A reading from the Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 48 on “The Daily Manual Labor,” verse 1
“Idleness is the soul’s enemy, so therefore at determined times the brothers [and sisters] ought to be occupied with manual labor, and again at determined hours in lectio divina.”
A number of months ago, our pastor gave a fine sermon on the importance of prayer. In talking about the need to balance our active Christian service with contemplative stillness, he told us that the Chinese pictograph for “busy” or “busyness” combines the symbols for “heart” and “killing.” Apparently, this translation is widespread on the internet because I found a posting by an irate scholar of Mandarin who wrote that yes, the first symbol is for “heart,” but the second symbol is not for “killing”; rather, it means “’lose, disappear, perish, flee,’ and, by extension, can also mean ‘to have none, there is not,’ and so forth.” I am sure that some significance can be drawn between the finer points; however, we can probably agree that relentless busyness is not good for the heart!
When Saint Benedict decried “idleness” as inimical to the soul, he was careful to use the Latin word otiositas—a word with negative connotations—rather than otium—which can indicate a “positive, creative leisure." (T. Kardong) I encourage each of us while here on retreat together to be well-engaged in this time; to let this “leisure” be fruitful and God-centered; to practice being community; to be a blessing to one another in prayer, meals, conversation, reflection and conviviality. If we practice together this sort of purposeful “busyness,” it will certainly be good for our monastic hearts!
A reading from the Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 61 on “The Reception of Visiting Monks,” verses 1-7
“A visiting monk from far away will perhaps present themself and wish to stay as a guest in the monastery. Provided that the visitor is content with life as they find it, and does not make excessive demands that upset the monastery, but is simply content with what they find, that person should be received for as long a time as they wish. The visiting monk may, indeed, with all humility and love make some reasonable criticisms or observations, which the abbess should prudently consider; it is possible that the Lord guided that person to the monastery for this very purpose.
“If after a while the visitor wishes to remain and bind him- or herself to stability, that person should not be refused this wish, especially as there was time enough, while the monk was a guest, to judge their character. But if during that person’s stay they have been found excessive in their demands or full of faults, they should certainly not be admitted as a member of the community. Instead, they should be politely told to depart, lest their wretched ways contaminate others.”
Sometimes the discernment of God’s call in our lives requires a bit of wandering about and exploring. For many folks it is a helpful, healthy thing to visit a number of monasteries in order to gain perspective on the wide variety of communal personalities that are included in the Benedictine or other forms of monasticism. That is often the way we find our heart’s true home. And as we heard in the reading from the Rule, it can be good for the monastery, as well. It might be that the visiting monk has been sent with a word from God for the well-being of the monastic community. The better we know one another, the more insight we can gain into whether we are indeed following the will of God.
After that, stability is a piece of cake…as long as our Sisters and Brothers are willing to let themselves be molded into the image we have of a perfect monastery! It only gets tricky when other folks refuse to yield to our ideals. If that happens—as it inevitably will—then our monastic promise takes on the form of a true test: Are we genuinely committed to following Christ and not our own preferences or desires? As Michael Casey has written, “[Stability] discourages us from deferring love until we find a community worthy of it. The barriers to love are within ourselves. Until we dismantle them, no community will meet our standards." Our question, then, is: Am I truly willing to die to self that love may flourish? Is the Gospel at the center of my devotion or am I?
A reading from the Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 66 on “The Porter of the Monastery,” verses 6-7
“If possible, the monastery should be built so that all necessities such as water, mill and garden are contained within the walls so they can practice the various crafts there. That way it will not be necessary for the monks to venture outside, for that is certainly not beneficial for their souls.”
The world that surrounded Saint Benedict’s monastery was a dangerous place—bandits, brigands, invading armies, meant that peril was a constant threat to the average monk on the street. In fact, about 25 years after Benedict died, Monte Cassino—his home digs— was attacked and looted. So walls were a smart idea. The less one went out, the greater one’s chances of avoiding the danger of violence.
Benedict was also concerned that the more time monks spent “out in the world,” the more likelihood there was that a marauding band of worldly thoughts would capture their passion, divert their concentration and drag it away from the monastery.
We know very well how difficult it is to remain focused on Benedictine values and to stay faithful to the practices that we believe will draw us nearer to God. In our day, though, we can build all the walls we want but that does not keep technological invasions at bay. No, technology is not the enemy; if we let it loose in our lives without wise regard for its effects, however, it can easily become our life. The demons of distraction might occasionally scale the walls of my imagination but I certainly do not want to open the front gate for them!
So here are some questions for us: What do I regard as “necessities” in my life? Are these "necessities" in fact “beneficial” for my soul? If so, what “walls,” what shelter do I build to protect them? Do these "necessities" lead me closer to Christ?
A reading from the Prologue to the Rule of Saint Benedict, verses 49-50
"...as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the paths of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delights of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen."
Don't we love the first part of these verses--the thought of our hearts filled with the unspeakable sweetness of love and joyous, youthful running toward our Lover, our God? But the second portion--patience and suffering--we don't love quite so much.
Have you felt times these past few days when a Sister or Brother or some circumstance has annoyed, perplexed, frustrated or even angered you? How did you react, interiorly and exteriorly? Did you practice responding as a Benedictine--with humility, charity and forgiveness? Were you the first to seek peace and pursue it? Or did you fall back into old patterns of behavior and let your native emotions have full reign in the situation?
I was struck this morning by the story from The Great Divorce, especially the part where the children felt so loved by the woman who was honored in the heavenly parade that they felt toward her as a mother. And that this regard did not cause them to love their own parents less; rather, they went home and loved their parents more. Has this week prepared us to be better lovers in the world because we have a place of stability in our hearts? Will our friends and family be glad when we return home tomorrow, not only because they missed us but because they know that we will love them even more?
Paradoxically, stability requires change. We are all in constant need of conversion, of drawing closer to Christ and becoming more like him. If we stay true to this path, then we can rest assured that our hearts will begin to overflow with the inexpressible delights of love.