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.