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Benedictine spirituality: monastic living in ordinary life

Thursday February 4 2016

Benedictine spirituality: monastic living in ordinary life

Paul Wilkes, a Catholic writer and teacher, wrote a very helpful book called Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life. He describes his attempt to become a Trappist monk several times during his life. The Trappists are a monastic order based on the principles of Benedict’s Rule. Wilkes spent extended periods of time living at a Trappist monastery, hoping to receive a call from God to monastic life.

Instead he received a call to marriage and parenthood. He continues to spend time regularly at a Trappist monastery located several hours from his home, and the basic disciplines of monastic living have flowed into his everyday life, giving structure, joy, and stability to his family life and his work.

On one recent visit to the monastery, he was daydreaming during a prayer service. His eyes wandered up to a round window high in the cupola of the chapel. Bright white clouds danced across a deep blue sky, and he realized how well he could see the clouds and how bright were the colors because his view was restricted to a little piece of sky. He writes, “Such it is with the monastic life; so restricted, a small, pure peephole on the universe – but what a view! Profound, rich, more than enough for human eyes to behold. We need to restrict the view in order to better see the movement of God; by seeing everything, we see nothing at all.” He saw clearly that his own life, with all its wanderings until he settled down to family life in his late forties, was “living proof of that.”

On another visit, he was struggling with the tepid nature of his experience of God. He felt his prayers were almost always one-sided, too many frantic words directed to God with very few answers in return. He deeply wanted his faith to flow over into his life more and more, but he continued to experience irritation, lack of patience, and anger. He wanted a deeper experience of God that would transform him.

He talked with Paul, a wheelchair-bound monk, about his concerns.

“Don’t go at it so . . . so . . . frontally,” [Paul] said. “God will let you experience his love, but this is never to be desired. That would be prideful. In fact, it can be harmful to approach God so adamantly. Rather, I think,” he said, in a voice of tentative innocence, not that of an expert who as a monk had sought God for almost sixty years, “the whole idea is to cooperate with the little graces every day brings. God lets you know if you are pleasing him or offending him. Monks seek the supernatural, but that is rooted in the natural, in natural relationships, living within the ‘School of Charity.’”

Paul, the monk, goes on to say that we each have our own “school” in which God teaches us, if we will allow it. And that is the genius of the Rule of Benedict and the many monastic groups that follow it. Benedict taught clearly that God is present in everyday life; he speaks to us, teaches us, and gives us “little graces” as we serve, pray, seek to love the people around us, and try to be faithful to what God is teaching us and where God is leading us. Ordinary life overflows with God’s presence, and the disciplines of prayer, service, and thankfulness enable us to experience that presence.

We may have a stereotype of monastic life as somehow holier than our everyday life. In one sense, monks and sisters live a very ordinary life with mundane tasks to do. They are not superhuman or even super-spiritual. However, their commitment to prayer and to their vows enables them to live in a way that calls into question many of the aspects of ordinary life we take for granted. In this increasingly secular, sexualized, and materialistic culture, we can learn much from monastic living to illuminate everyday life outside the monastery.

This is the fourth post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. The earlier posts were
     Embracing structure
     John's story
     Who was Benedict?
Next week focuses on the first vow in Benedict's Rule: stability. Excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife (InterVarsity Press, 2002), copyright © Lynne Baab.

If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.

For further reading:

Paul Wilkes, Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

Timothy Fry, OSB, editor, The Rule of St. Benedict in English (Collegeville, Minn,: The Liturgical Press, 1981).

Elizabeth Canham, Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Nashville: Upper Room, 1999).

Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1989, 1997).

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).

Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids: MI: Brazos Press, 2007).

Gifts of Freedom: The Sabbath and Fasting, article by Lynne Baab that draws on her monastery visits.

Benedictine spirituality: Who was Benedict?

Friday January 29 2016

Benedictine spirituality: Who was Benedict?

Perhaps the current interest in Benedictine community living comes in part because of the parallels between Benedict’s time and ours. Benedict of Nursia lived from about 480 to 547, a time of affluence and sophistication in the Roman Empire. Wealth was used unscrupulously for personal political gain, the gap between the rich and the poor was widening, and the church was infected with controversy and political concerns. Child slavery, prostitution, oppression and injustice permeated society. Barbarian tribes from the north were migrating into the settled, agrarian lands of northern Italy, producing a multicultural society characterized by change and instability.

Our times are not much different.

In his early adulthood in Italy, Benedict became so disillusioned and disgusted with the affluence and decadence of his society that he withdrew to an isolated cave to live a solitary life of prayer. Other people soon joined him for many of the same reasons, and a monastic community began to grow. The Rule of St. Benedict was written to guide the community as its life developed.

The genius of Benedict’s Rule comes from its simplicity and its call back to the basics of scripture, prayer, solitude, community, and service, which transcend political turmoil and cultural upheaval. The Rule offers guidelines for ordinary people living ordinary lives. In the midst of the frenzy of twenty-first century life, the simplicity of Benedict’s priorities can enable us to center our lives in Christ in the midst of the many responsibilities, priorities and commitments that absorb us.

Benedict was by no means the first monk interested in monastic communal living. As early as the second century after Christ, individual Christians left the comforts and stresses of society to pursue a life of solitary prayer in the wilderness. When more Christians joined them, all the issues of community living presented themselves.

Benedict’s Rule was based on earlier writings that gave guidelines for communal Christian living. The Rule of St. Benedict has depth, balance, and a practical orientation that changed the face of spirituality in the Western half of the Christian world.

The Rule, a short book composed of a prologue and 73 brief chapters, addresses everyday topics: work, recreation, food, silence, rest, study, prayer, and the need to listen. There are some sections that proscribe discipline and daily routines in a way that is foreign to us, but much of the Rule is still applicable today for monastic living and presents significant insights even for those of us who are not called to a monastery.

Benedict lays out three monastic vows: stability, conversion of life, and obedience. All of these have practical application in everyday life for any Christian. Benedict believed that we have enough, that God has given us all we need for our daily lives, which helps us slow down our striving and enables us to look for God in the everyday aspects of our daily lives. Benedict calls us to the disciplines of prayer, self-examination, and confession, all of them exercised in community.

Esther de Waal, in Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, writes about the impact of one of Benedict’s priorities:

If I try to follow St. Benedict I find that I have to think about the material things in my life, and that I am being called to establish a right relationship with all my possessions. I see myself as a steward, holding these things in trust, enjoying but not owning them. I find this easier to accept in theory than in practice. But when I do remind myself that all these good things belong to God and not to me, I find that my sense of gratitude for the extraordinary generosity of God brings with it also a sense of freedom. All things are on loan, all things come from God, and that includes my own body as well. I have no rights and I do not possess.

This is the third post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. The earlier posts were
     Benedictine spirituality: embracing structure
     Benedictine spirituality: John's story
Next week focuses on Benedictine spirituality for today. Excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife (InterVarsity Press, 2002), copyright © Lynne Baab.

If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.

For further reading:

Paul Wilkes, Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

Timothy Fry, OSB, editor, The Rule of St. Benedict in English (Collegeville, Minn,: The Liturgical Press, 1981).

Elizabeth Canham, Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Nashville: Upper Room, 1999).

Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1989, 1997).

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).

Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids: MI: Brazos Press, 2007).

Gifts of Freedom: The Sabbath and Fasting, article by Lynne Baab that draws on her monastery visits.

Benedictine spirituality: John’s story

Wednesday January 20 2016

Benedictine spirituality: John’s story

John, 46, is an attorney. He has spent time at two different monasteries, ranging from a few days to a week each time. Here’s how he describes his first visit:

My first monastery experience came six or seven years ago, right before a sabbatical I was taking from my law firm. I experienced a kind of tinderbox tension leading up to the sabbatical, trying to get everything done, trying not to leave too many unfinished projects for others to complete. As I drove home from work that last day, I was still dictating letters and leaving voicemails on my car phone.

As I drove to the monastery the next day, I was revved on coffee, full of energy, and playing loud music on my car stereo. As I followed the road up the hill to the monastery through the cool woods, I could feel myself unwind. There’s an open place at the top, where the breeze was blowing. I sat in my car, feeling the quiet. Under the quiet, I could feel waves and waves of fatigue. Under the fatigue, I could feel waves and waves of emptiness.

In my week at the monastery, God showed his love to me.

In Benedict’s Rule, there is no vow of silence, but there is a presumption against speaking. Speech is reserved for necessary things only, and there is a healthy understanding of the dangers of the tongue.

During my week at the monastery, I had a few mealtime conversations, but by and large I didn’t talk to anyone for a week. In the space where words would have been, there was room for God.

The silence didn’t scare me like it might have at a younger age. As you get older, you just get worn out from the noise. Life exhausts you. The pace exhausts you. So you are drawn to a place where you perceive it might be different, where it might be quiet.

It doesn’t mean it was necessarily easy. God was working with me that week. There were tears even as I was journaling.

I noted the role work plays in a monastery. To an outsider, it’s clear that work is a minor part of the picture. It’s a way to fill time between prayer services, a way for the monks to support themselves, a way to fill in the edges between what’s important.

At the monastery I visited, the monks attend a series of seven prayer services every day, beginning at 5:30 a.m. and ending at 7:00 p.m. These prayer services created an incredible sense of rhythm for me. I knew I would be anchored in prayer continually. The services integrated God into the whole day. And it seemed that for the monks, their lives are knit together into one whole, not fragmented. They work in order to be able to pray. My life at home – work, family, PTA, church – it has God over top of it all, but it still seems fragmented. I pray in order to be able to work.

I was struck by the monks’ approach to time. It is not adversarial. While I was at the monastery, God was showing me that I always fight time, trying to manage it, buy it, control it. I have too much time or too little time. I’m always struggling with it. The monks always seem to have enough time, just the right amount of time. No one rushes. They live in a rhythm that seems unforced.

I enjoyed the sense of rhythm. The monks go back and forth between work and prayer and rest. Time is seen as rhythmical rather than linear. It was clear to me that in our everyday lives we try to control time with our schedules.

At one meal I had an interesting conversation with a monk who works in the book bindery at the monastery. I asked him, “What if you were trying meet a Fed Ex deadline, and the bells rang for the prayer service? What would you do? Would you keep on working to meet the deadline? Would you choose to miss the deadline and go to the prayer service? How would you decide?”

The monk looked at me as if I were out of my mind. They really don’t understand the drive to squeeze things in because they don’t live that way.

 

This is the second post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. The first post was Benedictine spirituality: embracing structure. Next week focuses on Benedict, the person who lies behind the tradition.

For further reading:

Paul Wilkes, Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

Timothy Fry, OSB, editor, The Rule of St. Benedict in English (Collegeville, Minn,: The Liturgical Press, 1981).

Elizabeth Canham, Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Nashville: Upper Room, 1999).

Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1989, 1997).

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).

Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids: MI: Brazos Press, 2007).

Gifts of Freedom: The Sabbath and Fasting, article by Lynne Baab that draws on her monastery visits.

Excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife (InterVarsity Press, 2002), copyright © Lynne Baab. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.

Benedictine spirituality: embracing structure

Wednesday January 13 2016

Benedictine spirituality: embracing structure

“I’ve decided to come with you to the monastery again this year. Last year I was able to pray there in a way I’ve never experienced before.”

For a half dozen years, I took a group of women from our congregation to a Benedictine monastery for women in Idaho for a weekend. Every time I walked into the monastery, I had a strong sense that people had prayed in this place for many, many years, and that I would be able to pray there too. I was glad when one of the young women at church confirmed my experience.

Every year we toured the monastery so first-time visitors could get a sense of the space and the structure. One year the sister who was giving us a tour said that Benedictine life is all about sacred places and sacred times, and indeed it is the serenity of place and the rhythm of time that are most noticeable to a visitor. I have stayed in numerous Benedictine monasteries. Two of them were housed in large building with “chapels” that looked like small cathedrals. On the opposite end of the spectrum was a monastery in a large house with a chapel in the basement. What they have in common is a sense of the space being consecrated to prayer and to prayerful work.

What’s also striking about Benedictine monasteries is the schedule of prayer services. Some have the traditional seven services each day, some five, some two or three, but in every case, the prayer services – also called the divine office or liturgy of the hours – set a rhythm for daily life.

In addition, immediately visible is the spirit of hospitality. According to Benedict, guests are to be welcomed as if they are Christ himself. Most monasteries devote space to guest quarters, and they expect that hosting guests will be a significant ministry for them.

The priorities of prayer and hospitality are rooted in the Rule of St. Benedict, a foundation that lies behind much monastic life today. Benedict’s balanced view of life calls monks and sisters to a rhythm and order that are visible when visiting a monastery. It may seem that these monastic patterns have nothing to do with the ordinary daily life that most of us experience at our jobs or in our families. Yet many people young and old have talked with me about the ways they have been impacted by visits to monasteries. They have enjoyed the quiet and reflection while they are there, and they have also carried something significant back home with them.

The popularity of Kathleen Norris’s books is one indication of a growing awareness that we have something important to learn from the monastic tradition. Norris writes in several of her books about her experiences staying at Benedictine monasteries. What she has learned in those visits has spilled over into her daily life. In the post for next week, John’s story, we will see the way the visit to a monastery called him to reexamine several aspects of his daily life.

Question to ponder for the week: what are the structures of your life that nurture your spiritual development?

For further reading:

Paul Wilkes, Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

Timothy Fry, OSB, editor, The Rule of St. Benedict in English (Collegeville, Minn,: The Liturgical Press, 1981).

Elizabeth Canham, Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Nashville: Upper Room, 1999).

Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1989, 1997).

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).

Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids: MI: Brazos Press, 2007).

Gifts of Freedom: The Sabbath and Fasting, article by Lynne Baab that draws on her monastery visits.

Excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife (InterVarsity Press, 2002), copyright © Lynne Baab. Photo: St. Gertrude's Monastery, Cottonwood, Idaho. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.

Two postures for entering into the New Year

Wednesday January 6 2016

Two postures for entering into the New Year

What do I need to remember as I enter 2016? What do I need to embrace for a fresh start in a new year? Here are two foundational ideas or postures that I’m hoping will shape 2016 for me. “Posture” implies a way of standing, and I hope I can stand firm in these two truths.

1. I am beloved. Henri Nouwen talks about being beloved more vividly than anyone else I’ve read. In his wonderful book, The Life of the Beloved, he writes:

Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say, or do. . . . What is required is to become the Beloved in the commonplaces of my daily existence and, bit by bit, to close the gap that exists between what I know myself to be and the countless specific realities of everyday life. Becoming the Beloved is pulling the truth revealed to me from above into the ordinariness of what I am, in fact, thinking of, talking about, and doing from hour to hour (pages 45 and 46).

I love that he discusses the “gap that exists between what I know myself to be” as God’s beloved and “the countless specific realities of everyday life.” God’s love is described so vividly in the Bible, and it pours into my life in so many ways, yet so often I don’t feel it or dwell in it. It’s so easy to feel self-critical. The task, according to Nouwen, is to pull “the truth revealed to me from above into the ordinariness” of daily life.

This is not necessarily easy, and I’m so glad he affirms the challenge. In the middle of the quotation above, he writes that this “entails a long and painful process of appropriation or, better, incarnation.” In 2016 I want to grow in beginning each day from a place of belovedness that flows into daily life. I want to see belovedness incarnated in my life more and more each day. I am God’s beloved child and I want to live that way.

2. I am sent. My second foundational attitude or posture for 2016 comes from the benediction Pastor Doug Kelly says most Sundays at Seattle’s Bethany Presbyterian Church: “You go nowhere by accident. Everywhere you go, God has a purpose for your being there.”[1]

Our word “mission” comes from the Latin “missio,” which means sent. In his prayer for all believers, Jesus says, “As the Father sent me into the world, so I send you into the world” (John 17:18). We have been sent into the world as Jesus was sent, so it’s true that we go nowhere by accident. (If you'd like to read more about being sent, I highly recommend Sentness: Six Postures for Missional Christians by my friend Darren Cronshaw and Kim Hammond.)

So God has a purpose for us wherever we go, even in the moments when that purpose seems quite small or insignificant. What is that purpose? Here are some of the ways I would describe it:

To be faithful to God’s call each day.
To show God’s love to the people around me as much as possible.
To be God’s agent of reconciliation in as many settings as possible.
To abide in Christ so that I can bear the lasting fruit God wants me to bear.

I want to go into 2016 knowing I am beloved and knowing I have been sent to exactly the place where I am. I want to follow God’s guidance and fulfill God’s purposes as much as I can, resting in the fact that I am God’s beloved child.

As you enter 2016, here are some questions to reflect on:

1. In what settings do you know deep inside that you are God’s beloved? Make plans to go to those places often in 2016.

2. What are the biggest obstacles to knowing you are beloved? With whom could you talk and pray about those obstacles?

3. If someone asked you, “what is your purpose in Christ,” how would you answer?

4. What are the biggest obstacles you experience to knowing you go nowhere by accident? With whom could you talk and pray about those obstacles?

(If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog. Illustration: Lynne Baab at age four, watercolor by Dave Baab.)

[1] Doug Kelly's benediction comes from Richard Halverson, former chaplain of the U.S. Senate. Halverson's benediction went like this: "You go nowhere by accident. Wherever you go, God is sending you. Wherever you are, God has put you there. God has a purpose in your being there. Christ lives in you and has something he wants to do through you where you are. Believe this and go in the grace and love and power of Jesus Christ." When corresponding with Doug Kelly about this blog post, Doug wrote: "I heard the benediction at a conference where the speaker had met with Halverson at the end of his time at a church and he asked him what was the most impactful thing he had given his church.  Halverson thought it was probably this benediction."

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