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,
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.”