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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Meeting Notes July 14 2013

Oblate Dawn Hardison takes detailed notes on the conferences at each general oblate meeting at the Abbey.  Here are her notes for July 14, 20013.  Thanks, Dawn!

In her conference our Oblate Director, Sr. Genevieve, talked about Benedictine prayer and said this would be a continuing, rather lengthy series on the subject of Benedictine prayer  in general, on Lectio Divina, and on praying the Liturgy of the Hours, specifically on praying the Psalms. 

Living according to the spirit of the Rule of St. Benedict, she told us, is impossible if the core of our life is not prayer.  We shouldn’t forget what really grounds us.  It is that living, constant connection with God that makes the Benedictine life possible.  We need to not get so caught up other practices that we forget how fundamental prayer is to us.   Benedictine prayer is essentially praying with scripture, a life with God that is absolutely rooted in Biblical prayer.  We are not talking about method here, but how the source of our prayer is scriptural.  When Benedictines talk about prayer they are talking about a life with God that is absolutely rooted in Scripture.   

St. Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1197) describes it well in this short directive:  “Drench your thoughts in scripture.”

Sr. Genevieve talked about prayer as an encounter, conversation and relationship, starting with the story of the encounter between Moses and God in Exodus 3

This talks about a specific incident, but the monastic ideal is prayer without ceasing.   That is actually a line from I Thessalonians 5, where St. Paul said to pray without ceasing.  St. Paul was not talking to monks and nuns in monasteries – there weren’t any yet.  He was talking to all Christians, and Christians have wrestled for centuries with what that means.  He repeats this in various ways in several of his letters.   

For the desert monks, unceasing prayer was an absolute ideal.  John Cassian (who brought the spirit of Egyptian monasticism to Europe in the fourth century) said that “the end of every monk and the perfection of his heart incline him to constant and uninterrupted perseverance in prayer.”  That can be a little daunting, for lay or monastic. 

Benedict typically opts for moderation.  His instruction is to “listen readily to holy reading and devote yourself often to prayer” (RB 4:55).  And in the Rule he also says that whenever you start a good work, pray before you do it (cf. Prologue 4).  So we are talking about a tradition that takes prayer extremely seriously, although most monasteries have adjusted their practice of prayer over the years, as oblates need to do also in the lay life. 

Referring to the story in Exodus 3 she said that although we know the story, when praying scripture it is important to forget that we know the story, and try to come to it in a fresh way.  She did this for us by asking questions as we read this in sections.  The story follows Moses killing an Egyptian, being reminded of it by an Israelite, and hunted by Pharaoh.  So his life as he knows it is over and he leaves and goes to Midian. 

Reading Exodus 3.1, she asked … (and answered her questions with the following.)
1. What was Moses doing?  Clearly, he was doing his job, his ordinary business.   He was at work.  St. Benedict says that we seek God everywhere.  We, however, tend to think that seeking God goes on in a special place – a monastery, or in Church, etc. But that is not the case.  For Benedict, where do we find God?  In the midst of the ordinary.  We have come to think that we seek God in churches, or in private.  But Benedict says (with a Biblical perspective) that God is always and everywhere, and so God is always and everywhere to be found.  So when we come to a place in our own life – in the kitchen or at the desk, where we suddenly become aware of God, Benedict says we need to listen. So we need to be ready to receive God in unexpected ways and places, at unlikely places and unlikely times.  (This reminded me of the “thin places” that Mother Maria Michael talked about in the last year.)  For Moses, God was speaking in an unlikely place and at an unlikely time, but Moses was paying attention.

2. Where was Moses?  In the mountain of God – Horeb – (which may or may not have been Mt. Sinai.)  It is not clear where Horeb was, or even that it was a geographical place.  Horeb means dryness and devastation.  This is not a promising place.  Sr. Genevieve pointed out how often we think “I can’t pray now because I don’t feel like it, or my life is too disrupted, or I’m to sleepy, etc”. She said that she sees the image of wilderness as a ruined or devastated garden.  Sometimes this can be an image of the human spirit – caused by our own actions, or events in our life.  Sometimes these things are not our choices, but sometimes they are. We might create our own desert, so then we find ourselves “in Horeb!”  If so, we could not be in a better place, because God is there.  Sometimes we need to be devastated and dried up before we can perceive God. 


3. What happens to Moses?  In the middle of Moses’ ordinariness and dryness he sees a burning bush.  It is not the burning bush that is remarkable and catches his attention, but the fact that it is not consumed.  This is God’s first appearance to Moses, and it is significant that he appears as fire.  We tend to think of it as tamed – like a fireplace or candles or a lamp.  But fire can be dangerous, uncontrollable, can eat up everything in its wake.  It’s beautiful, if it’s not threatening us.  It can be useful and helpful, but  it’s never quite under our control.  Sr. Genevieve talked about how fire feels and looks alive.  Fire became, for his people, an image of God.  From this point on, fire becomes absolutely central, the primary way in which God appears to his people. You can make a statue out of stone, and carry it with you, but it doesn’t make the decisions and direct you – it is a statue that is carried by its owner.  He wanted to make it clear that he was alive, dangerous, powerful, mysterious and beautiful - don’t mess around making statues.  God continued to accompany them later in a fiery cloud – that became the image of God being present. God showed up when he wanted, and went where he wanted, when he wanted.  This image continues into the New Testament.  

     a.   Jesus mentions fire once – “I have come to cast fire on the earth…”  What Jesus wanted to accomplish was to fill the earth with the presence of God.   Other places it is more obscure, because in the modern world, we turn light on and off with a switch, but in Jesus world, the only source of light was fire.  It could be a small fire for cooking, or a larger one out in the dark to keep predators away.  It could be in the form of a lamp. 

     b.   Revelation says that in heaven the Blessed have no need of the sun or lamps, because God is the light and the lamp, and the lamp is the Lamb – fire, contained and safe.  Makes this mysterious presence of God something we can cope with without being in utter terror, something accessible, comforting.  This depends on recognizing that the source of light, the image of God is fire. In the story of the transfiguration, Jesus radiates light – fire contained in human flesh.  So fire, from Abraham’s encounter with the burning bush on, becomes absolutely central to our way of imaging God.   So as you’re praying with scripture pay attention to all those references to fire and light.

     c.   Benedict picks up this image in the prologue. " Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God… [for Benedict the only source of light was fire, either from the sun or from a lamp or torch] and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out”…The fire of God is always followed by his word – He speaks, as he did from the fire in the bush.  And “Run while you have the light of life…” and who is the light of life?  God made available to us in Jesus.

     d.   The Angel of the Lord appearing in the bush really means messenger, and is God – First referred to as the Angel of the Lord, and from then God speaks. 

So we begin our sense of prayer with the fact that every place is the right place to pray, every time is the right time to pray, and the God, who we encounter here, is really way more that we can pin down.  We can’t say “Ok, God, I’m going to pray now, so now you can appear.” God is laughing and saying, well, maybe I will humor her or him this time!  God is unmanageable, inconvenient, mysterious, living, powerful love.

In the bush not being consumed, we already have a nonverbal way of God saying don’t be afraid, because we won’t be burnt up.

In Exodus 3.4 we begin to see prayer as a conversation started by God.  Moses played his part – might just be curiosity.  God will use whatever it takes to get us home.  God calls Moses by name.  Moses is one of the few biblical leaders whose name God doesn’t change.  God is speaking to Moses, as he is, by his truth. 

Moses answers and God says this is holy ground – What makes it Holy?  Because God is here.  So right here and right now God is present, so, every time and every place is holy. 
Moses is told to take his shoes off “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” – Why?  It’s just Horeb, where he’s grazed the sheep many time.  It is holy because God is there!  Right here and now.  When we are seeking God, seeking to grow in a life of prayer, God is always here and now.  What does that say about here and now?  It’s holy.   It can be in a supermarket. We really have to work to overcome the notion that holiness is confined in certain times and places that God is confined to.  God is not confined.  Our imaginations might be confined, but God is not.  So right here and right now is always holy ground.  If we really want to become people who pray without ceasing, we want to grow into an appreciation of that fact.  But God is saying “Be careful.”  God is never Moses’ buddy.  They have a very close mutual friendship, but never a friendship of equals.  In the Rule, Benedict speaks of Christ and with us, but always a little above, beyond us.   

By taking off his shoes Moses becomes an Icon of stability.  Sr. Genevieve asked us to think about that for next time. 

May 5 2013 Meeting Notes

Oblate Dawn Hardison takes detailed notes of the conferences at every general oblate meeting at the Abbey.  Here are her notes from the first meeting conducted by Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB.  The conference was brief and introductory, making use of a diagram that could not be reproduced here.  Thanks, Dawn!

At the Abbey meeting Sr. Genevieve described Oblates as people called to live according to the spirit of St. Benedict.  She talked a little about the history of the communities surrounding the monasteries, including the Oblates.  Currently Oblates are people who find something nourishing for the spirit in being an Oblate.  She mentioned that the Oblate program welcomes people of all Christian traditions – she referred to this as “underground ecumenism”.   She suggested that we are all drawn together by a common (Benedictine) focus on the scriptures.

One of the parts I found very interesting was her mention of the different emphasis found in different orders.  She mentioned how some orders are focused on the Father, some on the Spirit, etc.  Both the Benedictines and Franciscans are totally focused on the person of Jesus Christ, but the Franciscans come to Jesus through the Blessed Sacrament, while Benedictines come to Jesus through scriptures (lectio, daily office).

I must say, I cannot do justice to her talk, but I will try to mention a few things that caught my attention.  She said that spirituality has to do with a way of seeing, and Benedictines see through the scriptures.

One of the other points that stuck in my mind was her discussion about stability.  She mentioned that it is a rootedness that allows growth, like a tree.  Our discipline of stability is a way of channeling life and growth.  These roots and growth are meant to bear fruit for other people.  She pointed to Psalm 1 as a good description of what we hope to find in Benedictine spirituality. Without rootedness we become chaff, we blow everywhere and feed no one.

We are all twigs on the Benedictine tree, she told us, who in our Oblate program are all reaching out from a position of growth in stability.

Friday, October 25, 2013

In the Beginning

“In the beginning was the Word”  (John 1:1)

At the very beginning of the world as we know it, the Spirit of God hovered over the frightening prospect of a dark chaos unmarked by any of the distinctions we need to find our place in the universe:  the passing of time, changes of landscape, varieties of being all set in relationship[ to one another (Genesis 1:1-2).  It’s hardly surprising that God did not drop human beings onto the scene till the final day of creation, when all those markers were in place, at least as the story is told in Genesis 1, the  first book of the Bible. 

Into the chaos of this watery darkness, the Spirit (or Breath) of God bore words.  God’s words.  Words that reached into the seething cauldron and named on by one all the realities familiar to us:  light and darkness, sun and moon and stars, sky and earth, dry land and water, living creatures of every kind including, at the end of the story, human beings made in God’s image, enabled to speak, and charged with sharing God’s responsibility for the unfolding of creation’s future. 

Every day begins in darkness.  Depending on how much light you have in your room, that darkness can seem as undifferentiated as the primal chaos.  As a frequent traveler, I sometimes have to start with the basics:  what town am I in, whose house is this,, what side of the bed do I get out on here?  Even when I rediscover that I’m at home, I have to start with: what month is this, what day is it, what time is it, and when do have to be in the chapel for prayers?  Get one of those wrong, and the day unravels into chaos after all.

At the same time, wherever and whenever I am, this day is just beginning, at least for me.  As a writer, I love nothing better than a fresh page, all the ill-chosen words, garbled sentences, and muddy thoughts swept away and a whole new start awaiting me.  The earliest Christian monks,  living in the deserts of the Middle East,  treated each day as a fresh start.  Leave all the mistakes, all the sins, all the guilt and regret on yesterday’s page and start over.  Otherwise you’ll find yourself carrying a load to heavy to bear (see Psalms 38:5;  65:4).  It isn’t that we forget our history, including the sorry tale of our harmful choices, but rather that we learn what we need from it and leave the rest in the hands of God’s mercy where it belongs.  Then we do as Jesus so often says to the sick, the disabled, the paralyzed:  “Get up and walk!”

Reading Genesis 1 first thing in the morning can give a new view of what a fresh start means.  What awaits me?  Call it by its name.  The name gives each thing and each person a reality that is separate from me:  I don’t own it or him/her, nor am I owned.  I start out not with old judgments but new discoveries to be made about each one’s identity, purpose, and place in the scheme of things, including God’s scheme of things and mine.  God does all that for each reality drawn out of the primal sea of possibilities.    What kind of order will I put all these realities in?  Who and what are my priorities, baked fresh this morning?  Where might each one lead me?  Maybe down a different path than yesterday’s.  Who and what are the solid rock that grounds my life, and who or what are the murky waters and shifting quicksands that will suck me down into darkness again if I don’t choose my path with a care born of experience?  You get the idea.  Genesis 1 can map out a new plan for today, even though  I may not actually have time over that first cup of coffee to figure it all out.  Just listen for which bits of the story emerge for you.

There are other stories of course.  Starting the day with a Gospel passage or a psalm, even a snippet, can still create a new reality for today.  All of God’s words are creative.  And all of us are born listeners, called into being by the Spirit of God hovering over all the possibilities and speaking the words that brought us into our own unique being, identity, purposes and relationships, as the Word did in the beginning and does in every new beginning.  Remember the word that begins the Rule of St. Benedict:  “Listen!”

Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB

Copyright 2013, Abbey of St. Walburga

Meeting Notes August 2013

Note: Oblate Dawn Hardison makes extensive notes after each meeting and is willing to share them with all who are interested.  Her notes on each meeting's main conference, given by Oblate Director Sister Genevieve Glen unless otherwise noted, will be posted on this blog after each meeting.  Thank you, Dawn!

Currently only the notes from August 11 are available, but others will be added from earlier meetings as they are collected.

Biblical Prayer:  Reflection on Exodus 3:4-7,  Part II

Saint Paul tells us to pray without ceasing, and early monastic literature from the desert tradition taught constant, uninterrupted perseverance in prayer.  Benedict is a little more realistic in that he instructs us to listen readily to holy reading and devote yourselves often to prayer.  So starting with our last Oblate meeting we began to explore Benedictine prayer with the help of the story of Moses and the burning bush, from Exodus 3.

We looked at the first part of Exodus 3 last time, looking at what Moses was doing at the time he saw the burning bush. (his ordinary life and work – very Benedictine), the meaning of the word Horeb – a place of dryness and devastation, and the significance of God appearing in the Fire, and how important that is for the biblical tradition, and gives us a very strong sense of a God who is in conversation with Moses, but who remains present but transcendent.  That is very much Benedicts notion of God, and of Christ.  Benedict lived in an era when there was not a sense of familiarity with Christ’s humanity.  That familiarity developed later, partly in reaction to that earlier era.  And these two concepts – closeness and transcendence are very hard to keep balanced, although Benedict does that.

Going on with Exodus 3.4-7, we see the conversation between God and Moses.  In verse 4 Moses sees the burning bush and turned aside to see. So “God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’.”  And he said, Here I am.  We have here a fundamental understanding of prayer in the rule of St. Benedict.  It begins with God’s call.  God calls us – through the Rule God says “Listen”.  It’s not we who march up to God and say “Hey, listen to me.”  It’s God who starts the relationship.  We are always receivers of the word.

In fact that’s how all of creation was made.  In Genesis 1 God says to the darkness and primal seas, “Let there be”, and there was.  So when God said the word, “let there be” whatever he was naming came into existence. That is true also of human beings.  According to Genesis 1 we came into existence as receivers of God’s word. That’s how the whole structure of our being is; we are receivers of God’s word.  We are created to see, to receive, to take in and to relate to the God who speaks.

So God calls from the bush, calls Moses by name, and Moses says “Here I am.”  And God said “Do not come near.  Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  I said the last time we would start there, with the notion that in this scene Moses becomes an icon of stability.  You may not have looked at that passage primarily that way.  Do bare feet really show more reverence than feet that have shoes on them?  Most of our best restaurants don’t think so!  “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”

It is true in the Muslim tradition, people do take off their shoes to go into the holy place.  Sr. Genevieve said that she has the strongest, nasty little suspicion in the back of her mind that someone’s wife once said “Now, I’m not going to clean that rug again!  You make them take their shoes off.”  Probably not the origin of it, but she has this suspicion.  Christian churches have more concern with covering up body parts than uncovering them.  We’ve had various histories of controversy about that.

Whatever the origins, we can see Moses’ bare feet as a challenge to honesty and commitment.  (Now this reading, said Sr. Genevieve, is a stretch.  This is a strictly allegorical reading.  It is not what is intended by the text.)  To allow ourselves to be seen uncovered is to allow ourselves to be seen as we are minus the masks and the make-up.  We disguise our feet or we decorate them, or something like that – nail polish, or tattoos, ankle bracelets (this is women, now), or whatever.

There is a sense that is somehow more real than all of us covered up and disguised, made up and in a sense, hiding, not behind external masks, but by the kind of persona that we create; I want you to think of me in a certain way.

When I was young and started teaching in Junior High, I wanted those kids to think of me as The Teacher.  I was 25 years old and scared to death!   I am The Teacher and you must think of me that way.  I got over that pretty quickly, because it didn’t work all that well.

We do have a tendency to do that though, don’t we; we never introduce ourselves to strangers exactly as we are.  We may be pretty honest, but we do have kind of a public person that we hide behind, and rightly so.  Our deepest person is vulnerable, isn’t it.  You don’t want anybody just tromping all over that, especially strangers who don’t know us.

But in a story like this, to take off your shoes, especially in a stony wilderness replete with nasty things like scorpions, is to make it impossible to run away.  If Moses takes off his shoes he has to stay put.  He can’t go anywhere without putting his sandals back on.  It wouldn’t be safe.  So, this is Moses, accepting a position of truthfulness, powerlessness and stability on this holy ground, felt through the soles of his own bare feet.

Now, that raises an interesting set of questions for us.  It helps us to raise the questions “What is stability?”  Now, does Moses put his shoes on later and go somewhere else?  He spent his whole life, from there on, traveling.  He went back to Egypt, led the people out of Egypt, through the desert – where they never settle down; they did periodically for short periods of time, but basically they are moving because they are on their way to the promised land.  But Moses’s stability is not a stability of place, just like for most of you, stability is not, at least, lifelong stability of place, even if you settle down.

It’s something I have had to think about because stability of place is not particularly possible for me right now.  For those of you who don’t know, I spend a good bit if my time on airplanes traveling to other monasteries.  

So What is Moses’s stability?  Moses’s stability is stability in the relationship with God.  Moses never again leaves the holy ground.  He leaves it with his physical feet but he never leaves the holy ground.  He is always in the presence of God; sometimes consciously so, sometimes busy about doing something else.  But he is always in the presence of God; That’s what makes Moses a holy man.  Moses is made a holy man by his perseverance in this holy place in the presence of God, even when he can’t pay attention to the presence of God because he’s giving judgment to the people or having to deal with all these complaints or trying to find the next water hole or whatever.

And it suggests to us that the stability of a Benedictine is not necessarily geographical.  The stability of a Benedictine is stability in relationship with God.  It’s stability in the holy place of God’s word.  As I said the last time, Benedictine prayer is primarily Biblical.  We may pick up other prayers, we may read other books, but we always come back to this holy place where God speaks to us - God’s word.  And in that place, more than any other place, we don’t have to pretend we are in charge of anything.  We might as well not bother to cover up our feet or anything else, or disguise ourselves in any way, because God sees through them anyway.

I don’t know if you remember in the story of Adam and Eve, in Genesis 3, after they’ve sinned, they go off and hide in the bushes, or where ever, as if God couldn’t see them.  And God plays the game.  He comes along and says “Where are You?”  It almost sounds like an adult looking through the bushes at a little kid and saying “Where are you?”

So we are undisguised, no matter how much we might want to be disguised, and we are powerless.  Here we have several primary dimensions of the Benedictine relationship with God.  It is based on truth.  Benedict speaks several times about telling the truth, living in the truth.  Michael Casey’s book on humility that some of you may have read is called “Living in the Truth”.  Humility involves staying in the truth, not hiding behind all of our pretenses.

Now none of us can do that 24/7 in the ordinary way we live.  But we can do it more and more in our relationship with God, in our presence to God, which always begins as God’s presence to us, as it does for Moses here.  And our stability involves staying in that relationship honestly, even when we want to go hide in the bushes, even though we know it won’t do us any good.  And if we do, God can handle that.

So, it’s a position of truthfulness and vulnerability.  And what we learn from Moses is that the holy ground is where ever we go.  The holy ground is always here and now. Always.  We may not be paying any attention.  We may be tromping all over it with booted feet, but the holy place is always here and now, where ever here and now are.

Then God says to Moses, without actually being asked; “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  The people of Israel had pretty much forgotten their history by now.  They have been over 400 years in Egypt.  They had kind of drifted away from much sense of their identity.  So the first thing God says is “Look, I’ve been part of your history all along; long before you were here, I was part of your history.  So every one of us can begin to recognize that whatever our life’s story, whatever our background, wherever we’ve been – physically or spiritually or morally, God has always been there in our history.  God didn’t wait for us to make ourselves worthy.  God didn’t wait to be called.  God was always there in our long history, and the history of those before us and those before them, and before them and so on.  God’s stability is guaranteed.  It’s ours that gets a little bit tricky.

Then Moses hid his face.  Why did Moses hide his face?  The first reaction would be that he was overwhelmed.  What did the disciples do in the garden and at the Transfiguration?  They go to sleep.  I think that was being overwhelmed by the events that were unfolding around them.  I think there was another reason for Moses hiding his face – a Biblical one.  We hear throughout the Old Testament you cannot look upon the face of God and live.  And later on in Exodus Moses says to God “Show me your face.”  The relationship is so close that Moses wants to see God’s face.  And what’s God’s answer?  No.  Can’t do it.  So he parked Moses in a rock and said “I will pass before you in all my glory and you can see my back.  But my face you cannot see.”

Now, in the first place, looking on the face of God and not living is a fact of religious experience.  If we really have an experience of seeing God clearly, part of us dies. Not physically but what dies is the part that is false, the part of us that is hiding, the part with the disguises, the part of us we’d like to be but aren’t. So if we have a real experience of God, however mediated by scripture or something else – doesn’t have to be a face to face encounter in a burning bush, we are changed.  We are made different.  And part of the challenge to stability is most of us don’t want to be made different.  We don’t like to change that much.  It’s easier to run away.

And we may have done that a number of times already, and we keep coming back because we discover this actually isn’t the right idea.  Don’t run away, it’s not helping.  Most of us are pretty slow learners, and we have to kind of make the mistake over and over again and keep coming back.  But there was this sense that people would die altogether, but there is a more real sense in which we do change as we encounter God, as we spend time consciously on the holy ground.

Now let’s look at the second topic here under the conversation.  (vs 7 - )  “Then the Lord said, ‘I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.’ ”  That’s a bit of a mixed promise, as we see later, when they send scouts in to check out the land.  They’ve gotten as far as the borders of the land.  They’ve hung around in the desert, they’ve been to Mount Sinai, they’ve get to the borders of the promised land.  and they send scouts in, who come back with fruit, saying, “Look, this is all the stuff we couldn’t get in the desert. But, oh, by the way, the people are pretty big, in fact, they’re giants.  And they’re not to eager to leave,” is sort of the message.  And so what do the people do?  One of the greatest tragedies in the story of God’s people - they refuse to go into the promised land.

So this promise is a mixed promise.  The land is flowing with milk and honey, and it’s all full of Canaanites who are armed and not to keen on a new population moving in.  

“And now, behold the cry of the people of Israel has come to me and I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them.”  What does this passage tell us about God?  He listens, whether they know he listens or not.  He heard them, whether they realized who they were talking to, or not.  That’s very comforting, actually.  What else?

This has to be a personal God to listen to people in distress.  Now there are lots of people now who believe that there is some sort of transcendent power out there, but either it’s not personal, or it’s not friendly, or both.  But this God is personal; He’s entering into conversation.  He’s seen distress and he’s going to do something about it. Now what He’s going to do might not be exactly what the Israelites would prefer.  They might like a magic carpet that would just take them out of Egypt, fly them across into the promised land.  No more decisions, period.  They can have the milk and honey and forget everything in between.  Which would actually have been a terrible loss, but they don’t know that, and we don’t either.

So He promises them a future, He listens to them, He tells them the truth, which is, “I’m going to give you this land.”  It’s the land where their ancestors were, Abraham and the family.  “But the bad news is, You’re going to have to fight your way in.”  this is the same God that does not hide from us the necessity of the cross.  If we want a God that says all comforting, nice things to us all the time, we’re barking up the tree of a false God.  But that’s a temptation when we do Lectio, isn’t it.  I want to read all the nice passages, the comforting passages.   I don’t want to deal with the passages that talk about the wrath of God.  I don’t want to deal with the passages where Jesus says “got to take up your cross and follow me” especially when we know where “follow me” goes.

But God tells the truth; it’s not going to be easy.  But God also does not explain why it has to be that way, why he can’t just clear the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites out of the way and spare all church lectors from then on from having to read that list out loud in front of a whole congregation of people!

So, a small passage like this (and this is an example of many) tells us a great deal about God, that it’s good to stop and pay attention to.  We might just skip over it fast – I’m not interested in  Hittites, Canaanites, Amorites and Perezites and so on, so I’ll just go on to the next sentence.  Sometimes the smallest sentence in scripture will open up a whole new picture about God for us, but only if we’re listening.  Only if we don’t skip over it and go on to something that appeals to us more.

There was a period after Vatican II when religious communities like the one that I belonged to then were stuck in between prayer books.  There was not an official book for the office that worked – it hadn’t been made available yet in English.  So we made up our own offices.  So what most communities did, including mine, is that whoever had to lead the prayer had to kind of choose the text.  Now we had a format we followed, but she had to choose the text.  We call it the era of the mimeographed offices – we didn’t have copiers then so we had to mimeograph the offices.

I can’t tell you how many times, in the chapel of my motherhouse in Houston I heard Romans 8, or the second part of the book of Isaiah, or both.  We read those passages over and over and over again.  Why?  Because they were comforting, they were easy to take, they didn’t really challenge us.  You didn’t have people sitting in the community saying (gasp) “why is she reading that?”  But by the time we got books it was kind of a relief to know there was more in the Bible than Romans 8 and the third part of the book of Isaiah.

So we need the whole truth.  We need to tell God the whole truth and we need God to tell us the whole truth so far as we can grasp bits of it.

The final thing about this conversation is a purpose.  God had a reason for talking to Moses.  It’s not just that he likes him, or that he didn’t have anything else to do today other than hang out in Horeb.  He says “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.”  And then Moses says to God (his first question being not “who are you?” but “Who am I to be doing this?”)  “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?”  It’s a huge job, right?  And Moses doesn’t feel too terribly well qualified.  Later on he’ll say “Please, could my brother Aaron speak for me?  I just can’t handle this.”

Besides which Moses had fled Egypt because he had killed somebody.  We really don’t know what Moses’s relationship to Pharaoh and his family was at that point.  The Bible is quiet about that, even though Moses was raised as Pharaoh’s son.  But clearly it wasn’t safe for him to stay in town, so out he went.  And now God is saying “You go right back there.”

Oh, no!  You want me to go where?  So then God said “Here’s what I’m asking you to do, here’s what the sign is.”  And then Moses said “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them ‘the God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”  Because everybody’s gods had names.  So what’s the name of this God.  We don’t remember anything in the old stories about the.  In fact there wasn’t anything in the old stories about that.

“God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” Which is sometimes translated I AM WHO AM WITH YOU.  It’s a very muddy word, it’s hard to know what it is, hard to know what the letters even were because for so long it was not said or even written exactly as it could have been.  So it’s a mysterious kind of name, just like the fire is mysterious. Not an ordinary name.

Then God says “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ “  This is where the naming becomes mutual.  At the beginning (of this passage) God knew Moses’s name already.  And you notice, as I said before, God never changes Moses’s name.  He changes other people’s names, but not Moses.  That remains a consistent name.  Moses always remains who he is, although he grows into more of who he is, than he ever imagined was there.  That also speaks to us.  We remain who we are.  If we look on the face of God and die, that’s not in the sense of I’m going to become some totally different human being, even if I would like to.  It’s that I will remain who I am but I can be made more of who I am than I am right now.

But them Moses, understandably, wants a name he can call God by.  He doesn’t know God’s name.  And God gives him this kind of difficult name which Moses will never be able to use as a tool of power over God, as was common.  I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times.  It was common in the ancient cultures that if you knew somebody’s name then you had power over them.

There are various ancient traditions or literatures where only certain people know your real name.  Some of the native American traditions are like that, I think.  You have a public name, but your real name, nobody knows.  It says in the Book of Revelation that God will give you a new name that only God knows.  So God is giving Moses a name and it makes it a more personal relationship, but still not a relationship between equals.

Now what does this all have to do with Benedictine prayer?  Lot’s and lots.  It tells us from the beginning that our prayer as Benedictines is a conversation with God.  God does not say from the beginning “Moses, now sit down over there and I’m going to give you this table of laws that I want you to give to the people.”  What they had is a conversation.  And Benedictine prayer tends to be very conversational.  We’ll talk more about that later on.  It does not mean there is no space for silence.  It does not mean you can’t do quiet contemplation.  But it means that usually you get there through conversation.

 So we need to pay attention to the conversation.  But there are some spiritual traditions that give us the impression that there is something not quite good enough about having a conversation.  You have to do something that will empty your mind totally – and there comes a time where you may be called to do that.  But prayer always begins with, and goes on, as conversation.  We are conversation partners with God.  Not equal conversation partners.  But we are conversation partners.  At the core of our life there is a conversation, because we were made as receivers of the word and so we are constantly receiving the word and God is inviting us to answer back, either by what we say, or what we think, or what we do.

We’ll talk at some point in the future about praying without ceasing, and that involves something much larger than what we often say, I think.  All different forms of being with God and conversing with God.  We see in the New Testament that Jesus really appreciated conversation.  Some great conversations between Jesus and the woman at the well, Jesus and the Canaanite woman, Jesus and Mary of Bethany.  So sometimes this conversation is not placating conversation, or friendly conversation, or “Lord if this is what you want me to do I will do this and I won’t say any more.”  It’s real conversation.  “Lord, I don’t understand this very well.” That is Moses’s approach.  “I can’t do this. Who are you? Where’d you come from?” those are all real conversations, like we would have with real people.

So Benedictine conversation is not a fake language.  It’s a real language between real conversation partners.  It just takes us a while to discover what that language is for us, what it means for us personally, to be conversation partners with God.  Because there comes a point where no one else can tell us how to pray.  We have to really discover it within ourselves, and within our relationship with God.

We also learn that we should not be surprised if this conversation with God gives us responsibility.  It would be very nice to be able to sit back passively and just soak in the whole word and just kind of bask there, but that’s actually never true.  We always leave prayer with a heightened sense of responsibility.  It might not be a new job, but a sense that somehow if we are growing in this relationship, we are growing in our responsibility to do the will of God, which I also think has a much bigger meaning than we sometimes attribute to it, so we will talk about that later on.  We are obviously going to do a number of sessions about this.  We’re not in any hurry, the holy ground is always there.  We don’t have to run off and find some where else.  So we will continue with that.

So, next time we will go on with the topic on prayer.  So I would encourage you to read through this passage and think about who are you in the passage?  If you’re Moses, and you’ve had conversations like the conversation between Moses and God, the geography might have been different, and there might not have been a recognizable burning bush.  Your name is not Moses, your job might have been different.  But there’s something about this that is a perennial truth for Benedictines.  This is your prayer that the book of Exodus is talking about, your prayer, my prayer, our prayer.

The Death of St. Benedict (March 21)

On March 21, according to the Benedictine liturgical calendar, Benedictines celebrate a solemnity commemorating the death of St. Benedict in 546 A.D. The following account of this death is found in Book II of the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, a civil servant who became first a monk and then one of the Church’s great popes (540-604 A.D.)   
   
In the year that was to be his last, the man of God foretold the day of his holy death to a number of his disciples. In mentioning it to some who were with him in the monastery, he bound them to strict secrecy. Some others, however, who were stationed elsewhere he only informed of the special sign they would receive at the time of his death.

Six days before he died, he gave orders for his tomb to be opened. Almost immediately he was seized with a violent fever that rapidly wasted his remaining energy. Each day his condition grew worse until finally, on the sixth day, he had his disciples carry him into the chapel where he received the Body and Blood of our Lord to gain strength for his approaching end. Then, supporting his weakened body on the arms of his brethren, he stood with his hands raised to heaven and, as he prayed, breathed his last.

That day two monks, one of them at the monastery, the other some distance away, received the very same revelation.  They both saw a magnificent road covered with rich carpeting and glittering with thousands of lights. From his monastery it stretched eastward in a straight line until it reached up into heaven. And there in the brightness stood a man of majestic appearance, who asked them, "Do you know who passed this way?"

"No," they replied.

"This, he told them, is the road taken by blessed Benedict, the Lord's beloved, when he went to heaven."

Thus, while the brethren who were with Benedict witnessed his death, those who were absent knew about it through the sign he had promised them. His body was laid to rest in the Chapel of St. John the Baptist, which he had built to replace the altar of Apollo.


Reflection 
The death of St. Benedict, as depict ed by St. Gregory, is an icon of the holy man’s life.  He died in the community’s place of prayer, where he and his monks had sung the daily round of psalms and hymns which still grounds and frames Benedictine the Benedictine day.  St. Benedict himself spelled out the Hours and their contents in detail in a long segment of his Rule, indicating how important he thought it to be.  He receives Eucharistic communion in preparation for death.  The early Church, some centuries before Benedict, encouraged the martyrs thus to participate sacramentally in Christ’s death and resurrection so that they could then do so literally without faltering.  To this day, the Catholic Church requires its members to receive the Eucharist as Viaticum, “food for the journey,”  before death whenever circumstances permit.  The mystery of the Cross defines our Christian life, as we will very soon celebrate in the solemn liturgies of the Easter Triduum.  So does it define our death as holy passage into the life St. Benedict now lives in Christ, rather than as a plunge into the void.  St. Benedict then leans on the support of his community, among and for whom he has lived a long monastic life in Christ as prescribed by his Rule.  There he stands, arms raised to heaven in prayer, an image of Christ on the Cross, offering himself to the last as the great Intercessor for all humanity.  St. Gregory’s account concludes with the words the Gospels use of Jesus:  “he breathed his last.”  In this small, vivid icon, we see St. Benedict dying as he lived, one who took “the place of Christ” for his followers then and now.  What more stunning tribute could we who own St. Benedict as leader desire than this:  this man or woman lived as he/she had died—an increasingly faithful image of Jesus Christ? 

The Solemnity of St. Benedict is a day on which we might all ask ourselves how true that tribute would be of us as “as we progress in this way of life and in faith, [running] on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love” (RB Prologue 49).  That would be a Lent well done!

©2013 Abbey of St. Walburga,  Virginia Dale CO 80536