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Under Authority: The Challenge of Evangelical Monasticism

 

Don Richmond:

New MonasticismA recent conversation with someone interested in ancient church priorities and practices highlighted one very troubling issue: While Evangelicals give lip service to the importance of being under proper authority, very little life-service is given to the same. We say that we need authority, but we prioritize and practice autonomy. And, although this is a disturbing feature of Evangelicalism as a whole, it is most disturbing when applied to Evangelicals who are seeking to integrate monasticism (or monastic practices / disciplines) into their lives.

In his most recent article in First Things (online), “The New Monasticism Gets Older,” Rev. Dr. Greg Peters asks a poignant question: “Will they grow up?” With this Peters also asks why they “prefer something ‘new’ to something historical.” This is an important set of questions. Upon posing these questions, however, Peters also posits three potential reasons why “growing up” may be difficult for many Evangelical monastics. This brief article will focus upon one of these reasons.

According to Peters’ brief comments, the New Monasticism (and, I add, Evangelicals interested in monastic practices or disciplines) has trouble being under authority (my wording). “Strong authority” is questioned or rejected by many Evangelical Christians, New Monastics among them. In this case, contrary to some contemporary “Christian” trends, Evangelicals want substance without the structure. (Certainly this is much better than the “Liberal” ethos of structure without substance, but it is still highly problematic.)

Whether we like it, structure is essential to substance. Although a number of illustrations might be referenced, let me cite only a few. We cannot have Christ without some of the structures of Christianity. We cannot have Christianity without some of the structures of religion. We cannot have religion without some of the structures of concrete action — ways of life and living. Structure, at least to some degree, is essential to the substance of these ideas. Christ was revealed by God, but was structurally communicated through the church. St. Peter’s first sermon, while Spirit-inspired, was communicated from the context of a community (the 120 disciples gathered in the Upper Room) who were gathered together under Christ’s direct authority. The “structure” of the message was communicated in and through the Christian community that was gathered with, in some way, Peter as titular head. They together contained and communicated the substance of Christ and the “good news” of the gospel.

Similarly, building upon this, Christianity implies proper religion. From Genesis through Revelation God communicates His concern about proper worship. In seeking to provide His covenant people with proper structure, through which the substance of their faith could be properly communicated, He gave them instruction for Tabernacle, Temple, Feasts, Baptism and Eucharist (Communion). God’s covenant people were given “religion” as a vehicle for exercising proper relationship. Stories such as Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel and “Strange Fire” clearly communicate the need for structure to communicate substance — and the dangers when appropriate structures are not utilized. Christ has been and must be in some way mediated through a revealed faith (Christianity) that has structural religious components.

Finally, religion, proper religion that is revealed by God, is essential to both the structure and substance of what God wants to communicate. Religion, simply speaking, is little more than how we live our lives. Religion is a way of life. It is, in some small way, an expression of discipleship. One might say that religion is the embodied substance of relationship that is given practical structure. This is most clearly articulated in the New Testament where it says that “true religion” (emphasis mine) is to care for the widows and orphans. Religion, properly exercised, is the hands and the feet of substantive religious belief. It is the behavior of belief.

Christ is communicated, albeit not minimizing the role of the Holy Spirit, through Christianity that is the vessel of substance that is structurally “contained” and religiously communicated through the lives of God’s covenanted people. As such, one needs authority, proper authority, to ensure that the substance has not been in any way compromised. Without proper authority, its essence and expression, the substance of faith cannot be effectively communicated. We must, so to speak, have a bucket to carry the water.

Article_NMThese thoughts, briefly expressed, have direct and dynamic bearing upon Evangelicals who want to embrace monasticism. While we might seek to enhance our walk with God through incorporating the Liturgy of the Hours and other “monastic” practices into our lives, such practices do not make us monastic — either lay or Religious. In fact, a person could pray all of the Hours without having any practical authority in and over h/er life at all. This can be asserted, as well, regarding any spiritual discipline. Disciplines require DISCIPLES seeking discipleship. The disciples were under the discipline of Jesus whom they followed. This was a crucial issue for St. Benedict. For prayer to be effective, truly effective, it must not simply have “two or three gathered together in [Christ’s] name,” but, as well, a catholic community under a functionalauthority.  St. Benedict capitalizes upon this in his Rule (RB) and, while encouraging a proper appreciation for the writings of Scripture, the Fathers and the Lives of the Saints, he was quite aware that books could not provide the disciplines a disciple needs. A community under authority and in prayer is needed.

It might be asked, of course, how this differs from any of the churches we see today. As well, because the New Monasticism does encourage some form of community life, how does historic ancient monasticism differ from its modern (contemporary) counterpart? Let me make a few suggestions.

1. Contemporary Evangelical Christian culture does not, practically speaking, generally encourage submission to proper church authority that is both freely chosen and functionally enforced. In short, Evangelical ecclesiology is grossly deficient and, because of this, the exercise of radical discipleship (monasticism) is (at best) compromised. This is most clearly seen in our rank and rabid denominationalism that suggests, as did Job’s friends, “Surely we are the ones, and with us wisdom will die.” We write church with the low “c” of Western culture instead of with the high “C” of biblical revelation. This has led many of us to move from small “c” church to small “c” church with little consideration afforded the big “C” imperative of THE CHURCH that makes valid claims upon us.  We have, in short, “spiritualized” the inherent structures of the faith that carries and communicates the substance a Christ-centered relationship that has robust religious expectations. Growth in Christ cannot occur when we are not under a functional authority.

2.  As well, “growing up” implies creative movement beyond where one has “grown within.” If Evangelicals will not recognize ancient and established authority, if we are always seeking trend without tradition, we will never be able to “grow up” at all. An example from monasticism itself, Benedictine monasticism in particular, is in order. There is a difference between a monk who lives in community and a hermit who lives alone. Generally speaking, a monk is not allowed to be a hermit until such time as s/he has been stabilized within a community. To move beyond community, to grow up before being grown up, is at best dangerous. Thomas Merton, as one example, was not allowed to be a hermit until he had passed many years in community. This is appropriate to Evangelicals generally and Evangelical monastics in particular. There is no doubt that Evangelicalism encourages an “alone” community — or, more pointedly, an individualistic emphasis upon faith. This is, likely, an extension of our emphasis upon the 16th century “alone[s]” we so ardently embrace. This “alone” emphasis has dynamically and in some ways dangerously impacted the New Monasticism’s emphasis upon “new.” It is, so to speak, Evangelicalism seeking to wear “big boy pants” when, in fact, we are not entirely ready to abandon our “short pants.” It is an effort to walk before we have crawled. Although the past forty years have sought to reclaim the maturity of both the 16th century Reformation and the Fathers (as well as Mothers), we have as yet not been sufficiently grown up within them to effectively move beyond them — if, of course, moving beyond them is even possible. Consequently the New Monasticism, for all of its positive points, can only be the monasticism of the perpetual novice. Being under real and established authority, for a protracted period of time, living the disciplines with other disciples, helps to address this pronounced lack.

3.  Monasticism is committed to a life of common prayer, common prayer that is an extension of the common life. Saint Benedict knew and communicated this well. His emphasis upon being in the “enclosure” is critical to prayer. Why did Benedict place so much emphasis upon how the community would function? Why was community so important to him? Why so much attention to what might appear to be fussy detail? Why submission to the Abba? Why the emphasis upon the common life? The reason is that how we live is how we pray. As well, of course, how we pray is how we live. Do we Evangelicals, monastics included, REALLY know very much about a common life that generates a common prayer? We have sought to apply the structure of prayer (Book-life) without being immersed in the substance of prayer (Body-life). This is why Jesus said to be reconciled before we worship. This is why the forgiveness of sins is embedded within the Prayer that Jesus Taught Us. If Evangelicals are to truly embrace monastic practices, we must embrace THE monastic priority: Stability in Community. The practice of prayer is empowered by life in community. Chapter 20 in the Rule of Benedict (RB), Reverence at Prayer, suggests relationship in community. We have no “common” prayer without a “common” life.

4.  Many people will assert, based upon the first three points, that Evangelicals HAVE embraced a common life. I would strongly disagree. To be sure, there are some who have done so. As well, there are others who want to. But Evangelicals as a whole DO NOT understand community. We see community as a social construct and not as a spiritual priority that has clearly articulated structures to which we must confine and conform ourselves. After the Prologue in the RB, the Father of Western Monasticism begins his brief 73 chapters with an examination of “The Different Kinds of Monks.” He lists four. Hermits are one type of monk. As stated above, these are monks who have ALREADY, AND FOR SUSTAINED PERIODS OF TIME, been in a monastery and have lived under both a Rule and an Abbot. (How many Evangelicals belong to “stand-alone” denominations asserting their unnervingly unique “spin” on both essentials and non-essentials?) “Gyrovagi” are another type of “monk.” They are wanderers. They move from place to place, never stable nor still. Benedict is swift in his condemnation for these drifters and their lifestyle. (How many Evangelicals church-hop for the latest trend, the most powerful musical and experiential narcotic that will satisfy a “hunger” that can be understood as little more than a religious addiction?) A third type of “monk” is s/he who has never been “tried” by living under a Rule or an Abbot. This type of monk also receives abrupt condemnation. (How many Evangelicals are beginning to embrace, at least in their thinking, Christ without Christianity?) Evangelicalism, particularly in the United States, caters to this type of Christianity and community. We celebrate an “alone” (individualistic) faith whose sole “Rule” is the Bible (often individually or denominationally interpreted) in churches that are culturally committed to “seeker sensitive” and “mega-church” agendas promoting a “feel good” faith. This individualism can be illustrated through an ordination interview to which I was once subjected. I was asked by one of the interviewers if I believed in “Scripture Alone.” I stated, quite emphatically, that I certainly did not. He asked, quite dumbfounded by my answer, why I did not believe in this Evangelical imperative. My answer was simple: Even the Reformers did not isolate the “Scripture Alone” priority without also keeping it in the contexts of faith alone, grace alone, in Christ alone, to God alone be the glory. In short, contemporary Evangelical understanding of both Bible and Church is grossly deficient. In fact it is our “Scripture Alone” emphasis that compromises biblical and practical ecclesiology. This “Scripture Alone” premise quite naturally and dangerously leads to “Stand Alone” communities which raise “Stand Aloof” communicants. We are not stable. We do not submit. We often reject structure. No real structure = no real substance. Is it any wonder, therefore, why Evangelicalism has at times been criticized for its shallow and narrow constructs? (I ask this as a committed Evangelical Anglican.)

5.   Benedict addresses these issues when he discusses the forth (the first one noted in the RB) and the best type of monk, the Cenobite. The Cenobite lives in community and under the Rule and a Ruler. S/he is the one to whom Benedict addresses himself in both the Prologue and in the remaining chapters of the RB. The content of what Benedict briefly outlines provides sound and stable directives for Evangelicals who seek to embrace more fully the classic Christian disciplines as capably communicated through monastic communities. These are, after 1500 years, “old” directives and disciplines for “new” monastics. I will be brief.

Evangelicals must embrace, and be stable within, properly exercised apostolic authority rooted in Holy Scripture as communicated through the Abbot — or practical equivalent. Recent attempts to inform and reform present practices with ancient faith are an excellent beginning, but only a beginning. “Scripture Alone” needs to be placed and practiced squarely within the context of its Reformed understanding and within the entire Totus Christus (RB 2 -3). Authority is essential to monastic priorities and practices. If we are all, architecturally speaking, in the same boat (Nave), we will all need to be rowing in the same direction. And, as we are all inclined toward individualism, this will require someone to be in authority and attentive to all of the contexts in which this community exists — and not just our own limited community and denominational context. While Christ is indeed our head, and Holy Scripture is our “road-map,” these require both navigator and navigation. It is far too simple to assert that the Holy Spirit will guide us. How many errors have been propagated because of the misapplications of our Lord’s word in this regard!?

Evangelicals must renounce our self-will (RB 3) and begin to see Christian disciplines as part of Christian discipleship within the larger context of committed catholicity (RB 4 – 5). Disciplines DO NOT exist, properly speaking, without or beyond true community. Discipleship requires, in some way, a shared following of Jesus Christ with other disciples. This must embrace and embody both organism (spiritual) and organization (structure).  Good works must have some form of community to whom (and within which) these works are expressed and exercised.

This will require Evangelicals to be far more silent (RB 6), embracing a humility (RB 7) that resists strident Evangelical isolationism. Humility plants us squarely within the humanity of others. I find it darkly humorous that Evangelicals want to embrace “catholic” practices without “catholic” community. We hunger for disciplines and discipleship without the requisite of other disciples with whom we share a life. To clarify this point, we do not have Holy Communion without Community. We do not have Holy Baptism without the Body. Disciplines exist only within the context of the discipleship of other disciples.

Britain Wall Street ProtestsEvangelicals need to understand Christian supplication (prayer) as part of Christian society (RB 7 – 19). Jesus taught us all to pray “Our Father.” We need to radically reclaim this “Our” if we are to truly be a family (“Father”) at prayer. While God DOES hear our individual petitions, He is quite clear that even individual prayers exist within the wider catholic context. It is quite easy to minimize or restrict the relevance of chapters 8 – 19 of the RB. We could, unwisely, suggest that these chapters only relate to monks who are living within the “enclosure.” And, to be honest, this limited application must to some degree exist. As a “lay monastic,” “oblate” or “associate” there are certain rhythms of monastic life that we cannot entirely share. But we cannot entirely avoid them either. While the applications of chapters 8 – 19 may be somewhat limited, the applications are not limiting. These chapters from the RB suggest a catholic community at prayer. That is, in some way, these chapters speak to the philosophic “Our” in the “Our Father” becoming the practical prayers of the church catholic who share a common history, heritage and hope.  “Let all prayer,” writes Benedict, be “made in common” and “together” (RB 20, emphasis mine). If there is no “common” there can be no real “prayer.”

This truth, quite naturally, means that there will be relational guidelines governing prayer. Benedict does not simply establish a community. He does not simply enforce an “enclosure.” The community enclosure does not exist as a means of protecting the “fold” of Christian fellowship. Rather, the fold of fellowship exists as the functional framework for prayer (folded hands). Functional redemptive relationships empower the spiritual requests we make to God. Relationships make the “I” and “My” of individual petition into the “We” and “Our” of corporate catholic prayer. “Reverence at prayer” (RB 20) requires ordered relationships (RB 21 – 30) that are grounded in a common life, for the common good and to the greater glory of God. As such, chapters 31 – 73 in the RB are not simply for those who embrace the life of the Religious (specifically within the monastery), but in some way apply to all of us who seek to live a religious life — a liturgical life that is a common life within the broadest catholic context available to us. Although many of these chapters specifically address strict monastic living – roles, responsibilities and rules – these chapters also speak to how a community must function as community in order to enable, enhance and empower common prayer of a common people sharing a common life.

Let me follow with a detailed illustration that cuts to the core of what I seek to communicate. In 1986 I began to embrace an Anglican ethos. This began, quite simply, with purchasing a Book of Common Prayer (Canadian, 1962). For about four years I disciplined myself by celebrating some form of the Daily Offices and reading books on “the Anglican way.” Although my prayer life was VERY rich as an independent Evangelical (with broad Lutheran leanings), it was only through praying the Daily Offices according to a set tradition that my devotional life became a life of devotion. By worshipping according to the Book of Common Prayer, my discipleship took on a functional discipline by which I sought to guide and govern my entire life. But this was not quite enough. I wanted, and in fact needed, more. As such, in 1990, I aligned myself with an Anglican monastic Order. Consequently, as I was now an “associate” of this Order, I not only celebrated the Daily Offices, but I also devoted myself to the Rule of that Order and submitted myself to the Superior. This meant that both my disciplines were expanded and my discipleship was deepened. Unfortunately, until about 2000, I was not entirely able to move into an Anglican Church community. Circumstances prevented this. However, around 2000, I officially aligned myself with an Anglican body and submitted myself to the Bishop, the disciplines of that particular Anglican jurisdiction, and a community of like-minded people who shared the same priorities and practices. This, once again, required an expansion of my disciplines and a deepening of my discipleship. These were, as well, further enhanced by submitting myself to a Bishop to whom I owed some measure of concrete and consistent obedience. And here is the point and the application: Although I had embraced some disciplines by celebrating the Daily Offices according to the Book of Common Prayer, it was not until I moved more concretely into the life of Anglican believers (with functional authority over me) that deeper discipleship began. Evangelicals want the “book-life” of liturgical living (a good beginning), but resist the “body-life” of liturgical living which, of necessity, has fixed expectations. This is evidenced, among many other examples, by the attention Evangelicals give to writing their own Rule instead of conforming ourselves to a long-established Rule. We want the “new” because it provides us with the ability to exercise our autonomy and independence. We want the “future” of the “ancient-future” without entirely embracing the “ancient.” We prefer the new autonomy more than the ancient authority. As such, for many Evangelicals who seek to apply ancient disciplines to their lives, these disciplines are little more than a gloss or shallow overlay — a façade.

Saint Benedict ends his Rule by stating that there are many “instruments of virtue” (RB 73). Encouraging his followers (Christ’s followers) to “hasten” to the Heavenly Kingdom, Benedict has instituted some initial priorities for “beginners.” But have we Evangelicals, apart from basic “salvation,” actually made a true beginning? Benedictines emphasize beginning again. Beginning AGAIN means, of course, that they have begun before. Benedictines have a history which is heritage, something from which to draw upon that resists what is always new and trendy. What is “new” is, therefore, what is “old” and “established.” Being under authority, in its many practical foci and functions, is part of this rich history. Are Evangelicals willing and ready to fully enter this “boat” and follow Christ in this manner? Are we willing to repent of our entrenched autonomy and join with others under authority? Are we willing to really and functionally say we are entirely catholic in our priorities, principles and practices?

It is to be understood, and appreciated, that Evangelicals are not all of one cloth. Evangelicals are represented in almost every, if not every, denomination. My Evangelical Anglican identity will differ from Evangelicals from almost every other denominational “stripe.” This said, however, Evangelicalism as a whole embraces an isolationist agenda that is in some way rooted in our Reformed Protestant “Alone” mindset. As such, Evangelical monastics will always hanker after something “new” because we feel (and are) so very “alone” in many practical ways. If this is to effectively change, if disciplines are to truly become a part of Evangelical discipleship, we must eject the “new” and root ourselves firmly in the soil of the “old” monasticism. To “begin again” we must first begin.

 

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.

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Chapter 49: The Observance of Lent

Donald Richmond:

A Monk’s life should at all times resemble a continual Lent, but few have such virtue.
    The Rule of Saint Benedict (Saint Benedict Press)

weeding“Is it Lent, again?” whines a rather delinquent monk in the 1985 film Ladyhawk. He is much-relieved to discover that it was not, and that meat was potentially on the menu for the week. We, however, are not so lucky. Lent begins on Wednesday and, as a general rule, some form of self-sacrifice is strongly encouraged. Such self-sacrifice simultaneously reminds us of Christ’s Via Dolorosa, our own earthly pilgrimage, the need for self-sacrificial living and our eternal destination. For us, Lent is a reminder.

On the other hand, for the Monk, Lent is a rule. It is, in fact, THE RULE. The monk is called, challenged and (if truly called) charismated to the task of self-sacrifice. The black cassock of our Benedictine friends is not simply plain garb, but, rather, is a robe of perpetual repentance and the portal of penitential prayer. 

But Saint Benedict is a realist. He understands that “few have such virtue.” Recognizing this, in Chapter 49 of the Rule, he “encourages everyone during Lent to live in all purity, and during this holy season to wash away all the negligences of other times” (Emphasis mine). In short, our father Benedict suggests that we, by God’s great grace and mercy, give ourselves a thorough spiritual scrubbing. Purity, especially at this time, is to be rigorously and patiently pursued.

And Saint Benedict, thankfully, was also a pragmatist— in the best sense of the word. Urging abstinence and virtue, he provides the Monk and “everyone” with some very practical tips. He shows us what abstinence and virtue (or abstinence toward virtue) looks like. He shows us what works.

First, cutting to the very heart of the matter, St. Benedict tells us that a true Lent is to “refrain from all defects and apply ourselves to tearful prayer.” According to the author, “Reading” plays an important part in this. As we enter this Season of Lent, with the full intention of living more perfectly before God and other human beings, let us seek God’s voice through reading His word more diligently and praying more consistently. Let us immerse ourselves in what God says, the standards of God as found in the Word, in order to be convicted and cleansed by “the washing of the water of the word.”

As well, St. Benedict tells us that we should add to that which is good and abstain from that which is bad. He refers to “adding something” and “abstaining from” in Chapter 49. It is, now citing ‘a Kempis’ Imitation, a seasonal rooting out of one vice — and, as well, the planting of one virtue. Note that he emphasizes “something.” He does not say “do it all” or do “everything.” He says to do SOMETHING. This is important. Many of us at times feel immobilized by sin. We feel like we have so many problems that we do not know where to begin. We become overwhelmed. Instead of doing SOMETHING, we do nothing. St. Benedict says to uproot “something” and plant “something.” Replace vice with virtue. Begin, of course, with thorough repentance from sin and faith in God through Jesus Christ! Do “something.”

Furthermore, the Rule of Saint Benedict talks about our use of “meat and drink.” We get this. Lent is often a time of “giving up” something. My wife gives up chocolate and desserts. I have given up a variety of things and, in keeping with my “all or nothing” personality, have had to learn not to do it “all.” I have to repeatedly learn the spirituality of “something” and resist the devilish economy of seeking to do “everything.” My Lenten observance at times has been, therefore, not to be so very hard on myself. Whatever we choose to give up is, according to Benedict, by our own “free will” and in “the joy of the Holy Spirit.”

Wow! Joy of the Holy Spirit! I bet we rarely think of Lent as even mildly pleasant, let alone a time of happiness or joy. It is often the horrific cry, echoed by the Ladyhawk monk, “IS IT LENT AGAIN?” Yes it is. And yes, it IS a joy. But it is JOY IN THE HOLY SPIRIT. Sacrifice without the Holy Spirit is little more than self-justifying action. It is Babel. With the Holy Spirit it is Tabernacle and Temple. It is Basilica and Cathedral. We may indeed deny ourselves, according to the Rule, “food, drink, sleep, talk, [or] laughter” as we “await the holy feast of Easter.” But let our abstinence be guided and governed by God. And, if we can think of nothing else, pluck the weed of slander and gossip and plant the seed of mercy, patience, and kindness. Or, if this is too much, exercise consistent mercy. Or, if this too is too much, ask God to plant in us the seed of great sorrow for our sins.

Finally, St. Benedict tells his readers to inform the Abbot of the decision they have made. For those of us outside of the monastery, whether Oblates (like me) or committed Christians, tell someone you trust about your plan for Lent. Let a mature person you know be aware of what your intention for Lent is. What we “intend to offer” should be made circumspectly known. This keeps us honest.

IT IS LENT AGAIN? Indeed it is! Let us, by God’s mercy, see this time as “joy in the Holy Spirit.”

 

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.

 

 

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With Eyes Open

eyeDon Richmond:

“With our eyes open to the Divine Light,
and with our wondering ears,
listen to the advice of the Divine Voice
that speaks to us every day…”

Upon making this statement, found in the Prologue of the Rule (RB), Saint Benedict gently and persuasively leads the reader to a crucial conclusion:  If we are to “see” and “follow” Christ there are certain clear expectations that must be met. Reading this text within its context, we are prone to move swiftly on to the “answers” Benedict provides. And yet the text itself suggests that we take a passing yet important detour. This detour, driving us to the very heart of Benedict’s words, is found in St. Matthew 17:1–9; St. Mark 9:2–10; St. Luke 9:28–36 and 2 Peter 1:16–19.

Each of these cited references refer to the Transfiguration of our Lord, and are central to Benedict’s considerations and our calling. Urging us to have our ears and our eyes open, the author persuades us to pursue perfection. He encourages us to pursue the holiness “without which no [person] shall see the Lord.” He urges us to live the transfigured life. He urges us, within the biblical texts referenced, to WAKE UP, SHUT UP, GET UP, and PUT UP.

WAKE UP. Our texts tell us that Peter, James and John were asleep during a significant part of the Transfiguration. Luke 9: 28 suggests that this journey “up…the mountain” was for the purpose of prayer. However, instead of rising to the occasion, the three Apostles fell asleep. They were, our text says, “heavy with sleep.” As Moses and Elijah began to depart from their conversation with Jesus, the Apostles finally began to wake up — They became “fully awake.”

SHUT UP. In keeping with his pronounced personality, as Moses and Elijah are leaving, Peter begins to speak. His words unintentionally communicate the core of “man-made,” instead of God-ordained, religion. “Master,” Peter says, “Let us build.” Obviously the Father is not entirely pleased with Peter’s plan because, just after this, the “Divine Voice” says “listen to [Jesus].” In other words, God says stop talking and start listening.

GET UP. Soon thereafter the Apostles and Jesus descend from this mountain-top experience (through which the Apostles largely slept) back into the real world below. Their silence was further enforced by Jesus who told his disciples to “tell no one” until after his salvific death and justifying resurrection (Matthew 17: 9). In short, the Apostles needed to get up and continue to shut up.

PUT UP. Finally, before the applications which will be drawn from these important set of texts, the disciples are firmly planted back in the real world where there are real needs — needs that they were not entirely able to address (Matthew 17:14–21). Although they had some small experience of the Transfiguration, although they tasted a bit of both the “Divine Light” and “Divine Voice” (RB), they had to come down from the proverbial “mountain” and live a real life among hurting people. They had to, in short, put up as well as shut up. They had to live life — not pontificate upon the wonderful “experience” they each were afforded by God’s grace.

How do these Transfiguration principles apply to us? First we must WAKE UP. We must open our eyes. Human beings, apart from Christ, live in a perpetual sleep. We are soul somnambulists. All too often we pass through life half-asleep. But God has FAR MORE for us. God in Christ by the Holy Spirit wants to bring us up the “mountain,” enliven us in prayer, and help us to both see and hear the Vision and Voice that God has for us. He wants us, with Christ, to live the transfigured life. To do this we must first choose to wake up.

As well, and embedded within both the Bible and the RB, we are to SHUT UP long enough to hear and heed what God has to say to us. Silence is not simply a monastic priority, it is the well-advised practice of EVERY committed Christian. All too frequently we seek to “build” (as did Peter) “tabernacles” to God without hearing God’s direction. We want to “do” for God without knowing what it means to “be” in God. This is the heart of dangerous religion. While God DOES call us to do things (the Great Commandment and Great Commission immediately come to mind), He wants our actions to be rooted in our relationship with him. We need to SHUT UP for long enough in order to hear (and later, heed) God.

This of course means there will come a time when we must GET UP and go. The disciples could have sat about, after the Transfiguration, discussing all of the theological fine-points of their experience. They could have called the other disciples up to them and held a weekend retreat about “Transfigured Living.” They could, as well, have just sat back and soaked in the Transfiguration experience. “Wasn’t that,” they might rhetorically ask, “a PHENOMENAL experience?!” However, in fact, the Apostles got up and again followed Jesus back down the mountain. What Christ had to communicate was communicated as they walked to work. Many Christians need to learn this. Some Christians are like Mary of Bethany who is simply content to sit and listen. Some Christians are like Martha of Bethany who wants to get up and get going. What we need to learn is that there is a pronounced place for both sitting (listening) and serving (living) within transfigured living. Perfection in and by Christ requires both being passive and being active. The balance of timing is important.

Finally, and also important, transfigured living requires us to PUT UP with life as it is. Jesus never intended us to live on the mountain top. The “valley” is the place where real life is lived. It is easy (apparently not for the sleeping disciples) to live a vibrant life on top of the “mountain” of intense religious experience. It is not so easy – but entirely necessary – to descend from the “mountain” and encounter real people with real needs in a real world where we are (without Christ) really helpless (Matthew 17: 16 – 18).

But this is exactly what we must do. Holiness requires hands-on work. Perfection requires being planted in the real world. Sanctification requires getting our hearts cleaned (by Christ) and our hands “dirty” through Spirit-guided and Spirit-grounded work in the real world. Transfiguration is TOUGH! So, by God’s grace and mercy, we must WAKE UP, SHUT UP, GET UP and PUT UP. The RB and our Redeemer Christ requires these transfiguring disciplines.

 

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.

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THE ASCENDING ACTIONS: Humility in the Rule of Benedict 7

Donald Richmond:

“For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the hearts of the contrite ones.” -Isaiah 57:15 (KJV)

The_Ladder_of_Divine_Ascent_Monastery_of_St_Catherine_Sinai_12th_centuryThe Rule of Benedict (RB) tells us that we “ascend by humbling.” One translation of the RB, referenced in the Saint Benedict’s Prayer Book, says that we “ascend by descending.” Although this statement is appropriate to any monastic endeavor, and is the pattern of growth for every Christian, this ascent by descent is most appropriate to the Ladder of Humility as found in RB 7. Those who want to “grow up” in Christ must experience and embrace the humiliations it requires to attain such a lofty ambition. Growing down is growing up.

Pride exalts itself. It is haughty in its intention and its actions, neither considering God or boundaries appropriate to the human condition. Intending to be “like God,” Adam and Eve took of the forbidden fruit. Similarly, assuming that his very best was “good enough,” and rejecting God’s blood-oriented pattern, Cain submitted to God and unacceptable offering. Moreover, instead of obeying God’s directive to disperse, people gathered at Babel and sought to dispense with fear by constructing their own socio-psycho-pneumatic towers of defense. The biblical list is endless, replete with examples of those whose pride led to destruction. Adam’s, Cain’s and Babel’s pride each led to expulsion: Adam from the Garden, Cain from society and Babel from unified culture and communication. Seeking to ascend, but on their own terms, they were cast down and out.

This prideful and grasping intention is not foreign to humanity. It is inherent to “Man,” and his motivations and movements. It is not simply the preserve of those whom we might consider proud, but, rather, the proclivity of all people. Saint Benedict’s answer to this problem is threefold, and is found in the first few paragraphs from the RB 7.

Benedict’s first answer is SUBSTITUTION. Those who seek to be humble must learn to sit (rest) in the certainty of God’s mother-like care as a “weaned child.” This is not easy to do. Weaning is not in most cases a pleasant experience. When children are weaned from their mothers they often fuss. Similarly, when we are weaned by God, when we must grow up, we often are inclined to “busy” ourselves with “great matters.” That is, in other words, we seek to quiet our discomforts with distractions. Instead of this, the RB urges the disciple to substitute busy-ness with rest, distraction with discipline and sublime thoughts with a stilled soul. In short, although just a beginning, he exalts being over doing —- at least until we set our priorities straight.

Benedict’s second answer is STILLNESS. “I have stilled my soul,” the author writes. As with substitution, stillness is also a hard discipline. It requires, according to the RB, “hushing” ourselves. I am sure that many adults are familiar with, as young people, having to be “hushed” by their parents. Often this imposed silence was because the parents were engaged with adult conversations or activities. As such, if the children were not “hushed,” they would be a disruption. In RB 7, this “hushing” is a self-imposed discipline of discipleship that simultaneously heightens silent listening and halts disruptive distractions. The “hushing” of the soul insists upon creating a space where peace and centeredness can be cultivated.

Finally, Benedict asserts that we STRUGGLE with and up the true ladder of success. He refers to this as a ladder of “ascending actions” which we must ourselves both construct and ascend. The RB insists that “lowliness” or “humility of heart” is the means by which we ascend. This is, even before the “first step” of humility, God’s work (“by our Lord”) and the task to which we are fitted by the “Divine Vocation.” As such, because God orders our days well-before they occur, our human vocation is found in humility. We ascend to the Divine Vocation by descending into the human vocation for which we were formed. The supreme example of this is Jesus Christ who became poor so that we might be rich, who descended so that we might ascend.

ANGELS DESCENDING

“Truth, not eloquence, is to be sought for in Holy Scripture.” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (Moody Press [MP], 1980)

Historically, before the invention of movable type (the Printing Press), monks memorized massive amounts of the Bible. Understanding the importance of scriptural meditation and memorization, Benedict both demonstrated and prioritized this discipline in the RB 7. Referencing “Learning the Psalms and other readings,” Benedict clearly asserts that the text should be memorized because, especially in the 6th century, books were rare. Memorization was imperative.

Appreciating this literary scarcity, and Benedict’s remarkable skill with recalling and relating the Sacred Text, contemporary readers will likely be amazed. His familiarity with Text, especially in varied contexts, is truly astounding — and worthy of imitation. Given these things we can only assume that Benedict consciously and deliberately reversed the sanctioned order of Divine Revelation stated in Genesis 28:12. In the Genesis text, angels were “ascending and descending.” In the RB, the angels were “descending and ascending.” This represents a substantial shift in revelatory and theological emphasis. I can only assume, based upon Benedict’s sanctity and enduring legacy, that the saint knew exactly what he was doing — and why.

Considering that this change occurs within the context of Benedict’s insistence upon humility, there are at least two interrelated reasons why he imposed this grand reversal. First, those who pursue humility must descend. As stated above, we “ascend by descending.” The example of the angel, and of Jesus Christ himself, is that they descended into our need. The angel descended upon Jacob to assist him in his need — and, of note, assisted him in a need that was self-created and self-sustained. Our Lord descended, in great humility, to assist us in our own self-created and humanly inherited need. Christ’s descent into the waters of baptism preceded his justifying elevation and sanctifying ascension. Consequently, in keeping with angelic and Christo-centric witness, we too must descend.

As well, the angelic descent also highlights how very needy we are. God is always with us in our deepest and our darkest need. His descending and ascending, his ascending and descending, occurred and occurs well before the conscious awareness of our need. As Scripture states, before we call God has answered. We cannot ascend the ladder of humility on our own. Like Jacob grasping at the blessing, truly his but unfaithfully sought, we too can only ascend by receiving the assistance of the descending angel (Christ himself). He lowers himself in order to lift us up. In both cases, Benedict’s reversal of the text is wise.

Humility requires humiliations. Only Christ, the Descended Angel, can assist us in our need. Only the Holy Spirit, the Dove descended, can empower our impossible venture into impossible virtue. The descent of God enlivens the ascent of those who are God’s own. With the angel, we must descend before we ascend.

HUMILITY AND FEAR


“Labor now to live so, that at the hour of death thou mayest rather rejoice than fear.” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

Our Father Benedict’s first step up the ladder of humility is the “fear of God.” This emphasis, echoing Solomon, is truly the beginning of wisdom and exists within a set of commandments, considerations, contempt and cautions. Each, like the ladder’s structure, offers firm footing for the pursuing pilgrim.

The pursuit of Christian perfection occurs within the context of commandments, God’s commandments. What is expected, the proper fear of God, is inspired and initiated by God Himself. That is, the bottom rung of humility sounds a note of hope: What God initiates, God inspires. As such, God’s command and our empowering are God-breathed. Scripture and Spirit – as well as the example of Saint Benedict – is our strength. Let us therefore recall that Holy Scripture tells the Christian that it is God that works within us both to “will and do of God’s good pleasure.”

Lest we forget that God calls us to certain ascending actions, we are also challenged to certain considerations. That is, it is not just God’s work. We too are called to inspired actions. These are of contempt and caution, and have both attitudinal and behavioral applications. We are to have contempt for all those things that distract from God, and we are to cautiously yet committedly pursue him, through humility, up the ladder of holiness. Remembering, recognizing and recollecting are critical to this ascent.

Benedict calls us to never forget (negative), and always remember (positive) the dangers of this first step of humility. Forgetting inevitably results in falling and failure. Forgetting is, in fact, fatal. An examination of the icons related to John Climacus’ ladder, some of which are located at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt, graphically illustrates these dangers. Failure to remember incites demonic temptations and torments. The upward ascent is a necessary but dangerous enterprise. Accomplishing God’s will, doing God’s will in God’s way, draws demonic attention. Humility requires spiritual warfare. Embracing the fear of God, and resisting false fear, is a firefight.

As well, we must recognize that God is “looking down…from Heaven.” Again Benedict asserts that importance and assistance of God on this journey. We are not alone. God initiated. God inspires. God empowers. Nevertheless, in spite of these graces, we must turn our minds (“thoughts”) toward God, as God is perpetually and eternally inclined toward us.

We are to recall Scripture in resisting “evil desires.” Our scripturally-informed recollection considers both death and delight. As Benedict writes, “death sits close to the entrance of delight.” The reader is reminded of the proverbial reference about a man seeking a dangerous liaison. As such, Benedict sees the dangers as a temptation to spiritual adultery. Recollection is therefore a guard. When we recognize the death inherent to illicit delights, as disorders of priority and passion, it causes us to hesitate — to resist. The potential of immanent and eternal death, graphically depicted in the Climacus icon referenced above, helps us resist and renounce the delights of the world, flesh and devil.

Let us remember that we are on a ladder. Let us recollect ourselves, appreciating that just as in the physical world a fall may be fatal, so also fatalities may occur during our spiritual ascent. Adam and Eve’s fall impacted all. Their death in some way impacted everyone everywhere. In short, Benedict suggests that ascending humility requires that we “go not after [our] lusts” but, rather, pursue our Lord. We must not be distracted. The fear of the Lord is the beginning…middle…and end of wisdom.

HUMILITY AND WILFULLNESS

“It is a great thing to live in obedience, to be under a superior…” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

The Descending Angel becomes most obvious and necessary in Steps 2 – 3 of the Ladder of Humility. Here Christ descends and attends to our deepest need: Renouncing our own wills and submitting our self-inclined ways (indeed our very selves!) to a Superior. We cannot do this on our own. Far too frequently we insist upon our own will and our own way, militantly resisting the insights and assistance of others. We do not want a Superior because we all too frequently feel superior. And yet, with Thomas ‘a Kempis, we are wise when we believe that is better and safer to be under properly established and spiritually mature authority.

Benedict anchors our efforts in “constraint.” “Constraint wins the crown,” he writes. This calling and challenge of constraint is both galling and graced. It is galling because we must not only DENY ourselves (which is hard enough); we must also DELIVER ourselves into the care of a Superior. This is a hard climb up an impossible ladder, again reflecting the humiliating discipline of stepping up by stepping down. Honor is in humility. Holiness is in humiliations.

But this surrender is also graced. Benedict, in the third step of humility, swiftly identifies our actions with those of Jesus Christ himself. We share in Christ’s sufferings and, as such, in some small way, their salvific implications (cf. Phil. 2: 8 and Col. 1: 24). In other words, our submissions and humiliations are so identified with Christ that his ascension is our own.

Let us therefore recall the words of St. Paul: Those who die with Christ will also rise with Christ. When we sip the gall of proper submission, we are empowered to sup the grace of sanctification.

NOT GIVE IN

“If every year we would root out one vice, we should soon become perfect men.” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

It is easy to give in when we experience hardship. The human inclination, except when imbued with higher purpose, is to surrender when encountering struggle. In fact, even with higher purpose, sloth sits on our “doorstep” seeking an opportune time to weaken us with weariness. The progress of the pilgrim is frequently visited by despondency.

This temptation to give way, give in and give up takes on an entirely different meaning in the specific context in which Benedict wrote about it. We expect “contradictions” from the world. We expect “contradiction” from a society and culture that rejects Christ, Christianity and its values. Such abuse is anticipated. But these “contradictions” are not expected from the Church of God. What is difficult and most galling is the “contradictions” of those who are, by appointment, spiritual authorities and spiritual family. When family is Judas we experience Gethsemane. When a spiritual superior behaves as a spiritual inferior, when power is abused or insight is seriously lacking, this feels like crucifixion of the lowest order.

The forth step of humility, being obedient when things become hard and contrary, is squarely planted in Golgotha’s blood-baked soil. It is a parched place. We do not live in an ideal world. We do not live in an ideal church. We do not live among ideal people. Pristine people are a figment of the overstretched imagination. We live in a real world with real people who have real problems. “Contradiction” is the norm in a broken world, even a broken world of “good” people who seek to do the right thing. “Contradiction” is the norm of the Church.

The Ladder of Humility expects the pilgrim (on h/er long and arduous journey) to “bear all things” with a “quiet conscience.” In fact, quoting the Apostle, we are to bear…believe…hope…endure all things for the sake of Christ. In this context – the context of the monastery, the parish, and the Christian life – it is not a matter of “justice,” but the fruit of justification that leads to sanctification and glorification. The person who desires to be holy must be prepared to suffer. Sanctification requires sacrifice and suffering.

HUMILITY AND CONFESSION

“No man ruleth safely, but he that is willingly ruled.” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

Although every degree of humility has direct impact on prayer, it is in the fifth degree that this becomes most apparent. Here the monk is to “hide nothing” from the Abbot, who is to be treated as the Father of the enclosure. Nothing is to be hidden from the Abba, everything is to be confessed.

This imperative is so pronounced that confession to the Abbot is understood as confession to the Lord. This must be understood. While Sacramental Confession does not seem to be at issue, while not minimizing its potential or importance, relational confession and the making of reparation is vital to effective prayer. As Jesus said, “go and be reconciled, and then present your gift [at the altar].” As such, confession precedes petition and the entire “work of God.”

But there is more. Benedict emphasizes “humble” confession. This expectation forces the penitent to confront not only the problem, but, as well, the utter poverty of the one who makes confession. The penitent therefore acknowledges guilt (problem) and shame (person). The very core of human nature is, therefore, addressed. Benedict seeks, by emphasizing “humble” confession, to remove any and all pretense from the penitent for the purpose of prayer.

Given Benedict’s exacting expectations, biblical expectations, we have no other choice but to “commit our way [and words] to the Lord.” We cannot do it on our own. We need God. Our person, penitence, repentance, reparation and petitions are entirely in God’s hands. “Humble” confession acknowledges our abject poverty of spirit, thereby placing ourselves entirely at God’s disposal. Penitential impoverishment, the need for “humble” confession, is foundational to prayer. The kingdom of heaven is opened to the utterly poor of spirit.

THE MOST ABJECT

“If we esteem our progress in religious life to consist only in some exterior observances, our devotion will quickly be at an end. But let us lay the axe to the root…” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

Steps 6 – 7 discuss the philosophy and practice of humility. In keeping with Benedict’s rootedness in real life, the crucible for this particular form of conversion is the community.

The person who wants to advance in the degrees of humility, ascending the angelic ladder, must be “content” with the most miserable of treatment and most menial of tasks. Given our understanding of modern psychology, this will appear dysfunctional and dangerous. Benedict and the early Mothers and Fathers of the desert, however, also had profound insights into socio-psycho-pneumatic health. This is evidenced in three constellating ideas regarding abjection: The monk (1) consciously chooses this path on the basis of (2) critical awareness of the need for humility that is rooted in the (3) absolute assurance of both (a) divine assistance and the (b) dangers in a refusal to grow. In other words, radical need requires radical action.

As a true shepherd, Benedict wants and expects more from those who are under his fatherly care. Not content with outward conformity, he presses the need for inward conversion. He wants his disciple to believe in h/er “very heart” that s/he is the most “abject” of sinners and a “worm.”

We resist such labels and lowliness. Nevertheless, if we think of ourselves as abject worms, we will have no problem being treated as the lowest and associating with the low. Jesus called his disciples “fishers of men,” and, as we know, worms catch fish. Humility, often mitigated through humiliations, helps us identify with all those who are marginalized and rejected. Those who are most abject are also, quite often, most available.

NOTHING BUT WHAT IS COMMON

“If thou wilt know or learn anything profitably, desire to be unknown…” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

The eighth degree of humility, do nothing but what is common, reinforces Benedict’s previous point and in many ways is far more exacting. While our exemplary humility will attract attention, we must do everything within our power to see that it does not. We must not draw attention to ourselves. Our efforts must be in secret — attracting the attention of God alone and entirely seeking God’s reward. Secret and silent sanctification is what we seek.

Jesus, upon illustrating the same point in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7), says that our gifts and our prayers should be in secret. Alms should be in secret. Fasting should be in secret. Prayer should be in secret. No one should know. We simply live (or live simply) in a common community among common people living common lives of uncommon, yet secret, devotion. Those who seek sanctification should not herald their efforts, but, rather, they should hide their efforts.

Thomas More was an exemplar of this. Throughout his adult life More wore a “hair-shirt” of considerable discomfort under the lavish robes imposed upon him by Henry VIII. No one, even his dearest daughter, knew of this until he was executed. He sought to identify with Christ and his sufferings in secret. He sought humility secretly. He pursued holiness in hiding. None would have known until he died for his faith. One of his final prayers clearly expresses More’s uncommon heart:

“Give me Thy grace good lord
To set the world at nought

To set my mind fast upon Thee
And not to hang upon the blast of men’s mouths.

To be content to be solitary…”

BE SILENT

“He is truly great that is little in himself, and that maketh no account of any height of honor.” -Thomas ‘a Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

Secrecy requires silence. Consequently, the orientation of the eighth degree (secrecy) is evidenced in the ninth degree (silence).

It is far too easy to exalt ourselves, to assert our authority, education, knowledge, abilities, grace, growth — our will, works and ways. We most frequently exhibit ourselves through verbal and visual means. Our tongue is like, according to Solomon (although properly used in his case), “the pen of a ready writer.” And how very quickly we want to publish our own praises! We are swift to speak and swift to show, but sinfully slow to silence. This of course also means that we are slow to sanctification.

Visual exhibition, addressed in part in the previous degree (secrecy), must not be overlooked, either. We all at times want to show what or who we know. Sometimes these exhibitions are publicly sanctioned such as when a pastor wears an academic gown that bears three bold stripes (chevrons) announcing h/er educational standing as “Doctor.” Other examples of exhibitions are abundant. If we have “achieved” something we want to show it.

Benedict provides poignant insight about why we should refrain from such verbal and visual speech, drawing no attention to ourselves. First, as stated earlier, sanctification is sought and secured in secret. No silence and no secrecy suggest no sanctification. As well, secrecy and silence supports the RB’s wise emphasis, “do not appear to be more holy than you are.” Sanctification is not about appearances.

But now, cutting to the marrow of the matter, Benedict cites “slander” as a reason for restraint in speech. In other words, Benedict asserts that we all-too-frequently build our public reputations upon the backs of others. We slander “them” so that we can exalt “us.” This emphasis on slander provides a very unique perspective on silence. It appears that, inherent to ascending the ladder of humility is the unfortunate propensity to drag others down. It is almost like, believing that we have finally found some firm footing we do not want anyone else to find such a hold on humility. And, once again, our “slander” can be visually or verbally displayed. Three stripes on the academic gown speak as eloquently, even more so, as saying “I am a Doctor.”

Slanderers, according to Benedict and the Bible, will not survive. They cannot ascend the ladder of humility, achieve any degree of holiness or be sanctified. Why? First, slanderers set themselves against the divine economy of humility. Jesus was impoverished for our wealth. He humbled himself for our (proper) exaltation. Second, slanderers set themselves against humanity. Asserting self requires, even in some small way, deserting others. Finally, slanderers stand against h/erself. As such, the person who seeks sanctification must willingly submit to auricular castration.

BE MERCIFUL TO ME

“Let thy servant rejoice in thee, not in himself nor in anything else; for thou alone art the true gladness, thou art my hope and my crown, thou art my joy and my honor, O Lord.” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

Steps 10 – 12 continue Benedict’s emphasis upon silence. Centering upon this priority, at least until spoken to, he now capitalizes upon our need to refrain from laughter (Step 10), speak discreetly (Step 11) and show humility (Step 12). The final emphasis serves as the interpretational priority: Show it, don’t just say it!

Benedict has been steadily advancing in this direction, and this is entirely reasonable. Declaring is only as effective as demonstrating. If we declare without demonstration we are hypocrites — or in need of radical re-evaluation and re-adjustment. Although humility is grounded within the heart, it demands the decisions and disciplines of holy fear, instant obedience, steady silence and an abundance of humiliations if it is to effectively ascend through the degrees of humility.

We come again, as with the “descending angel” referenced above, to a reversal in what appears to be sound theological principles. As with the descending angel, Benedict also asserts that our ascension results in our arrival at the love of God. Put bluntly, if we ascend we will be loved. This is a radical reversal of St. John’s “we love because HE FIRST LOVED US.” That is, according to John, the love of God is received — not achieved. It is a result of God’s descent, not our ascent.

A far more cautious consideration of this text in the RB may be required, however. The RB was written within the context of a community of God’s children, cloister and Benedict. With this in mind, the efforts expended upon ascending the degrees are little more than expressions of a pre-existing set of relationships. The Prologue clearly suggests this pre-existing set of relationships. Chapter One addresses a unique community committed to God and each other. In Chapter Two the concept of the Father, the Abba, Abbot or Superior, the human reflecting the Divine, is explicated. Similarly, Chapter Three addresses brothers [and sisters]. These, in Chapter Four, are given “instruments” or “tools” for constructing a Christian communal life.

Having established this familial framework, the RB now raises the bar of expectation by insisting upon certain disciplines (Chapters Five & Six) which are requisite to growth, harmony and evangelism. In this context – the family of faith living in and as a community of prayer – Benedict, invoking childlike faith and angelic assistance, sets the disciple upon the ladder of ascent. But, as the RB outlines in Chapter 7, it is a ladder entirely established upon pre-existing love and heavenly help. It does not emphasize “works righteousness” as much as it insists upon righteous works. Benedict’s biblical reference at the end of the degrees of humility, the ladder of ascent, makes this clear: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” As such, at the top of the ladder, the “twelfth degree of humility,” we return to the beginning. We begin and end with the fear of God because even our best efforts are prone to fail. As stated at the beginning of Ampleforth Abbey’s Saint Benedict’s Prayer Book (For Beginners): “ALWAYS WE BEGIN AGAIN.”

VIGILS

“Therefore we must watch and pray, lest our time pass away idly.” -Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ (MP)

Christian growth, especially regarding humility, requires grace and vigilance. We must, according to Jesus, “watch and pray.” Saint Benedict did not place so much emphasis upon humility as an end in itself. Although humility, as beginning and as end, may be “achieved,” it is achieved to a purpose. The purpose is prayer.

This suggests that, in Chapter Eight of the RB and just after Chapter Seven’s pronounced emphasis, humility is for the purpose of encouraging a community at prayer. And we begin, as might be expected, “at night time.”

All life begins at night. As Holy Scripture tells us in the Genesis narrative, evening is the beginning of creation (Genesis 1: 5, Knox). Similarly, evening is the beginning of prayer. It is, as well, the beginning of any true growth in God. We begin in the darkness of our own sin and separation. We begin with our need, our poverty and our mourning — which is, of course, a morning of a new day in Christ and with the community of other Christians. Life is a vigil that requires the vigilance of prayer.

Humility drives us to our knees and into the arms of God and each other.

“Lighten our darkness we beseech Thee, O Lord, and by Thy great mercy defend us from all of the perils and dangers of this night; for the love of Thy only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”
-Book of Common Prayer

 

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.

Image above right: The Ladder of Divine Ascent. 12th century icon (St. Catherine’s MonasteryMount Sinai).

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Now

rule_st_benedict_wideDon Richmond: There is an immediacy expressed throughout the Rule of Benedict (RB). From the very first paragraphs in the Prologue we read words like “here now” and “now.” This emphasis on immediacy, the “now” of God’s expectation, is reinforced with words such as “listen”… “accept”… “practice” … “awake” and “arise.” These words require exclamation: Listen! Accept! Practice! Awake! Arise! Is there any other way of walking with God? As Holy Scripture tells us, “Now is the time…”

But what is it time for? Why is there such urgency? Considering how we as a society are inclined to race and rush, to shuttle from one task to another almost without thought, shouldn’t we seek to slow things down? Should we not attend to the well-spoken word by Dr. C. G. Jung when he wrote, “busyness is not of the Devil, it is the Devil”?

To be sure, there is a real need for us to slow down. The Christo-centric life is in some way a contemplative life. The Christ-centered and ordered life cultivates a life of disciplined withdrawal in order to effectively engage. Jesus himself frequently withdrew, and even encouraged his disciples to withdraw, for the purposes of retreat and refreshment.

And yet, notwithstanding our need for retreat and reflection, Christ also immediately attended to the call of God and the pronounced need of humanity. St. Mark’s gospel clearly and repeatedly references this by its transitional “and immediately” refrain seen throughout the narrative.

As we examine the RB, most especially in the first few paragraphs of the Prologue, the immediacy which St. Benedict references is for the purpose of “obedience,” the “labor” of obedience.  Christians must learn the disciplines of swift obedience. The monastery, disciplined Christian life and RB are each aimed at training us in this painfully exacting art. “Here!” “Now!”

There are several reasons for this orientation. First, Christ is King (RB, Prologue, paragraph 1). Second, we are in the midst of a war (RB, Prologue, paragraph 1). Third, swift service expresses practical gratitude (RB, Prologue, paragraph 2). Forth, Christians are sons and not simply servants (RB, Prologue, paragraph 2). Finally, and no doubt a “hard word” that is in keeping with the tribal and covenantal loyalties a conquering and compassionate King would expect, to not obey is to reject the very LORDship to which we have submitted ourselves (RB, Prologue, cf. paragraphs 2 and 4).

If Christ is King, do we not owe him swift obedience? If we are in a life and death struggle against “principalities and powers,” is not swift obedience the safe and wise choice? If we have been “conquered” by The Compassionate King, should we not express the gratitude of swift obedience? If we have been graced with adoption, should not children be swift to show honor by obedience? Does not loving Lordship generate a responsive “fear” inspiring obedience?

“O GOD, our refuge and strength, who art the author of all godliness; Be ready, we beseech thee, to hear the devout prayers of thy Church; and grant that those things which we ask faithfully we may obtain effectually; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (1928 Book of Common Prayer, Collect for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity).

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.

 

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In the Monastery: Establishing Benedictine Churches

Don Richmond:

“This ought to be our endeavor, to conquer ourselves and daily wax stronger and make a further growth in holiness.”          – Imitation of Christ, Thomas á Kempis (Moody Press, 1980)

CrossPipesAlthough the Rule of Benedict (RB) centers upon monastic life, its priorities, principles, precepts and practices apply to all Christians. Everyone who is alive in Christ recognizes the authority of Holy Scripture, wants to be holy, is passionate for prayer, expresses concern for the lost and comes from and is destined to community. Although a monastery may be intentionally Benedictine, and a parish may not be, both share pronounced commonalities.

The “Prologue” of the RB establishes the calling (“Listen”), commitment (“obedience” and “among you”) and curriculum (“holy teachings” and “duties”) of a community which is the “school of the Lord’s service.” This community or parish is more monastic than scholastic. It emphasizes living above learning without diminishing the value of either. The Benedictine parish concerns itself with the education of the heart, an education of heart that can only be comprehended in and through a community of prayer. The final paragraph of the “Prologue” promulgates priorities appropriate to monastic and parish life. These are: (1) Sound reasoning, (2) Amending faults, (3) Safeguarding love, (4) Remaining stable, (5) Preserving doctrine and (6) Vicarious suffering. Each encourages prayer and godliness. Without them, prayer and parish are impossible.

SOUND REASONING

Our society prioritizes feeling. Rarely do we hear the words “I think” as an introduction to an assertion. Instead, highlighting an exceptionally dangerous trend, people tend to nuance (if not negate) their thinking with “I feel” pronouncements. We may “feel” that the world is flat, but sound reasoning suggests that it is not.  We may “feel” that established doctrine needs to be changed, but biblical reasoning suggests that it should not be changed. We “feel” that we need to move from place to place in order to be spiritually, but reason suggests stability is a more effective path. We do indeed “feel” many things, but sound reasoning helps us to navigate them wisely. If all thought can be reduced to “I feel” categories, than all philosophies and theologies are on equal footing. If the need to change can be reduced to an “I feel” enterprise, very few people would change.

Benedict introduces “sound reasoning” into this unfortunate equation. If we are to live, love, pray and serve as a community, as a parish, we must learn to properly elevate the mind. This does not mean that head should dominate heart. It does that mean that the intellectual should negate the emotive. Both are needed. The Benedictine parish, however, understands that head informs heart and hands. Sound reason (the head) helps us amend faults, safeguard love, remain stable, preserve doctrine and suffer well. We must have sound reasoning in order to repent of sin and repair our lives. God calls us to reason, and the Benedictine parish will encourage a well-reasoned and prayerfully articulated faith.

AMENDING FAULTS

Repentance requires a reasoned appreciation, albeit not an exhaustive appreciation, of right and wrong. One does not repent of something that s/he does not believe or know is wrong. As St. Paul says, somewhere, “how shall they know without a preacher?” The Bible tells us that God calls His wayward people to “reason” with Him. The re-education of the conscience and the heart requires an informed and intelligent faith. If we are to keep the Ten Commandments, we must at least know the Ten Commandments. If we are to embrace the teachings of the Beatitudes, we must at least know what they are. We must in some way know that we have sinned if we are to know that we need a Savior. And, as well, I must in some way know Christ in order to be saved by Christ. As Thomas ‘a Kempis has written in his Imitation, “He who would fully understand the words of Christ, must faithfully conform himself to the life of Christ.” Even a “General Confession” of sin implies at least a basic awareness of particular sin and an intention to amend it.

This does not mean that Christ and Christianity are only for the intelligent and educated. One does not need an advanced degree to follow God. One of the glories of the Gospel is that it effectively communicates the good news of Christ across all boundaries and barriers. Egg-heads and air-heads (and often there is not much difference) can both know and be known by Christ. Great minds do not always make for good hearts. Nevertheless, head informs heart. Transformation, according to Paul, is by the renewing of the mind.

In order to amend faults we must know what fault is, and what faults need amending. The amending of faults prepares and empowers us to parish life and effective prayer. Confession precedes community and conversation with God. Conviction precedes confession, confession precedes conversion, and conversion of life empowers conversation with the community and with God.

SAFEGUARDING LOVE

The amending of faults, under intelligent “advisement” and sometimes with a bit of “strictness,” helps to safeguard love. Benedict understands these small demands as essential to the narrow way of Christ. This narrow way, the way of living love, is a sweet yet suffering salvation. This means, of course, that the safeguarding of love requires some measure of self-sacrifice. It demands an expansion of heart. Common concerns outweigh personal preferences. To love is the truest amendment of fault. Love is repentance, reparation and renewal.

As with sound reasoning, we often misunderstand love. Love, more often than not, is embraced as a feeling but is rejected in its functional applications. We want excitement without expectation. We want license without limitation.  We want the “yes” of relationship without the “no” it always requires. If we use the marital vows as an example, “I do” has been reduced to “I might” with a whole host of footnotes, appendices and nuances attached.

But a common life requires consistent commitment. Love “maybe” must yield itself to love “actually” (not, of course, referencing the film by the same title). Love must have head, heart and hands. And, as love is so easily misunderstood and transgressed, love must be safeguarded. This will require that we “beg our Lord to provide…that which our nature is unable to perform” (Prologue, paragraph 7). We must be graced for growth. We must be schooled in love. We must be educated in the common life. The Benedictine parish guards the common good just as God calls us to guard the exclusivities and expectations of “I do.”

REMAINING STABLE

This requires stability — one of the foundations of Benedictine spirituality. Amending faults and disciplined stability safeguard love. We stay together so that we can pray together. Stability supports supplication. Community undergirds conversation with God. Community is the means of conversion.

Depth is not attained when we are unstable in our commitments to each other. As John the Divine writes, we cannot love God unless we love our neighbor. If we are always shifting our commitments, church-hopping and church-shopping, we will never be able to live, love or pray well. We cannot say that we love at a distance. We must involve ourselves in the mess of community. We must involve ourselves in the mess of parish life.

Problems certainly do exist. They always, in this life, will. People are people. We cannot get around this. We are human and, even as the Body of Christ, we do not always function as we would like. People say and do things that are contrary to Christian commitment. The pastor is dull. The liturgy is repetitive. The parish cannot sing. The music is bad. The people are, at times, vicious. The ill-behaved child behind you, who is perpetually kicking your chair, is a brat. And yet, facing reality as it is, this is where the real Christ, real community, real change, real conversation and real conversion are encountered, embraced and empowered. The knuckleheads in pulpit and pew make poignant the petitions in the prayer our Lord taught us. Stability affords opportunity for sanctification and supplication.

PRESERVING DOCTRINE

Benedict and his community call us to persevere in doctrine. Given the swiftly shifting theological sands, this is a subject of many books. In fact, many books of polarized opinions have been written. Nevertheless, in spite of the changes that we have seen and experienced, preserving doctrine is critical to the Benedictine parish. A well-preserved doctrine is a well-proclaimed doctrine. We need right information for effective transformation.

Some years ago I heard a pastor tell his parish that they could stand up or sit down according to the beliefs they affirmed or rejected in the Apostles’ Creed. If any member of the congregation thought that a certain part of the creedal statement was true, they were asked to stand. If they did not believe a statement was true, they were asked to sit. As the Creed was recited, the congregation looked like a bunch of misfiring pistons.

This is funny until we understand that I am not referencing misfiring pistons as much as I am referencing misfiring parishes. If the church does not speak the same language in the same way, in dynamic agreement with the past, they will swiftly go nowhere. If we do not have the message, we have nothing to say. If we distort the message we dilute its effectiveness. Truth is not truth if it is distorted truth.  Remember Babel: One cannot construct without using the same language and in the same way.

Of course we must understand that proclamation is by word and deed. We must know right, speak right and do right. In the final paragraph of the “Prologue,” the RB dynamically unites God’s commandments with “His teaching,” “His doctrine,” Christ’s sacrifice (united with our own) and “His kingdom.” Benedict is not arbitrary. His emphasis is firmly fixed. Revelation and relationship are always related. Knowing and doing are connected. We cannot invent our own Christ. We cannot invent doctrine. Both are revealed and received. We cannot be a Benedictine community without being a biblical community.

VICARIOUS SUFFERING

The parish that is Benedictine is a salvifically suffering community. It must always be so. Our Lord was incarnated for the purpose of crucifixion. He is our example. Through his baptism Christ identified with our sin. Through his temptation Christ wrestled with our wilderness wandering. Through his private Gethsemane Christ sweat the blood of our own personal darkness. Through his public death Christ suffered our private rejections. Through his hell Christ entered our hell. As with Christ, so with each and every believer. We must, as Paul asserts in Colossians 1: 24, “fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.”

The Benedictine community is a community of radical identification with others. This means that, because we are all human and fallen, we must all learn to accommodate ourselves to the weakness of others.  We must be armed with such a purpose. To enter the Benedictine enclosure opens us up to every human frailty and failure. This requires the purpose, petition and power of forgiveness.

The Benedictine parish is a patient participation in the sufferings of Christ. The Prologue of the RB makes this quite clear. It is, before the promise of the kingdom, the very last word before we really get down to the business of being a community of prayer. To open our mouths requires that we open our hearts.

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.

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To Be a Saint


Nothing.Harsh
Don Richmond:

“There is only one sadness, not to be a saint.” -Quoted in The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain

There is a very interesting and instructive progression documented in the Rule of Benedict (RB). The final admonition in Chapter 4: 72, “never lose hope in God’s mercy,” feeds quite nicely into the final words of the RB in Chapter 73 — some 69 Chapters later. In this last Chapter, which in practice is a beginning, Benedict says that these words were written so that those who hear and heed his words will come to “loftier heights of doctrine and virtue” (emphasis mine). That is, Benedict has written his Rule as precepts of perfection.

But Benedict is also a realist. He recognizes that between the intention and the reality “falls the shadow” (T. S. Eliot). Every one of us has experienced the “shadow” falling between what we intend and what we actually accomplish. Although we have often “wept and fasted” and “wept and prayed” (T.S. Eliot), we have often found ourselves mired in failure and frustration. On some very painful level we know that “there is only one sadness, not to be a saint.”

The reminder that Benedict issues in Chapter 4: 72, “never lose hope in God’s mercy,” is therefore quite encouraging. While Christians should be concerned about and invested in holiness of life, loftier virtue, we must remember that it is only an appreciation of God’s great mercy that encourages the pursuit of Christian perfection. As the Psalmist has written, “But there is forgiveness with Thee / That Thou may be feared.” God’s forgiveness leads to celebratory fear!

When I read and reflect upon the RB I am both refreshed and rebuked. My ongoing reflections highlight how very much I need to learn and apply. And yet, as well, the RB also teaches me that growth in grace, community and God is a process. What God and Benedict want is not “rigorous or burdensome” (RB, “Prologue”), but a “school of the Lord’s service” that is intended as an “unspeakable sweetness of his love” (RB, “Prologue”).

May we all come to know such love so that the disciplines of our schooling may result in greater perfection.

 

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.

Image above, right: War. “Nothing Harsh.” Cartoon. Don Richmond.

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The Rule of War

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Donald Richmond: The Rule of Benedict prioritizes a discipline that has almost been forgotten in the contemporary Church: War. Saint Benedict tells us, from the very outset of his Rule, that disciples must be armed with the “bright weapons” of war if we are going to make significant spiritual progress (“Prologue”). This warfare is waged through obedience. As the Psalmist has written, “Blessed be the Lord my God / Who trains my hands to war and my fingers to fight.”

Such warfare is waged on at least three fronts. We must engage ourselves in the battle of the mind. This, I believe, is the front line of spiritual engagement. We live in a fallen world that is infested with temptations of both the flesh and the devil. If either can overcome the mind, all is lost. Saint Paul urges both the renewal of the mind (Romans 12) and the application of the “helmet of salvation” (Ephesians 6) as defenses. How very necessary both are!

As well, we must engage ourselves in the battle of the heart. On some level this is the battlefield itself. The heart is the battleground. If Christ has captured our hearts, if Christ is our passion, the battle (while at times fierce) is already won. As Christians who are “born again” by the Holy Spirit, we have “Christ within us [who is] the hope of Glory.” He, if we are alive in him, has our hearts. We are, by supernatural action, turned from sin to the Savior. We are turned from improper lusts to the Lord of Life. Our hearts are now properly ordered towards God and his priorities, principles and practices. One sure test of the changed heart is to ask a simple question: Do I hunger for holiness? If we do not want to be holy it is reasonable for us to question our salvation.

This, however, does not mean that there will not be struggles. Struggle is essential to the Christian life. The “bright weapons” of war are always required. This is why Saint Paul tells us to “put on the breastplate of righteousness” (Ephesians 6). This piece of armor covers the heart, the center of our lives. This is why the biblical Wisdom Literature urges us to “Guard [our] hearts because out of the heart flows the wellspring of life.” As Christians our heart is with and for God. We must strive, struggle and wrestle to keep it that way.” “Fight the good fight.”

Finally (albeit not exhaustively) we must also engage ourselves in the battle of the body, asking God in His great mercy to free us from all “defilement of flesh and of spirit (emphasis mine).” Many Christians throughout history have taken a rather misinformed and dim view of the body. The “flesh” has been viewed with suspicion and, in misguided efforts to rid ourselves of “passions,” we have subjected it to a host of abuses. We have sought to scourge the sensual from the temple of our lives.

This is unfortunate because God has given us bodies that are sensually (in the best sense) oriented. Sacraments, as just one example, are to be sensually experienced and appropriated. We TASTE Bread and Wine. We HEAR music and liturgy. We SMELL incense. We SEE liturgical action. We TOUCH each other (in true fellowship) and the entire “architecture of heaven” when we participate in the “things of God.” We are embodied beings. This is to be celebrated.

WarCARTOONBut Satan also has his imitations. If we have proper passions, we can also have “disordered passions.” We can sensually experience and express the wrong things. Saint Benedict and Saint Paul therefore petition us to practice bodily disciplines and moderation — like good soldiers. These disciplines need not be excessive. Rather we can discipline our bodies through the practice of moderation: a little less food, a little less coffee, a little less artificial stimulation (TV, Radio, Discs), a bit of fasting (even partial fasting), a little more discipline in prayer, a little more sitting in silence — “waiting on God.” Wars are won along the front line of the “little.” Thomas ‘a Kempis hints at this when he tells us that if we were to rid ourselves of one vice per year, we would soon be perfect people.

The Rule of War is, by God’s grace, to rule ourselves — both through delights and denials, feasts and fasts. Let us put on God’s armor, guard our hearts and minds and practice military moderation.

 

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.

Image above, right: Saint Benedict. c. 1495. Alvaro Di Pietro (Pietro Perugino).
Image above, left: War. Cartoon. Don Richmond.

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The Mystery and Romance of Monasticism

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Donald Richmond: One of my favorite activities (non-activities, to be more precise) is to simply sit in silence with my wife. Although we do speak, silence is something that we both cherish and cultivate. This type of silence adds to, and does not detract from, our relationship. It is, in fact, a form of concrete communication. One of the very highest compliments I have ever given my wife – and, thankfully, she understands it – is that being with her “is as good as being with nobody.” Think about it.

There is romance in this. If romance in some way embraces proper ritual, as I believe it does, then ritual silence is most appropriate to the development and deepening of a relationship. In fact it is the deep silences that uncover the mysteries of the other person. It is the romantic silences that help us to see who, just for a moment, this other person really is.

In silence we wait for revelation.

There was a time in monastic history when those who sought to enter the monastery enclosure had to wait several days outside before they were allowed entrance. It is like a suitor seeking an audience, or a lover silently burning with anticipation.  With time, once the pilgrim had demonstrated his determination, admission and embrace were finally and fully given. But there was and is a process to be followed. (And, of course, the process into the Mysteries and romance of the Church itself was an essential part of the early catechumenate. Waiting preceded participation. Waiting preceded understanding. Waiting preceded experience.)

Monasteries were established for the purpose of pursuing God – among other people – through protracted prayer. The Psalmist spoke of praying seven times a day, and monks throughout history have in some ways sought to emulate this process. But we must not think that these Divine Hours were filled with words. As the monks prayed the Psalms, the stanzas were punctuated with deep silence.

I wait for the Lord (SILENCE)

My soul does wait (SILENCE)

And in His word do I hope (SILENCE).

The silence of waiting was as important as the speaking (or singing) of word. Silence was, so to speak, the reverberating echo that filled the darkness with meaning. Silence was pregnant. Silence was and is the “thin place” of romantic engagement when the lover truly becomes visible.

There is great romance in the pursuit of God. There is great mystery in who He is and how he pursues us. If we are going to penetrate this mystery, and be penetrated by it, we must enter into the enclosure of silence and waiting.

For those who are interested in learning more about the discipline of silence, please read Andrew Murray’s wonderful devotional Waiting on God.

 

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.

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Continuing: Stability in and Beyond the Monastery

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Donald Richmond: The Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church asks this question of the people: “Will you continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers” (p.304, 1979 BCP). Taken directly from Acts 2:42, this is a question that imposes itself upon every committed Christian. Will we continue?

When I was a younger Christian I remember being challenged by a very similar question. To this day I recall my ardent and insistent response: “Yes, Lord, you know I will continue.” Now, almost forty years later, I think my response only echoes St. Peter’s “Lord, I am willing to die for you.” We know the unfortunate outcome of this adamant assertion! Continuing is not always easy.

The Rule of Benedict (RB) emphasizes a similar concern for “continuing.” Benedictines call it “stability.” In Chapter One of the RB, St. Benedict lists the types of monks (hear, in our context, “Christians”). One set of monks / Christians that are rebuked and rejected are those who move from place to place without any stability — and, as such, authority. These, according to Benedict, are BAD monks — if, truly, monks at all.

A solid monk or Christian is a person who can stay put, who has learned to embrace stability. He or she does not go from place to place seeking out the latest and the greatest “Christian” trend or experience. Good Christians, to borrow from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” have learned to sit still “even among these rocks [of our experiences and disappointments]” and find “peace in His will.”

But, as we all know too well, this is at times very hard to do. Let me take aim at one American expression of instability: Church shopping and hopping. How often do we see American Christians moving from church to church because the pastor or parish does not meet his or her “needs?” Frequently this has very little to do with a move from one geographic location to another. Rather, and sadly, it often has to do with our incessant search for the experimental (Let’s worship in this new and fancy way!) and experiential (Let’s go to Church for the “feel good” narcotic we so desperately need!). And, of course, we always have an excuse for our miserable theology — often rooted (in our mind) in the lack of the pastor, parish or “denomination.”

To be sure, there are at times legitimate reasons for leaving a church. If the church does not abide in Apostolic teaching, as an example, we should leave. If the church breaks the bonds of Apostolic fellowship, as another example, we have good cause to move on. However, more often than not, we are simply unstable and this personal experience of being unstable is expressed publically through church shopping and hopping. Neither St. Benedict nor God are pleased with such an orientation.

The kinds of monks who are unstable are called a gyrovagues in the RB. Note the two parts of this word. A “gyro” spins about going from place to place without any real direction. “Vagues,” on the other hand (and as an extension of the first part of the word), has no purpose. He or she is vague and, as such, a vagrant. Consequently gyrovagues have no direction or purpose and are spiritual vagrants. To grow in God we need a fixed stability that is rooted in God AND IN A LOCAL CHURCH WHERE WE SET DOWN DEEP ROOTS!!!!!!

We need to re-evaluate our Church-shopping and hopping mentality. We need to rethink our doctrine of the Church and how it applies to our daily lives. God, St. Benedict, the local assembly and the Church Catholic (not Catholic Church) expect stability. Will we continue in EVERYTHING expected in Acts 2: 42 — stable fellowship being central?

 

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo California.

 

Image above, right: Benedict Presents the Olivetan Monks with His Rule. Il Sodoma. Early 16th century fresco.

 

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