Monday, January 18, 2021

Stability in Unstable Times

Every day, we read new stories of angry violence.  Every day we see new figures of the pandemic’s cost in terms of human life, and we hear of unpredictable mutations.  Every day we hear of natural catastrophes--fire, storm, floods, earthquakes. Our swiftly changing world seems to become a quagmire of quicksand everywhere. 

The Benedictine commitment to stability offers guidance through circumstances both familiar and unexpected.  At heart, it reflects the steadfast fidelity the psalms we pray daily find in God.  It invites us very simply to live our convictions faithfully day by day into an unknown future.

The psalmists often describe God as a rock.  What better image than that could we hold before as we pray as we face all these constantly shifting sands?  God is the ultimate stability. God has always been there and will always be there from time immemorial to time unimaginable. God is always protecting us from the monsters who have emerged into the light of day from under the bed and in the closet where they lived when we were children. God is always loving us now into the future beyond the currents that seem to be consuming all normality.   Because we tend to imagine safety as an untroubled life unthreatened by suffering or death, we may have a hard time recognizing this ever-protective Rock, but stability includes the commitment to stand on it, take refuge in it, and believe in it even in darkness.  The psalms can strengthen us in this stable conviction as we pray them over and over.  Why not pick out your favorite psalms or your favorite lines and write them down somewhere you can see them easily?

We don’t live our stability alone.  Benedictine life is always essentially communal, even when no one seems to be around.  We were made in God’s image, so let us be Rock for one another and for those around us, as they may be for us.  The prophet Isaiah said of God’s faithful: “Each of them will be like a shelter from the wind, a refuge from the rain. They will be like streams of water in a dry country, like the shade of a great rock in a parched land” (Isaiah 32:1-2). We have a constant example in Christ himself, whom St. Paul described as the Rock in the desert (1 Corinthians 10:4). Our Rock, in our desert.

And Jesus, the Word of God, tells us that our one real security is to build our house, our lives on him, the foundation that is immovable rock (Matthew 6:47-49; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:10-11).

So let us pray for one another and encourage one another.  As the Rock—God, Christ, God’s Word -- becomes more real to us, let us help others to take refuge in it too. As we pray the psalms here at the Abbey, we keep you in our thoughts and prayers often.  I think Jesus might say, as he did to the disciples on occasion, “Go and do likewise.”  (And please include us in those prayers!)

©2021 Abbey of St. Walburga

Monday, January 11, 2021

Down with Idols!

At first glance, the rant of prophet and psalmist against the worship of idols might seem out of date to contemporary readers.  A little reflection, though, tells us that it is as current as can be.  “Idol” is defined in modern dictionaries as a representation of an object of worship, carrying the connotation of “false god”.  Nowadays, with religious idolatry a matter of concern only to select circles,  it is more common to see the title “idol” attached to any person who attracts adulation, regardless of personal qualities, or any perceived good that determines how we live our lives.  Idols are identified by their popularity rather than by what they represent.  A movie star might be an idol, sometimes for no apparent reason, certainly not acting talent. Wealth or power might be a goal to which we render obedience and devote our lives as to a god.  These idols and their implications for people’s lives make countless appearances in the media, enhancing their power over people’s thoughts and behavior, no less than did the idols of Egypt in the days of the Pharaohs, though normally no one would consider them real divinities. 

 The idol we recognize less often is more dangerous.  The psalmist warns, “Pagan idols are silver and gold,/ the work of human hands. They have mouths but they do not speak; /they have eyes but they do not see./ They have ears but they do not hear; /there is never a breath on their lips./ Their makers will come to be like them, and so will all who trust in them!” (Psalm 135:15-18) Think about these idols not in the usual sense of statues or even all-consuming goals, but as the images we have used as models, creating selves made false and rendered lifeless, There are many means at hand to disguise ourselves behind exteriors of silver and gold, the work of our own hands, or the hands of others—makeup, clothing, plastic surgery, clothing designed to convey a desired image, styles of speech or accents not the ones we grew up with, letters after our names, a certain house, a certain car, even appearances of piety.  We have learned how to look good to our chosen audience—parents, children, teachers, employers, co-workers, neighbors, voters, whoever’s good opinion we have come to value above our own integrity.  But skill does not supply reality. The image is an illusion, not the living, breathing human being we really are—or were.  In this case, we have ourselves become idols to ourselves.

 In most cases,  fortunately, we don’t remake ourselves over entirely by the pattern of false images.  But we can take on the bits and pieces of the images and so, to some degree, falsify ourselves. And, with God’s help and the intervention of people who love us as we are, we can outgrow the falsity as we mature. If we look back at the teenager or the twenty-something or the ambitious “newbie” we once were, we can breathe a sigh of relief at having left that “self” behind!

 St. Benedict offers us two powerful tool for abandoning self-falsification and self-worship. The first is humility, which he presents as a process rather than a finished achievement (RB 7).  He might have rooted it in an earlier line:  “Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so” (RB 4:62).  The hidden trick is that if we truly become holy, we will no longer worry about another person’s opinion or seek to make ourselves  look better to impress others because our life will be devoted to Christ who is himself our “truth” (cf. John 14:6), a truth far greater than we alone could ever become.  In a larger sense Benedict’s directive really calls us to be who we truly are right now and seek to become who we will ultimately really be in the next life by the power of God, our real Creator., not some hollow image we have made of ourselves according to some pattern we have thought might be to our advantage.   Each real self is unique.  There are no duplicates in the reign of God, only vivid originals.

 The second tool, more surprisingly, is community in whatever broad sense our way of life provides.  Surrounding ourselves with others committed to the same quest for God as we are, the same values as we aspire to live, and the same ultimate goal we are pursuing, as oblates do, is the best way to protect ourselves from the falsities that might tempt all of us.  A network like this binds us to people who love us enough to offer us inspiration, encouragement, and, yes, honest feedback to keep us on the path integrity. And it invites us to do the same for them.  Human truth is never simply individual; it is always shared in Christ, belong as we all do to the Body of Christ.

 Believe it or not, with Christmas now behind us, Lent is not too far ahead.  Ash Wednesday this year is February 16.  We need not wait.  We could start now to tear down whatever idols we have made of our own gifts, talents, or empty dreams.   How small, tacky and tarnished they appear next to the reality seen in the bright light of Christ!  God much prefers the real thing. So do the people who genuinely love us.  And so, in our best moments, do we. 

 Copyright 2021, Abbey of St. Walburga