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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.

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.

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