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


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


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.