Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sequestered ... but not really

It is very strange - or ironic - that after my first visit to a monastery (Subiaco Abbey and Academy in Subiaco AR), I returned home with a severe case of pink eye in which one eye was so enflamed and swollen nearly shut. Yet I found my "inner" eye opened to a certain spiritual reality: rank-and-file Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, seem not nearly as attuned to our Lord as we like to believe ourselves to be. And unfairly compared with a Benedictine monastery, one might be inclined to suggest that no realistic comparison can be made. Benedictine monks, after all, are devoted to the religious life. It is, according to our cultural vernacular, their "job" to be religious while we on the outside have "real jobs" which as a matter of professional survival must be our primary focus.

Fair enough, but not really. In the more appropriate context of what is truly important in this life, we can take some very comforting - and radical, according to our contemporary society - lessons from the Benedictines that will serve us very well not only within our own family structures but, perhaps more importantly, within our church family structures as well. If it is true, as some have suggested, that undue stress is a precursor to poor health, it might be notable that what we are entirely too familiar with, as stress factors go, is virtually unknown in the monastic community.

None of this is to say that such a life is ideal or that anyone can simply choose such a life, of course, because even monks are human beings with the same inclinations. They live within a physical structure of flesh and bone just as we do. They work as we work, and they have conflicts among their own monastic families as we do in our biological families - and church families. Surely to goodness they have the same lustful inclinations toward the flesh as we do. What they also have, which most of us may be lacking, is a clear calling, spiritual gifts you and I cannot begin to imagine, and a sense of divine purpose equal to none.

The monastic movement came about in the early 6th century and is credited to St. Benedict of Nursia who, strangely enough, founded monasteries in Subiaco, Italy, about 40 miles to the east of Rome. St. Benedict was a child of nobility and could have easily found his life as one of privilege and leisure, but clearly the Lord had something else in mind. It is said by Pope St. Gregory who wrote a biography of sorts, however, that Benedict showed signs of piety in early adulthood and is believed to have been led away to what would become to this day an enduring 1500-year tradition of contemplative prayer and service, after surrendering his nobles rights and substantial estates.

Some sources suggest there is no evidence to support the idea that St. Benedict intended to found a religious order, that the Order of St. Benedict came much later than the man himself. What Benedict did do with consideration intention is to write The Rule of Benedict which endures to this day. In its English translation it is a mere 96 pages and is more inclined to guidance rather than to hard-and-fast rules for every situation that may arise. And while you and I may feel some "pity" for the monks who seem sequestered from the "real world" and "trapped" within a community governed by overbearing and unrealistic rules and regulations, one cannot help but to discover through The Rulethe incredible spiritual freedom that seems to come from a life totally devoted to the Lord, His will, and His way.

For instance, it was noted by author Kathleen Norris in her book, The Cloister Walk, that the Liturgy of the Hours, the Benedictines' devotional prayer time, is recognized as "the sanctification of time ... 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." This liturgical time is "poetic time oriented toward PROCESS rather than PRODUCTIVITY. [It is time] willing to wait attentively in stillness rather than always pushing to get the job done." The "job", of course, being to cover a certain amount of biblical literature in a certain and predefined amount of time.

The main premise of the monastic life, however, is in learning to live an entirely Christ-centered existence within a communal setting. The Lord is not incidental to anything; He is primary to everything, but everything is within that communal context - that is, the absolute reality of living and dealing with all kinds of people. For instance, chapter one of The Rule states: "It is well known that there are four kinds of monks. The first kind is that of Cenobites, that is, the monastic, who live under a rule and an Abbot.
The second kind is that of Anchorites, or Hermits, that is, of those who, no longer in the first fervor of their conversion, but taught by long monastic practice and the help of many brethren, have already learned to fight against the devil; and going forth from the rank of their brethren well trained for single combat in the desert, they are able, with the help of God, to cope single-handed without the help of others, against the vices of the flesh and evil thoughts.
But a third and most vile class of monks is that of Sarabaites, who have been tried by no rule under the hand of a master, as gold is tried in the fire (cf Prov 27:21); but, soft as lead, and still keeping faith with the world by their works, they are known to belie God by their tonsure. Living in two's and three's, or even singly, without a shepherd, enclosed, not in the Lord's sheepfold, but in their own, the gratification of their desires is law unto them; because what they choose to do they call holy, but what they dislike they hold to be unlawful.
But the fourth class of monks is that called Landlopers, who keep going their whole life long from one province to another, staying three or four days at a time in different cells as guests. Always roving and never settled, they indulge their passions and the cravings of their appetite, and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites. It is better to pass all these over in silence than to speak of their most wretched life.
Therefore, passing these over, let us go on with the help of God to lay down a rule for that most valiant kind of monks, the Cenobites."

It would be easy to suggest Benedict is insisting that those who reject the monastic life are unworthy of spiritual consideration, but I think he was speaking much more broadly to the WHOLE CHURCH and not to any single monastery. Communal living is a reality for us all. Even as Benedict lived in a cave, he insisted in his Rule that hospitality to guests was of the utmost importance. Monks are not sequestered from the world. As was my observation at Subiaco, they are in fact praying for the world. In the most profound sense, they are truly and fully invoking the Lord's Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours. After my first session with them in afternoon prayers, I was left with a keen sense that if these and other monks the world over were not stopping to pray and contemplate the Psalms, the devil would have already turned this world upside down. I was left with an incredible sense of well-being that these devoted men were themselves the "gatekeepers" against whom the very "gates of Hades shall not prevail" (Matthew 16:18).

The Benedictines are not miracle workers in any sense of the word even though there are miracles attributed to St. Benedict which led to his veneration. They pray, as Jesus commands all His faithful to pray, that the Father's will be done - "on earth as it is in heaven". They contemplate in silence, in the "poetry of time", to allow themselves to be permeated by the Holy Scripture rather than to brag that they've read the whole Bible in a year. They are most mindful of the little things even as we are reminded of the big things that threaten to overwhelm us. Above all else, they offer to us a "glimpse of who we can be when we remember to love" ... to love the Lord God first "with all we have and with all we are".

The Lord bless the Benedictines of Subiaco AR as they have surely blessed me and so many others.

1 comment:

cherie b said...

Nice, Mike. Enjoyed it much!

P.S. So sorry you ended up sick!