Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Black and White in Ferguson

Now published Here:
America Magazine

There is an audio version  here.

No monk should ever defend another in the monastery.  Nor should he take sides in an argument…We decree that no one should be permitted to ostracize or to strike any one of his brothers; and if any monk should break this rule, let him be publicly reprimanded, that the others may learn from his mistake.
        --The Rule of Saint Benedict

    In two consecutive passages, Saint Benedict outlines how a monk should respond when he encounters discord in his community.  He shouldn’t lash out, even if he feels justified.  And he shouldn’t choose a side, even though he may think he knows all the facts.  Instead, he should listen—as he is compelled to do by the opening words of the Rule itself: he “inclines the ear of his heart” (Prologue, 1.1).
    Like most people in North America right now, I’ve been thinking about Ferguson.  Or rather, I’ve been wondering what I should do about it.  But I live in a monastery in a suburb of Saint Louis that was recently ranked #12 of the twenty-five most affluent neighborhoods in the North America.  What do I know about urban poverty or racism?
    So last week I asked permission to drive out to a prayer service in Ferguson, and I caught a ride with my friend Dennis who works here at the abbey.  Dennis is black, and Dennis lives in Ferguson, so I asked him in the car as we were driving out to the service what he thought of the protests.  Of course, he smiled and avoided the question.  “I don’t want any part of that.  I’m just trying to get on with my life.  Those people are making trouble.  They aren’t even from the neighborhood.”
    “But they aren’t the only ones making a scene,” I said.  I wanted to press him for a real answer because how else is a white guy like me from West County going to understand this situation if I’m not willing ask some awkward questions?  “Are the cops racist?” I asked.  “How come black people keep getting shot?  And why is everyone so angry?”
    “The police have always been like that,” he said.  “It isn’t going to change.”
    Of course I noticed that this second answer was a bit different from the first.  And I figured if I asked a third time, maybe I’d get a real explanation.  I said maybe things should change.  I said clearly something must be wrong or this many people wouldn’t be this angry.  I asked him why so many black people seem to think the police are racist.
            “There are good police and bad police,” he said.  “But I’ll tell you this much: I’ve been pulled over three times in your neighborhood.  I don’t know why they’ve got to be pulling me over that many times except that they see a black man on this side of town and assume he must be up to something.”
    Three times.  My friend Dennis has been working here for eight years, and he has been pulled over three times.  I’ve lived here for eighteen years and I’ve been pulled over once: for doing 45 in a 30, and the cop let me off with a warning.  So I pushed Dennis a little further.  I asked more questions.
    And he continued: “A few weeks back, my car broke down and I had to walk the rest of the way to work,” he said.  “A guy sitting on his front porch called the police on me.  Just for walking down his street at eight in the morning.  I know he did because I watched him do it as I walked by.  Sure enough, two patrol cars showed up.  Look here, I’m just trying to make money, you know?  Trying to get by.  I don’t need that shit.”
    There was the anger.  It took some time for me to pry it out of him, but sure enough, it was there.  And here’s the thing: my friend Dennis is a family man—a married man with three children and two jobs who pays his taxes and pays his rent on time and goes to church on Sunday and educates his kids just like the rest of us. 
    While I was thinking about this, Dennis started to back off a little.  Maybe he felt self-conscious.  Maybe he felt like this kind of talk wasn’t something I needed to hear.  Or maybe he was afraid I’d judge him for it.  “But you know, that’s just how things are,” he said, “I don’t have time to be angry about it.”
            Dennis doesn’t have time for the anger.  He doesn’t want the anger.  He’d rather live his life without the anger.  And that was pretty much all I was going to get out of him.  He didn’t want to talk about it any more.  I don’t blame him.  He doesn’t want to be lumped in with the looters, the bottle-throwers and arsonists.  He has smaller fish to fry—like making a living.  Like taking care of his kids.  Like getting to work on time (provided he doesn’t get pulled over on his way here).

    Well then, I have this other friend named Charles Lutz.  He’s a policeman from around here, and he helps with security on campus at our school when he’s off-duty.  So I told him about Dennis and how he’d been pulled over three times, and how when his car broke down, someone called the cops on him.
    “I hate that,” said Officer Lutz.  “Honestly.”
    Hate what?
    “I hate that some old racist with nothing better to do has to call the cops just because he sees a black man walking down his street.  It embarrasses me.  It’s a waste of my time.  Plus, I’m the one who ends up looking like a jerk.  And the worst part of it is, a peaceful citizen gets harassed by the police.”
    “You don’t have to harass him,” I said.
    “Look here,” he said.  “Yesterday, we get a call from a jewelry store owner here in town because there are two black men in his store ‘acting suspicious.’  Is it a crime to be black in a jewelry store now?  Of course not.  Do I want to drive over there and get in the middle of that?  Of course not.  And how do I even walk into the store without making those guys feel like dirt?  But what happens if I ignore the call?  What happens if I decide not to drop by and, God forbid, those two guys do end up robbing the place?  Then who gets blamed for that?  I’m caught in the middle.  And I hate it.”

    So here’s the situation the way I see it: on the one hand, you’ve got white cops all across the country who are angry and embarrassed and don’t want to be in the middle of this ugliness.  On the other hand, you’ve got black men all across the country who are angry and embarrassed and just want to be left alone.  There’s righteous anger on both sides.  And that means they’re trapped.  Both sides are being squeezed into a conflict that neither asked for—and by forces way beyond their control.
    These forces, however, are not, I believe, beyond our control.  I believe we can disarm this trap (or defuse it or unwind it) if we stop focusing on the riots and the protests and even the shootings themselves.  I think we can begin to restore peace to our city if, instead of lashing out or taking sides, we simply stop to listen.  And maybe if we listen patiently to this anger—if we ask the awkward questions and really listen to the answers—practical solutions will emerge.

    There is an eighth-grader here at our school named Max.  A couple of weeks ago, he and his older brother asked their mom if they could drive down to Ferguson to help with the cleanup.  She said absolutely not. (And I don’t blame her.  No sane mother is going to give her kid permission to hang out at a riot.)  Still, Max and his brother felt they needed to do something, so they went online and looked up a list of the businesses that had been damaged.  They found the name of one of the owners and called her on the telephone.  She hung up on them.  So they drove out to her house and knocked on her door.  For three and half hours, they sat in her living room and listened to her anger.  And it turned out that unless they had $20,000, there wasn’t much they could do.  Well, that was the answer, wasn’t it?  They went home, started an online petition, and eight days later, they had raised $20,608.  And Maria Flores rebuilt her business.
    When Max and his brother saw injustice, they didn’t lash out in anger.  They didn’t choose a side.  They listened carefully.  They reached out with their hearts, and the answer spoke itself.  Now Max can help change Ferguson, so can we.  Let’s start really listening.  And if one of you hears an answer, let the rest of us know. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

CHAPTER 61: How Other Monks Should be Received

   If a monk from another monastery comes to visit and is satisfied with the customs he finds here, and does not trouble the monastery with excessive demands, let him be received for as long as he likes. Furthermore, if he has advice about how things might be done differently (and he makes his complaint with humility and charity) let the abbot consider carefully whether the Lord did not perhaps send him for that very purpose.
    If a visiting monk has some criticism to offer, the abbot should take it seriously.  But this can’t be easy.  No one likes to be told how to run his own house.  Still, a fresh pair of eyes might notice something that the abbot and his community have missed.  Ironically, one of the universal truths of human existence is that “birds of a feather flock together.”  It’s much easier to listen to people we agree with, so we favor the company of people who think like we do.  But this makes it difficult to have a balance opinion.  If we were truly open to new ideas and anxious to broaden our horizons, we’d seek out people we don’t agree with, and hang out with them instead.
    In the fifth century, BC, there was guy who actually lived this way.  His name was Socrates.  He used to spend his days walking around Athens seeking out (and questioning) people he didn’t like.  He’d spend all day grilling them until he found a hole in their arguments.
    Socrates was a brilliant, charismatic, and honest man.  But he did this all day every day, and pretty soon the Athenians had him killed.  After all, no one can handle that kind of interrogation on a regular basis.  It’s just too annoying.  But before he died, Socrates had time to teach his method of argumentation to a few young disciples, and they passed it on to others, and eventually, it became known as “The Socratic Method.”  It’s a really great way to argue, especially if you have the patience and charity to really listen.
    It works like this:
    Before you start arguing with someone, let them know that you are interested in their opinion.  This is harder than it sounds, especially if they’re wrong and you know it.  But understand that they will be much more interested in hearing your opinion if they think you understand theirs.
    Next, repeat what they have to say.  Repeat their own words back to them so that they know you are really listening.  This is important for you too.  Maybe you have been hearing something that they didn’t intend.  Maybe you’ve been reading too much into their argument.
    Lastly, ask questions.  Lots of questions.  Anywhere that you see a contradiction or an omission, instead of pointing it out, ask a question about it.  If there’s a point you’d like to make, keep asking questions until they make the point for you.
    I’ll give an example.  I once had an encounter with a Fundamentalist who told me I was sinning because, as a priest, I allowed people to call me “Father.”  At first, this annoyed me.  After all, I hadn’t asked this guy for his advice.  But instead of explaining the title to him, I took a deep breath and said, “So you say that I am sinning whenever I allow someone to use that title?”
    “Yes,” he answered, “because Jesus said, ‘Call no man Father.’”
    “Well, you’re right there,” I said, “That’s straight out of the Gospel of Matthew:  “Call no man ‘father.’  There is but one Father in heaven” (23:9).  But I’m a little confused.  What if a child wants to address his…um…male genetic predecessor.  Does he have to find another word?”
    “That’s different,” he said.
    “How?” I asked.
    “Jesus was only referring to spiritual fatherhood, not genetic fatherhood.”
    “But I thought he said to call no man “Father.”  Are you telling me that he meant only the men who didn’t have actual children of their own?  What about adopted children?  ”
    The conversation went on a good while longer, but you get my point.  Instead of just telling him he was wrong, I explored his claim with him until he finally admitted that there were exceptions and that the passage couldn’t be taken literally.  I don’t think he changed his mind, but I think I learned something about his opinion, and he came a step closer to understanding mine.
    The Socratic Method is very Benedictine because it revolves around listening.  It also requires a great deal of humility because, no matter how stupid, arrogant, or wrong-headed your adversary may be, you have to be willing to let him teach you.  After all, as Saint Benedict points out, it may be the case that “The Lord has sent him for this very purpose.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

CHAPTER 60: Priests Who Ask to Join the Community

If a priest asks to be received into the monastery, do not agree to it too quickly; still, if he persists in his request, let him know that he must keep the whole discipline of the Rule, and that nothing will be relaxed in his favor. He may, however, be asked to celebrate Mass or give a blessing, but only if the abbot says so.  If the abbot does not ask him, then he should not presume to do anything, knowing that he is under the discipline of the Rule, and let him rather give an example of humility to all. His rank in the community should correspond to the time of his entry into the monastery, and not to the place granted him in consideration of the priesthood.

     Why did God make you?
     God made you to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.
     Whatever your job is, whatever your gifts are, no matter where you come from or where you think you’re headed, the purpose of your existence is to know, love, and serve God.  All the rest is icing on the cake.  You may be a priest, a cop, a doctor, a fireman, a blackjack dealer or a telemarketer, but your ultimate purpose on this earth—your fundamental human dignity—is the same: you are a child of God.
      Benedict wants to make this clear right from the start, especially when an older man decides to join the monastery—a man who has, perhaps, grown accustomed to running his own life and to a certain level of prestige in the workplace.  He may have had a distinguished career, he may have attained power and influence in the World, but once he sets foot in the monastery, he’s just another monk.  Clearly, this is going to be very difficult for him, which is why Benedict wants to be sure he’s there for the right reasons.  The monastery isn’t a retirement home, and Jesus doesn’t want your leftovers.
     But what is the abbot to do when a priest asks to join the monastery?  Here the issue becomes still more complex, because ordination has a spiritual dignity and prestige that will carry over into the monastic life.  And it is the one vocation—the only vocation—that absolutely cannot be left outside the wall.  A man who is already accustomed to leading a parish, conducting liturgies and hearing confessions may think he is entitled to a certain level of respect.  He is.  But from here on out, he is a monk first.  Anything he does must be accompanied by the deepest detachment, and only with the permission of the abbot.
     We can take from this an essential lesson about life: our dignity as human persons does not rely on our gifts, our careers, our achievements or our test scores.  It doesn’t even depend on our vocation.  We are all infinitely valuable because we are children of God.  When we learn to acknowledge that dignity in ourselves, we won’t have to feel like we need to prove it to others.

Monday, November 3, 2014

CHAPTER 59: Rich Children and Poor Children Who Come to the Monastery

      Whenever a rich family offers their son to God in the monastery, let his parents write out the promise which we have mentioned above; and with the offering, let them wrap that document and the boy's hand in the altar cloth and so entrust him to the community.
      As for their property, let them bind themselves under oath in the same document that they will never try to give him things nor pass things along to him through other persons; nor, for that matter, leave him any opportunity to inherit anything.  If, therefore, they wish to make a donation to the monastery, they may do so, but as alms for their own benefit, because we do not want the boy to grow up with the sort of uncertainty that might deceive and ruin him.  God forbid!  This is something we have learned from experience.
      Let those who are poor do the same. But as for those who have nothing at all, let them simply make the declaration, and with the document, offer their son in the presence of witnesses.

      In the old days (and again, by ‘old’ I mean medieval), people used to drop off their extra kids at the monastery and let the monks raise them.  Different kids might come to the monastery for different reasons.  One might come from a poor family who couldn’t take care of him.  Another might be an orphan.  In another case, a father or mother might feel that they owed a great debt to God and that this was a way of giving something back to His Church—like Anna did in the Old Testament.  She prayed for a child, and when God gave her one, she vowed that she would give him over to the temple in thanksgiving.  The boy grew up to be the prophet, Samuel.  Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, did the same thing. But whichever the case, such children would grow up as part of the monastic community.  They would pray with the monks, learn a trade, learn to read, and perhaps make their own vows some day.1
      Regardless of how they came to the monastery, though—who their parents were or how much money they had—each boy would enter the community on the same terms.  Rich families would bring a gift (like money or land) presumably to pay for the child’s upbringing, but that didn’t mean he would be treated differently from the others.  Rich or poor, every monk stood on equal ground.  This was, in effect, the first communist society—and the only one to last more than fifty years.
    More importantly, however, Saint Benedict wanted to be sure to avoid favoritism—either in the form of pampering for the rich, or neglect of the poor.  He didn’t want his youngest monks to grow up restless and dissatisfied, wondering at every turn whether or not this was really the right place.  If he came to another conclusion on his own, so be it, but the constant temptation to run away would be too much for any child if he knew there was a fortune waiting for him on the outside.
    Frankly, that would be a tremendous temptation to anyone, and we can see today how rough it is to enter into a commitment when the alternatives are so ready.  We live in a culture of infinite options and instant gratification; so the moment we get bored or lonely or frustrated, we are encouraged to move on.  We grow up thinking we have a right to be happy—which we don’t, of course.  We have a right to the pursuit of happiness.
    Of course, I’m not saying that it’s wrong to follow your dreams or to be ambitious.  Nor do I mean to imply that you must always be satisfied with the status quo.  But be careful that you don’t waste your life away constantly second-guessing your decisions, wondering if someone else’s life is better, daydreaming about all the other things you might be doing if you weren’t here now.
    This is what monks call “interior grumbling.”  It is a terrible disease, with the potential to eat your life away.  But there is one great antidote: gratitude.  We must be constantly thanking God for the gifts we do have in addition to asking him for the things we need.  If we take time to appreciate the abundant graces in our lives, it will result in what spiritual writers call “living in the present moment.”  And this is always accompanied by the virtue of perseverance.
    There is a great prayer that sums up this whole philosophy.  Saint Augustine wrote it: “Lord, give what you command, then…command whatever you please.”

1 At my monastery, people drop their kids off all the time, but they take them back at the end of the day, thank God.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

CHAPTER 58: How to Become a Monk

Do not make it easy on a newcomer to the monastic life; but, as the Apostle says, "Test the spirits, to see whether they are from God" (1 Jn 4:1).  If, therefore, he keeps on knocking, and after four or five days you can see that he has patiently endured the harsh treatment offered him and the difficulty of admission, and that he perseveres in his request, let him in, and let him live for a while in the guesthouse.

      The contemplative life is rewarding, but it isn’t easy.  Only about one in four even makes it through the training.  And this is by design.  You can’t judge a man’s spiritual strength by looking at him, so you have to “test his spirit.”  Saint Benedict’s first test is to slam the door in his face.  If he’s still knocking after five days, we let him in.
     Again, this might strike the reader as rather severe.  It is.  But it’s also charitable.  In the long run, you don’t want a man in the monastery who is going to take vows and end up too weak to keep them.  For his own sake, it’s better to challenge him early on, because ours is a very special, very rare, very difficult vocation.
     It used to be that when Catholics spoke of “having a vocation,” what they meant was a calling to the consecrated life—that of a priest or nun, for example.  But the Second Vatican Council made it clear that everyone has a vocation to holiness, and now the term has lost much of its meaning.  So I’d like to coin a new word.  When you’re called to this special kind of Christian life, you have an e-vocation —a calling apart, a calling away from the rest of humanity.  And it’s not just that the calling is special.  It is privileged—even, in a certain sense, superior, though admittedly that term demands clarification.
Here’s one way to think about it:

     Imagine that you are on the beach at the lake of Gennesaret.  You’re a fisherman.  It’s right around the sixteenth year of the reign of Tiberius.  Jesus of Nazareth is starting to stir things up in Israel.  You’ve heard stories about him.  You’ve heard him preach.  You realize that this is one of the most extraordinary men in the history of the world. 
"Hey, you!, never mind."
    So there you are, packing up your fishing gear, when you look up the beach, and there He is.  He’s walking along the shore in your direction.  He is choosing his apostles.
Here he comes.
He’s walking toward you.
     As he draws closer, you see that he is looking in your direction.  He’s walking straight toward you.  He draws closer.  Closer.  And just as he gets to your boat, he stops, turns around, and chooses the guy in the boat next to you.  Then he walks away.
     If the ending of this story disappoints you, then you may have an e-vocation.  Because, you see, everyone on that beach at Gennesaret was called to be a disciple.  But the apostles were evoked—called apart—from the others.  They weren’t just disciples, they were the chosen twelve.  And that is the kind of vocation that the monk has—a vocation to give up everything and follow Christ.
     Now, not everyone has this special kind of calling, but on some level, everyone is called to contemplative prayer, so even if you don’t think you have what it takes to be a full-time monk, you can, at any rate, be a part-time monk—called apart, maybe just for five or ten minutes a day, to give yourself over to Christ in contemplation.
      Consider this warning though, from the Book of Sirach: it won’t be easy.  “My son, if you want to enter the Lord’s service, be prepared for trials. Set your heart on a straight course, stay focused, and do not lose your head in times of struggle. Hold fast to Him, never desert Him if you would end your days well.  Endure every hardship that is sent you; be patient under humiliation, no matter what the cost.  For gold is purified by fire, and the Lord purifies men in the furnace of humiliation.” (Sirach 2: 1-5)

Thursday, October 2, 2014

CHAPTER 57: Monks with Skills

If there are skilled craftsmen in the monastery, let them work humbly at their art, provided that the abbot has given permission. But if the artist should grow proud because he is so good at what he does (as though he were doing the monastery a favor) he should be removed from that work and not return to it until he has humbled himself. If any of his work is to be sold, let a third party negotiate the sale, provided that they do not try to take advantage of the monastery. On the other hand, when it comes to setting a price for these items, they should be careful not to be greedy, but should set the prices a little cheaper than the competition, so that God may be glorified in all things.

Here in Chapter 57, Saint Benedict puts his money where his mouth is.  Every man comes to the monastery with a set of skills[1] and sometimes these skills can be very lucrative.  At my monastery, we’ve got monks from all kinds of backgrounds: professors, artists, musicians, soldiers, programmers, economists, physicists, mathematicians, writers…we even have a monk who worked in the movies!  And any one of these guys could be making a load of money at what they do.  But they gave it up to be contemplatives, so no matter how much wealth they might generate for the community, the abbot cannot allow their talent to get in the way of their holiness.  In the words of Saint Therese of Liseux, “without love, even the most brilliant deeds count as nothing” (The Story of a Soul).
Monks with skills!
But, the monastery isn’t a hangout for freeloaders either.  If the community can’t support itself, it has to shut down, so every abbey takes on a “work” of some sort.  Some monasteries brew beer, some bake cakes, some run farms, others run schools.  The work varies, but the purpose remains the same: to support and nourish the community’s prayer.  Thus, everything the monks do—working, sleeping, praying, playing—is done with that one goal in mind, which is why Benedict ends this chapter with a quote from Saint Peter’s second letter: “that in all things, God may be glorified”—ut in omnia glorificatur Dei. 
I have a friend who works in international business, and he made a resolution to put this philosophy into practice.  After a near-fatal car accident, he swore he would never close a deal that he wouldn’t take if he were on the other side of the negotiations.  At first, his partners were skeptical.  Was it a scam?  Was he nuts?  But then word started to get around the business community that if you wanted a fair deal, you could go to Jim, and pretty soon he was getting paid tons of money just to sit in on other peoples’ transactions and tell them whether or not they were fair.  As a business stratagem, honesty, simplicity and integrity are sound principles, which is why Saint Benedict’s monks could often afford to sell their goods for slightly less than market value.
But beware.  Holiness isn’t always profitable.  In fact, it could cost you everything.

[1] You know, like nunchuk skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills...

Saturday, September 27, 2014

CHAPTER 56: The Abbot’s Table

          The abbot's should always eat with the guests. When, however, there are no guests, he should feel free to invite any of the brethren he desires. However, he should make sure that one or two of the seniors always remain with the brethren for the sake of discipline.

This chapter might strike the reader as a little unfair.  The abbot gets to hang out with the guests while everyone else is ‘disciplined’ by a senior monk.  In fact, the abbot may be getting the raw end of the deal.  It may look like fun to wear fancy duds and boss people around, but the abbot has to do all the things that his monks manage to avoid—like paying bills, going to meetings, overseeing the facilities, asking for donations, and, yes, talking with visitors.  His job is to be a sort of buffer between his monks and the outside world.
So there’s a parallel here with the life of a teenager.  You’re essentially an adult, and yet your parents get to do all sorts of things that they probably won’t let you do: buy a car, drink beer, stay out past midnight, go to unchaperoned parties...yet they also have to pay taxes, go grocery shopping, work from nine to five…  Their freedom comes at a price.  Were you to swap places with your parents for a day or two (and more than a few movies have been made about this) I think you’d find that being a parent is less fun than it looks.
The abbot, therefore, worries about material things so that his monks can focus on their prayers.  He pays the bills and imposes discipline so that his monks won’t have to use up their time making those kinds of decisions.  When someone invites me out to dinner, I just say, “The abbot won’t let me.”  And when someone asks me to say a funeral or go out to lunch or referee a rugby game, I say, “Let me ask the abbot.”  And if I don’t want to do one of these things, I ask the abbot to say “No.”  Similarly, when someone asks you to stay out past midnight, you can just say, “I have a curfew.”  And when they want you to have a beer at a party, you can just say, “My parents will know that I’ve been drinking.”
When you think about it in these terms, “discipline” is actually something that gives you freedom.  G.K. Chesterton used an interesting metaphor for this: he imagined a group of kids playing soccer next to a cliff.  The game is really boring, and the players are really timid because they’re all afraid of falling off the edge of the field.  No one will take the corner kicks, and every time the ball strays to the left, the game has to stop.  Then someone comes along and builds a big sturdy fence, and all of a sudden the kids can enjoy themselves.
Sure, some rules can be oppressive, but a good rule—like a true doctrine or that big, sturdy fence—actually frees you to do be yourself.  That’s how the psalmist can sing, “Your Law to me, O Lord, is sweeter than honey in the mouth” (Ps 119:103).

Saturday, September 20, 2014

CHAPTER 55: How a Monk is to Dress

     Let clothing be given to the brethren according to the circumstances of the place and the nature of the climate in which they live. In warm climates, a cowl and a tunic should be enough for each monk: the cowl should be of heavy material in the winter but thinner in the summer: so too with his scapular and shoes. Let the monks not worry about the color or the texture of all these things, but let them be such as can be bought more cheaply. Those who receive new clothes should always return the old ones, to be put away in a wardrobe for the poor. It is sufficient for a monk to have two tunics and two cowls, for wearing at night and for washing. Anything else should be taken away. So, too, let them return socks and other old clothes whenever they receive new ones. Let those who are sent out on a journey receive trousers from the wardrobe, which, on their return, they should return, washed. For their bedding, a straw mattress, a blanket, a cover, and a pillow should be sufficient. These beds must, however, be frequently examined by the abbot, to guard against the temptation to hide personal possessions. And that this vice of private ownership may be cut off by the root, let everything necessary be given by the abbot; namely, cowl, tunic, stockings, shoes, girdle, knife[1], pen, needle, towel, and writing tablet; so that the monks won’t worry that they lack what they need. 

     There are a couple of terms in this chapter that need to be explained.  The cowl (cucullus in Latin) was originally a cap or a hood that peasants wore outdoors.  It covered the head, neck and shoulders.  Over the centuries, it has evolved into something that looks like a big black raincoat with wide sleeves, and its function is primarily ceremonial—though it is warm.  In most monasteries, only those who have made it to Solemn Vows are allowed to wear the cowl, so you can tell who the most established members are because they’re the ones who dress like Batman. 
      The scapular is more interesting still.  Saint Benedict may well have invented the word because it can’t be found in any writing before his time.  The scapular hangs from the shoulders (scapulae in Latin) and looks like an apron.  If you come from a pious Catholic family, you may well be familiar with the brown scapular, which the Carmelites popularized in the 1300s.  If the hood and cowl are symbols of the monk’s commitment to prayer (as Saint John Cassian said), then the scapular represents his commitment to work.
      Trousers are another thing altogether.  Times have changed, and what once served as underwear (trousers and tunics) now serve as standard clothing for anyone.  Moreover, cloth in general is cheap, and standards of hygiene have evolved, so we rarely share clothing at all.  Still, the spirit of the law applies: the monk owns nothing, not even the clothes on his back.  So whatever he isn’t using on a regular basis should be returned or thrown away.  In my monastery, there’s a collection of stuff in a closet upstairs that we call “the dead man’s pile.”  We call it that because, when a monk dies, all his stuff goes into that pile.  But pretty much anything you don’t need ends up there eventually—old habits, desk lamps, gloves, sandals, alarm clocks, wrist watches…and, yes, the occasional pair of trousers. 
     And yet, even with all these safeguards against personal ownership, a monk can still slip into materialism:  he can become obsessed with the cut and quality of his habit, the beauty of monastic custom, the quality of his vestments, and the trivialities of liturgical practice.[2]  Alternatively, he can grow careless and disheveled, calling his negligence “detachment” and his sloppiness “humility” when they’re really just different forms of self-absorption.
     Both errors are manifestations of what we in the monastic life call “singularity”—the temptation to set yourself apart—in a selfish way—from everyone else.  But joining a monastery (like joining any military force, or for that matter, any group at all) means giving up a measure of your personal identity in order to take on the identity of the larger group.  To put it biblical terms we “put on Christ” (Gal 3:27).  Thus, as one of our monks liked to say, “If you don’t look good, the Church don’t look good.”  A Christian should look the way he or she wants the Church to look: not shallow, lewd, or faddish; but noble, beautiful, dignified, and smart.

[1] Notice the bit about the knife?  I love that!
[2] Not that such concerns don’t have their place, mind you.  As a hobby, perhaps, or even a scholarly pursuit.  But always one must keep in mind the Lord’s own precept: the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).

Sunday, September 14, 2014

CHAPTER 54: Whether a Monk Should Accept Gifts

Unless the abbot gives his explicit permission, a monk should never receive letters, tokens, or gifts of any kind, either from parents or any other person.  If his family sends him something, let the monk not presume to accept it before it has been approved by the abbot.
            A monk should love the world, but should not be attached to it.  He should be grateful for God’s gifts, but not cling to them.  We call this “detachment,” and it is a necessary virtue for the monk precisely because he gives up everything to be with Jesus.  But detachment isn’t just a concern for monks.  All Christians should live with the understanding that the beauty of the material world is God’s gift, and enjoy it as such—but not be too stressed out when it seems to slip away.

             Not too long ago, I lost my keys.  Truth be told, I lose my keys pretty often.  I leave them hanging from keyholes, wedged between sofa cushions, sitting in drawers and abandoned in coat pockets…  I once found my keys on the butter shelf in the refrigerator.  This time was different, though, because I’d been in the kitchen when I lost them, and I distinctly remembered taking them out of my left pocket to open the pantry.  One monk had passed through during the time I was there.  He had spoken to me briefly while I was opening the door and lingered a while in the pantry with me.  “Don’t lose you’re your keys,” he’d said to me with a wink before he left, and a few moments later, I realized they were gone.  Now, this particular monk has a fondness for practical jokes, so I had a strong suspicion they could be found on his person.

            I can’t say I was amused.  My life is messy enough without having other people come in and mess it up for me.  So I marched off to find him.  He was in the calefactory reading.  “Where are my keys?” I said, a fist planted on each hip.

            “Excuse me?” he answered, smiling over his book.

            “Where did you put my keys?”

            The smile broadened, and he shook his head.  I could tell from the look on his face that he knew exactly where my keys were.  At the same time, I also realized that yelling at him would accomplish nothing.  So I sighed and shook my head and sat down in a chair across from him.  “Please, Brother, if you know where my keys are, just tell me.”

            “Brother,” he said, “they’re hanging out of your left pocket.”

            I looked down, and there they were, caught on a thread, swinging from my hip.

            Little disciplines like asking permission from the abbot help to remind the monk that no material possession—not even a set of keys—is worth disturbing your peace of mind.  You may not have an abbot or a superior to go to, but in general, there’s always someone standing between you and what you want.  Try to think of that person as a gift—a reminder from God—to focus on what’s really important.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

CHAPTER 53: How Guests Are to be Welcomed

All guests should be received as Christ, because He will say: "I was a stranger and you took Me in" (Mt 25:35). And let due honor be shown to every one of them, and especially to fellow Christians and travelers. When, therefore, a guest is announced, the Superior and the brethren should welcome him with every mark of charity. Let the greatest care be taken, especially in the reception of the poor and travelers, because Christ is especially present in them.

     After sixteen years of teaching, there are two things I’ve learned about my students:  they can be very, very funny; and they can be very, very annoying.  I had one student in my seventh grade English class who stands out in my memory as excelling all the others in both these qualities.  His name was Chad, and he considered it his special vocation to question me in such a way as to lead me as far as possible from any relevant topic of class discussion.  (Creative genius is a lot like nature, I think.  99% of what it produces is just useless.  But that remaining 1% is worth waiting for, so I tended to give Chad at least one shot every day.)
     This particular afternoon, Chad raised his hand in the middle of a class discussion on the literary merits of Edmund Spenser and said:  “If Jesus loves us so much, why doesn’t he just come down and show himself to us?”  This, of course, struck me as profoundly irrelevant to the topic at hand, but at the same time, I needed material for my next homily, so I decided to run with it.
     “Jesus does show himself to us,” I told him, “every time we receive the Eucharist.”
    “Right. Right.”  He said, “but what I’m asking is: Why doesn’t he personally, physically come down and visit with us?”
     “He does,” I answered.  “In the Eucharist, he personally, physically comes down and visits with us.”
     “That’s not what I mean,” he said, “I want to know why Jesus doesn’t make personal, face-to-face appearances to people like you and me.”
     “Well he does that too,” I said.  “You just have to be patient.”
     Chad wasn’t going to be put off that easily.  “So you’re telling me,” he said, “that you have personally, physically, met Jesus Christ face-to-face.  You’ve seen him.  You’ve personally seen God.” 
      I looked him in the eye and I said, “Yes, Chad, I have.”
     “Fine!” he said, “Then what does he look like?”
    There was a nervous silence in the classroom as he and the other students waited for my answer.  And for a moment or two, I was a little afraid I was going to have to back down.  But the answer came to me.  “Chad,” I said, “I have met Jesus.  Face to face. And you know what?  He looks a lot like you.
    “You see, Mother Teresa used to say that we should serve Christ in ‘the distressing disguise of the poor.’  And this used to bother me a little because I thought Mother Teresa loved the poor; but clearly she found them just as icky as I do.  By her own admission, she found their presence disturbing.  But what she could see (and I couldn’t) is that whenever you find someone distressing or annoying or off-putting in any way, that’s a sure-fire way of knowing that the person you’re dealing with is Jesus.  You want to know what Jesus looks like?  Think of the one person in the world who annoys you the most.  And there you have it.  That’s what Jesus looks like.”
     It is true that guests often arrive at inconvenient times.  It is also true that they can sometimes be demanding or rude.  But hospitality is a special vocation for the Christian, and he must resolve to be heroically patient and charitable, drawing superhuman power from the sacraments and from his prayer.  Thus, in the faces of those who distress us the most, we are given power to discern the very face of God.
A few of my students.  You can probably guess which one is Chad.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

CHAPTER 52: The Chapel

Let the chapel be what it is called, and let nothing else be done or stored there. When the Work of God is finished, let all go out with the deepest silence, and let reverence be shown to God; that a brother who perhaps wants to pray alone is not prevented by another's misconduct.  Let him enter, therefore, with simplicity and pray, not with a loud voice, but with tears and with a heart focused exclusively on God.

    I think it’s funny that Saint Benedict has to mention that nothing should be stored in the chapel.  What were his monks trying to keep there?  Tools? Books? Gardening equipment?  It probably doesn’t matter.  The point is that the chapel is for prayer, and prayer doesn’t go anywhere if the monks aren’t paying attention.  Clutter, chaos, ugliness and noise will undermine that focus and kill their prayer before it has even begun.  The problem is that human beings are distractible by nature, so we have to keep working to ensure that when we come to prayer, the distractions are minimized and our thoughts are directed heavenward by the beauty of our surroundings.
    Here again we see an example of Benedict’s “incarnational” spirituality.  If you want internal peace, he says, you have to begin by building a peaceful exterior.  Thus holiness begins in the beauty and order of the physical world: you sit in a holy place and let the holiness seep in.  Some religions claim that the physical world is an illusion or a void or a distraction, but Benedict knows that the created world is good, and anything good can be a path to holiness.
Conventual Mass at Saint Louis Abbey
      Beautiful things, beautiful liturgy, beautiful music are a way of leading the soul to God’s beauty, which is the source of holiness itself.  “Beauty,” said the philosopher, Roger Scruton, “is an essential resource.  Through the pursuit of beauty, we shape the world as a whole; and in doing so, we both amplify our joys and find consolation for our sorrows” (Why Beauty Matters).  So you see, in the ideal church, beauty and silence mix together to create a privileged place for encountering God.
A story is told of a hermit who was visited by three young monks.  All three had gone out into the world to spend a year doing good deeds.  But when they returned to their monastery, they found that they weren’t any holier than before.  “What did we do wrong?” they asked him.
    “Bring me a bowl of water,” he said.  So they brought in a bowl and filled it with water.
“Now throw some dirt in it,” he said.
The monks frowned at one another but did as commanded.
“So?  What do you see?”
    “A bowl of muddy water,” they answer.
    “Keep looking.  Now what do you see?”
    “We still see a bowl of muddy water.”
    “That’s right,” he said.  “But look more closely.  Keep watching.  Don’t say anything.  Just keep watching.”  Then he left the room.
     A day later, he returned.  The three novices were still staring into the bowl.  “What do you see now?” he asked them.
     “The mud has settled.” they answered.  “Now we see our reflections.”
     “Exactly,” said the hermit.  “You’ll never be holy until you know yourselves.  And you’ll never know yourselves if you keep stirring things up.  Be still.  Let the mud settle.  Only then will you have something to offer the world.”

Monday, August 18, 2014

CHAPTER 51: When a Monk is Away on a Short Journey

A brother who is sent out on any business is expected to return to the monastery the same day, and may not presume to eat his meals away from the monastery, even if he is urgently requested to do so.  The abbot, of course, may grant exceptions to this rule, but if the monk disobeys, let him be excommunicated.

      Excommunication for eating out?  Seriously?  Can it really be that big of a deal?
Actually, yes.
      Meals are sacred events in a monastery—as indeed they have been for millennia all over the world.  In ancient Greece, if you had dinner with someone, it meant that you were lifelong allies.  They called this relationship Xenia (from xenos, meaning ‘friend’ or ‘stranger’), and it was the most sacred bond between two persons—as sacred as a marriage bond.  After sharing a meal with someone, you were obliged to protect him and his family for the rest of your life.  Your children and his children were also bound by this covenant, and so on for generations.  The entire Trojan War was started because Paris violated Xenia in Menelaus’ home.  
      Today, we tend to see meals as more functional than ritual.  Perhaps “fast food” has done this to us.  Grace before and after meals has gone out of fashion.  We bolt down a hamburger or a pizza in front of the television.  At breakfast we read the paper or play with our cell phones.  Not a lot of communication goes on.  And since eating out is so easy and so cheep, we do it often.
     But living in any community is difficult, and friendship requires communication.  Whether that community is composed of three people or thirty, there are going to be personalities that clash.  And you will be tempted to run away from them.  But if you’re going to love someone—and your foremost obligation is to love your family—then you need to be willing to hang out with them even when they annoy you.  For this reason, Saint Benedict sets fixed times for prayers and meals when the brethren simply must be together.
     No excuses.  Breakfast in bed, dinner out with a friend, a meal or two in your room while you read a book…all these exceptions are strictly forbidden to the monk because, over time, they begin to add up, and before you know it, every monk is out on his own—and the monks with the richest friends eat the richest food.
     You may prefer to eat dinner in front of the television, or to text your friends while you shovel Corn Flakes into your mouth, but if you make a habit of that, you’ll soon find that you have lost touch with the people who matter most.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

CHAPTER 50: When a Monk is Away from His Monastery

When a monk is away from his monastery, he should perform the Work of God in the fear of God and on bended knees wherever he happens to be. In a similar way, let those who are sent on a journey not permit the appointed hours to pass by; but let them say the office by themselves as best they can, and not neglect to fulfill the obligation of divine service.

       There are two types of men who join a monastery: those for whom the monastic life suits their character, and those for whom it tames their character.  The first sort have no need of a chapter like this.  They will naturally say their prayers when the time comes—whether or not they are in the presence of the community.  For the rest of us, though, it’s a real challenge to keep those hours from slipping by.  It’s hard to say our prayers, especially when no one is watching.  Sure, we have our good days and bad days, but sometimes, it just feels like a chore, and we can’t wait to get them over with so we can get back to whatever we were doing.  Of course we recognize that prayer is necessary and good, but the day-to-day reality is often tedious.  This is why we join a monastery and wear the funny-looking clothes.  The rules and reminders and rituals are necessary because, without them, we are likely to backslide.
      Saint Benedict was well familiar with monks like us, and so he adds this reminder that, even when we’re out on our own, we need to say our prayers with the same devotion as we would in community—not just muttering them to ourselves while we’re doing something else, but fulfilling the obligation “as best we can” and “on bended knee.”
     When you’re away from home, your parents expect you to call in every now and then to let them know what you’re up to.  That way, they won’t worry too much and you won’t fall out of touch.  Likewise with the monk’s prayers.  They are our a way of ‘calling home.’  The prayers keep us in touch with God and in touch with our community.  And for this reason, they need to be done regularly and done right.
     Not long ago, I overheard a conversation between one of our monks and the father of a boy in our school.  “I drag my son, kicking and screaming to mass every Sunday,” he said, “but the kid just hates it.  When we get there, he slumps down in the pew like a convict and acts like he’s sleeping.  I wonder whether it’s even worth it, you know.  After all, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
     “You’re right,” answered the brother.  “You cannot make the horse drink.  But if you don’t lead the horse to the water, you can be certain it will die of thirst.”
      And this is why we pray even when we’re not in church.  This is why we pray even when we don’t feel like it.  This is why we go to mass every Sunday.  Because prayer is a well of grace.  A fountain of grace.  A spring of living water.  All we need to do is show up and drink.

Friday, August 8, 2014

CHAPTER 49: Lent

The life of a monk should be a continuous Lent. However, since there are very few who can handle that kind of intensity all the time, we advise that at least during the days of the Lenten season, a monk should guard his life with particular purity and at the same time wash away during these holy days all the shortcomings of other times.  Let us devote ourselves to tearful prayers, to reading and repentance, and to abstinence.  So too, let us add something to the usual amount of our service: special prayers, abstinence from food and drink…a little less talking, a little less joking around, and with the joy of spiritual desire await holy Easter. [1]

     We tend to associate Lent with fasting and penance, but the word “joy” comes up twice in this chapter.  In Latin, the word is gaudium, and this is the only place in the Rule where it appears.  So Lent isn’t just about ‘tearful prayers.’  It’s primarily about getting ready for the Great Feast—looking forward to something wonderful.  And just as the athlete’s life isn’t so much about training as it is about the game itself, so the monk’s life (that ‘continuous Lent’) isn’t so much about sorrow and self-denial as it is about joyful anticipation. Granted, sorrow and self-denial have something to do with it.  After all, if we weren’t keenly aware of our unworthiness, we’d hardly appreciated the magnitude of Christ’s gift to us at Easter.
     So the fasting and abstinence and repentance are all a sort of spiritual preparation to receive a gift.  If we’re doing it right, though, we should want to give even more.  But how?  Jesus Christ is Lord of Creation.  All that we have belongs to him already.  So what do you get for the man who has everything—literally everything?

     A story is told about Saint Jerome that he had a vision on Christmas Eve in which Our Lord came to him and asked him for a gift.  The saint answered, “Well, I just finished translating the entire bible from Hebrew and Greek.  How’s that?”
     “That pleases me,” said Jesus, “but it’s not really what I was hoping for.”
     “Umm…I do a lot of fasting,” said Jerome, “and I’ve already tried being a hermit.  What if I give away all the rest of my possessions?”
     “No, Jerome,” said Jesus,  “That’s not it either.”
     After thinking about it for a while, the old saint finally admitted that he couldn’t think of anything else he could do.
     And Jesus replied, “My friend, you have forgotten to offer me your sins.”
Indeed, there is nothing we have that wasn’t given to us in the first place.  So the only thing that really belongs to us is our sinfulness, and—irony of ironies—this is the one thing that Jesus really wants.  So we spend Lent reminding ourselves of our mortality.  We remind ourselves that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.  Then we think about our sins, and with great joy, we bring them to Christ as a gift, wrapped up in repentance.

[1]  I should probably have saved this chapter for February or March, but here we are at 49, and I feel like we should take the chapters of the Rule in order, so...

Sunday, July 27, 2014

CHAPTER 48: Work and Prayer

     Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times.  At other times, they should read spiritual books.  If, however, the needs of the place, or poverty should require that they do the heavy labor themselves, let them not be upset by this, for that is when they are truly monks. However, on account of the weak, let all things be done with moderation.

     In his famous meditation on the nature of work, rock legend Todd Rundgren famously sang: “I don’t wanna work.  I just wanna bang on the drum all day.”  Of course, the irony underlying his lyrics is that in avoiding work, Lundgren wound up doing more work than he would at a regular job.  So the song provides us with a reflection on the consequences of the Fall of Adam, who never had to work in the garden of Eden but as a consequence of his sin, had to earn his bread “by the sweat of his brow” (Gen 3:19).[1]
But here’s the catch: Jesus worked too.  So work, which
Saint Benedict
was once a punishment, has become for all of us a sacred duty and a redemptive act.  By virtue of his hard work, the monk not only brings himself into closer conformity with Christ, he actually helps bring creation itself to perfection.  He completes God’s work!
Therefore work—whether it’s a chore, a homework assignment, a sports practice, or a job with an office and a paycheck—isn’t just a means of economic development.  Nor is it something to “be done with” so you can get on with your life.  It’s an essential part of your sanctification. 
John Paul II wrote, “It is through man's work that not only the fruits of our activity but also human dignity, brotherhood and freedom must increase on earth. Let the Christian who listens to the word of the living God, uniting work with prayer, know the place that his work has not only in earthly progress but also in the development of the Kingdom of God, to which we are all called through the power of the Holy Spirit and through the word of the Gospel” (Encyclical Laborem Exercens, par. 27).

[1] Randy Bachman reflected on a similar theme in the aptly titled “Taking Care of Business” when he sang “I like to work at nothing all day.”

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Chapter 47: Giving the Signal for the Time of the Work of God

     Let it be the abbot's responsibility to announce the time for the Work of God; either to announce it himself, or to entrust this charge to a careful brother that everything may be done at the proper time.  Let those who have been ordered, intone the psalms or the antiphons in their turn after the abbot. No one, however, should presume to sing or read unless he can do it well; and let it be done with humility, seriousness, and reverence.

The monk’s prayer may not always be interesting or even pleasant (the monk next to you might show up late, or fall asleep half way through, or click his rosary beads, or sing off-key…) but the Work of God is always first in importance.  It takes precedence over everything else.  And it is truly work.  These days, folks seem to think that church services have to be entertaining to be ‘effective.’  How often have you heard someone say, for example, “I don’t go to mass on Sunday because I don’t get anything out of it”?  Such a complaint is understandable so long as you’re only thinking of yourself.  But the purpose of prayer isn’t to “get something out of it.”  It’s not about us.  Remember that prayer is an act of justice.  We owe it to God.  So sometimes it may just be hard work—extremely demanding at times, but extremely important work.[1]

Therefore, it falls to the abbot himself to make sure everyone gets to church on time.  Different monasteries use different methods of calling the monks to prayer, but in my monastery, a monk is designated each week to walk around the cloister first thing in the morning and knock on everyone’s door.  Some places use wooden clackers, others use trumpets or horns.  At one Benedictine convent I know of, a nun walks around shouting “Alleluia!”  But the most common method is to ring a bell.  In fact, this is probably the way they do it at your local parish on Sundays.  Bells have become so important in the Church, that there is a special “Pontifical Blessing” that the bishop has to say over a set of bells whenever a new church is built.  Listen to this:

      “Grant, we pray, that this bell, destined for your holy Church, may be hallowed by the Holy Spirit through our lowly ministry, so that when it is tolled and rung, the faithful may be invited to the house of God and to the everlasting reward.  At its sound let all evil spirits be driven off; let thunder and lightning, hail and storm be banished; let the power of your hand, O Lord, put down the evil powers of the air, causing them to tremble at the sound of this bell, and to flee at the sight of the holy cross engraved on it.  Whenever it rings may the enemy of the good take flight, the Christian people hear the call to faith, the empire of Satan be terrified, your people be strengthened as they are called together in the Lord, and may the Holy Spirit be with them as He delighted to be with David when he played his harp.”

     Is that awesome, or what?

[1] The word “liturgy,” in fact, comes from two Greek words: leitos, which means “people” and ergos, meaning “work.”  Liturgy, therefore, is “the people’s work,” and we do it, not because we ‘get something out of it’ but because it’s our job.