On Serving the Goats

AndrewMassThere are many stories of kings who go about their kingdom in disguise, usually as a beggar. In such cases, whatever a subject of the king should do to that “beggar” would literally be done to the king himself. This may not have happened much in real life but it did happen when God became a true human being. Whatever anyone did for or to a certain itinerant preacher in Palestine was indeed done to God. It is important to note that in neither scenario did anyone consciously see the king or see God; one saw the beggar or the itinerant preacher.

The concluding parable of Matthew 25, the final teaching of Jesus in that Gospel, shows Christ as a king going about in disguise. Or does it? Neither the “sheep” who are welcomed into the Kingdom nor the “goats” who are sent to “the bad place” thought they were either serving or rejecting their heavenly king. What both the sheep and the goats saw—or failed to see—were vulnerable people who were starving or naked or in prison. This teaching has inspired a spirituality of “seeing” Jesus in vulnerable people, the rejects of society, the ones who are normally seen as the “goats,” if seen at all. But what is at stake is seeing the people, seeing their vulnerability, and showing one has seen them by serving them. After St. Martin had famously cut his cloak in half to give half to a freezing man, he had a dream of Jesus wearing that half of the cloak. But at the time, what Martin saw was the freezing man, and that was enough.

In his new book Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise, the therapist Richard Beck explores the ways of seeing and not seeing vulnerable people. He suggests that Jesus is prodding us to widen our affections beyond the friends and family we are comfortable with and move beyond our comfort zones. Beck covers several obstacles to such expansion, among them disgust, contempt and fear. Then comes the rub: how do we expand our affections? Beck searched through many books on spirituality for an answer until he came across the teaching of the Little Way” in the writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Beck says that this “little way” seems simple until one tries it. The “little way” begins with noticing. Thérèse says that she noticed that some sisters in her Carmelite convent were saintly and popular and other sisters were difficult and ignored as much as possible: a separation of sheep and goats. Thérèse then had to move beyond her comfort zone and seek out the neglected, difficult sisters. It happens that Fr. Anthony, my novice master, taught us the “little way” of St. Thérèse as a means of teaching us how to live the Benedictine life which also depends on attending to the same details of everyday life in community. I particularly remember Fr. Anthony’s reading about Thérèse pushing the wheelchair of a crabby sister who constantly complained about every little bump in the way. When Benedict instructs us to pay particular attention to the sick and the poor in reference to Matthew 25, Benedict is telling us that being obedient to Christ entails being obedient to the needs of vulnerable people.

Edifying as this teaching of serving Christ through serving vulnerable people is, the grim sending away of the “goats” who failed to serve the vulnerable is disturbing. One way to understand this grim ending is to suggest that if our hearts shrink to the vanishing point so that we become permanently blind to the plight of vulnerable people, we end up in our own darkness. This is a salutary warning. But perhaps these “goats,” like the crabby sister in the wheelchair, are people who also need to be served through the “little way.” I wonder if it might be emotionally easier to feed a hungry person than to care for a person who denies food to the hungry. It seems to me that any “sheep,” like the Lamb of God, would want to save all of the “goats.”

[These thoughts are developed in a blog post by Lindsey Lopez-Paris and a sermon in 2014 by Tom Truby titled “The World Makes Sheep and Goats.]

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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 (2)

KatrinaCrossAbraham1[See Humility (1)[

The middle steps of Humility in Benedict’s Rule, the heart of his chapter, take us to the depths of the Paschal Mystery. They involve obedience “under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions” where  we “quietly embrace suffering,” being “content with the lowest and most menial treatment” and admitting in our hearts that we are “inferior to all and of less value.”

This looks a lot more like groveling before the King of Siam then does holding fast to the memory of God’s presence, but obeying under unjust conditions is what Jesus did during his earthly life, most of all during his last days. This step isn’t about bowing imperious rulers; it is about bowing to everybody, including those we consider the most despicable of human beings. Jesus did it. What about us? When we are being ill-treated, we console ourselves with the thought that at least we are better than those who mistreat us. But that is not what Jesus did. Jesus treated even Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas with respect, although the guards of the high priest didn’t see it that way.

This consideration adds a deeper perspective to the first step of humility that involves being ever mindful of being in God’s presence. There is a bit of a Big Brother is watching us about God’s perpetual mindfulness of everything we do and think, but the very God whose presence we should always remember is the God who accepted the meanest treatment at the hands of human beings like us. Doesn’t sound like Big Brother’s style of watching to me.

We are not easily content with “the lowest and most menial treatment.” We have a tendency to think that the world owes us the good things in life. If and when we don’t get them, we become highly resentful to everybody we hold responsible for what we don’t get. If and when we do get some of the good things in life, we think we only got what was coming to us. Of course, most of us find ourselves having to take the bad along with the good and we are resentful only most of the time. This is the case even if mathematically we get good things more often than not. Bad things always make stronger impressions on us. In short, we are the ones who act like the King of Siam, not God. When we stop expecting the world to give us nothing but the good things in life and become more concerned with those who don’t, and often they don’t have good things because of our inordinate greed, then we become more grateful for what we actually have. Gratitude has a lot to do with humility.

In these middle steps of humility, hard as they are to embrace, we come to grips with the incomprehensible love God has for us. Christ didn’t take time to dwell on how much more righteous he was than those who taunted him and nailed him on the cross. Jesus was too busy thinking about bringing even these people into his kingdom to have room in his heart for anything else.

So it is that at the bottom of humility, we find divine love. Benedict hints at the presence of God’s love that we experience within us when we let go of our pride when he says that, by following these steps, we “arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear.” At this level of humility, there is no dread of God because we have dropped our projections on God and have become free within the depths of God’s Desire.

I discuss the chapter on Humility in the Rule of Benedict at length in my book Tools for Peace.

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)

Respect (1)

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyHumility and respect are the two fundamental attitudes that are most conducive to living constructively with mimetic desire and avoiding its more destructive potential. Both attitudes need to be habitual dispositions to be effective. Such habitual dispositions are not automatic the way many habits (especially bad habits) tend to be. They need to be renewed every day, every hour, or they will fall away.

Although St. Benedict attaches great importance to outward action, both in manual work and what he calls “the Work of God,” i.e. the Divine Office, Benedict also attaches much importance to the inner disposition supporting these outward observances. In his short chapter 20, “Reverence in Prayer,” Benedict says: “Whenever we want to ask some favor of a powerful man, we do it humbly and respectfully, for fear of presumption. How much more important, then, to lay our petitions before the Lord God of all things with the utmost humility and sincere devotion.” When the Gospel is read at the end of Sunday Matins, the worshippers should “stand with respect and awe.” After each psalm, we should stand in honor of the Trinity.

Humility and respect are so intertwined that it is hard to separate them. They are inseparable in the sense that one cannot have one without the other. However, there is some distinction between them in that respect is directed towards the other, whether God or our neighbor whereas humility is rooted in the self. I want to deal with respect first and then move on to humility.

The first question that comes to mind is: Why respect instead of love? Isn’t Love the primary Christian virtue? Yes, love in the sense of agape is the primary Christian virtue but I think we need to start with respect. It is a case of serving milk before solid food to make sure we are ready for it, trained “to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14). That is, respect is a prerequisite for love. If we try to leapfrog this prerequisite, there is a real possibility of mistaking lust and other noxious attitudes for love. A tragic example in the Bible is Amnon. He probably thought he loved Absalom’s sister Tamar but his use of force to rape her and his callous rejection of her afterwards makes it clear he had no respect for her and therefore no love. Love is often spoken of as a conquest or an attempt at one. Amnon conquered Tamar through a clever but devilish plot. Don Giovanni made such conquests by the hundreds If Leperello is to be believed. But does Don Giovanni show respect for Donna Anna, Donna Elvira or Zerlina in Mozart’s great opera? Not in your life. What erroneously passes for love sidesteps respect entirely and sidesteps love as well.

One never tries to win respect by conquest. There is no contest with respect, neither is there any mimetic rivalry in respect. Whereas love without respect tries to woo another person into conformity to one’s feelings for that other, respect does no such thing. Respect does not require that another person feel the way I do about anything. Respect is about relating to another, not winning anything. Maybe relating doesn’t seem like much compared to conquering another person. Actually, relating is quite an accomplishment because it involves conquering oneself.

Continued in Respect (2)

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.

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.