Monastic Spirituality for the Christian in the World

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Monastic Spirituality for the Christian in the World

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St. Benedict puts Christ right at the center of monastic life, and in first place. We're laughing because this is the third time we've taped this, do you know that? Christ is at the center as Lord, as King, as Father for Benedict. Christ is at the center as loving friend for Herod, as spouse for Hildegard and Gertrude and Bernard, and a whole range of also women mystics, as great high priest for the whole Cluniac reform and their great liturgical emphasis, and then simply as suffering servant for a Matthew Kelty, or as brother on the way with Thomas Merton. But all these are different experiential lived ways of experiencing this primacy of Christ in the monastic life. Christ is to be preferred above all. And then Benedict goes on to say, nothing is to be preferred to liturgy.


So what is it? Is it the one or the other? Does he want us to be schizophrenic? Well, this is a synonymous way, certainly a subordinate way, but a synonymous way of expressing the same mystery for St. Benedict, because our liturgy is simply an entering into the great celestial one liturgy of the great high priest interceding in the spirit, through the spirit, to the Father, Mother, the first great person, source of that fulfillment of all of creation. So our liturgy enters into all that. It is the Opus Dei, the work of God, in the sense of the work that God enables in us through Christ, as well as the work that we achieve for God, glorifying God, the subjective as well as the objective, as well as the agitival, the godly, divinizing work. So we should have that sense of the significance of this prayer, though it is also very much


a domestic form of prayer. It's not the great temple prayer, but it's the simpler, domestic, familial, synagogue form of prayer that precedes Jesus and the apostles, and then that's taken up in Qumran as their specific activity as koinonia, as community, and then comes down to us. The Eucharist, which was, in the ancient monastic experience, celebrated once a week. In the lovely image of Bhagajini, it's the great diamond at the center of the ring, and the divine office is the golden setting, then, for the diamond. So they're very much related as one liturgical reality, but in their distinct character. The goal is to hallow our time, to sanctify the whole day and the whole week, and thus the seven times a day which the monks gather to glorify God, breaking up mexio, breaking


up worship, and whatever else, for this central, culminating activity of the monastic family. And this challenge for us is the Eucharist day. In what sense does it hold the primacy? What is its relation to Christ for us? Because it is primarily Christ's work, I think that can teach us a particular attitude and state of soul and mind when we enter into liturgy. On the one hand, we can be calm, we don't have to tense up, it doesn't all depend on us. It isn't performance. There's a danger of getting into that mindset. You can sometimes see in the sacristy, people nervously bustling around, they're about to go out, they're about to have their moment on the stage, almost, they want it to go well. Well, we can mellow out, because all we're doing is, at that moment again, entering into


the perennial, eternal action of Christ. On the other hand, because it is so, it is the reverence of Christ, we certainly want our own focus and mindfulness, and also reverence to be there, so it's a kind of a calm focus that this spiritual theology evokes, I think, and this is expressed in that wonderful chapter on the manner of saying the divine office. We believe that the divine presence is everywhere, that the eyes of the Lord are looking on the good and the evil in every place, but we should believe this especially, without any doubt, when we are assisting at the work of God, here again in this primacy. It's always the case, wherever we are, so this extension, this rendering of all things sacred, but there's a hierarchy here. To that end, let us be mindful always of the prophet's words,


Sing praises wisely, and in the sight of angels I will sing praises to God. Let us therefore consider how we ought to conduct ourselves in the sight of the Godhead and of his angels, so this sense of presence, of being in the sight of God. And then he offers a little rule of thumb, which in existence, sobriety and simplicity is charming, but it is extremely demanding, and let us take part in the psalmody in such a way that our mind may be in harmony with our voice. So just that consistency and coherence of the Eastern monks saying, bring the mind into the heart, and this in liturgical prayer then comes out in the voice. Now, distractions are just a basic name of the game, but if there's that fundamental intention to worship with Christ in the Spirit up to the Godhead, then we can gently come


back, bring our mind back to this fundamental direction, and here there are various ways you can look at the specific words of the psalm, you can go into the Christological reading, then the Ecclesiastical reading, that can get rather complicated, but every now and then it enriches the horizon again. But particularly keep that intention, that cleaving to Christ, uniting our voice with Christ. So, in the summing up of it, the monks say that the liturgy is kind of the great sacrament of the monastic life as such. Before Saint Benedict, the word opus Dei referred to the whole monastic observance, everything from vexio to manual work to—Benedict specifies it to liturgy, but in a sense it certainly is prognostic.


Is that the word? It gives us a reading of how the whole thing is going, a diagnostic, something like that. It is the thermometer that tells us how the whole thing is going. If the liturgy is kind of rushed and nervous and distracted, probably our life generally would be thus. If it's calm and interior and very contemplative, that should be a good sign for the whole of our life. So we want to focus there. What about personal interior prayer? Does Benedict put so much emphasis on the liturgical that the other is simply supposed to fade away or indeed be non-existent, as that monk of St. John said he wouldn't pray if he weren't praying in the liturgy solemnly, a dreadful heresy.


Sometimes in his line, people quote the phrase of St. Benedict, prayer therefore should be short and pure. Can this be interpreted as in contradiction to the whole journey of the desert fathers and mothers to pray without ceasing, to pray always in every place? And this rooted simply in the injunction of St. Paul, pray without ceasing. And then there's that lovely parable in Luke. Jesus taught them a parable that they should pray without ceasing. Is Benedict saying no, no to that, just keep it short and pure, and then just put all your marvels in the liturgy basket? Is that what he's saying? Well, a careful reading of the text says no. Cajun is the great monk who insists that it all culminates in continual prayer. But the way he characterizes this continual prayer is prayers that are short and pure. That is, he uses the very same adjectives that Benedict afterwards picks up.


Benedict is just echoing Cajun and carrying him on. Not that you should rarely pray except in the liturgical action, but rather when you pray, they should be brief prayers, aspirations like arrows that dart up to heaven, and they should come out of the purity of heart. So, Benedict isn't contradicting Cajun, but continuing Cajun in a line that also very much stresses, certainly, liturgy. And so we see in the Instruments of Good Works, number 56, one of the instruments is to apply oneself frequently to prayer, and Doug Dibblegate wrote a brilliant article on this. This is an invitation to constant prayer by St. Benedict in the same line as Cajun. Even within the context of the liturgy, it seems that as Benedict understood it, after each psalm the monks would actually prostrate themselves in silence and then move into a


personal contemplative space. And that is to be frequent, and it's to be short—you don't stay there for hours—it's to be pure, and then the abbot gives the sign to get up. And so it's not this and therefore not that, but in the great wisdom of Benedict, this and therefore that, this as the context for that. So Christ at the center, thus Lectio, the living word of God, thus liturgy, that word prayed, and thus community, that word experienced in the flesh and blood of our sisters and brothers. This is the other great dimension of the Christic center and the Christic presence, is community itself. This is a tremendous value in Benedict, who follows here the line of Pachomius, but again


without going into a kind of anti-hermit thing, but keeping the door open also to the solitary life and having real moments of interior solitude within the life of the monk. So community, koinonia, the central value in the New Testament. New Testament scholars say that koinonia can sum up, for instance, the whole theology of Luke in the gospel and in Acts. It's interesting that in the book of Acts, this central term of agape, which is the very life of the community, the life of God, agape occurs not once. This raises some eyebrows. What happens is that after the synoptics of the community gets away from agape living, no, a great Lukean exegete like DuPont says, no, it's just that koinonia, which occurs


frequently in Acts, this is just the way Acts translates agape, renders agape communal, renders agape we living here in Christ, as Christ assures us when two or three are gathered together, here am I in the midst of you. Raymond Brown has a lovely essay about this whole emphasis on koinonia in the New Testament. There are very definite Qumran echoes here. The Qumran community characterized itself as simply the koinonia, and this is a strong Hebrew term by Yahad. So this is specifically monastic, and then when Proconius, the great father of monastic of synoptic living, characterizes this community, he uses the Greek here, although his own language is Coptic. He says, who are we? What are we doing here? We are the holy koinonia.


So monastic life is koinonia, and that's, when you think about it, I think that's what parish life is about, the holy koinonia. That's what family life is about. That's what friendship is. So we've got all these different modalities of living holy koinonia. Hopefully something like the rule can give us a model out there that we can bounce against to see, well, how is our particular koinonia doing? And then finally, there's that interiorization, that inner koinonia, that sacred village within. Are all those components on speaking terms? Are they in harmony? That's an ongoing work, so that as with one voice and one heart, I can glorify God and not be caught in too many inner battles and schizophrenic divisions. So what about the community specifically of St. Benedict?


Well, it was drawn from all classes. In many ways, he was a traditionalist. In some ways, he was a revolutionary. He comes from an aristocratic Roman family, according to his wonderful biography by St. Gregory the Great, but he just drops all that behind, and he insists in this turbulent period of the 6th century when boundaries and borders were collapsing, and these barbarians from the north were plunging into Italy, there was all kinds of racism and hatred, he insists here whether one comes from an aristocratic Roman family or from any of the tribes of the north, we're equal, and the only way you set a precedence in the community, you very much want order, and that means a certain precedence. It's not according to how much money you bring when you come in or what is your family tree or anything like that. It's when you arrived. If you arrived two hours before that person, even if that person comes as a younger brother


of the emperor or something, you go first, because the idea is the person most rooted in the community has the fuller experience of community, takes precedence over the person who has less, simply to show the other the way, because the community is the living rule. The great Abbott Primate used to say, the rule of St. Benedict is the written rule of any community life, but there's the other living rule, which is just the community's experience and way of living the rule, of living the gospel. So that's the only precedence, not according to any other criterion of intelligence or of class or anything like that. Nearly all in the community were laymen or laywomen, and this is something, unfortunately, with the passage of the centuries, monasticism also got very clarified, but in its origin, it's a lay movement, and Benedictine rule was very suspicious of priests.


Many historians have said he was never himself a priest. This shocks some of the more traditionalist Benedictines that love to visualize him in mitre with ring, almost an archbishop or something, but he was hesitant about all of that. He says, for instance, in chapter 62, on the priests of the monastery, but let the one who is ordained beware of self-exaltation or pride, and let him not presume to do anything except what is commanded by the abbot, knowing that he is so much the more subject to the discipline of the rule. There's also that wonderful dialectic, not just subject to the discipline of the arbitrary whim of the abbot, but of the rule, so there's this splendid dialectic there, and indeed, the abbot is placed under the rule. Nor should he, by reason of his priesthood, forget the obedience and the discipline required by the rule, but make ever more and more progress toward God, should he presume to


act otherwise, let him be judged not as a priest but as a rebel, etc., and thrown out and beaten and all kinds of things. So this is, I think, an interesting challenge to us. So many of our churches are rediscovering the lay dimension. Ninety-nine percent of the church is lay, but we tend to get so clericalized in one way or another in our various churches, and the monastic, rightly lived and rightly understood, is one variation on lay spirituality. We have more than one monk in our community who is militantly lay and will not go on to the priesthood, and anything that smacks of incipient clericalism, they ring bells and grab their guns and all that, and this is helpful because we can get so away from the original clerism of the rule and of maybe the New Testament. The basic model of the community, what's happening here?


In later centuries, you'll have all kinds of congregations and gatherings of Christians. You can get all kinds of models, also before Benedict. For instance, there is a military model, where basically a platoon of soldiers for Christ, and the superior is the superior officer, and we're out there to somehow battle against Satan and win victories for Christ, this kind of thing. This is a model that's very emphatic in early on in Pachomius, for instance. It's there in a few passages in the rule itself, to take up the arms under Christ. Paul takes up this military language of the shield and the buckler and the sword, et cetera. But at very least, it's clear that it's not the dominant experiential model in the rule or in the Benedictine experience. Then there could be the athletic model. Sometimes Paul uses this, sometimes certainly the Desert Fathers and Mothers as they're competing


for who could be the most aesthetical, et cetera. So we're kind of a team for Christ, and the superior is the coach. What are we after? We're after victories. That's another powerful model. Both of these models enable us to see who's pulling their weight, who isn't, et cetera. A clear criteria of discernment. The Jesuits, or according to some Jesuits, those who very much relate to the military model. And I used to teach at Berkeley in the history of Christian spirituality, and this Jesuit would come in and talk about Ignatian spirituality in terms of U.S. Marine models of a few good men and heroes. And there's no women Jesuits. It's a very macho thing, and a little scary also. But there's no suggestion of this in Benedict. Then some contemporary communities use the model of the efficient corporation, firm,


and the superiors are kind of a CEO, chief executive officer. And we're out there, I'm not sure how that works out, but maybe maximalize our profits. In the book offering, don't forget your Christmas shopping. But there's that kind of thing. But also, there's no suggestion of this in Benedict. But what you do have very emphatically is the model of the family. The model of Adelphoi, or that is we are the brethren in Christ. Christ is our brother, or our father, or our older brother. But we are brethren one or another, or we are sisters one to another. And this is just the fundamental model in the New Testament for the Christian assembly, Adelphoi. And it's extremely profound with all kinds of implications and would take years to spell out.


But it becomes less easy to measure when we're succeeding or not. It's easy enough for the army. Are you winning your battles or not? And if this guy ran away in the midst of battle, well, you put him in the brig or something. Or if it's the athletic, did he win the medals for the team? Or if it's the firm and the business company, are we, in fact, getting a good income? Is someone spending more than they're making, et cetera? Well, you fire them. But in the family, what do you do? You don't fire a brother or younger son or daughter. You're just there. And if there's any goal to it, it's to mutually support each other in love for the growth and the maturation of everyone. So this is the model of Benedictine koinonia, and I think it can be argued of New Testament


koinonia. And it does challenge our model of what is the perish all about? Sometimes we can implicitly get into the one of alternative models. Are we growing? What does the budget look like in terms of are we a success or failure? Or even the family, my god, my kid, he's bringing in C minuses kind of thing. Or he didn't bring in even the yellow ribbon of the race or something, a failure time. Well, not if you go to the very heart of the monastic, I'm sorry, of the family experience. In this model, the superior might be Abba, as clearly in the rule. According to some of renewal, the commandery stress also the fraternal and the friendship role of the superior. So it's a dialectical thing, fearing that too much emphasis on just the paternal can get into the paternalistic, can get into all sides, and also projection of wrath in terms


of authority problems, etc. It's incredible how much just anger can be put on a superior in a monastic community, and it's not personal. It's not personal at all. It's just I still am working on my anger towards mommy. And here he's around, and he's telling me to do things the way mommy used to do. So that can happen. I'll throw this out, and then I'll run away quickly. But Jack was mentioning how every year there's a moment that comes when there's just a crisis and lots of anger. And we work through it. Normally, at the end, we're still on speaking terms, and Christians, and loving one towards it. But what is that? What is it all about? Well, one could do a kind of a pop psychology thing. But at a certain point, we realize this is structured. There is at least some kind of communal dynamic of obedience going on.


There is autoritas. And it's not just I coming to do the weekend that I paid for, and I'm getting a lot out of it, or I'm not getting a lot out of it. But my God, there's some kind of authority thing here. And I haven't been listened to, or I've been treaded on. And suddenly, lots of wrath that sometimes seems to exceed a bit the precise dimensions of the great suffering we've undergone or the great injustice we've suffered or something. But it's that, oh my God, I'm in a community that also has a shape to it, that also has authority to it. And the combination of fear and anger is extremely deepening and enhancing. But certainly, it's there in the community of a monastic stable. There are moments of explosion of wrath. And then when we get a little distant, they're about the smallest of things that normally we would pass through with humor.


But sometimes someone can say, oh, I am coming out of a problem I had with my mom or my older brother or a mean uncle or a particularly ferocious teacher or something. But there is that. But if it is the family model, that certainly unleashes all kinds of dynamics of fear and anger and joy and love. But it does get us into affectivity, as Alan would remind us. And that's a good thing. That means the fuller human and familial experience of Christ's presence. And it ultimately, I think, well, Benedict wants that no one be upset or saddened in the household of God, a lovely aspiration and prayer of chapter 31, the household of God. There's a lovely book out for laity about the rule simply called The Household of God by David Perry.


So that's the basic model. And so the abbot doesn't just decide things arbitrarily. He calls all the brethren to counsel. And again, there's this order according to entering into the community. But then he turns it absolutely upside down for the possibilities of the Holy Spirit. The reason we have said that all should be called for counsel is that the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best. So however you cut the pie, you want a certain order. Again, Benedict is a real jay on the brink, Myers. But open to the surprises of the Spirit. So it is an institutional community. That is, it perdures down through the generations. It isn't just there for this charismatic moment. But on the other hand, it is very much a community. It wants to be open to the surprises of the Spirit. So there again, it's a both and.


Some scholars argue that in this calling all to counsel and listening to everyone, you have the cradle of Western democracy. There's a marvelous, delightful article out by a Belgian professor of political history. And he's a socialist. And he's been an agnostic. And he was interested in the medieval ways of elections, convinced that they were kind of sinister and corrupt and really kind of early forms of heroism, the way Stalin did things, et cetera. This is Leo Moulin. I was a militant socialist raised to hate the Church. And I was interested in the way in which elections of monastic superiors inside the religious orders were carried out. I was convinced there was something hidden in this election process. It was to elect a kind of a Catholic Stalin, he says. But I was astonished to learn from the documents of the Benedictines that the abbots were


democratically elected by the Congregatio, that is by the entire community, and that once elected had to ask the opinions of the monks for the most important decisions, beginning with the youngest. A century before the Magna Carta of England, considered mother of the European parliamentary system, the general chapter of Cito existed. In sum, it was the monks who had invented, who laid the basis for the democratic spirit. For me, this was an incredible discovery. It was entirely unexpected and brought about a total change in my vision of the religious world. I had wanted to uncover the dark secrets of the elections of abbots, and then to turn to those of the popes. And I ended up discovering that for centuries and centuries, they applied democratic rules. So it's interesting. But what is your model for the parish, your model for family? And also, again, that model within. How do you handle that? Well, certainly consult everyone.


And then this mutual love, that wonderful chapter 72, that kind of sums up this whole spirit in a culminating way of koinonia for the rule, and I think for, in its own way, for the family, for the parish, for the diocese, and for that inner monastery. And we can go another way. Benedict talks about this bitter zeal, where I'm against you because you're not observing that law, because you didn't treat me right, because God knows. He says, no, there's also a good zeal. Just as there is an evil zeal of bitterness, which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vices and leads to God and to life everlasting. This zeal, therefore, the monks should practice with the most fervent love. Thus they should anticipate one another in honor, most patiently endure one another's infirmities, whether of body or of character.


That's a beautiful thing. If the guy is not carrying his weight in the business firm, he's just firing him. Or if he's not showing up for the battle, he'll be just putting in the brink again. But here, with great patience, you endure infirmities, whether of body or of character, for a lifetime, because that's what family is all about also. He doesn't cease to be your brother because he's got some stupid ideas about politics, or he's short-tempered or something. And so with Christian community, all the more with Christian community, by impaying obedience one to another, no one, including the abbot, following what he considers useful for himself, but rather what benefits another. Tender the charity of brotherhood chastely. Fear God in love. So even with that fear of God, it culminates in love. Love your abbot with a sincere and humble charity. Prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to life everlasting.


Amen. So this chapter on community culminates in Christ, who then leads us as family, as our older brother, as our friend, as our spouse, into the depths of the kingdom. So just a few words about work. We're rushing at the end to try to get it all on this tape. But what it is actually is, as I'm sure you realize, a few fundamentals of the Benedictine life, introduction to them. So hopefully these conferences and these tapes are just an invitation to go on studying. People can spend a lifetime just studying the rule or Procomius or Merton or Basil or whatever. Work. The ancient model of the monks is ora et labora, pray and work. Everything in that et, that both and, that's classically a monastic.


If you get too spiritualistic, it can be just the work, just the prayer. Our modern obsession with workaholism might have just the labor, but to have that balance. For Benedict, there were six or seven hours of work. In his time, it was an agricultural time. It wasn't an industrial, urban time. So it was especially agricultural. But he never insisted on just that. And he had copyists and writing and the work of hospitality and a range of work. But what he did was revolutionize the way of considering work. Work not as shameful as some sign that you're the lower classes or de-slave, but work as essential to the Christian life. And here again is the recovery of talk. If you don't work, you shouldn't be allowed to eat kind of thing.


But this is going absolutely against the grain of the Roman Empire. Again, we want to ponder in our own time, what do we do with this obsessive You're not worth anything unless you work nine, ten hours a day. So we might have to adjust the scale in a different way today, except for our leisure classes who do tend to have the problem how to kill time and there to really be engaged in work can be a liberating thing. So for Benedict, work isn't so much a penitential thing to do satisfaction for my sins or because some kind of masochistic thing. But it has a functional scope to render the community viable, self-sufficient, so it doesn't have to depend on others. It's not parasitic. And Benedict never had the mendicant approach of the Franciscans, where you


need money, you go out and you just beg it on the streets, also in a spirit of great humility. And that also is a very ancient form of monastic life. But the monastic is, no, you get out there, you work, and so you grow the potatoes that are on your table to eat, and you prepare the cloth that clothes you, etc. So it's a different way that very much Saint Paul insists on, and it's very apostolic, but it opens up to a whole New Testament theology of work as participating in the great salvific work of God. But again, without obsession, Saint Benedict insists in that chapter 68, don't work too hard, too strenuously, but all things with moderation for the sake of the faint-hearted. We had a former Trappist come to us years ago, and he said that at one of the


Trappist abbeys, the whole thing is manual labor in an ascetical kind of penitential mode that came in with Deron Say, that now they're getting away from. But Deron Say was saying, worry, sinful, we should punish ourselves. Well, a good way to punish yourself is lots and lots of manual labor. Well, they would go out before the break of dawn and work in the fields, no breakfast, and come out, come back for lunch staggering. And he said it was amazing that people weren't passing out. They were so weak. And in a way, that's exhilarating, but it seems not at all. And I think you get the equivalent with some CEOs today who, we know one woman way up in the banking world, and after a long day, she rushes home still with her buzzer, and now she's got her fax. And so now the company is sending her stuff home for her to continue to think about after work and for the weekends.


And she just feels this totalitarian taking over her whole life by work. Well, absolutely not. All things with moderation. And another great motive for work is to have the means to contribute towards the needy, their needs, through hospitality for the poor guests, for the sick, et cetera. So it's a theology of work that can be looked at very carefully. I'll do this very briefly, but to rush through work, because it's a very basic component there. It would want much more time. Finally, to get to the conclusion that doesn't close it all up, but up says, this is just a little rule for beginners. A wonderful phrase, I think, that is Benedict himself applies his principle of humility to his one and only work that we have as rules, saying this is


elementary school. And think about going farther. Think beyond, of going beyond this rule. So this is for beginners. I don't know how many of you know that lovely book by Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. But his insistence is once we get really educated and sophisticated into graduate school about spirituality, about faith, about practice, then we're really in trouble. We should always have that beginner's mind. Jesus says, unless you are the little children, you can't inherit the kingdom. Blessed are the children. I think it's that same spirit of wonder and availability and celebration and surrender. So, again, some rules later on ought to be self-sufficient and spell it all out. And if and when you do your rule of life, don't do it that way, but write a


little rule for beginners. That's what our oblate rule is. That's what it all wants to do. But then it opens to God knows what, only God, in the spirit, in the freedom of the spirit. Our own former general, Benedetto Collati, has a very cool chapter on spiritual freedom of the rule. And he says, again, anything in the rule can be dispensed except the prologue and chapter 72 that we just read about preferring one another in love, and then chapter 73. For that, we should be willing to die. And that's simply dying for the freedom of the children of God, dying for the right to observe and honor the law, and then go beyond the letter of the law, which can kill to the spirit of the law. So to conclude, we are all monks.


And some of us out there, perhaps married with kids, and in the workplace are more monks than those who dress up and go through all the gestures. We are all monks. And there is that monastic dimension within, and that unites us to all the ages and to all the deepest aspirations of humanity. Along with that complementary yearning for creative complexity. And the rule of Saint Benedict is a classic expression of this way. And it empowers this dimension within us in a particularly balanced and wise and efficacious way. It presupposes primarily metanoia, that fundamental Christian conversion that Jesus preaches from the word go of his earthly ministry, and that compunction fulfilled in love, in agape. And when we walk in love as Christ loved us, then the rule helps us sustain the


whole person, body, mind, and spirit, affect, thought, and will in a balanced life that alternates between moments of prayer and work and study and recreation. And when we're sustained by something like the vows of obedience, that is hearing, listening, and stability, that is rootedness in Christ, and also in conversatio morum, that is in this journey in the freedom of the spirit, then the rule, like our baptism, leads us through Christ's love in the spirit into the depths of the Godhead. Amen.