Saturday, December 28, 2013

CHAPTER 22: How the Monks Are to Sleep

Each monk should have a bed of his own, and should sleep fully clothed.  However, he should not where his knife to bed lest he roll over and stab himself in his sleep.
In this way, the monks will be ready to rise each morning as soon as the signal is given. Then let them hasten to the Work of God, each striving to outdo the rest in fervor—but with seriousness and civility.  The younger brethren should not have their beds next to each other, but intermingled with the older ones; and rising for the Work of God, let them gently encourage one another, because sleepy monks like to make excuses.


     Where did this chapter come from?  We just had just had twenty chapters on holiness…now sleeping arrangements?  The next chapter is on excommunication, so I have to wonder what was going through Benedict’s mind when he suddenly decided to insert a chapter on sleeping.  And what’s the deal with the knives?  Is Benedict just writing down whatever happens to pop into his head?
Or is there something else going on here?
     Look closely at what he has to say.  Look at how he has the monks “always ready” to do spiritual battle.  Notice the very military feel of this chapter.  Notice that the job of the deans appears to be that of keeping the young monks from getting rowdy at night.  Now it begins to pull together, doesn’t it?  Prayer is serious business, and Benedict wants his monks to take it seriously.  If you’re up all night messing around, you’re going to be very little use at prayer the next morning—if you show up at all.  And just because you can’t see the enemy doesn’t mean he isn’t there.  It’s no good having our soldiers fall asleep when they are on duty.  And frankly, that goes for any good Christian.  I am of the opinion that 50% of a healthy spiritual life is simply getting to bed on time.
    But now a word about the knives.  I’m proud to say that the Order of Saint Benedict is the only religious order that has a stipulation in its rule regarding how we are to handle our weapons.  I never get tired of this rule, though I’ve had few occasions to obey it.  Still, when my students complain that I am too strict (“I thought monks were supposed to be nice!” they say), I remind them to read Chapter 20, and point out that Attila the Hun ravaged Europe—but avoided the monasteries whenever possible.   And it wasn’t because Attila liked monks.  I just have to assume that when it came time to attack the walled enclosure full of celibate men armed with knives and nothing to lose…he decided just to skip the monastery and attack another village instead.  Besides that, Jesus never told us to be nice.  He told us to be good.  There’s a difference.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

CHAPTER 21: Of the Deans of the Monastery

     If the monastery is large, let brethren of good repute and holy life be appointed Deans of the community; and let them take care of their deaneries in everything according to the commandments of God and the directions of their abbot. The abbot, for his part, should choose men that he can trust to share his burden. Let them not be chosen for their rank, but for the merit of their life, their wisdom, and their knowledge.


    The name “dean” comes from the Latin decanus, an ancient military term for a soldier who commanded a unit of ten men.  In a very real sense, all Christians are milites Christi—soldiers of Christ.  But monks and nuns are, in the words of a close friend of mine “the special forces.”  We make certain sacrifices that others aren’t willing to make and we fight battles that others aren’t necessarily prepared to face.  Therefor, this sort of military vocabulary is uniquely appropriate to our vocation; and since the stakes are so high, the officials and the chain of command must be very carefully determined.
     Monastic leaders are not, however, chosen on the basis of rank or age or even competency, but rather for their holiness.  Remember that Christ’s priorities are very different than those of the World at large, and the qualities that might make for good leadership outside the monastery walls (qualities like strength, ambition, charisma…) don’t necessarily make for good leadership inside the monastery walls.
     Merit, wisdom, and knowledge are what count for most in the monastery. But these are good qualities to keep in mind whenever you are looking for spiritual advice.  They are also very good qualities to keep in mind when you are choosing your friends.  Sadly, though, what’s cool and what’s virtuous aren’t always the same thing.  Rock stars and athletes may be admirable in many respects, but I am always astonished when they are called upon to speak about political or social causes.  Just because some guy may be a good actor doesn’t mean he has any authority to make pronouncements on social issues.  Nonetheless, we seem to give extraordinary weight to their opinions, even when they prove themselves utterly unworthy of our esteem.
     Remember this when you need to make important decisions.  Don’t let disk jockeys and television personalities form your conscience. Instead, seek out wise, knowledgeable people, and listen to them.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

CHAPTER 20: Of Reverence at Prayer

     When we go to visit someone powerful, we do it with courtesy and respect.  How much more courteous and respectful should we be when we visit the Lord God of all things? Let us be assured that it is not in many words, but in purity of heart and tears of contrition that we are heard.  For this reason prayer ought to be short and pure, unless, perhaps it is lengthened by the inspiration of divine grace. At the community exercises, however, let the prayer always be short, and the sign having been given by the Superior, let all rise together.

     Two of the greatest writers in American history—Earnest Hemingway and William Faulkner—used to fight over whose writing style was superior.  Hemingway liked to write in short, choppy sentences with words that everyone understood.  Faulkner preferred long, flowing sentences and fancy words.  (In one of Faulkner’s novels, a single sentence went on for thirty-five pages!)  Once, in an interview with a magazine, Faulkner made the mistake of criticizing Hemingway’s writing in this way: “Earnest Hemingway has no courage,” he said, “he has never climbed out on a limb...has never used a word where the reader might check his usage by a dictionary."
William Faulkner and Earnest Hemingway
     A few days later, Hemingway responded, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”  Both were right in their own way, of course.  A thirty-five page sentence can be tedious, but so can a whole book of sentence fragments.  The key is to do everything—even prayer—in moderation.  Although Saint Benedict might be more of a spiritual Hemingway, he allows for the possibility that the Holy Spirit may inspire you to pray longer.  Nonetheless, it is a great error to confuse quality with quantity.  Your prayer isn’t better just because you use a whole bunch of words.  God is easily pleased, but not easily impressed.
     Speaking of which…I was visiting a parish not long ago when I noticed a kid in line for communion wearing a t-shirt that said, “Jesus is my homeboy.”  I guess I can see how that might help to break down some barriers when it comes to cultivating a personal relationship with the Lord; but remember that Jesus is also the author of the universe.  Would you really wear a t-shirt and shorts to go see a guy like that?  Then maybe it’s not such a good idea to dress that way for Sunday mass.
Which bring me to one final observation: In all of Benedict’s talk of prayer and perfection, one thing is conspicuously missing.  For hundreds of years, commentators have worried over why Benedict never leaves instructions for the one perfect prayer without which none of this would be possible, namely, the Mass.  He refers to it in passing, but has no advice as to how or when his monks should celebrate it.  Most scholars think that the reason he left this out was because the Church already had so many rules in place.  There just wasn’t any need for him to make more.  But I myself wonder if perhaps the mass was so central to Benedict’s life that it never occurred to him to write about it.  I once asked an old monk what the Eucharist meant to him.  He just looked at me, bewildered, and said, “What does air mean to me?  What does the beat of my heart mean to me?  I can’t say.  I just know that my life would stop without it.”
    Pray as often as you can and as sincerely as you are able.  But remember that it all boils down to that one perfect indispensable prayer that Jesus gave us on Holy Thursday: THE EUCHARIST.  All other prayer finds its source and summit in that.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

CHAPTER 19: How to Pray

     We believe that God is present everywhere and that the eyes of the Lord behold the good and the bad in every place (cf Prov 15:3). Let us firmly believe this, especially when we take part in the Work of God; and always be mindful of what the Prophet says, "Serve the Lord with fear" (Ps 2:11). And again, "Sing wisely" (Ps 46:8). And, "I will sing praise to You in the sight of the angels" (Ps 137:1). Therefore, we should keep always in mind how we ought to behave in the sight of God and His angels, and let us so stand to sing, that our mind may be in harmony with our voice. 
     When I was in graduate school, I took a class on Renaissance literature.  I remember that one of the kids in the class asked the professor a question about a poem we were reading called The Fairy Queen.
     “Did the author consider this a Fantasy?” he asked.
     “No,” said the professor.  “The thing you have to remember about people back then is that they really believed there were angels and demons all around them, fighting for their souls.”
      The kid laughed and said, “Imagine that!”
      I remember being a little annoyed and thinking that I really ought to say something.  Instead, a girl in the class raised her hand and said, “I don’t have to imagine that.  I believe it.” 
Certainly Saint Benedict believed it as well.  But it is a belief that is easy to forget.  Seeing is believing, as they say, and these days, folks tend to think that if it can’t be measured or touched, then it must not exist.  Well, we may not see God, but God sees us, and He sees everything we do—even the stuff we’re ashamed of.  All around us, his angels are fighting a pitched battle for our souls.  And this isn’t just my old-fashioned opinion.  This is Church teaching.  There are demons and angels all around us.
      We really believe this.
      But do we act like it?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

CHAPTER 18: In What Order the Psalms Should Be Said

     First, say the verse, “God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me”(Ps 69:2), then “Glory be…” followed by the hymn for each Hour. At Prime on Sunday, say four sections of the 118th psalm…However, if this distribution of the psalms doesn’t work, use a different arrangement, provided that the whole Psalter—all one hundred and fifty psalms—is said every week, and that it always starts over again at Sunday Matins.  After all, we read that our holy forefathers eagerly accomplished in a single day what we lukewarm monks should, please God, perform in a week at the very least.

    Saint Benedict is uncompromising when it comes to the essentials.  Monks must pray.  They must pray frequently, earnestly, and attentively.  They must pray the psalms—all of them.  At the same time, however, Saint Benedict is a realist.  He has the humility to recognize that his particular style might not be best for everyone.  And so he gives his successors permission to adapt the Rule as circumstances dictate.
    Herein lies a paradox at the heart of the monastic life: flexibility on the one hand, and uncompromising certainty on the other.  Finding this balance is very difficult, and it takes a great deal of practice, wisdom, and humility.   The trick is to know which of your convictions are essential and which really ought to be more flexible.  As Saint Augustine said, “unity in essentials, freedom in non-essentials, charity in all things.”  But it’s hard sometimes to know what’s essential and what isn’t, which is why monks have an abbot and everyone has a bishop.  That way, we can be flexible and open-minded without having to worry about compromising our integrity.  Put briefly, obedience is where we draw the line.
Origen of Alexandria: "Check out this cool skull I found!"
     I had a professor at Oxford who tutored me in Patristics.  (That’s the study of the early Church and its theologians.)  Patristic history can be divided pretty neatly according to which heresy was most powerful at any given time: from Arianism to Pelagianism to Nestorianism to Monophysitism, and so on.  Each heresy had its own special theologian, and there was always someone on the Catholic side who argued with him.  So Arius argued with Athanasius, Pelagius argued with Augustine, Nestorius argued with Cyril, Apollinaris argued with Basil…  As you can imagine, all these names got pretty confusing after a while, so whenever a new name would come up, I’d ask, “Is this a good guy or a bad guy?”  I’d circle the bad guys’ names with a red pen and the good guys’ names with a green pen.  But then I came across a guy named Origen.   He said lots of good things and lots of bad things too.  So I asked my professor, “Which pen do I use?”  He smiled and said, “Neither.  They’re all good guys…until they disobey.  Until they actually insist on their own opinion against the dogma of the Church—until they actually disobey—they’re just wrong.  Being wrong doesn’t make you a bad guy.  Being stubbornly wrong does.”

Thursday, December 12, 2013

CHAPTER 17: The Arrangement of the Other Hours


Now that we have established the order of the psalms for the night and the morning office; we should arrange for the other Hours. At the first Hour let three psalms be said separately, and not under one Gloria. Let the hymn for the same Hour be said after the verse, “God, come to my assistance,” but before the psalms are begun. Then, after the completion of three psalms, let one lesson be said, a verse, the Kyrie, and the collects….

    Each hour of the Divine Office begins with the phrase “God, come to my assistance.”  It is particularly beautiful in Latin: Deus in adiutorium meum intede, and if you say it enough times in a row, it begins to take on a certain meditative rhythm that melds with your breathing, your footsteps, your heartbeat…I like to say it while I’m exercising, and I’ve known monks who built their entire spirituality around that single phrase.  Part of what makes it so powerful is that, in no more than five words, it incorporates all four traditional classifications of prayer—contrition, petition, adoration, and thanksgiving.  This is how the Church Fathers explained it:

    Contrition (Atonement):  God come to my assistance, bring me relief from temptation and forgiveness of my sins.
    Petition: God come to my assistance, strengthen my faith and give me the strength to help others.
    Adoration: God come to my assistance, for you are God and nothing exists apart from you. 
    Thanksgiving: God, come to my assistance.  The courage to ask is itself your gift, and I know your answer before I’ve completed my request: “Ask and you shall receive.” (Matthew 7:7)


    Saint John Cassian told his monks that they should say this prayer as often as they possibly could.
“Every monk who wants to be aware of God should be in the habit of meditating on this phrase ceaselessly in his heart, because it embodies every possible human emotion and adjusts itself to every condition and attack. It contains a prayer to God in the face of any crisis, the humility of a devout confession, the watchfulness of constant concern and of constant awe—a consciousness of one’s frailty, the assurance of being heard, and confidence in a protection that is always present and at hand…if I want to eat too much…if I have a terrible headache...if anger or depression or jealousy overwhelm me...If I can’t seem to focus on my work...if I have insomnia or nightmares...In every one of these cases, I should cry out with all my strength, “God, come to my assistance, Lord, make haste to help me.” (Adapted from John Cassian: The Conferences, translated by Boniface Ramsey, OP)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

CHAPTER 16: How the Work of God Is to Be Performed during the Day


The Prophet says: "Seven times a day I praise You" (Ps 118:164), and this sacred number will be fulfilled by us if we perform the duties of our service at the time of Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.

    Saint Benedict is careful to preserve this sacred number—seven—in the daily prayer schedule  of his monks.  In terms of structure, this allows for a morning prayer (Matins), a noon prayer (Sext) and an evening prayer (Vespers) with smaller prayers in between so that we never really stop.  Of course, the number seven has its own ancient historical and theological implications as well. In the Old Testament, seven is the perfect number because it is the number of days God took to make the cosmos.  So too, the book of Revelation uses the sacred number throughout.  Of course, there are also seven sacraments, seven deadly sins, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and not least of all, seven virtues.  So having seven prayers in the day makes for the “perfect” amount, theologically speaking.
    Obviously, not everyone can make time in their day to go to church this often, but what if, just as an experiment, you actually tried to say seven prayers each day?  Perhaps this would make a good exercise for Lent.  They don’t need to be big fancy prayers.  Even just an “Our Father” or a “Thank you, Jesus” should suffice.  The point is to keep interrupting yourself so that you never forget that you are in God’s presence.
     I once knew a monk who set the alarm on his digital watch to go off every thirty minutes.  Whenever he heard the alarm, he would stop what he was doing and say an Our Father.  It was actually pretty annoying, but no one could accuse him of neglecting his prayers.  To one degree or another, we must all build such reminders into our day.  Otherwise, we begin to lose track of our priorities, the first of which should be the worship of our Creator.

Friday, November 29, 2013

CHAPTERS 15: Concerning the Occasions When ‘Alleluia’ Should be Said



Then from holy Easter until Pentecost let the Alleluia be said without exception—with the psalms and with the responses.  However, on all Sundays outside of Lent, let the canticles, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, and None be said with Alleluia. Let Vespers be said with the antiphon; but let the responses never be said with Alleluia (except from Easter to Pentecost).

Saint Benedict devotes a whole chapter to this one word: Alleluia.
During Easter especially, the monks sing Alleluia like it was going out of style.  We sing it during the opening prayers and during the psalm responses, in hymns and before the gospel, at all the hours of the Divine Office and even before we go to bed at night.  There’s Alleluia all over the place.  It’s like a big truck of Alleluia overturned in our driveway and we’ve been swimming in it ever since.  “Of all the Christian mysteries,” says Saint Leo the Great, “we know that the paschal mystery is the most important.”  So we respond with the Alleluia, which is our song of triumph and joy.
            There is time, of course, for meditating on the sufferings of Our Lord.  After all, Saint Paul instructs us always to keep our eyes fixed on Christ crucified.  And to be sure, no Christian church—no Christian home—is complete without a crucifix.  But adoration, thanksgiving, praise, and blessing are what it’s all about, and these, Saint John the evangelist tells us, will be dissolved into a single expression of religious devotion:  “I heard what sounded like the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven saying: "Alleluia!  Salvation, glory, and might belong to our God…then a second time: "Alleluia!” …then the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who sat on the throne, saying, "Amen. Alleluia." …and a voice coming from the throne said: "Praise our God, all you his servants, and you who revere him, small and great." And I heard something like the sound of a great multitude or the sound of rushing water or mighty peals of thunder, as they all said: "Alleluia!”
This is why Holy Mother Church repeats this word throughout her liturgy.  She would have us all be living Alleluias—souls fundamentally ordered to God—obsessively, compulsively God-centered in everything we do.  So the monks repeat this Alleluia again and again throughout the Easter season.  Then we repeat it some more when it’s not the Easter season.  We repeat it and repeat and repeat it until our whole life becomes a hymn of praise to the glory of the Father.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

CHAPTER 14: Concerning Saints Days


         On the feasts of the saints and on all solemnities, let the night office be performed as it would be on a Sunday; except that the psalms, the antiphons, and the lessons proper for that day should be said.
I used to worry that being a monk would be boring.  I was wrong.  In fact, I often wish it were more boring than it is.  Even so, the prayers can feel repetitive at times, so the Church in Her wisdom has arranged the liturgical year in such a way that it is punctuated by feasts, fasts, seasons, and solemnities, all of which are accompanied by special devotions and patterns of prayer.  So a ‘normal’ day in the life of a monk turns out to be rather uncommon.  That’s actually pretty great though, because it keeps us on our toes and focused on what we’re doing, which is, after all, the Work of God.
The important thing to remember is that venerating the saints is a way of celebrating the mystery of Christ’s Body.  It is a way to acknowledge that we are all in this together—we, the living members of the Church, but also the deceased members of the Church together with all those who have made it to Heaven.  Traditionally, we refer to these three groups as the Church Militant (us living folk), the Church Suffering (the folks in Purgatory), and the Church Triumphant (the saints in Heaven).
In this way, we remind ourselves of the consoling truth that we are never alone.   We don’t fight this battle in isolation, nor are we saved in isolation, nor do we enter Heaven in isolation.  In other words, it’s not enough merely “to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.”  We humans are social beings.  God Himself is a social being.  We need the support of all our brothers and sisters in Christ—the living ones as well as the dead, who intercede for us even now.[1]


[1] Here are some of my favorite, though lesser-known saints:  Saint Hilarius, Saint Mamas, Saint Blathmac, Saint Radbod, Saint Mungo, Saint Olav the Thick, Saint Wigbert, Saint Wilibald, Saints Boris and Geb, Saint Lando, Saint Rudolph, Saint Barfhion, and my all-time favorite, Saint Tron.  You can go with Anthony or Francis, of course, but I like to think that, since these saints don’t have all that many fans, they’ve got more time to spend listening to me…

Monday, November 11, 2013

CHAPTER 13: How the Office of Lauds is to be Sung on Weekdays


      No community is without friction.  Therefore the morning and evening office should never end without the Lord’s Prayer.  The superior himself should say it in front of everyone so that the brethren will be reminded of their promise when they say “Forgive us as we forgive others.”  In this way, they will cleanse themselves of such failings.

      Saint Benedict insists on saying the Our Father at the beginning and at the end of the day.  Because when you’ve got this many guys living together, there’s bound to be disagreements—even very serious ones.  We need, therefore, to remind ourselves to forgive one another before the day even starts.  Then we need to do it again at the end of the day to be sure we’ve lived up to that promise.  This is an easy monkish practice for anyone to adopt, and I highly recommend it.  As Saint Paul says, “Do not let the sun set on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26).  At the end of the day, take an inventory of all the people who have angered you, and forgive them. Then you can go to bed.
      Mind you, forgiveness doesn’t mean hiding your anger or covering it up with pleasant feelings.  Forgiveness is an act of the will, so whether you feel like it or not, you have in fact forgiven your enemies the moment you ask God for the strength to do so.
      A few years ago, I was asked to preach at my best friend’s wedding.  I find it fairly easy preaching to strangers, because they don’t know what a hypocrite I am.  But my friends know about all the trouble I’ve caused.  It’s hard to think of anything serious to tell them.  So I did what I always do when I’m running low on wisdom: I went looking for the oldest monk in the monastery.  I found him asleep in a chair in the Calefactory (that’s monkish for living room).  “Wake up, Father,” I said, “I need something to tell my buddy at his wedding.”  Father Patrick opened his eyes, looked around the room for a moment, then said, “Tell him that there will come a day when he will want the window open and she will want the window closed.”  Then he went back to sleep.
      It took me a while to figure out what he meant, but the longer I live in community, the more I get it.  You see, when it comes to living with someone, everything boils down to forgiveness.  “Love is patient and kind,” says Saint Paul, “it is not arrogant or rude. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13:4).  So true love is more about endurance than it is about chocolates and teddy bears.  We prove our love at precisely those moments when the people we love test our patience, put a strain on our kindness…tempt us to anger.  “Love,” says Saint Paul, “Is not irritable,” but how would we know this if the ones we loved were not so irritating?  Love is truly love—and not just infatuation—when it proves itself in the crucible of suffering.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

CHAPTER 12: Concerning the Office of Lauds

  Let Psalm 66 be said without an antiphon, drawing it out a little, that all may arrive for Psalm 50, which is to be said with an Alleluia. After this let two other psalms be said according to custom.  Then let the psalms of praise follow; then one lesson from the Apostle, the response, the Ambrosian hymn, the verse, the canticle from the Gospel, the litany, and it is finished.


The name, ‘Lauds’ comes from the Latin laus meaning ‘praise’ or ‘glory’.    Once the night is over and the sun has risen, the monks come back to church and sing another set of psalms.  We do it right after dawn to celebrate the victory of light over darkness—the rising of the Sun (and the rising of the Son).  Remember that the office of Vigils began with “How many are my foes, O Lord.  How many are rising up against me” (Psalm 3).  But Lauds begins on a completely different note with Psalm 66: “Shout for joy to God, all the earth!  Sing to the glory of his name!”

The sun has risen.  The battle against evil is won. 

But the Rule of Saint Benedict is no feel-good self-help book.  No “I’m okay.  You’re okay” here.  Sure, Benedict wants his monks to be happy, but he wants real happiness, not the lollipops-and-glitter happiness that you see on TV; because there is no true happiness without penitence.  Until we have a really accurate understanding of our sinfulness, until we recognize the depth of our unworthiness, we can’t possibly appreciate the miracle of our redemption.

And this is where guilt comes in.  Folks are always criticizing Christians for their sense of guilt as though it were something that keeps us repressed and miserable.  But I’m not convinced that guilt is such a bad thing.  After all, if you do something bad, you should feel guilty about it, just as when you see something evil, you should feel angry about it.  Perhaps our parents’ generation spent too much time feeling guilty about stuff, but I don’t think that’s our problem.  We may indeed have problems with low self-esteem (the popularity of reality television suggests as much), but I have to wonder if that’s because we don’t feel guilty enough.  Think about it: why do you feel guilty when you do something bad?  Because you have done something unworthy of yourself.  Get rid of that guilt, and what do you have?  Someone who does something bad and is okay with it because that’s the sort of person he is.[1]

At Lauds (as at Mass), we start off our celebration by first acknowledging our sinfulness and unworthiness—by coming face-to-face with our guilt—only then can we start the party.  Why?  Because we know that all of creation and life itself is a gift.  We doesn’t deserve any of it, and we doesn’t have to earn it either.  So we sings, “Shout for joy to God, all the earth!  Sing to the glory of His name!”


[1] One proviso: There’s a difference between guilt (feeling bad for doing a bad thing) and shame (the self-punishment and self-hatred that comes from obsessing over it).  When you feel guilty, you say to yourself, “I did a bad thing.”  When you feel shame, you say to yourself, “I’m a bad person.”   Guilt is a good thing.  Shame—of the sort I’ve described—is not.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

CHAPTER 11: How the Office of Vigils is to be Said on Sundays

      The monks should wake up even earlier for the night office on Sunday.  And this should be done the same way in all seasons.  After the usual lessons and psalms, three canticles should be chanted with Alleluia; once the Abbot has given his blessing, four passages from the New Testament should be read, followed by the Te Deum.  Then the abbot should read a lesson from the Gospel, while the rest of the community stands in fear and trembling.
      If—God forbid—the brethren should rise too late, some of the lessons or the responses may have to be shortened. But try to be sure that this never happens. If it does, let the monk responsible make due satisfaction to God in the oratory.


    Saint Benedict only foresees one occasion when the monks should cut short the Sunday prayer: when, by some accident, they fail to wake up on time.  And whoever is at fault needs to make an apology to everyone in church—including God.  Prayer, you see, is fundamentally an act of justice.  We owe God our prayer.  It’s not something we do for ourselves (though of course there’s a lot to be gained), and it certainly isn’t a favor we do for God (though of course it pleases Him).  When we neglect our prayers, we are actually cheating God out of something that is His due.  Truly, Jesus has a right to a personal encounter with each of us.  And the privileged time and place for that is Sunday at church.
    Obedience, however, shouldn’t be our only motive for going to mass on Sunday.  Our true reason for being there is gratitude.  The Eucharist is God’s gift to us, and the church is the most powerful locus of prayer at our disposal.  In fact, those who really understand this make a point of going to church more than once a week.  They realize that, since humans are built for prayer, the more we pray, the more powerfully human we become.  Moreover, when we pray together in Christ, we are ‘no longer strangers and guests, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the capstone.” (Ephesians 2:19)
    When Saint Benedict reflects on how his monks should say their Sunday prayers, he uses this unusual phrase: cum honore et tremor—“with honor and trembling.”  Benedict wants his monks to feel the importance of the Sabbath.  Sure, we’re obliged to be there on pain of our immortal souls, but more importantly, we are privileged to be there.  We are honored to be there, and we tremble at the magnitude of that honor.  Of course, that’s hard to do when you’re sleepy or the music doesn’t suit your taste or the congregation is obnoxious and lukewarm.  At times like these, we have to try to see with the eyes of faith.  Whenever I want to get psyched up about going to mass, I reread this quote from the Anglican monk, Gregory Dix:
    “For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the government of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to superstition because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna…for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God" (The Shape of the Liturgy, p.744).
     Is that awesome or what?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

CHAPTER 10: How Vigils is to Be Said During the Summer

      From Easter until November, let the whole psalmody be sung just as we described it in the previous chapter.  However, because the summer nights are shorter the readings from the book should be omitted.  Instead, let one reading from the Old Testament be said from memory. Let a short response follow this, and let all the rest be performed as described earlier; namely, that never fewer than twelve psalms be said at the night office.

      In this chapter, we see again how Saint Benedict is willing to make concessions to human weakness.  The summer nights are short.  The monks will need their sleep.  And even if they are the “Spiritual Special Forces of the Church,” still no good can come of mistreating the body.  Our lives need to be suited to prayer, but without a certain amount of rest, comfort, and nourishment (and I might add beauty), real contemplative prayer is impossible.  As much as Benedict loves the liturgy, he agrees to cut it short for the sake of our health.
      There is, of course, a larger issue at stake here as well.  Human beings have a tendency to go to extremes, especially when we get excited about something.  In the spiritual life, this can be especially dangerous because so much more is at stake, and if the Devil can’t get us to do the wrong thing, he’ll try to get us to do the right thing in the wrong way.  In monk circles, we call this “the fervor of novices”—that tendency of rookies to want to do everything straight away.  I have a similar problem with my rugby players.  They always want to scrimmage on the first day of practice.  But until you have learned to tackle correctly, it’s downright dangerous to play the game.  And this holds true for prayer as well.
      The day I entered Saint Louis Abbey as a postulant, I swore to myself that I would never again have a lustful thought. That resolution lasted all of fifteen minutes, so I decided to postpone it until my novitiate.  When that time came, however, I found that I was still bothered by the same lustful thoughts.  I had been reading a biography of Saint Francis of Assisi, and I came across a passage that said when he had lustful thoughts, he used to go roll around in a rose bush; so I said to myself, if Saint Francis can do it, so can I.  And I went out into the garden behind the monastery and jumped into one of our rose bushes.
      Unfortunately, I had failed to take into account three important differences between Saint Francis and me:  First, that Saint Francis jumped into a wild rose bush, which has considerably smaller thorns than the cultivated variety; second, that Saint Francis was naked when he did it, so he didn’t get his clothes tangled up; and third, that Saint Francis was a saint.  Rolling around in a rose bush might be a good thing for a saint to do, but for the rest of us, it’s kind of stupid.
      To make a long story short, I got stuck in that rose bush and spent a very uncomfortable hour and a half trying to get out—then another awkward twenty minutes or so trying to explain myself to the monk that found me there.  Once my novicemaster had finished laughing at me, he explained to me about the fervor of novices and added that in the future, I would do well to check with him before attempting any further feats of asceticism.  Of course, I ignored that advice as well, and wound up giving myself ulcers by fasting too much.  But that’s another story.
        What I learned from this particular humiliation was that prayer, like any human endeavor, requires practice and moderation.  It also requires a certain amount of discipline, and if you really want to make progress and avoid hurting yourself, you do well to find a spiritual director—someone old and wise enough to let you know when you’re selling yourself short, or just as importantly, when you’ve gone too far.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

CHAPTER 9: Concerning the Psalms at Vigils

      Having first said the verse: “God, come to my assistance; Lord make haste to help me,” the monks should then say, “Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise” (Ps 50[51]:17). Next the third psalm and the Gloria are added. After this the ninety fourth psalm with its antiphon should be chanted. Then follow it with a hymn, and six more psalms…

      Saint Benedict really loves the psalms.  He says that monks should pray all one hundred fifty of them as often as possible.  In fact, in the old days (and by ‘old’ I mean fifteen hundred years ago) some monks used to say the entire lot of them every single day.  At my monastery, it takes us two weeks, but we repeat several of the psalms daily.
      These short prayers from the Old Testament are especially important because they are the prayer of the Church.  Along with the Eucharist, they are the most comprehensive, most perfect, most beautiful prayers we can offer to God.  They span the entire breadth of human spirituality, from gratitude and joy to loneliness and rage.  Moreover, they are the prayers that Jesus himself said throughout his ministry, the prayers he said on the cross, and they are the prayers that he continues to say to His Father.  So any time you want to be most intimately united to Jesus and His Body, the Church, all you have to do is pick up the psalms and start reading. As Saint Athanasius wrote in a letter to his friend, Marcellinus, “All Scripture teaches virtue and true faith, but the psalms give us a complete picture of the spiritual life… Therefore it is possible for us to find in the psalms not only the reflection of our own soul’s state, together with rules and examples for all life’s twists and turns, but also the perfect words to please the Lord for each of life’s occasions, words both of repentance and of thankfulness.”

      Then let the Abbot give the blessing. Once everyone is seated, let three lessons be read alternately by the brethren from the book on the reading stand.  In between each reading, let three responses be said. Let the inspired books of both the Old and the New Testaments be read at the night offices, as the commentaries of our most eminent Catholic Fathers.  After these three lessons with their responses, let six other psalms follow, to be sung with Alleluia. After these let the lessons from the Apostle follow…
     
      Notice the scrupulous attention Saint Benedict pays to the arrangement of the psalms, responses, lessons, commentaries, meditations and readings.  There’s some debate among smart people as to where exactly he got all this.  Clearly part of the arrangement comes from the pre-Christian synagogue, where psalms and readings alternated with blessings, petitions and so forth.  Other parts appear to have originated in Rome and Milan.  He seems to have adapted other parts from the Rule of Saint Basil, and still others from the writings of Saint Athanasius and the desert monks of earlier centuries.  One way or another, Benedict found a balance between the rigor of the Desert Fathers and the elegance of Rome.
      You can, of course, find this pattern reflected in the layout of the Liturgy of the Word during Mass, with its two readings, responsorial psalm, and gospel.  It is an ancient and very powerful rhythm of worship, which progresses from Old to New Testament, linking them in such a way that each enriches the other.  And since the world is so big and so full of monasteries, you can be assured that at any given moment there is a monastic community somewhere praying in this way.
       Go ahead, then.
       Join them.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

CHAPTER 8: Concerning Night Prayer


      During the winter months, the brethren should wake up for prayer a little after midnight.  The remaining time should be used to study the Bible. But during the rest of the year, let the hour for saying the night prayers be so arranged that after a very short interval (during which the brethren may step out to use the restroom) the morning prayers may follow at dawn.
 
     
      Man is made for prayer.  That is our primary purpose as God’s creation, and Saint Benedict devotes twelve straight chapters to it: how and when to say prayers, what words to use and where to use them, who is to lead the prayers and which order they take.  So at certain times—day and night—the monks all drop what they’re doing, run to the church, and chant the psalms.  Saint Benedict calls this the Opus Dei—the Work of God.  In the wider Church it is often referred to as the Divine Office.      Benedict begins his guide to the Divine Office with a description of night prayer, or Vigils [ from the Latin word vigilia which means “wakefulness” ].  Traditionally, this takes place around midnight, though many communities say Vigils just before dawn.  The important thing is that they say it while it’s still dark.  This is because the dark of night represents all that is frightening and dangerous.  [ Have you ever heard a scary story that didn’t take place at night? ]It is the time when we are most vulnerable to our enemies, both physical and spiritual, so it is precisely then that we need prayer the most.  Anger, lust, intemperance, depression…all these demons are somehow more likely to emerge at night than during the daylight hours.  For this reason, monks recite this prayer from Saint Peter’s first letter before they head off to bed:  “Brothers, be vigilant, for your enemy, the Devil is prowling about like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat.”
      But we don’t pray just because we’re afraid.  In fact, strictly speaking, the Devil has no power over us at all, so there is nothing really to fear.  The reason we interrupt our sleep is because we want to obey Jesus’ command to “pray without ceasing,” and by working these regular interruptions into our day and night, we hope to cultivate a greater awareness of God’s presence. [ The classic work on this subject is Brother Lawrence’s “The Practice of the Presence of God.”  Have a look at it.  As spiritual books go, it’s a pretty easy read. ]  After all, nothing human is outside the domain of prayer—not sleep, not work, not even sin.  So long as we keep reminding ourselves to pray, we can, by the Grace of God, sanctify every hour of the day and night.
      Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night to pray?  If not, I recommend you give it a shot.  Set your alarm for two or three in the morning.  Then just get up for about thirty seconds and kneel by your bed.  Say an Our Father or something.  Then go back to sleep.  I really think you’ll be amazed at the results.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

CHAPTER 7: Humility


      Brothers, the Holy Scripture cries to us saying: "Every one that exalts himself shall be humbled; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted" (Lk 14:11; 18:14). Therefore, brothers, if we wish to reach the greatest height of humility, then we must build the ladder which appeared to Jacob in his dream, by means of which angels were shown to him ascending and descending (cf Gen 28:12).

      People often ask me, “What is your secret?  How is it that you can be so incredibly humble?” [1]
Blushingly, I point out that my secret can be found in Chapter 7 of Saint Benedict’s Rule.  In this chapter, our holy father outlines a twelve-step, fool-proof, crash course in pride loss.
      That’s right!  Twelve easy steps!  No dieting, no strenuous workouts, just follow these twelve simple steps and watch your pride melt away!  Here it is, free of charge, for a limited time only:
     
Step 1. The first degree of humility, then, is that a man always have the fear of God before his eyes (Psalm 35[36]:2), shunning all thoughtlessness so that he is constantly aware of all that God has commanded.
Sure, it’s better to love God, but when you’re not feeling the love, at least feel the fear.  “Keep in mind,” says Saint Benedict, “that all who despise God will burn in hell for their sins.”

Step 2. The second degree of humility is, when a man does not love his own will, nor is pleased to fulfill his own desires but by his deeds puts into practice that word of the Lord which says: "I came not to do My own will but the will of Him that sent Me" (Jn 6:38).
Don’t be in love with your own will.  In fact, on a regular basis, deny yourself something—just to show your will that you’re in charge.

Step 3. The third degree of humility is that, for the love of God, a man subjects himself to a Superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord, of whom the Apostle says: "He was obedient even unto death" (Phil 2:8)
Obey your parents.  If you become a monk, obey your abbot, if you get married, obey your spouse.  There’s always someone who deserves your obedience.  And all of us obey the teachings of the Church.

Step 4. The fourth degree of humility is, that, if difficult things are commanded, in fact, even if injuries are inflicted, he accepts them with patience and self-restraint.  He never gets tired or gives up but keeps at it, as the Scripture says: "He that shall persevere unto the end shall be saved" (Mt 10:22).
Embrace suffering when it comes your way.  Don’t go looking for it, but if you have to suffer, remember that Jesus suffered, and that this is an opportunity to suffer with him.  In so doing, you will help redeem the world.

Step 5. The fifth degree of humility is that one should never hide from his Abbot any of the evil thoughts which rise in his heart or the evils committed by him in secret.  Instead, he should confess them.  Concerning this the Scripture urges us, saying: "Reveal your way to the Lord and trust in Him" (Ps 36[37]:5).
Go to confession.  And when you do, try to think of that one thing you REALLY don’t want to mention—then mention it.

Step 6. The sixth degree of humility is that a monk should be content with the lowliest and worst of everything, and in all that is demanded him, considers himself an unworthy workman, saying with the Prophet: "I am stupid and I never get it right; I have become like a dumb animal in your presence, and yet, I am always with You" (Ps 72[73]:22-23).
Be content when you’re treated badly.  Remember that if someone insults you, there must be some level on which you had it coming.  And what’s more, every insult is an opportunity to practice humbling yourself.

Step 7. The seventh degree of humility is that not only with his tongue he declares, but also in his inmost soul he believes that he is the lowest and most useless of men, humbling himself and saying with the Prophet: "But I am a worm and no man, scorned by everyone—an outcast" (Ps 21[22]:7).
Remember that there is something you’re bad at.  No one is good at everything, and everyone is good at something.

Step 8. The eighth degree of humility is that a monk does nothing but what is authorized by the rule of the monastery and the example of his elders.
Do what you’re told when your told it.  Or better yet, watch the people you respect, and imitate them.

Step 9. The ninth degree of humility is that a monk should hold his tongue from speaking, and keeps silence until he is asked; for Scripture shows that "in a multitude of words sin is always present" (Prov 10:19).
Learn to love silence.  As the saying goes, it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Step 10. The tenth degree of humility is that a monk should not laugh easily or quickly, for it is written: "The fool lifts his voice in laughter" (Sir 21:23).
Be careful what you laugh at.  The funniest jokes are almost always cruel.

Step 11. The eleventh degree of humility is that when a monk speaks, he should speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with solemnity, with few and sensible words, and that he not speak with a loud voice, as it is written: "The wise man is known by his few words."
When you do speak, speak gently.

Step 12. The twelfth degree of humility is that a monk should not only be humble in his heart, but also should appear so to all that see him; namely, at the Work of God, in the garden, on a journey, in the field, or wherever he may be, sitting, walking, or standing, let him always have his head bowed down, his eyes fixed on the ground, saying to himself in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said: "Lord, I am a sinner and not worthy to lift up my eyes to heaven" (Lk 18:13)
Be mindful of what you’re looking at.  King David had to learn this lesson the hard way.
     
      In this manner, says Saint Benedict, having ascended all these steps of humility, you will arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear.  Having sown that tiny mustard seed of humility, the Kingdom of Heaven will spring up in your soul and become a great tree.


[1] Actually, they don’t.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Chapter 6: Silence

      Let us do what the Prophet says: "I will be careful of my ways; and so that I do not sin with my tongue, I have set a guard to my mouth, and kept silence even from good things" (Ps 38:2-3).  Here the prophet shows that, if at times we ought to refrain from useful speech for the sake of silence, how much more ought we to avoid evil words on account of the punishment due to sin.  Therefore, because of the importance of silence, let permission to speak rarely be given to perfect disciples even for good and holy and edifying reasons.
      Fr. Timothy Horner is the oldest monk at our monastery.  He’s six foot two, with a patch of red hair sprouting from his head like a moss.  He’s been all around the world, has a degree in Classics from Oxford, he served with the British Special Forces in India during World War II, and he is one of the founding monks of our monastery.  He is the direct descendent of “Little” Jack Horner (remember the nursery rhyme?) and he is the most noble man I have ever met.  I have never heard Fr. Timothy raise his voice, I have never heard him use more words than were necessary, and I have never seen him visibly upset by anything.
      As part of my novitiate, I took a class from him on The Rule of Saint Benedict (which he himself translated).  Fr. Timothy was always early for these classes, and more often than not, I was late—huffing and puffing, pages of notebook paper flying—and a ready excuse on the tip of my tongue.  But on one occasion, Fr. Timothy was late for class and I was early.  I made sure all my notes and books were in order, and was rehearsing a rebuke for him when he walked into the novitiate. But he never gave me the chance to rub it in.  He made no excuses, no apologies, nor did he say anything at all as he calmly sauntered into the room, laid his books on the table, and placed a small white piece of paper in my hand.  On it were written these words:  “God’s first language is silence: everything else is translation.”
    The first thing you will notice if you ever visit our monastery (or any other for that matter) is how quiet it can be.  And the silence itself can be a bit of a shock, especially if you’re young.  Yet silence is so very important.  The great composer, Claude Debussy once said, “Music is the silence between the notes.”  Isn’t it a shame that we live in a society that so fears silence!  We turn the radios on in our rooms, the TVs on in our dens, the stereos on in our cars...and when we’re not near any of these places, we plug ipods into our ears—anything to avoid silence.  Yet silence itself is the language of God!
      I’ll let you in on something I just recently learned myself: set aside a few minutes each day to just to be quiet, and you will find that you instantly become a more peaceful person.  Turn off the TV and the radio.  Try not even to think about anything.  Make yourself empty for a few minutes and see what happens.  “We need to find God,” said Mother Theresa, “and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence... We need silence to be able to touch souls.”

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

CHAPTER 5: Obedience

      The first step toward humility is obedience without delay…A humble monk will instantly quit his own work and giving up his own will and leaving unfinished whatever he was doing, set about what he is told with the ready step of obedience,.  This obedience, however, will be acceptable to God and agreeable to men only if what is commanded is done without hesitation, delay, lukewarmness, grumbling or complaint.

      Obedience is an unpopular virtue.  No one likes to be told what to do, and these days more so than in past ages, people like to do their own thing.  “I did it MYYY WAAAAY,” sang Frank Sinatra.  (Three failed marriages, an alcohol addiction, and at least one illegitimate child later, one might justifiably ask whether his way was really the wisest, but that’s between him and God.)  My point is that when you insist on doing everything your way, what usually happens is that you repeat someone else’s mistakes.  Frankly, every angst-ridden adolescent in the world rebels against his parents.7  If you want to be revolutionary and unique, try obeying them.  Try following THE Way and not just your way.  But again, this requires humility.  It requires that you admit there is someone in the world older, wiser, or smarter than yourself.  For a Catholic, that someone is Holy Mother Church (more on humility in Chapter 7).
      The purest and most gracious example of obedience is, of course, Our Lady.  The most startling aspect of her personality is her complete obedience to Divine Providence.  When she said that earth-shattering “yes” to God’s angel, she couldn’t possibly have known how gloriously her own story would end—or how much pain she would have to endure getting there.  In fact, as scholars and exegetes are quick to point out, she had every reason to believe that her life would be short and tragic.  Yet she responded to God’s invitation with heroic obedience.  Dom Paul Delatte, in his great commentary on the Rule of Saint Benedict, calls this obedience “supernatural docility.”   “This same docility,” he writes, “is what gives our monastic life its authentic character.”
    Now “docile” is not a adjective I would easily, enthusiastically, or even very accurately ascribe to myself or to many of the people I like. To the modern ear, it sounds anything but heroic.  Can you imagine, for example, Superman being described as “docile”?  Or the Incredible Hulk?  Or George Washington?  Or Rambo?  Yet, in the presence of God’s will, what are the alternatives?   Saint Bernard, in his famous sermon on the Annunciation, reflected in the most vivid terms, on that moment between Gabriel’s message and Our Lady’s answer—when the whole Cosmos held its breath, all the angels stopped what they were doing, and all the demons cringed in anticipation of Mary’s “Yes.”
      “Let it be done to me as you have said” is really much more than a “yes” because it submits to a complete unknown. So often, we find ourselves saying: “If I only knew God’s will, I would do it.”  Well, sure.  Who wouldn’t?  The point is to accept God’s will without knowing it.  To sign our lives onto a blank check.  That is what is meant by Christian obedience. 
      “Let it be done to me as you have said.” 
      One would think that, in light of a decision of such magnitude, Mary might have stopped to consider all the options and insisted on making an informed decision, but unlike most of us, she simply gave herself over:  “I am the handmaid of the Lord.  Let it be done to me as you have said.”  Her response doesn’t expect a reward—couldn’t possibly have foreseen it.  Yet we read in the book of Revelation that she is clothed in the sun and crowned with stars.  God literally gives her the moon.  He will not be outdone in generosity.
      Writes Saint John of the Cross, “Drink of the Chalice of Jesus.  Close your eyes and do not seek to know what it may contain.  It is enough to know that Jesus offers it.”

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Chapter 4, Part 10: Tools, continued...

The tools of good works...

(73) And never to despair of God's mercy.

      It is especially important that Saint Benedict ends his list of dos and don’ts with a note on despair.  No one is going to get all these steps right, and by the time you get to the end of the list, you are likely to feel as though the whole endeavor is hopeless.  That’s okay.  Just don’t focus too much on your own efforts.  An evangelical friend once asked me if I knew I was saved.  Apparently, he did; but for my part, I couldn’t honestly give an answer one way or another, so I called up my parish priest.  I put the question to him, and this is what he said: “When I think of myself and all the lousy things I’ve done, I’m pretty sure I won’t go to heaven.  When I think of God and His mercy, I’m pretty sure I will.  So I try to stay focused on God.”

Friday, September 13, 2013

Chapter 4, Part 9: Tools, continued...

The tools of good works are these...

(69) To honor the aged.
(70) To love the younger.
(71) To pray for one's enemies in the love of Christ.
(72) To make peace with an adversary before the sun sets.


      These are the last five of Benedict’s tools of good works, but they are the most important tools for getting along in community.  Notice that you must pray for your enemies and make peace with them.  Notice also that the younger members of the community must honor the older members.  That should make the seniors feel good, shouldn’t it?  But notice too that the senior members must love the younger ones.  That means more than just looking out for them.  It also means being an example to them.  Because that honor that the young ones show their seniors is rooted in obedience.  They will admire and imitate good behavior, but they will also observe and imitate bad behavior.  So the pressure is on.  You may be young, so maybe you think you’re off the hook; but there’s surely someone younger than you nearby, and that person is watching.  You not only have to be good, you have to look good too.  And that is much more difficult than showing honor.
      This should remind you of Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  Remember that he told the Ephesian women to be submissive to their husbands.  Then he told the Ephesian men to love their wives—to love them, he said, as Christ loves the Church.  I enjoy watching the congregation on Sunday when this reading comes up, because everyone gets really uncomfortable when we start talking about “submissive wives.”  And that’s when my mind drifts back to my teenage years, and to my summers with Margaret.
      You see, when I was a teenager, I took up praying mantises as a hobby.  Galveston Island, where I grew up, was particularly good for mantids because the winters were extremely mild, and the bugs were plentiful, so it was rare—but not unheard of—for these insects to grow a full six inches or longer.  I built elaborate wicker cages with trap-doors and detachable rooms to facilitate feeding, and I have to say that there are few memories from that period of my life more vivid than the hours I spent watching Margaret—my largest mantis—devouring her prey.  Mantises are notable for being the most human of the insect world.  They are the only insects, for example, that can rotate their heads right and left.  What’s more, they stand upright when they eat, and Margaret, I’m pleased to say, was capable of eating a cricket with such delicacy, you almost forgot how disgusting the whole thing was.
    Mantises, of course, are also famous for their bizarre, beautiful, and uniquely horrifying mating ritual.  And although I was never that interested in observing this ritual first-hand, I felt obliged to provide her with a companion.  After all, she was so…human.  I was thrilled, therefore, when I managed to trap a male mantis and to introduce him to Margaret.  Males are a good deal rarer and much smaller than females of the species.  None-the-less, Charles and Margaret immediately took to one another, and for sheer passion and mutual affection, even Romeo and Juliet would have been hard pressed to compete.  That is, of course, until Margaret ate Charles.
    And so for me, this became a metaphor for the relationship Saint Paul describes in his letter to the Ephesians:  Margaret’s unhesitating submission, Charles’ complete self-giving.  Submission, after all, does not always entail a weak or obsequious surrender.  And self-giving inevitably involves self-sacrifice.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Chapter 4, Part 8: Tools, continued...

The tools of good works are these...

(63) To fulfill daily the commandments of God by works.
(64) To love chastity.
(65) To hate no one.
(66) Not to be jealous; not to entertain envy.
(67) Not to love strife.
(68) Not to love pride.

      The first time I read #64, it struck me as extremely odd.  In fact, it still strikes me as odd.  Perhaps that is because I associate the term ‘chastity’ with all the things I shouldn’t do.  And from what I can tell, that’s how most people think of it.  When I teach moral theology, my students inevitably ask, “When I’m on a date, how far can I go before it’s a sin?”  But that question kind of misses the point, doesn’t it?  A better way to put it might be “What is the best way to be chaste on a date?”  After all, you’d never ask a teacher, “What’s the least amount of work I can do to pass this class?”—at least not to his face.  And you would certainly never ask your coach, “What’s the slowest I can run this race?”  At any rate, you wouldn’t ask a question like this if your goal was to do well.  So if your goal is to get to heaven, then asking, “What’s the least I can do?” is the wrong attitude.
      Of course, there are many different ways of answering the question.  When he teaches the same segment on chastity, our Father Bede walks into the classroom and writes “NO” on the chalk board.  Then he says, “Today we’re going to talk about chastity.  Any questions?”
      Sooner or later, someone raises his hand and says, “Is it ok if we…”
      “No.”
      “But what if she’s…”
      “No.”
      “Sometimes if I…”
      “No.”
      “But what if we’re…”
      “No.  If you have to ask the question, the answer is no.”
      His point, I think, is that when you are affectionate with someone whom you find attractive, there is a certain line that separates that chaste exchange of affection from the pursuit of lust.  We all want to get as close to that line as we can without crossing it.  And when you start to ask the question, it’s because you want to push that line a little further and need a good excuse.
      But Saint Benedict says to love chastity.  How do you love something that is always “No”?  Anything good is loveable, after all, and chastity is good. So here’s how I put it: feel free to do anything you could brag about to your mom.  And when it comes to how you dress, imagine the Mother of God in that outfit—or Jesus.  Does it really seem appropriate?  If so, then you’re probably good to go.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Chapter 4, Part 7: Tools, continued...

 The tools of good works are these...


(56) To listen willingly to holy reading.
(57) To apply one's self often to prayer.
(58) To confess one's past sins to God daily in prayer with sighs and tears, and to amend them for the future.
(59) Not to fulfill all the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16).
(60) To scorn your own will.
(61) To obey the commands of the Abbot in all things, even though he himself (God forbid) behaves otherwise, calling to mind that saying of the Lord: "Do what they say, not what they do" (Mt 23:3).
(62) Not to desire to be called holy before you are; but to be holy first, that you may be truly so called.

      I think a whole book could be written about just these seven tools.  Pretty much all the elements of monastic spirituality can be found here: listening, frequent prayer, confession, self-discipline, obedience…  But the most interesting part comes at the end.  Saint Benedict, it appears, was comfortable with the idea that his monks might want to be called holy. 
      But I have to ask myself: if a monk wants to be called holy, isn’t he being prideful?  What place can ambition have in a monastery of all places, where one comes to pursue a life of humility and self-denial?  If a monk wants other people to know how holy he is, isn’t he giving in to the sin of vainglory?  Apparently not.  Or at least Saint Benedict doesn’t seem to think so.  And he has the Scriptures to back him up.  In his letter to Timothy, Saint Paul himself boasts:  “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.  From now on, the crown of righteousness is mine!”
      At first glance, this can be confusing, because we tend to equate humility with self-deprecation: “Oh, it was nothing, really.”…“Oh, it’s just something I threw together”…or my own personal favorite;  “I’m the biggest sinner of them all”(which actually turns out to be a form of boasting, doesn’t it?)  No, the secret to true humility is not self-deprecation, but self-knowledge.  So if you really are good at something, it is no act of humility to belittle your talents.  When you do that, you just wind up insulting God, who gave you those talents in the first place.  I remember watching an interview with Mother Theresa many years ago; the journalist said to her,  “Many people say that you are a saint.  How do you feel about that?”  I was expecting her to dismiss the complement—wave her hand in the air and say something like “Oh, that’s ridiculous,” or, “People say all kinds of silly things.”  Instead she said, “We are all called to be saints.”  And left it at that. 
    I have a friend whom I met at Oxford whose family lives in a castle.  I went to stay with him for a few days during one of our breaks, and when we pulled up his driveway, and I saw this enormous piece of architecture that he calls home, complete with its own pond, tennis courts, golf course and chapel, I looked over at his mom and I said, “Wow!”  His mom looked at the house and then at me and then back at the house again and she said, “Yes, it’s wonderful.  We are blessed.”  You would have expected her to say something like:  “Well, it needs work,” or, “Thanks, but it’s really hard to keep up.”  Instead, she looked at this beautiful place and thanked God for it.  That is true humility.
    So when folks praise God for some gift that you have, there is no sin in acknowledging the gift.  In fact, it would be a sin to deny it.  The thing is, though, humble people are often the last ones to admit it, because the holier you get, the less holy you feel (or so I’ve heard).  For this reason, a lot of people get discouraged when they pray, because their sins seem to jump out at them.  On one level, they actually feel worse than ever.  But this is natural, because the closer we draw to the perfect holiness of God, the more our own imperfections stand out against the pure light of His holiness.
    And that’s where tools 56 through 62 come into play.  You won’t achieve holiness of body or soul without them.