An Extraordinarily Ordinary Saint

BenedictChurchStatue1St. Benedict, as portrayed in the Dialogues of Pope St. Gregory I, is an imposing figure, performing miracles with the flick of the hand or the eyes. The St. Benedict we see in the Rule composed by him is rather ordinary, even boring. That’s okay with Benedict; he wasn’t trying to be anyone special. He was a man devoted to a life of prayer in community who was put into a position of leadership and the responsibilities that entails. He wrote a Rule for his community to give some spiritual teaching and practical guidelines. A lot of abbots had done the same. Benedict cribbed much of his own Rule from one of the monastic rules lying around. He probably didn’t expect it to be remembered for long except in the eyes of God. That’s all that really mattered to him.

The document Benedict drew from is an interesting contrast to Benedict’s Rule. It is called The Rule of the Master, authorship unknown. The Master seems to have thought that he was writing the ultimate rule to end all monastic rules. Everything in this ideal community was in place and nobody would need to write another rule. For every sort of delinquent behavior the Master could think of, he composed a perfect speech to remedy the problem so that no abbot would be at a loss for words no matter what happened. (Hah!) Benedict didn’t think so. He didn’t bother to write a critical review of the Rule of the Master; he just took material that he found useful, much of it actually cribbed from John Cassian, and left out the rest. The silences were deafening. No endless lectures on overcoming monastic vices for one thing. No pulleys lowering baskets at mealtimes to indicate that the bread came from heaven for another. There are loose ends everywhere so that any abbot using this rule can improvise according to the time and place and the weaknesses and strengths of the monastics in the community/

What we’re left with is a document so short that it makes for an ideal book report if shortness of book is the main issue.  There is spiritual teaching about listening to God in silence and in the Divine Office. There are verses urging us earnestly to run in the way of God’s commands and cautions about being humble by putting oneself constantly in God’s presence and never forgetting it. There is much about worshiping with care and doing humble chores with equal care, to the point of treating the tools of the monastery as if they were the vessels of the altar. There are also admonitions for treating the other members of the community and guests with care, perhaps suggesting that they, too, should be treated as the sacred vessels of the altar.

There’s nothing out of the ordinary. Anyone can do it. Benedict said it was a rule for beginners. There’s nothing about doing fabulous miracles like the disciples or attributed to Benedict in Gregory’s life. The monastic life isn’t about healing the sick, but it is about tending the sick to give them the best chance of being cured. It isn’t about casting our demons except to build up a community life that doesn’t give demons much room for maneuver. It isn’t about raising the dead except to give of oneself to improve the quality of life for others.

One thing Benedict does accomplish in his Rule that the disciples accomplished was the miracle receiving freely and giving freely. Benedict freely received the tradition of the Gospels, the Sayings of the Desert Monastics, the writing of John Cassian derived from the Desert Monastics, and the fussy Rule of the Master that would be forgotten if it weren’t for Benedict. All this, Benedict has freely given to us to guide us in ordinary lives of prayer in community.

Contemplative Prayer as a Pearl of Great Price

indwellingcover_tnBecoming conscious of mimetic desire, our inborn and pre-conscious tendency to copy the desires of other people (See Human See, Human Want) poses a large challenge to our daily living. When we bring in the tendency to fall into rivalry with other people and how that can lead to collective violence (see Two Ways of Gathering) then we need tools to live with this challenge.

I wrote Tools for Peace to suggest ways that the spiritual practices from the monastic tradition and the Rule of St. Benedict in particular can help us with this challenge. Contemplative Prayer, although important in monastic practice, has a small place in the Rule of St. Benedict and so there is not a detailed discussion of the practice in this book, although I have a few comments about it.

Many years ago, I wrote a pamphlet called “The Indwelling God” to introduce the practice of contemplative prayer and give practical suggestions for initiating and sustaining this practice. Last year, I wrote an article for our Abbey Letter called “Resting in God’s Desire” which discusses contemplative prayer specifically in connection to mimetic desire. The Divine Office is indeed the heart of Benedictine spirituality, but praying in silence, just being before and with God, allowing God to contemplate us, as Saint Gertrude and other writers have suggested, is a pearl of great price, a pearl worth some of our valuable time and worthy of much room in our hearts.

This pamphlet has been available in hard copy and is still available in that form, but I have just had a eBook made of it to make it available in that form since many readers are using that medium. I have coupled the pamphlet with the essay “Resting in God’s Desire” as they make good companion pieces.

“The Indwelling God” with its companion article can be purchased on the abbey’s website at http://www.saintgregorysthreerivers.org/digitalpubs.html   A hard copy version which has only “The Indwelling God” is available at http://www.saintgregorysthreerivers.org/orderpage.html

May we all give of ourselves to receive this pearl of great price.

Gathering to Give Life to Victims

eucharist1Since the dawn of humanity, humans have gathered most quickly and powerfully around a victim. (See Two Ways of Gathering and Violence and the Kingdom of God.) Just think of how quickly we gravitate around whoever is currently seen to be to blame for whatever is going wrong in the world today. This gathering, however, is always at the expense of at least one person or group of people. A similar and yet very different gathering around a victim occurred when the eleven disciples saw the risen Jesus in Galilee and “worshiped him.” (Mt. 28:17) The huge, even infinite difference in this gathering is that the victim is alive and is gathering people around victims, “the least of those who are members of [his] family.” (Mt. 25:40) Ever since, Christians have gathered in worship around Jesus and his fellow victims, primarily in the Divine Office and the Eucharist.

The Divine Office is structured prayer that is uses the Psalter and other biblical canticles as the primary vehicle of prayer. Much can be said of the psalms but the thing that jumps out at anyone who prays them with any frequency is the many outcries of victims. “They surrounded me like bees; they blazed like a fire of thorns; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!  I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.” (Ps. 118: 11-13) Verses such as these raise the question of whether we gather “like bees” around another person, or if we are entering the circle of bees in solidarity with the victim. Being a victim tempts us to anger, bitterness and violence. “Cutting off” our assailants in “the name of the Lord” is the reflex reaction, but is the opposite of what Jesus himself did in the same position. These rough verses help us renew our awareness of our own violent reactions to being victimized, even (especially!) petty matters such as being slighted by another. If we focus on Jesus when we are in the place of the victim, we find that the Lord has made the rejected stone the “chief cornerstone” that is “marvelous in our eyes.”

In the Eucharist, we gather around an altar which has been transformed into a table where, instead of laying out a sacrificial victim for slaughter, we place a piece of bread and a cup of wine to share among those present. We do this in memory of Jesus’ Last Supper, suffering, death, and Resurrection. The Greek word anamnesis does not mean a mere memory but to make present. That is, we enter the place of the victim with Jesus when we gather around the table. In so gathering, we feed on Jesus’ forgiveness of us for our own victimization are our challenged by this forgiveness to give this same life to others, both in terms of physical needs and emotional and spiritual sustenance. (See Miserable Gospel)

In his Rule, St. Benedict says that prayer should be made with “utmost humility and sincere devotion.” Entering the place of the victim with Jesus leads to both humility and devotion, attitudes that allow us to follow Benedict’s admonition that we sing the psalms (and also break bread in the Eucharist) “in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.” (I develop these thoughts on the Divine Office in Tools for Peace)

Turning on Ash Wednesday

altarDistance1As we begin the season of penitence on Ash Wednesday, we do well to put penance in a context beyond our individual selves. René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire tells us that our “individual selves” are merely an illusion; our desires are unavoidably caught up in the desires of other people. (see Human See, Human Want) With that being the case, cleaning up our “own” desires simply does not do the job.  Instead, we must clean up the desires we share with others, and that means relating to others.

Early in his great poem “As Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot zeroes in on healing shared desire by following the first lines about hoping to turn his life: “Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope/I no longer strive to strive towards such things.” That is, the tenth commandment about coveting includes coveting the God-given gifts of others and their insights. If we turn from our entanglements with the desires of others, we will affirm and rejoice in their gifts and insights and in doing so, will awaken to the gifts and insights that we have within us to give to others.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus follows his teaching on renouncing mimetic rivalry (turn the other cheek, etc.) with a solemn caution against using “good” actions such as repenting, fasting, almsgiving, and praying as occasions for competing with others so as to desire gifts and insights of others.  If we practice piety “in order to be seen by others,” then our piety is locked in our competition with others and not on God. That is why God cannot reward such piety which isn’t piety at all. The Desert Monastics also found themselves falling into the trap of competitive asceticism. On of the reasons Benedict, in his Rule, asks his monastics to tell the abbot about their Lenten disciplines is to put the practice of each into the context of building community. All this is compiling treasure on earth just as much as fattening our bank accounts.

The alternative to “praying in secret” may seem to be individualistic but it is really a matter of being an individual before God, which is a different thing. (An individualist flaunts his or her individuality over/against others—another thrust in a life of fencing.) Rather, “praying in secret” grounds each of us in God so that we can rejoice in God’s giftedness of others and ourselves. More important, it is precisely in the midst of these admonitions against flaunting our piety that Jesus teaches us the Our Father which reaches its climax with the petition that God forgive us as we forgive others.

As we turn again back to God, let us look at the turnings we must do in our relationships, realizing that unhealthiness in our relationships is not the same thing as the unhealthiness we may see in ourselves as individuals, although there is a relationship between the two. With T.S. Eliot, let us not even try to want the gifts of others but instead turn to the gifts we have to give to others.

For more about Lent in the Rule of St. Benedict in dialogue with Girard, read Tools for Peace

A Way of Meeting with Others

commonRoomOne of the more remarkable and attractive chapters in the Rule of St. Benedict is Chapter Two: “Summoning the Brothers [and Sisters] for Counsel.” Although Benedict was not so democratic as to have matters put up to a majority vote (as most modern monastic constitutions are), Benedict considered it essential that the abbot listen to all members of the community before making a decision. In my time as abbot of my community, I am profoundly grateful for the suggestions and cautions from my fellow monks on numerous occasions. Most writings on the Rule remind us that the first word is “Listen.” Much is made of the need to listen to God and to then to others, especially the superior, as a means of listening to God. Here, Benedict reminds the abbot to listen to the community. Given the toxic atmosphere of much debate in political and religious matters, I cannot stress enough to importance of listening as a first principle to healing the exchange of thoughts and opinions.

We can make it easier for others to listen to us by expressing ourselves in a way that makes it easier for them to listen. Benedict says that we will do this if we “express [our] opinions with all humility, and not presume to defend [our] own views obstinately.” If we take a moment to think about how hard it is to listen to a person who does the opposite of what Benedict enjoins here, we will see the importance of this admonition. More important, when we express our views humbly and without obstinacy, it is easier to be focused on the issue rather than our relationships with other people which, in the course of debate, tend to become more competitive than constructive. Benedict would have us discern the right thing to do, not strive to gain the most debating points.

Even more startling than the foregoing: Benedict says that the reason the whole community should be called together is because “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger.” This is not an over-idealization of young people, but is a salutary reminder that the points of view of marginal people, which includes the young, may prove to be vital to a right discernment. Our tendency is to push those we consider marginal to the margins, usually while assuming that we are not marginal.

Issues such as gun control and immigration reform being debated right now are complicated and require careful thinking and expression that is most fruitfully done humbly with a heart that listens to ourselves, to others, and to God.

These ideas are developed at greater length in my book Tools for Peace.

A leaky Basket: Judging Judgmentalism

guesthouse1A desert monastic said that contempt and reproaching another person in thought will prevent us from seeing the divine light. The monastic pioneers of the fourth and fifth centuries were constantly admonishing each other to stop judging each other judgmentally. This admonition sounds good until we realize that we always have good reasons for our own judgmental attitudes toward people we know or know about.

In one of my favorite stories about the desert monastics, one of their number had committed an unspecified sin and the other monastics gathered to pass judgment on him. The wisest and most respected elder was slow to come and when he arrived, he carried a leaky basket full of sand. The puzzled monastics asked him what he was doing and the elder replied: “My sins are falling out behind me where I cannot see them, and you would have me judge this brother.” End of trial.

This story warns us that judging another person entails losing awareness of our own sins. The other person’s sins distract us from our own. René Girard’s mimetic theory helps us zero in on an even deeper problem. Reflecting on the shortcomings of others hooks us into a rivalrous relationship with them. Our judgmentalism hooks us into the desires that lead the other to that sin. Perhaps this is why we are often warned that we judge most harshly those people who do what we secretly want to do or maybe actually secretly do them. As with every rivalrous relationship, judging another makes that person an obstacle to self-understanding and, as the elder quoted above warns us, also creates an obstacle between us and God.

It isn’t enough to just look the other way as the desert monastics often did. What is needed is an involvement with the other that is not judgmental but loving. In another story, an elder is called to join other monastics in raiding the cell of a monastic who was harboring a woman. When the elder entered the cell, he saw a hamper and sat on it while the others searched the cell without finding the woman. After the elder sent the other monastics away, he stood up, opened the hamper where the woman was hiding and said to his brother and the woman: “Take care for your soul.”

The convoluted chapters about punishment in Benedict’s Rule (analyzed in Tools for Peace) hint at mimetic traps in dealing with delinquent monastics. Finally, he throws up his hands and says that prayer is the greatest remedy of all. In prayer, we make ourselves the equal of whomever we are inclined to judge and we open ourselves up to God.

Imitating Saint Andrew Following Jesus

AndrewRefectory1Mimetic desire, especially when it is good mimesis, is easily overlooked. Usually it’s jousts and fisticuffs that get our attention. Mimetic rivalry drives the plots of novels. Mimetic sharing only drives the plots of lives lived well. (See Human See, Human Want)

When it was time for me to be clothed a novice, I chose Andrew as my religious name because of the example Andrew set by promptly answering Jesus’ call. I hoped, and still hope, that my patron would and will inspire me to listen for Jesus’ call every day, every hour, and follow that call. As a bonus, Andrew was the patron saint of Scotland and my Marr ancestors came from there.

As I listened to the Gospel at Mass this morning, I was struck by the communal aspect of the following. It wasn’t just Andrew who heard the call and followed Jesus; Andrew heard the call and brought his brother Peter with him. That is, Andrew entered the mimetic process of following Jesus and drew Peter into that same mimetic process. The next day, James and John were drawn into the same good mimesis of following Jesus, a rerun of yesterday’s story. That’s what good mimesis does. Like mimesis of any kind, it is contagious and it replicates itself.

Curiously, Andrew drops out of the Gospel accounts after his dramatic call except for noticing the boy with the loaves and fishes in the wilderness that touched off the greatest bonanza of good mimesis in world history. It is the other three, Peter, James and John who form the inner group of disciples who witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter, were present at the Transfiguration, and then fell asleep at Gethsemane. It is tempting to feel that my patron was slighted, but that would be bad mimesis.

It is more encouraging to notice that Andrew was also curiously absent in the fights among the disciples as to who was the greatest. This in-fighting helps make the Gospels “interesting” as it drives the plot until the mimetic issues in Jerusalem take over. Maybe Andrew just wasn’t “interesting” enough to mention. Maybe Andrew wasn’t pushy enough.

The point to being a follower of Jesus is not to be part of the inner circle of the inner circle. The point is to hear the call of Jesus and to listen to the way Jesus is calling others. This way, everybody and nobody is the greatest in the greatest story ever told.

Life of Benedict

The only biography of St. Benedict is by St. Gregory the Great. Gregory highlights the ways Benedict’s life was lived in imitation of the great figures in Scripture and most importantly of Christ himself. I have posted an article called Imitating Elisha that analyzes Gregory’s Life of Benedict with René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire. The result is a rich vision of the spiritual life for any Christian.

Article on Rule of St. Benedict Added

I have added an article called Gathering a Community in the Spirit which is an introduction to the Rule of St. Benedict. This chapter comes from Tools for Peace. Introductory chapters on both René Girard and Benedict are now available. If a dialogue between the two interests you, please buy Tools for Peace.

The Failed Quarrel

The stories of the desert monastics of the fourth and fifth centuries in Egypt are the bedrock of monastic lore that continue to inspire all who attempt to live by monastic spirituality.

In one charming story, a monastic who has shared his cave with another, notes that they have never had a quarrel and proposes that they try to have one, like all other people. The other monastic says he doesn’t know how to start a quarrel. The first monastic puts a block of wood on the ground between them and says” “This block is mine. Now you say the same thing.” The second monastic said, “This block is mine.”  “No, this block is mine,” insists the first monastic. “Okay, it’s yours,” says the other. And so they failed to have a quarrel.

Would these monastics have quarreled if the first had put a gem between them instead of a block of wood? The story about the children and the balloons in “Human See, Human Want,” suggests that question is whether any article at all is given worth by the desire of the other. A block of wood can become as desirable as a gem if somebody else desires it and another person gets caught up in that desire.

If these two monastics were not quarreling, what were they doing? The desert literature tells us they would have spent large amounts of time in prayer, much of that in psalmody, and then the rest weaving baskets they would sell to give the money to the poor. That is, they were not focused on each other but were opening themselves to God’s Desire and to the needs of other people. Prayer and helping other people does not guarantee there will be no quarrelling, but the two combined surely help quite a lot.

My story “Haunted for a Time” in From Beyond to Here offers a counter-example to these two desert monastics. At the beginning of the story, Murray is so absorbed in his possessiveness of his comic books at the expense of others that he cannot see anything beyond that. Some unsettling apparitions from a ghostly figure challenge him to reconsider his ways.

My book Tools for Peace examines Benedict’s teachings on stewardship of material goods in the monastery that build on the insights of this simple story of the two desert monastics who failed to be movers and shakers in the world, but also failed to have a quarrel.