Benedict’s Easter

BenedictChurchStatue1An early Easter throws many things awry, not least the saints’ calendar. St. Benedict’s day is normally celebrated on March 21, but this year, it was transferred to Monday after Easter Week. Thinking about St. Benedict in terms of Easter reminds me of what he said about Lent in Chapter 49 of his Rule.

Why would we want to think about Lent when we have just survived it and are now celebrating Easter? Well, Benedict famously thinks we should practice lent all year round. That means we should practice lent during Easter too. And here we thought we had Lent over with for a year! So why would we want to go back to Lent? For one thing, Benedict thinks that we should “wash away the negligences of other times” during Lent. That’s really a good thing to do all the time, rather than waiting for Lent to do it. Benedict also says that we should “look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.” If it’s Easter already, what do we need to look forward to it? But when we realize Benedict wasn’t thinking about looking forward to jelly beans and chocolate, it becomes clear that Benedict has an eschatological yearning in mind.

Longing for Easter, of course, is yearning to actually live the life of the Resurrection. Benedict expresses this Easter yearning at the end of the Prolog to his Rule when he says that we shall run with “our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” Sounds like a good thing to have all year round. It is this Easter Joy that Benedict says we should run toward, not walk and certainly not dawdle. Benedict’s admonition to long for Easter helps us understand why we should run towards Easter even though Easter is already here. It is one thing for Easter to arrive in the course of days. It is another thing for God to inspire us with the life of Jesus’ Resurrection all year round. It is yet another thing for us to be inspired by the Resurrected life of Jesus. Washing away our negligences and running rather than wasting any more time helps us to be inspired by the Resurrected life by opening our hearts to the “inexpressible delight of love.”

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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.”

The Difficulties of Forgiveness (1): Jacob and Esau

220px-Rubens_Reconciliation_of_Jacob_and_EsauWe are commanded to forgive by the teaching of Jesus and Jesus taught us to pray that we forgive those who wrong us as we forgive them for their wrongs against us. The petition in the Our Father for forgiveness suggests that accepting forgiveness can be at least as difficult as forgiving. Remaining oblivious to this latter difficulty reflects our prior difficulty in forgiving and I suspect it makes it all the harder for us to forgive. The two stories that conclude the book of Genesis help us move through our own difficulties by following through the difficulties experienced by Jacob and his son Joseph. We all know how difficult it is to forgive. We tend to overlook how difficult it can be to accept forgiveness.

The story of Jacob and Esau is a telling illustration of the difficulty in believing in forgiveness, let alone accepting it. Jacob had patently wronged his brother Esau in stealing Esau’s blessing and Jacob fled for his life with a guilty conscience. Years later, after similar wrangling with Laban, Jacob returns with his wives, his children and his flocks which had all grown too plentiful for Laban’s taste. Jacob has every reason to fear what will happen when he meets up again with Esau. Hearing that Esau is coming with four hundred men was not reassuring. The nighttime struggle with a dark figure seems to project Jacob’s combatant personality. Still the shifty coward he’s always been, Jacob puts the wives and children he cares about least in the most vulnerable positions in the front so that he can escape with his favored sons if need be.

What happens is an amazing surprise. Esau embraces Jacob with no reservations and not the slightest sign of resentment. No matter how many times one reads or hears the story, it is hard to believe. Jacob doesn’t believe it. Repentance and forgiveness aren’t really Jacob’s things. Jacob’s words: “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God” are among the most profound words in the entire Bible for the ultimate revelation is Divine Mercy in a human face. But, as I said, Jacob can’t believe it even after this warm greeting. Jacob turns down the invitation to travel with Esau, using the excuse that he can’t drive his flocks too hard in one day. (Benedict quoted this verse in his Rule to illustrate the need for the abbot not to drive his monastics too hard!) Jacob, still shifty and cowardly, manages to avoid ever meeting up again with his brother for the rest of his life. Think of the years of friendship and companionship they missed out on!

The story is complicated by the later history of Edom, the people descended from Esau which reach a climax in Paul’s quoting, In Romans, Malachi 1:3: “Yet I have loved Jacob, but hated Esau.” In spite of Esau’s forgiveness narrated in Genesis, Edom has not been forgiven by Israel for its siding with their enemies in several wars. That Edom never recovered from the Assyrian invasion seemed to confirm that. The unflattering portrayal of Esau as a stupid, hairy oaf who sells his birthright for a pot of soup is perhaps another way of expressing Israel’s grudge against Edom. And yet this stupid hairy oaf suffered a terrible wrong from his unrepentant brother, moved on and built up his own flocks rather than spending his life in resentment, and forgave his brother. The story of these two brothers is often presented, including by Paul, to illustrate the mystery of God’s election. Jacob is the one chosen to carry on the Covenant, but the rejected brother, Esau, is the one much more in the place of Christ both in his rejection and in his forgiveness. Can repentance and forgiveness be strong enough in our lives for us to believe forgiveness when we see it?

See also Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (2)

Humility (2)

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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)

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).

Respect (3)

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyThe situation of the cellarer of the monastery providing for people who depend on his solicitude is quite the opposite of the person who approaches God in prayer “humbly and respectfully.” The cellarer himself would be on the other end of the stick on this one. Here is the danger of projecting worldly power on God when God is approached humbly and respectfully. If we picture God as a whimsical potentate who grants favors or withholds them in plays of power the way we do if and when we get a chance, then we slip into playing these power games with people who depend on us. This is precisely what Benedict forbids the cellarer to do. Benedict forbids such behavior because it goes against the Gospel.

St, Benedict famously insists that “all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Benedict goes on to quote Matthew 25 to emphasize the point. Likewise, the cellarer, in attended to fellow monastics and guests should do the same. Benedict also says that “care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ.” Once again, Benedict quotes Matthew 25. “The Lord of all things” whom we approach in prayer with our needs, who is greater than “a powerful man” from whom we might ask a favor, identifies with the humans who approach us in need.

We all have a hard time respecting people in positions subordinate to us, especially if they are needy. We instinctively look down on them because we think we are the ones with something to give or withhold. In other words, were are in the winning position and we like it that way. However, if Christ assumes the “losing” position, and Christ is the King whom we should obey, then we should be obedient to the needs of others in a respectful way. We might say that Christ makes other people respectable even if they have no respectability within themselves. The implication of this, of course, is that we also lack respectability within ourselves and it is Christ who gives us respectability.

The theological principal for saying that a person is entitled to respect just for being a human being is that we are each made in the image of God. That is true, but Christ’s identification with each person in need, and we all are in need in some ways at some times, is superadded to our creation in God’s image. This super-addition is based on Christ’s redemption of us, Christ’s having died for us. Since Christ died for everybody, Christ identifies with everybody. By identifying with each of us, Christ takes the rivalry out of the relationship. The way we relate to one another has nothing to do with winning, with having the upper hand in some way. Christ has leveled the playing field. Christ is focused on the needs of each one of us. That means Christ is focused on our own needs and also the needs of the people we encounter. It is doing what we can with another’s needs and having a kind word when we can’t. (And we often can’t fill another’s needs.) In all this, we participate in Christ’s respect for us, which makes us more respectable than we were.