Benediction Online

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Finding the sweet spot

Today we are celebrating the feast of St. Benedict, our patron saint. Benedict was born towards the end of the fifth century, and he is known as the founder of western monasticism.  Educated in Rome, he was disgusted by contemporary society and withdrew to live a holy and contemplative life. For many years he lived alone or with one or two others in a cave in the mountains but was known as a man of wisdom and even of miracles so others gathered around him. He eventually moved with his followers to Monte Cassino and founded a monastery there, but he is best known for his “Rule” of monastic life. This was written about 540 and like most human endeavors, it is not completely original but draws from at least one or two other sources. It was become the foundation upon which most of western monasticism has developed.

In the introduction to the Rule, Benedict describes his purpose as creating a school for the service of God.  He focuses on two main areas – how to live a Christ centered life, and how to run a monastery successfully.  He brings together the spiritual and the practical. One of the distortions of spirituality in or time is the idea that it is in some way separate from the rest of our lives. We imagine spirituality to be somehow holier and more rarified – a beautiful inner place which is uninterrupted by the cares of the world. Clearly we all can and do have experiences of that inner calm and inner peace when we are connected with the divine in a way that is quite lovely. But that is not the whole of spirituality, neither is the goal of the spiritual life to feel good. Spirituality is as much running the monastery – the school for God’s service – in which we find ourselves, in efficient, balanced and holy ways as it is about inner peace.

For us, the monastery is a place to go to be quiet, to focus on God and to deepen our prayer life. But for those who are living in it every day, it can be a place of conflict and discomfort, of petty jealousies and power plays; it is a place where you are brought face to face with yourself and your shadow again and again. We are not called to live in residential community, but we are called to live in community with one another. The faith community can be just as strongly a school for God’s service as the monastic one – here in our everyday lives we also get to deal with conflict and discomfort – we also get to explore what it means to be spiritual while we are living a practical day to day life in the material world.

Benedict did not call for extreme spiritual practices. His rule was, if anything, a little prosaic and mundane. Just like our lives. The monastic rhythm he created was a balance of prayer, work and rest. He understood that people differ and so he allowed for some flexibility within the fixed rhythms of the day. He understood that we are not just spirit but also we are bodies – bodies which need attention, bodies which age, bodies which are just as much part of our spirituality as our souls. Throughout the centuries there has been a tendency to distort Christian spirituality by separating our bodies and our souls – seeing one as mundane and material, the other as holy and Godlike. Yet we cannot separate body and soul and remain alive in this world. The way we express our deep spirituality is through the actions we take with our bodies.

But there is a tension here. We live in the tension between the calls of the material world and the calls of the spiritual world. So often our relationship with the material world leads us deeper into the sin matrix even as our relationship with Spirit is leading us out.  The material world is seductive with its opportunities to acquire things and to do more. The accumulation of stuff is tempting and is in itself not necessarily a bad thing, but we humans tend to give the stuff we acquire symbolic value over and above it usefulness.  I have a guitar that I never play and which just gathers dust but it is a symbol of my hope that one day I will devote more time to music. My piano is also a symbol of my hope and at the same time, a connection to its former owner. Neither of them serve any practical use in my life. Both of them require a degree of maintenance, if only to make sure they get dusted from time to time. But they are generally benign presences in my living space. 

Much more difficult are the things we invest with power and prestige.  We buy bigger cars than we need, which emit more carbon than necessary; we buy bigger houses than we need and then waste resources heating and lighting them; we buy the latest electronic gadgets and then spend hours playing with them.
And so Jesus says, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." What hard words these are for us to hear. Does he really mean that? Can we really not be his disciples unless we have an enormous yard sale and get rid of all our possessions? And if we did that, how would we live afterwards? I think this is one of the times that Jesus challenges us by making a big statement that we then chew on, and even choke on.

Our relationship with material things is a challenge for us. To what extent do the things in our lives support us in living a life of service to God? And to what extent do they get in the way of our living that life of service? To what extent do our possessions enable us to serve and love or neighbor and to what extent do they prevent that?  We are increasingly understanding our interconnectedness with all life. The things that we have have an impact not just on us privileged Americans but on people across the planet who are struggling just to get by.  Our electronic equipment seems quite harmless but it depends upon heavy metals that have to be mined and which later end up in landfills and can contaminate water supplies. 70% of the heavy metals in landfills comes from discarded electronic equipment. Yet many electronic recyclers send the waste overseas where it is recycled without proper precautions, causing toxic emissions which are damaging to human and animal life. So even our cell phones can cause human suffering. Even our cell phones can lead us into a failure to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I don’t know the answer. I think it is different for each one of us.  St Benedict recognized that different people have different needs when he wrote, “Whoever needs less should thank God and not be distressed, but those who need more should feel humble because of their weakness, not self-important because of the kindness shown them.” Those who need more should feel humble because of their weakness. That certainly turns our normal thinking upside down doesn’t it? Instead of feeling proud of how much we have or how beautiful our things are, Benedict tells us to be humble because of our weakness and our need for them.
We are human beings living in a material world and we are called to be good stewards of that world. We are called to treat every part of our environment with the care we would give it if it were a holy sacramental vessel. Because it is.  Every part of the material world is a gift from God and is, at its heart, an embodiment of God.

The tension comes for us in living with the vertical pull of our spiritual natures which long to be reconciled with God and to live in constant prayer, praise and thanksgiving; and the horizontal pull of our physical nature through which we relate to the material world and to those around us. This is one way we can think about taking up our cross – living consciously in the tension between the vertical and the horizontal.
And this is one of the reasons that St. Benedict’s rule has had such a powerful influence in the last 1500 years and continues to do so today – because he knows that a school for the service of God is not just about how to live a Christ-centered spiritual life on one’s own, but about how to live that same life with others and in the midst of the material world. We are not disembodied light beings; we are embodied – we are planted here in the midst of God’s material creation.

Which is what is so wonderful about the incarnation – that God chose to take on the same body that we have, and to live in the material world so that we might know what a person who is truly living that tension of being spiritual and material might look like. And God chose to become human so that God too might know first hand what it is to be living in this tension. In Jesus, God became human without giving up any part of Godliness. In Jesus, we can become part of God without giving up any part of our humanness.

That is our calling as Benedictines, not to give up all our possessions and live as beggars, but to find the sweet spot where soul growth happens at the same time as ministry and the demands of everyday life in a human body; to discover what it means to be God with flesh on and to persevere in the school of God’s service in which we are all enrolled.


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