Thursday, July 19, 2007

Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room

NUNS fret not at their convent's narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, 'twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

William Wordsworth

Thursday, June 28, 2007


The first word of the Rule is, in Latin, "obsculta", a word that doesn't mean just 'listen', but also 'obey' (note, you'll likely find it in a Latin dictionary under 'ausculta' as I discovered after about 30 minutes of looking). Thus, the very beginning of the Rule puts into place a dynamic of listening and obedience. One, of course, cannot obey if one has not listened to the command given; perhaps we might also say that the practice of obedience also allows us to listen better.

I don't know much about music, but it has occurred to me that the difference between a good musician and a great musician is that a good musician plays the notes and the great musician plays the silences. That is, the great musician, in interpreting music, understands the emotional content of the pauses, of the gaps between the notes, and translates that into the expression of the music. The truly deep listening of monastic life is like that, in that it strives to not just listen to the words of the Daily Office, but to the silences.

This is a form of the 'via negativa', the ascetic approach to God that finds that the most true statements about God are those that deny what we think of God. Thus, when we say that "God is good" this is a true statement only insofar as we realize that 'good' is a human word that is unable to contain the true goodness of God. A more accurate statement is that God "transcends goodness" or "is not-good" -- not in the sense of being evil, but of being so far beyond any of our concepts of goodness that to say "God is good" is to say something that is ultimately false. At some point, the best we can do in contemplating God is not to say anything and rest in silence.

While reciting the Psalms and the other elements of the Daily Office, it is the silences built in which are the places where the listening occurs. The monks are broken into two groups facing each other and take turns reciting a verse or two of a Psalm. One group will say four or five lines and then wait for a response from the other group. In this liturgical dialectic we find the constant tension between listening and obeying. One group offers up the word of God for obedience and the other group listens in silence. I find myself concentrating on saying the words I am supposed to say, but perhaps a better posture would be for me to listen to the words I am supposed to hear. Perhaps I am so busy talking to God that I have forgotten to stop and listen to what God has to say to me.

One of the lessons of Benedictine monasticism is that it is in this silence that we can begin to truly listen, and it is in the presence of the silence and in the awe of the unspeakable presence of God that we can begin to truly obey.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Our cinematic view of monastic life

I mentioned in class today that our most common cultural reference to monastic life is that of the Jedi Knights of the Star Wars movies. While it is obviously not a Christian image, there is much in common with the monks of Benedictine life -- all the way down to the attire. In fact, think about how it is Anakin Skywalker's self-will that ultimately gets him into trouble and begins his descent into the dark side.

Anyway, tonight one of the students joked that he'd happily join the monastery if they just had light sabers...

A prayer for new vocations

We've been reciting this prayer at Vespers every night:

Lord our God,
through your loving kindness,
hear and answer our prayers
as they rise to You in this offering.

Through Your saints, Benedict and Scholastica,
You have called many to the school of Your service.
We ask that many other men and women,
throughout the world,
would hear and answer Your call
in our monastic way of life,
especially here at St. Gregory's Abbey.

Grant each of us the gift of holy perserverance --
that we may prefer nothing to Your love.
This we ask through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The obstacle to spiritual progress according to St. Benedict

In re-reading Benedict's Rule again over the last few weeks, one of the things that struck me is his diagnosis of what ails us spiritually. According to Benedict, the primary obstacle to our spiritual progress is our self-will. In the first chapter of the Rule, Benedict describes four different types of monks, two he likes and two he doesn't. The first two, cenobites and anchorites are those who follow a rule and subject themselves to an abbot (in the case of the cenobites) or have started in a cenobitic community and progressed to the life of a hermit. The other two types of monks, sarabaites and gyrovagues, are those either have no rule or no stable home respectively. Benedict describes sarabaites as those who do "whatever strikes their fancy" and gyrovagues as those who are "slaves to their own wills."

Benedict sees our self-will as a tyrannical force that enslaves us and keeps us from making spiritual progress. The problem of our will is that it causes us to "give in to our whims and appetites" (5.12) rather than to what God desires for us. As a result, Benedict constantly urges us to "hate the urgings of self-will" (4.60), and "not to follow your own heart's desire" (3.8), or to guard against the sins "of the self will" (7.12). Benedict's concern is that when it is our self-will that is in charge, it will lead us to value things other than God and thus hinder our spiritual progress.

It is with this concern in mind that Benedict puts so much emphasis on obedience and on the role of the abbot. The abbot is charged with overseeing the spiritual progress of monks and with meeting their physical needs. By following the Rule and subjecting one's will to that of the abbot, the monk begins to have his self-will trained and focused on divine things rather than human things.

In thinking about the secret to the 1500 success of Benedictine life, I've become convinced that when we focus on the spiritual practices of the Daily Office and the Lectio Divinia, we miss the real key insight of Benedict. What makes Benedictine life so successful is its emphasis on obedience as a means of escaping the tyranny of self-will. Obedience becomes the key spiritual practice in Benedictine life.

This, of course, is a foreign idea to our modern sensibilities, which are dominated by ideas of reason and personal conscience. We are wary of any authority which may conflict with our own ideas of what is best for us or of what we should be doing.

This is not to say that there is no room for members of the church to have discussions and to dissent from authorities, but the question that we must ask ourselves is whether our dissents are just elaborate justifications for our self-will, or whether they are grounded in divine ideas of human thriving.

How would your spiritual life change if you began to think of obedience as a spiritual practice?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Creativity and Benedictine life

A common concern about monastic life is that it stifles creativity; we worry that the call for obedience, silence, and humility, the subjection of one's self to the authority of another, and the many rules of monastic life will end up turning monks into robots without any creativity. This concern, however, is wrong in two ways: first, it misunderstands how we become truly creative and, second, it is clearly false empirically once one gets to know a few monks.

Starting with the second of the two mistakes, monks have always been and continue to be enormously creative. The creativity is not restricted to academic and church life -- though that has been their greatest gift -- but extends to all areas of life. One of the late monks here was a painter and also collected art from around the world, I have this recipe book for soups from one monk, and you've already seen how mechanically creative Brother Kevin is. Monastic life often unlocks creativity rather than restricts it.

This is because we often misconceive of how creativity happens -- we think it is the result of working without rules, but that is only true inasmuch as the rules have first been mastered. Before Picasso helped create Cubism, his early portraiture represented technical mastery; before Pele was able to do magical things with a soccer ball, he first mastered the basic skills of controlling the ball; some of the world's best classical musicians still practice their scales. Unfortunately what passes for groundbreaking creativity in today's world is actually the product of people who are too lazy or too untalented to have first mastered the basic skills of their craft.

Malcolm Gladwell gives an excellent description of this in his discussion of improvisational comedians in his bestseller, Blink. He points out that improv only works if certain rules are followed; improv groups meet regularly to discuss the rules and plan for how to implement them. We think we see comedy that is created on-the-spot, but it is actually the result of a specific set of conventions that enable the creativity to flow.

Likewise, the Rule of Benedict and the shape of Benedictine life provides a structure within which creativity can flourish. By limiting choices and decisions, the monk becomes free to make the effort to master a set of skills in a way that allows creativity to break forth. Creativity is demanding and difficult task -- even God had to take a day off from it -- and Benedictine life provides the structure that allows the monk to participate in God's creative bounty in the monks own life using the abilities given him by God.

Would you like to experience Benedictine monasticism?

On August 3-5, the monastery will sponsor a weekend spiritual retreat for anyone who is interested. The full information is at the link, but if you are interested in spending a couple of days seeing what this is like, you'll get a chance to participate in the Daily Office with the monks and then spend time with Father Charles as he works through the book,
The Spirituality of Imperfection. I overheard Father Charles mention that it has the best chapter on humility that he has ever read.

If anything I have written has piqued your interest, you ought to come check this out on your own.

Whose life is it?

Yesterday we had a discussion in class about the spiritual practices of the monks as found in the Rule of Benedict. I proposed the idea that many of us come to a monastery for somewhat selfish reasons; we seek to be exposed to practices or ways of life that will bring us peace, help us live in the moment, or be centered. But the goal of the spiritual practices of Benedictines is different -- it is to prepare one for eternal life. The monks may attain the side benefits we often seek now, but the real end is the beatific vision of God experienced in eternal life and what we do now to make spiritual progress, with God's assistance of course, will prepare us for eternal life.

After class someone asked me if preparing for eternal life wasn't just as selfishly motivated, with the benefits only postponed, as seeking spiritual practices for our benefit in the here and now. It was a fair and challenging question, but my response was that it is just as selfish if you assume that your life belongs to you. That is not, however, the assumption that Benedict was working under as I read him and the pattern of Benedictine life.

Instead, the shape of Benedictine spirituality operates under the assumption that our lives belong to God as the result of his gift. We do not exist apart from God and the gift of our lives is one that requires stewardship, as in the parable of the talents. Construed this way, the spiritual practices of monasticism are seen as the response to God's gift, where we engage in the practices as an act of stewardship, so we can prepare ourselves for the end for which we were created. Indeed, the practices themselves are seen by Benedict as gifts from God; he assumes that God knows best how humans should prepare themselves for their final end and that God has given us teachings that allow us to know how to proceed.

So the question we must ask ourselves in any of our spiritual practices is why we are doing them? Are we doing them for selfish and temporal reasons, or as a response to God's gift and for the end He has prepared for us? Who do you think your life belongs to?

Monday, June 25, 2007

A Theology of Vigils

The first set of prayers each day is Vigils, which starts at 6:00 in the morning. The Psalms we read were Psalm 134, Psalm 37, Psalm 52, Psalm 11, and Psalm 105. As our class discussed this morning, the choices of the Psalms at specific times of the day represent a theological understanding of the needs of persons at different times of day. So, take a moment to read the Psalms and see if you can tell me what the purpose of Vigils is? Can you detect a theme in the Psalms I've listed?

A question to you from one of the monks

Father Charles has put a question to our class that I would like to ask any readers to answer. He's responsible for identifying and helping recruit men to join the monastery and as he's putting together the materials he'll use, he wants to know what questions people might want answered about monastic life if they were interested. So let me ask you to answer in the comments two questions: 1) What would you want to know about Benedictine life if you were interested, and 2) What is it that would attract you to life in a monastery? To put it in a marketing context (if you'll forgive me for vulgarizing it) how should they market their way of life and once they got your interest, what would you want to know?

Tonight one of my classmates joked that he had told his wife that if the monks didn't take marriage so seriously that he might not be coming home. Once you've been here for a while, there's an amazing appeal to their way of life.

So please post your responses in the comments and I'll pass them along to Father Charles.

Recycled Grace

I've written about Brother Kevin before, (read the whole post) but at the time Youtube didn't exist and you couldn't embed pictures in blogger. So for the first time I give you photographs of his homemade motorcycle, Recycled Grace, which is made up of half an old Suburu engine, an Oldsmobile glove compartment, and various springs and pulleys that don't belong on a motorcyle. In case you are wondering where the seat is, he's got it off right now while he is trying to install a new gear box. Above is a picture of the motorcycle and a brief video with the engine running.

There are different kinds of geniuses in the world and Brother Kevin is one of them. One of the nice things about monastic life is that it actually provides ways for the monks to do what God made them to do, whether it is to be a priest or to be the mechanic for the Abbey.

Al Gore should meet this guy

Tonight we went on a tour of campus with Brother Kevin, who came to the monastery 50 years ago as a high school student and never left. At the time he arrived, the monastery was located on what we would think of as a typical Oklahoma plain, bereft of anything much taller than grass. At the top is a picture of the monastery grounds around 1950, and the bottom picture is from tonight. The difference (besides the lack of an aerial view) is Brother Kevin, who has been planting things since he arrived here. I asked him tonight how many trees he had planted, and he said that between trees and shrubs, he has put about 1500 things in the ground. 1500. He knew about when he had planted most of them, how long they'd last, etc. It's absolutely amazing how one man has transformed the land that he lives on. This is someone who definitely has a positive carbon footprint, which is good, because my next item is about his motorcycle.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Can you step in the same river twice?

In Plato’s Dialogue, Cratylus, Socrates quotes the Greek philosopher Heroclitus, who said that you can’t step in the same river twice; between the first time you step into the river and the second time you step in the river, both the river changes and you change. If Heroclitus thought his world was always in flux, one wonders what he would make of a world where change is almost considered a virtue, where we get new fashions every three months, where new cars come out every year, where being a ‘change agent’ is part of the job description for some people, and where we change jobs, locations, and spouses with near breakneck speed.

As I’ve prepared this week to return to the monastery for the third time, the question of stepping into the same river twice has been gnawing away at the back of my mind. What am I coming back to and who is it that is coming back? Part of the question is a function of the time between my last visit in 2004 and now and part of it is the interesting philosophical question about how we account for continuity in organisms that are constantly changing. So much has changed for both me and the monastery that I have wondered if Heroclitus was correct.

For me, the changes have been dramatic. Since I was here last time I have quit my job, moved to Dallas, fell in love and married a wonderful woman, completed a masters degree and started a Ph.D.. The last time I came here I came as a student, this time I come as an assistant to the professor and will get a chance to give three lectures and work with some small groups.

There have been changes at the monastery as well. Father Theodore has died since I was last here (I took a moment to visit his grave when I arrived today). There is a new abbot, who was formerly the president of the university. Brother Kevin has had to take his last few trips in a car, instead of on his motorcycle, Recycled Grace. The monks are older and fewer in number.

Yet two things have not changed. First, the Rule of Benedict is still in effect. After 1500 years it continues to regulate and provide continuity for communities around the world. One can step into any Benedictine monastery in the world and have a pretty good idea what to expect. Second, the Daily Office of reading the Psalms and other parts of Scripture have not changed at all since I was here last, nor will they change substantially any time soon.

It seems to me that Heroclitus was wrong about stepping in the same river twice, because he held that what made the river the river (the essence of the river, if you will) was the water rushing by at the moment. But I wonder if what really makes a particular river a river is not so much the individual water molecules, but rather the source of the river and the boundaries of the river. I can know that I am stepping in the Mississippi River and not the Amazon because the two rivers have different boundaries and different sources. Likewise, the individual molecules of St. Gregory’s Abbey have changed, but the boundaries provided by the Rule of Benedict and the source of its continuity, found ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ, but experienced through the Daily Office, remains the same.

As I sat down for Vespers tonight, I felt myself quickly settling back into the rhythms of the monastery. The Psalms were the same and the prayers were the same. I was back in the river I left three years ago.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Returning to the monastery

On Sunday evening I will return to St. Gregory's Abbey for the first time since 2004. As was the case in my two previous trips, I'll be blogging my reflections on monastic life while I'm at the Abbey. My first post will be up on Sunday evening. Until then, feel free to nose around and check out my posts from my last two may provide some useful background.

One of the nice benefits of the last few years is that the tools in Blogger have improved, which means I'll be able to add pictures to my words. The picture above is St. Gregory's -- both the monastery and the university.

Until Sunday evening then.