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.