Obedience 101

Ages ago as a teen, I used to read one of those advice columns that every newspaper has. I think I ended the practice when I read a letter from a teen and its response. They went something like this:

Teen:
Dear Smart Adult: I’m so tired of having to jump to every order my parents give me: clean your room; do your homework; pick up your clothes; go to bed! I can’t wait until I’m 21 and married so I’ll be the one giving orders to my kids and making them obey ME!!! (Signed) Sick and tired

Smart Adult:
Dear Sick and tired: I’m really sorry for your troubles, but what makes you think that just turning 21 will forever release you from the need to obey? Here are some of the examples where you’ll find that strict obedience will always be required: your boss at work (providing you haven’t yet been fired for not following the rules); the local, state and federal tax collectors (unless you’ve ended up in jail for non-payment); your spouse who may have the audacity to expect you to get out of bed and to work on time so you can support your disobedient children . . . and so forth.

This was the kiss of death. I would never be in charge of anything or anybody! Now you know why I never forgot this incident from my youth. What Ms. Know-it-all said was that Obedience is an ever-present reality. The only change is in who’s giving the orders. I’d soon find out that I’m not in charge of anything, much less anybody. (More about that, God willing, in another post.)

I also remember my teachers, members of a religious order, telling us that the vow of obedience was the most difficult of the three they were required to make. Obedience required leaving their ego behind and adhering strictly to the judgment of another person. Moreover, the superior might be lacking in the personal qualities that make obedience easy, such as being (a) older/wiser; (b) better educated/smarter; (c) gentle and tactful.

St. Benedict makes obedience the very foundation of his Rule as he writes in the Prologue:

Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20).

In these few words he tells us not only to obey (“listen”), but to go more deeply into the heart level. But whom do we lay Oblates, living outside of a monastic community, obey?

10-commandmentsObviously we must first start with The Law, specifically the Ten Commandments and the Commandments of the Church. Most of us feel we’re quite all right in that department until we’re told by Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:20-22), to go beyond the letter of the law:

I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.

Jesus did not stop even there. He gave us his own person to imitate as he saved the most important commandment for the last. At the Last Supper he washed the feet of his disciples, showing them that their first duty as a disciple is to serve others. Perhaps because Jesus knew he didn’t have enough time to unravel the mysteries regarding the question of law and obedience, he created one single new commandment, one which is the clearest and the most difficult of all: Love one another as I have loved you.

How did Christ love us? He served, consoled, healed and forgave. He repeatedly referred to how he obeyed the Father. He could hear the Father through his intense prayer and his constant willingness to obey. Whatever the Father revealed to him in prayer, Jesus heard and understood. What he learned, he taught and also modeled. In his final act of obedience to the divine mission, he laid down his life for us.

There is so much more to say about the virtue of Obedience, especially as to how it relates to hearing the Lord. I welcome your thoughts, and pray that we can continue this discussion together.

Here I am, Lord: I come to do your will!

New Year’s Resolutions

resolutions-sI was never able to keep New Year’s Resolutions for more moments that it took to speak them.

Much more useful are the resolutions I’ve been making for the last few years, aimed at hopefully nurturing my spiritual life. At my age, I find that the simpler the better, so I limit the number of resolutions to three, and also prefer that they be in the form of ONE word only. Any more than that and I’d tend to forget them. Just three words can be easily remembered and repeated, very much like a mantra.

The three words I chose at the beginning of 2016 are:

  • Silence
  • Mindfulness
  • Trust.

I find these so important and so difficult that I’m keeping them for 2017. Also, as I meditate on these practices to write this Post, I discover how interrelated one is to the other.

Silence.
This doesn’t mean wearing earplugs or keeping the radio off. Actually, listening to music has the effect of shutting off other noise that might be keeping my mind and spirit spinning. By noise, I mean thoughts that whirl around in my head, most often having to do with relationships, such as conversations with others that haven’t gone very well. Or thoughts related to world events that I can’t do anything about – except to pray for the healing of the cruelty, greed and selfishness rampant in the world. I’d do much better to let those prayers enter my head, rather than to continue to want to fix all these problems or to stay angry that I can’t.

Silence also means letting the other person do the talking while I listen. I don’t mean simply nod my head now and then to give the illusion of listening. I mean really listening. I mean not butting in every two sentences to offer my opinion or advice. I mean listening in a supportive way, letting the other person vent, and letting myself be the ventee, rather than the ventor. This practice also serves the Benedictine principle of hospitality, since we are welcoming fully the person speaking to us.

As I practice this kind of Silence, I realize that it is related to No. 2 on the list: Mindfulness.

Mindfulness simply means paying attention to what we’re doing or saying. This includes paying attention to what you’re hearing while you’re being Silent (back to hospitality again). It also means paying full attention to what you’re doing, focusing on each step and not hurrying. Forget about multi-tasking. 

Oddly enough and contrary to what the word seems to say, Mindfulness doesn’t fill our minds. Because it requires focusing on one thing at a time, and that one thing is in the present moment, it results in an emptying of the mind, or at least the removal of mental clutter.

I tried mindfulness recently while I was baking. I had promised to bring two pies and a cake to a family gathering. In the past, I would have scrambled around, concocting all kinds of ways to be most efficient and to finish as quickly as possible. (And by the way, what was I going to do with all the time I saved?? Play computer games?) Scurrying around usually ended in dropping utensils and making a mess that took longer to clean up. This time, practicing mindfulness, I very deliberately completed each step in turn. Though it felt a little like being in a slow motion film, I was actually able  to complete the project in record time and with minimal if any gratuitous mess. Furthermore,  I had been able to remain calm and contented, enjoying the thought of the pleasure I’d be giving to the family.

What does mindful baking have to do with my spiritual life? And why, for heaven’s sake, do I think such tasks are different from my spiritual life? Focusing on the present moment, I am able to keep myself in the presence of God who is present everywhere and in every moment. Thus, even menial activities become prayer, that is, they unite us to God. (For more on this topic, look up the powerful little book by Jean-Pierre de Caussade: The Sacrament of the Present Moment, and Google the Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence whose mindfulness enabled him to remain in the presence of God while performing his kitchen duties. Here’s a link: http://thepracticeofthepresenceofgod.com/onlinetext/)

The practice of Mindfulness is similar to the practice of Silence. Both keep the mind and spirit uncluttered, focused, and more ready to approach everyday tasks in a spirit of prayer. All of us have menial tasks to perform just to get through our days in some kind of order and peacefulness. We frequently complain about them because they’re “boring” and keep us from “prayer time.” Mindfulness allows us not just to perform tasks, but to transform them from the worldly to the transcendent. It allows us to make a prayer of what we thought was just plain boring. Try it. You’ll see what I mean.

The last resolution is perhaps the most difficult: Trust.

Our whole life has been spent trying to increase our mastery over so many things. We work hard to acquire the skills that will give us mastery over an art form, over knowledge and maybe most often, over other people. We even work to gain an illusory  mastery over our prayer life, and try to “do it right,” as if it’s a job and we’re in charge of it.

Trusting in God bolsters our spiritual immune system. Trust is like a spiritual antibiotic: it cures debilitating ills such as fear, anxiety, helplessness, pride, depression, and a whole host of related bad habits. Trust is simply admitting to God that He’s the one in charge, and being thankful that this is so. He’s the only one who knows the true outcome of what we fret over, what we’re afraid might happen. 

It’s very easy to talk about how wonderful Trust is, but quite another thing to practice it continually. This is why I’m keeping Trust on my list for another year. In fact, I need to keep it until death do us part.

Resolutions, like our spiritual life, are unique to each of us. I suggest taking a few quiet moments with the Lord, asking him to help us select a few habits we might want his help in acquiring (or dropping). He loves us, and will love this request. I’m guessing we’ll be given what we need.

Happy New Year!

Stranger at the Door

“I was a stranger, and you welcomed Me.” (Matt. 25:35)
“Let all guests . . . be received like Christ.”   (Rule 53 of St. Benedict)

When St. Benedict wrote about hospitality 1500 years ago, it was an especially timely virtue, filling a need unique to that era. As a place inhabited by men or women living a life dedicated to the Gospel, the monastery was viewed as a safe haven for travelers. Nowadays, we have an array of motels on brightly lit highways, plus maps, mobile phones and our trusty GPS. In our day, admitting a total stranger into our home obviously defies prudence!

So how can this rule, first voiced by Christ himself, be applied to the Benedictine Oblate and other laity in the 21st century?

There are two tiers to this virtue: the natural (Good) and the grace-filled or supernatural (Best). outdoor-partyWe practice natural hospitality with our friends and neighbors all the time: inviting them in for a chat, offering them something to drink, and so on. This is a good thing to do.

It’s easy to be warm and mushy with our friends. We love them; they love us. We know them. We’ve probably known them for years. We know what to expect from them: their taste in movies, football teams, politics. Disagreements are handled in a joshing, loving way. Mostly, we agree with them and love them because they’re like us, and by golly, we’re just right about everything!

To understand Christian hospitality as a grace-filled virtue, we have to focus on the key words Jesus uses: stranger and welcome.

This level of Christian hospitality must be interpreted as wholeheartedly accepting those who are not a member of our social circle and who might even be at odds with most of my oh-so-correct thinking. This is the Stranger whom Christ tells me to welcome. He tells me to make myself lovingly present to such Strangers, sharing myself with them out of a desire to be Christ for them, especially when they are ignored or cut off from others, or even  if they adhere to a different set of values. We’re not told that we must agree with them, but merely to be open to them!

Jesus was open, as we see in this Gospel passage where John, newly returned from his first mission, complains to Jesus, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow in our company.” (That is, he’s not one of us!) Jesus answers, “Do not prevent him, for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:50)

Jesus cautions us about hosting social events when our motivation is personal gain. (Luke 13:14). A few examples: I give a party because I want to have the favor returned; I want other people to see and admire my home and possessions;  I want to cater to those who can help me get ahead. These are self-centered actions, posing as hospitality.

There are numerous everyday situations where simple welcoming actions go a long way in letting others feel loved. The phone rings. I spot the name of an individual whose typical conversation can be quite dull, needy, or long-winded. I try to remember to connect, listen and respond. The Stranger might be the person new to a social gathering, standing alone with no one to talk to. The space around that person is waiting to be filled — by me and Christ. The most difficult stranger to welcome is the one who (I think) doesn’t love or admire me.

welcome-home-12976716Christianity, after all, is not rocket science. It’s a way of life, a way of being Christ to others; a way to let others see Him in us, which is the only way Christ can be visible in this world.

Lectio Divina: Holy Reading

What is there about reading Scripture that is so scary for some of us?

One reason, I suspect is because reading Scripture is like reading a foreign language whose vocabulary is unlike the words we use every day.

My first exposure to the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina (Holy Reading) felt like this: foreign and perhaps somewhat regimented. What I was looking for was a way of approaching Scripture that would draw me to a greater intimacy with God in deeper love, understanding and trust.

Traditionally, Lectio consists of four steps: Reading, Pondering, Praying and Contemplation. Depending on the teacher, the number of steps may vary. Some of us (such as the author of this piece!) cringe at the merest suggestion of regimentation where prayer is concerned. However, like learning to play a musical instrument or to master a sport, a certain strictness or method is necessary at the beginning until a degree of comfort or mastery is achieved.

For an example of how to go about this fruitful kind of prayer, let’s study the first part of Psalm 84. I will refer to the writer of the Psalm as a poet, since indeed poetic language is used.

(1) Read (Lectio). We begin by simply reading the verses for their basic meaning.

How lovely your dwelling, O LORD of hosts!

My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the LORD.
My heart and flesh cry out for the living God.

As the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest to settle her young,
My home is by your altars, LORD of hosts, my king and my God!

Blessed are those who dwell in your house! 
They never cease to praise you.

Clearly, the poet is attracted by the beauty of God’s dwelling, and longs to be a part of it.

(2) Ponder (Meditatio).
To enter deeply and prayerfully into this text, we touch and savor each word and even pay attention to what is not said. Strong feelings are expressed in passionate words:  My soul yearns and pines.

Yet even these expressions are too tame for the depth of the poet’s emotions, so his language escalates: My heart and flesh cry out!

As we continue this thoughtful reading, we realize that the poet is not giving us a graphic picture or architectural rendering of the Lord’s house, but is giving us a passionate understanding of the Lord’s own home. The poet accomplishes this by omitting any mention regarding the physical aspects of the place: carved pillars, the luxuriant use of marble, gold,  precious stones and fabrics. Excluding outward descriptions creates a stronger impression that what draws us is not a material building, but God Himself as a place of refuge and love.

(3) Pray (Oratio). We ask God to reveal Himself to us.
How often in our prayer we are led beyond words to an almost desperate feeling of longing! We can’t think of words to say, our feeling is so overpowering. What we sense is an absence, a void that only God can fill, for it is in this emptiness that our prayer is intensified.

(4) Contemplation (Contemplatio). We bask in the insights God has granted us in this Scripture.
The poet’s intention is to describe God’s welcoming and tender nature. He is home to the humble, not a palace limited to the great or mighty who parade inside, laden with costly gifts. No, the poet uses the small and the vulnerable (the sparrow and the swallow with her young) to describe the kind of souls God desires to welcome. God invites us to live in the very shadow of his altars where holy offerings are made daily.

We are there to stay. We are permanent residents in this splendidly humble home of the Lord. Unimportant as we may wrongly think of ourselves, we are blessed and welcomed into the holy presence of God. We are safe, protected, loved, and never cease to thank and praise him for his great love.

Our final graced realization is that this beautiful dwelling where God abides is none other than our very soul, the temple of the Lord.

wild-rose
Photo courtesy of Joyce Medovich

 

Odyssey of an Oblate

It didn’t take much to persuade me.

A couple of years ago I made a short retreat at Transfiguration Monastery. One of my purposes was to learn more about monasticism. Not that I was thinking of entering the monastery, but rather, drawn to the spirituality of monasticism, I wanted to learn about the “monastery of the heart.”

The very concept of monasticism – the totality of its dedication to the interior life, to a growing intimacy with God – had appealed to me long ago, even in my teens. But life takes us on different paths and here I was, close to where I had wanted to be so long ago.

After a short but substantive conversation with Sister Mary Donald, she gave me copies of some of her articles, along with the Esther de Waal book, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. That sounded like just the thing, as indeed it was!

 I resumed going to Mount Saviour Monastery which is less than a ten-minute ride from my home and had some conversations with then-prior Father Joseph Gabriel. He told me I needed to write him a letter requesting acceptance as an Oblate of Mt. Saviour. I composed and sent the letter that very day. He later described the simple process: I would attend a brief rite to publicly express my desire and choose a name. This part was easy too, and just seemed to pop out of my mouth. My patroness? Mary Magdalene whose feast just “happened” to be within the next 10 days!

 Father Joseph steered me to the writings of Michael Casey, OCSO, who explores in depth every word of the Rule. I was formally received last year, shortly before Father Joseph left.

 While the whole process of my becoming an Oblate seems very short and maybe even inordinately swift, I must emphasize that this had been in my mind and heart for many years. The decision was relatively quick only because it had been gestating in my spirit for literally decades, even if at times it had been submerged beneath other activities.

Mary MagdaleneHow did I decide so spontaneously on Mary Magdalene? Certainly, Thérèse of Lisieux has long been a favorite of mine since girlhood. But Mary Magdalene seemed closer to the adult me. She was one of the few to endure watching the lengthy dying of Jesus crucified. How much love and strength did that require! She was then the first to see and speak to the risen Christ. In her great love and joy, she threw herself at his feet, clinging to him, not wanting to be separated from him. Christ commissioned her to give the good news to the brother apostles. He had total trust that she would do this, even though this was a very bold action for a woman.

 There is much we do not know about Mary’s apostolate after that. Pope Francis has just “upgraded” her feast day, July 22, to the same level of celebration that is accorded to the other apostles. After so many centuries when she was associated with practically every fallen woman in the Gospels, it is a true grace to have her honored in this way.

 Yes, she had needed serious help from our Lord. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus had expelled seven demons from her. Like any other Christian, she undoubtedly was flawed. And with us, all of us flawed, she received forgiveness with great joy and gratitude. We’re in good company.