind in trying to differentiate between the various types of monastic spirituality. It is, if I had had a vocation to enter a monastery, what kind of monastery would it be? The answer, for many reasons, always comes down on the Benedictine side. This was confirmed after our retreat in June of this year to Prince of Peace Abbey.

So, if they'll have me, I hope to become an oblate there.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

From a Letter to the monk Adam

by St. Bernard of Clairvaux

To make this principle clear, we must note that some actions are wholly good; others wholly evil: and in these no obedience is to be rendered to men. For the former are not to be omitted by us, even if they are prohibited [by men]: nor the latter done, even though they are commanded. But, besides these, there are actions between the two, and which may be good or evil according to circumstances of place, time, manner, or person, and in these obedience has its place, as it was in the matter of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which was in the midst of Paradise. When. these are in question, it is not right to prefer our own judgment to that of our superiors, so as to take no heed of what they order or forbid.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Longing to see God

A Meditation by William of St. Thierry


“MY HEART HAS TALKED of you my face has sought you. Your face, Lord, will I seek. Do not turn away your face from me; do not shun your servant in wrath."

It seems surpassing boldness and effrontery to make comparison between my face and yours, Lord God! For you see and judge the hearts of all men and, if you enter into judgment with your servant, the face of my iniquity can only flee before that of your righteousness.

But if, in order to excuse and help my poverty, you should grant me burning love and humility, then let them flee who hate I, for my part, should not flee your face.
For love is very daring, and humility fosters confidence. I am not conscious of these virtues in myself, yet I a vow myself your friend. For, if you ask me: “Do you love me" as you asked Peter, I shall say plainly, I shall tell you boldly:" Lord, you know all things, you know I want to love you. And that is as much as to say: "If you ask me the same thing a thousand times, I shall as often make the same reply: You know I want to love you" And that means that my heart desires nothing so much as it desires to love you."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Miscellaneous Ramblings on the First of September


I’ll offer a bit of self-congratulations regarding the general silence both here and over at my photo blog, Colorado Shots. I’ll try to pass off to you that I’ve been very Benedictine in spirit and, having nothing to say, have kept silent. I won’t say anything that might lead you to believe I’ve just been lazy or anything like that, oh no. But, since I can’t seem to maintain enough decent concentration to do a single, focused post, I’ll hit on a few topics of recent interest.

+ + +

I have had a spot of ill health that has set me back a little. About a month ago, I went to the dermatologist with a spot behind my ear that was somewhat open, bleeding, and a bit painful. He did a biopsy and it was a basil cell carcinoma and had to come off. This was done last Friday under what is called Moh’s surgery where they take one layer at a time until the cancerous growth is removed. It took two rounds and some 18 or so stitches to close it up. It knocked me for a loop for a few days, but I’m getting back to normal. My right ear is now pinned back ever so slightly; I think it an overall improvement.

+ + +

I’ve been doing a good bit of reading on monastic spirituality recently and it suddenly came to me that such reading has been focused on Cistercian and Trappist writers. I’ve read a book by the late Abbot Francis Kline, one by Abbot Andre Louf. I am also a big fan of Fr. Michael Casey, an Australian Trappist and am about to begin reading William of St. Thierry’s Golden Epistle, a book I’ve dabbled in recently. I’m beginning to wonder if I am, indeed, called to become a Lay Cistercian, it’s too big a coincidence. I’ll offer a little background on why I am wondering about this.

I was born a Presbyterian and for 5 to 10 years prior to my coming into the Church, I was quite active in First Presbyterian Church in El Paso. I was ordained a deacon and, during the last year of my term, became Moderator of the Board of Deacons. One of my duties was to present a 15-20 minute meditation on some spiritual topic. After my term was over, I one day went back to those meditations and, to my very great surprise, I had chosen passages almost exclusively from Catholic authors as the theme of each one of them. It was a bit of a shock, but it got me thinking. Hmmm.

+ + +

There was a story in the paper this morning about the death in a car accident of a high school hockey player from one of the local high schools. He had graduated in 2008. There was prominent mention that grief counselors had been made available to both staff and faculty at the high school. It didn’t say anything about priests or ministers which might have been the preferred route back in my high school days, if the high schools did anything like that at all. They didn’t. I think the reason is, they probably assumed most staff and faculty had regular contact with either a priest or minister and didn’t have much need for a psychologist. It’s just another example of how things have changed.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Purity of Heart



EVERYTHING should be done and sought after by us for the sake of this [purity of heart]. For this we must seek for solitude, for this we know that we ought to submit to fastings, vigils, toils, bodily nakedness, reading, and all other virtues that through them we may be enabled to prepare our heart and to keep it unharmed by all evil passions, and resting on these steps to mount to the perfection of charity, and with regard to these observances, if by accident we have been employed in some good and useful occupation and have been unable to carry out our customary discipline, we should not be overcome by vexation or anger, or passion, with the object of overcoming which, we were going to do that which we have omitted. For the gain from fasting will not balance the loss from anger, nor is the profit from reading so great as the harm which results from despising a brother. Those things which are of secondary importance, such as fastings, vigils, withdrawal from the world, meditation on Scripture, we ought to practise with a view to our main object, i.e., purity of heart, which is charity, and we ought not on their account to drive away this main virtue, for as long as it is still found in us intact and unharmed, we shall not be hurt if any of the things which are of secondary importance are necessarily omitted; since it will not be of the slightest use to have done everything, if this main reason of which we have spoken be removed, for the sake of which everything is to be done. For on this account one is anxious to secure and provide for one's self the implements for any branch of work, not simply to possess them to no purpose, nor as if one made the profit and advantage, which is looked for from them, to consist in the bare fact of possession but that by using them, one may effectually secure practical knowledge and the end of that particular art of which they are auxiliaries. Therefore fastings, vigils, meditation on the Scriptures, self-denial, and the abnegation of all possessions are not perfection, but aids to perfection: because the end of that science does not lie in these, but by means of these we arrive at the end. He then will practise these exercises to no purpose, who is contented with these as if they were the highest good, and has fixed the purpose of his heart simply on them, and does not extend his efforts towards reaching the end, on account of which these should be sought: for he possesses indeed the implements of his art, but is ignorant of the end, in which all that is valuable resides. Whatever then can disturb that purity and peace of mind--even though it may seem useful and valuable--should be shunned as really hurtful, for by this rule we shall succeed in escaping harm from mistakes and vagaries, and make straight for the desired end and reach it.



John Cassian, Conferences, Chapter 7


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Some Monastic Wisdom on Lectio

At fixed hours time should be given to certain definite reading.  Haphazard reading, constantly varied and lighted on by chance does not edify but makes the mind unstable.  Taken into the memory lightly, it leaves it even more lightly.  You should concentrate on certain authors and let your mind grow used to them . . .

Some part of your daily reading should be committed to memory every day, taken as it were into the stomach, to be more carefully digested and brought up again for frequent rumination – something in keeping with your vocation and helpful to concentration, something that will take hold of the mind and save it from distraction.

The reading should also stir you affections and give rise to prayer, which should interrupt you reading – an interruption which should not so much impede the reading as to restore to it a mind ever more purified for understanding.

For reading serves the purpose of the intention with which it is done.  If a reader truly seeks God in the reading, everything he reads tends to promote that end, making the mind surrender in the course of the reading and bringing all that is understood into Christ’s service.

William of St. Thierry

The Golden Epistle 1.120-124

Saturday, August 8, 2009

What’s You’re Heart Rate?

I’ve taken, inadvertently, an extended holiday from posting here and on my photo blog, Colorado Shots mostly due to lack of time.  I’ve been hooked up to a heart rate monitor.  No, not the medical kind, the exercise kind. 

It’s been pretty obvious to me that over the last year or two I’ve let myself get severely out of shape.  I put on weight, had no energy and survived on a poor diet.  On top of that, the shoulder that I dislocated and fractured a couple of years ago was becoming increasingly immobile.  The kicker was, on the John Fielder workshop, I was having trouble carrying the camera gear and getting to a couple of the locations where we were taking pictures.  I decided, enough was enough.  I knew that I had to try to turn this around.  So, I engaged a personal trainer, dusted off the old mountain bike, and started eating better and getting more exercise, a lot more. 

 The only problem is this regimen takes a lot of time.  If I’m not doing strength training, aerobics, or stretches, I have to make time for work and sleep.  Blogging, or even much reading, has gone by the board.  The time crunch, though, surfaced another issue for me to deal with, a real time consumer.  Simply put, too much time spent watching stupid television shows and surfing the Internet.  All that has to stop.  So, I view that as a positive too.

 Anyway, this is just an update.  I hope to get back to regular posting over the next week or so.  In the meantime, what have you gotten your heart rate up to lately?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

An interest quote I came across today:

Fellow Citizens of the Senate and of the House of Representatives:

In taking a general survey of the concerns of our beloved country, with
reference to subjects interesting to the common welfare, the first sentiment
which impresses itself upon the mind is of gratitude to the Omnipotent Disposer
of All Good for the continuance of the signal blessings of His providence, and
especially for that health which to an unusual extent has prevailed within our
borders, and for that abundance which in the vicissitudes of the seasons has
been scattered with profusion over our land. Nor ought we less to ascribe to Him
the glory that we are permitted to enjoy the bounties of His hand in peace and
tranquillity--in peace with all the other nations of the earth, in tranquillity
among our selves. There has, indeed, rarely been a period in the history of
civilized man in which the general condition of the Christian nations has been
marked so extensively by peace and prosperity.

John Quincy Adams, State of the Union Address, December, 1825

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Benedict's Business Manager

Chapter 31: What Kind of Man the Cellarer of the Monastery Should Be

As cellarer of the monastery
let there be chosen from the community
one who is wise, of mature character, sober,
not a great eater, not haughty, not excitable,
not offensive, not slow, not wasteful,
but a God-fearing man
who may be like a father to the whole community. 

In St. Benedict’s day, there were no business schools, thus, no Harvard MBA’s working on Wall Street, or CPA’s coming in every year to perform audits in accordance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.  Yet, even for monasteries, the need existed for people who could help the institution to prosper and thereby gain some small measure of financial stability in very uncertain times.  So, as part of his Rule, and lacking the resources of a modern business school, Benedict devoted one chapter of his Rule to the qualities necessary for the man entrusted with the business affairs of the monastery.

In reading these over in Chapter 31 of the Rule, it’s striking how different they are from those demanded of modern MBA students.  There’s no demand for courses in financial and statistical analysis tools, no marketing studies, no demand to study current laws on taxation or business law. He doesn’t even say that the candidate for the cellarer should have any kind of innate business sense or be able to drive a hard bargain.  Benedict doesn’t focus on any of the financial or managerial abilities or background that we require of a business manager today.  There’s none of that. 

“… one who is wise, of mature character, sober . . .”

So what does Benedict want?  He tells us right up front – he wants his cellarer to be a man of character, specifically, he must be “wise, and of mature character.”

In my experience, wisdom is not an easy thing to define.  As in the oft quoted Supreme Court decision on pornography, “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.”  What could Benedict have in mind when he calls for wisdom?  I think it’s helpful to turn to Scripture, a source Benedict would almost subconsciously have had in mind, for the answer.   There we find wisdom often associated with virtue.  For example, consider this from chapter 7 of the Book of Wisdom: 

24 For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.

25 For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her.

26 For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.

27 Though she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets;

28 for God loves nothing so much as the man who lives with wisdom.

29 For she is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior,

30 for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail.

                                                                                    Wisdom 7:24-30 RSV

It might not be going too far to say that Benedict wants a man who is pure, one of such virtue that he “lives with wisdom,” so much so, that we sense that he is, in turn, loved by God (v28).  As I’ve pointed out at other times, this is a very different standard than prevails in the world today.  Many people would probably say that Benedict was being hopelessly idealistic, even for his own time, and even if this may have worked in the 6th century, in our world such a man would eaten alive by the tough minded managers who run corporations today.  He would never succeed.  You simply can’t use “religious” standards in today’s workplace, it would never work.

However, if you look a the record many of these “tough minded” managers in the news over the last 5 years or so have not done so well following modern precepts.  One thinks of General Motors, Merrill Lynch, Lehmann Brothers, Madoff, and on and on and on.  Companies and managers that have failed so spectacularly, and hurt so many people in the process, are the very ones where Bendict’s “idealistic model” is most foreign.  Compare this record to the record of Benedict’s own monastery, Monte Casino, which has survived despite invasions, bombings, so much else for over 1,500 years.

Yes, in Benedict’s time, there were no Harvard MBAs or CPA’s performing annual audits, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Antiquarian?

Chapter 30: How Boys Are to Be Corrected
Every age and degree of understanding should have its proper measure of discipline. With regard to boys and adolescents, therefore,or those who cannot understand the seriousness of the penalty of excommunication,whenever such as these are delinquent let them be subjected to severe fasts or brought to terms by harsh beatings, that they may be cured.


There are many chapters in Benedict’s Rule that seem, at best, antiquated, and worst much too primitive. It certainly is out of fashion to subject young children to “harsh beatings”, this kind of conduct could get our Holy Father arrested in this day and age. So, this is, at first glance, one of those chapters that we have difficulty understanding.

Still, I think the key point is found in the first sentence quoted above. “Every age and degree of understanding should have its proper measure of discipline.” For there to be a community at all, there must be some measure of discipline, both internal and external. In other words, a successful community, for that matter a successful culture, depends on the self-disciple of its members. There must be at least a sensed of mutual responsibility and individual members cannot each go their own way. When this fails, there must be an external form of discipline, today we would call it justice, that helps the community maintain order. And it can’t be denied that it may, at times, require some form of punishment in order to restore the necessary order.

Fr. Terrance Kardong points out that, when discipline is necessary, for it to be effective it must be administered in a form that can be understood. Very young children may not understand separation from the community as a form of punishment, therefore some other measure may become necessary. Today, that may take the form of separation not from the family or community, but from a cell phone or particular video game, or some form of “detention.”

There’s nothing new in what Benedict has written in Chapter 30 of the Rule. He may not have phrased it quite the way we would like, or even in the way we would expect from a great saint. Given all this and even though Benedict wrote over 1,500 years ago, it doesn’t mean he didn’t know a thing or two about what it takes to build a community.

Friday, July 3, 2009

It's a Bear!!




We had some excitement in our neighborhood today. Here's a couple of shots, more on my other blog.




Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Last Weekend's Retreat

I noted that my wife and I just completed our first retreat at Prince of Peace Abbey. I don’t think I can do much justice in describing just how marvelous an experience this was for us. I can say it was one of the most restful and restorative experiences, both physically and spiritually, that I’ve had in a very long time. I felt, at the end of the retreat, that I was leaving home; it was very difficult to pull myself away from the place.

The first thing you notice at any monastery is the silence that pervades enclosure. I think, if there was any one key to the weekend, it was just being able to bask in that silence. It is so hard to find anywhere outside a monastic enclosure these days, and people even seem to go out of their way to avoid it. I think they don't know what they're missing.

I can also add, even the food was good, and all the monks we met were very friendly and helpful.

Beyond that, all I can say is, if you've never done a retreat at an Abbey, you really ought to give it a try, real soon.

A final note, we were able to meet an Oblate couple who worked in the bookstore/gift shop at the Abbey. I doubt they will ever read this, but I have to take a moment to thank them for their great help and efforts to display true Benedictine hospitality. If they are any indication, this must be a good group of Oblates.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Prince of Peace Abbey


Just returned from a long weekend retreat at Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, California. I'll post a little on the retreat in the next few days. In the meantime, here's a picture from the Abbey grounds.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

THE ARGUMENT OF HIS BOOK

I SING of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July-flowers ;
I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides and of their bridal-cakes ;
I write of youth, of love, and have access
By these to sing of cleanly wantonness ;
I sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece
Of balm, of oil, of spice and ambergris ;
I sing of times trans-shifting, and I write
How roses first came red and lilies white ;
I write of groves, of twilights, and I sing
The court of Mab, and of the fairy king ;
I write of Hell ; I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all.

by Robert Herrick

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Hymn of Praise


I confess to Thee, O Lord, and I give thanks unto Thee, because Thou
hast created in me this Thine image, that I may remember Thee, think upon Thee, love Thee, but so darkened is Thine image in me by the smoke of my sins that it cannot do that whereunto it was created, unless Thou renew it and create it again. I seek not, O Lord, to search out Thy depth, but I desire in some measure to understand Thy truth, which my heart believeth and loveth. Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this too I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall not understand.


St. Anselm of Canterbury, Devotions

The Salt of the Earth

The first degree of humility, then,
is that a person keep the fear of God before his eyes (Ps. 35[36]:2)
and beware of ever forgetting it.
Let him be ever mindful of all that God has commanded;
let his thoughts constantly recur
to the hell-fire which will burn for their sins
those who despise God,
and to the life everlasting which is prepared
for those who fear Him.
Let him keep himself at every moment from sins and vices,
whether of the mind, the tongue, the hands, the feet,
or the self-will,
and check also the desires of the flesh. (From Ch 7 of the Rule of St. Benedict)

The word “humility”, as many of you will already know, comes from the latin humus which is a root for our English word, earth. The implication is that, by “humility”, Benedict didn’t mean to imply the modern idea of submission and weakness, even mousiness. The idea he had in mind is the trait of knowing exactly who we are in the world. As Fr. Michael Casey put it, the idea is of living in the truth, about ourselves, about others, and most importantly, about God.

People today have lost touch with this reality. The tendency I see all too often, is to try to bring God down to our size. We want to make him a good buddy, a friend and companion, a big sugar-daddy, forgetting all the while just who exactly he is: the Lord, God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. He is something entirely Other from any of us.

Benedict wouldn't agree with our modern tendencies. He would ask us to be mindful of just exactly who we are and who God is. He's not afraid to remind the monk, and the Christian, that there is, indeed, such a thing as “hell fire” and that it is something to be feared. I don't think there can be much doubt that Benedict seems to be talking about real, almost visceral fear, not just “respect” or “love” as I’ve heard it described all too often lately. Benedict means the real thing, because if we forget all this, the consequences will be eternal.


But, when Benedict talks about fearing God and hell fire and brimstone, is he just showing himself to be another Christian fundamentalist extremist whose only desire is to squeeze all the joy out of life? Is he really advocating that Christians must live their lives in fear and terror of an unreasonable and judgmental God?

At first glance, it might look that way. But a further reading of Chapter 7 gives a different picture. At the end of the chapter, Benedict writes:

Having climbed all these steps of humility, therefore, the monk will
presently come to that perfect love of God which casts out fear.


At this point, those souls will have attained that perfect loves that drives out fear. It becomes clear that Benedict sees the Christian journey as just that, a journey on the road to final beatitude. In keeping with what he wrote in the Prologue, he sees this life as a “school” of service to the Lord. In the early, simple stages of development, the initial motivation might be little more than fear of hell. But this first step is the necessary prelude to further growth – it’s what first gets our attention. The goal is the driving out of that fear through love. And progressing along this road, if that is the right term, means that we come to know and accept more of the truth about the reality of our existence. It means growing in humility.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Call To Lectio

COME now, thou poor child of man, turn awhile from thy business, hide thyself for a little time from restless thoughts, cast away thy troublesome cares, put aside thy wearisome distractions. Give thyself a little leisure to converse with God, and take thy rest awhile in Him. Enter into the secret chamber of thy heart: leave everything without but God and what may help thee to seek after Him, and when thou hast shut the door, then do thou seek Him. Say now, O my whole heart, say now to God, I seek Thy face; Thy face, Lord, do I seek.Come now then, O Lord my God, teach Thou my heart when and how I may seek Thee, where and how I may find Thee? O Lord, if Thou are not here, where else shall I seek Thee?

St. Anselm of Canterbury, Devotions

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bummed out Dude!

I wrote a post with this title earlier today and then I read this from Fr. Stephanos at Prince of Peace Abbey.

Christ ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand
of the Father.He wants us to be with him in glory.That wish fills his prayer in
[the Gospel of John] . . .

This puts what I was trying to say in clearer perspective.

I have struggled over the last two weeks, since the trip to Florida, trying to get my prayer and reading schedule back on track. It’s been shot to pieces, only beginning with some partial recovery on this past Sunday. My reaction has been a typical one for me, frustration and the strong temptation to chuck it all and give up entirely.

I realized on Sunday that that’s wrong. In light of what Fr. Stephanos wrote in his homily, I understand now that what I should be doing is persevering. I should accept that what I am trying for is not some measure of “success” at prayer and lectio, it is faithfulness. There is a goal I deeply want to reach, and I can’t achieve it by giving up on the things most necessary to reach it. I must do what is necessary. I have to keep in mind, “every moment” as St. Benedict says, that I have a destiny that is more than anything I can imagine. It’s really a relationship, and relationships aren’t built by estrangement. Rather, it’s trust and communication and sharing that is at the heart of the matter. My Lord knocks at the door every moment of every day; it’s my job to open it.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A False Peace

“Not to give a false sign of peace.” (Rule of St. Benedict, Ch. 4)

I grew up a Presbyterian and one characteristic of Presbyterian preaching that I always enjoyed was the penchant for ministers to come up with pithy, easily remembered, sayings that conveyed a basic truth. If you are familiar with Scott Hahn you will have heard plenty of examples of this. One thing I remember him saying is, “Yes, God does love you just the way you are. But he loves you too much to leave you that way.”

Shortly before I came into the Church, I was listening to a sermon and the minister threw out this comment: “If you are having a hard time getting along with someone, pray for that person. You’ll be surprised how much you will change.”

I think that’s the point Benedict is trying to get across in Chapter 4 of the Rule. You might think the obvious meaning here is more like, if you’re not getting along with someone, don’t let them think you’re taking it. Let’em have it! But no, Benedict didn’t get to be a saint thinking like that.

As I reflect on this sentence, I think Benedict is telling us to look to ourselves when faced with difficult relationships. He wants us to ask ourselves what we are doing to improve the situation. Or better still, what have we done to make the situation worse? He doesn’t want us to be holding a grudge against anyone after the sun goes down. We should deal with these things right away.

Another lesson that might come from this little bit of the Rule is that we shouldn’t pretend to get along with someone when we don’t. We don’t want to just try to get along enough so that we don’t have to face the problem. He wants us to face the issue and do our best to resolve it.

It all comes back to what I heard in that sermon. We need to pray for the people in our lives who we find difficult to get along with, and hope that, somehow, God will change us.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Stability


Sit in your cell as in paradise;
put the whole world behind you and forget it;
like a skilled angler on the lookout for a catch
keep a careful eye on your thoughts. From St. Romuald’s Rule

I just returned from a business trip to Orlando (yes, it really was a business trip). It was the first time I have been out of town for perhaps 3 years and I learned a lesson in stability.

A little background. For a Benedictine monk, stability means more than simply living out one’s life in the monastery of which he is a member. It means a kind of perseverance, an inner commitment to live the life of a monk no matter the circumstances. It means, once committed to a task, that you see the task through to completion. It means not giving up on a particular circumstance just because it is unpleasant or difficult, not running away. In short, it means “sticking with it”, not with grim determination, but with joy.

With this in mind, I have to say that my recent trip was a total, absolute, unadulterated failure. Due to the disruption in routine, prayer was impossible, spiritual reading, not to mention lectio non-existent. I found myself experiencing little outbursts of impatience and temper due to the miserable treatment one receives from the airlines today as a matter of routine. I simply fell to pieces.

One bright spot, albeit too brief, was a side trip to St. Leo’s Abbey which is just northeast of Tampa. From reading John Cassian’s Oblate Blog, and a brief discussion with a lady at the Abbey that I believe to be an Oblate there, I learned they are in the process of redecorating the Church. They have done a very nice job – it looks great. The pictures, below, don’t really do it justice. But, the remarkable thing, something immediately noticeable at any Abbey, was the silence. It was the deep silence that can only come from a placed steeped in prayer. This was true even though the monastery sits not far off a well-travelled highway and next door to a university, St. Leo’s. It was a real relief to be able to spend just a few minutes in that place, after the noise and bustle of a hectic business conference and just being around Orlando. It gave me a slight recharge of the batteries; just enough to get me home with some small semblance of sanity left.








On the trip home, I had time to set and reflect on the experience and I immediately thought of Romuald’s Little Rule. I had new insight into the value of “sitting in your cell.” There is, indeed, a real wisdom in what he is saying, because it’s almost impossible to go out into the world and find anything but disruption if you are trying to live by St. Benedict’s Rule. There is a real reason why Benedict prized stability so highly. If you don’t believe me, just jump on a plane and head for Orlando.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Have a Nice Day

Have a good day!
And the Lord, seeking his laborer

in the multitude to whom He thus cries out,
says again,
"Who is the one who will have life,
and desires to see good days" (Ps. 33[34]:13)?
And if, hearing Him, you answer,
"I am the one,"
God says to you,
"If you will have true and everlasting life,
keep your tongue from evil
and your lips that they speak no guile.
Turn away from evil and do good;
seek after peace and pursue it" (Ps. 33[34]:14-15).
And when you have done these things,
My eyes shall be upon you
and My ears open to your prayers;
and before you call upon Me, I will say to you,
'Behold, here I am'" (Ps. 33[34]:16; Is. 65:24; 58:9). (From the Prologue to the Rule).

Most of us have a good idea of what it means to have a good day. Sometimes, it means that everything seemed to go our way; we had no major difficulties, the weather was great, our boss loved us, we had a day off, we won the lottery, whatever. But, it seems from this short section of the Rule, that’s not what Benedict thinks of when he asks us if we wish to “see good days.”

Benedict says that those who wish for good days will follow just a few simple rules:

1) Keep your tongue from evil;
2) Turn from evil and do good;
3) Seek peace and pursue it.

While Benedict may seem completely out of step with what most people would consider to be a good day, in fact, I think he’s on to something. What is Benedict talking about? I think Benedict is getting to the heart of the matter. If we truly seek “good days”, what we are seeking is something deeper than the experiences of any particular day. He’s trying to tell us how to have good days when everything we touch turns to ca-ca, the weather is lousy, our boss hates us, and we are down to our last dollar in the bank. He wants us to build the interior resources we need to look at every day we are given as a “good day.” I mean, just look around. Everywhere you turn, on the news, in the street, it seems no one is keeping their tongue from evil. It seems that’s all we hear. Conversations nowadays seem to rapidly degenerate to personal name calling and vituperation if any remotely controversial topic, such as Christian faith, comes up. And who is seeking peace? Is it peaceful to have a car pull up next to you with the stereo blasting so loud you can’t hear yourself think? Is there anywhere you can go that you’re not bombarded by someone trying to get their particular message through above all the surrounding din? Are these things really part of a good day?

My own experience has shown me that, when I do indeed guard my tongue, that alone makes things go a lot better. I don’t say negative things, which improves not only my own attitude, but the attitudes of those around me. It makes things much easier. I know that being around people who are always talking others down, or being negative makes the task at hand much harder. It makes social gatherings that much more uncomfortable. It’s just bad news.

I also know that there is much going on just in the media that I need to insulate myself from. It’s hard to turn on any program on TV without being confronted squarely with evil, and constant exposure to evil, even fictionalized evil, leads one to become inured to it. You become desensitized and it becomes much harder to detect the next time you see it. If you have any doubt, just watch a 1950’s sitcom and see if you can tell a difference in the tone of what is displayed.

The heart of what Benedict is saying is, “seek peace.” That’s what all these steps add up to. By focusing on the good in our thoughts and in our speech, by carrying out those thoughts in our actions, and by seeking times of silence and prayer, retreating to our “enclosure”, we are taking positive steps to ensure that all our days are good days.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Instant Messaging, or Gossip at the Gates?



At the gate of the monastery
let there be placed a wise old man,
who knows how to receive and to give a message,
and whose maturity will prevent him from straying about. (Rule of Benedict, Ch 66)

My first thought when I read this the other morning was, what the heck does receiving and giving a message have to do with being the Porter, or guestmaster, of the monastery? The words seemed to jar me awake, they were incongruous and out of place.

Then I thought about a monastery in Benedict’s time, or for, say, 500 years thereafter. From the little I know about the history, it seems there was an almost daily stream of guests who showed up at the monastery gates looking for hospitality, at least for a safe place to spend the night. One of the functions of the Porter was to act as a buffer between these guests and the monks living an enclosed existence within the gates of the community. Benedict seems to have thought it better to have one person in contact with the world than have the entire community exposed and perhaps distracted by these visitors.

Still, in those days before cell phones and the internet, it’s certainly possible that some of those guests had business with the monastery, perhaps with the abbot, or with the cellerar. They might not expect to meet with either of those officials in person, but were probably forced to rely on the Porter to convey whatever message they might wish to be conveyed. It would be very important that the Porter be able to reliably receive the message and convey it to the intended recipient. Also, and this may be a more important issue, those messages might not be appropriate for the whole community to be informed of. It would be important to have a “wise old man” as the Porter because he would, presumably, be someone who could be relied on to keep his mouth shut. He wouldn’t be a gossip.

When I thought about all this, the passage made a bit more sense. But then, I wondered how, or if, this might apply to someone following the Rule today. It seems to me to apply in a couple of different ways. First, Benedict is obviously anxious that as many of the monks as possible maintain their “life style” as much as possible. He doesn’t want them to experience unnecessary exposure to temptations or distractions from the quiet life they have chosen. The role of the Porter is intended to assist with that. Oblates today, don’t have a Porter to help them maintain a sense of separation from the culture we live in. We have to create our own “buffer” against all the noise and distraction of modern life. We have to try to maintain a sense of what we are about as Benedictines and be self disciplined enough to make the right choices; it’s not easy, but we should try to learn discernment in the situations we find ourselves in and the people we choose to associate with. As I said, it’s not easy.

Another point is that we do well to avoid gossip and, as the old saying goes, mind our own business. We should know what concerns us and what doesn’t. I’m learning that’s a sure way to ensure greater peace in my life.

One quick disclaimer. When I mention that Oblates practice a certain “withdrawal” from our culture and that we should discern who we associate with, I don’t mean we should isolate ourselves. After all, the Porter is the agent of welcome and hospitality in the monastery. His role is to allow selective contact with the world, he’s not a guard meant to keep the world out.

So, once again, with words that seems completely out of place, there is still a valuable lesson to be learned from Benedict’s Rule. He’s worth paying attention to.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Partners

from, Chapter 65: On the Prior of the Monastery


It happens all too often that the constituting of a Prior gives rise to grave scandals in monasteries. For there are some who become inflated with the evil spirit of pride and consider themselves second Abbots. By usurping power they foster scandals and cause dissensions in the community. Especially does this happen in those places where the Prior is constituted by the same Bishop or the same Abbots who constitute the Abbot himself. What an absurd procedure this is can easily be seen; for it gives the Prior an occasion for becoming proud from the very time of his constitution, by putting the thought into his mind that he is freed from the authority of his Abbot: "For," he will say to himself, "you were constituted by the same persons who constitute the Abbot." From this source are stirred up envy, quarrels, detraction, rivalry, dissensions and disorders. For while the Abbot and the Prior are at variance, their souls cannot but be endangered by this dissension; and those who are under them, currying favor with one side or the other, go to ruin. The guilt for this dangerous state of affairs rests on the heads of those whose action brought about such disorder.


(DISCLAIMER: The following is a fictionalized account of several meetings I actually participated years ago in while working as a CPA advising businesses on financial concerns. Any characters mentioned are truly the work of my imagination.)

I knew it would be a long meeting when the senior partner of the company I was working with turned bright red, stood up, leaned across the conference room table and punched his co-managing partner in the nose. The two were at an impasse, each refusing to budge from his position in the least, and the old gentleman had had enough. He dealt with an impossible situation in the only way that seemed to remain after attempts at persuasion had failed.

When I think back on this and similar instances I’ve witnessed, I think how they could have been avoided had any of these folks been familiar with this portion of Chapter 65 from St. Benedict’s Rule. They would have known a simple truth, in a monastery or in a business, you can’t have two bosses. Problems inevitably arise when two “equals” disagree on the proper course of action for their organization. Only confusion, disorder, and finally, failure can ensure from such a situation.

But, this isn’t the only important point to be learned from this chapter. For instance, Benedict is clear that the responsibility for a bad decision should rest with the one making the decision. I’m sure we have all worked for bosses who were more than ready to blame subordinates when some plan of theirs failed. More than likely, those are the same folks more than willing to take full credit for great successes achieved by those same subordinates. In either case, Benedict will have none of it. He sees the danger to an organization when such things occur and states firmly that those responsible for bad decisions should bear the responsibility, and the consequences, when things go wrong.

Benedict would also say that those who select lower level managers should be very careful in their choice. They should select someone who is not overly ambitious or out only for him or herself. Lower level managers should also be perfectly willing to accept pre-established limits to their new authority.

In this chapter, Benedict shows keen insight into principles of organizational behavior and management, even though he lived some 1,500 years ago. Yet, the Rule is not really intended as treatise on management. It is a guide for Christian living. Benedict sees that the poor handling of the management of the Abbey can endanger the very souls of all those involved. I think the truth of this can be seen in the incident of the two business partners I described above. The older man displayed a very high level of anger and frustration that could hardly have been good for his eternal future. It is that very type of situation that Benedict is so anxious to avoid.

Oh, you may be wondering what the argument I described above was all about. It was over whether a newly available reserved parking space should be given to the next manager in line, in accordance with long established policy, or whether it should go to the wife of the senior partner to use on her frequent trips downtown for shopping. Hardly seems like an issue to endanger your soul over, does it?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Priorities

It’s not often that I read a book, enjoy it while reading it, then, after mulling over the key ideas, almost wish I hadn’t read it. It happened this past month.

About a month ago, while perusing my book shelves for something to read, I found Frank Bianco’s Voices of Silence, Lives of the Trappists Today. I picked it up and started reading and I thought it provided some interesting insight into the lives of the four or five Trappists who form the main characters of the book. I say “form” because Bianco makes clear in his introduction that the Trappists mentioned by name are composites, made up of many of the monks he met while staying for extended periods at several monasteries both in the US and in France.

The main picture that comes across is that Trappists are:

1) Dedicated to the pursuit, almost single mindedly, of solitude and silence;

2) Resolved to sacrifice everything they have and are for the sake of following Christ;

3) Very tolerant individuals, possessed of a certain degree of wisdom, but open to most of the “progressive” ideas still floating around the Church in the late 1980’s, the time the book was written;

4) An order struggling with the “vocation crisis” that, to some extent, still concerns most religious orders today.

As I got toward the end of the book, the thing I kept thinking was, “How could I ever think about becoming an Oblate”? I had assumed that those who feel drawn to the Oblate “vocation” share certain qualities with those who lived as professed in monasteries. My idea was that Oblates would also share certain key aspects of life under the Rule with monks. I realized though, that I could never be a Trappist monk, as least not as they are described here. I would be one of the ones who washed out after the first year or so; I could not make the kind of sacrifice those men make to become Trappists. If I couldn't be a monk, how could I be an Oblate?

However, I began to think about what I was reading. In this book, there is very little explicit mention of Benedict’s Rule. There is no mention of stability, and only some reference to obedience, the focus is much more on prayer and solitude, and openness to “progressive” ideas, such as the ordination of women. It seemed the focus was a bit out of whack. Either that, or I was greatly misinterpreting what I had read.

I finally came to the conclusion that reading about something, and trying to live out that same thing in real life can be very different things. I’ve learned, and perhaps had forgotten, that it is always better to go to the source if the best information is what you desire. The source, in this case The Rule of St. Benedict, makes one thing clear: The point of being a monastic is to “. . . prefer nothing to Christ.” It seems to me that whether you are a Christian layman or a cloistered monastic, that injunction is at the heart of the matter. If you have your priorities straight, everything else will fall in line.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Crucifying


By miracles exceeding power of man,
He faith in some, envy in some begat,
For, what weak spirits admire, ambitious hate :
In both affections many to Him ran.
But O ! the worst are most, they will and can,
Alas ! and do, unto th' Immaculate,
Whose creature Fate is, now prescribe a fate,
Measuring self-life's infinity to span,
Nay to an inch. Lo ! where condemned He Bears His own cross, with pain, yet by and by
When it bears him, He must bear more and die.
Now Thou art lifted up, draw me to Thee,
And at Thy death giving such liberal dole,
Moist with one drop of Thy blood my dry soul.


John Donne

Holy Thursday

'Twas on a holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two in red and blue and green:
Grey-headed beadles walked before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul's they like Thames waters flow.

O what a multitude they seemed, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit, with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among:
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor.
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

William Blake

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Scriptorium


I plan to start a listing of books that I consider to have been helpful or even decisive in my journey toward becoming an Oblate. I’m not sure I can put these in any particular order of priority as my study and reading on the topic have been over a longish period of time and, at different times I’ve found different books to be more useful. I’ll add to this list as times goes on and try to provide short comments about why I found them to be of value.

Two books that will appear now are both by Wil Derkse, The Rule of St. Benedict for Beginners, and A Blessed Life, Benedictine Guidelines for Those Who Long for Good Days, which was just released in February of this year. Mr. Derkse is a Dutch Oblate and, I think, a college professor in Holland and someone who truly understands what Benedictine spirituality is all about. I like these books especially because Derkse does a wonderful job of bringing monastic spirituality down to earth. He shows how different aspects of it can be applied particularly in work situations which really shows the Rule still has something to say to people today.

One problem with both books is what I suspect is an inadequate translation from the Dutch. There are many passages in each book that are written in poor English, some almost to the point of being incomprehensible in a few cases, and they really detract from the overall quality of the books. I imagine its not easy to find many Dutch-English translators, and I’m grateful to have these books in any form, but I wish an editor had worked more closely with the translator to provide a more polished finished product.

That said, for anyone wishing to learn more about what it means to be an Oblate, these are good books to start with.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

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I’ve been fretting a little about only getting out to Garden of the Gods to get some pictures. Then I read this in the latest issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine.

“The diligent photographer should always have the best photos of any nearby area, simply because he or she can scout the area in depth, and time the snowstorms, flowers, fall colors perfectly. It may seem like fun to go to a new area on every trip, but the pros know that it’s often repeat visits to an area that produce the best images.”

This was written by Glenn Randall who photographs exclusively in Colorado and Utah. He says in the article that he goes to the same places again and again and may spend several days backpacking in to a location only to get one shot that he considers “truly compelling.”

Reading this made me feel better about spending so much time shooting local pictures, but it brought to mind another thought. It made me think of the Benedictine characteristic of stability.

We might think of the Benedictine idea of stability as commitment; it includes the idea of remaining committed to a particular community or course of action once the commitment is made. It means not giving up when things turn difficult or boring. It means seeing a job, or a vow, through to the end and trying to fulfill the daily responsibilities that come with it to the best of our ability. As Glenn Randall says, “it may seem like fun to go to a new area on every trip . . .” but the best results often come with dedication and hard work in the place where we find ourselves. I’ve learned, with hard experience, that running away to find something new and interesting and avoiding the challenge at hand, it seldom the best way to go. Even if it seemed the easiest way out at the time.

It may seem like I’m seeing Benedictine ideals in places where they don’t exist, this analogy may seem like a stretch. I prefer to think of it as seeing the truth of something understood and taught 15 centuries ago as apt today as it was then. And, it gives me a good reason to take another trip to the Garden.