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.