Monastic Spirituality for the Christian in the World

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Monastic Spirituality for the Christian in the World

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Our first conference had to do with the advantages and fruits of getting into the rule, getting into the Benedictine heritage, one hopes you're all convinced at this point. Now the question is how to get into the rule, and it's not just enough a kind of bubbly enthusiasm. Here we want to be rigorous, that's a great help, but we want to be rigorous in our exploration of what's really in the rule. This is the first step of classic patristic lexio, before you get into the more mystical dimensions of the text, you want to know what was really the intention of the author and behind that what are the sources that shaped the author, that gave him his language, his sets of problems and values, etc. So today we want to explore a bit the sources of the rule. This reminds us that just as we don't want to read scripture in a fundamentalistic way,


much less any subsequent text, and so we shouldn't assume that the rule just was directly dictated by the Holy Spirit or something like that, but that it is the result of Benedict interacting with his time and interacting with all kinds of currents of monastic thought and primarily scripture preceding him, to use Jack's image, it's all these stories that come mingled together in a wonderful new combination. For instance, it was thought until rather recently that a large kind of clumsy document called the Rule of the Master was subsequent to the Rule of Saint Benedict, and it just dug some stealing of big chunks of text from the Rule of Saint Benedict, not in too clever a way, and then it added all kinds of inferior stuff, and it was a real shock to the world


of scholarship, and certainly to Benedictines, when scholars argued very convincingly that this Rule of the Master precedes the Rule of Benedict, and it's Benedict who's taking large chunks out of the Rule of the Master, not purloining them, but kind of borrowing them and raising them to a higher level or something. But it very much brought home this fact that, in a certain sense, the Rule of Saint Benedict is derivative, it's derivative of the whole tradition, it's a very conservative document in some ways, in others it's very progressive, it takes these combinations and elements and values from preceding currents and then reinterprets them, shifts the emphasis, and often realizes quite a new way of understanding them. But we want today to look at the sources, then. I think most scholars acknowledge, roughly speaking, two clusters of sources.


There's the cluster that can be called the community values, or if you want to be very in, the cenobitical values, and the main voices there are Pocomius and Basil and Augustine. These are three very important monastic writers who stress values such as community, liturgy, ecclesial service to the surrounding community, hospitality, friendship, values in a very simplifying way can be called horizontal values, ecclesial values. But then there's a whole other cluster of values that flow into the Rule that can be called the solitude cluster, or the eremitical, the solitary, and they represent especially the sayings from the desert fathers and mothers, the apophigmata, and the Rule of the Master.


Can you help one another there? Oh, certainly Cation, good. Cation, who is this great bridge person who comes from somewhere in the Middle East, goes to the desert to Egypt to encounter firsthand these wonderful fathers and mothers of the desert and Evagrius, and then moves up to France, and there, rather later, having established two monasteries there, writes the Institutes and the Conferences that renders to the West available all this heritage from the East. He also stresses, finally, yes, there is the community life, but it's simply there to prepare for the culminating moment of the monastic heresy, and that is solitude, that is silence, that is contemplation through a rather rigorous self-discipline, outer and inner, the ascetical. So quite a different cluster of values, different instruments.


I was going to use a musical image in order to consult with John Rinki beforehand, but there wasn't time, but it's as if the community values were your flutes. You can very easily harmonize these values in the flute section of community and liturgy appropriately. Liturgy is rendered by community, and then you go out and you do ecclesial service and your bonding friendship. All this works together in so lovely flute harmonies there. But then we've got this whole other section here of the solitary harpsichord, and that's also into values that make sense among themselves. They cluster nicely of the ascetical, silent solitude leading into up-deep contemplation. And these two very different streams, coming from different places out there and within,


flow into the rule. I think all the experts are in agreement about this. Where it gets rather interesting is the debate among them of, but which does Benedict want to predominate? Which does Benedict see as the culminating values? And here you get some interesting, sharp debates. At the Benedictine College in Rome, Sant'Anselmo, there's the famous chair of Benedictine studies. And for years, the genius Adalbert de Beauvais held that chair. He taught very emphatically that for the rule, if we read it carefully, everything culminates from the communal, which is just preparation, just kind of elementary and junior high school, to the higher forms of monastic life, which are specifically solitary, silent, contemplative.


And he'll quote something like chapter one, talking about the hermits. Remember chapter one, there are four kinds of monks. Benedict doesn't like two of them, but he evidently likes two of them. Well, one of the two that he likes is the hermits. The second kind are the anchorites or hermits. Those who no longer in the first fervor of their reformation, but after long probation in a monastery, having learned by the help of the many brethren how to fight against the devil, go out well-armed from the ranks of the community to the solitary combat of the desert. They are able now, with no help save from God, to fight single-handed against the vices of the flesh and their own evil thoughts. It's not exactly the full doctrine of vocation, that they don't just fight against the devil, but they are carried into sublime inner contemplation. But it's obviously pointed in that direction, says Waltham. So yes, you have community, and you have liturgy, and all these good things, hospitality.


But this is just propodutic. This is just preparation. DeVoge's successor for that same chair, an American, Ambrose Wapin, said, absolutely no, you've got it absolutely wrong, DeVoge. And he says, no, for Benedict, clearly, the primary values that he wants to stress are the communal, liturgical, hospitality values. The other is tolerated, but as exception. And Wapin quotes the very end of that same chapter in St. Benedict. The Cenobites, those who live in monasteries and serve under a rule and an abbot. Then he talks about the other three. Passing these over, therefore, let us proceed with God's help to lay down a rule for the strongest kind of monks, the Cenobites. So there you are, it's clear. And then if you follow all the way through the different chapters of the rule, it's the


same thing. There are certain phrases that you can argue, see, there Benedict is stressing the primacy of, well, it's the one, and the others say it's the other. But there's another school of scholars, and this I follow, and we'll all want to follow, that say that it's not just that Benedict didn't know what he was doing. He quite intentionally juxtaposed these two groups of values from these two very rich sources and let them play one against another without deciding the thing kind of ideologically, without saying it's going to be community, it's going to be liturgy, et cetera. We'll tolerate the rest, but only that. Or without saying in the Devo Gelayin, it's got to culminate in solitude and silence and contemplation if you're a serious, advanced monk. Benedict doesn't decide the issue. He just lets this flow in and very excitingly interreact and allows that in a particular


monk, the mixture might come out this way, and another monk in that way, and that's tolerated. In one community, it'll have this series of emphases. In another, another. And that's part of the marvelous elasticity of the rule. And I think this is kind of an exciting thesis, and it's not just about this. It's about larger issues. It might be that very often this will be the way we'll want to resolve some dilemmas that might immediately pose themselves as either or, and one has to be higher than the other or something like that. It might be very often it's not to be resolved in that militant way, but in the kind of Benedictine way, let's see. Let's see what happens today. Let's see what happens tomorrow in this person, in that person, in this community. If you were listening carefully yesterday in our chapter meeting, fascinating when John


Reinke was talking about liturgy, and then Lucia brought up questions. What if it's difficult sometimes to pray liturgy? And then Jan Balz talked about, well, there is silent meditational prayer. There's that whole... We were playing out here in that little 15-minute exchange this dialogue, exchange, debate that's been going on for well over 1600 years in the monastic heritage. So, and it's all about us. I think it can be argued that inside each of us there is a solitary dimension. Henri Nouwen has written eloquently about this. In desert spirituality, there's a dimension so intimate, so personal, that I can't just conform myself to someone else. I can't just go by the book. I have to be me. Frank Sinatra is right in that sense.


And quite beyond that, no one else can quite respond to the needs, the yearnings of that deepest, most intimate level. Only God. And this is important. Even in our interpersonal interaction, in our married life, or in our relationships with close friends, etc., not to put on that heavy expectation on the other. You're going to speak to that deepest solitude, that deepest loneliness. It can be that that's a level that only God can speak to, that only God can embrace. And to acknowledge that and to honor that solitary dimension within is to honor that whole solitary tradition in the monastic thing. Then to allow yourself to be nourished by it, by picking up the desert fathers and mothers and reading those wonderful sayings, by picking up Keshen, by picking up all these voices today of solitude, of personal interior contemplation.


Thomas Merton is one of these, as he started out very much the Trappist-Cenebite and slowly, slowly feels ever more strongly this need for the hermitage, for solitude, for silence. On the other hand, there is this definitely communal side to us. We are born social beings within this immediate interrelationship so powerful with Mama and then with Daddy and then with the brothers and sisters and then throughout our life. Aristotle is right. We're essentially communal, and that needs its expression in outer invisible signs, in the action of liturgy, in hospitality, in social justice, peace and justice issues, etc. So that's there also within each one of us, within each parish, within each diocese. So, each one of us has to play out this same dilemma that Benedict played out, and his


own particular solution is very interesting. Not to resolve it, again, doctrinally in favor of this side or that side, but see what happens. And it might be that one is then, for a period, maybe a month, maybe for years, drawn more into the communal, just filled with enthusiasm by liturgical signs and gestures and rubrics and music and the whole thing. Then there might be a period where one is, this just doesn't speak to you anymore. You just can't do it. And there is a mysterious moving into silence, into the desert. One just needs to be alone, and something at a very deep level is happening there that works very well. And then one might be drawn back into the community, etc. This can happen within the day. But to be open to both of these, again, without deciding dogmatically for the one or the other.


This can be presented schematically in the desert model. At the center is the Abba or the Amma, the spiritual teacher, father or mother. And then these disciples come to learn from the master. And there are kind of like little points out there, and each one of them relates directly to the Abba. Usually there's only two or three or four of them. But not to each other. They don't build up a strong sense of community there. But the disciple is just there for the master. And then the other disciple is just there for the master. The only thing that bonds them is they have the same master. This still obtains, I'm told, in classic model of the Indian guru. For instance, our Father Bede Griffiths. The strong point of his ashram in India isn't the communal dimension, the koinonia. It's rather that so many different disciples, each one in a different way, is able to derive real wisdom and life-giving words from Father Bede.


Then there's another model that's almost in reaction to that. That comes from St. Pacomius, who wants to institutionalize community. And he has large communities. And he wants each brother to be in a relationship of fraternity to the other brothers. And he also had his nuns. So each sister with her sisters. And the abbot can't relate personally to all these people. There are too many of them. But the abbot or the ama can spiritually oversee it, or he uses the image of the eye at the center of this large interconnected circle, overseeing the koinonia, the communion. That's quite a different model. And then a very emphatic part of it, again, is this bond of friendship, fraternity, between the members of the community. And the abba there is, again, there to nourish, strengthen, affirm that.


Benedict takes these two and comes up with a third, which will then resemble something like a wheel, where the community is still sufficiently small that the abbot can have, or the abbess, can have an immediate relationship with each disciple. But it's presupposed that each disciple is also related to each other disciple. If you look carefully at chapter 72, it's this wonderful, lyrical proposal of the value of communion, community. If you look at some of the other chapters about obedience, it's very much that one-to-one relationship with the abbot. Well, it's both and there that comes out perhaps the best of each preceding model into a kind of a higher synthesis. This is the Benedictine hope. At its best, it's that. And this is a way, this is a middle way that I think characterizes the best, for instance,


of Anglican spirituality or of Roman Catholic in the east, of the Buddhist. The middle way that isn't just weak compromise, but tries to get right to the heart of the values of this cluster over here, and then right to the heart of the values over here, and then bring them together. So you've got your flutes over here and you've got your harpsichord over here. Some of you have this wonderful flute, harpsichord, what, cantata or something? Concerto, sonata. You put them together and maybe into all kinds of exciting counter-punctual fugue or something. But it is something fuller and livelier than just the one or just the other. And there might be also a tremendous just psychological wisdom here for the individual and also for the community.


There's this lovely book by Esther Harding, who's a disciple of Jung, studied immediately with Jung, and herself became a very eminent Jungian, of psychic energy. And she, as I understand the thesis, it's eventually becoming aware within the individual and within each community, these series of dialectics, of polarities. And aware of the energy over here in the left hand with this pole, but also the energy over here in the right hand with this pole. And not just deciding, I'm going to suppress these over here to really heighten and free up these. That isn't the way to go. The way is to bring these, in some way, opposite poles into some kind of fruitful interaction. And her thesis is, this unleashes the inner dynamic, this incredible energy within. Once the genius is able to say this and also this, and bring them into that coincidence


of opposites, then you have this kind of nuclear explosion of energy, of whether it be the feminine dimension and the masculine, or the public persona role and that darker hidden secret shadow, or the more outreaching extrovert, or the introvert, or the more thinking, or the more feeling, whatever be these polarities, to get in touch with both sides and to bring them into an exciting interpenetration. That's when it happens. And that's what Thoreau has done. That's what Benedict has done. Some would say, without realizing what he was doing, others would say in quite a conscious way. Keating and Cayce, these are two who argue that in quite a conscious and even systematic way, Benedict allows these two very rich currents to flow in and to demonstrate that ultimately


they're very complementary without resolving it. So, that's something for yourself to think about, to ponder, first of all, your own sources of your spirituality, of your life. This can be an excellent exercise for a retreat. What have been the books, who have been the people, the spiritual teachers who have really shaped my understanding of what it means to be a Christian, what it means to pray, what And to look at those sources, and then to look at how they relate, how they interrelate. Is it just a kind of a hodgepodge? Is it a series of contradictions that I haven't resolved? Or is it just one note, a little too monocolor, monototal? Or can I bring these into some kind of creative interaction in harmony, and how is that working?


And at this particular moment, am I more drawn into the solitary, the silent, the ascetical, the contemplative? Or is it more the communal, the liturgical, the celebrative, the social justice, etc.? And if I'm going in one direction, does that mean I'm just repressing the other, I'm denying its values? Or somehow, in some kind of subtle way, I'm integrating them and acknowledging them and expressing them precisely in this moment? But that's something to ponder about. But it could be that the rule is really a document of wisdom in this regard. So, moving then beyond the heritage and beyond these sources as they intermingle in the rule, let's start to look at the rule itself. It's not a long document. It's quite a short little document for all its influence on Western spirituality. It doesn't take that long to read.


Just sit down, and you should be able to do it in an hour or two if you zip right through it. And it's worthwhile just to understand everything that comes after. But it is good to have a method in reading. One of the methods is to be aware of where this comes from. Another method is to work out a hermeneutical strategy, an interpretive strategy, because it is the case that this document was written almost 1,500 years ago in quite a different part of the world for a whole different historical context, different questions, different problems. So, it's just naive to think, I'm going to pick this up, and it's going to immediately speak to me in my context as, I don't know, middle class, upper middle class, intellectual American of the 20th century, urban person, erudite, something like this. There has to be a whole strategy here to claim the document seriously, but to claim it in


a way that isn't exploiting the document in some kind of fundamentalistic way, on the one hand, or isn't just using it in the loosest of ways on the other. Here, there's two extremes we want to avoid. One is just to pick it up and read it, and then just do a kind of a free association and whatever emotions come up, or feelings, or first thoughts, just go with that. So this is just a kind of occasion for whatever happens in me, and that's good enough, but without really coming to grips with what did Benedict intend, and what was the situation he was grappling with, and what is he emphatically proposing. I don't care about that, it's just that that particular line suggests to me to be out in the fields today, so I'll be out in the fields, or something like that. That's one extreme we want to avoid in reading the rule, or any other document, including scripture, just the loosest of kind of just barely touching the rule, but claiming somehow


that it's now mine, as in that wonderful Rilke line of a person who touches the tree and says, it's now mine. The other extreme, I think, is the fundamentalistic, just to memorize every word and say, I'm going to literally, and in some kind of immediate way, put that into practice in my life, and that's the most serious way to read the rule and to appropriate it. That also is really to misunderstand the rule, to not really come to grips with it, because the author himself insists that it's not the letter that he wants to propose, especially it is the spirit of the rule. He is proposing a monasticism of the heart, to use a phrase that circulates, and he also offers the outer structure, but he offers that in a tentative way, and not at all at the same level of importance. So, a first way to read the rule is to do some study, to try to understand what does


he intend for that time, and then to read the parts in the context of the whole. This is a marvelous principle, also, of the reform in reading scripture, to try to understand one verse. Don't just make a flying leap from that verse to what I read yesterday in Olberton, or in some phrase of Vice President Quayle, or God knows what. But, see what this verse means, in the light of the chapter that preceded it, in the light of the chapter that will follow, how it all holds together. What is the mind, the gestalt, the further kind of whole vision and experience of Benedict, in terms of which the particular wants to be interpreted. Then, to see that there is very definitely there a hierarchy of values.


It's not that everything there is on the same level of importance. That is your fundamentalistic reading, or your legalistic reading. It's not even the quantity of the material that will decide it. Benedict goes on, chapter after chapter after chapter, what should be the order of the psalms. And, having gone through that this psalm will be said at that hour, and that psalm at that hour, he ends up saying, we strongly recommend, however, that if this distribution of the psalms is displeasing to anyone, he should arrange them otherwise. In whatever way he considers better. So, this is obviously a man, to use our Briggs-Myers, who is a J, who likes order and structure, but he's also very in touch with his P. He can mellow out, and he can say, well, if it's better for you to rearrange, do it. We were mentioning yesterday about the poor, scrupulous Franciscan, Anglican Franciscan,


who was about to go on vacation, so he was madly going through his office for the next five days, so he would have said it all, and then he could thoroughly enjoy his vacation without worrying about it. It's that kind of thing that isn't the spirit of the rule, very much isn't. Our own St. Romuald, the founder of the Commodities, said, better to pray one psalm with devotion than a hundred without. So, it's that kind of approach to the rule that we feel is important. Go for the spirit of the rule, and very often Benedict himself will give us clues, what he thinks is more important, what he thinks is the foundational element, and what is simply a later disciplinary suggestion that makes sense in that time, in that place, also in that season of the year, but wouldn't make sense in another place, in another season. So, at once, he likes order.


He doesn't like just to kind of chaotically improvise from day to day. But on the other hand, he knows that the order isn't its own end, as soon as I can get into a Richard program, I'm safe, or anything like that, but the order is simply a means to lead to the goal, which is this loving Christ above all things. So, the first step of classic patristic Lectio, or spiritual reading, is to study the text and to ask rigorous questions again. What is the intention of the author for that time? What are the sources of the author? What are the problems he's wrestling with? What are the solutions he's proposing? That's the first step. But, we want to go beyond that. We don't just want to do a kind of an academic study of the text. One can do that and be an atheist. One can do that and have the greatest disdain for this rule. One can be an atheist and apply these principles of interpretation to Scripture, or to any historical document.


One of the great scholars in Italy of our own commandolese tradition is an atheist. He just thinks it's important to know these things, and it's important to understand the Middle Ages, to understand the modern period, and he knows quite as much about our own Romuald and St. Peter, Damian, and the Hermitage, and the monastery, and their interaction, as any of us do. It just comes from a different place, and it doesn't go beyond that first stage of study. But he does that well, and we want to do that well. We shouldn't, because we're spiritual, etc., neglect that first stage, whether it be in terms of the rule, or Scripture, or whatever else we're doing seriously. But we want to go beyond that to the next step in classical patristic Alexio, which is Meditatio, first Alexio, then Meditatio, or now personally reflecting upon this text. Fine, it was written 1450 years ago, but I'm reading it now.


It must have some consequence for my life in Christ. How does this text challenge me? How does it enable me to grow, enable me to take that next step? This is the step that the atheists or agnostics, simply the academicians, would not take, but we want to take, because this is why we're reading the text. And the next step is Oratio. It's not just my ruminating on how this challenges me and enables me to grow, but then to render this prayer, to render this intercession, to render this worship of God. If it doesn't get there, we haven't gone far enough as Christians in reading a text for our spiritual life. And the final stage is called Contemplatio. In Latin, you have these four wonderful Alexio, Meditatio, Oratio, Contemplatio.


It works almost as good in English. So, study, meditation, prayer, and then contemplation. At a certain point, it can be that these words, these passages, carry us into the mystery, that mystery Jack was talking about this morning. God transcends any group of words, any cluster of human values, any set of symbols, and is the ineffable mystery that's so totally different that you've just got to take the wildest leap to get from the symbols and the words there. And, indeed, you have to be drawn there. On the other hand, there are certain clusters of words and symbols, etc., that very much help, that prepare the heart. And they are words into silence, to use the lovely phrase, I think, of John May. So, when we feel drawn from the text into silence, to go with that, this was suggested


in that Yesterday Morning chapter, if you're doing the office alone, and if the first antiphon suddenly just blows you over with astonishment and awe, just stay there. That's all right. This is much more difficult if you're there in choir. Then there is the objective and very healthy discipline of being church, of singing as community. But when you're on your own, that can happen, just maybe a word, just maybe before you even get to the word. So, to allow that, well, to read also the rule in the same way. If you're going to read the rule, or Scripture, or St. Augustine, or the prayer book, or whatever text, in the Christian tradition, it should have these different levels and stages, and certainly always be prepared for these higher levels. You can't make them happen, you can't fake it, but certainly you can do the meditation


part, and certainly you can do the prayer part. It's Norveen Best, in her wonderful Preferring Christ, a devotional commentary and workbook on the rule of St. Benedict. It is a workbook. She has this, I think, basic insight. How are you going to read the rule? We can read it with many other motives and intentions. We can read it out of just ego. I want to know something about the rule, so I'll know more than others about my heritage. Much of the American way of study is built on ego. You read, you study, you get into speed reading skills. You can read more than others, you can retain more than others. Bacon said knowledge is power, and you're on top of it. You can control more your world. You've got all this stuff coming into you, all these data banks that you're tapping. This can be one approach. The monastic approach to the rule, and certainly to Scripture, is entirely different.


It doesn't come from this ego place, but from the deeper self that means humility, that means reverence, that means surrendering to the word, but somehow mysteriously through these words, willing to listen rather than just a willfulness to devour the text, to possess it. It's interesting to see students on a cutthroat campus, like the University of Berkeley, rushing around with these texts. I'm told they have some pretty vicious skills. They'll go off to the library, to the reserve section, and take out the book that's assigned, and they'll rip out the section that the whole class is supposed to read, and they'll take it home, and they'll have it, no one else will have it. It's this kind of devouring approach to reading, or to television, or to film, or whatever else. This other is the reverential approach, where, thank God, others are reading it.


Thank God this text is speaking to others in a deep way. Now I want to be sure that I dispose my heart so that it can speak to me as deeply. So, Noreen Best's basic insight, I think, is that we're reading this text not for information, not for culture. We're reading it as Lectio. We're reading it so that it may become, for us, meditation and prayer and contemplation. So just the structure of it. She begins at the top of the page with a significant passage from the rule, in darker print. So you're to read that, and then it's a good exercise to re-read it, re-read it, see what speaks to you. Then she has her comment, and there she packs in more of that first stage of Lectio. She gives some historical background. She discusses what the scholars are saying, the Benedict intended by that particular passage. Then she has her reflection, what this says to her,


and what she thinks it might well say to any modern woman or man, for their spiritual journey into Christ. And then she has an empty space at the bottom for prayer response. Then the reader is to personally respond to this in prayer. And then silence. So just the structure of the book. One's to invite a reading of the rule that is Lectio. Again, one could do the same format with Scripture or with Merton or with any text we're reading. So this is a monastic, hermeneutic approach to the rule. This is very much being debated in places like the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. I had the privilege of teaching there seven years, and the faculty would anguish. What in God's name are we doing? Are we trying to just help people jump through academic hoops


and then get pieces of paper? And is it the same kind of game that any academic campus would be playing? Which is a very serious game, which has its own intrinsic values, certainly. But if it's just that, then in what sense are we engaging people at the level of faith, at the level of theology in its deeper significance? So what the faculty thought is, yeah, we want to do that first step. But we want in all kinds of ways, without getting just soppy and undisciplined, to invite the students and to invite ourselves to journey into those higher levels of theology, of spirituality, of scriptural studies and whatever we're doing. So this is being debated on any serious Christian campus, and hopefully in any serious Christian parish or community or family


or within the heart of each of us. So this Lexio thing isn't just a technique. Techniques are about control. This Lexio thing is a way, it's a monastic practice, again, to render the heart available to the Word of God that is thought to speak through this text. As you know, the rule begins just with that exhortation, listen, my child, listen. Well, this Lexio method, it wants to enable us to listen at all these deeper levels. And so with that, we might conclude this conference, and then tomorrow go on to looking at the two basic exhortations of the monastic heritage to us, of the rule, and we would argue of Jesus, of just the New Testament. And in terms of those two exhortations,


they're like two vectors that identify the still point, the center of the monastic charism. And from that still center, then we can look out at the marvelous turning world. Amen.