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.