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.