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Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Advent Prayer: Come, Lord Jesus!

A Word of Explanation:  This blog became inactive with the appointment of a new oblate director three years ago as she chose to use another means of communication.  On being reappointed oblate director, Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB, has chosen to reactivate this blog now, in December 2018.

Come, Lord Jesus! 

When? Are we sitting in the cozy comfort of the present tense, our favorite reading light shining on our Bible, a cup of coffee or tea beside us? Are we reading the comforting texts of the Advent prophets who promised long ago that all broken hearts will be mended, all enmities resolved, all hungers satisfied?  Do we take another satisfying sip of our hot drink, expecting to finish the cup undisturbed?

The trouble with this peaceful picture of a coming long ago or later on is that Christ always comes right now.  In fact, he is always right here.  As he says in Revelation 3:20, “I stand at the door and knock.”  All we have to do is get up and open our heart’s door and let him in.

Unfortunately, that’s not always as simple as it sounds, is it?  There may be a lot of acreage between our prayer nook and the door.  The landscape may include the mountains and valleys the prophet Baruch (Bar 5:1-9) and Luke, quoting Isaiah, point to (Luke 3:1-6).  Ours are often the mountains we’ve made out of molehills: a small slight turned into a major resentment; a minor failure turned into a dismal preoccupation with all that’s wrong with us—because, of course, God won’t really judge us with love and mercy; a little anxiety grown into paralyzing worry—because, of course, we have to take care of the matter ourselves, since God isn’t really around.  The valleys can be the pits of despair we’ve dug for ourselves because we’re too small to live as we’re called to, and we don’t really quite believe all those words we hear about mercy, forgiveness, and grace. And sometimes the landscape is overgrown with thorn bushes, those concerns about possessions and money named in Matthew 13, for example—Christmas is expensive!  Gotta live up to expectations!  And there are those wide expanses of spiritual desert, where God seems to have left the scene and is probably going to leave us to starve to death or die of thirst.  These inner landscapes, and other like them, may seem impassible when we think about getting up and going to open the door to Christ, who is there knocking right this minute. We seem to have given up on the possibility of Benedictine conversatio morum, perhaps because we’ve been tricked into believing that it’s our job alone.

Take heart, the Advent readings tell us.  We can sit right there, stuck in our chairs, and just cry out to Christ to come on in, please.  Then the divine landscaper can take over and flatten those mountains, fill in those valleys, and uproot those thorn bushes.  As happened for those frightened, angry, doubtful Israelites in the desert, the waters of God’s Spirit will well up within our deepest hearts, and Christ will set a nourishing meal before us—and, he says in Revelation 3:20, sit down and share it with us.

Over and over, Advent by Advent, day by day, we can cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus”—and the answer will always be, “I’m here at the door—just let me come in and be with you.”

Copyright 2018 Abbey of St. Walburga

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Now What?

The Easter season ends on Sunday, May 15, with the celebration of Pentecost.  It’s time to put the last glorious peals of “Alleluia” away and get on with the season of Ordinary Time.  Ordinary Time gets its name from the fact that the Sundays are identified by their ordinal number, beginning with Sunday 1 in January and ending with Sunday 34 in November.  It has no special theme, no special character, no special call to believers—other than the gospel, which is call enough for anyone.

What is our call during Ordinary Time then?  St. Benedict sums it all  up in simple phrases: “Listen with the ear of the heart” (see RB Prologue 1), “Seek God in all things” (see RB 58:6), “Prefer nothing to the love of Christ” (see RB 4:21,72:11 “Run in the path of the gospel” (see RB Prologue 42-33, 49).  Simple, not easy. Quick to read, not quick to live up to.  Undemanding to read, but not undemanding to live. 

When Lent gave way to Easter, our chaplain suggested that as we made Lenten resolutions, we should think of making Easter resolutions.  With the power of the Spirit that blew the first disciples out of their hiding place in the Upper Room into the streets, armed only with faith, hope, love and the Word of God, we also walk out into the highways and byways of Ordinary Time similarly armed.  To focus that renewed Spirit energy, we might think about making three resolutions for Ordinary Time:  one for summer, one for fall, one for those winter weeks between the Baptism of the Lord and Ash Wednesday.

Our experiences of Lent and Easter will have reawakened our desire to pursue the great goal set before us by St. Paul:  “to know Christ Jesus” (cf. Phil 3:10).  That desire lies at the core of all of St. Benedict’s dircctives.  Lent will have taught us something about the road that leads to its fulfillment.  We have come from our Lenten path humbled by a new awareness of the stumbling blocks we often put before our own feet and yet the power of Christ drawing us on toward the renewal of our baptismal promises at Easter.  The Easter season follows the first disciples in their early years of learning the hard way how to know and follow Christ dead and risen and still with them, though unseen.  If you missed out on the daily lectionary readings of from the Acts of the Apostles, you might want to pick the book up yourself and read it as a mirror of your own life in the various communal circles to which you belong. 

But the best companion for the long journey of Ordinary Time is the four gospels.  Do you have a favorite?  Do you have one you haven’t really explored yet?  Choose one as your map and guide to the ordinary daily Christian life to which you are committed.  And why not read it with the Rule of St. Benedict in hand?  Look up what St. Benedict has to say about repenting and believing in the gospel (Mark 1:14-15), or living a life defined by the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:2-12) , or paying greater attention to lepers and Samaritans, whoever they are in your life (Luke).  That kind of reading is a work of translation from Jesus’ day to Benedict’s to ours, sometimes gleaning surprises along the way.

Have a good trip!

Copyright 2016, Abbey of St. Walburga

Friday, February 12, 2016

PHIL’S SHADOW by Mother Maria-Thomas, OSB

We are still wading through the slush of this tremendous snowfall on Groundhog Day.   Phil did not see his shadow-on February 2, because the sky was packed with thick, gray clouds.  “We will get an early Spring!” people say.

What a fitting symbol, this idea of “seeing or not seeing one’s shadow” , just before we begin an early Lent! St. Benedict reminds us that we are to look at our own “shadow-side” for the purpose of conversion: We are supposed to be “washing away in this holy season the negligences of other times and refusing to indulge in evil habits.” (RB 49: 2).

What actually makes a shadow, this dark, ghostlike figure on the ground, caused by an eclipse of light? The white untouched surface of freshly fallen snow appears in this area as if smudged by a shape that resembles our own figure: sometimes shorter, or elongated, and often grotesquely distorted. It is we ourselves who are blocking out the light and thus darkening our environment. If do not want to see our shadow, this does not necessarily mean that our dark spots aren’t there, nor that the sun is not there. We are just not standing in the light, or do not open our eyes to this light. (Cf. RB Prologue 9.)

Lent invites us, to move into the Light of God’s Word in our lectio divina, so that we can see Him, this world, and ourselves more clearly. When God’s light shines on our own person, i.e. when we apply the Word to our own situation, then we will also discover our shadow: our weak spots, our critical thoughts and negative feelings, etc.  These evil habits follow us like shadows wherever we go. We cannot shake them off.  It takes courage and honesty to look at them and to acknowledge them. Then we will have a more perfect view of the whole reality of life: We perceive that God is Light; but we are often blocking it by our own stubbornness, our pride and self-pity, so that it cannot shine through us. Often we focus too exclusively on our misery, or on the suffering und problems of our world that we do not perceive the greater reality behind and beyond the dark events. The grace of God is always there, even at night, when the sun is not visible to us; when our earth turns its back to the sun and plunges us into a cosmic shadow.

But we will also perceive that the cross is not the end; behind it there shines the sun of a greater and more brilliant reality: God’s mercy has already penetrated our darkness and in doing so, has wiped out the world’s sins and faults through his Son’s death and resurrection.

 And there is more: God can use our shadow-side to “show His power in weakness.”
(2 Cor. 12: 9) God alone can heal our wounds and enlighten our blindness so that we are able to see rightly, if we not refuse to look. In fact, He has already done so, even before we even ask. (Cf. Prologue 18 – 21) All we have to do is turn toward him, acknowledge our weakness, our sins, and embarrassing faults, and ask for His forgiveness, His help and guidance.

In this Lenten season, let us faithfully place ourselves daily into the Light of His Word. In this light, we will discover not only our own shadow: “the negligences” of our past and “evil habits of our present days”, but also the God of mercy who is always the God of hope and reconciliation, the God of the future.  When we courageously look at ourselves and at the plight of our world in God’s light of promises, we might slowly discover that even our shadow side has a silver lining: We are coming to know better who we are; we grow in self-knowledge and in humility:  We realize that we are sinners, but forgiven sinners; and God alone is Light. Behind the cross there shines the Light of the Resurrection and the brilliance of the new world God has in store.  The more we let His light shine into our eyes and hearts, we become penetrated and illumined by this light of hope so that we can reflect it on to others. We ourselves will be witnesses to the fact that behind all shadows there shines the sun of an early Easter. Let us walk through the shadows of Lent toward the Lord’s and our own Resurrection with hope and faith. Have a happy, hope-filled  Lenten season. 

 M. M. Thomas, O.S.B.
Copyright Abbey of St. Walburga 2016

Monday, February 8, 2016

'Tis the Season -- of Lent!

Lent is upon us!

Lent is the season that brings conversion to the fore for individuals and for believing communities.  The season is historically geared toward Easter, when new members will be received into the Church and current members will renew their baptismal commitment to live fully in Christ.  Lent gets us ready by shining a spotlight on those areas of our life that have drifted away or grown slack in seeking to put into practice St. Benedict’s exhortation to “prefer nothing to Christ.”   Lovely to say, harder to live!

To return to the long-delayed project of reading The Life of St. Benedict in tandem with The Rule of St. Benedict, this seems an opportune moment to reflect a bit on St. Benedict’s own conversion and what he has to say about it.   We should note that in a monastic context, the word refers not to the movement from unbelief to belief, or to the transition from one tradition of belief to another, but to a change in one’s way of life or, more specifically, the decision to embrace the monastic way of life. [1] In a broader sense, for oblates this conversio or conversatio refers to the decision to embark on a Benedictine way of life without entering a monastery.

St. Gregory, in De Vogüé’s translation, describes it thus: “He was born into a free-man’s family in the district of Nursia and was sent to Rome to study the liberal arts. But he saw that many of the students there had fallen into vice. So, hardly had entered the world than he recoiled from it, fearing that the worldly knowledge he had just begun to acquire would suck him down entirely into its bottomless whirlpool.  He renounced study, put aside his father’s residence and fortune, and, desiring to please God alone, he went in search of the monastic habit in order to live a holy life.”

Benedict sounds very contemporary in his experience of leaving the sheltered life of what was apparently a Christian family home for college, only to find there that a lot of the students were way too wild for his experience or tastes.  However, at least in this translation, his response sounds more like undiscerning panic than the wisdom St. Gregory attributes to him, saying, “Thus he quitted his studies, learnedly ignorant and wisely unskilled.” 
We should remember that the monastic archetype, St. Anthony of Egypt, lurks in the background of other monastic biographies.  St. Anthony, whose life story was written by the very learned theologian-bishop St. Athanasius, was admired for being wise without being literate.  However, a more careful study of his life and writings suggests that was certainly wise but far from illiterate or unstudied in theological matters.  However, the studies St. Benedict fled as a youth were no doubt those of the typical Greco-Roman syllabus, focusing entirely on the classics received from the hand of the great Greek philosophers who lived before Christ and of their later Latin disciples.  They were not irreligious, but they were certainly not explicitly Christian.  However, the bishop-theologians who lived and wrote before Benedict often began with a course of classical studies of the sort that Benedict abandoned. If you browse the RB 1980  table of biblical, patristic, and ancient works quoted or alluded to in the Rule, you’ll quickly realize that Benedict did not in fact reject learning for himself or his followers. In fact, he was obviously well versed in the works of these very theologians with their strong Greek philosophical backgrounds. What he does seem to have rejected as a young man is the study of pagan philosophical works unfiltered through Christian theological thought, works that could impress on the impressionable a worldview and ethical system sometimes antithetical to Christian belief and life.

However, what truly appalled him was probably less the school’s curriculum than the dissolute living of his fellow students, whether or not that was due to their studies.  His response exhibits what would become a primary value in the Rule:  humility.  Evidently the life into which school threatened to suck him seemed too powerful an influence for him to resist.  He was young, and he was scared. Unwilling to trust himself, he dropped out and ran away instead.  His later monastic experience convinced him that only after long and disciplined practice of the monastic values is one safe to hazard a confrontation with the demonic forces, which he associated in the Rule with eremitical solitude as the desert monks taught (RB 1:3-5, but which he might equally well have found in life amid the unholy clamoring of a culture of disbelief.

Let’s pause for a moment on this point as we enter into Lent.  St. Benedict’s emphasis on humility (RB 7, but also elsewhere) teaches us that we ought not assume we walk out into our everyday world sufficiently armed with our own good intentions and maybe some Rule study to be safe as we travel the path of the gospel (RB Prologue 49).   The work of Lent is not our doing but that of the Holy Spirit working in and through us.  On our own, we are more feeble than we might realize in pursuing the renewal of our life in Christ.  Benedict provides his monks—who, he said, should live Lent every day of the year (RB 49), though he admits most couldn’t manage it (RB 49:1-3)—with a lifestyle compounded of constant immersion in and return to the Scriptures and ascetical practices such as self-denial in food, drink, and harmful conversation that are geared toward keeping the ears of the heart open to hear and to heed God’s voice speaking to us through the Scriptures prayed in private and in community. Very little time goes by in the Benedictine day without at least a quick sip from “the fountain of salvation” (Isa 12:3) to strengthen us in our life’s journey.  God’s is the voice that drowns out and defeats the subtle voices such as those that might indeed have sucked the young Benedict down into a whirlpool of self-indulgent immorality.  Benedict clearly knew that and sought to provide the protection of God’s word to his  monks all day long.

The structures Benedict created are probably not realistic for all of you, but his principle is.  He would tell you, tell all of us, on the brink of Lent, “Listen, listen, listen—and then listen some more. And keep those inner ears open, unclogged by selfish habits and practices!”  So here are some questions for you as you make decisions about how you will plan your Lenten practices:  How do you expose yourself to God’s word regularly, even if in very small doses?  How do you carry with you and summon up for reflection simple words, phrases or images from your daily lectio or liturgy of the Hours?  What decisions might you need to make about reading, media exposure—including social media—, and conversations with others that hinder your ability to listen to God’s voice and carry out what you hear?  What about food and drink?  It’s not that reading, media or social relationships are bad, not at all. They can be real points of contact with God, whether or not they are overtly religious. It’s not that bread and water should be your only diet.  Benedict says rather, think about the quantities and qualities of all forms of intake, pay attention to their consequences, and limit those that seem to cloud your effort to seek God in all things—including meals, entertainments, and conversations with others.  Benedict, obviously a bit extreme in his youth, grew into a teacher known for balance—but it is a balance always weighted in favor of that preference for Christ.

That one small instruction of his can be the key:  before you start anything, stop for a brief moment to consult with the Lord (RB Prologue 4).

St. Benedict’s conversion story has more to teach us, but we will take that up next time.  In the meantime, may your Lent be truly blessed!

Copyright Abbey of St. Walburga 2016

[1] You’ll find a long, complex but very interesting discussion of the language of conversion vs. the specifically Benedictine phrase conversatio morum in the full edition of RB1980, pp. 459-463.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Advent Listeners

Advent is the season of the Word.  We sometimes muse on its contemplative character as a season of quiet expectation.  But look around:  Christmas tinsel and trees and stars flash gold and red and green from storefronts and neighborhood porches, Santa and the reindeer, complete with Rudolph’s red nose, gallop across rooftops to the tune of Jingle Bells, crooners dream of a white Christmas over in-store speakers.  Blinking lights, sound systems pouring out endless variations of familiar nostalgia, boisterous crowds cramming the aisles and competing for holiday bargains:  our Christmas preparations are nothing if not noisy!

How can we hear the Word coming amid all that racket?  We might look to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as she prepared for the birth of her Child in Palestine over two millennia ago.  Life in a small village like Nazareth or a larger town like Bethlehem was far from quiet.  People lived together in large families crammed into homes that rarely had more than one room, maybe two at most, and a flat roof.  People spent their days in the street  a lot of the time, drawing water at a communal well, carrying dough to a communal bake oven, standing in doorways shouting conversations to one another above the din of passing donkeys and yelling children.  Artistic renderings of a young woman seated alone in an empty room with an open book on her knee are probably wishful thinking. 

That said, we actually have no gospel account of how Mary spent the nine months preceding Jesus’ birth except the story of her trek over the hills to visit her elderly pregnant cousin Elizabeth and the story of her second trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem before her son was born.  Neither journey could have been solitary, allowing her simply to soak in the silent scenery as a backdrop to her inner musings on the angel’s startling words.  Young women didn’t travel around the countryside unchaperoned and unprotected.  Even had Joseph gone with her, they would have needed other companions for safety and propriety.  And, later, the road to Bethlehem was no doubt crowded with many travelers headed there, as Joseph and Mary did, to register for the Emperor’s census.  People shouting greetings, drivers loudly cursing stubborn pack animals, dogs barking as they passed through villages, donkeys braying, flies buzzing, maybe even children clamoring for alms or trying to sell fruit to the travelers:  that trip to Bethlehem hardly provided a quiet milieu for maternal reflection. 

In a later in the story, after the shepherds had left the stable where the little family from Nazareth was housed, Luke’s gospel gives us a clue about Mary’s pondering:  “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Mary, in Luke’s gospel, was a listener par excellence.  When the angel disrupted her life with news that she would conceive and bear a Son, and an extraordinary one at that, she took God’s Word not only into her mind but into her heart and, literally, into every fiber of her being because this Word was not just the sounds the angel made but the very Word of God later understood to be the second Person of the Holy Trinity.  Every mother can say that she nurtures her child to birth with her love, certainly, but also with her life’s blood, her endocrine system, her muscles and nerves, her energy, her emotions—everything she is.  Mary listened to the Word with an intensity and focus of mind, heart and being that gives us a hint of what it really means to listen to the Word with the ears of the heart, even from the lesser intimacy of people not called to mother the Word physically.

Advent, the season of the Word, is therefore also the season for honing our listening.  St. Benedict never mentions Advent or Christmas.  It is impossible to date the origin of the Advent season.  Scholars suggest it was in place in the West by 480, the year of St. Benedict’s birth, but we don’t know how widespread it was during his lifetime.  Nevertheless, St. Benedict gives us some guidance for honing our listening skills in preparation for the coming of the Word—whether during Advent, at Christmas, or in everyday life—in Chapter 49 of the Rule on Lent and in fact throughout the world.

Let’s take a look at some of what he proposes to make us better listeners.  In RB 49, he tells us to give up “evil habits.”  These need not be immoral practices.  It seems possible to read into the unfolding chapter the notion that any habit can become “evil” if it takes over so much time, energy, and physical capacity that it prevents us from turning readily to “holy reading” and to prayer. Too much food and drink and too much sleep are examples. (Ah, those pre- Christmas parties overflowing with goodies!) That may be an unwarranted stretch in reading Chapter 49, but it surely fits the general approach of the Rule in structuring a way of life where “holy reading” (lectio divina) and prayer are given pride of place.  St. Benedict’s structures, taken literally, won’t fit life outside a monastery and sometimes don’t actually fit life inside the monastery today, but they do give us food for thought in this season of learning to listen more deeply to the Word by seeking a more balanced life.

St. Benedict also tells us to quit making so much noise ourselves.  He recommends that we give up “needless talking and idle jesting.”  We can’t listen if we’re always chattering!  And neither can those around us.  St. Benedict does not confine this advice to Lent.  Chapter 6 on “Restraint of Speech” sets taciturnity as a valuable goal for the everyday life of a listener.  The chapter makes good Advent reading.

Finally, not in Chapter 49 but throughout the Rule, St. Benedict urges us over and over to pursue relationships of peace:  to live together in humility, to seek forgiveness for offenses given, to respect one another, to grow into a people characterized by love.  Chapter 4, Chapter 7, and Chapter 72 are prime sources here.  We cannot listen intently to God’s word when we are busy rerunning arguments, defending ourselves against slights, stoking up anger, climbing over others’ heads to get ahead, or engaging in any of the other ways in which we focus on ourselves at the expense of others.  The God who speaks is, in every such scenario, the voice in the background that we are blotting out.
This brings us back to Mary, the Listener.  It is easy for us to excuse ourselves from intensifying our life as listeners on the grounds that the world around us is always noisily on the go, especially in this pre-Christimas season.  However, Mary does not seem to have waited for a noise-free environment to listen to the Word within her.  She must have been able to withdraw from the noisy surface of life into a quiet heart where the ears of her heart were always attuned to God’s voice.  The Rule does try to create a quiet environment for those who live in monasteries, but far more important for all of us is the wisdom St. Benedict offers us on the asceticism of becoming listeners by withdrawing from all the ways in which we ourselves cultivate inner as well as outer noise. 

During Advent, then, think about picking out relevant passages from the Prologue, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, and Chapter 72 and “reflecting on them in [your] heart” (Lk 2:19) so that at Christmas you are better able than you are right now to receive God's Word in the depths of your being.

Copyright 2015, Abbey of St. Walburga

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Invitation to Study!

The academic schedule ruled my life as student and teacher for so long that September still makes me itch to start a new project.  This year, it will be an exploration of St. Gregory the Great’s Life and Miracles of the Blessed Father Benedict and the Rule of St. Benedict placed in conversation with one another.  My goal is to get to know both St. Benedict and the Rule in a different light. 

I invite you to come along via the blog and newsletter!  But I also invite you to explore for yourself.  The primary resources I plan to use are two modern translations of the Life and two of the Rule, both with annotations and commentaries:  St. Gregory the Great: Life of St. Benedict, translated by  Hilary Costello and Eoi de Bhaldraithe, with commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé (Petersham MA: St. Bede Publications, 1993), The Life of St. Benedict by Gregory the Great, translation and commentary by Terence G. Cardong (Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press 2009), RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English, with notes (Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press, 1981), and Terence G. Kardong,  Benedict’s Rule: A Translation with Commentary (Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996). (These annotated translations of the Rule are expensive.  Try used book search sites!)

St. Gregory the Great (Pope 590-603 CE) concludes his Life and Miracles of the Blessed Father Benedict with this advice:  "If anyone wishes to have a closer knowledge of [Benedict's] life and habits he will find all the points if his teaching [his] rule for this holy man could not possibly teach other than as he lived." (XXXVI, de Vogüé 174) The Life serves a very different purpose than the Rule. Written as one section, Book II, of Gregory's larger hagiographical work The Dialogues (so called because Gregory wrote in the popular form of dialogues between himself and a listener addressed as Peter), The Life and Miracles of Blessed Benedict looks to demonstrate St. Benedict's holiness by way of an impressive array of miracles no one could have performed unless favored by God.  Until modern tastes challenged the genre, most hagiographers since have followed the same principle: miracles demonstrate holiness.  Besides, they were very entertaining to readers as yet blissfully unaware of action comics and other kinds of modern heroic tales. 

The Rule is a more sober work altogether.  Written in the sixth century by the holy man himself—though authorship has sometimes been disputed-- as a "modest rule" for those who aspired to follow the monastic life as he himself had tasted and learned from it, it provides principles and directives for living to his followers then and now.

But St. Gregory points to the intersection of Rule and Life in the person of St. Benedict himself. The pope, himself a former monk snatched away from the quiet of his monastery for the work of Church administration, maintained that as St. Benedict wrote, so also he lived; as he lived, he wrote.  It's as likely a hypothesis as the dearth of historical data permits.

Putting the two works in dialogue with each other has provided me with a fruitful source of reflection on the principles of Benedictine life.  I am happy to share this exploration-in-progress with all of you as an invitation to follow the imperative voice that tumbled St. Augustine into a lifelong reflection on the Bible:  “take and read, take and read,” the voice said.  So: take and read both the Rule of St. Benedict and the Life and Miracles of the Holy Father Benedict in tandem as dual lenses through which to write the story of God's work in your own life.

Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB, Oblate Director

Copyright 2015, Abbey of St. Walburga


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Learning "Alleluia!"

At this season, I still sometimes have dreams about the classroom.  I have one final exam left.  But I suddenly realized I've never been to the class.  I have no idea what I was supposed to have learned.  Or I do remember, but I can't find the exam room.  I taught my last class twenty-five years ago.  I took my last exam as a  student thirteen years before that.  But the bones remember. It's May, and school is or soon will be out!

But not for us.  St. Benedict steps into our school day reveries to remind us that we are lifelong learners in "the school of the Lord's service" (RB Prologue 45).  School won't be out till "they call the roll up yonder," as an old song puts it.  Every day brings us something new to learn, or something old to practice.  And we're not studying for a grade.  We're studying to know the Teacher, the Christ of endless riches buried in endless seams of light, waiting for us to make yet another energizing discovery.

The Easter curriculum we've been exploring since Easter Sunday and will explore until Pentecost Sunday on May 24 offers a particular class entitled "Learning Alleluia."  Alleluia's abound in Sunday liturgies and in the daily Liturgy of the Hours, where we sing (or say) alleluia's that weren't there during Lent and will disappear again after Pentecost.  Even the psalms are peppered with the word year round, except during Lent.  It doesn't seem to call for much study.  A few syllables, easily said or easily sung.  Just verbal punctuation marks we hurry past to the get to the meat of the next verse. 

It is in fact a simple word.  In Hebrew it means, "Praise Yahweh!"  "Yahweh" is of course the mysterious identifier God reveals to Moses from the burning bush when Moses asks God's name.  It is variously translated as "I am who I am" or "I am who am" or "He is who is," it's as close to  a personal name as we get, but it isn't really a name at all in any familiar sense. It doesn't tie the holder to a particular family or a particular place or a particular work, as, say, "Johnson" (John's son) or "Berg" (mountain) or Miller and Baker do.  It is held by one Being only and not shared with a host of others.  And so holy did the Jews consider it that, after a while, they never spoke it aloud. Readers substituted "Adonai" (Lord) for it when reading the Scriptures aloud.  Allelu-Ya praises the Name without speaking it.

But it's the praising part that constitutes "alleluia"'s demand.  Evelyn Underhill, in her classic book Worship, explains that worship as such requires a purity of focus on God and a corresponding detachment from every remnant of self-concern that exceeds most of our ability.  Self-forgetting does not come easily to any of us. That lesson requires a lifetime to learn in the school of the Lord's service, doesn't it?  Thanksgiving comes more easily.  And it is certainly a major characteristic of Christian prayer, both private and public.  Thanksgiving keeps one eye fixed on God but the other fixed on us who are the beneficiaries of the countless gifts God heaps upon us.

Praise seems to stand somewhere between worship in the purist sense and thanksgiving.  On the one hand, we find the mysterious denizens of the heavenly Jerusalem – “what sounded like the voice of a great multitude in heaven” (Rev. 19:1), “the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures” (Rev. 19:4), and "something like the sound of a great multitude or the sound of rushing water or mighty peals of thunder” (Rev. 19:6)—singing “Alleluia” as a refrain before the throne of God.  They recall the even more mysterious “living creatures” seen by the prophet Ezekiel to move instantaneously in any direction taken by the Spirit (Ezekiel 1:19-20).  These beings, and their counterparts in the Book of Revelation, seem to focus all their attention and energy on nothing but God.  Alleluia indeed!

On the other hand, we have the insistent voices of the psalmists, whose words we pray daily, lamenting their suffering, cursing their enemies, complaining and complaining and complaining.  It is “woe is me!” they often address to God, not “alleluia”!  I am not about to pass judgement on psalmists long dead, but I know that when I am busy complaining about the heat or the cold, an aching shoulder, a work overload, or someone else’s misbehavior, I may be addressing the psalmists’ words to God as I sing the Divine Office, but I’m afraid my focus is very largely on my own small self and its troubles.  In every case except Psalm 88, the authors of the psalms of lament invariable turn from complaint to confident thanksgiving to God, in whom they trust as their deliverer.  They remind me, too, to make the switch from “gimme” to “thank you” in the end! 

It’s all part of the “alleluia” curriculum. “Alleluia” takes the next step, from self-consciousness to God-consciousness.  It is a very long step.  St. Benedict presumes it will take all the rungs of the ladder of humility,  all the ways small and great he calls us to practice love of neighbor, even when we imagine the neighbor to be less than loveable, all the hours and hours in choir and in life practicing our “alleluia’s” until, very slowly, they become our native language.  He sums up the process and the goal of “alleluia” in Chapter 72:3-7, 11-12:  “This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else… Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”  “Alleluia” sings better, but oh, how beautiful Chapter 72 sounds when it is read as the story of a Benedictine’s life!

So remember as you choose graduation cards and gifts, make plans for summer vacation, and otherwise take note of the start of summer,  for us as Benedictines, tomorrow is another school day in the school of the Lord’s service—tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.  Every day, St. Benedict urges us to “1Listen carefully… to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart” (RB Prologue 1).  And these studies are not drudgery crying out for a summer break.  On the contrary,  “as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love” (RB Prologue 49). Alleluia!

Copyright 2015  Abbey of St. Walburga