On Being a Blessing for All

BenedictChurchStatue1Abraham’s call to leave his country and kindred has been a monastic trope ever since there was a monastic presence in Christianity. Entering the monastic life does entail leaving behind the life one had been leading up to that time. It is also a venture into the unknown. Reading books on monasticism or even visiting monasteries do not fully prepare one for life after actually entering. The author of Hebrews said that Abraham did not know where he was going and lived “as in a foreign land.” (Heb. 11: 9) The author of Hebrews was not writing for monastics but for a Christian community under pressure. For this author, all Christians have “no lasting city. (Heb. 13: 14) Abraham did not simply turn his back on his family and his culture. God told him that he would “be a blessing” and through whom all families would be blest. (Gen. 12: 3) This would include being a blessing for the family he had left behind. Monks, for that matter remain involved with their families of origin and offer help when it is needed. Benedict himself had left the Roman culture of his time in which we was well-placed socially to enter a new life in which he became a pioneer for many sons and daughters in the millennium and a half since his life.

St. Paul’s prayer that we “may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth” (Eph. 3: 18) is fitting for the monastic quest as we seek to know God deeply through prayer in the Divine Office, in the Eucharist, and in our hearts. It is significant that this deep prayer, even when done individually, is communal as Paul is praying that the whole Ephesian congregation will seek this depth in prayer. Benedict wanted his monastics to prefer nothing to the Work of God. He also wanted his monastics to “run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

The closeness to God gained in prayer is imaged in the vine and the branches in John 15. As a branch clings to the vine, so should we cling to Jesus, keep the Abba’s commandments, and “abide in his love.” (Jn. 15: 10) This image of the vine and the branches is communal as the vine connects us deeply to each of the branches. Indeed, Jesus goes on to admonish us to love each other as we have been loved by Jesus and His heavenly Abba. It is through this love and not from intellectual study, that everything made known to Jesus by his Abba is also made known to us. The comprehending of the breadth and length and height and depth of God is a comprehension, partial to be sure, that comes from the same love that would lead us to lay down our lives for our friends if that should be required of us. In his Rule, Benedict would have his monastics serve one another. This applies to serving at tables, serving the sick, and in general tending to the needs of others.

Although we may be pilgrims and wanderers we, like Abraham, remain rooted in the hope for the city “whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11: 10) even as, like St. Benedict, we tend to the community we are called to serve in this life so that we may be blessings for all people.

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My reflections on the Rule of St. Benedict are available in my books Tools for Peace

 

In Memorium: René Girard 1923-2015

GirardIt has been a couple of bittersweet days of memories since getting the news of René Girard’s death. I have the feeling that many of us are cybernetically sitting around the fire sharing memories. Here are some of mine.

For many years, pretty much ever since I became a Benedictine monk (Episcopalian, not Roman Catholic) in 1972, I fretted about the close proximity of religion and violence. Given the teachings of Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tze and others, it didn’t make sense. Thomas Merton’s polemics against violence written from his hermitage at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky inspired me and assured me I was fretting about something worth fretting about. This concern eventually led me to René Girard. It took a few years and the help of others such as James Williams to realize that Girard provides the most cogent hermeneutic for understanding scripture as the unveiling of a loving, nonviolent God. More important, his anthropological insights impressed me with their explanatory power as to why religion had been connected with violence from the start and why it still happens. As a sidelight, during the 80’s, I was searching for a sense of direction as to how I was to evaluate postmodern thought, especially deconstruction as a Benedictine. I talked to the abbot of St. John’s Collegeville about visiting to meet with some of the Benedictine professors in the college, but I dropped that when I grasped Girard enough to realize that he gave me the sense of direction I was looking for and that many companions on the way were at hand. A couple of times, I heard Girard put that sense of direction in a nutshell when he told deconstructionist type thinkers that the solid reality under the deconstructive flux is the reality of the victim.

I first met René close to the turn of the millennium in San Francisco at a meeting of the AAR/SBL when he read what has turned out to be one of his most important papers: “Are the Gospels Mythical?” I was in the process of writing a lead review essay on Girard for the Anglican Theological Review and I was hoping to meet René and ask him some questions. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.) I got more than I expected. I was introduced to René after the lecture by James Williams, who had helped me with logistics for getting to the meeting, and I was invited to lunch along with several other people. I was placed across the table from René so that could discuss his ideas and get the clarifications I was looking for. When a question was outside his areas of expertise, he referred me to others who could help me. Over the years, as I managed to attend several meetings of COV&R while René was still at large, I had stimulating conversations with him, some short, some longer. There was a lot of friendly competition to get bits of time with René but he was amazingly approachable for a person who had become an intellectual leader for so many and one could talk to him in a relaxed way because that is how he talked.

Inspired by Girard and my Benedictine tradition, I wrote a book called Tools for Peace: The Spiritual Craft of St. Benedict and René Girard. I sent an advanced draft in manuscript to him for comments. When I received a letter a month later, I thought it was an amazingly prompt response. Yet René apologized for the delay, explaining that he had just gotten home from Avignon and he read the MS. first thing. His comments were generous and helpful.

I came to see, not surprisingly, that there was nothing unique in the way he treated me; it’s the way I’ve seen him treat everybody. I have seen him encourage everybody who works with his ideas whether or not he is personally sympathetic to their direction. I get the feeling that he knew his theory was much greater than him and it wasn’t anything he “owned” by a long shot. Along the way, I realized that Girard does not have followers; he has colleagues. That’s how he treated people. And not only colleagues, but friends.

St. Benedict: a Personal Sketch

BenedictChurchStatue1In his Dialogues, Pope Gregory I said that Benedict could not “otherwise teach than he himself lived.” Taking Gregory at his word, I will celebrate our holy father Benedict by drawing out of the Rule what we can glean about the kind of man he was.

The way Benedict carefully outlined the way the Divine Office should be done, listing what psalms should be done when, shows an ordered man who appreciated discipline and having everything and everyone in place. We see the same care in the way Benedict outlined the daily schedule for a balanced life. However, Benedict showed flexibility when he said that one can rearrange the office psalms if that should be deemed expedient. Although he wanted his monastics to be on time for the office, he cut some slack by allowing them to come before the Venite (Psalm 95) is recited, for which reason it should be said as slowly as possible. Although Benedict disapproved of boisterous laughter, he had a dry wit.

Benedict was anxious about infractions of the Rule such as hording unauthorized possessions. He cut out loopholes by compulsively listing everything he could think of that a monastic might try to keep on the sly, understanding the favorite monastic evasion: “There’s nothing in the Rule against it.” The way he went on about disciplining a dean, a priest, or the prior of the monastery who got puffed up suggests that Benedict had deep fears about what power and responsibility could do to a person. The fearful admonitions to the abbot to remember how accountable he is to God for the misdeeds of his monastics suggests that he was anxious over his own weaknesses and potential for misusing power. For all his exasperation for delinquent monastics, the convoluted nature of his chapters on punishment show the problem to be one for agonizing rather than self-righteous smugness. Punishments should not be vindictive but remedial, ending in reconciliation to the community if at all possible. In quoting the parable of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to after the stray he showed a deep solicitude for those who had fallen out of line.

Benedict had a flexible sense of fairness, believing that the abbot should treat each monastic appropriately, cajoling one, and scolding another, depending on the personality. In general, he really cared about the individuality of each person. He made a point of listening to what each member of the community had to say at a meeting, even the youngest person. He also wanted his monastics to share frankly their heavy burdens and ask for relief even if, under some circumstances, that might not be possible.

In general, Benedict had compassion and concern for the weaknesses of other people, surely out of an awareness of his own weaknesses. The weaknesses of the sick were of special care for Benedict and it was important to him that they were properly looked after. He felt the same way about guests who were also vulnerable, especially those who were poor. His concern that jobs be done competently was closely tied to his concern for the care of others, especially the weak. His worries over the abuse of power were motivated at least in part by the need to protect the vulnerable from the fallout of power plays in the monastery.

Late in life, Benedict’s compassionate concern for weaknesses deepened. In the second chapter on the abbot at the end of the Rule, surely a later addition, he quotes Isaiah’s words that the bruised reed should not be crushed and Jacob’s words that he shouldn’t drive his flocks too hard in one day. He warns against rubbing the vessel too hard so that it breaks. While in his younger years Benedict seems to have wanted to be feared at least a little, in the later chapter, Benedict greatly prefers to be loved rather than feared.

In following the first step of humility—to be constantly mindful of living in God’s presence–Benedict lived a recollected life. In this recollection, he sought God’s presence in everything and everybody: the guests, the sick, the tools of the monastery. He believed that both tools and people should be treated as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. In this practice, Benedict sought to arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear with his “heart overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

Humility (1)

garden1Humility tends to evoke images of groveling before potentates, as when Anna was ordered to bow before the King of Siam. Such popular images project human images on God that have nothing to do with Jesus who was more interested in finding the lost sheep of Israel than having anybody bow down to him.

The first and most fundamental step of humility for St. Benedict is that we keep “the fear of God always before [our] eyes and never forget it.” That is, before humility is anything else, humility is living in the presence of God. This is indeed something very different from groveling in the dust. This step reminds us of our constant need for God and also of God’s sustained presence in our lives. It is precisely in our desires that our need for others shows itself. We often think of needing others to fulfill our desires but it is really more a case of needing others to desire at all as René Girard has demonstrated. (See Human See, human want) We tend to deny our need for the desires of others and to claim these desires for ourselves, which is an act of serious pride. Humility involves, then, accepting the interaction of our desires with the desires of others and accepting our mutual need of each other’s desires. But as this first step of humility teaches us, we most need to be in tune with our need for God’s Desire.

We tend to forget not only God’s presence but, even more seriously, God’s Desire when we are immersed in the desires of other people. Our involvement with the desires of other people tends to become rivalrous, which draws us further from God’s Desire. The more we are grounded in God’s Desire and never forget it, the more constructive we are apt to be in the way we act in terms of the desires of others. For example, we are freer to treat others with respect and courtesy when we don’t need to “win” any human encounters because we are grounded in God’s Desire that has nothing to do with winning but has everything to do with providing for others.

The inner attitude of living in the memory of God’s presence is balanced in the twelfth and final step of humility with the external deportment that corresponds with the former. Humility should be noticeable whether one is “at the Work of God, in the oratory, the monastery or the garden, on a journey or in the field, or anywhere else.” In other words, at all times and all places. Once again we have outer action and inner attitude reinforcing one another just as they should during worship. The last thing Benedict would want would be for someone to put on an act. When we let our actions flow out from right inner attitudes, then these actions are natural with no sense of putting on airs. The more one is mindful of living in God’s presence, the more natural the deportment of humility will be. Moreover, paying attention to this outward deportment does tend to have a humbling effect that strengthens the right inner attitude.

(More about Humility can be read in Andrew Marr’s book Tools for Peace)

Vainglory – Enslavement to the Admiration of Others

garden1Although pride is usually posited as the opposite of humility, the early eastern monastics distinguished vainglory from pride. (Some translations use “boasting” or conceit.”) It is not always easy to see the distinction between the two but vainglory tends to be seeking glory from humans while pride is more directly related to our relationship with God; thinking, or acting as if we don’t need God. In terms of mimetic theory, vainglory is seeking to stir up the desire of other people for our own actions. Vainglory is acting like the hypocrites who make a public display of almsgiving “that they may be praised by others” (Mt. 6:2) or of their fasting for the same reason. Jesus says they have “received their reward,” which presumably is to be praised by other people. John Cassian says that vainglory “has many styles, forms, and “variations” as it can strike at everything we do since every action or even every inaction can be motivated by vainglory. (John Cassian, Monastic Institutes, p. 163)

This is a tough one because it is difficult not to want to be admired. Moreover, although it is vainglorious to want people to acclaim books we write or our other accomplishments, there is no sense and no edification in writing badly or doing bad work. When Benedict says that readers in church or at table should read well enough to edify the hearers, or that the guest quarters should be well prepared for visitors, he makes it clear that we should try to do every task assigned to us well, whether it is writing a book or vacuuming the hallway.

Some of the desert monastics were ruthless with themselves in their attempts to stifle vainglory. This was difficult because they were admired by many people who heard about their lifestyles. When a group of admirers came to see Abba Moses, they asked a monastic where he could be found. The monk told them to go away because Abba Moses was a fool and not worth seeing. They turned away, only to find out from some other monastics that it was Abba Moses himself who had driven them away. Some people take this reverse strategy to the extreme by assuming that if “men revile us and persecute us and utter all kinds of evil against us falsely on Jesus’ account than we are blessed. Maybe, but in a talk I heard Gil Bailie give, he said that we aren’t blessed if people revile us for being a clod. The problem is that we are still preoccupied with the opinions of others.

Jesus gives us a clue when he follows his admonition not to trumpet our almsgiving and other good deeds by adding: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret” (Mt. 6:3-4). In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount in Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes the tension with the admonition: “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:17) Bonhoeffer suggests that the trick is to hide our good works from ourselves. To do this, we must hide any admiration we get from them as well.

As John Cassian has pointed out, we can be haunted by vainglory when we write a book or vacuum the hallway or do anything else. The best we can do is concentrate not on ourselves or the admiration of others but upon the work itself. As an act of charity, we should try to write a good book that is helpful to others and vacuum the hallway to make the house nicer for those who live there. Benedict has the table reader pray the verse “Lord open my lips” before reading for the week to drive away pride (RB 38:3). Again he wants to reader to concentrate on reading well and not on how well one is reading. Perhaps the best advice Benedict has to offer is: “Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so” (RB 4: 62).

Mimetic Laughter

outsideSupper1Laughter is one of the more pleasant things in life, but is it just a frill? In his book The Phantom of the Ego,” Nidesh Lawtoo discusses the importance Georges Bataille attached to laughter for the emerging consciousness of a newborn child. Laughter is one of the first things a baby learns in imitation of a mother, father, or other caregiver. So it is that laughter comprises the first bond a newborn child makes. Interactions with babies may seem silly, something to be transcended with intellectual maturity and so we don’t value laughing with babies.

At its best, laughter is spontaneous and infectious. How many times do we laugh without knowing why, just because other people are laughing? When children are laughing helplessly as part of playing, happiness spreads to everyone around them. We don’t want to be left out of the joke, even if we don’t know what it is. Just think of some of our best times when we laughed with family and friends with no other reason than we were together and we got caught up in laughter.

There is a darker side to laughter, however. Actually it is a darker side of us and our mimetic desires, rather than a darker side of laughter. Often laughter is used to wound others, to score points against others, to put others down to lift ourselves up. Almost as soon as they learn how to speak, small children use laughter in this way. School playgrounds are filled with this sort of thing. Children learn all this from their elders, of course. Just as they imitated the spontaneous laughter of those around them as infants, they imitate the cruel humor that surrounds them as they grow older. Unfortunately, children usually learn this mode of laughter through being shamed by adults who think ridicule is a good way to train children for the hard knocks of life. Laughter continues to be a bond between people, but it is a bonding at the expense of someone, a butt of jokes, a victim.

When he discourages laughter as a sign of pride, St. Benedict certainly had this darker side of laughter in mind, although it is possible that he had a blind spot for the value of spontaneous, bonding laughter. Certainly, when laughter is a put-on act to gain attention, it is the opposite of spontaneous and it is a prideful act, an act seeking to dominate by drawing attention to oneself at the expense of others. I discuss this at length in my book Tools for Peace.

We get so habituated to using laughter as a weapon instead of a bond of love that we hardly know what the latter is. One way back is to use the wit we acquire to learn to laugh at ourselves and help others laugh at themselves. At its best, a comedy does just that. In Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” discussed in an earlier post, laughter is used as a means to overcome mimetic triangles and tensions and bring reconciliation. Shakespeare does this sort of thing masterly in comedies such as “Twelfth Night” and “As You like It.” In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare sets a trap for the unwary, leading us into joining the persecution of Shylock before unmasking this derisory laughter for what it is.

Life is too serious and awesome a thing to be left to sourpusses who always want to be on top of somebody else. We all need heavy doses of spontaneous, selfless laughter shared with others.

 

The Communal Good Shepherd

goodShepherdThe parable of the lost sheep crystallizes the Gospel as only a few others do.  It reverses our usual outlook that naturally tends to think along utilitarian lines where, as Caiaphas suggested, it is better for one person to die than the whole nation should perish. From the dawn of time, sacrificial logic has worked the same way: one person dies so that the community can be at peace, at least for a time. Jesus coyly asks the question: “which of you, having a hundred sheep, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine to look after the lost one?” The honest answer would be: Nobody. A lone shepherd couldn’t leave the ninety-nine without losing them and probably failing finding the lost one as well. And yet Jesus asks the question in such a way as to ridicule our normal way of thinking and then goes on to rhapsodize about the extravagant joy and celebration at finding the one lost sheep. It’s the same with the woman finding her lost coin. She throws a party that probably cost all ten of her coins.

This rejoicing over the lost sheep and the lost coin and the lost sinner shakes us up into realizing that it is not enough to renounce the sacrificial logic of Caiaphas. If we stop sacrificing people we think are expendable that is something but much more is asked of us. We are to actively and sacrificially care for the ones who are lost, who are considered expendable by society. In his Rule, Benedict writes powerfully about this parable in the context of a community dealing with a delinquent member. As I say in my book Tools for Peace, “Benedict captures the inner spirit of the Gospel by picturing the abbot throwing off any sense of abbatial dignity in much the same way the father of the prodigal son throws off his dignity by running out to greet the son he sees from afar.”

One might think that the good shepherd is sacrificing the ninety-nine sheep for the sake of the one. Maybe. But what really needs to happen is for the shepherd plus the ninety-nine to go after the lost sheep. In his chapters on dealing with a delinquent member of the community, Benedict turns the whole community into shepherds. Paradoxically, one of the ways (and a problematic one) is excommunication where all members must cooperate. It is important to realize this is intended as a means to reconciliation; sort of like a time out in a family which gives a trouble child an opportunity to reflect on his or her behavior. Moreover, the whole community shares the pain of the alienation. Benedict doesn’t leave it at that. He suggests that the abbot send wise monastics to comfort the excommunicated member and reason with him. Benedict then encourages the best remedy of all: prayer. This is a communal effort with the whole community praying for the one who is temporarily lost in the hope that this member will soon be found again. Reconciliation takes place in the monastic church, making this also a communal event.

Benedict gives us one example of living out a difficult scenario. In each instance, we have to find different means to the same end although Benedict’s techniques give us a sense of direction. In the Body of Christ, all of us are called upon to act the part of the good shepherd.