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...