Sunday, November 25, 2007

Obey Whom?

Today is the solemnity of Christ the King in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. The feast was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical letter Quas primas. The “war to end all wars” had itself ended a few years previously, but another loomed on the horizon as the issues unresolved by the Treaty of Versailles continued to fester. Political instability, masked by a frenetic cultural quest for meaning or, lacking meaning, pleasure, drowned out any intimation of peace. A worldview devoid of God prevailed in many parts of what was once considered Christendom. It found political embodiment in communism. Pope Pius diagnosed rejection of Christ’s sovereignty as the root of this illness of the western spirit. He created the solemnity of Christ the King to promote an alternative—and, he believed, healing—view of the universe.
We no longer live in the political, social and ecclesial world of 1925. Except in those countries fortunate enough to be governed by upright working monarchs, the imagery of kings and queens has been relegated to the realms of fantasy and distasteful journalism. Nevertheless, the question raised by Pius XI remains: whom do we obey? It was not a new question when he raised it. It is as old as Eden. Although we customarily label the primal sin of the first human beings as “disobedience”, we are speaking in shorthand. Genesis 3:1-7 paints the human tragedy not simply as disobedience to God but as the transfer of obedience from one “god” to another. The serpent, who may in fact have represented a Canaanite deity in the world of the biblical storytellers, persuades Eve to obey him rather than the Creator-God by eating the fruit that God had forbidden. The serpent’s argument awakens a god every human being can recognize: the god Ego. The serpent appeals to the human desire to be autonomous and in charge. Thereby, in a move characteristic of evil in every age, the serpent subtly redirects human desire from a desire for communion with God to a desire for the supremacy of the self created in the image of God. Therein lies the heart of the tragedy: the reader familiar with the first chapter of Genesis knows that in the story of origins told there, Eve and Adam are, in fact, already “like God”. They have been made as the very image of God cast in human being (Genesis 1: 26-27). Eve, and apparently Adam, have forgotten it, but perhaps the serpent has not. He calls upon their own inmost but unrecognized truth to destroy them. This sleight-of-mind which distorts a good into its travesty is evil’s thumbprint. According to the story, Eve, and then Adam, were the first to fall for it, but they were certainly not the last, as the unraveling of the world in Genesis 4-11 is intended to show.

Their dilemma is still alive and well: whom do we obey? No longer in humanity’s first naïveté, we need no actual serpent to prod us into abandoning one God for another. Sadly, we are often all too ready to burn the incense of our lives to the god Ego, who guarantees the satisfaction of our desires as we misunderstand them. A little devil dust astutely sprinkled into our inner eye, and we are suddenly blinded to our own history, never mind the larger history of the world. We forget not only who we actually are but also what misery we have called down upon ourselves in the past by obeying a god other than the One in whose image we are made.

Take the recent U.S. celebration of Thanksgiving as a small but potent example. If we were among that small portion of the world’s population fortunate enough to have the means to eat well, we may very well have eaten rather too well, or at least too generously. The aura of holiday seasons the array of festal foods with a sense of carefree irresponsibility. Calories and cholesterol be—well, consigned to a warm climate. It’s Thanksgiving. Eat, drink and be merry. Add some beer and chips with the football game—the one we watch from the couch, not the one we play with our kids. Consequences? Not to worry. When this year, like last year and the years before, the god Ego, whom we have obeyed in its bodily disguise, exacts its ugly penalty in the form of the physical ills caused by overindulgence, the pharmaceutical industry rushes to our assistance with promises of immediate relief in the form of antacids, anti-gas capsules, analgesics, and maybe even a little sleeping pill to help us to sleep it all off in blissful unconsciousness. Stripped of the golden haze of holiday nostalgia, it’s really not a very pretty picture.

In his rule of life, St. Benedict (480-ca. 547 CE) proposes a different (but unpopular) antidote: just don’t overindulge in the first place (Rule of Benedict 39:7). Good advice, and not only for Benedictines. It is actually part of Benedict’s larger campaign against the worship of that alien god, the self out of place and out of proportion, whom psychology has baptized “ego”. Obedience is one of Benedict’s central tenets of life. What he really means by obedience, though, is undoing Eden by choosing to obey the real, life-giving God this time. If you shake off the devil dust, this alternative is no loner as unpalatable as it once seemed The God we are to obey is the God who, unlike the serpent, has our genuine long-term well-being at heart. Benedict works constantly to dethrone the ego that has taken God’s place by advocating every form of stamping out self-will. The goal is not dishrags or doormats but healthy human beings living life fully in the image of the God by whom and for whom they were created. The means is radical adherence to Christ as the source and center, the rule and ruler, of our daily lives. Christ is the image of God embodied in humanity brought to its full maturity. Within the limits of our created human being, Christ is who we want to be when we grow up.

Centuries before Pius XI, Benedict did actually challenge us to honor the sovereignty of Christ: “This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord” (RB Prologue 3). Benedict makes it clear that lip service won’t do it. A once-a-year-and-then-forgotten celebration of Christ the King is not enough. In fact, although the word “king” would have had real-life meaning in Benedict’s day, he uses it only twice, both times in speaking of Christ. What he repeats instead is the one all-sufficient directive that puts even obedience in its right context: “…prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (RB 72:11). Nothing. Even and especially not the self-in-isolation who has wrought such havoc in our lives and in the world around us. The full sentence reads: “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life. (RB 72:11-12). That is a petition no other god can grant.

©2007, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Bells: a Monastic Apocalypse

Not long ago, I was walking down the short hall through which the nuns pass from our monastery to the chapel. The fall day was warm. Sunlight fell through the wall of windows lining the hall and warmed the tiles, all in variegated shades of dusty red, dusty rose and gray. The moment seemed endless.

Across this sunny idyll fell the sound of the monastery bell summoning the community to prayer. It provoked an unexpected memory. In the film version of Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach, set in Australia between the world’s final nuclear war and the inevitable moment when the last remaining lives will be extinguished, one scene shows a revival in which an evangelist harangues his listeners to prepare for the end. Above his head hangs a banner on which is printed, “There is still time, brothers!” At the end of the movie, when everyone is gone, the camera pans the streets of the city, all deserted. Finally, it leads the viewer into the empty square above which flaps the banner: “There is still time, brothers!” Seeing it on television in the early 60’s, when apocalypse was in the air, was an arresting moment. I have never forgotten it.

Fall carries its own poignancy. On that late fall day, remembering the movie, I heard the same message in the bell: “There is still time”. The mundane meaning was that there was still time to get to the chapel in time for the appointed Office in the daily round of Liturgy of the Hours. Nuns in our monastery develop an uncanny sense of timing: “There goes the bell. Five minutes. I still have time to…” We admit it, we laugh at ourselves, we wish we were a bit more prompt about dropping our work and hurrying to the chapel as St. Benedict exhorts in his Rule: “On hearing the signal for an hour of the divine office, the monk will immediately set aside what he has in hand and go with utmost speed, yet with gravity and without giving occasion for frivolity. Indeed, nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God.” (RB 43:1-3) Still we find ourselves, sometimes anyway, squeezing in that last word on the computer, that last swish of the mop, that last paragraph of the book, with just enough time to be in our places when the signal is given to begin the Office. The bell is our friend: it tells us that there is still time.

On that late fall day, however, with the closing scene of the movie on my mind I heard the message with a difference urgency. In the prologue of the Rule, Benedict himself spells it out: “If we wish to reach eternal life, even as we avoid the torments of hell, then—while there is still time, while we are in this body and have time to accomplish all these things by the light of life—we must run and do now what will profit us forever.” (RB Prologue 42-44). The bell does tell us that there is still time to get where we are going, but that isn’t exactly where we think. Nor is the time between here and there as endless as it seems on a warm, sunny lazy autumn afternoon. The bell tells us to drop the small tasks we imagine to be so important—and many of them are, in their time. But their time is not now, says the bell. Now is the time to leave them behind and go at once to attend to the great work, the work of prayer, which is our rehearsal for an eternity in communion with our beloved Christ and our service to all those we hope to gather up with us into that eventual delight.

During these closing weeks of the liturgical year, we read a good bit of the apocalyptic literature of the Old and New Testament. Its language can be frightening: temples falling, wars and rumors of wars, earthquake, plague, the moon turned to blood. Not a pretty picture. Its purpose, though, is not to scare the socks off us and send us skittering into the nearest air raid shelter, there to sit out the end-times in relative safely, emerging only when it’s all over. Its purpose is the purpose of the bell: to tell us that time as we know it is not a permanent abode but a ribbon that is unwinding toward its end, whether that end for us is death or universal nuclear destruction. Whether it unwinds slowly or with the speed of light is not given us to know. What is given us to know is that we still have now. “Now” is not to be held lightly. “Now” is not a mere way station through which we pass without noticing it as we hurry on to somewhere else, which always looks more important before we get there. “Now” is the time for our conversatio, our conversion, our shedding of the inessentials that hinder us along the road where, Benedict tells us, “we shall run [toward our end] on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love” (RB Prologue 49). “Now” matters.

But we don’t have to wait for the apocalyptic readings of the final weeks of the liturgical year to remember what “now” is for and why we cherish it. Daily, every day, the bells—or their equivalent in lives lived outside the monastery—remind us with their kindly urgency: “There is still time, brothers. There is still time, sisters. There is still time.”

Quotations of from the Rule of St. Benedict are taken from RB:1980, ed. Timothy Fry, OSB (Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press, 1981)

©2007 Abbey of St. Walburga

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Doorstep Demons

In a rather entertaining opening to the parable of a dinner invitation gone awry (Luke 14:15-24), Jesus describes the unexpected response of those first invited to a feast. One said, “Sorry, I can’t come, I just bought some real estate, and I have to go look at it, please excuse me”; the next one said, “Sorry, I can’t come, I just bought a team of oxen, and I have to go look them over, please excuse me”; the third one said, “Sorry, I can’t come, I just got married, please excuse me.”

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that a bit of land, a pair of work animals, and maybe even an evening à deux for the newly-weds could wait long enough for those invited to go to a party? But no, all of them have fallen prey to the sleight-of-mind typical of doorstep demons.

A retreatant first introduced me to these household pests when she said, “The hardest part of contemplative prayer is getting over the threshold.” In fact, the hardest part of every form of prayer, and of many another gospel work besides, is getting over the threshold because of the doorstep demons camped there. One cannot say what they look like because no one has seen them. One can say, though, what they do. They spread a miasma of ill-feeling between you and what you’ve been inspired to do. The miasma is a distorting fog through which what you were planning suddenly looks much less attractive.

Let’s say you heard the parable of the dinner invitation read in church. It made you laugh, and then it made you want to take a look yourself at an invitation of grace you’ve refused. Come prayer time, you plan to sit down with that parable and use it to help you take a look at what it was you turned down and why. As you open the bible, the story no longer seems either funny or compelling. In fact, it begins to look boring. You’ve heard it so many times. You know what it says. You know what you’re supposed to think about it. “Been there, done that, I think I’ll go get a cup of coffee. I’ll come back in a minute and find something else to pray.” But the headline on the paper sitting by the coffee pot catches your eye. “I’ll just sit down and read this for a minute while I drink my coffee. Otherwise I might spill it on the rug in my room.” The headline story is really interesting and reminds you of an article you’ve been meaning to read on famine in China. You go and look for the article, coffee cup in hand, the well-being of the rug forgotten. You can’t find the article, but your eye falls on that letter you meant to answer yesterday. In the blink of an eye, prayer time is over, the parable is forgotten, and you’re deep into your correspondence. You missed the feast of the Word altogether, but, except for a twinge of guilt, you don’t even give any thought to what you’ve missed. The doorstep demons chalk up another win.

Most of us are a bit less honest than the invited dinner guests. They at least named their doorstep demons honestly as they refused the invitation. We’re a bit more apt to sidle away from the threshold so mysteriously blocked by the demons “boring,” “hard,” “too-much-work-to-get-into-right now,” “painful” (who is usually disguised as one of the others), or downright “you-just-don’t-want-to-go-there-and-you-know-it”. We throw out excuses behind us as we go, creating our own trail of fog, which deceives neither God nor ourselves, really. And always we are the losers. It was a great party. We just didn’t go.

The most effective way to deal with doorstep demons is to recognize that they’re there and pray for the miasma to clear. If God could blow the Red Sea aside, God can blow away a little fog. Then look the doorstep demons in the eye, call them by name and then walk right through them. They aren’t actually very substantial. You say, “Look, you ‘fake-sense-of-urgency’, that pair of oxen you’re throwing across that doorway really could wait. They’re bought and paid for, they’ve been stabled and fed, they don’t need me right now. I’ll take care of them as soon as prayer time is over.” And you’ll find the little pests have disappeared, leaving the threshold clear for you to cross.

The feast is worth the effort.

©2007, Abbey of St. Walburga

Thursday, November 1, 2007

All Saints

Today is the Solemnity of All Saints--the day when we remember all those, publicly acknowledged or known only to a handful, who have completed their journey into the fullness of life in Christ.

We celebrate, and rightly, their fidelity to Christ, but when their stories are honestly told, these men and women serve also as living signs of Christ's unwavering fidelity to us. None of us needs much convincing that God is with us when times are good, but it's a different story when times are bad. It can be heartening, then, to recognize that God stood by them in every painful circumstance: political and religious persecution (the apostles, the Carmelite Nuns of Compiègne, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross [Edith Stein]), material poverty(St. Francis, Blessed Juan Diego, St. Benedict Joseph Labre), desolation of spirit (St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux in her last months of life, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta), political disaster (St. Edward the Confessor, St. Bernard, St. Louis, King of France), the death of a beloved spouse (St. Elizabeth of Hungary), misunderstanding, mistreatment, betrayal either by their religious communities (St. Francis, St. Bernadette, St. Alphonsus Ligouri) or by family (St. Clare and her younger sister) exile, whether voluntary (St. Francis Xavier and countless other missionaries) or involuntary (St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom), threats of sexual abuse (St. Charles Lwanga, St. Maria Goretti). Whatever the cross that befell them, Christ was with them always, as he promised in the gospel--even when they felt entirely abandoned, as he did on the cross.

This list, a tiny fragment of the roll of canonized saints, includes only those men and women whose names are known to history and honored publicly by the Church. As we read the papers or watch the news, with their endless chronicle of human suffering, we could find the faces of many more whose names we will never know--believers of every time and place who hung in there when there was every reason to abandon love of God and neighbor for the sake of self-preservation, believers with whom God hung in there when there was no reason even to imagine there was a God.

On our own bad days, we might remember and draw strength from these our older "brothers and sisters," as the preface of today's Mass calls them. St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that they are eagerly awaiting our coming to join them and adding their own prayers to ours that we will see them one day. They never forget us, he said, even when we give them not a thought. Everyone can use older brothers and sisters like that when the going gets tough. Today is a good day to thank them for being there.