Sunday, June 28, 2009

(26) Harmonious Labor

"In the Benedictine tradition, labor is dignified and so are the
laborers. In a society where work was a sign of lower status in
society, where nobles never expected to work a day in their
lives, where slavery was considered a natural state to life,
everyone worked in Benedict's community."
1990, p.89.]

Comment: Sr. Joan is a former Benedictine prioress and
well-known author of monastic books. And her notation
about labor is striking, in that it addresses the early period
of the Benedictine Order. St. Benedict himself hailed from
a Roman aristocratic family, but many of the monks in his
early monasteries were illiterate. He wrote his Rule to be
an equalizer amongst fellows. They were laymen, and he
was dubious about priests in his community. Seniority
basically was dependent on one's entrance date into the

However, after more than 1500 years, the priesthood had
infiltrated the monasteries. Many of the priests became
"choir monks," whereas the common brothers came to be
known as "field monks." Status entrenched itself almost to
the present day. In modern times, this kind of status has
broken down. And now everyone has their share of common
duties in the monastery.
[See essay (12) Discrimination.]

Years back I knew a very erudite scholar monk. One day I
encountered him involved in back-breaking labor, doing
yard work, dressed "down," with shirt off because of the heat.
I asked him whether this was a usual chore. "Oh, yes!" And
he did not resent it, because it provided a balance in his life.

He loved the classroom where he taught young monks. He
enjoyed the quiet of the library where he did his research.
And he loved the serenity of his room, where he wrote his
findings. But, above all, he loved doing yard work for the
relaxation of his body.

It's neat when a person can live a balanced life that includes
both mental and physical effort. And sometimes one can
discover creativity in both kinds of effort.

Like the monk, I have long been a scholar. And I was lucky,
in that I found an escape engaging in landscaping. I spent
most of my days researching and writing, but by a stroke of
luck I was asked to sit on a neighborhood committee created
for the purpose of landscaping a large portion of land where
we lived.

Working with nursery professionals, I learned lots about different
kinds of trees and plants, about soils and maintenance. After
this neighborhood project was completed, I stood struck by our
accomplishment. We had created a place of beauty. In time I
started doing personal landscaping for myself, for friends as well.
I came to realize what a creative outlet this had become for me.

Still I continued as a scholar--still do. And even as I grow older,
I labor in the yard, building gardens, patios, where we can rest
and meditate. Probably I knew deep-down that this was a
monastic endeavor, creating both intellectually and physically,
giving time to both, becoming a seamless effort that is natural.

No doubt this sense of harmony exists in many spiritual traditions,
but I'm glad the Benedictines stress such.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

(25) The Edge

"As human beings continue to evolve, so do our conceptions
of God...And it is through our very conceptions of the divine
that God's voice can speak to and through us, finding more
volume and resonance as the architecture of thought becomes
more sophisticated and inclusive."
[David Steindl-Rast, O.S.B.,"Integral Christianity: Theory and
Practice. Part 1. The Relationship of the One and the Many,"

Comment: The above paragraph is from the summary of an
interview with Brother David, a world famous Benedictine monk.,
who has been long involved in the Buddhist Dialogue undertaken
by the Benedictine Order. He also has interfaced with scientific
pundits as well, working towards a new theological understanding
in light of new scientific discoveries.

Reading this specific idea about our evolving conceptions of
God, I was comforted--in that this is how I have felt for a very long
time. I have felt lonely, too, amongst the religious circles in which
I have frequented. Talking to one "authority," he sympathized with
me, implying that I was stepping ahead.

Well maybe so, but I've long felt uncomfortable with this so-called
stepping ahead. There's little doubt in my mind that the finer monk
minds are indeed stepping ahead, but perhaps they have a built-in
support system amongst their own. Maybe.

And whatever might this "stepping ahead" mean? Well it points
right back to Brother David's thought about our evolving conceptions
of God. The more trained a person might be in theology, philosophy,
and science, probably the more sophisticated conceptions they might
hold about God. That makes sense. But where does this stepping
ahead lead? To the Edge?

No doubt people in this situation vary regarding their conceptions.
I can only speak for myself. Long aware of our propensity towards
god-imagery down through the ages, historically it's possible to trace
the evolving sophistication involved. Our images of God do indeed
shift and change over time--and, eventually, some of these "leading
edge" concepts might filter into more traditional religious systems.

But in the here-and-now pioneering, those on the cusp of new god-
imagery usually have to pay the piper when it comes to relating at the
parochial level of religious systems. In the old days, some pioneers
were literally persecuted and even killed. Nowadays, it's more like
being ostracized--or worse, being ignored. Still, no matter the religious
system, the God it worships is a result of earlier pioneers. In time new
god-imagery does appear. It's all a process, I guess.

As for myself, I am much engaged in evolving god-imagery. I try very
hard to connect it with my own religious tradition. Sometimes it is quite
difficult, in that I feel I am manipulating raw data to fit a pre-conceived
hypothesis. However, I am finally beginning to break away from this
kind of position--and trying to be more impartial, more honest if you
will. I am now inclining towards simply letting the new knowledge
come into our consciousness unobstructed by archaic notions.

No doubt it will get even more lonely in the midst of this effort, still it's
a comfort to know that some Benedictine monks are sharing this Edge.

Monday, June 22, 2009

(24) Sharing

"The development of Benedictine houses into centres of civilization
drew to them not only aspirants for the religious life, but many and
divers persons desirous of sharing in various ways the benefits
accruing to that life."
[D.H. Turner, "Guests, Who Are Never Lacking in a Monastery," in
THE BENEDICTINES IN BRITAIN, George Braziller, 1980, p. 54.]

Comment: This publication was first sponsored by the British Library,
commemorating the fifteen-hundred anniversary of the Benedictines
back in 1980. At that time, D.H. Turner was with the Department of
Manuscripts, the Reference Division, the British Library.

Back in the Middle Ages the Benedictines had both an inner school
(for the monks) and an outer school (for the children of the European
aristocracy). And in modern times the Benedictine Order--at least in
Great Britain and the Americas--have established preparatory schools.
Originally they were schools for boys, but now some are coeducational.

Never a great many, but now these schools are occasionally closing.
I knew a monk who became the abbot of his English abbey. He
began attending the abbey's school when he was ten-years-old.
And following graduation, he stayed on as a monk. His heart was
always with his school, so close-by. By the time he became abbot,
hard times were hitting the monastery. Too few monks, too, growing
older by the minute. He passed away and did not see the sale of his
beloved school. The monks just could no longer manage both the
abbey and the school.

Hence the school was turned into a rather elegant condo project.
As for the few monks left, well most have engaged in the abbey's
retreat program.

As for retreats, Benedictine houses have long been available for
both individual and group retreats. Focusing on contemplative
spirituality for the most part, they reach a goodly number of people.
These days it seems there is such a need for such.

So even as their schools fade away, the Benedictines still share
their tradition by opening their doors to spiritual seekers. And more
so, now, the monks are publishing books, creating websites, that
extend their monastic benefits. It would seem that the Benedictines
are keeping-up with the times.

It would be interesting to speculate over what new ways that the
Benedictines might share their tradition in the future. Maybe
eventually we might spot different ways the monks are discovering
when it comes to their sharing.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

(23) Stripping Self

"What I was to find in the novitiate, and since in the monastic life, was
not the outward or bodily austerities that I had feared, but something
more demanding: the stripping of self, the grappling with the 'old man,'
the resistance within and the struggle as the Lord shaped the old into
the new..."
[Alan Rees, O.S.B., an article "Love Bade me Welcome" in A TOUCH
OF GOD: EIGHT MONASTIC JOURNEYS, edited by Maria Boulding,
St. Bede's Publications, 1982, p. 57.]

Comment: At the time of publication, Dom Alan was at Belmont
Abbey, a Benedictine house in Great Britain. And before he became
a monk, he was a successful musician.

What stood out for me in the above paragraph was the fundamental
challenge of "conversio morum," forming oneself into the Christ Life.
But Dom Alan has it right, that one must strip their old self. Of course,
this situation holds true for any successful trek into a finer life--whether
a monk or in any other honorable vocation.

So how do you "strip" your old self? Just my opinion, it's maybe more
growing out of it--one level at a time. It's about development, evolving
if you will. Some folk believe we just have to *deny* our self; and,
frankly, that's pretty hard to do. Others think that our old self is
necessarily bad, and we must overcome our self. In some cases,
perhaps there is some serious truth in this. Maybe our old self is
simply a mess, unacceptable to the situation to which we aspire.

I've been guilty riling over my self, old or otherwise. Such an approach
creates a lot of turbulence, and just maybe is actually a "negative" when
it comes to stripping self. The Benedictine approach involves a lifetime
working towards the Christ Life within and without.. It's about plateaux
we encounter as we grow monastically, as we develop spiritually.

It's about a quiet, ever present formation process that consists not only
of intellectual learning but also social learning. Benedictine books are
there for anyone to find, if they wish. (I have always found something
new and important for my life in every such book come my way.) In
the monastery, there's the novitiate, and afterwards special studies
that are monastically inclined. But the School of the Lord's Service
is much more. It's about appropriate behavior towards one's neighbor;
and in the monastery, that neighbor is constantly in your life. There
are set forms of behavior, right down to the proper position of the
hands as well as particular ways to bow.

On the surface, maybe these forms of behavior may seem superficial--
but they are not, in that they become ingrained and help develop us
towards directing proper attention towards the other or the Other.

But maybe the most pointed approach involved when it comes to
"conversio morum," that monastic conversion of manners, is
contemplation. There are varied approaches when it comes to
contemplation, whether via meditation, prayer, or Lectio (pondering
deeply on spiritual readings). In the monastery, specific time is
made for the various means of contemplation.

However, outside the walls, those following the Benedictine Tradition
will have to provide their own discipline when it comes to "conversio
morum." Could be tough going, there's no denying it. Regardless,
it becomes more readily possible if one does *not* go too hard on their
old self--but, rather, gently enters the stream of positive change towards
the monastic goal of the Christ Life.

Still, there's always a wrench-in-the-wheel. This formation, whether
inside the monastery or beyond the walls, will never cease--even unto
the end of your life. One cannot quite make it into perfection. And if
one thinks that they are perfect, they become suspect. Still, it's worth
the effort in my view, growing into an ever finer maturity.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

(22) In a Nutshell

"• We acknowledge the primacy of God: to look for God in ordinary
events of each day.
• We reverence all persons: To respect each person regardless of
class, background or professional skill.
• We reverence all Creation: To appreciate and to care lovingly for
all the goods of this place.
• We listen reverently with the ear of our heart: To hear keenly and
sensitively the voices of persons and all created beings.
• We are committed to stability of place: To appreciate the dignity
of work in God's Creation.
• We foster an environment of deep change--conversion: Enthusiasm
for conversion.
• We integrate a commitment to the common good and respect for the
individual: To develop a robust sense of the common good.
• We call the community together for counsel to make decisions: To
cultivate rootedness and a shared sense of mission: to stand firm in
one's promises.
• To practice hospitality and respect for all persons: To offer warmth,
acceptance and joy in welcoming others.
• We are committed to practicing simplicity and frugality: To be content
with living simply and finding balance in work, prayer and leisure.
• We are committed to practicing justice: To work toward a just order
in our immediate environment and in the larger society.

"Even though these values are targeted for Benedictine colleges, they
obviously appeal to the world at large."
[John Klassen, O.S.B., a presentation about "Benedictine Values in an
Educational Environment,"]

Comment: It was fortuitous happening across this presentation by
Abbot John. He nearly slips into a "nutshell" all the basics of the
Benedictine Tradition, ably making them applicable to the world-at-large.

What more can be said? There's certainly not much that I could add
without moving into a tome, in that I could write reams about each point--
how they could easily relate to this or that issue or need.

About all I want to say in this post is that Abbot John's presentation about
Benedictine values illustrates noticeably how beautifully balanced
Benedictine life can be, whether inside the monastery, whether beyond
the walls, out on the streets of this world. If practiced fully, what a better
world we would have.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

(21) Ancient Anchor

"Faith is a going out of ourselves, a journey towards the only
goal that can rightly call us out of ourselves, the living God."
REDEMPTION, the Liturgical Press, 1981, p. 101.]

Comment: I had occasion to meet the late Abbot Alban, who
at the time was retired. He was born almost a hundred years
ago, and he was the epitome of the traditional Benedictine monk.
Hence his book reflects his traditional perspective, which is
a very devoted and pious perspective. When I knew him, I
wasn't "where he was" as a traditionally oriented person. Still
he was kind and gentle, and I responded to his beautiful
Benedictine soul with great respect.

My "faith" has taken me elsewhere, even though I have oft
prayed that I could have a traditional sense of faith like Abbot
Alban. He was a monk most of his adult years, whereas I
traipsed around the world, enmeshed deep in the problems
of this often disturbed world. And I came from an investigative
milieu, based on information and analysis. So Abbot Alban
and I were almost like from two different planets--so I shouldn't
be surprised that our faith perspectives would differ, considerably.

But Abbot Alban was quite right to describe Faith as going out
of ourselves, as a journey whose goal was God. He was
talking about the great Benedictine mandate: To Seek God.

I can't remember the exact time of my own "calling," if you will.
But one day I didn't have faith, and the next day something within
me was spurring me on more towards a religious life. It was
the strangest situation, because I had spurned Religion most of
my years up to that point.

Without going into all the fine details, with hindsight--looking
back--I have to admit that after this strange calling, I experienced
years and years of wonderful adventures "seeking God." It's
just that I looked in different corners, following the paths that
I felt directed towards--by the Holy Spirit? I definitely think so,
because the Fruits of my Contemplation proved not only
insightful but also helpful in terms of my own spiritual growth.

Over the years I have found the elements, the infrastructure of
the Benedictine Tradition very helpful to me personally. I was
like a sailor sailing around the globe, pulling into many ports of
call, looking for that Greater Truth that stands behind all of it.
Need I say that I have only found glimpses, but what I did see
proved profound.

I like to say that I sail on my good ship "Benedictine." It's a
worthy metaphor, because it provides stability in rough waters,
it provides obedience to a good Captain that points the way,
it provides a haven for reflection and personal growth, and
it provides a platform of Tradition upon which I can draw, even
as I plough around in new territories, visiting really different
ports of call.

So though I see myself holding a non-traditional sense of Faith,
I honor that ancient traditional anchor--as personified by that
old monk I once knew, the late Abbot Alban.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

(20) Authority

"Who are our teachers in God? Who are the authorities, rather than
the powers, in our lives?"
[Eric Dean, SAINT BENEDICT FOR THE LAITY, the Liturgical Press,
1989, p. 18.]

Comment: At the time of this book's publication Eric Dean served
as a Presbyterian minister as well as a professor of Humanities.
He also was an ecumenical oblate at a Benedictine abbey. As for
the question he posed above, well it's one of those critical questions
which one ponders over religion or spirituality.

It's a question that has taken me years and years to work through.
"Authority" sometimes has been so tainted that it seems nearly
impossible to accept these days. It's not just all the misdoings of
power-mongers in Religion, but also amongst the same kind of
crowd in Politics/Government and in the Commercial sector. It's
all so sad, really, to see the downfall of honorable Authority.

This situation leaves lots of people in a hard place, especially
when it comes to our concept(s) of God. Just observation, but
many folk apparently need to be told about God by some recognized
authority. If nothing else, it's like starting a car that hopefully will
move you along. But lest we forget, the driver of the car is *you.*

So is it ultimately that you are the authority? Up-to-a-point, perhaps.
In the great religions, the individual is expected to mature and start
thinking more deeply so as to grow into the ideal(s) of their religion.
For some this does happen, but it surely is different for each and
every one who works to ever higher plateaux of be-ing.

I used to scratch my head, wondering why so many of us remain
at kindergarten levels when it comes to their religious study, while
at the same time so many of us study carefully the many other
disciplines we employ to become skilled, which we need to make
a living. It would seem that our Faith Systems would encourage a
more depth approach when it comes to religious thought.

Again, while studying Religion I moved into the realm of Spirituality.
That's another kettle of fish, I believe. For me Religion represents a
collective, culturally transmitted Faith System. It's usually inherited,
but it can only grow and develop if we continually inject more depth
and expanse into it. Religion's authorities, I believe, need more and
more to become wise teachers who will help all of us rise to ever
higher levels in faith development and ensuing positive, concrete

On the other hand, there's personal experience when it comes to
God in our lives. For me, that's Spirituality. And here we need
reach a point where we recognize personally, within our souls, that
there *really* is Some One present that is Beyond us! And if we
finally come to recognize this special Presence, it is this that is our
Ultimate Authority.

I tend to think of this Ultimate Authority as the Holy Spirit. The
challenge, of course, is discerning the message(s) we receive
from the Spirit. Some of have become quite adept at this, hence
we have saints, mystics, spiritual masters who provide a quite
different kind of authority than those wearing the robes of Religion.

Still this is too simplistic. Sometimes a great Spiritual Authority
can be wearing those religious robes, but more than often they
have to be careful--because they are in the service of an institutional
environment. They have to walk a fine line, sometimes needed just
to survive!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

(19) If only, If only

" there a sense in which we speak of Benedict and his rule as
offering an orientation for Europe's future...does the Holy Rule still
provide a beacon for common life...If there is a civilisation to be
saved, what are the dimensions of the Rule that point us towards
the essentials that have to be preserved and nourished?

"I shall outline three aspects of the Rule which are of cardinal
importance...(i) what the Rule has to say about the use and the
meaning of time, (ii) what the Rule has to say about obedience,
and (iii) what the Rule has to say about participation."

"[Time]...Benedict describes a carefully structured day, a rhythm
incorporating labour, study and prayer...labour is not everything;
the monastery is an environment in which human beings grow
mentally and spiritually...where they need time for reflection.

"The self that is brought into the light in study and prayer is a self
that lives in a material world where crises and limitations call for
response...Authenic culture needs rhythms of activity and retrieval,
recovery of the self...Culture has to be more than the round of
producing and being entertained. It must be the context in which
humanity is allowed to grow.

"about Lectio, the goal [Benedict] presumes is that of self-
knowledge, humility and growth in holiness: the dimension of
study in the monastic life is not about developing intellectual skills
for their own sake, but a way of advancing in understanding of
oneself as made in God's image...

"A civilised life structured around the vision of the Rule is one in
which economics is not allowed to set itself up as a set of activities
whose goals and norms have no connection with anything other
than production and exchange.

"The environmental question, with all its current urgency, is not
just one of survival; it is about our capacity to understand the world
in which we live as more than a storehouse of useful raw material
for us. It is about how we learn to see the world that indeed--in
some sense 'belongs to us.'

"[Obedience]...the abbot has to listen and attend with intense
concentration to the specific requirements and gifts of the
individual members of the community. [Obedience also involves]
a sort of obedience to every brother.

"[As for the greater, outside community...the Rule applies in that]
the scope of your involvement in the community's life that defines
your standing, [is] not any external criterion such as wealth or
social status or education, or even chronological's
voice in the community is automatically dismissed or minimized.

"Benedictine an equally unambiguous refusal of
any sort of competitive struggle for the dominance of one individual
or group...Authority is the negotiating of a variety of gifts in order to
sustain a society in which all are at work for the sake of each other's

"[Participation]...The monastery both demands from each a positive
and distinctive share in sustaining its life...This cannot be a community
in which some live at the expense of others...Participation in the common
life is also assurance that you will not suffer alone or ignored."
[Excerpts from a presentation by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of
Canterbury, in 2006.]

Comment: "If only, if only!" The world goes on, passing-by that special
wisdom that comes along periodically--whether the wisdom of St.
Benedict or other great voices that have graced this planet. Still some
of us, like Rowan Williams, dare to hope against hope.

Monday, June 8, 2009

(18) God-Territory

"To explore into God is prayer, not in the conventional sense, but in the
sense that theology is a prayer. As we explore the God-territory
prayerfully, we suddenly reach a point where we discover that it gives
itself to us. God and the whole universe are giving themselves
continuously to us."
[Fritjof Capra & David Steindl-Rast, O.S.B. with Thomas Matus,

Comment: Brother David is a very interesting Benedictine monk.
Back when this book was under discussion, Brother David was
spending some time at the Camaldolese monastery at Big Sur,
California. He was interfacing with the world renown Esalen Institute,
located nearby. At the time the physicist Fritjof Capra was working
there. He and Brother David, as well as Thomas Matus--who is a
Camaldolese contemplative--were engaged in a year-long discussion
about the New Cosmology and the New Theology. Eventually their
discussion was published in book form--and it's a real eye-opener,
which no doubt I'll draw upon many times.

But in this quote, I was struck by the above statement that God
and the universe are constantly giving themselves to us. Well,
sometimes I think that they are "giving" more than we can gulp

Currently I am working into a story that I am writing, that includes a
chapter called "Cosmic Contour." My homework for this involves the
various theoretics spinning around amongst the scientific community,
when it comes to the nature of the universe. It's too, too boggling
and occasionally I think that I might as well give-up writing my story.

Just trying to keep up, I not only read into the new cosmic theories
but I also attend cutting-edge lectures by scientists in our community--
a community of a goodly number of Nobel laureates and innovative
scientific establishments. Yesterday, I heard a famous astronomer
discussing the WMAP satellite observations that are "consistent with a
universe made up of 4% "normal" matter, 22% dark matter, and 74%
dark energy. I walked out of the lecture hall somewhat stupefied. I
just could not process the Mystery of it all.

It's bad enough that when they can't explain something theologically,
the priests refer to God as a "Mystery." But in yesterday's lecture the
astronomer, talking of dark matter and dark energy, said such is still
very much a Mystery.

Taking a walk afterwards, I felt unsettled. It's easy to say "this or that"
about God and the universe; but when one starts doing some serious
investigating, it can lead to a Mystery that one cannot readily explain.
So should we stop being explorers? I doubt that we could--it's not in
our human nature to sit around like a glob and not be interested in
those big questions we are always posing.

I can only attest for myself, but those big questions eventually lead to
new answers--whether about God, whether about the universe. So I
guess that I'll just relax a bit and get back on track with my explorations.
Maybe a prayer, all this. But it certainly takes commitment.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

(17) Charism of Service

"Benedictine spirituality refuses to glorify a life of false frugality or
fabricated irritations...[Rather Benedictines] are to 'keep watch of
their own souls' guarding themselves against the pitfalls of any
position: arrogance, disinterest, unkindness, aloofness from the very
people the position is designed to serve."
THE AGES, Crossroad, 1992, pp. 104-105.]

Comment: Sister Joan is a famous monastic, and a former prioress.
In recent years she has come up and close to the many issues and
problems faced in modern society. And she seems a "natural" when
it comes to incorporating Benedictine wisdom in her discussions.

Interestingly, I had previously wrritten an essay about the Benedictine
Soul that especially leaned more towards one's inner development.
But here--with Sister Joan--we encounter the other side of the coin.
There's a balance when it comes to Benedictine life. There's the
more passive, contemplative life, and there's the quiet active life of
service. And the two should be seamless, if you will.

Most of my Benedictine contacts have been active in religious pursuits,
either as theologians, spiritually-oriented philosophers, and most often
as teachers in their Benedictine schools. Occasionally one finds a
Benedictine monk who has delved into science. (An aside, but once
I heard a retired abbot mention that if he had his life to live over, he
would become a physicist first and then a priest. Having studied
science and systems from a spiritual perspective, I quite understand
where this former abbot was heading. :)

In future, whether in the monasteries, maybe beyond the walls, active
Benedictines will move into even more diverse professions that
represent their charism of service. I know that Benedictine sisters have
begun to more into new territories that reach beyond their particular
religious perspectives. These days many female Benedictines are into
nursing, into hospital administration, into social services, etc.

Perhaps not too far off in time, we will see this active aspect of the
Benedictine Tradition proliferate as more and more non-traditional
monastics begin to relate their spiritual tradition with their naturally
more diverse activities in the communities and societies in which they

And, yes, as Sister Joan mentions, the Benedictine soul need be wary
falling into the pitfall of negatives that detract from their active life.
On the other hand, perhaps a more appropriate approach would be to
not only stress, but *study* more seriously the active part of their life.
The possibilities, the potentialities, lay waiting when it comes to the
Benedictine charism of service.

These days the horizon for service has blown sky-high, including ever
new and fresh territories in which one can lend a hand. So, yes, why
not have a retired Benedictine abbot ponder over what could be--even
in the field of science. He recognized that the New is upon us.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

(16) Benedictine Soul

"It occurs to me that rather than be so thrilled that the abbot
chases me around with books in his hand--oh, special me,
favored oblate--I should be humbled. Spending an entire
weekend with oblates, I see the kinds of books they read and
apparently absorb. I am quite the lazy, undisciplined one,
and my poor abbot is just trying to get me to the level of the
rest of my class."
2002, p. 169.]

Comment: Carol Bonomo is a Benedictine Oblate residing
in Southern California. Her book is a delight. And it provides
a lot of insight about the goings-on in a Benedictine abbey--
and, also, about her own monastic growth under the tutelage
of a retired abbot in his 90s.

Her book makes me think back, about the delightful time I had
studying under a much younger Benedictine abbot. In my case,
I gulped down Benedictine books like mana. Good food for the
soul. However, what we talked about during spiritual direction
was not so much book-learning but rather about becoming
*more* a Benedictine soul.

Book-learning is necessary for anyone wishing to master a
discipline, but with the Benedictines there's so much more that
is needed. It's about honing one's soul in a certain way. We
have the Rule of St. Benedict. We can read it (over and over),
and we can have others tell us what it means, via books, or
by example.

But what I learned from my abbot was mainly via example.
My good abbot lived a Christ Life, which I greatly honored. He
also was a superb listener--and "Listening" is a primary Benedictine
feature. He listened to the pain in my soul. He listened to the
hope in my soul. He even listened to the ambition in my soul.

It's not wrong to have ambition. What is important is the character
of that ambition. Important, too, is how ambition is carried out.
At the time I had my sessions with my abbot, I was extremely
ambitious about become a true-blue, successful Benedictine.

So I crammed in all the book-learning I could about the great
Benedictine Tradition. Tried to lock-step into the Rule, working
to connect strict medieval measures with my more diverse modern
life. Ultimately I over-loaded, nearly burning out. Hence my sense
of failure, my pain, brought me to my abbot.

He slowly taught me how to listen to my soul. This involved prayer,
it involved meditation, contemplating, even psychological under-
standing. He helped me "mine" the depths of my soul. And what I
found was something True and hopeful.

This kind of soul work is monastic work, if you will. Once one has
reflected in this way, then the book-learning can come into play.
All in all, it is about honing soul, ever striving towards becoming a
Benedictine soul.

My good abbot is gone now. God took him in his prime. Me? Each
day I pray my abbot's soul to keep. He was a great Benedictine soul.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

(15) Unexpected Humility

" [An] explorer who found spiritual renewal in the Wilderness was
John Muir (1838-1914), founder of the Sierra Club. From the
majestic Yosemite in California, Muir wrote: 'God's love covers all
the earth as the sky covers it, and also fills it in every pore. And this
love has voices heard by all who have ears to hear'...Muir could
best hear the voice of divine love when he climbed the mountains.
For him mountains were as spiritual as they are rocky; he imagined
them to be alive with the divine presence."
REVERENT LIFE, Paulist Press, 1991, p. 55.]

Comment: At the time of this publication, Charles Cummings was
a Trappist-Cistercian at the Holy Trinity Abbey in Utah. Interestingly,
I came across his book a short time after visiting Zion National Park
in Utah. I had been profoundly struck by the soaring monoliths,
looking at those high mountains whilst sitting amongst cottonwood
trees overlooking the Virgin River.

I had just come off completing a major thesis about the mystery of
the universe, integrating the "Cosmogenesis" theory of Teilhard
de Chardin with David Bohm's theory of the "Implicate Order." My
work concentrated on the theoretical, but after it was finished I felt
a longing to touch and feel God's Creation close-up, right here at
home on our Earth. Hence began my long series of visits to the
great parklands in the American and Canadian West, as well as
to the lagoons of the Baja.

All this eventually led me to become a docent naturalist in
addition to being a philosopher of science and evolutionary
systems. And over the years I have tried to integrate these
pursuits with the work of the Spirit.

Before reading Fr. Charles book, I had wondered how I might
understand these pursuits of mine in terms of the Benedictine
Tradition. Of course I knew that for centuries the monks had
worked the land, had understood the intricacies of agriculture.
Having visited monasteries, too, I knew the monks had long
been engaged in horticulture. Their beautiful gardens and
landscaping attests to this.

So, years later, I was not surprised to discover that some
Benedictine houses are providing ecological retreats. I haven't
attended any of these retreats, but I imagine they are responsible
approaches towards working into a better understanding of God's
good Creation as reflected by our small, sweet planet.

I do know that surely the Benedictines are *not* discussing
pantheism in these retreats. Rather, from their perspective, they
must be discussing "panentheism." Whereas pantheism identifies
God as the universe, panentheism considers God to be greater
than the universe but includes and interpenetrates the universe!
Yet, this returns us to theory--and I really wanted to get my hands
dirty, so to speak.

As I had put, I wanted to touch and feel God in Creation. I wanted
to be at that point of which Muir speaks--in that he could feel God's
love when he climbed the mountains.

From mountains, up to mountain tops, I have gained an unexpected
humility. One day I found myself standing before the Giant Sequoia,
redwoods that boast being the tallest trees on the planet. They were
also very old. "Majestic" was the only word I could conjure while
gazing at these massive life forms. I felt like a little speck in
comparison. This kind of humility is honorable I believe. It's not
about being a drudge, or worthless, but rather more about an
honest acceptance that there is far more in God's Creation than
just me or even humanity.

Still God has given us eyes, minds, feelings to gaze out on his
Majesty of Creation. It has not been difficult (for me) to sense
God's Presence in its midst. However, there seems a call of not
only humble appreciation but a certain *responsibility* towards
this Earth Garden that God has provided.

As I continue down this path, it will be interesting to reconnoiter
additional Benedictine publications that stress a responsible
ecological outlook which, in turn, links with spirituality.

Monday, June 1, 2009

(14) Living Stones

"St. Peter, lingering over the image of the temple, emphasises
that we are its 'living stones' and that we ought to make ourselves
available for building a spiritual house. However alone you may
be, you have a social role to play, and you cannot opt out of this
without betraying the interests of the community..."
[Anonymous Monk, Alan Neame (trans.), THE HERMITAGE WITHIN:
SPIRITUALITY OF THE DESERT, Paulist Press, 1977, p. 127.]

Comment: Ancient desert monks were not required to attend church
every Sunday, rather perhaps once a month. There's a story about
one such ancient monk showing-up for church, and an official asked
"what are you doing here?" At that time the desert monk had other
duties than church attendence.

The Benedictines came after these desert solitaries, and their's
was a communal existence, with daily mass (after priests became
the dominant members). Their monasteries had a chapel that
served as a church.

In today's world, Benedictines behind the walls still remain
communal and are true to "church," whether Roman Catholic or
Anglican. Benedictine oblates, too, are expected to support their
parish church and also try to attend church at their affiliated
monastery periodically.

As for myself, I've had a hard time with "church." Too much of an
idealist, I suppose. I really did want so much to believe that we are
"living stones," that the Church is the "Body of Christ." Rather, more
than often, I found dissension. Historically we read of the constant
splintering of Church into more and more denominations, created
out of dissension and dissatisfaction. Historically, also, the warts of
the Church are highly prominent, committing questionable acts in
the name of God.

It all became rather sad for me. My high hope for Church seemed so
lost. I felt lost as well. Still I look back at the Benedictines, and I have
to admit that this great monastic Order *presented* Church at its best.
The Benedictines were part of the great prayer-wheel for the Church.
Monks were the great spiritual part of the Church. God was the focus,
and still remains the focus in Benedictine communities. The great
Rule of St. Benedict stresses hospitality--and the Benedictine houses
and their chapels and churches are open, running gently, never
harsh, rarely opinionated. And historically I have never found an
incident when Benedictines ever participated in cruel atrocities
toward others.

In my estimation, the Benedictines genuinely tried to be "living stones"
of God's Temple. But no one is perfect, and probably never will be.
Still, it is the trying that is important. And this effort to be a living stone
can be carried forth beyond the monastery's walls, even outside the
institutional church, on into the many communities of the world, where
there is always such need for spiritual support.

We are now undoubtedly in experimental times when it comes to
how we might renew Church. The "living stones" of the Temple may
ultimately come to understand that the whole of God's Creation *is*
the Real Temple. And come this realization there might come a
New Revelation.

Could be that some Benedictines, within the monastery or outside
the walls, are already in this New Vanguard of Living Stones.