Saturday, July 11, 2009

Benedict of Nursia: The Layman Who Founded a Monastic Movement

"Listen carefully, my son, to the master's instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord. First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to him most earnestly to bring it to perfection...

Let us get up then, at long last, for the Scriptures rouse us when they say: 'It is high time for us to arise from sleep' (Rom 13:11). Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: 'If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts' (Ps 94 [95]:8). And again, 'You that have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches' (Rev 2:7). And what does he say? 'Come and listen to me, sons; I will teach you the fear of the Lord' (Ps 33 [34]:12).

Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death may not overtake you (John 12:35). Seeking his workman in a multitude of people, the Lord calls out to him and lifts his voice again: 'Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?' (Ps 33 [34]:13) If you hear this and your answer is 'I do,' God then directs these words to you: 'If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your guest and aim (Ps 33 [34]:14-15). Once you have done this, my eyes will be upon you and my ears will listen for your prayers; and even before you ask me, I will say to you: Here I am' (Isa 58:9).

What, dear brothers, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us? See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life. Clothed then with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide, that we may deserve to see him who has called us to his kingdom (1 Thess 2:12). If we wish to dwell in the tent of this kingdom, we will never arrive unless we run there by doing good deeds. But let us ask the Lord with the Prophet: 'Who will dwell in your tent, Lord; who will find rest upon your holy mountain?' (Ps 14 [15]:1) After this question, brothers, let us listen well to what the Lord says in reply, for he shows us the way to his tent. 'One who walks without blemish,' he says, 'and is just in all his dealings; who speaks the truth from his heart and has not practiced deceit with his tongue; who has not wronged a fellowman in any way, nor listened to slanders against his neighbor' (Ps 14 [15]:3). He has foiled the evil one, the devil, at every turn, flinging both him and his promptings far from the sight of his heart. While these temptations were still young, he caught hold of them and dashed them against Christ (Ps 14 [15]:4 & 136 [137]:9). These people fear the Lord, and do not become elated over their good deeds; they judge it is the Lord's power, not their own, that brings about the good in them. They praise (Ps 14 [15]:4) the Lord working in them, and say with the Prophet: 'Not to us, Lord, not to us give the glory, but to your name alone' (Ps 113 [115:1]:9)...

With this conclusion, the Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teachings. Therefore our life span has been lengthened by way of a truce, that we may amend our misdeeds. As the Apostle says: 'Do you not know that the patience of God is leading you to repent' (Rom 2:4)? And indeed the Lord assures us in his love: 'I do not wish the death of the sinner, but that he turn back to me and live' (Ezek 33:11). Brothers, now that we have asked the Lord who will dwell in his tent, we have heard the instruction for dwelling in it, but only if we fulfill the obligations of those who live there. We must, then, prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his instructions. What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace. If we wish to reach eternal life, even as we avoid the torments of hell, then - while there is still time, while we are in this body and have time to accomplish all these things by the light of life -we must run and do now what will profit us forever. Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord's service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in his way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen." (From the Prologue, The Rule of St. Benedict)

To celebrate Benedict's feast this morning, aside from praying the Divine Office, my son and I split an order of...what else?!..Eggs Benedict! "Ora et labora", indeed!

Some of the things I find fascinating about Benedict are that 1) he was a twin, his other "half" being his sister, Scholastica; and 2) his being a layman who gathered a group of like-minded followers of Christ and became not just monastics, but really a Western monastic movement. If you've perused any book catalogs recently, you can't help but be amazed at the tremendous interest in the Benedictine expression of spirituality. To my mind, Benedict was a genius who had an incredible personal grasp of both human nature and the essence of Jesus' Gospel teaching. His Rule, the ideas for which weren't entirely his own original creation, has withstood the test of centuries.

The ideals or vows outlined by Benedict's Rule are principles by which we can understand our commitment to God in our lives. Though there are three expressions, there's really only one vow: a basic commitment to the life of God. Esther de Waal, with whom I had the pleasure of spending a delightful afternoon many years ago, puts it this way: "Together they become one great affirmation." Benedict singles out stability, "conversatio morum", and obedience.

This three-fold vow or commitment is grounded on a truly Trinitarian theological base. They/it constitute the "Yes" to our entering into the meaning of our Baptism and into the Paschal Mystery of Christ's suffering/dying/rising. It is God as Father who speaks, asking us to hear. Obedience is built from a combination of the Latin ob + audire = "to truly or really listen", not just audibly "hear". You and I obey when we do listen, when we accept the opening word of Benedict's Prologue: "Ausculta/obsculta", very much akin to the Hebrew "Shema" of the Old Testament: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart." (Dt 6:4-6) Our journey in faith begins with hearing.

God as Son grounds us in stability. The Word is the Paschal energy or force who roots us in himself. Jesus, the Faithful Word, evokes from us faithfulness of heart. Thus the second step our the journey in faith: standing.

God as Spirit and Agape accompanies and guides us throughout our lives and leads us in a continual transformation, a conversio morum, an intentional and persistent changing of our selfish ways into a love and selflessness which reaches out to serve God and one another. This final step is our ongoing journey of faith itself.

Stability enables us to completely surrender ourselves to God and to live this out in a particular concrete way, whether as as a monk in a specific community and location; as a married person in a specific, life-long relationship; as a family member, in life-long relationship to these specific people who are my family, warts and all; as a parishioner, or a clergy person, or a bishop, in at least a long-term relationship with a parish, or ministry, or diocese. There is usually a covenant, faithfulness to which enables me to stop running and to truly encounter the other and Other in my life. Stability involves a curious mixture of monotony, ordinariness, desire to escape into distraction or to flee from myself; but it also involves or can involve great creativity in learning to let go.

Conversatio is an ongoing turning, from self-will to God's will. It keeps me focussed on the present, on task. Benedict suggests that you "keep death always before your eyes". He stresses the fact that today is the time to change our actions, not just our intentions. What is needed is a zeal for conversion. And in this difficult pursuit, Benedict advises us "never to despair of the mercy of God".

Obedience presupposes the recognition of some form of abbot or abbas/amma who represents Christ for us in our unique set of circumstances. In this U.S. culture, and frankly also in the Episcopal Church, which abhors any hint of being told what to do, we have to continually ask, "What is our model of authority?" Obedience implies that I willingly and joyfully commit to take on something bigger than myself, outside myself, even when I don't understand or agree. It causes me to really appreciate that my choices necessarily bring limits and rules. Obedience, if embraced in the spirit which Benedict promotes, actually pulls me along on the way to true freedom.

"...we intend to establish a school for the Lord's service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome...But as we progress in his way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love..."

So, have yourself some Eggs Benedict, and maybe also treat yourself to some of the delights of Benedict's Rule!

No comments: