Friday, June 11, 2004

Back in a couple of days

We just ended up our final class session, which ended with a blessing from Father Charles, like he gave to Brother Boniface before he left the monastery. I have a few more essays and observations to write, which I will take up starting on Sunday afternoon. In the meantime, I hope you have enjoyed reading this as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Check back later. Blessings, David.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Death and Benedictine spirituality

As I write this essay I am sitting in a swing donated in memory of Oklahoma City bombing victim, Diane Althouse. The swing faces the monastery cemetery, which is just south of the chapel. The sun is to my back as the day is ending and the wind is humming through the many trees planted by Brother Kevin. A few minutes ago the Abbot and one of the other monks walked by on a post dinner walk and asked me what I was writing. I was finishing up my last formal journal entry and told them I was writing about authority. The Abbot replied that the cemetery was the perfect place to write about authority, implying that death has authority over all of us while we are here on earth.

In chapter five of the rule is one line that is easy to miss and dismiss as unimportant, but it describes much of the Benedictine approach to death. The line is, “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” The monks believe that we are born so that we may die. This is also a counter-cultural attitude, as death has become the last unforgivable sin, the last taboo, in America. Our culture is in complete denial about the reality and finality of death. We cannot talk about death, we worship youth, and we do everything possible to reverse the natural course of aging. The rich irony in this approach is that by seeking to avoid death, aging, and suffering, we often end up devaluing the precious life that God has given us. We are never satisfied with the life we are given and the rich gift that it is; instead we always want what is not ours to have – physical immortality.

The proximity of the cemetery to the chapel serves several purposes. First, it allows easy access for the monks to visit their deceased brothers. One can often see monks spending time in the cemetery, paying their respects. Second, it provides a constant reminder of the authority death has over them. Third, it provides a goal for the monks. It may be difficult for us to think of being buried in a cemetery as a goal, but when the current president of St. Gregory’s University, Father Lawrence, was interviewed by a local reporter after he took office, she asked him what his goal would be after he completed his term as president. She seemed to think that he might be able to work at another university. He told her that his next goal was “to be buried out in the cemetery.” I’ve been around lots of deans and university presidents, but I’ve never heard that announced as a personal goal before! But I’ve also seen university presidents afflicted with a bad case of hubris, men who have become so seduced by their power that they lose their grip on the reality of their mortality. It’s not a pretty sight.

Brother Kevin, who is still alive, has taken to putting flowers on his future gravesite. He has a spot reserved next to the only monk at St. Gregory’s ever to live to 100. One of the brothers makes the coffins for the brothers. Yet on the anniversary of each monk’s death, his biography is read at dinner – they are dead, but not forgotten.

Several years ago one of the monks announced to the brothers that he was dying of cancer. He had kept it concealed, but finally told them when he thought he had several months left. It turns out that he was down to a few weeks. Toward the end he was dying here at the monastery – they have rooms where home medical care can be received. On Easter he was dying and all of the monks were gathered in his room, where they did Compline together. The last line of Compline is a prayer, “May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.” The monk died within thirty minutes, the prayer answered. It was Easter with all of the hope and promise entailed for the Christian on that holiday.

Father Charles said that the way that the death happened had a powerful affect on the monks. Even for these men who daily remind themselves of their impending end, there are times when death transforms even them. While most of us fear death, there is perhaps no more intimate moment in life than being with someone who is dying. Most of us rightfully fear dying alone, yet it is the denial of the reality of death that often puts us in places where we end up dying alone, isolated from our community. Without death, there would be no reason to find meaning in life; without death there would be no reason for us to have God, for we would be gods; without death there would be no urgency to our lives; without death there would be no need for Jesus to rescue our souls from death. Death is something to be feared, but yet it is also God’s final gracious act to each of us.

May the all-powerful Lord grant you a restful night and a peaceful death. Amen.

Journal entry #4

In my first journal entry I talked about what I see as the problems with churches today around the issues of commitment, accountability, and authority. In my second one I compared the Baptist church with the Benedictine monasteries and found some surprising similarities. Yesterday I talked about how I deal with commitment, accountability and authority in my life in the church. Today I’d like to talk about what I’ve learned about commitment, accountability, and authority from my experience here.

The monastic life is a lifelong commitment. As I mentioned previously, the commitment is made over at least a four year period, so it is not entered into lightly by the prospective monk or the community. When the novice monk takes his final solemn vows, he signs papers making his commitment. Just before that he signs his will. Part of the decline in the number of monks in the U.S. is the result of the decline in our ability to make lifelong commitments. About the only lifelong commitments people are willing to make anymore are to their sports teams.

Perhaps the secret is the focus of the commitment. My theory is that commitments work best when they are made to something that is bigger than the humans involved. It may be that we call certain social arrangements “institutions” to remind us that they are bigger than us. We talk about the institution of marriage and maybe we should remember that a marriage is bigger than the two people involved. I think the monks commit to more than just the people involved in the monastery. They commit to a life with God, lived in community, mediated by the Rule of Benedict. Obviously God is bigger than any of them, but I think the fact that the rule has been around so long and has worked successfully for fifteen hundred years gives the monks something that has passed beyond human hands to commit to. I wonder how often in our churches we commit only to a pastor or a set of friends that are all human and limited. Maybe the only way to live out a commitment to a group of people is to actually be committed to something bigger than them and bigger than our petty concerns.

I saw an interesting act of accountability at lunch today. The one junior monk, Brother Boniface, had to leave campus for some reason. Before he left, he came and asked Father Charles for a blessing. It was a brief action, but loaded with meaning. First, it was a way for Brother Boniface to communicate that he was leaving, so that at least one other monk knew about it. Second, he requested a blessing, not permission. By granting the blessing, Father Charles was not so much exercising authority as he was showing that the community wanted the best for Brother Boniface. Now I’m sure that this is just a routine ceremonial moment, and I don’t know if only junior monks are required to do this, but still there was lots of neat stuff in just a little action. Wouldn’t it be interesting to frame accountability as a way to communicate about where we are and as a way to share a blessing. We worry about judgment, which is often just a reflection of our own internal judgment, when we think about being accountable, but perhaps it is actually a grace.

Finally there is authority within the monastic community. There is a clear chain of command, with the Abbot at the top of the hierarchy. Seniority is based on how long the monk has been in the community, not based on age, education, or ordination. Nevertheless, there is marked difference in the use of authority here, perhaps best summed up by another conversation from lunch today. One monk was discussing the difference between his mother telling him what to do as a child and the monks telling him what to do and he said, “the difference is that here they listen.”

It’s a powerful word, “listen,” and is the first word in the rule of Benedict. There comes a point when the abbot must make a decision that binds the community, but there is always a great deal of listening that goes on first. The rule requires that decisions be discussed and that even the youngest brother’s opinions should be considered, as “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger.” The rule of Benedict emphasizes humility and obedience, not just within the hierarchy, but in all directions. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a better leader anywhere than the ideal abbot described in the second rule.

Our society glorifies power and authority and people may spend their entire lives seeking to attain it. But Benedictine spirituality teaches that the cardinal value is humility. It is power wielded by the humble that is true authority and that provides leadership worth following. A few years ago I read an article in Harvard Business Review about companies that had the best growth over a sustained period of time. What the article said is that companies led by individuals with two qualities were most successful: they needed a strong sense of what they wanted to accomplish and they needed to be humble and willing to learn from others. Benedict knew that fifteen hundred years ago.

I am convinced that if Benedict was teaching at a university today, I’m sure he would not be teaching theology, but more likely teaching in the department of psychology; he was a human relations genius. When you look at how the rule of Benedict sets up a community where commitment, accountability, and authority are so well balanced, one can only stand in awe at the divine inspiration that must have been the source of such deep insight into the human character.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Journal entry #3

When I did my journal last year, Dr. Schmidt gave us some specific questions to answer that required some serious introspection. So far this year I don’t feel like I’ve challenged myself to think that hard about my own role in community. I’ve talked a lot about structures and ideas, but not about my own role and experience. That’s probably fear talking (or not talking as the case may be). So today I’m going to do an inventory of my strengths and weaknesses in the areas of commitment, accountability, and authority. I guess without spelling out the reasons why, I’ve decided that those are all vital elements of community and church.

I think that there is a difference in being involved in church life and being involved in the life of the church. The first implies involvement in a set of activities that are more temporal in nature without any transcendent purpose, while the latter indicates a commitment to the ongoing growth and propagation of the church, even after we are long gone – it is something that is bigger than any of us. I think my story may reflect a shift from one idea to the other.

As I mentioned yesterday, I was involved in church life from the very beginning, getting my first Bible within two weeks of being born. The story in my family is that when we moved to Florida when I was in third grade, we started looking for a church to join and planned on going to several churches, but I like Seminole First Baptist Church so much that we never went anywhere else. By the age of fourteen I was reading the Bible through every year and had my first set of commentaries by the time I was about 17. I was very involved in my youth group and at the age of sixteen I experienced a call to the ministry.

Some serious family problems, long hidden, came to light while I was a freshman in college, putting me into a long spiritual tailspin. I was like the Israelites, wandering the desert of Sinai, without a spiritual home. I still managed to read the Bible through every year, but it was as dry as the desert, and I was unconnected to any church, community, or myself. I look back and, while I do not think God willed that I would experience that sense of disconnectedness, I think that God has been able to use that experience to make me more aware of what others are going through. There are some who are blessed with a life free of desert experiences, but I think most of us have to go through the desert to get to our Promised Lands.

I did visit a church in Gainesville for about six months, but never really felt a part of it, though I do not think that was the fault of the church, but rather my own deep troubles. But I remember vividly when things started to stir in me again. I had been coaching a girls soccer team for two years, and one of the team captains, Erin, was being confirmed at her church. Erin’s family invited me to join them and so I drove down to Ocala for the service. I remember that for some reason the hymns touched me deeply; I think that perhaps the physicality of singing gave my soul a chance to express itself. In looking back, I wonder if part of the impact was the result of being there not by myself, but with people I was connected to. Perhaps it is difficult to worship God by oneself, after all, even God is in community with Himself through the Trinity. Regardless, it was there that my longing for God truly began to express itself.

Within just a few months, I was in Texas, which was also the result of God moving in my life and in the lives of others. He has slowly been delivering me back to community with Him and with others. It was in Galveston that I decided to go back to church – I realized that after all of those years that the church had meant a lot to me and I needed to be a part of it.

There are lots of levels of commitment, the first and most basic one being attendance. Half of life is just about showing up. I started by coming to the worship services – sitting in the back, of course. I then started coming to Sunday school classes fairly regularly as well. At this point I was slowly reintegrating my way back into church life, refamiliarizing myself with the rhythms of worship, prayer, and the people. There was a very nice old woman who sat a couple of rows behind me, Rachel Lu Syler. She had been at the church most of her life and had never been married. She was fairly frail, so I would often offer my arm to her to help her walk out after the service. She passed away a few years ago.

Sometimes I think we only discover the depth of our commitments in times of crisis and perhaps the resignation of our pastor was a blessing to me. At that point I realized how much the church had come to mean to me and I was determined to do my part to help it survive through the tough times to come. I think that it is at this point that I became interested in the life of the church. The ensuing several years have tested my commitment to the life of my church to the core. There have been several times when I’ve been tempted to leave because things were so miserable, but I’m glad I’ve stayed. As I’ve learned from my grandmother, the bad times pass, as do the good times. And we often learn more from the tough times than we do from the easy ones. I’ve been fortunate that I take my commitments very seriously, maybe more than I should sometimes.

My willingness to make myself accountable is not quite the same. For many years one of the excuses I used for avoiding church was that I didn’t want people telling me what I can do or can’t do. This was demonstrated by sitting toward the back when I first came back to the church, I was symbolically keeping the church at a distance. I could come and participate in the worship, but if they did not know me, they could not interfere in my life. But, of course, one cannot be a part of a community by keeping it at a distance.

The irony is that the more I took the risk of letting people in – and the potential judgments that went with it – the better my experience was. By letting people get to know me, they were able to help me out when I needed it. By getting to know them better, I was able to help them when they needed help. There is something nice about someone saying that they haven’t seen you in church for a while and they’ve missed you. It is easy to hear that as a judgment, but often it is someone telling you that the church is a better place when you are there.

Like most people, I have the most difficult time with accountability in the area of confession. The Baptist tradition does not teach anything about public confession to a church authority figure. The idea is that when we sin, we sin against God and it is God who forgives our sin when we confess to God and repent, so we pray for forgiveness to God, who forgives us. Theologically, this makes a lot of sense to me; psychologically I’m not so sure it makes any sense. While it may be only God who can forgive our sins, I get the sense that psychologically it may be more beneficial to confess to another human being. It is humbling enough to confess to God, but God is perfect and so there is a sense in which we can excuse ourselves for being less than perfect. How much more humbling and challenging is it to confess to another fragile human being and ask that person to share God’s gracious forgiveness with us?

Last night one of my Catholic classmates arranged to have confession with one of the monks. He said that he felt like a load had been lifted off of his shoulders after it was done, that he had the best walk back to the dorms of the week. I don’t know what happened or how it went or what he confessed, but I was frankly envious of his visible relief. I’m not sure that I’ve ever had the same sense of relief from any of the confessions that were just between me and God. Maybe that says something about me and my relationship to God. But, if you are like me and prone to sins of pride and arrogance, perhaps the humility of confessing to another human being is the best form of accountability available.

Finally, there is the issue of me and authority. I’m perfectly fine with authority as long as I’m in charge. Otherwise, there might be a problem! I have a natural built in resistance to authority. Actually, the more nuanced way of putting it is that I am willing to subject myself to authority when I think that the person is using power appropriately. I will always resist power used wrongly. Of course, the problem with all people in authority is that they are human and even the best leaders are going to misuse their authority now and then. But the reality is that no human community can survive without working out how power is distributed. Recently there seems to be a plague of people who somehow think organizations can function without authority structures, but that is so beyond possibility as to be foolish in the extreme. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does power. It is better to deal with the reality of the fact that power must be used in order to keep a community functioning.

I have to constantly be careful in my relations to authority figures in the church. Because of my proclivity to reflexively resist authority figures I may be missing out on working with people who can challenge me and push me to grow. I still have a lot to learn and only by making myself available to authority figures that can help me in that learning which will allow me to be able to become the person God made me to be.

In my final journal entry I will write about what I’ve learned about these three things from the monks here. Peace be with you.

Praying the scriptures

This morning we took time to try the ancient prayer practice of lectio divinia. It's made a bit of a revival in recent times, but is still relatively unknown in Protestant circles as a regular spiritual practice.

Last year we did a passage that I had a very difficult time with. I had some serious issues with it and ended up spending a couple of hours talking to my friend about it. The passage we used today was 1 Kings 17:7-16, which I had a much easier time with, particularly as I have some anxiety about my future right now.

It is an interesting way to pray and I would definitely recommend it as a something to try.


One of the nice things about eating breakfast here is that they often serve bacon. I happen to be slightly obsessed with good bacon (not that there is such a thing as bad bacon, just some that is better than others). Anyway, if you too are not afraid to stand up tall and strike fear into the hearts of swine all over the world, you might want to visit this site, where you can find the Bacon of the Month Club. You won't be sorry.

I got up for seconds this morning and Dr. Schmidt almost broke the silence by laughing at me, because he knew where I was going and what I was going for.

I should remind first time readers that in the monastery, breakfast is completely silent. (If you want to know more about the basics, check out my journal from last year, which can be found starting here.) Another thing about the monks and food is that you never see them scrape leftover food off of their plate. They will take an initial portion and then go back for more if they are still hungry. It is not a wasteful group of guys.

A book you may want to read

I got an email from Mike, in Wisconsin, who recommended the book The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris. My friend, Trish, read this last year before the monastery class and also highly recommends it.

Journal entry #2

Before last semester I can’t say that I ever really put any thought into the idea of the church or of community. Church was the place where I went to practice my faith and interact with other Christians – my interactions were more driven by political considerations than theological considerations. There was nothing really thoughtful or intentional about my approach to church and my community.

This semester, I was fortunate to be assigned Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together for my class on the social context of churches; it’s a wonderful little book. Along with the congregation study I was assigned to do, I was forced to start thinking about community. This is one place where I think Baptist theology is particularly weak. Some of this stems from the fact that the Bible is somewhat vague on the purpose of the church, the way the church is supposed to be set up, how different churches are supposed to interact with each other, etc.. To be fair, many different denominations have tried to come up with a good Biblical basis for the structure of their community, and yet we still have a multitude of different forms.

Baptist churches are set up on the congregational model, where each church is responsible for the hiring of staff, its budget, its facilities, its theology, etc.. Through its national convention, costs are shared for such things as educational materials, retirement benefits, and mission work. But Baptist churches have wide latitude in what they can profess as their beliefs and in their forms of worship. For most Baptists, I would say that they would view the purpose of the church is to serve as a means of evangelizing the local community and to serve as a place of worship and spiritual formation.

As a child and a youth, the church was a place where I was safe and where I had loving adult mentors who cared for me, something I wasn’t exactly getting at home. I remember people like Mr. Greenwood, Debbie Stone, Carol Pelham, Phil Igney, and Craig Sherouse, who treated me with kindness, grace, and gentleness. I think that as a result of those relationships, I experience God’s presence best through relationships with other people. Sermons reach me, and I like singing the old hymns (I rarely find contemporary praise music to be moving), but the real presence of God for me is often found in those moments of intimacy with other members of the church. "Blessed be the tie that binds, our hearts in Christian love. The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.” And, Matt. 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." For the Christian, this fellowship is only made possible through the saving work of Christ, communicated through the work of the Holy Spirit.

The importance of Christian fellowship carries over to my life as an adult. Over the last year many of my friends have left my church, which has caused me great sadness and sometimes anger. Some left for natural reasons, mostly career moves, but many left because they were unhappy with things that were happening at the church. But while I may best experience the presence of God through fellowship, my commitment is to God through my church. As I mentioned previously, our individualistic culture gives rise to some real commitment issues.

I am fortunate, perhaps, to have a grandmother who has been a tremendous role model in this area. She has been a member of the same church, First Baptist Church of Columbus, GA, for over 60 years. She has been there through good pastors and through bad pastors. She has seen good friends come, go, and die. The impact of her example on me has been tremendous. Since I was born in Columbus while my dad was in Vietnam, the very first Bible I ever received came from that church, just two weeks after I was born. I still have that little New Testament. I sometimes wonder if God was working on my spiritual journey from the very beginning. Anyway, in our society, this kind of commitment is truly counter-cultural behavior.

Because the Order of Saint Benedict is a part of the Roman Catholic Church, one would think that it would not have much in common with Baptist life. As you know, the hierarchical structure of Roman Catholicism resembles a more military type structure, probably as a result of its contact with the organization of the Roman Empire. And certainly the monks comply with Catholic teaching and doctrine. They are quite orthodox that way and are subject to the local bishop in terms of education and liturgy.

However, the monasteries themselves are more akin to Baptist churches. Monks join a specific abbey, not the Benedictine order. Each Benedictine monastery follows the rule of Benedict, but has wide latitude as to how it is applied. There was a time when this monastery did Vigils at 4:00 a.m., but now it is at 6:00 a.m. (much to my chagrin). Some Benedictine monasteries do all of the Psalms in a week, this one does it over two weeks. The local bishop has little influence on what goes on in the monastery. Only within the last few decades did the Pope request that the order have a kind of “abbot in charge” in Rome, who the Pope could use as a liaison with the Benedictine houses. Even so, this abbot has little power over the monasteries and as Father Charles put it, “he can make us do anything he can talk us into.”

This ability of monasteries to be a part of the church while not being completely subject to its authority has been a great strength for Catholicism. Virtually every important reform movement in the Roman Church’s history has come from the monasteries. By being separated from the rest of the church, the monasteries have sometimes been less likely to be corrupted by society.

However, when monasteries have become corrupt, they once again show their similarity to Baptist churches. In a Roman Catholic parish, if one does not like the particular teachings of a priest or bishop, it is not possible to go off and start another parish. However, with monasteries it is common historically for monks who are dissatisfied to go and form a new monastery. Very often, as is usually the case with Baptist churches, the schism is the result of monks who are unhappy with what they see as practices that are too liberal or that have crept away from the important teachings of the rule. The classic case of this is the Cluniacs from the medieval period, who were a Benedictine reform movement. These breakaway monasteries are what one might deem “monastic fundamentalists,” though they are commonly referred to as monks who follow the rule “primitively.” Near here is a monastery recently founded by some French Benedictines who follow the rule that way, doing their prayers seven times each day.

So, perhaps one of the reasons that Benedictine life is interesting to me is that it combines the strengths of the doctrinal unity of the Roman Church with the local autonomy of the Baptist tradition. Maybe all of these monks are really just good Baptists at heart (though I’ve yet to have fried chicken here.)

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

What I did today

I pulled weeds along with Father Theodorein his garden today. Last year Father Theodore, who teaches theology and religion here, was our instructor for part of our class, since the abbey's spiritual formation director, Father Charles, was occupied with the junior monks. Father Theodore came to St. Gregory's as a boarding school student and joined soon after. He took some theology courses here and then finished up elsewhere. Several years ago he moved from the main monastic quarters into the student dorms, because he wanted the students to have more exposure to the monks. When he was a student here, all of the boarding students and the monks shared quarters in Benedictine Hall, before the monastic quarters were built. As a result, he was more familiar with the monks before he joined.

Father Theodore started building a garden in a square space bounded by four of the dorm walls and that is where we worked yesterday. He has some tomatoes planted right now and some of them look like they'll be ready soon. He said that if there were any ripe cherry tomatoes that he'd likely eat them right off the vine. It's good to know that even monks don't always delay gratification! He said that sometimes he jokes with people that "one way to get rid of temptation is to give in to it!"

I have no idea how long we pulled weeds -- maybe an hour or so. When I was a kid sometimes weed-pulling was assigned as punishment for something I did wrong, with the number of bags required dependent upon the severity of the crime. The great thing about weeding is the sense of accomplishment that one has when a bed is cleared, no matter how Sisyphean the task. But the task really wasn't unpleasant with Father Theodore, we talked some and we were silent some. I sometimes think about weeding as a metaphor for sin in our lives. It's not a one-time task, but an ongoing struggle that requires constant attention. I can't root out my selfishness and pride once and be done with it, it requires attention and there are no shortcuts. And perhaps, like many things in life, it is a task best done with another person, not alone.

The other remarkable thing about weeding with Father Theodore is how much faster he is than me. He's probably in his 60's and he's been fighting prostate cancer which has spread to his bones. Nevertheless, he must have pulled five weeds for every one I pulled. I could not help but be humbled by his work ethic and his kindness in the midst of his own struggle.

UPDATE: When I woke up this morning I was sore from hunching over and weeding. I knew it was coming and it kind of felt good.

What's on my ipod right now

I’m listening to a wonderful album that was released after Johnny Cash died, called My Mother's Hymn Book. He quite literally took his mother’s old hymnbook and sat with his guitar and sang his favorites. I would highly recommend this nice, intimate set of songs, including In the Garden, which my sister played at my grandmother’s funeral. Gotta love the Man in Black.

The balance of the liturgy

As you might recall, Benedictine liturgy involves the reading of all of the Psalms during a certain period of time (the monks here do it over two weeks), which means that we are exposed to all of the human emotions, both positive and negative, expressed in the Psalms. Last night, during Vespers, we read the following passage from Psalm 21.

“Psalm 21 7 For the king trusts in the LORD, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved. 8 Your hand will find out all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you. 9 You will make them like a fiery furnace when you appear. The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them. 10 You will destroy their offspring from the earth, and their children from among humankind. 11 If they plan evil against you, if they devise mischief, they will not succeed. 12 For you will put them to flight; you will aim at their faces with your bows.”

Upon reading this, I leaned over to one of my friends and said, “that’s tough stuff,” which of course is highly sophisticated theology-speak for “God should have fired his editor,” because obviously I know much more about being human than those crazy Israelites several millennia ago. My guess is that this passage isn’t exactly something that is read at your church on a regular basis. But the use of the Psalmody requires us to face all of the human emotions – I’m sure I’m not the only one who has wanted my enemies to be severely punished. (As an aside, it is somewhat curious how easily some Christian scholars today will try to explain away or justify the violence in other cultures and religions, but are so quick to condemn passages like this.)

The balance of the liturgy is demonstrated by the very next passage we read, which was the famous love chapter from 1 Corinthians 13. We began by singing a one line response, “There are three things that last: Faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.” The monk leading the chants would chant a few lines of the passage and then we would respond with the one line response. We responded four times.

It was if the liturgy was reminding us that while we may all feel the need for vengeance, it will not last and will not satisfy. Instead, it is only faith, hope, and love that will last. Our vengeance, like our enemies, is only dust. The message is reinforced by us reading the Psalm only once, while responding to the love chapter four times.

The liturgy is also in the way it addresses the particular needs for the time of day in which they occur. Vigils, which are at 6:00 in the morning typically use Psalms that involve resisting temptation or dealing with persecution, with the idea that we need God to help us be vigilant against those things which might cause us to sin – this morning we used Psalms 56, 70, and 71. Lauds, which occur as the day is breaking use those Psalms that address the glory of God’s creation and Psalms that praise God, like this passage from Psalm 57: “7 My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast. I will sing and make melody. 8 Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn. 9 I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. 10 For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens; your faithfulness extends to the clouds. 11 Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the nice example. The prayers of Vespers sometimes look back on the day and perhaps God’s accomplishments, so tomorrow night we’ll use Psalm 135. Now obviously not all Psalms fit in these categories, and so they have to be used at one time or another. But where the relevance to the time of day is obvious, the Psalms are slotted into the proper place.

Meet Brother Kevin

Last night we took a tour with one of the most amazing people you’ll ever meet anywhere, Brother Kevin. Brother Kevin has been here since he was a high school student when St. Gregory’s had a school for boys here. He joined the monastery after graduation and has been here ever since. He is not a priest and I don’t know what his level of education is (Father Charles said he didn’t like school) but he is just a wonderful person and incredibly talented.

Brother Kevin’s great skill is tinkering with mechanical things. He makes these incredible, functional, Rube Goldberg-like contraptions out of all sort of junk. His crown jewel of contraptions is his motorcycle, which is named Recycled Grace. He built the motorcycle out of scrap parts about 28 years ago and he takes it for a two-week vacation every summer. It is Easy Rider meets Samford and Son meets Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He took a Subaru car engine, sawed it half, and uses for his engine – he said he can cruise at 70 mph at about half throttle. My guess is that if he went to full throttle he might do a Marty McFly and go back to the future. He took an old Oldsmobile glove compartment and it sits in the front of the motorcycle for him to put things in. There are pieces held together by duct-tape. Anyway, he’s put over 125,000 miles on this thing, and if you consider that he only goes anywhere a couple of weeks a year, you can imagine how long his trips are. Yesterday he had the motorcycle all torn apart, since he has been in the process of lowering the seat so he can get his feet down a little bit lower when he is stopped.

Brother Kevin can find something useful in just about anything. Some years ago he arranged for them to buy three surplus wings from B-29s(actually, he said that they are just the flaps from the wings). They are massive – about 30 feet long by 8 feet tall. Brother Kevin dug a trench, put the sharp edge of the wings in the ground, and now the wings serve as a fence back near a greenhouse. Talk about turning swords into plowshares! What is kind of funny about it is that the wings are made out of magnesium, which he said is a very flammable metal (apparently that’s why when WWII airplanes got shot down they burned so much), so there are no smoking signs near the fence. They’ve also painted a mural of some deer on one of the wings/fences.

Brother Kevin is also well known for making his own lawnmowers. One monk said that they had nicknames for his lawnmowers and called one of them “the World’s Fair” lawnmower because it had some kind of big ferris wheel contraption on it. He also built a chair and pulley system he used when he was cleaning and sealing the main campus building. Apparently he took a Dodge engine and used half of it to drive the powerwasher and half to drive his chair – which was an old office chair with two bicycle wheels on it for the pulley system. He spent ten years just cleaning the building.

Brother Kevin’s other great gift is landscaping. He has planted over 600 trees on campus in his lifetime. He’s a one-man Sierra Club. There are old pictures of the area from the 1920s where there are almost no trees at all – this was all Oklahoma plains. Now there are trees everywhere. Brother Kevin says that trees are the first step in hospitality because they welcome people as they arrive on campus and they provide shade for people. Father Charles said that a former abbot remarked, “only monks will plant a pecan grove anymore.” In a world of instant gratification the planting of a tree is an act of faith, hope, and love.

I remember when I met Brother Kevin last year, we talked about his life in the monastery. He said that when he began he was worried about being lonely, but that he feels completely loved here and completely happy. He had two biological brothers who were also here – one left before taking his final vows and one took his final vows, but left after 18 years and is now a math teacher in Oklahoma City.

I should also mention that several months ago Brother Kevin took a fall off of a 20 foot ladder. He said his neck was really sore for a week, which may have masked the headaches, which developed sometime later. It turns out that he had blood clots on the brain and had to have brain surgery. They removed a quart and half of fluid that had built up on the brain. He seems to be fine now, and his doctor has given him permission to go on his motorcycle vacation again in August.

I have worked at universities for 15 years and have been fortunate enough to meet some true geniuses in the fields of business, theology, medicine, etc.. But honestly, in spite of their genius, I honestly think I’m more impressed by Brother Kevin. There are lots of people who can teach math, or English, or theology, but I’ve never met another human being who can do the kinds of things Brother Kevin can do. I wish you could meet him. He is a gift to us from God.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Our first question!

My friend Phillip emailed me to ask how one "gets to be a card carrying Benedictine?" The process, while uncomplicated, takes a period of at least four years. First, men express an interest in learning more about the Benedictine way of life. As Father Charles said today, they have several men "nibbling around the edges" right now. As part of the learning experience, the man might come and spend a week here with the monks. If he remains interested, he might then spend more time here, say another six months. Sometimes potential monks will keep a job in the community, but live here for a while as they learn more about the monks and the monks learn more about them. If, at that point, the man is willing to commit to the life and the monks are interested in having him, he becomes a novice. The novitiate lasts for one year and if at the end of the year the man wants to join, he takes temporary vows, which last for three years. Only after that time period can he take the final vows. It's a long engagement and there is no kissing on the first date.

During the four year test period, the candidate works with the abbey's director of spiritual formation. At the same time, the monks are also trying to decide how well he fits in and whether he'll be a success or not. Father Charles said that they had one man who was interested, but he was so angry all the time that they decided he probably would not be happy here and they probably wouldn't be happy if he was there. So some times it just doesn't work out.

So that's how one gets to be a monk.

Journal assignment #1

As I mentioned previously, my journal focus for this week will be on the nature of Christian community. Theologically the study of this topic is known as ecclesiology and the task becomes to answer questions like, “what is the church,” “why did God create the church,” “what is the role of the church,” “what is the individual’s role in the life of the church,” and “what is the church’s role in the life of the individual?” As is usually the case in theology, the questions are easier to formulate than the answers. And any answers generated invariably lead to more difficult questions. I’m not promising that my answers will any better than anyone else’s, and I’m sure that plenty of you will disagree with me, but I’m going to make an effort.

I’m going to compare both the tradition from which I come (Southern Baptist, though I think the problems cross denominational lines) with what I know about Benedictine life. Some of the difficulty in talking about this comes from separating a theological position from a cultural position. That is, much of our attitudes and beliefs about the church may be more of a function of where we live than of actual theological doctrine. One of the blessings of America is the wide latitude of personal belief and behavior that one is allowed – the focus of much of our culture is on the individual. It can be argued that this strong individualism is very much the source of America’s strength. However, one must wonder how well this level of intense individualism works in the church.

Today I’d like to spell out what I see as the problems that exist in our churches now. First, religious commitment tends to be viewed as something that is for the benefit of the individual. So we see people who constantly are moving from one church to another because they “aren’t being fed” spiritually at their present church, or because they do not like the pastor, or because someone has said something mean to them. The religious experience for these people is all about them, the commitment is not to something greater than them, but only to their own needs. This spiritual narcissism leads to a kind of spiritual commercialism that is best summarized in people talking about how they “are shopping for a church home.”

Second, this individualistic bent seems to have lent itself to the idea that someone can be “spiritual, but not religious.” Some of this comes quite naturally and correctly from people’s revulsion against churches that have done great spiritual damage to members of their congregation – one can imagine how those victims who were abused by priests might have good reason to be hostile to religion. Others may oppose the idea of being religious because they see much religious practice as being empty or a liturgical fa├žade that hides the nastiness of members of the congregation. However, I would argue that for most of us, the real issue is one of accountability. It is much easier to be committed to oneself than to a community that might hold us accountable for what we do and what we believe. By practicing a set of spiritual practices that satisfy only our own needs, we end up avoiding the sheer messiness of having to deal with other people, and we end up avoiding practices that challenge us to grow and/or change our behavior. Likewise, when we only have to be accountable to ourselves, the human mind is quite capable of justifying any number of things that we might not be able to get away with in a religious community. Much of this idea about being spiritual seems to have to do with finding something that makes us feel good rather than something that transforms our lives. It becomes a quest for a spiritual Disneyland, where everything is perfect. But is religious experience only about feeling good?

Third, the cultural individualism in which we swim creates serious issues with authority. Anyone who knows me knows that this is my weakness. No human community of more than about three people can exist for long without resolving issues of power and authority. Authority structures are visible throughout nature, not just in human life – even chickens have authority structures, thus the genesis of the term “pecking order.” Yet most of us are only comfortable with authority when we are the ones wielding it; it is as if somehow we think humans are exempt from the need for authority. In our culture we rarely care to be subject to authority or to anyone telling us what we should or should not be doing. Because almost all Christian denominations have worked out authority structures, many people withdraw from the church rather than be subject to the church’s authority, though often using some other excuse. Or, sometimes even more destructively, individuals take their authority issues out on the church leadership by undermining or harassing the pastor.

There are, of course, extremes at which we may need to break with community – churches can be spiritually abusive (or even in rare cases physically abusive), at which point the moral thing to do may be to leave if things cannot be changed. But I would argue that most of us withdraw from religious life more for selfish and individualistic reasons than because of any real harm that is being done to us.

Tomorrow I’m going to talk about how community is conceived of in Benedictine life and in my tradition. But this is enough for now.

The more things change, the more things remain the same

When I was here last year, everything was new to me. Everything was fresh and I could constantly be surprised by the newness. Being here a second time gives me a chance to see how things have changed, yet how they have also remained the same.

One of the great strengths of Benedictine life is its timelessness. It has been around for fifteen hundred years, with the form of life remaining basically the same, yet always adapted for the time and place (after all, the monks a 1000 years ago didn’t have a fleet of cars).

Last year I found it took me a couple of days to get used to the liturgy. For someone who is not used to Benedictine liturgy, it takes a while to understand when to chant, when to respond, when to be quiet, and so on. I think that last year I was so focused on getting the form right, that I didn’t get to appreciate the content. Yesterday, I found that even after a year that I did not have to struggle to keep up, and so I’ve been able to enjoy and benefit from the content much more.

One of the main differences between this year and last year is that there are no junior monks here. Every year junior monks (those are monks who have not taken final vows and have typically been part of a monastery for less than four years) from different Benedictine monasteries around the country gather for a two week conference. Last year it was here at St. Gregory’s. So instead of 30 monks, there were probably closer to 90 monks here last summer. I particularly noticed the difference during the prayer service.

(A brief digression on the setup of prayers: The chapel is built in the classic Catholic architectural design of a cross. The monks who live at St. Gregory’s take places in the arms of the cross in pews, with half of the monks sitting on the left and the other half on the right, so that they are facing each other.)

Last year all of the junior monks sat in the first dozen or so rows of the chapel, with the local monks sitting in their assigned places in the arms of the cross. I sat behind the junior monks, often around row 20 or so. Once a back-row Baptist, always a back-row Baptist. As a result, I missed some of the dynamics of the prayer routine. Last year I just chanted every line of the Psalms and the rest of the liturgy, because all I could hear was every line. Last night I was able to sit in one of the front rows, so I could actually see some of the monks sitting in their places and I could hear how it worked better. It turns out that the chant will start on the left and the monks will read a stanza, then the monks on the right will respond with the next stanza. So this morning we read Psalm 105, and it started on the left with:

“Give thanks to the Lord, tell his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples.”

The monks on the right responded:

“O sing to him, sing his praise;
Tell all his wonderful works!
Be proud of his holy name,
Let the hearts that seek the Lord rejoice.”

And the monks on the left:

“Consider the Lord and his strength;
Constantly seek his face.
Remember the wonders he has done,
His miracle, the judgments he spoke.”

And so on.

What has been nice about noticing this dynamic is being able to take a break between passages. Last year there were times when I was so busy reading aloud that I did not get to fully absorb what I was reading. By taking a break I get a moment to hear what I just said and to hear what is being said in response. I find that it is deepening my experience and enjoyment of the liturgy.

Another big difference is the fact that some of the monks are no longer here. Last year Father Augustine took us on a tour of the chapel and told us all about the stained glass windows. He was retired and confined to one of those little motorized scooter cart things. He was a nice man and you could sense his kindness and patience. Father Augustine died in December. The monastery cemetery is right next to the chapel, , so last night I was able to take a moment and go say hello to Father Augustine. The world is a lesser place without people like him in it.

The class portion of our time is taught by the Director of Spiritual Life and Formation at Perkins, Dr. Fred Schmidt, and by the monastery’s director of spiritual formation, Father Charles Buckley. Last year, however, Father Charles was working with the junior monks, and so our Benedictine instructor was Father Theodore. Father Theodore was just beginning treatment for prostate cancer, but was a kind, thoughtful, and forthcoming instructor even in the midst of his struggle. I have not seen him since I arrived, and my understanding is that he has taken a turn for the worse. I hope to be able to visit with him at some point this week.

Of course, the monks would probably not say that the death of a brother means that something has changed. Unlike most of us, the monks are really in touch with the reality of their deaths. Death’s presence is as continuous as the liturgy. And, of course, the monks bodies are buried right here too, so they never leave the community. More on Benedictines and death later.

What's playing on my ipod

As I write this, I’m listening to the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, performed by St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary Choir. So we have a Baptist student at a Methodist seminary visiting a Benedictine monastery listening to Orthodox liturgy. I’m a one person ecumenical movement.

I’ve looked for a cd of Benedictine liturgy in English, because I thought some of my friends might be interested in hearing it, but so far have only been able to find it in Latin. The Orthodox liturgy is similar in sound, but different in emphasis. Benedictine liturgy revolves more around the Psalms, while I would say that the Orthodox liturgy, written by St. John Chrysostom, is more sacramental in nature. Interestingly enough, this morning the monks read parts of two of Chrysostom's homilies this morning.

What this is all about

For the second year I am spending a week at a Benedictine Monastery as part of my work toward a master’s degree in theology at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. As was the case last year, I am keeping a journal on-line, through this weblog (“blog”). If you are interested in my experiences from last year, click on this link from June 2003, and you can read all about it.

Part of the class requirement is that I keep this journal, but because I have been through this once, my journal will be slightly different this year. Last year the journal dealt with my conceptions of monastic live and how I might apply the lessons learned here in my daily life. While that continues to remain something for me to think about, I’m going to have a different emphasis this year. My work this year will be about community and Benedictine life.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the purpose of the church in Christian life and about the formation of community. Much of this is the result of a class I took last semester on “church in its social context” which involved me doing a study of a congregation. I was fortunate to get permission to study my own church, First Baptist Church of Galveston, and in the course of the study began to think about the theological issues involved in church life. I’ll be spelling out in more detail what those issues are for me in a later post, but I wanted to set the whole thing up early. I’ll also be adding additional information as I think of things about Benedictine life that interest me. I hope this blog can be a blessing to you. And if you have any questions, please feel free to email me.