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Benedictine spirituality: hospitality, service and work

Thursday March 3 2016

Benedictine spirituality: hospitality, service and work

As John pointed out in his story about visiting a Benedictine monastery, work and prayer are linked in monastic life in a compelling way. Benedict, with his very practical view of life, saw clearly that most people find it very difficult to pray all day long. Work is the best way to fill the time when not praying. And yet work is more than something to fill time or make money; work is the fruit of prayer, a sacrifice to God, and a way to make Christ known in the world.

How greatly this view of work differs from the view that predominates in Western culture! Our culture encourages us to believe that our value and worth lie in our work. We are urged by our culture to a kind of franticness about work; more is always better and it takes a concerted effort to push towards ever-increasing productivity.

Writing about monastic living in her book Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris notes that “in our culture, time can seem like an enemy: it chews us up and spits us out with appalling ease. But the monastic perspective welcomes time as a gift from God, and seeks to put it to good use rather than allowing us to be used up by it.”The peaceful attitude toward work described by so many when they visit monasteries flows out of the monastic sense of time: if God calls us to do something, there will be enough time to do it, because God is the Lord of time. This perspective feels like cool water in a desert land for those people at midlife who are overwhelmed, overworked, and just plain too busy.

Hospitality is one kind of work that most monasteries embrace. Benedict put a high value on hospitality, urging monks and sisters to view strangers as Christ himself coming to stay. Guests are to be received as they are and for who they are. There is no mandate to require guests to participate in any of the monastery’s activities. At the same time, there is no interruption of the monastery’s rhythm because of the presence of guests.

This style of exercising hospitality again demonstrates the kind of balance that Benedict taught: welcoming people just as they are, while continuing to exercise the personal and communal disciplines that God has set forth. I see a great challenge for my own life in this kind of hospitality. When I try to welcome people into my home or into my life, I often give up too much of myself and my own priorities in the process. I love the challenge of Benedictine hospitality that calls me to a kind of serenity as I open my life to others, all the while keeping hold of the disciplines and patterns God has called me to.

In recent years, many new books on hospitality have appeared, linking hospitality to Christian ministry. These books have helped many to realize how precious are our times with family and friends. In addition, as we realize that many of our blessings are not shared by others, we can grow in extending hospitality to those who cannot reciprocate. In the midst of frantic, overscheduled days, a commitment to hospitality can be difficult to embrace. Yet the simplicity of a conversation over a meal continues to be attractive and can help us connect with values that come from deep inside our hearts and souls.

This is the eighth post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. The earlier posts were
     Embracing Structure
     John's Story    
     Who was Benedict?   
     Monastic living in ordinary life    
     The first vow, stability      
    
The second vow, conversion of life
     The third vow, obedience    

Next week focuses on paradox and balance in Benedictine spirituality. 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: the third vow, obedience

Thursday February 25 2016

We saw the significant role listening plays in fulfilling the vow of stability,Benedict's first vow: God calls us to listen to his voice in this place and in the midst of these commitments. In addition, we cannot embrace Benedict's second vow, conversion of life, without listening to God’s leading. Listening is also at the center of third vow, the vow of obedience.

We may think that a monk or a nun has a commitment to obedience that is totally different than ours because they are called to obey the instructions of the head of their monastery. What lies behind their obedience to the abbess or abbot is a very simple understanding of the call of all Christians to obey God.

Esther de Waal writes that that obedience is about listening, responding, and acting on what we hear. Obedience, she believes,

is no more than listening to God – and listening is after all the way in which the Rule opens. Listen is the very first word of the Rule: listening in its fullest sense, listening with every fibre of my being; listening in all the ways in which God is trying to reach me. This will not only be in words (though a dialogue with God through the scriptures, through daily reading, and particularly through the psalms, is very central to Benedictine life). But also listening through the people whose lives touch mine; through the things I touch and handle; through moments of grace. Do I really take this as seriously as I should? Do I not in fact so often take for granted God’s amazing generosity?

Elizabeth Canham also stresses the connection between listening and obedience: “The kind of listening Benedict calls for is a deep hearing that moves beyond understanding with the mind to a willingness for the heart to be moved. Because ear and heart are inextricably connected, obedience to God’s call follows.” She also observes, “We do not readily embrace obedience, and we often expend a great deal of energy in attempts to avoid doing what is required of us. Obedience is hard work (Saint Benedict calls it labor), for it demands of us a searching honesty about our willfulness and challenges our claims of independence.”

What does this kind of obedience look like in practice? It includes faithfulness to commitments and thankfulness for God’s generosity. It may involve hearing God’s call in small things, such as making a phone call to someone experiencing a loss or apologizing for something relatively trivial but potentially hurtful. Obedience may involve a significant life change, such as moving across the country to take a new job or caring for a relative in a costly way.

When we talk about obedience, we must be careful not to put too much emphasis on our own efforts to obey. We are being transformed into Christ’s image, and it is Christ in us – through the Holy Spirit – whowill enable us to obey. Listening to God for guidance, resting in the power of the Spirit, relying on God to help us obey as Christ did will all be essential as we strive to fulfill the vow of obedience.

For those of us who inhabit the twenty-first century, the vow of obedience may be the most foreign of the Benedictine vows. We can understand God’s call to stability, to look for God here in the midst of ourcommitments. We can understand God’s call to conversion of life because we generally embrace growth towards wholeness. But obedience calls for a kind of submission that may feel foreign to the “Me Generation”and to the generations that follow.

Esther de Waal points out that all three of Benedict’s vows help us to be human but also help us to orient our lives away from ourselves,

away from that subtle temptation of self-fascination and self-discovery. They challenge any spirituality from becoming yet one more expression of the contemporary obsession with the self, with self-awareness, with self-fulfilment. Instead they point me to Christ. Christ the Rock on which I build, Christ the Way I follow, Christ the Word I hear. If I am to put Christ at the center, as St. Benedict would have me to, that then displaces me from the centre.

De Waal goes on to say that even in the context of the Christian faith, we so often put ourselves at the center, focusing on our own obedience and faithfulness, how well we are serving God, whether or not we are being “good,” how much we are attempting to please God. If we truly begin to put Christ’s love at the center, then we can live in a receptive stance, ready to receive love as well as guidance about what to do.As we long for significance and meaning, Benedict’s priorities can help us see that true significance and meaning come from putting Christ at the center, rather than keeping ourselves there.

The Benedictine viewpoint sees listening and obedience as a part of an interplay between God and humans. This kind of obedience does not involve effort or strain on our part to be good or to do the right thing. Obedience flows out of communication and relationship. Even more significantly, obedience is the fruit of receiving God’s love.

 

This is the seventh post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. The earlier posts were
     Embracing Structure
     John's Story    
     Who was Benedict?   
     Monastic living in ordinary life    
     The first vow, stability      
    
The second vow, conversion of life 

Next week focuses on the role of hospitality, service and work in Benedictine spirituality. 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: the second vow, conversion of life

Thursday February 18 2016

Benedictine spirituality: the second vow, conversion of life

Benedict’s second vow nicely balances his first vow, stability. We are called, according to the Rule, to embrace conversion of life. While we commit ourselves to look faithfully for God in the places and routines we are committed to (the vow of stability), we also must allow God to open us to change and growth (the vow of conversion of life).

We often use the word “conversion” to refer to the specific point when a person turns away from their former way of life and turns toward God. Benedict used it differently. Benedict saw “conversion” both as a moment in time when we turn towards God and also as a continual process of growth. He believed that movement toward God may begin with one turning, but it must continue with the many small choices of daily living.

Paul Wilkes defines conversion of life as “a continuing and unsparing assessment and reassessment of one’s self and what is important and valuable in life.” Benedict, Wilkes writes, “saw conversion as a continuing process, one punctuated with more failures than successes.”

Conversion of life involves listening to the people around us and truly hearing what they see in us that needs changing. Conversion of life includes embracing conflict as a way in which God teaches us about the parts of ourselves that need to be changed. It involves honestly facing our own faults that hurt others, and constantly turning to God for healing and forgiveness.

Esther de Waal, inLiving with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, affirms the value of Benedict’s “very simple message that we all need to hear: being committed to God is not about being nice. It is about being real.” Conversion of life calls us to rigorous self-honesty, which involves a humility and openness that listens hard to the people around us as they help us see ourselves more clearly. The same humility and openness enables us to listen to God.

De Waal points out the amazing balance in Benedictine spirituality between time in community and time spent alone. Monks and sisters in most orders work and worship in community, yet also spend time each day in the discipline of meditation on scripture. The daily prayer services also provide a healthy balance of communal prayer and time to reflect. The services involve the singing and reading of lots of Scripture, particularly the Psalms. The repetition of Psalms, week in and week out, provides a rhythm that allows for personal reflection during the daily services. The variety of emotions presented in the Psalms also encourages personal honesty.

Several writers on Benedictine spirituality liken the repetition of the psalms in the liturgy of the hours to the waves on a beach, a constant background rhythm that encourages people to go deeper inside their own thoughts, bathed in the presence of God. Conversion of life is simply not possible without reflection and prayer.

Being open to inward repentance, growth and change while being faithful in this place with these people  . . . that’s the balance provided by the partner vows of stability and conversion of life. Many busy Christians articulate that same challenge, perhaps using different words, but facing the same issues: “How can I grow and develop as a person in the midst of all the commitments of my life? I’ve got a house, a family, a job, a dog, a garden, and aging parents. Yet I want to go deeper in my faith. I want to find more meaning and significance in my faith. Can I do that?” Benedict would answer, “Yes, you can.”

In order to experience conversion of life, we must first believe that God desires that we grow and develop throughout our life, in all stages, even if we feel inundated with responsibilities and commitments. We must take place sufficient emphasis on conversion of life to make time for at least some of the aspects of the balanced life that Benedict recommends: prayer, work, study, and rest. We must understand that growth will certainly be challenging and may even be painful. We will have to let go of our culture’s emphasis that everything should be easy. Aswe long for meaning, we will have to understand that it doesn’t come without some degree of discipline. Benedict’s third vow, obedience, helps us understand some of the discipline required.

 

This is the sixth post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. The earlier posts were
     Embracing Structure
     John's Story    
     Who was Benedict?   
     Monastic living in ordinary life    
     The first vow, stability

Next week focuses on the third vow in Benedict's Rule: obedience. 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: the first vow, stability

Friday February 12 2016

Benedictine spirituality: the first vow, stability

The first vow laid out in Benedict’s Rule is stability. To a monk or sister, it means being committed to stay in this particular monastic house with these particular people. It means being willing to look for God here in the constancy of this place in this rhythm of life, rather than seeking God in ever-changing places and varied routines.

In Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life, Paul Wilkes calls stability a “sense of where you are,” and he believes that our disjointed lives and fragmented society present ample evidence that we desperately need to embrace stability. “What was needed, Benedict taught, was maddeningly simple. It was a commitment to trust in God’s goodness – that he was indeed there, in that very place; and that holiness, happiness, and human fulfillment were to be found, not tomorrow or over the hill, but here – today.”

Wilkes argues that a sense of stability offers a resting place, but that we must not understand stability to mean that we can never change. Because life is a journey, there will always be transitions and changes. Stability, Wilkes believes, “is woven of the ability to stay put and yet never lose the explorer’s desire for new experiences. . . . Stability’s goal is that we might see the inner truth of who we are and what we are going. That we might be still long enough to be joined intimately to the God who dwells within. . . . It is difficult – no, it is impossible – to find and maintain that center if our waking hours are a blur of mindless activity, without the presence and practice of stability in our lives.”

Stability, for those of us not living in the monastic rhythm of prayer services, can mean a commitment to daily, weekly or monthly prayer disciplines. A weekly Sabbath observance and attending church each week can be part of our expression of stability. Faithful demonstrations of family commitments are connected to stability. For the first thirty years of my adult life, I called or wrote my parents every week, and I now understand that rhythm to be part of the structure of stability that keeps me healthy. Faithfulness to our marriage vows, checking in regularly on our neighbors, and consistent attempts to affirm and listen to our co-workers can all be expressions of a commitment to stability, as we realize on a deep level that this is the field where God has planted us and called us to bear fruit.

Benedict calls us to listen as a part of the vow of stability. The Rule says, “Listen with the ears of your heart, for the Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teachings.” We need to listen to the scriptures in order to know God’s teaching. We need to listen to the Holy Spirit, to teach us how to apply God’s truth. We need to listen to our own lives, so we can understand the ways God is speaking to us in this day, in this place.

Retreat director Elizabeth Canham, in Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Today, talks about the fact that so often when we feel any pain, we immediately choose the appropriate medication to ease it. Sometimes, she believes, God speaks to us through our fatigues and headaches and muscle aches, revealing to us the lack of balance and health in our lives. If we immediately medicate ourselves with drugs or caffeine, we lose the opportunity to hear God speak. We need to learn to listen more deeply to the negative and irritating things in our daily lives in order to hear God speak to us through every part of daily living.

Canham also points out that the willingness to wait is a part of the vow of stability. Waiting, she says, is difficult for us because “it reminds us that we have not yet arrived, that we are unfinished.” Waiting frequently compounds our fears and doubts. Canham believes that we must embrace waiting, in part because, “Waiting is also God-like. Scripture bears witness to the God who waits again and again for the right moment to act in the life of a community or an individual. That waiting is especially poignant as God takes flesh in the body of a young woman and becomes subject to the nine months of pregnancy.”

Canham notes that often we become discouraged as we wait, wondering if God will ever answer our prayers. She believes that our faith and prayer will grow as we honestly acknowledge the turmoil of inner emotions that we experience when waiting. We will grow in ability to rest in stability. She notes that the psalms are full of allusions to waiting, which can encourage us as we learn to wait in hope.

The Benedictine vow of stability can be affirming and encouraging as we enter into the second, third, fourth, fifth or even sixth decade in the same marriage, the same job, the same church, or the same town. We need to be reminded of the significance in God’s eyes of continuity and faithfulness.

A few commitments, a few essential disciplines can help us stay where we are and look for God in that place. We don’t have to do everything. We can rest in the limited view out the round window of the cupola, because we know that we will actually see the sky more clearly when we see only a part of it. (For more on the metaphor of the limited view outside the window, see last week's post.)

This is the fifth post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. The earlier posts were
     Embracing structure
     John's story
     Who was Benedict?
     Monastic living in ordinary life

Next week focuses on the second vow in Benedict's Rule: conversion of life. Excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife (InterVarsity Press, 2002), copyright © Lynne Baab. Illustration by Dave 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: 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.

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