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.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

CHAPTER 46: Those Who Fail in Other Matters

      If anyone makes a mistake while he is engaged in any work—in the kitchen, in the cellar, in serving, in the bakery, in the garden…or if he breaks something or loses something or behaves badly in some other way and does not come immediately before the abbot and the community to confess his offense, but it becomes known through another, let him be subject to a greater correction.  If, however, the cause of the offense is private, let him tell it to the abbot alone, or to his spiritual superiors, who know how to heal their own wounds, and not expose and make public those of others.

     Big sin or a little sin, the important thing is that you come right out and talk about it.  “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed,” writes Saint James, “because the fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful” (Jas 5:16).  After all, there’s nothing worse for a wound than to cover it up and let it fester in secret.  “Sunlight” wrote Louis Brandise, “is the best disinfectant” (Other People's Money, Ch 5). 
In my monastery, we all do our own laundry, and we share a laundry room.  We have an iron that everyone uses.  Of course, we are always breaking it and buying replacements.  But this one time, I picked it up to use it, and the thing literally fell to pieces in my hands.  The handle fell off, the wires fell out, the water in the steam compartment poured out on the floor…  Apparently, the last monk to use it had broken it, but instead of owning up, he had pieced the darn iron back together and left it balanced on the ironing board for the next person to break.  I spent the rest of the day angry.[1] 

     Whether it’s a broken iron or a broken promise, all sin has an effect on the broader community—even private sin, because, as they say, “no man is an island.”  The whole world shifts slightly closer to the void every time we act contrary to God’s will.  Our actions have real consequences.  Different religions call this by different names: “karma,” “Tao,” “the law of consequences”…  Even science has a name for it: Newton’s Third Law: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  So instead of letting the world fall to pieces, set it right again by repenting of  your sins.  After all, much more is on the line than your own soul.

[1] Turns out, the culprit was one of the old monks.  He had spent all day piecing the iron back together with what he thought was super glue.  In fact, he was using eye drops…

Saturday, July 12, 2014

CHAPTER 45: Monks Who Make Mistakes During Prayer

     If someone makes a mistake while he is reciting a psalm, a response, an antiphon, or a lesson, and then refuses to humble himself there before all by making some sign of his regret, let him undergo a greater punishment, since he would not correct by humility the harm he did through his carelessness.

     If you ever come to visit our monastery and watch the monks as they chant, you will notice that every once in a while, one of them will gently strike his chest with his fist.  This means that he made some sort of small error while he was singing.  If the mistake is really obvious, you will see him rise from where he is sitting and genuflect.  That is our way of acknowledging that we’ve slipped up.  Of course, all the kneeling and chest-thumping may strike the modern sensibility as slightly strange.  Surely God is happy with whatever prayer we have to offer, right?  Does He really care that much if our prayer has a mistake in it?
     Well…yes and no.  On the one hand, we are all imperfect beings.  If we only prayed when we thought our prayer was going to be perfect, it would never happen at all.  On the other hand, Jesus himself said, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).  So we should at least try.  In fact, if there is any one area of our life where we should shoot for the top, it is in our religious devotion.  Sloppiness and laziness in our prayer points to a lack of respect for God Himself—and a serious confusion of priorities.
     Not long ago, I had to get my computer fixed, and that necessitated a trip to the mall.  I brought along one of my brother monks, Simon, who has been living as a hermit for several years, building stained glass windows in a small cottage behind our school.  He needed a watch, I think.   When we got to the mall, though, all the noise and bustle made him nauseous, and he had to sit down.  “You know,” he said, after he had regained his composure, “back in the Middle Ages, a village would invest all its resources in building a church.  They really knew what was important.  The marketplace may have been a little grimy, but it was functional.  The local church, however, was full of marble and gold.  Today, our churches are grimy and functional, but our shopping malls are full of marble and gold!”
     Saint Benedict never confuses his priorities.  Sloppy prayer, like sloppy work, demands a penalty.  Benedict’s legislation may sound strict, but it drives home the monastic conviction that prayer is our most important work, and that work should never be careless.  You’d pay a penalty for messing up your tax return, and this is far more important, isn’t it?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

CHAPTER 44: How Excommunicated Monks are to Make Satisfaction

     When a monk has done something seriously wrong and is excommunicated from prayers or meals, let him lie face down in silence in front of everyone while the Work of God is celebrated in the church.  And he should not stop doing this until the abbot says so. Then he should cast himself at the abbot's feet, and at the feet of all, so that they may pray for him. When the time is right, let him be received back into choir; but he should not lead any of the prayers in the church, until the abbot again gives him permission. Then, at all the prayers, when the Work of God is ended, let him cast himself on the ground in the place where he stands; and thus let him make satisfaction, until at last the abbot tells him to stop.

     Here is another chapter that may strike the modern ear as rather harsh.  But you have to consider it in context.  First of all, remember that monks take holiness really, really seriously.  If a monk acts in a way that keeps him or others from being holy, he undermines the entire purpose of the monastery.  Secondly, when you compare the Rule of Saint Benedict to other medieval laws, it is surprisingly gentle.  Lastly, you have to examine the conditions under which any monk may be excommunicated.  Benedict only uses this penalty as a last resort when all other methods have failed, and only in response to the sort of stubborn insubordination that is a violation of the monk’s vows—and a sign that he is in serious spiritual danger.

     The repeated act of lying face down on the ground in front of his brothers brings home in a vivid and physical way the seriousness of his sin.  It also demonstrates his willingness to change.  But most importantly, it builds virtue.  The quickest path to humility is humiliation.  And humility should be the monk’s special area of expertise.  Remember also that every Benedictine agrees during his novitiate not merely to cultivate humility, but to be “eager for humiliations.”
     But let’s say the monk doesn’t really want to throw himself on the floor.  He wants to be sorry, and he wants to be humble (and chaste and patient and loving)…but he’s not.  Aristotle said that the way to become virtuous was to start doing virtuous acts; then to keep repeating those acts until the virtue developed out of them (The Nichomachean Ethics).  So, for example, if you want to be an athlete, first you need to start exercising, if you want to be brave, first you need to face your fear, and if you want to be humble, first you have to perform humble acts.
     Let me give you a less theoretical example:
     I remember asking my father once when I was very young whether it was really necessary to love my little sister (even loving my enemy seemed more reasonable at the time).  My father, of course, insisted that it was.  And I recall explaining to him at length that this would be very difficult—even impossible—given the current circumstances, and that perhaps we should consider giving her up for adoption.  My father said to me, “Jason, you may find this hard to believe, but some day you will discover that you do love your sister.  And when that day comes, you will actually want to be nice to her.  In the meantime, however…fake it.
     At the time, this sounded like cold advice, but if we are to put into action what Christ demands of us in the gospels—if we really are to love our neighbor as we love our own selves—then there will be times when we don’t feel very inclined to patience or charity or humility.  Because let’s face it, some people are difficult to love.  In fact, even God can seem distant at times.  But if you think about it, those times when we must force ourselves to “fake” this love for our neighbor are often the most sincere instances of love, because those are the times when we can give love without any hope of a reply.  And if Saint Benedict and Aristotle are right, then the astonishing result of all this ‘fake virtue’ is that real virtue begins to grow out of it.
     So until we arrive at that point where charity and humility and patience come naturally, it’s probably best just to fake it.  And so long as we don’t grumble, we can wait in confidence for the virtue itself to grow.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

CHAPTER 43: Of Those Who are Late for the Work of God or Meals

As soon as the signal for the time of the divine office is heard, let everyone, leaving whatever they have in their hands, hurry as quickly as they can—yet with seriousness, so that there may be no cause for silly business. And so let nothing be preferred to the Work of God.  If a monk should arrive late for prayer, let him not stand in his usual place; but let him take the lowest place in choir, or in a place which the abbot has set apart for such careless ones, that he may be seen by him and by all, until, the Work of God being ended, he makes satisfaction by a public penance. The reason why he should stand in the last place is that he might be shamed into changing his behavior. For if the tardy monk had to wait outside the chapel, he might just go back to sleep, or have a seat somewhere and indulge in vain gossip.  So instead, let him go inside that he may not miss out, and may amend for the future.

     I’ve been dreading this chapter.  I can hear my students laughing already.  I’m so consistently late for everything, my own brother monks have started calling me “The Late Father Augustine.”  Truly this is one chapter I have no authority to preach on.  But I can’t skip it either, so I’ll just have to play the hypocrite and move forward.
     The key to understanding this whole chapter lies at the end of the first paragraph: “Let nothing be preferred to the Work of God.”  When Saint Benedict uses this phrase--“Work of God” (Opus Dei, in Latin) he is referring specifically to the monastic prayers.  The monk may have other kinds of work to do in the course of the day, but prayer is the work of God.  And this is what makes monks different from all the other religious orders.  Every order has what they call a ‘charism’ that defines it.  The Franciscans work with the poor, the Dominicans preach, the Jesuits teach, the Christian Brothers run schools, and so on.  But the charism of the monk is uniquely simple: we pray.  That’s it.  Anything else we do is simply to support, enhance, or enable our prayer.  And in many respects, that should be a rule of life for everyone.  Holiness must always be the most important goal in your life, because who cares how hard you work if, at the end of the day, you are still the same cruddy person you were when you started?

     There are two ways to show someone that they are important to you.  The first and most important is to “be there for them.”  You can buy all the presents you like, write all the cheesy poems you can, and tell as many people as you meet that you’re in love; but if you rarely show up to be with that person, you reveal by your actions that the love is a lie.
     Woody Allen said, “60% of success is showing up.”   I’ve said it once already, but it’s well worth saying twice: this is why the church demands that you attend mass every single Sunday for your whole life.  Not asks—demands.  On pain of your immortal soul.  Yes, it is still a mortal sin to miss ...unless you are traveling—by oxcart.  No one took “Keep holy the Lord’s day” out of the ten commandments.  So as long as you are not contagious and you have access to some form of transportation (if necessary, your legs), you need to be there.
     But why is such a law even necessary?  Why would anyone skip mass when 60% of holiness is just showing up?  Remember the Magnificat?  Mary says, “My soul—mea anima—my being proclaims the greatness of the Lord.”  Not “my holiness,” not “my actions,” not my words or prayers or talents.  My very being—the mere fact of my existence—proclaims the greatness of the Lord.  The fact that she’s here is her greatest triumph.
     So “being there” is the monk’s first and most pressing obligation.  But Saint Benedict would add that you also show what your priorities are by being here on time.  (Imagine me now fiddling with my rosary and not looking you in the eye while I say this.)  You show up early so that you can prepare yourself for prayer.  You show up early so that you can do the job right.  But most of all, you show up early because it shows God—and it shows everyone else—that He is the first priority in your life.  Whatever the monk is doing when the bell rings for prayer, he drops it.  Because “nothing is preferred to the Work of God.”

If anyone arrives late for dinner after grace has been said, let him be twice corrected for this, provided that it was his own fault.  But if he keeps showing up late, he should eat by himself until he has properly apologized and changed his behavior.

    In a typical monastery, the dining hall (“refectory” in monkish) lies at one end of the cloister, and the church at the other.  So there’s a neat sort of symmetry between feeding the body and feeding the soul.  Both are essential, and neither should be neglected.  Being late for a meal is not perhaps quite as offensive or scandalous as being late for prayer, but it certainly is rude.  It says, in effect, ‘my time is more valuable than yours, so you can sit around and wait while I do something else.’  It’s a matter of respect.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

CHAPTER 42: That No One Should Speak After Compline

     Monks should always be predisposed to silence, but especially at night.  Therefore as soon as they have risen from their evening meal, let all the monks sit together in one place, and let someone read the Conferences or the Lives of the Saints, or some other book that will benefit the hearers; but avoid the Heptateuch and the Book of the Kings, because weak minds are likely to take it the wrong way; these books should be read at other times.  All, therefore, having assembled in one place, let them say Compline, and after leaving Compline, let no one say anything.  And if someone breaks this rule, let him undergo heavy punishment, that is, unless the guests should need something, or the abbot commands it. But let even this be done with the utmost seriousness and self-restraint.

     The night can be a time of great peace.  But for many of us, it can also be a time of great temptation or of anxious insomnia, when our deeper worries begin to resurface along with our lusts and our angers and those frightful ideas we thought we could avoid during the day.  They tend to catch up with us at night, which is all the more reason to fill our minds with godly things so that God Himself can absorb these thoughts.

     Saint Benedict reminds us in this chapter that silence is the default attitude of the monk.  In particular, he refers to the Solumn Silencium that monks should observe at night.  That this should be a silence of both body and mind is evidenced by his insistence that certain books of the bible (namely those with battles or violence or troubling scenes in them) should not be read lest they disturb the brethren.  Sleep therapists make similar recommendations: don’t play video-games before going to bed; don’t check your email; don’t watch television, don’t read thrillers…  These activities raise our pulse and provoke our imaginations at just that time when we should be calming down.  So if ever there was a time for silence, the night is it.  After all, silence is the sleep of the soul.

     Here’s an experiment you can try: Instead of playing a video game before you go to bed—or instead of watching television—set your iPod to some Gregorian Chant.  Then stay absolutely silent until you’re asleep.  I’m not saying you have to do this every night.  Just try it once or twice and see what happens.

     There’s a beautiful quote from Dom L’Huillier, a French monk of Solesmes Abbey that I learned early in my novitiate.  Sometimes I recite it before I go to sleep at night.  “Love the night silence, which guards the hour when all this world’s business has stopped and the soul is no longer accountable except to God.”