Thursday, December 31, 2020

Happy New Year!

 Ah, it’s that time of year.  Time for some introspection and decisions regarding appropriate conversatio morum for the New Year—though only Benedictines would call it that!  Most folks would recognize it better as making New Year resolutions.  St. Benedict doesn’t mention custom specifically, of course, because the holiday-with-resolution project hadn’t been invented yet.  He presumed that conversatio went on all year long, with particular emphasis during Lent.  His idea is probably less fraught with tension than gritting our teeth, putting past flops out of our mind, and drawing up that list many of us make at this season, and sometimes keep for a few days.

There is an approach to decisions about conversatio that is relevant every year and every season.  It draws upon St. Benedict’s ever-fresh urge to listen with the ears of the heart.  I have found that Psalm 1 supplies excellent and challenging guidance here. 

 Here is the version of the Grail translation that we pray at the Abbey:

 Blessed indeed is the man

who follows not the counsel of the wicked,

Nor stands in the path with sinners,

nor abides in the company of scorners,

But whose delight is the law of the Lord,

and who ponders his law day and night.


He is like a tree that is planted

beside the flowing waters,

That yields its fruit in due season,

and whose leaves shall never fade;

and all that he does shall prosper.


Not so are the wicked, not so!

For they, like winnowed chaff,

shall be driven away by the wind.

When the wicked are judged they shall not rise,

nor shall sinners in the council of the just;

For the Lord knows the way of the just,

but the way of the wicked will perish.

The psalmist challenges us not merely to listen but to listen with discernment—another staple quality in the monastic tradition.  Not all the voices that bounce around in our environment or in our hearts are life-giving.  Some would qualify as the wicked, the sinner, the scorners whom St. Benedict, with the psalmist, would call destructive. They might come from our past—the voices of family or teachers or coaches who harped so constantly on our failures that we gave up trying; the voices of video or printed fiction that convince readers that violence is the only way to confront evil (Jesus might beg to disagree); the endless ads that try to persuade us that we are entitled to remain young, beautiful (whether we ever were or not), and successful at any price; the self-help books that teach us how to compete successfully at our chosen work or leisure activities by stepping on the competition on our way up the ladder.  These voices conjure up for me a picture of barkers in a bad carnival, hawking dubious pleasures if only we would just step inside into their tent.   Obey them, the psalmist says, and stability flies out the window.  Instead of being rooted and growing beside the living waters traditionally interpreted as the Scriptures themselves but equally applicable to St. Benedict’s scripture-studded Rule, the indiscriminate listener risks drying up into mere chaff.  Chaff is the dry husks that are separated from the grains of good wheat in the threshing process.  Chaff serves no useful purpose, feeds no one, and blows away in the wind, leaving nothing but dusty scraps on the ground.  This is probably not the goal we are hoping to accomplish as we confront the new year.

 There is, of course, another Voice, the psalmist says.  When it appears as “the law of the Lord” in the first stanza, it may seem as dusty as old law books in a law library.  To those of us who are not scholars and practitioners of the law, they may seem to promise death by boredom rather the delight the psalmist encourages.  But that’s because we fail to recognize the law as God’s Word, the force that creates all life, including ours.  More, the law of the Lord is the law of the covenant.  The enduring covenant between God and humanity is not a set of words—though it first appeared so when Moses brought it down Mount Sinai inscribed on stone tablets.  The ultimate covenant is Jesus Christ, in whom God and humanity have been bound together in one Savior.  In other words, to delight in the law of the Lord is to delight in Jesus Christ, to whom, says St. Benedict, we prefer nothing and in whom we find life at its deepest and best.  In him, we discover our humanity brought to ultimate perfection.  And we are invited not simply to stand back and admire, not simply to worship, but grow as members of his living Body.  That is the reality that undergirds all that St. Benedict has to say about relationships in Benedictine life.  Living in Christ, God’s Word made flesh, we are indeed firmly rooted in the truth about God, about ourselves, about the world around us, like a tree beside running water.  And it’s a fruit tree that provides nourishment for all who come. 

 So, about those resolutions.  Psalm 1 provides the real criterion for making resolutions about what we are called to do, and not to do.  Look down the road at what our resolutions will make us:   chaff or tree, hollow shell or living, fruit-bearing tree?  Our choice.  Before we decide, St. Benedict would advice us listen with the ears of our hearts to the One who loves us.

Copyright 2020, Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, December 24, 2020

A Reflective Prayer for Christmas Eve

 Lord, Jesus Christ, I wish I could say all is ready to receive You--stable swept and clean, ox and ass washed down and brushed, nice little wooden manger sanded to ensure no splinters, and filled with fresh straw.  Then it dawns on me that You didn't (and don't) come simply to set Your seal of approval on redemption already achieved (by my own work, of course).  You came (and come) to clean up the mess made over and over again by the sin with which we persist in wrecking the creation intended to offer life to the full.  You came (and come) to heal the wounds we inflict on ourselves and one another. You came (and come) to light up from within the darkness in which we hope to hide all our self-made damage so we won't see it, and neither will You. We don't really want You to come till we're ready to show you a nice world, all clean and tidy.  That Advent prayer, "Come, Lord Jesus"?  We really meant, "Come, but not yet.) But You came and come anyway.  Thank you!

Well, those herald angels are tuning up.  Time for us to tune up too, and sing, and mean it, as best we can: 

Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled"
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With angelic hosts proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! the herald angels sing:
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Loneliest Christmas



Loneliness seems unconnected with Christmas, but it isn’t.  Many will be lonely this year because of very necessary COVID precautions. But, in fact, this COVID isolation casts a spotlight on the isolation and loneliness experienced by many every year, and at all seasons. Christmas draws attention to what a contradiction this is to God’s desire for us. 

 In the mystery of Christ come among us, God has begun the long, slow work of transforming scattered since Eden (see Genesis 1-11 for a capsule account!) into a togetherness of extraordinary depth.  St. Paul calls it the Body of Christ.  It is not spatial or geographical.  It is a gathering of every splinter of fragmented humanity and fragmented individuals into a communion so deep it transcends space and time.  Our Christmas gift to one another, loved ones and strangers alike, is to turn it from theology into experience in whatever small ways we can.  When physical gatherings are impossible, we already know and are making use of phone calls, virtual conversations, e-mails and notes, but that nonphysical network includes only those we know and love.  Let us not forget the power of a more powerful network, the network created by God in Christ, and strengthened by attentive awareness expressed in prayer.  It seems like nothing, I know, and it satisfies no desire to see the kind of results we might get from staffing a soup line or taking baskets to poor families.  It’s a gift that expects no return, something that the promoters of a commercialized holiday could never understand.  And we can’t exactly understand it either, but we are invited to believe in it with the faith that is God’s great gift, or one of them.

 St. Benedict urges us to seek God in all things, not just the nice things that come tied up in bows. This year the grace of Christmas might be to seek and find small hints of the ultimate togetherness given us as gift in Christ. One of the places we might have to look is in the very separation, isolation and loneliness of this particular Christmas.  What we are looking for, really, is threads of light that can still be seen drawing people together in the very depths of things: the courage of those who suffer, the mutual concern among strangers in odd places, the steadfast perseverance of those who refuse to believe that loneliness is all that is possible.  What we are looking for is sparks and candle flames, not bonfires.  Christ arrived on the bleak human scene  not as monarch enthroned in power and glory but as a newborn child in an unknown backwater of the Roman empire who might have been cute, as newborns are, but who certainly didn’t seem to be of any particular import to anyone but Mary and Joseph.  Looks deceive, even the look of loneliness that hides our real and becoming togetherness. 

 St. Benedict also offers clues as to what our togetherness might actually look like.  Read Chapter 4 and Chapter 72. Neither offers grandiosity or drama.  Both require a good bit of reinterpretation for life beyond a sixth-century monastery of men. And they require work. Prayer is a pretty good tool for seeing what lies beneath the surface of our present COVID-limited Christmas, and our perennial struggle with everything that contradicts the experience (but not necessarily the reality) of that togetherness which is the hidden goal of every Christmas, for every person on earth.  This might make good food for thought and conversation for oblate groups who are making the best of creative ways of meeting and sharing in defiance of the blanket of isolation and loneliness that seems to envelop so much and so many this year.

 One verse of the old favorite seasonal hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” reads:

O come, Desire of Nations bind

In one the hearts of humankind.

O bid our sad divisions cease,

And be for us our King of Peace.

He will, whether we recognize him at work or not.   Emmanuel means God-with-us.  And God means that.

 Copyright 2020, Abbey of St. Walburga






Sunday, December 20, 2020

Promises, Promises, Promises

Emerging as we are from a contentious election, we are moving from the season of promises made to the season of promises kept, or so we hope.  And liturgically, poised on this final Sunday of Advent with Christmas only a few days ahead, we are following the same trajectory. 

Advent has set before us the very long story of God’s promises, first made in the creation itself, of a future when all would be brought to completion.  Since we human beings are key protagonists in the story, there have been a lot of ups and downs.  Only God has remained steadfast.  Stubborn, really, when we consider the many and quite inventive ways that we and our forebears have found to thwart the divine plan for our greatest good.

The promise has remained in place through it all, growing in depth and richness with the passage of time.  Come Christmas, we will celebrate the promise kept—but how oddly!  No sign of the victorious warrior or the glorious king of peace that the prophets have led us to expect.  Instead, a newborn cradled in his mother’s arms beside a cradle full of straw, with ox and ass looking on with interest.  Yes, there are choirs of angels out over the fields of Bethlehem, but their song is brief and apparently unheard except by a handful of shepherds.  Yes, eventually there arrive exotic foreign sages with gifts fit for a king, but they don’t stay long.  Yes, Simeon and Anna identify the six-week-old brought to the Temple by his parents as the promised redeemer, but no one seems to have paid much attention except Mary and Joseph.  Then it’s on to an unreported life of exile off in Egypt, followed by an equally unmentioned life as a village carpenter in Nazareth.  What sort of promise keeping is this?

This is God’s promise keeping, and it unfolds with God’s slow patience through Jesus’ private years and public ministry, still bearing very little resemblance to warrior or monarch.  Or so it seems.  It would take the early believers long pondering, and later believers long theological arguing, to discover that a battle really was fought during those years, a battle that came to a climactic victory in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  But, as we will see during the Easter season, it was a victory without fanfare, victory parades, ticker tape, or endless crowds gathered around the risen Savior, yelling questions and getting sound-bite answers to be broadcast all over the world.  And there was still no sign of throne or crown beyond the cross and crown of thorns whose hidden transformation is sung only obliquely in psalms whose vocabulary is as old as King David’s time and after.  Awash with political fury, murder in the streets, hints of unsettled times still to come, and all under the cloud of a worsening pandemic, we may find it hard to see how the promise has been kept.

Ah, but it has not been fully kept, not yet.  Next year, when Advent begins, we will be reminded once again that the Savior’s triumph over the forces of sin and death is still a work in progress in the history of the world, and perhaps even the cosmos.  The victory was decisive, but, in our human way of reading history, the aftermath will be an unknown time settling until Christ comes again in glory.

Fortunately, we are not called to explain this continuing paradox of the already but not yet.  Traditionally, we call it characteristic of the season of Advent, but in reality it is always with us.  We are not called to explain it, but we are called to live it, with no other light to see by than the one that burned largely unnoticed in Bethlehem, remained unrecognized in the Temple except by two oldsters, and lit the unsung lives of the first believers and all of us who have followed them since the resurrection. It shines still, even in our present darkness, visible only to the eyes of faith.

 Meanwhile, our own lives, lived in the practical ordinariness set out for us by St. Benedict, are the promise being kept.

May your Christmas be bright with God's promise!

 Copyright 2020 Abbey of St. Walburga






Thursday, December 3, 2020

Psalm 46: An Advent Prayer

 This entry was reposted with permission from the new blog at Give Us This Day,  The essay first appeared in the December 2020 issue of Give Us This Day.  New entries from Give Us This Day will be posted daily on the Give Us This Day blog. I encourage you to visit the blog, where you can sign up to receive the post daily by email.  This service is free, but of course the publishers, The Liturgical Press, would be delighted if you would subscribe to the publication itself.  A paid subscription also gives you access to the online (and downloadable) issue.  Since they publish both my essays and my books (just one so far, two more in the works), I like to support them!

Every Advent we hear: this is the season for listening quietly to God’s Word. And every Advent we remember: it is also the busiest season of the year. What to do?  

Psalm 46 offers a suggestive geography. It pictures an outside world where chaos is imagined as earthquake, tsunami, political turmoil, warfare. But there is also an inner world where God’s presence and protective power banish all turmoil. There we can sit quietly and hear ourselves think. The obvious Advent strategy is to find the way into that quiet place within while the holiday-mad world around us is in turmoil. Lucky for those who can, but many of us find it nearly impossible. Are we then shut out of the holy season’s gift?  

Maybe not. What if Advent shifts the strategy? As we prepare to celebrate God’s entry into human history as Word-made-human-flesh, perhaps we could reconsider where we might go to hear God’s Word in the midst of the season’s bedlam. Advent and its Christmas sequel remind us that God’s point of entry was never a silent sanctuary, outward or inward. After long, tumultuous years of promise, the Word arrived in a stable in Bethlehem—a town bursting with incomers who were summoned for a census, a murderous dictator hovering in the background. So wouldn’t it be appropriate to listen for the Word not just within our own hearts but also in the less-than-quiet world around us? What if we learned to recognize the Word in raucous shoppers, quarrelsome family members, and the muttering of homeless people we pass by?  

We might rather not. Our own inner sanctuary offers a quiet retreat, but the surrounding babble invites us into the chaos of real human dramas where we often don’t know how to help. Psalm 46 offers a strategy for that, too, but not the one we usually come up with. “Be still, drop that heavy fix-it toolbox, and just be there where God is.” Learn to hear God’s ever-creating Word spoken in the human voices of expectation and despair, joy and suffering, desire and anger.  

On the Advent doorstep of the Good News made flesh among us, be present, pay attention, listen, and seek to love all those speakers milling everywhere, the welcome and the unwelcome alike. Presence, awareness, listening, and love—God’s fix-it toolbox—are far more powerful than bows, spears, and shields. They are, after all, the tools that Christ, the ultimate Word, brings into the world for our salvation. Let us study them now, in this season of listening—even if only in hurried snatches—so we may learn to put them to use in doing the Gospel’s work year-round.  

Copyright Give Us This Day 2020.  Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

A Lamp in Dark Places


The holiday season is always a patchwork of light and darkness. Some find joy in family gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas; others grieve in loneliness the memory of absent loved ones.  Some come together around tables laden with traditional foods lovingly prepared and served; others rely on cafeterias or soup kitchens staffed by strangers to serve  from a limited menu; still others eat alone. 

This year is different.  The darkness is spreading.  Today, as I write on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, our county goes on red alert and begin strict shutdowns. Last week, the authorities added a few additional restrictions to those required by level yellow security in the hopes of staving off a move to level orange before Thanksgiving.  This morning we are still on enhanced yellow.  At five o’clock, we will jump straight to red.  Personal gatherings of any kind are banned; grocery stores are confined to limited service; restaurants will offer only curbside takeout.  What will happen to the soup kitchens I do not know.  And I doubt that even restaurant and grocery stores dumpsters will have much to offer the homeless who depend on them.

 But St. John’s gospel breaks through the enveloping dark to recall us to hope:  “1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” The light has a name.  Jesus said“ I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12) This is not wishful piety but the deepest truth of our darkest days. 

 These times challenge us to be even more true to our Benedictine identity as people of listening hearts.  It is not so easy to hear the Word of God speaking to us when all the news around us seems bad. But that is precisely what we need to do at times like this.  A number of the psalms we pray in the Liturgy of the Hours remind us that God, not our limited selves or some malicious evil spirit, is in charge of the universe and is to be found always at work there.  See for example Psalm 95, Psalm 100, or Psalm 104.  St. John reminds us that the God whose presence and will permeate the world is not an impersonal force or, again, a destructive enemy.  “God is love,” he says, in no uncertain terms (John 4;7). 

 The times here throw down yet another challenge: how do we recognize or understand the God of love when we are all in danger, when loved ones fall ill and perhaps die, when even the promise of vaccines is darkened by the fear of too-hasty and too-untested distribution, by scientific warnings that the vaccines themselves may have serious negative side effects?  I have no comforting answer to this question. 

 What I do have is a conviction that what we can and must do is what St. Benedict tells us: seek God in all things.  We are not asked to seek explanations for God’s behavior but to look for  every sign of God’s creative presence even in the most unexpected of places.  In the kindness, solicitude and generosity of others; in the courage of sufferers who do not lose faith or hope; in the care offered with consideration and competence by exhausted health care workers; in the community of the afflicted, frightened or bereaved, we look for the threads of light in the darkness.  St. Peter urged the early Christians already beset by conflicts within the community and persecution without “You will do well to be attentive to [God’s word], as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (1 Peter 1:19).  And, says the Book of Revelation, that lamp, like the light it holds, is also a person, the person we cherish above all others, the Christ who transcends all darkness: the heavenly Jerusalem the visionary saw “had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb” (Rev 21:23).

 We would probably all much prefer an explanation, but God knows that what we need in all circumstances is not concepts too big for us to grasp, but God’s presence and loved  enfleshed in a humanity like our own, apart from sin , so Jesus told his first followers, and us, “…behold, I am with you always” (Matt 28:20).  After all, as we will soon be singing during Advent, that is his other name: “Emmanuel” (Matt 1:23).  And Emmanuel is there among us, with patients, with caregivers, with loved ones, with concerned strangers.  Always.

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Lectio Mindset

As all of us Benedictine, oblates or vowed monastics, could probably recite in our sleep, St. Benedict opens the Rule we aspire to live by with a double command:  “Listen…with the ears of your heart” and “put it into action.” It’s simple: listen to it, then do it! But St. Benedict is hardly one to advocate acting on impulse.  Nor does he intend to create an army of robots.  So something has to happen between listening and doing.

The tradition of lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture), which St. Benedict also mandated for us without actually using the term, supplies the answer.  You know the pattern:  (1) Listen (read); (2) ponder in conversation with God (meditate; pray); (3) act on what you’ve heard.  But this pattern is not restricted to praying with Scripture.  The monastic tradition speaks of 3 “texts” we can read, ponder, and act on:  the Scriptures of course; nature (this contribution by St. Anthony the Great refers to the mountains or the trees in the backyard,  but can also be interpreted as the human nature in those around us, of which he was himself a gifted reader);  and the “pages” of our daily life’s experience.  This is what St. Benedict means when he talks about seeking God in all things and in all people.  The regular practice of this extended version of lectio creates what I call the lectio mindset, because it is not just something we do at selected times but the way we interact with all of reality.

This mindset presumes, as St. Benedict presumed, and as Jesus taught in the gospel, that reality comes in layers.  There is the busy surface that enchants or annoys or simply absorbs in the business of everyday living.  But on this slick surface, St. Benedict might have said, you slip and slide and go no deeper into the underlying conversation for which our speaking God made us.  That requires plunging through the surface, sometimes with great effort, to get to the deeper places of reality where God is busy creating, transforming, enlivening all that is and inviting us to take part in the work.

This image suggests a two layer world, or maybe a three layer one if we assign God a separate place above and beyond us, as we often do but as St. Benedict never did.  However, reality is not a layer cake, with the chocolate carefully separated from the strawberry by a thick layer of vanilla frosting you could drown in.  The layered reality St. Benedict understood is intensely interactive: heaven and earth arein constant conversation as both God and God’s created reality work together toward a future we cannot even imagine, so the Bible simply calls it “a new heaven and a new earth.” What that might look like, we can only guess.

Really to live in this layered and interactive reality, we need to pray as St. John of the Cross would suggest (even though he wasn’t a Benedictine!): “We must … dig deeply in Christ.  He is like a rich mine with many pockets containing treasures; however deep we dig, we will never find their end or their limit.  Indeed, in every pocket new seams of fresh riches are found on all sides” (see The Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings, December 14).  Here, it seems, is the place to which we must go between hearing and doing: Christ, the Wisdom of God, embedded in and speaking throughout the Scriptures and all reality.  

So to get from the listening to the doing, let us put on our miner’s helmets, turn on the brightest light they offer, and go digging into all the nooks and crannies life offers to see what God has hidden there for us.  Thus do we honor the fact that life, like a mine, is seamed with gold. Or, as I prefer to think, seamed with light, the Light of the world!

 Copyright 2020, Abbey of St. Walburga

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

After the Ascension

This week we stand between the Ascension and Pentecost.  It was surely an odd time for Jesus’ followers, a time of suspense between the unexpected and the unpredictable.

The Solemnity of the Ascension, which we celebrated on Sunday, seems to mark the moment of Jesus’ departure from the followers who had walked with him for what was actually a short time—one year or three, depending on which gospel calendar you follow—but a time of presence so intense that they didn’t want to see it end. We see their anxiety at the Last Supper when Jesus begins to talk about departure and return.

Certainly his most dramatic departure was his death on the cross.  He did return-- but with no drama at all.  Instead, he appeared very quietly to his followers, usually either one-on-one (Mary Magdalene at the tomb) or in small numbers (the disciples on the road to Emmaus and the breakfast at the Sea of Galilee).  He came to teach them where they would find him in the future: not by holding onto him physically, as he told Mary Magdalene, but by listening to God’s word from an Easter perspective and by breaking bread together, as he told the two who were Emmaus-bound.  And they left us those stories to teach us what they had learned.

Then, in Acts 1, he left them abruptly.  Or he seemed to.  Acts 1:16 says “he was lifted up” and then “a cloud took him from their sight.”  (The Cloud is God’s presence throughout the Old Testament.) We can imagine them standing there with their mouths upon looking at the sky in which he seemed to have vanished, until “two men dressed in white garments” (presumably a pair of helpful angels “ said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

And he has and he does.  He disappeared quietly and he returns quietly, as he did in those post-resurrection stories.  Other biblical passages about the great cosmic drama of his final appearance at the end of time tend to draw our attention away from the quiet privacy of the here-and-now.  Jesus still comes to us one-on-one or in small groups (even a large parish gathering is small potatoes compared with the final gathering of the whole world!); he comes in the biblical Word; he comes in the breaking of bread, whether in a Eucharistic assembly or in the more intimate gatherings of family in friends.  (Yes, of course, Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and at the family table are very different in mode, but he himself told us that where two or three are gathered in his name wherever or for whatever reason, he is present as he was at that inn on the Emmaus road).  In fact, wherever we are, he is because he suggests that he has never really left when he promises the apostles gathered to see him off on the Mount of Olives in the ascension account in Matthew 28 that he will be with us always.  After all, his second name is “Emmanuel…which means ‘God is with us’” says the Angel Gabriel to St. Joseph.

So, in this long interim between the Ascension and Christ’s final return, we can do as St. Benedict says, which is to “seek God in all things” because we have been assured that Christ is in fact there to be found.  And Benedict’s Rule supplies us with many tools for meeting with him in all sorts of places:  in the word pondered in lectio divina and in the liturgical Hours, in the people who come to our door, either literally or figuratively by phone and e-mail and text, in the young, the old, the needy and the sick, and in fact in the communities to which we belong, whatever form they may take.  Some of St. Benedict’s search tools are obvious, but some are not:  obedience frees us from the clamor of the willful inner child to listen to God giving directions (Prologue and RB 5), silence (better, taciturnity) frees us from constant inward and outward noise to hear God’s voice in the depths of life (RB 6), humility frees us from the burdensome necessity of running the world as if we were God  so that we can live in communion with the One to whom responsibility for the world properly belongs (RB7).  Chapter 4 on the tools of good works in fact teaches us to construct the whole network of our relationships with self, others and God, so that we can be at peace with Christ at the center of that network.

One of the questions we might ask ourselves (and Christ) in this time between Ascension and Pentecost is: which of these many tools for seeking and finding Christ do we keep sharp and effective, and which ones have we allowed to get rusty from disuse?  When the Spirit of God blows through the world like a great wind, that force can blow away the rust and sharpen our desire to live more deeply in the ever-present Christ.

Copyright 2020 Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, May 14, 2020


 St. Benedict would agree.  In fact, to keep the monks at home, he directed that “The monastery should, if possible, be so constructed that within it all necessities, such as water, mill and garden are contained, and the various crafts are practiced” (RB 66:6). But his concern was not contagion of the body but contagion of the heart. He was echoing a widely circulated piece of sage advice given by an elder to a young monk seeking counsel in the desert: “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

Confinement at home, never mind in a small monastic one-room hermitage, chafes, as we have all learned during the long period of “stay-at-home.”  It chafes most when home is populated with other people, even people dearly loved, but it chafes the solitary as well.  However, God’s gifts come in strange packages.  Staying put opens a door to wisdom, should we chose to go there.  It invites us to renew our commitment to listen, and listen with the ears of our heart, to Christ who is always our true inward reality. 

But St. Benedict’s building plan suggests that we will be able really to hear if we clear out our ears by shutting the heart’s door on all the voices that clamor for our attention: the TV with 24 hours a day of pandemic news, the computer, the radio (unless music serves as a welcome wall between the heart and the racket outside!), the phone, the shelf of books that start by relaxing us and end by simply distracting us, and all the other intake with which we so often protect ourselves from the dreaded possibility of a silence in which there is nobody there.  There is never nobody there.  Jesus did say, as I often quote to myself as well as to you, “I am with you always” (Matthew 20:).  And he is God’s word forever speaking us into being as in Genesis 1 and speaking to our inmost being using the same powerful words of creative love that keep the world spinning.  As we all know, the Benedictine habit of lectio divina and praying the liturgical Hours mediates those words to us, but so does simply sitting still in God’s presence in whatever attentiveness we can muster, however long or briefly.

I am currently reading Michael Casey’s daily homilies collected into the book Balaam’s Donkey (Liturgical Press) in honor of his fiftieth anniversary of priesthood.  Today’s selection is entitled GIGO, the acronym for “garbage in-garbage out” familiar from early computer days. He warns that “The things we allow to enter our thinking also have a role to play in shaping who we are and what we will become”—that is the life of conversion to which all Benedictines, and not only Benedictines aspire.  St. Benedict didn’t put it that way, but he understood it in building walls to keep his monks from wandering all over the place physically and therefore interiorly.  It’s safe to stay at home – at appropriate times and in appropriate ways, of course—in the inner room of the heart.  But only if we are not simply taking refuge in selfishness, and only if we take care about what we carry with us into that inward cell. 

Whether it’s by means of  newscasters or journalists bombarding us with pandemic news or a relative’s gripes about all the pleasant things we no longer have access to or our own inner collection of fears and complaints, we do can cultivate deafness of heart without meaning to.  And that is sad, because, as Casey suggests, we really do become not only what we eat but also what we listen to.  And that’s not only in times of pandemic!

Of course the desert monks roamed about, sometimes quite far afield, to visit other monks, to talk with a spiritual father, to take their handmade goods to town to sell them for money to buy bread for themselves but more especially for the poor.  Of course St. Benedict’s monks traveled too, to get to the surrounding fields where they worked the harvest and no doubt to run errands for various purposes.  And of course, we all go out and about as needed, even much less often under “stay-at-home” and now “safer-at-home” regulations.

But that ancient monk’s advice, echoed by St. Benedict and by his modern disciple, Michael Casey, it remains true that it’s really necessary regularly to “stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”  As long as you’re careful about who is in there with you!

Copyright 2020 Abbey of St. Walburga

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday to Easter

Abbey Church Easter
This year, amid the ravages of the pandemic, it is easier to pray with Christ “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) than to sing the Easter alleluias. 

And yet.  Our “yet” is Easter.  However hard it may be to persuade our emotions in the face of danger and loss, life really has once and for all broken through death into that unknown reality we call “eternity” through both the death and the resurrection of Christ.  Faith reiterates it over and over again in the Liturgy of the Hours during these holy days.

But how will can we even think about singing  “alleluia” when suffering death is all around us, perhaps even in our own homes, perhaps even in our own lives?

Many years ago I had occasion to attend a wake service for a little boy. He had lived only five months, much of it in pediatric intensive care, his mother holding him when she could, his father keeping anxious watch.  The doctors offered hope till hope ran out.  The child died in his mother’s arms.

The wake was conducted according to the rite of the small Eastern Orthodox Church to which the parents belonged.  The mother was the community’s chief cantor.  When it came time to chant a poignantly beautiful “Holy, holy, holy” in Greek over the little body, she was the only one who could.  Her eyes never left the small casket, her voice never missed a note. Everyone present wept.

She remains for me an icon of Mary at the foot of the cross.  An icon of how faith and love sing praise to God for life in the teeth of suffering and death.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Letter from the Benedictine Abbot Primate

The following is a letter written by Abbot Gregory Polan, OSB, former Abbot of Conception Abbey in Missouri and for some years now, Abbot Primate and Abbot of Sant'Anselmo Abbey in Rome.  The Abbot Primate is charged with serving to unify all Benedictines world wide, especially through communications like this one, meetings and visits.  Abbot Gregory is a biblical scholar and musician.  He is responsible for the revised Grail Psalter, though others have revised it.  This letter is long, despite the abridgement.  You might want to copy it and paste it into a Word document for easier reading!

Laetare Sunday – 22 March 2020
Greetings of Lenten peace from Sant’Anselmo in Rome. .... All together, we are living through a time of unprecedented change in so many aspects of our lives. We have all come to see that the best attempts at planning for events, good-will endeavors to be of service to others, and arrangements for community celebrations can come to a halt in a matter of moments. All our efforts to eat and live in a healthy way seem suddenly useless when the virus enters our community. With the collapse of travel and commerce, many of our sources of income from our guesthouses, our courses, and our small businesses and workshops, have gone down or even disappeared at present. While all this can be disappointing, discouraging, worrying and frightening, our faith reminds us that all people, all things, and all events are in the hands of a God who loves us, cares for us, and provides for us. While we may think of the name of God so often used in Advent, Immanuel, it is a divine name that stands true each day of our lives: indeed, God is with us. We cannot just say that, we have to believe it and put it into practice in ways that are life-giving for ourselves and for those with whom we live and serve. That is our encouragement and our strength as we move forward in faith.
... There is a beautiful verse in Psalm 125 which gives us an ancient truth that is still pertinent for us today. The text reads in verse 2, “Jerusalem! The mountains surround her; so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forever!” What a powerful image for us to reflect on. In effect, the Psalmist tells us that we live, move and have our being in the embrace of God’s loving care. God’s life-giving protection and care surrounds us, even when we do not feel it. But like the mountains that stand firm in their place, encircling Jerusalem, God’s steady, stable and strong arms remain a force that guides the course of world events, including the one in which we all now stand.
Someone wrote to me and asked if this Coronavirus is God’s punishment upon our world today. No, certainly not. When such disasters happen, it’s natural to ask, “Why did this happen, where did it come from, who is to blame?” This same question is found is the Gospel according to Luke, when people asked Jesus about the 18 people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Jesus replied, “Do you think they were more guilty than anyone else in Jerusalem? By no means” (Lk 13:4-5a). The answer of Jesus to the people was that their interpretation was incorrect; the point often is, we simply do not know, and our human existence is filled with many unanswered questions. Another example appears in the Gospel according to John, when the disciples ask Jesus, “’Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus replied, ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned’ (Jn 9:2-3a). Jesus tells the disciples to look within themselves and to walk in the light that Jesus shows them, that is to follow him faithfully.
God continues to guide and care for us through the dedicated men and women in our governments throughout the world. They have taken a hard look at the threats that face us by the experiences that have already begun to spread through China, and now in Italy and beyond. God speaks to us through them, and also through the leaders of our Church who have told us to follow the restrictions and guidelines that the medical profession has given to our governments. These laws that have been put into place to halt the spread of this debilitating virus, to preserve lives, and keep safe those who are most vulnerable, and really, all of us. This virus does not discriminate according to age. These restrictions limit our lives, and put boundaries on what we can do, where we can go, and how we can relate to one another – all for our benefit. These men and women are instruments of God’s voice to us, to know the divine presence through this human communication. We can believe that our obedience and cooperation will be redemptive in both saving lives and arresting the spread of this virus.
An article appeared in one of the Italian newspapers from a doctor in northern Italy who was treating patients with this virus. It reads more powerfully if I simply give the story to you as the doctor himself speaks to the journalist. In Italy, no one is free to enter a hospital to visit anyone – not a priest, nor a religious sister, nor a family member. This is a story about a priest who came to the hospital because he was sick with the symptoms of the Coronavirus. “Nine days ago, a 75-year- old pastor came to us for medical help. He was a kind man, he had grave respiratory problems, but he had a Bible with him and it impressed us that he was reading the Bible to the people who were dying and holding their hands. We were all tired, discouraged doctors, psychologically and physically spent, and so we found that we were listening to him. Now we must admit: as human beings we have reached our limits, there is nothing more we can do, and more people are dying every single day. And we are exhausted. Two of our colleagues have died and others are infected. We realized that we have reached the limits of what man can do. We need God, and we have begun to ask for his help. We speak among ourselves and we cannot believe that we who were fierce atheists are now seeking for interior peace by asking the Lord to help us to resist so that we can take care of the sick. Yesterday the 75-year old pastor died. Despite the fact that in the last three weeks we have had over 120 people die in our unit and we are all exhausted and feel destroyed, he succeeded, despite his own condition and our own difficulties, to bring us a PEACE that we no longer hoped to find. The pastor went to the Lord, and soon we will follow him if things continue like this. I have not been home for six days; I don’t know the last time I ate something; I realize my own worthlessness on this earth, and I want to dedicate my last breath to helping others.”
My dear brothers and sisters, the Coronavirus places before us a great mystery, a paradox for us to ponder: in suffering and death there is healing and new life. The God who surrounds our lives is able to take the grief, anguish, suffering and even death, and bring forth the healing of souls and bodies to experience new life. We understand the paschal mystery at work in the words of this doctor; his exhausting service has meaning in God’s unfolding plan for our healing and our renewal. The transformation of the human heart is the work of God, and often God uses us as instruments of divine grace to bring about the restoration of people’s lives. That is why we can be assured that God stands in the midst of all the events of human history; not that he has brought them about, but that, as the Lord of human history, we are never far from the redemptive hand of God.
In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, there is a moment when the people and city of Jerusalem are under siege by the Assyrian forces. In effect, the enemy is at the door, poised to enter and attack them. When Israel is tempted to make an alliance with Egypt to fight off the Assyrians forces, God gives an opposing and important word through the prophet which speaks to our situation today. “Thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust shall be your strength” (Isa 30:15). Salvation and deliverance remain in the hands of God; our task is to trust with serene confidence. That is not always an easy task. The advances that have been made through the work of scientists, chemists, medical doctors and researchers all attest to the advances that have been made in recent centuries to curb disasters and to keep us free from threats of harm. Well and good, but we have now seen that even the brightest of minds and the most skilled in the medical profession are stumped, and waiting for something to reveal a cure. So now is a moment of great faith and challenging trust to see how God will lead us forward. The Psalmist says it another way: “Be still and know that I am God: exalted over nations, exalted over earth” (Ps 46[45]:11). It is God who moves the minds and hearts of professionals to see things in new ways and to make new discoveries. Our challenge is to know faithfully trust that God stands in the midst of this, and will lead us forward.
As Benedictines, our daily prayer remains a source of encouragement as our communities gather each day to hear the word of God and to pray the Psalms. The texts of Scripture and the Psalms unite us in one voice crying out to God, not only for ourselves, but for all who have suffered loss in any way. Sometimes people have said to me that they struggle with the harsh and violent words of the psalms, especially those found in the Laments. At this moment when so many are suffering under the pains of a foreign enemy that invades and debilitates the human body, the words of the Laments give us a language of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the human family who have suffered death, disease, and distress. The words of the Laments join our voices with those people who can hardly express the pain they have experienced; we can become their voice to God, crying out for mercy and reprieve, an end to their confinement or exile. A deep sense of solidarity unites us with them, as together we storm the heavens both with our words and with our acts of sacrifice. When we can accept the sacrifices that are asked of us with ready willingness and a spirit of genuine charity, we fulfill the words of God given us through the Prophet Isaiah, “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust shall be your strength” (Isa 30:15). The daily practice of lectio divina steeps us in the Word of God as a divine voice that speaks to us and asks for us a response. May we listen with open hearts to what God wishes to tell us in the quiet moments when the Scripture reveal to us a voice of compassion, hope, and peace. In that daily spiritual exercise we come into contact with the living God who desires to enter into communion and conversation with us. Let us listen faithfully and hopefully.
[In this time when the celebrationof the Eucharist is unavailable to many]  our daily celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours provide rich fare for our reflection, food for thought and meditation that has sustained the faith of the Church for centuries. The Psalms, the biblical readings, and the non-biblical readings all tell the story of the mystery we celebrate during the day of the Triduum in a language that heightens the greatness of the paschal mystery for us to contemplate. ....
Also, the isolation which we all experience becomes an opportunity to go deeper within. We all know that the word in Latin Monaco/monaca refers to one who is alone. In that experience of solitude, therein lies the grace to dig deep into the rich well of the faith that lies within each of us. And however small our community is, we are privileged to gather as a community, brought together by Christ who told us that where two or more are gathered in his name, he is there in the midst of them (Mt 18:20).
Our charism of hospitality has a special meaning now, and we must think lovingly and creatively. For many of us, we are unable to welcome guests, allow others to join us in our common prayer, or allow our employees to carry on their tasks with us. As the saying goes, “Charity begins at home.” Our welcome and kindness to our community members becomes a genuine source of hospitality that we can often miss. When someone in the community looks lonely or fearful, a kind word, a greeting, or a simple expression of friendship becomes a way of expressing our care and concern for one another. When we have boundaries of space within our own living conditions, taking time to visit with others, observing the respected distance is a way of working together to combat the disease and to strengthen the bonds of brotherly or sisterly appreciation. Also, keeping in contact with those we know who are alone becomes another way to express our appreciation for the bonds of family or friendship. Hospitality extends a loving concern wherever we see or know of someone in need.
.... Our prayer together builds confidence, dispels fear, and builds a solidarity which strengthens all of us who feel the constraints of this situation. It is moments like this when our human possessions mean little to us, and our faith is a most treasured gift that enables us to be selfless, generous, and kind at all times. We remain strong in the embrace of God. Our prayer possesses a power that is stronger than we can fully comprehend, so let us keep faithful to that daily plea to God for an end to this debilitating disease. And let us listen attentively to the voices that God sends to us through the government and the Church, trying to foster a healthy path to overcoming this present situation.
Let us continue to pray for those who are seriously affected by the Coronavirus, for those who are working for a vaccine to prevent its spread, and for all who suffer from the physical and emotional effects of this dreaded virus. We look to Mary, whose maternal love and care for all of us is a sure hope for healing and restoration. And as we celebrate the feast of the Incarnation with the solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, we are reminded of how close Jesus Christ is to us, taking on our human flesh, to heal a broken world from the inside-out. Let us continue looking to Christ with trust, confidence, and hope.

Sincerely in Christ, our great Hope,
Abbot Primate Gregory Polan, O.S.B.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Seeing Behind the Seen

“Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God….Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death may not overtake you (John 12:35)”. Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue 9. 13.

In these dark times, St. Benedict encourages us not to close our eyes to the clouds and shadows but to look deeper.  He himself models the way of seeing the prophet Samuel described to Jesse, David’s father, in today’s second Mass reading: “God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The LORD looks into the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). St. Benedict looks at impoverished guests and sees Christ.  He looks at the community gathered at table and instructs the server to wash the brethren’s feet, seeing there the shadow of Christ washing the disciples feet and then telling them to do the same.  He looks at wayward brothers and sees as Christ his own exemplar saying to the Pharisees, “it is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick” (Matt 9:12).  In fact, wherever he looks. St. Benedict sees the reality around him with wisdom and compassion because he always sees Christ present, acting in love.

    Faith is a way of opening our eyes to the light that comes from God and shines steadily though the reality around us and within us.  It it not a book lamp. Many of us imagine that life comes with an owner’s manual that explains not only the how-to’s but also the why’s.  In times of suffering we expect to be able to turn to the right page so that we will know exactly why all this is happening and exactly what we should do to fix it. Some of you may remember the poignant line in Jesus Christ Superstar where Jesus says to his Father out of the agony of Gethsemane, “You’re very good on what and when, but not so hot on why!” (This is the version supplied by my memory, not necessarily exactly by the show’s script!).  Faith doesn’t allow us to turn readily to the answer key.  It does enable us to see the light that signals God’s presence even in the dark. That is the light to which Benedict exhorts us to open the eyes not of the body but of the heart.
The web is full of wise medical counsel about containing the spread of the coronavirus.  In one place after another throughout the world and throughout our own country, that counsel is becoming law:  shelter in place, stay home and lock your doors, avoid the workplace, stay out of the supermarket.  St. Benedict, had he lived in our time and place, would likely not have argued,  Even in his own difficult times, towns (and monasteries) were forced to close themselves in behind barricades erected built to turn away armed invaders.  That is what most of us are doing now.
But St. Benedict looked at life from a deeper perspective.  He knew the psalms that image death as darkness, wordlessness, and utter isolation.  He recognized in them descriptions not of physical death as retranslated by the reality of the Resurrection.  He saw them rather as self-chosen prisons of the human spirit, dying long before death arrives.  He urges on us a different choice: “Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God” in the belief and trust that will allow us to run free of heart, able to outrun that creeping death of the heart. 
We see around us, and perhaps we see ourselves as people who have made this choice.  We may stay home, but we pray, keeping God’s life-giving word circulating in the relational network that is humanity in Christ; or we reach out to others in safe ways with support, understanding, encouragement; or we help in ways we might never have thought of in other times.  And some obey the call to leave the safe zones and go out as workers in essential places, as medical staff, as priests and other ministers, even as the mounting death toll includes many of them. Those of us who do not share that call can still take them, too, into the light of God’s love with our prayer.
The blind man Jesus healed in today’s Mass gospel saw the light for the first time that day (John 9:1-41). May we, by God’s mercy, see it always, or, if we cannot, believe that it is always there.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Oblate Meetings Cancelled Until Further Notice

We are sorry to announce that because of the rapid spread of the coronavirus, oblate meetings at the abbey are cancelled until further notice.  It seems unwise to invite anyone to a large group meeting in a crowded conference room for now.

We do not yet have the virus in the monastic community, but of course this is a public place with frequent visitors and guests, so we do not want to put anyone at risk.

We will announce as soon as possible when meetings resume.

Blog posts will continue to appear as time allows!

God bless you all!
The Nuns of the Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Fasting: Take Another Look

Lent has long been the season of fasting.  In Chapter 49 of the Rule St. Benedict does mention abstinence from food or drink, but it’s not at the top of his list.  Rather, he begins with a different kind of fasting: “refusing to indulge evil habits,” many of which he mentions at great lengths in RB 4, “On the Tools of Good Works,” as “do-not-do-this-to-your neighbor.”  

This approach leads us directly into God’s directives on fasting as recorded by the prophet Isaiah:
“Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke? Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

The real purpose—and asceticism-- of Christian and therefore Benedictine life is put succinctly by Jesus himself:  “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. l The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).  Whatever we feel called to do or not do during Lent should assist us in the essential denial of self-interest in favor of the love of others, both God and our fellow human beings.  St. Benedict puts it this way:  “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else” (RB 72:7).  That’s the order of priority Jesus established:  other first, me second. And it’s tough to live up to, as we all know from experience!

It’s the view that undergirds Isaiah 58: Take care of the real needs around you before you get too busy totting up your food intake and congratulating yourself on not eating that second piece of chocolate cake, or maybe even the first. 

This does not deny the value of self-discipline strengthened by the sacrifices St. Benedict recommends for Lent: “In other words, let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting…. (RB 49:7).  Rather it locates it in its right place not as purpose but as tools for strengthening us in the real purpose, the life of radical love of God and neighbor, by weeding out all those habits that make life easier or more pleasant for ourselves in a world where a lot of people don’t have the luxury of fasting because they have little access even to essential food and drink, or the luxury of oversleeping because they have no beds, or the luxury of chatter because their life’s entire focus is on survival for themselves and those they love.

Lenten “fasting” of whatever kind is not a grim matter of survival or a grit-your-teeth prospect of weeks of self-chosen minor suffering.  St. Benedict reminds us that Lent is our journey not our destination. As we travel, we our Lenten practices should clear away the clouds of self-preoccupation so that we can  “look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing” (RB 49:7).  In an Easter world, we won’t be plagued by imprisonment in self because the Crucified Christ has freed us to live life to the full in communion with him and with one another.  The word the Bible uses most often to describe real life is, in fact, “joy.”

Blessed Lenten journey then, as we help one another along the road to this life of love and joy! (And enjoy the glimpses God is kind enough to give us as encouragement along the way!)

©2020 Abbey of St. Walburga

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Call of Lent: Purity of Heart

Jesus drew criticism from his opponents because he and his disciples failed to wash their hands and purify themselves and their eating utensils when they came in from the street to eat a meal.  The rebuke was directed at their failure to observe ritual prescriptions, but those prescriptions, like many of the dietary laws inherited from the biblical law codes and their later interpretations by teachers of the law, certainly offered practical protection against disease.  The contemporary lists posted everywhere online about ways to protect ourselves from the corona virus echo that ancient wisdom.  Jesus did not actually tell his listeners not to observe the code for physical protection, but he put them in perspective:  quit worrying about making sure that everything that you take in has been properly purified and pay attention instead to what you put out from the depths of your hearts.  He warned against hearts that produce “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”  His list would make quite an examination of conscience for Lent!

The monastic tradition drew on Jesus’ wisdom in reading human hearts to produce a succinct description of what became the central goal of monastic spirituality:  make your first aim purity of heart.  Unfortunately, more modern spiritualities have sometimes narrowed that down to avoiding impure, that is, sexual thoughts, but as Jesus’ list shows—and he gave several of them, as did St. Paul—the biblical and monastic traditions take a much wider view.  Danish philosopher whittled the various lists down into a simple definition of purity of heart: to will one thing.  St. Benedict, centuries before, identifies that one thing very clearly for his followers: prefer nothing to the love of Christ.  Keep Christ – who is God’s love made flesh—and the love that binds Christ to us and us to Christ right in the forefront, and the rest of the list will take care of itself.  It’s a question of focus and attentiveness, which the monastic tradition calls “mindfulness.”  Easier said than done in our busy world, with attention grabbers bombarding us form every kind of screen and every kind of loudspeaker.  Multitasking, not singleness of focus, will get you to the top, they tell us!  (Behavioral sciences have begun to discredit that bit of wisdom!)

As we enter into the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, we may already have drawn up a worthy list of Lenten resolutions to keep us on the right track, the track of conversion of heart, so that we have a deeper sense of what we mean when we renew our baptismal vows at Easter.  (This is the custom of the Catholic Church among others, but if your church doesn’t offer the opportunity to renew your vows publicly in a church ritual, you can certainly recommit yourself to living the life of Christ in your own prayer.)  But it might not hurt to take a moment on Ash Wednesday to review the list to see how it serves our central priority as Benedictines as well as Christians: keep this one focus before you always—preferring nothing to the love of Christ.

Reading Suggestions:
Mark 7:1-23 and parallels in the other Gospels
Galatians 5:6-26
The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 49.  The entire chapter is devoted to Lent with a focus toward Easter.

Also, Leo Tolstoy left us a story that illustrates the single focus of the pure heart.  It’s called “The Three Hermits.”  You will find it here: Three Hermits--Tolstoy

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Lectio Divina 1

As you can see, this is the first post to be added after a long interval, for which I apologize.  Circumstances beyond my control have changed, so I hope to post much more regularly from now on. 

This is the first in a series of posts on Lectio Divina, the style of prayerful reading of Scripture characteristic of Benedictine prayer.  

What is lectio divina?
Lectio has also been called by the more modern name “slow reading.”  Stories are told of people in situations where they had no access to reading material beyond the book or two currently in their possession. So they read what they had very, very slowly, pausing to chew over each word or sentence before going on to the next one.  And when they had finished, they started over at the beginning.  That’s a bit hard to imagine in a society where reading material overflows shelves, libraries, and web markets to the point that we finally have to admit we will never, ever finish the list of books we want to or think we should read.  It’s not true for everyone of course, but it’s truer for more people now than has ever before been the case.

Early generations of Christian and monastic readers couldn’t have imagined such a plethora of reading materials.  They couldn’t even have imagined the plethora of Bibles we have readily available.  They had to rely on handwritten texts that were few, expensive and fragile.  Or, more often, they had to rely on their own memories to rerun scriptural passages they had heard read in church.  But what they had available, they read and re-read and pondered and drew out deep nourishment for the hungry heart.  They also left us the legacy of lectio divina that developed over time.

Lectio is “slow reading” focused on Scripture or other spiritual classics.  It follows a pattern practiced for centuries before it was finally recorded by a Carthusian monk named Guigo in the twelfth century.  The pattern is very simple:  after you’ve chosen a text (more about that in a later  post), you simply read it.  Perhaps you read a whole passage to start with, perhaps not.  Then you read it again very, very slowly.   (Gather up everything you’ve ever learned about speed reading and lock in a closet in the back of your mind.)  You read your chosen text over and over again, pausing to chew over each word or phrase or sentence before going on to the next one. Early authors compared it with cows chewing their cud.  At some moment in this very patient process, God (sometimes disguised as an anonymous inner inspiration) will likely interrupt with an insight, a thought, a connection that invites you to stop and think about it.  Out of your reading and pondering, you find yourself turning to God in prayer, which may be simple conversation or quiet awareness.  Sometimes the quiet awareness will take over and keep you still in God’s presence for a while, briefly or longer.

That is the general pattern, but it has a thousand exceptions.  It’s a pattern drawn from long years of Christian practice by lay people, clerics, and monastics.  It’s a pattern—not a rule! Sometimes you may find yourself reading—slowly, though!—without any interruption or inspiration at all until the time you’ve set aside comes to an end.  Sometimes a few words will send you off into a long reflection or conversation with God, so that there is no recognizable boundary between reflection and prayer.  Sometimes, you’ll go back and forth among the pieces of the pattern over and over again.  Or sometimes, you’ll be seized by silence right at the start.  Or you’ll be silent for a time and then be drawn to read….You get the picture!  It’s a personal interaction between you and God, not a controlled set of obligatory steps!

The pieces of the pattern came to be identified and named:  lectio (which means reading), meditatio (which means meditation, but more on that in a minute), oratio (prayer) and contemplatio (silent presence).  “Meditatio” requires a little historical footnote.  Originally, it didn’t mean thinking about a text.  It meant reciting it over and over and over in your mind, squeezing the juice out of it simply by reciting it and letting it do its own work.  That could be done during one’s prayer session or while one went about simple manual labor. You might call it getting the text “by heart.”  Meditatio later came to mean reflection, asking the text questions or thinking about the questions the text is asking you.  It can still mean either or both!

There is also a fifth piece of the pattern that is taken for granted but not named.  It’s the takeaway, as we might call it now.  The Word of God doesn’t actually sit still once our prayer time is over.  It tends to come back and tap us on the shoulder from time to time, maybe often, maybe not, as we go about our day.  In other words, the conversation begun in lectio continues.  And the monastic tradition encourages readers to let it, or, better, encourage it!     

Next time: Why lectio?

© 2020 Abbey of St. Walburga