Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Why wait? It's Advent!

     Here is a brief poetic meditation written by an early-twentieth century Greek novelist named Nikos Kazantzakis.  In this meditation, the author imagines a young man standing on a mountain overlooking Nazareth.  It’s the middle of the night.  It’s some time within the opening years of the first century A.D.  He describes what the young man sees:

    Little by little your eyes became accustomed to the darkness and you were able to distinguish a stern straight-trunked cypress darker than night itself, a clump of date palms grouped like a fountain and, rustling in the wind, sparsely leafed olive trees which shone silver in the blackness. And there on a green spot of land you saw wretched cottages thrown down now in groups, now singly, constructed of night, mud and brick, and smeared all over with whitewash. You realized from the smell and filth that human forms, some covered with white sheets, others uncovered, were sleeping on the rooftops.
    The silence had fled. The blissful uninhabited night filled with anguish. Human hands and feet twisted and turned, unable to find repose. Human hearts sighed. Despairing, obstinate cries from hundreds of mouths fought in this mute God-trodden chaos to unite, toiled to find expression for what they longed to say. But they could not, and the cries scattered and were lost in disjointed ravings.

     Suddenly there was a shrill, heart-rending scream from the highest rooftop, in the center of the village. A human breast was tearing itself in two: “God of Israel, God of Israel, Adonai, how long?” It was not a man; it was the whole village dreaming and shouting together, the whole soil of Israel with the bones of its dead and the roots of its trees, the soil of Israel in labor, unable to give birth, and screaming.”

     The young man, you find out eventually, is Christ himself—a teenager still, not yet ready to begin his ministry, but acutely, painfully sensitive to the longing and suffering of his people.  The God of Israel is there among them—but they don’t know it yet.
     I’ve always liked this image, and for a long time, I used to keep it on my nightstand next to my bed.  I like it because it gives me a sense of the longing I should feel during this time of Advent—indeed, the longing I should feel my whole life.  And so too there’s something so poignant about that image of these people—these suffering people—groaning and crying and waiting—and not realizing that they’re redeemer is already there.
        This is the way God chooses to come to us.  The birth of the Messiah is THE KEY EVENT IN ALL HUMAN HISTORY, and yet God wanted it to take place “so quietly that the world went about its business as if nothing had happened.”  A few shepherds noticed.  Those few magi noticed.  Herod noticed.  And then, apparently, the whole thing was forgotten.  For a time.
     In the end, therefore, waiting is not necessarily a BAD thing.  "I would like to beg you, dear Sir," writes Rilke in a famous passage from his "Letters to a Young Poet"  "...to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.  John Keats wrote of “Negative Capability,” that is “when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  ADVENT is the season when we learn to LOVE THE QUESTION.  Where we learn to love the waiting.
     So you see, there’s this simultaneous sense of urgency—that we need to answer God’s call and that we need him to answer our call—and soon.  “Answer me, Lord, when I call to you,” the psalmist says.  “Answer me, when I call to you”…there’s something so brazen about it that it’s charming.  There’s an urgency in the psalms.  But there is also this sense that we must learn to be patient, and wait—wait in joyful hope—find God’s answer in the waiting.
     In the monastery, we have an Advent tradition that goes back all the way to the fifth century—and probably earlier.  For seven days preceding Christmas, we sing a set of antiphons—short chants that precede the Magnificat at Vespers.  And we call these, “The Great O Antiphons.”  Seven meditations on the seven titles of our savior.  Each night we sing one more:  “O Wisdom….O Adonai…O Root of Jesse…O Key of David…O Rising Sun…O King…O Emmanuel.”  “O come!” we sing each night.  “Come and teach us, come and free us, come and deliver us…”  Each night, the chant shifts in emphasis, builds in urgency, until on the last night, December 23, we sing “O Emmanuel, you are our king and judge, the One whom the peoples await and their Savior. O come and save us, Lord, our God.”  And the O is drawn out…like a cry.  It has an almost Eastern ring to it.
          And here's the coolest part: the first letter of each title read backwards spells  out “ero cras”—“Tomorrow, I come.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Surprise! It's the apocalypse!

         At the St. Louis Priory school, the students use an adjective that is not used anywhere else in the world. That adjective is fatherpaulish—one word, pronounced “fatha-polish” with no “r” in “father” and “paul” pronounce “pole”.  It refers to any phrase, instruction, or admonition uttered in such a manner that the listener is simultaneously daunted, endeared and amused.  Words such as “puerile” “pusillanimous” “cantankerous” and “bum” (when used as anatomical designation) are regarded as distinctly fatherpaulish; as are expressions like “silly boy”, “are you quite finished?” and “Are you in my way?”
         I mention this because there is a phrase in the Gospel of Mark that I can only hear, pronounce, or even silently read with a fatherpaulish inflection.  In fact, whenever I read it, suddenly Jesus loses his beard and long hair, leans back, lowers his chin, clears his throat, and in a distinctly Oxford accent, he rumbles: “Learn a lesson from the fig tree.”   Then I imagine Jesus’ disciples, endeared and amused saying to one another, “That is going straight in the senior quotes.”

         Turns out, even though it may sound like a silly way to start a sermon, Christ is referring to something deadly serious: the end of the world—a time when the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken…” A dark and a frightening time in many ways not unlike our own.  In Paris right now, I imagine that it feels very much as though the sun is darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars have fallen from the sky.  But here’s the catch: at such a time there is also, mysteriously, great joy because the followers of Jesus know that some day soon they will see Him in all his “great power and glory” calling them out of this present darkness into the light of the Truth.

         But Christ warns us, “no one knows the day or the hour” that this will happen—“neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  And here again, in spite of myself, I find Father Paul Kidner creeping back into my sermon because this past summer, Father Paul showed me a photograph that perfectly sums up all the joy, fear,  apprehension and hope of Christ’s apocalyptic message.  It is a photograph of Father Paul dressed in full fishing gear, beaming, noble, exultant, holding a magnificent salmon that he has just pulled from an Alaskan river.  Behind him, in the bushes, about thirty yards away, peering at that salmon with ineffable longing, unbeknownst to Father Paul is a grizzly bear.

         The longer I look at it, the more layers of apocalyptic meaning I uncover.  Think, for example, of the salmon.  For its entire life, it has been anticipating its homecoming, only to find that death and home…are one and the same thing.  For the bear too there are apocalyptic implications, for his is an experience of unfulfilled longing and the anticipation of a destiny that is just beyond his reach.  For Father Paul, of course, it represents the culmination of countless hours of relentless perseverance and prayer, fused mysteriously and at the very last moment with a dawning awareness of his own mortality.

         The apocalypse is all these things: homecoming, judgment, mystery, fear, joy...  And even if we see it coming, Christ assures us that it will come as a surprise.  Saint Ephram wrote, “Jesus hid the time from us so that we would be on the watch and so that each of us might think that the coming will happen in his own lifetime.”  For Father Paul, it nearly did this summer.  For any one of us, it could occur today.  “You shall die,” wrote Saint Francis de Sales, “and sooner than you think.”  We will all in our lifetimes, see the end of the world.  You may long for it like Father Paul’s grizzly, rejoice in it like Father Paul himself, or find yourself like that salmon, helpless in the hands of a righteous god.  But even if you know the time and place of your homecoming, even if you work long and hard for it, fighting the tides and currents of this present world; even if you anticipate that homecoming with every fiber of your being; even then, "be vigilant because no one knows when the exact moment will be" when the creator will pluck you from the river of life and lift you, smiling for your last portrait.

         Year passes after year silently,” wrote Saint John Newman.  “Christ's coming is ever nearer than it was. …Resolve to be no longer beguiled by "shadows of religion," by words, or by disputings, or by notions, or by high professions, or by excuses, or by the world's promises or threats. Pray Him to give you what Scripture calls "an honest and good heart," and, without waiting, begin at once to obey Him with the best heart you have. Any obedience is better than none… He is behind this material framework; earth and sky are but a veil going between Him and us; the day will come when He will rend that veil, and show Himself to us. And then, according as we have waited for Him, will He recompense us. If we have forgotten Him, He will not know us; but "blessed are those servants whom the Lord, when He comes, shall find watching … He shall gird Himself, and make them sit down to eat, and will come forth and serve them. And if He shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants," [Luke xii. 37, 38.] May this be the portion of every one of us! It is hard to attain it; but it is woeful to fail. Life is short; death is certain; and the world to come is everlasting.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Your mom.

I have stilled my soul like a weaned child to its mother (Saint Benedict's Rule, Chapter 7).
Halloween, by Jean C. Wetta
    Last summer, when I went home to visit my family, we watched a really awful movie with Macaulay Culkin called “The Good Son.”  Surprisingly, it turned out to be a movie about a really bad son.  In fact, this particular son was a homicidal maniac; and at the end of the movie, his mother ends up holding him by his hand off the edge of a cliff.  In her other hand is a really nice kid.  She can’t hold on to them both, so she has to choose between them.
    After the movie, I turned to my mother and asked her, “If it were Dad and I hanging off that cliff and you had to choose, who would you hold on to?”  What really surprised me, was that she didn’t have to think about the answer.  She immediately said,"You.  So I took a different tack.  I said, well what if it was Dad or Kristen*?  But again the answer came instantly.  “I would choose my children over anything and anyone in the world.”
    Kids may find this hard to believe, but I’ve never met a mom who would answer otherwise.  I’ve never met a mom who even hesitated with her answer.  That is a terrible—a, terrifying—kind of love.
    There’s a painting in my home that my mother painted when I was a child.  It was Halloween, and my sister and I went out to go trick-or-treating, and some of the bullies on our block stole our candy.  My mother, an artist, painted this the day after.  It is a depiction of my sister and me in our Halloween costumes walking through a forest.  Behind us are the bullies, and just behind them, barely visible, their own bodies are among from the trees, suspended by their necks.
    That is a terrifying kind of love.  And while it may surprise some teenagers to hear that a mother could have such deep and violent emotions, I’ll bet it doesn’t surprise their moms at all.  Moms understand this formidable bond between mothers and sons.  This is why the most powerful prayer in the world is that of a mother for her child.  All we sons can do is be grateful and try to respect it.  Try to respect them.
   That said, there will come a day when, in spite of all that love, your mother will annoy you.  That’s okay.  It’s genetic.  If your folks didn’t annoy you, you’d end up living at home the rest of your life and then everyone would be miserable. Just try to remember about half-way through that multisyllabic “Mo-o-o-om,” that she really can’t help herself.  And after all, she is God’s icon of love to you.
*Kristen is my sister.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

How I became a monk...

"The mind cries out, explains, demonstrates, protests; but inside me a voice rises and shouts, “Be quiet mind; let us hear the heart!”
                     --Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco

    For those who really are interested to know why anyone would do this, I thought it best just to show you.  The following are short excerpts from my diary, starting in high school and ending in the monastery.

March 20
    What will I do with my life?  I want to BE something!  I have all this energy and don’t know what to do with it.  I hope I find my place sooner or later...I’ve prayed for it, I’ve searched for it, but I can't find what I’m looking for.  I have this feeling and I don’t know what to do with it.  Sometimes I try to channel it into my studies, but as soon as I sit down with a book, I loose it.

April 28
    Today I met some Benedictine monks.  I was impressed.  I remember this girl stared at them as they walked down the street.  The motorcycle policemen looked silly beside them.
    I sometimes feel that I would like to do something like that.  I would love to belong to the Church in that way.  I would love to wear those robes!  They say Vespers at 7:15.  Perhaps I’ll go.

May 19
    I just got a job in a monastery!  I can’t believe it.
    It’s such a quiet place.  I must remember to be quiet.  That will be difficult for me—a good thing, though...I think.  I wonder if I’ll like it.  This is such a foreign experience for me.  I’m not used to it, but I’m sure I’ll be able to cope.

May 20
    The monks keep asking me what brought me here.  I just don’t know.  Perhaps it was God...
    These guys are cool, but I could never be a monk.  And yet, living and praying and talking with them makes me so happy...if I were this happy all the time, who knows how my life might turn out?

May 21
    The monks wear a long black tunic with a hood and a piece of black cloth hanging down the front and back.  I still can’t figure out how they go to the bathroom...

May 23
    Dude, I could dig being a monk.  It’s just that I like girls way too much.  I mean it.

June 14
    You know, I’ve changed a lot over the last few years, but something has happened to me here in this monastery that has changed me.  Right now I’m not too sure what it is, but I feel as if a seed has been planted somewhere in my soul.  It grows every day like something living.  It’s not just confidence that I have gained; it is something greater.  I think I am beginning to feel what some people call “inner peace.”  The funny thing is that it hasn’t exactly made me happy.
Whatever the case, I think I am beginning to learn who I really am.  It disturbs me though because as I learn about myself, I am more aware of what I don’t know...the more peace I find within myself, the more I am aware of the parts of me that are not peaceful.  I am learning not just about myself, but about God and what he meant by creating me.  I have more confidence and peace than ever before in my life—but at the same time, I am more confused and unsettled than ever.

April 11
    Is the monastic life really for me?  I have a girlfriend!    Things get so complicated.  I was at peace no more than three weeks ago.  Now what?  Why, if I am to be a monk, would God send me a woman I could care about?
    A Benedictine!  To spend my life in search of God!  To wear the black habit!  To vow my life into bonds that free my soul!  To live each day in prayer, close to the heart of our Savior, close to His holy presence!
    Am I to be a monk?  Please, God, be more specific.  This is a crucial moment here.  Make your move, God.

April 16
    I am still in love with my girlfriend...but more confident that the monastery is my calling.  As much as I care for her, I still see this as the answer to my question of what to do with the rest of my life.

April 27
    I have such an awesome decision before me.  I have come extremely close to entering this monastery...but I just can’t make that final leap.  If I knew it was what God wanted, I would certainly trust Him to work things out.  But I’m just not sure...

June 15
    I’m sitting in my room wondering what I just did with my life.  I walked into the monastery this morning, found the abbot, and asked him if I could join his community.  I’m tired of messing around.  Very well.  I’m leaving for the monastery. I’m taking a risk.  I’m going for it—all out!  Look, I want to do the right thing.  Christ will not abandon me if I seek him honestly.  I will not be a Macbeth.  I’ll do it—for better or for worse.
    On second thought, I like my life the way it is.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  I am really happy—or at least I have been.  But all of a sudden, I feel so sad.
    No, I have chosen to begin.  I have chosen to stop making circles of my life and begin the search.  There comes a point when you have to move from fun to joy.  That’s what I’m doing now.  I’ll miss my girlfriend.  I will miss dance clubs and parties and flirty, wide-eyed girls, but there is a chance that something infinitely bigger and more beautiful is waiting for me.  Now I have to empty my heart.  Now I have to put my trust—all my trust in Jesus Christ.  If I seek him, he will not abandon me.  Am I strong enough for this?  No.  Is He?  Yes.  He will not give me a burden I cannot carry.  I can’t say I know where my future lies, but I know it’s time to grow up.
    The celibacy part is going to be tough.  Really tough.  And obedience ain’t gonna be no piece of cake either.

June 19
    My first night in the monastery.  Will this be my home for the rest of my life?
    Oh my God.  I’m scared again.  I’m depressed.  Can I be bound into this monotonous cycle of living?  PRAY-EAT-WORK-PRAY-EAT-WORK-PRAY-EAT-WORK...  I’m scared.  I’m depressed.  I’m tired, too.  And I want a girlfriend.

June 28
    I hope I have the strength to do this.  Lord, give me the strength.

June 29
    Last night I had a dream.  I don’t remember the details of it, but I know that in it, I met, or spoke with or discussed Saint Augustine and decided to name myself after him.  When I woke up, I pulled out his autobiography and read the following passage:  “So my two wills, one old, the other new, one carnal, the other spiritual, were in conflict with one another, and their discord robbed my soul of all concentration...I was split between them.”  This is exactly what I’ve been going through.  But Saint Augustine gave up everything in the end.  Will I?

August 28
    My first day in the habit.  People call me “Brother.”  The title feels strange.  Like I don’t deserve it.  The habit feels strange.  Like I don’t fit it.  I don’t know whether or not I’ll stay here more than a year, but I’ll try.  I am not so happy as I am at peace.  Does that make sense?

January  7
    Tomorrow I begin my novitiate.  Does it scare me?  It does.  But no matter what path I choose it will have pain.  Deep, agonizing pain.  If I have a girlfriend, it might be jealousy, if I have a wife, it might be boredom or fear for my children.  If I am celibate, it may be loneliness.  Whichever path I choose, pain is an inevitable consequence.  Because I am human.  I can’t spend my life running away from suffering.  But even God felt pain.  Jesus felt pain and loneliness and rejection.  Just like me.  “He who wishes to follow me must drink from the same cup as I.”
    I asked for it, didn’t I?  “Yep,” says Jesus, “Yep, you did.”  The cup of bitterness.  The cup of loneliness.  The cup of emptiness.

January 11
    I’ve made it through the first three days of novitiate.  So far so good.  Only 363 more days to go (It’s Leap Year!).  For once in my life, I have no say in what happens to me.  I am no longer in control.  For one year, I will shut up, keep my head down, and listen...
May 29
    I dreamt about surfing last night.  Surfing and having a girlfriend.  I can’t figure out which I miss more.  Still, I suspect I’ll stick around when my novitiate is up.  I am beginning to really love the silence.

June 12
    What has happened over the last month?  Nothing.  Everything.  I have never been so busy and so bored all at once.  Nor have I ever felt so jumbled up and at peace.  I’m sure that I am hard to live with.

July 4
    Sometimes I pray that I am not called to be a monk.  At moments like this I ask, “Why me?  Did I not have enough pain in my life that I had to go and add celibacy to my list of struggles?"  I’ll tell you what: nothing short of God Himself will keep me in this monastery.
    Fortunately, I think God Himself is keeping me in this monastery.  You can consider my presence here proof of His existence.

July 13
    Perhaps I will become a monk after all...

August 6
    Perhaps I should be more open to following the Holy Spirit instead of trying to squeeze my feet into the sandals of a saint.  Take it easy, Augustine.  Do what you're told and follow the will of God as you feel it in your heart.  You’re no saint, so just work with what you’ve got.  Amen.

August 8
    Lately, my doubts have grown more serious.  I told Mom and Dad I wasn’t going to stay.  There are other things I would like to do.  Go off to L.A.  Be a real writer.

August 15
    Who would have thought I would wind up in a monastery!  Where will I be a year from now?  Is ambition really such a bad thing?  Even after 14 months in a cloister, I still want so many worldly things.  My thoughts are all questions these days.

August 21
    How many days have I wasted away in sin?  This monastery seems to have brought out the worst in me.  But then, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it?  To flush out the demons so I can meet them head-on.
    My most recent demons:
    Demon #1: Whining:“Why are they picking on me?”
    Demon #2: Shifting the Blame: ”He shouldn’t have said it that way...”
    Demon #3: Tepidity: “I just do what I’m told.”
    Demon #4: Self-Deception: “But this is prayer for me...”

August 24
    I have been here over a year and I am still not used to waking up at five a.m.  I need something to end this torturous indecision.  Faith, perhaps.  But since I obviously don’t have enough of that, I’ll ask for a miracle instead.

August 26
    Still no miracle.

August 28  The Feast of St. Augustine
    I had a dream this morning while I was meditating.  I dreamt that I was standing in the middle of a small room.  I was surrounded by vicious, snarling monsters--anthropomorphic and grotesque.  They approached me on every side, poised to devour me.  But instead of defending myself, I lifted my hands to heaven.  And the monsters were whisked away.

October 1,  The Feast of St. Therese of Liseux
    I have made my decision.  I will join the monastery.

October 8
    Today, the novices had a talk with Patrick Barry, the abbot of Ampleforth.   He warned us against constantly “looking over the wall.”  “The modern world is such a world of options,” he said, “that we find it almost impossible to commit to anything.  But doesn’t it all boil down to trust?  Isn’t that the most fundamental thing expected of us?  Some day, you will think of changing your mind, but will trust Him instead.
    Stick to the facts.  Forget your imaginings about the future.  Picture yourself the blind man before the Pharisees: ‘All I know is that I was blind, and now I see.’  Stop arguing with God and trust him.”

October 21
    A beautiful day.  The air is so cool and clean.  Our trees are starting to blush.  It will be winter, then Christmas, and then I will vow my life to God.  The die is cast.  I trust Him.  I will live for Him.
    I feel good.  It’s not the kind of good you feel when you tell a funny joke.  It’s not the kind of good you feel on a first date.  It’s not the kind of good you feel when you hit a home run, or catch a clean wave, or ace a test.  It’s the kind of good that sort of wells up slowly from within so that you hardly realize how good you’re feeling.  Like how Jeremiah found God not in a thunderstorm or earthquake, but in a gentle breeze.

October 29
    We had a “motivational speaker” in our church two nights ago.  He asked, “Is there anyone here who is truly happy?  Is there anyone here who just cannot imagine being any happier?  Of course not.”  I was a little embarrassed because I had almost raised my hand.  I am truly happy.  I can’t imagine being any happier.  As far as I can tell, I am doing God’s will.  What more could I want?

November 15
    What have I learned from my novitiate?  That suffering is the key to real joy.  Strange as it may seem, I could not find peace of mind or heart until I learned (as Saint Benedict had commanded in the Rule) to "accept humiliations joyfully."  Through them, I have participated in Christ's passion.
    This story is over.  The end of my novitiate.  The end of my beginning.  As my Latin professor used to say, “Now there’s a story with a happy middle.”


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sermon to the Priory School Eighth Grade Graduating Class

     Congratulations.  As of today, you are freshmen.  In a year or two, you will be driving.  In four years, you will be heading off to college.
    But first, you will have high school to negotiate.  And you will find that it is not as hard as you feared.  You will also find that it is hard in ways you never expected.  So this morning, by way of preparing you for the high school, I will leave you with three pieces of advice.  (I had twelve, by the way.  I plagiarized them all from Saint Benedict’s “Ladder of Humility.”  But twelve pieces of advice would make for a very long homily.  Besides that, I have some advice for your parents, too.  So I’ll stick to three: Three for you and three for your parents.

    So first, to your parents, I say, if you want your kid to thrive in the high school 
1. Keep the computer and cell phone in a public place.
2. Limit video games to 1 hour/day or four hours on weekends (sorry, guys.  I call ‘em like I see ‘em)
3. Take your kid to church every Sunday
(I realize that last suggestion doesn’t fit in so neatly with the first two, but believe me, Sunday morning is when you show your kid what your priorities are.  All the rest of your house rules and your very integrity will balance on that singular obligation.)

     Now...gentlemen…having just ruined your social lives, summer vacations, weeknights, and most of your weekends for the next four years, allow me to regale you with three further instructions.  Here are my three rules for success in high school.  And again, I stole them directly from the Rule of Saint Benedict.

     1. Don’t be true to yourself.  In the words of Saint Benedict: “Do not be in love with your own will, but put into practice that word of the Lord which says: "I came not to do My own will but the will of  Him that sent Me” (John 6:38).
You see, what feels best for you may not be the best for the people around you.  For that matter, it may not even be good for you.  A man of  real integrity understands that self-fulfillment is not about self-satisfaction.  Thus he is willing to deny his own desires for the sake of the future, for the sake of his soul, and for the sake of the people around him.  So don’t be true to yourself.  Anyone can do that.  If you want to do something really courageous and admirable, try being true to someone better than you—like, say, Jesus.

     2. Don’t follow your dreams. Or, in the words of Saint Benedict: “For the love of God, be obedient to your elders, imitating the Lord, of whom the Apostle says: "He was obedient even unto death" (Phil 2:8)
    You see, everyone has dreams, and if we all followed all of them, the world would collapse into chaos and ruination. Some folks have stupid dreams, unhealthy dreams, scary, self-defeating, reckless, or just plane evil dreams. So how do we know which dreams to follow? We seek the advice of someone older and wiser than ourselves. G. K. Chesterton said, “We don't need a church that is right when we are already right. We need a church that is right when we’re wrong.”
    A lot of folks think that growing up means you no longer have to obey anyone.  Once you’re an adult (they say to themselves), you no longer have to do anything that anyone tells you.  Well, that attitude is wrong.  The truth is, maturity demands a higher level of obedience.  An obedience so true that it anticipates the rules, and goes beyond them.  Imagine a school where the students tried to guess what their teachers wanted from them and then did it before being asked.  Imagine a school where each student was determined to outdo the others in love.  St. Benedict envisions such a school in his Rule for monks.  He calls it “A School for the Lord’s Service.”
     And lastly, I will repeat for you something that was said to me by the valedictorian at my high school graduation.  He said: “Nothing is impossible if you just put your mind to it.”  That statement is a lie.  You will find over the course of the next four years—and every year thereafter—that lots of things are impossible, some of the possible things are bad, and others end in failure.  In fact, before you graduate, I predict that you will fail at something: you’ll lose a game, get your heart broken, bomb a test, get made fun of.  And if you’re anything like me, you will fail profoundly, ridiculously, dramatically, publicly, and repeatedly.
    And that is not okay.  But if you are faithful to prayer and never stop returning to God in humility and repentance, you will discover for yourselves the truth in what Mother Theresa used to say: “God does not expect us to be successful.  He expects us to be faithful.”  Unite your failures with Christ’s suffering, and they will transform miraculously into earth-shattering triumphs, because you will be participating in the redemptive suffering of Christ.

    So… it is not the case that you can do anything so long as you just put your mind to it.  In fact, you are destined for failure.  And that is very, very sad.  But it’s also kind of thrilling because your God had his heart broken and was bullied.  Your God was humiliated and scorned and abandoned.  And that means that your dignity is not bound up with your success.  You are sons of God.  You have been divinized.  And in the end, when you lie on your deathbed as we all inevitably do, without trophies or diplomas or accolades or even your bodily health, ALL that will matter is your existence as a son of God, and that will be enough.  That will be more than enough.  That will be everything.

Laus Tibi Domine.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

CHAPTER 73: This Is Only the Beginning

The purpose of this Rule is to help monks achieve at least some moral righteousness, or rather a beginning of the monastic life. If you truly desire to pursue the perfection of the religious life, read the Church Fathers.  Following them will lead you to the height of perfection. And what page or what passage of the divinely inspired books of the Old and the New Testament are not a most exact rule of human life? So, too, the collections of the Fathers, their advice and their lives, and the Rule of our holy Father, Basil…what are they but monuments to the virtues of exemplary and obedient monks? You, therefore, who hasten to your heavenly home, with the help of Christ must do your best to fulfill this little rule for beginners; and then you shall, by the grace of God, attain at last to the heights of knowledge and virtue.

Back when I first decided to join the monastery, my roommate from college decided to go off to LA to become a movie star.  And he did.  Randall was on “The Young and the Restless” and made guest appearances on sit-coms.  He was in movies and hung out with models and rock stars.  One night, I got a call from him on the monastery phone.  He said to me “Guess who was just named Teen Magazine’s ‘Hunk of the Month’!”[1]
I said to him, “Well, I’m in a monastery, so I guess it must be you.”
Not long after that, he came out to the monastery to visit.   I asked him whether he had seen “Passion of the Christ.”  He said, “No.  I don’t like Jim Caviezel.”
I said, “You don’t like his acting?”
He said, “No.  I don’t like him personally.  We had an argument at a party, and I just can’t see him as Jesus.  On the other hand…I might enjoy seeing him flogged and crucified, but I don’t think that would healthy.”
            As you might imagine, Randall’s stories started to become a real temptation to me.  Whenever life in the monastery seemed dull or lonely, I would think of Randall.  He lived upstairs from Heather Graham.  His wife had a two-page spread in Sports Illustrated (not the swimsuit issue).  He would go out to eat with Emilou Harris.  I wanted to live upstairs from Heather Graham.  I wanted to have a fight with Jim Caviezel.  I still want to have dinner with Emmylou Harris, and I don’t even know who she is!
So a few years passed, and after I professed my Solemn Vows, I went to visit Randall in New York.  He had a little party in my honor.  All of his beautiful friends were there: models, producers, musicians…they were all beautiful.  The loft was beautiful.  Randall and his wife were beautiful.  The hors d'oeuvres were beautiful.  Even the little toothpicks were beautiful.  So I was really taken with all this beauty, and having a serious vocation crisis all to myself, when one of Randall’s friends, this chic Jewelry designer from Soho named Claudette…she leans toward me over the coffee table and she said, “Why did you have to become a monk?  Isn’t it enough just to be a good person?”
She couldn’t have picked a worse time to ask me that question.  I was in no condition to give a convincing answer.  But, as is sometimes the case, the Holy Spirit stepped in on my behalf.  I slapped my beautiful hors d'oeuvre down on the coffee table and said “No.  No, it is not enough ‘just to be a good person.’   Being a good person is the minimum.  Think about it.  What’s the alternative?  You’re expected to be a good person.  That’s the least you can do.  We are called to be saints—to live lives of heroic virtue—to give and give and give till it hurts!”  (Then I stabbed myself with a toothpick and had to run to the bathroom.)
My point is that as Christians, we can’t ever be satisfied with mediocrity.  We can’t allow ourselves to be too comfortable with the status quo.  The minimum isn’t enough.  It never was, and it certainly isn’t now.  A lot is expected of us.  Perfection is expected of us.  “Of those to whom much has been given, much is expected” (Luke 12:48).
Does this scare you?  It should.  But it should also thrill you, because perfection is entirely within your grasp. You have a whole army of saints at your back.  You have volumes and volumes of guidance to draw upon. You have the sacraments and the Scriptures at your disposal—all the resources of a two-thousand-year old Church.  And of course, you have the Eucharist, where you may draw upon Jesus’ own divine strength and make it your own.
So get to it.  Time is running out.  There’s a war going on for the soul of the world, and you have been chosen to fight on the front lines.  This is just the beginning.

[1] I’m not sure I got the title right here, but you get the point. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

CHAPTER 72: The Good Zeal of the Monk

Just as there is a wicked zeal which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vice and leads to God and everlasting life. The monks, therefore, should practice this good zeal with the most fervent love; in fact, they should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, competing with one another in obedience. They should endure one another’s weaknesses—whether of body or mind—with the utmost patience; and no one should follow what he thinks useful to himself; instead, he should do what he thinks will most benefit the others.
The monks should fear God and love their abbot with sincere and humble affection. Let them prefer nothing to Christ, and may He lead us all together to life everlasting.

    Here in the penultimate chapter, we finally see where all this is leading.  All the rules and mandates and regulations guide us to this one quintessentially monastic virtue: zeal.  The monk must be zealous.  He must want heaven the way a rock star wants to be on stage—the way an actor wants to be in the movies.  He has to be willing to make the same sacrifices that athletes and soldiers and poets make in pursuit of their dreams.  The hunger, the loneliness, the humiliations, failures and sacrifices are all part of realizing that dream.  The monk knows this, and when the struggle begins to wear on him, he bears it with the grim, rugged joy of a mountain climber or a triathlete.  In his treatise On Virginity, Saint Ambrose wrote, “The Word of God moves swiftly.  The lukewarm won’t reach him.  The lazy can’t hold on.  So pay close attention to his word, and be careful to follow the path God shows you, or He will quickly pass you by” (Ch 12, 74).
    It’s all about good zeal.
    If, as we said in Chapter 5, “supernatural docility” is what gives the Benedictine life its authentic character, then “good zeal” is what perfects it.  You can think of these as the beginning and end of the spiritual discipline: the negative way and the positive way.  You start with purification and end with perfection.
    Saint Augustine had a pretty interesting take on this process, which he drew from the beatitudes (Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Chs 1-23).  The first three beatitudes, he said, are passive (“Blessed are the poor… mourning…weak”); the last three are active (“Blessed are the merciful…the pure…the peacemakers”).  But the central beatitude—the turning point and crux of the spiritual life, the focus of the entire endeavor—is zeal: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt 5).  You sometimes hear ambitious athletes or businessmen described as hungry.  They are consumed by a sort of restless, savage, dogged enthusiasm that keeps them sprinting from one dream to the next.  This is zeal, and it’s what separates the diehard from the mere enthusiast.  When others call it a day, the zealous man is just getting started.  Setbacks are “tests” and failures are just practice runs.
    “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” wrote Saint Augustine(Confessions, Book I).  This spiritual restlessness—this hunger—is what keeps the monk on his toes.  It keeps him focused and it keeps him humble, because it is a constant reminder that his work is incomplete. Hubert Van Zeller (what a name!) wrote: “When a monk is possessed of true zeal he thinks neither of reform nor of himself—and still less of how unreformed his companions are—but thinks only of how God may be better served” (The Holy Rule, p. 456).
    Good zeal is what you get when you prefer nothing—nothing whatever—to Christ.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

CHAPTER 71: Mutual Obedience

The brethren must be obedient not only to the abbot, but also to one another, knowing that this path of obedience is how they will reach God. Therefore, unless the abbot says otherwise, the younger brethren should obey their elders with all charity and zeal.  And if a brother is scolded in any way by the abbot or by any of his Superiors for even a slight reason—or if he notices that one of his elders is even slightly put off, let him without delay cast himself down on the ground at his feet until the whole situation is quieted by a blessing.

    Monks aren’t just obedient to their abbot, they are obedient to one another as well—and in particular to their elders.  This of course goes way beyond doing what they’re told.  A real Christian community needs all of its members to look out for one another, so the moment a monk senses that he has done the opposite—inspired some anger or anxiety in his brother—he stops what he’s doing and fixes it.
    Here again, Saint Benedict demands instant and unhesitating action.  The monk, as you will recall, makes humility his special virtue, so there is no room for excuses or finger-pointing. He doesn’t stop to ask himself if he’s really in the wrong.  The moment he perceives that his actions have caused a problem, he throws himself on the floor and begs a blessing.  Notice that, technically speaking, he isn’t asking for forgiveness.  At least not at first.  It may be that he wasn’t at fault in the first place, so instead of asking forgiveness, he asks for a blessing, which is actually far more.  Notice too that he gets down on the floor to do it.  The physical part is essential because it’s so easy to do.  He doesn’t have to put on a sad face or try to look like he means it.  By making himself physically smaller than his brother, he restores some of the dignity he took away when he provoked him.  And he can do all this while he is still hopping mad.
    Again, he doesn’t wait to figure out whether he feels sorry.  He doesn’t wait to decide whether he was really at fault.  He just does what the Rule tells him to do.  This may sound insincere, but think about it: if people only apologized on those occasions when they knew they were wrong, apologies would be very rare indeed.  Because who ever gets in an argument knowing that they are mistaken?
Every morning before we begin the office of Lauds, the monks sing this psalm:

Have mercy on me, God in your kindness;
In your compassion, blot out my offense.
For I acknowledge my guilt

and my sin is always before me.

I have done such evil in your sight.
                --Psalm 50

    So when it comes time for the apology itself, the formula is quite clear:  “I have done evil.”  In an age when we delight in celebrity scandals, when every apology is prefaced by a disclaimer and followed by an excuse, when shock radio and reality television have elevated sleaze to an art form...it’s astonishing to hear anyone admit frankly that he has done wrong.  These days, you’d expect the psalmist to say something more along the lines of,  “I apologize to anyone who may have been offended by any misinterpretation of what I might have done…when I was provoked.”  But that isn’t the Benedictine way.  “I have done evil in your sight” says the monk, “and you are just in your judgment.”
    Never water down an apology with an excuse.  If you’ve done wrong, own up to it.  Throw yourself on the floor and beg for a blessing.  Then let the whole thing go.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

CHAPTER 70: Presuming to Strike a Brother

     We decree that no one be permitted to excommunicate or to strike any one of his brethren, unless the abbot has given him the authority. But if anyone should break this rule, let him be publicly reprimanded, that the others may learn from his mistake.  
      Let all, however, exercise diligent and watchful care over the discipline of children until they reach the age of fifteen.  Of course, even that should be done with discretion. And if anyone should presume to discipline those of more advanced years without the command of the abbot, or loses his temper when he punishes the children, let him be subject to the discipline of the Rule, because it is written: "If you do not want it to be done to you, do not do it to someone else." (Tb 4:16)[1]. 

      You don’t have to hang out with people who annoy you, but when you consistently refuse to speak or eat with someone, isn’t that a form of excommunication?  When you make a point of avoiding them, when you sneer at their jokes and roll your eyes as they turn away, aren’t these just subtle ways of punishing them?  Chapters 69 and 70 are two sides of the same coin.  It doesn’t matter whether you are defending or attacking someone in the community; either way, you are judging them.  And Saint Benedict knows that behavior of this sort can take any number of different forms—from outright beatings to silent contempt.  In many respects, the silent attacks can be the worst.  Personally, I’d rather get jumped in the hallway than realize after several weeks that someone has been talking behind my back.
     Still, Benedict doesn’t completely disapprove of corporal punishment, and in this respect, he can start to sound kind of medieval.  But you have to take his comments in context.  In his day, folks used to beat kids all the time.  In fact, everyone used to beat everyone—and a thousand years later, they were still doing it. Stephen Greenblatt, in his biography of William Shakespeare, pointed out that in the 1500s, “parents frequently whipped children, teachers whipped students, masters whipped servants, beadles whipped whores, sheriffs whipped vagrants and beggars…” (Will in the World, p. 178).  Up until the 19th century it was legal to beat your wife with a stick, provided it was no wider than your thumb.[2] 
     My point is that in the old days, everyone believed in corporal punishment, and not just for kids either, so we can’t really hold it against Saint Benedict that he accepted it as the norm.  In fact, we can admire his restraint.  His aim here is to prevent his monks from acting out of anger, and anyone who does so receives a public reprimand.  What are we to learn from this?  That judging and condemning are practices best left to God.

[1] This is the third time Saint Benedict quotes this exact passage from the Book of Tobit!  What’s up with that?
[2] A series of lawsuits, most notably North Carolina v. Oliver (in 1874) put an end to this so-called “rule of thumb.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

CHAPTER 69: Presuming to Defend a Brother

No monk should ever defend another in the monastery.  Nor should he take sides in an argument.  Such conduct should never occur in the monastery under any circumstances because it causes very grave scandal. If anyone should violate this rule, let him be severely punished.

Wow.  Severely punished.  And just for defending a fellow monk.  There’s got to be more here than meets the eye.
And of course, there is.
Saint Benedict is talking about cliques and the grumbling that inevitably accompanies them.  When you take a side in an argument (not a discussion, mind you, but an actual confrontation) you take a personal disagreement and make it into a public one.  Something that might well have been settled quietly must now be publicly and officially resolved.  This is especially inappropriate for a monk because, you remember, even when he is given an impossible task, he shouldn’t defend himself; so on what grounds could he possibly dare to defend someone else?
 But taking sides in a fight is always dangerous—and not just because you might end up with a black market nose-job.  Morally speaking, it’s also dangerous. How, for example, do you decide which brothers are worth defending?  Just the ones you agree with?  The ones you’re related to?  The ones you like the most?  And are you sure you know all the details?  You see where this is going: once you start taking sides, there’s no good reason to stop.
But what makes this behavior even more deplorable is that you are, on a personal level, playing God.  Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you will be judged” (Matt 7:1).  By this, of course, he did not mean that we should just accept everyone’s behavior as-is.  We are called to make judgments about particular acts.  We are permitted—in fact, we are obliged—to analyze certain moral acts and determine whether they conform to Christian moral standards. We can say, “…this or that act is sinful…” even “..this or that person committed a sinful act.”  What we are forbidden to say is, “This is a bad person” or “This person is going to Hell.”  The distinction is subtle, but necessary.  We judge acts, not people.[1]
Here’s the catch, though: you don’t judge people when they’re in the wrong, but you don’t judge them when they’re in the right either.  In the old days, everyone seemed pretty confident their neighbors were going to Hell.  These days, everyone seems pretty confident they’re going to Heaven.  Either way, it’s not our call.  That’s why we pray for the dead and not to them. 

[1] Parents, religious superiors, and judges are sometimes called upon to judge people, but they do so with fear and trembling, knowing that they will be held accountable by God Himself.

Monday, April 13, 2015

CHAPTER 68: If a Brother is Given an Impossible Command

If a brother is given a difficult or impossible command, let him nevertheless receive the order with all meekness and obedience. If, however, he sees that the burden of the command is entirely beyond his strength, let him quietly (and at the appropriate time) submit the reasons for his inability to his Superior—without pride, protest, or dissent. If, however, after hearing the brother’s explanation, the Superior still insists on his command, the monk should trust that his superior knows what is best for him and obey out of love, relying on God’s help.

     Note that the default attitude for a monk is unhesitating obedience—even when he is told to do something impossible, he must obey.  This is a particularly hard concept for the modern mind to grasp.  It smacks of “radicalism” and “blind faith.”  We start thinking of cult leaders and Nazis and we begin to ask ourselves questions like: “If the pope said black was white, would I believe it?  What if my bishop told me to kill someone?  What if the Church taught something that I didn’t agree with?”  But here we must make a crucial distinction between unhesitating obedience and unquestioning obedience. 
      Benedict expects his monks to do what they’re told, but he expects them to question their superior.  So it must be with anyone who is put in authority over us, whether that’s a parent, a bishop, a teacher or a pope.  We are expected to question and analyze…even to challenge them when we think they’re wrong.  But defiance and rebellion are out of the question, and skepticism shouldn’t be the norm.  It may help to think of the Church as an army.  You want a soldier to challenge his superior if he is given a truly immoral or impossible command.  It may even be his moral duty to disobey if that command is truly heinous—like executing civilians or torturing prisoners.  However, you can’t have the troops questioning every order.  In fact, you may legitimately expect a soldier to obey an order even when he disagrees with it.  When the captain shouts “Charge!” he can’t then sit down with every grunt and explain his rationale.
     So for the Catholic, at any rate, it all boils down to this: you have to decide ahead of time whether you trust Her.  If you think she’s right about, say, transubstantiation and the Trinity, then, unless there is a deep violation of your conscience, you’ve got to trust Her on the other stuff too.  What’s more, it may be the case that this is not so much a violation of your conscience as a case of having two consciences—one that says, “I’m a Catholic” and one that says, “I think such-and-such.”  Distinguishing between these two consciences can be a grueling exercise, but my senior Theology students came up with a way to make that process easier.  Consider the following:
     No matter how much time you spend thinking about it, the sum total of your wisdom will not add up to more than the sum total of the Church’s wisdom.  You aren’t holier than Mother Theresa.  You aren’t smarter than Thomas Aquinas.  You aren’t wiser than Saint Francis.  And you aren’t older than the Church.  But now you say that you are right, and the entire Catholic Church—all its saints, theologians, and bishops are wrong?  Sure, a particular cleric or parent may be in error, but the whole Church?  If it’s a matter of doctrine, the odds are not in your favor.
     Here again, Saint Benedict is talking about humility.  Are you willing to admit that you are not the ultimate authority?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

CHAPTER 67: Monks on a Journey

     If a monk is sent on a journey, he should ask the community and abbot to pray for him. And after the last prayer at the Work of God, the community should make a special prayer for the absent brethren. On the day that the monk returns from his journey, let him lie flat on the floor of the chapel during all the prayers, and ask everyone to pray for him on account of his failings, for fear that the sight of evil or the sound of shallow talk should have surprised him on the way. And no one should presume to talk about what he has seen or heard outside of the monastery because it is most hurtful. But if anyone should presume to do so, let him undergo the penalty of the Rule.  Likewise, anyone who leaves the monastery without the abbot’s permission should be punished.

The final six chapters appear to be tacked on at the end of the Rule as an afterthought.  By and large, they cover particular extraordinary situations that might arise in a community.  Did Saint Benedict add these chapters one-by-one as he confronted each new challenge?  If so, his first concern was for monks who needed to travel.

In the old days, there was a special prayer that the community would say for a monk when he returned from a trip: “Almighty and eternal God, have mercy on this servant; and if the sight or hearing or any idle word has taken him by surprise on the way, may it be completely forgiven.”  Benedict isn’t worried about what the monk does while he is away so much as what that monk might bring back with him when he returns.  There’s a whole lot of good in the world, but there’s a whole lot of nasty stuff too, and the nasty stuff just seems to get more press.[1]  I’ll bet you’ve heard of Dante’s Inferno, right?  It’s a story about Hell.  But did you know he also wrote a book called Purgatorio and another called Paradiso?  They’re actually much better books than The Inferno, but no one ever reads them because, frankly, sin is more interesting—or so it seems.

Before I became a priest, I imagined that hearing confessions would be fun.  I guess I thought that it would be entertaining to hear peoples’ deepest, darkest secrets—find out about all the stuff that’s going on behind the scenes that no one ever hears about.  I wasn’t much beyond my second or third confession, though, when I realized that confessions are boring.  Really, really boring.  Even the most “interesting” sins are tedious when you look at them through the lens of repentance because, as Saint Augustine loved to point out, sin is just a vacuum.  It’s a hole in something beautiful, or, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, a ‘misdirected good.’  Sin is only interesting so long as you focus on the pleasure it gives you, and it only gives you pleasure so long as you romanticize it.

a traveling monk
Benedict is afraid that the traveling monk might do something stupid while he’s away—then brag about it when he gets back.  And this fear is as much for the traveler as for his audience.  Jesus had great patience for sinners; His harshest words were for those who caused scandal: “It would be better for that man if a millstone were tied around his neck and he were tossed into the sea…” (Luke 17:2).

Nonetheless, when Monday morning rolls around, the halls are full of scandal—much of it made up out of thin air, no doubt:

 “I was soooo drunk Saturday night…”

“You-know-who was out of control…”

“You wouldn’t believe what so-and-so did…

 “You’ve got to swear not to tell anyone this, but…”

When you hear phrases like these, run for the door.  Your soul is in danger. 

The psalmist sings: “Why do you boast of your wickedness, you champion of evil?” (52:1)  It’s bad enough to act like a fool, but you elevate foolishness to a whole new level when you brag about it to your friends.  So it’s not enough just to watch what you do on the weekends.  You need to watch what you say about it on Monday morning too.

[1] Not long ago, I complained to one of the old monks about the news.  “It’s always murders and earthquakes and wars and scandals.  How come they can’t tell us about the good things that are going on in the world?”
“Because the World is full of good things,” he answered.  “When good things become newsworthy, that’s when we need to start worrying.”

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

CHAPTER 66: The Gatekeeper

     Let a wise old monk be stationed at the door of the monastery—one who knows how to be courteous, and whose advanced age keeps him from wandering around.  He should have a room near the door so that visitors will always find someone there. As soon as he hears a knock at the door, or a poor person asking for help, the gatekeeper should answer, "Thanks be to God," or ask a blessing; and with the meekness of the fear of God let him reply with a quick, fervent, and charitable answer.  If the old monk needs hand, let him have a younger brother to help him.
    This is one of the most pleasant chapters in the rule.  One can’t help smiling at Benedict’s portrait of the gatekeeper—too old to wander about, but kind and solicitous to all who knock.  It is especially refreshing after the relentless skepticism of the previous chapter, and makes for a rather nice contrast.  Who knows what jobs this old guy had when he was younger?  It doesn’t matter to him.  His job now is to welcome strangers, and his attitude toward them should be an example to any Christian who knocks at the door.  The gatekeeper doesn’t resent having his prayers interrupted.  Instead, he thanks God for the opportunity to receive a blessing.  His response is fervent and charitable.
    Many scholars believe that this was originally the last chapter of the Rule.  (Otherwise, why tack on the bit about re-reading it to the community?)  If it is, then perhaps Benedict meant for the gatekeeper to be a sort of model for how to grow old.  Of course, right now, old age may seem a long way off, but if you’re lucky, you will in fact get old some day.  You’ll go bald and get wrinkly and have a sore back and ride around on one of those little scooters with a bell on the handle bars to warn people you’re coming.
    That’s right.  That’ll be you.  So you might as well get used to the idea.
    The kicker is that although old people may not look like much, they are the most important, most powerful folks in the Church.  Because they suffer so much, their prayers are uniquely bound up with Christ’s suffering, and that makes them intercessors and co-redeemers with Christ.  Remember that Saint Paul said we “make up in our sufferings what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Col 24).
The question for now is what sort of old person you will be when that day comes—when your body begins to break down and your mind starts to slip.  Will you be “envious” and “puffed-up” like Benedict’s prior, or “meek” and “charitable” like Benedict’s gatekeeper?  You need to start practicing from now.