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…”
      “But what if she’s…”
      “Sometimes if I…”
      “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.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Chapter 4, Part 6: Tools, continued...

 The tools of good works are these...

From The Laws of Hywel Dda, illustrated by a 14c Welsh monk
(52) To guard your tongue against vulgar or wicked words.
(53) Not to love excessive talking.
(54) Not to speak useless words and words that provoke laughter.
(55) Not to love unrestrained or raucous laughter.

      I almost never regret keeping my mouth shut, but I frequently regret opening it.  And when the time comes for an apology, it’s sad how often I here myself saying, “Gosh, I was only joking.”  Saint Benedict wants his monks to be very careful with their sense of humor.  Laughter can be life-affirming, but it can also break people down, filling their heads with vulgar or cruel images.
      Take my college roommates, for example.  For two years, I lived in a house with seven other rugby players.  We teased one another constantly, and that was okay because, frankly, it was part of the fun of living with seven rugby players.  If any one of us said, did, or implied anything even slightly embarrassing, he could expect to become the butt of every joke in the house.  Those were the rules, and we all understood them.  It was practically on the lease.
      One of the guys (his last name was Ackerman, so we all called him “Ack”) had a habit of posting little signs everywhere.  It was funny because he was 6’6” and 280lbs., but he was also kind of a neat freak. The signs said things like “Please wash your coffee mugs and return them to the cupboard” and “Don’t forget to take the lint out of the dryer when you’re finished.”  As you can imagine, no one obeyed the signs.  In fact, I don’t think we even noticed they were there at first; but pretty soon we started to put up little signs of our own saying things like, “Remember to recycle your earwax” and “Please do not eat the socks.”  Then we started leaving little notes for one another with messages like, “Rudy, I cooked your cat.  Leftovers in the fridge” and “Will, your sister called.  She wants her Barbies back.”  Someone left a note by the phone that just said, “Ack”.  Then someone else wrote underneath it, “your mom” and later, someone else came along and wrote “is dead” underneath it.  What none of us knew was that Ack’s mother had gone to the emergency room earlier that week with chest pains, so when Ack came home and saw the message, he panicked.  He was half way to the hospital before he realized it was a joke.
      That was the end of the funny signs.  And it might have been the end of all seven roommates if Ack hadn’t been such a nice guy.
      You see, there is a line that can be crossed, and it is often difficult to know exactly where that line is.  The funniest jokes, after all, are those that come right up to the line of impropriety without actually crossing it.  This is why—and here’s the serious part—you really need to make sure you know who you’re teasing and how they’ll take it.
      Now, I’m pretty sure Saint Benedict had a sense of humor.  I can’t imagine how anyone could survive the monastic life without one.  What’s more, teasing tends to be the way young people show affection to one another.  But—and here’s my point—you need to be very careful when you tease people.  Because humor, like any powerful tool, can be dangerous.  And often, you can’t really know for sure what is in another man’s heart; so just because your friend is laughing along, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s feeling alright.7
      But here’s one last reason to think twice before you tell a joke: unrestrained or raucous laughter, excessive talking, and vulgar or wicked words get in the way of silence.  And silence, you will recall, is the first language of God.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Chapter 4, Part 6: Tools, continued...

 The tools of good works are these

(48) To keep a careful watch over the actions of your life.
(49) To hold as certain that God sees everything.
(50) As soon as evil thoughts come into your heart, to dash them against Christ.
(51) And to reveal those thoughts to a spiritual father.

      Here Saint Benedict gives us tactical advice on how to fight evil.  Monks are spiritual warriors, and we have to be ever on the lookout for a surprise attack.  So we are constantly reevaluating our strategies, watching the movements of the Enemy and keeping a close eye on our own movements as well.  It isn’t easy and it is sometimes frightening, but we can advance with confidence, knowing that Jesus always has our back.  This, however, can also be a little disconcerting because unlike any other commanding officer, Jesus sees everything.  He is aware the moment I let my guard down.  He’s right there when I fall asleep on watch.  The good news is that He’s not so much out to catch me when I do wrong as to catch me when I’m falling.
      Benedict has a really interesting metaphor here for how Jesus helps us fight temptation:  He is the rock upon which we dash our evil thoughts.  This image actually comes from one of the more disturbing verses of the cursing psalms:  “Unhappy Daughter Babylon, you shall be destroyed.  Blessed shall be the one who pays you back for what you have done to us.  Blessed shall be the one who takes your children and smashes them against a rock.”  Literally, the psalmist is asking God to kill his enemy’s children.  Well, we all feel like that from time to time—or most of us do anyway—and it’s good that there’s a prayer for people who feel that way.  But Saint Benedict sees the “children” as temptations and “Babylon” as Satan’s kingdom.  He envisions us dashing these temptations against Christ himself, who stands just to our left on the spiritual battlefield, unflinching and rock-solid.
      Lastly, Benedict makes an appeal for frequent confession.  We have to name these sins out loud because otherwise, we tend to confuse ourselves with rationalizations or scruples.  I’m reminded of a story from a wonderful novel by Graham Greene called “Monsignor Quixote.”  The hero is an eccentric little Spanish priest, and at one point in the story, he discovers that he is being followed by a mysterious man, dressed in black.  Fr. Quixote is frightened.  He is far away from home—surrounded by strangers—and when he finds himself cornered in a restaurant lavatory by this shadowy stranger, he turns to him with all the courage he can muster and asks him what he wants.  “Bless me, Father,” says the man in the dark suit, “I have sinned against the seventh commandment.  I am an undertaker, and I sell brass handles with my coffins that I remove before the burial so I can reuse them.  I’ve suffered under the weight of this sin for many years, but didn’t have the courage to tell my pastor.”  Fr. Quixote turns to him with an exasperated sigh and says:  “The dead don’t care about those brass handles, and the living don’t know any better.  So what makes you think your parish priest will?  Your sin isn’t stealing.  Your sin is pride.  Now say you’re sorry and go home.”
      It’s funny—even “ha ha funny”—how easily and how often we misjudge our own thoughts.  That’s why we must reveal those thoughts to a spiritual father.

Chapter 4, Part 5: Tools, continued...

The Tools of Good Works

(38) Not to be slothful.
(39) Not to be a grumbler.
(40) Not to be a detractor.
(41) To put your trust in God.
(42) To refer what good you see in yourself, not to yourself but to God.
(43) But as to any evil in yourself, be convinced that it is your own and hold yourself responsible.
(44) To fear the day of judgment.
(45) To be in dread of hell.
(46) To desire eternal life with all spiritual longing.
(47) To keep death daily before your eyes.
      Do you know why monks wear black?

      To remind us of our death.
      Kind of morbid, eh?  Or maybe not.  “The chief characteristic of the Christian,” wrote Saint Augustine “is to watch daily and hourly, standing prepared in a state of total responsiveness pleasing to God, knowing that the Lord will come at an hour that he does not expect.”  This is the mark of a Christian.  And yet, I’ll bet that very few of us, when we wake up in the morning, seriously consider the possibility that the world might end today.  But I know a group of people who do.  And they aren’t cultists or crazy people.  They live together at the Clarkson Home for the Elderly.  I say mass out there once month, and these folks at the Clarkson Home consider it a real possibility that their world will come to a sudden and immediate end.
      Since most of them sleep through my homilies anyway, I like to really do the whole hellfire and brimstone thing when I preach.  In fact, the louder and more animated I get, the more they seem to enjoy it.  So I really sock it to them.  And for their part, they tend to take what I say with a sizeable grain of salt.  So I was on a real rampage one Sunday.  I was preaching on the book of Ecclesiastes, and I shouted, “Vanity!  Vanity!  All is vanity!  Who knows?  Any one of you could be dead tomorrow!”
      Madeline, who sits in the front row, woke up just long enough to say, “Heck, I expected to be dead three weeks ago!”
      I thought to myself, now I understand why Jesus had such a soft spot for the poor.  Because, they get it.  They are that much closer to death than the rest of us—and they realize, whether they like it or not, that each day is a gift of God.  And because they know that, they have no trouble seeing the urgency of Christ’s message.
    Now, it happens that I had an experience a few summers ago, where I too came face-to-face with the reality of my own death.  I spend a few weeks every summer in Ocean County, New Jersey where my parents live, and I found, to my delight that the surf at Seaside Heights was really up.  I also found, to my distress, that a fourteen foot great white shark had been frequenting my favorite spot.
      I went surfing anyway, because I grew up surfing, and when you’ve only got three weeks to catch a year’s worth of surf, you just have take what you’re given.  And really, what are the odds of getting eaten by a shark, right?  Well…they are very, very slim.  Unless you are surfing close to a hungry shark, in which case, the odds increase exponentially.  So there were maybe five guys out at the pier when I arrived, and they didn’t look worried—or eaten—and the surf was four foot and glassy, so I waxed up my board and paddled out..
      To make a long story short, I wasn’t out more than five minutes when I heard the words that every surfer hopes he will never hear.  Someone on the beach yelled ‘Shark!” and when I looked up, I saw, about ten yards to my left, a great grey fin sliding toward me through the surf.  Laughing, crying, screaming hysterically, the six of us paddled as fast as we could for the shore.
      Obviously I made it back in one piece.  I still have all my fingers and toes, and so do the other five guys I was with…but I had two great moments of clarity during that short, frantic paddle back to the beach: first, I learned that you can’t paddle a surf board if you’re too scared to put your hands in the water; and second, that while the world as a whole may not end any time soon, my own particular world could end at any moment.  And many of the things that worry and distract me about this present life, are of no consequence to the next.
      Which brings me to a final paradox, namely, that if we set our sights on the next world, we will get this world thrown in.  If we set our sights on this world, we’ll end up with nothing at all.  John Cardinal Newman wrote, “What Christ asks of you is not sinlessness, but diligence.  Every day you live longer, more will be required.  You cannot be profitable to him even with the longest life; you can show faith and love in an hour.”

Monday, September 2, 2013

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

The tools of good works are these...

(34) Not to be arrogant...
(35) Not to be given to wine.
(36) Not to be a great eater.
(37) Not to be drowsy.

      Here again, Saint Benedict argues for moderation.  Eating and drinking are necessary, pleasurable, and good.  But being given to wine or to be a great eater is not ideal.  And it is especially inappropriate for monk, whose life is a living witness to the kingdom of heaven.  Drowsiness, though?  Is there really anything wrong with that?  In college, I used to say that life was what happened between naps, and that is still fairly true for me today.  If you keep active, rise early, work hard and exercise, you might well be drowsy from time to time.  What Benedict is referring to, however, is a sort of spiritual drowsiness.  Saint John Cassian called it “acedia” or lethargy.  It’s the kind of drowsiness that makes us comfortable with mediocrity.  For this reason, Monks read the following prayer every night before they go to bed.  It’s from the First Letter of Saint Peter:  “Brothers, be sober.  Be vigilant. For your enemy the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to eat.”
and good.  But to be