Sunday, August 26, 2012

Seeking the Ancient Paths

       I was considering my three favourite saints, Benedict, Anthony, and Teresa of Avila, when it occurred to me that each of them withdrew from the corruption in the World and in the Church.  St. Benedict and St. Anthony each withdrew to their caves and Teresa withdrew to one her little houses in the cities of Spain and shut the door.  Each sought and treasured solitude.  History testifies that when you do that, the lost children of the world begin to beat a path to your door.  All three had to provide for the challenge of providing hospitality for other seekers of God.    Benedict ended up as the founder of a major branch of monasticism.  Anthony found other hermits following him to the desert.  Teresa spent as much time founding little monasteries as she spent taking refuge in them.
Their societies, and ours, were Pagan; at times Pagan arrayed in the glorious robes of the Church.  A cloak of virginity is not the same thing as virginity.  Today when clergy fill out the forms of application for marriages they are apt to meet the question, “Bachelor” or “Maiden” with a wry smile.  The Church in America has difficulty accepting that this is not a Christian country, certainly not within the parameters set by the New Testament.  Perhaps it never has been except in certain remarkable cultural pockets that managed to withdraw from the larger whole.
In general, there are always exceptions, in general the response of the church echoes the words of God, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace.  Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush.” [i]  We are ashamed to blush.  When the Church has been less accommodating it has paid the price by being condemned as condemnatory, and therefore socially unacceptable. 
Many of today’s voters are wrestling over which of our candidates or political parties are more Christian than the other.  Be assured, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”[ii]  It is within the context of the Church within the World, and the World within the Church that Saints Benedict, Anthony, and Teresa each fled to a little cave.
This is not a counsel of despair, nor is it somehow peculiar.  It is the rhythm of the Church and the World.  The Lord himself counsels the faithful not to seek the answer within the Church itself, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.”[iii]  Do not be trapped into worshipping the garments of holiness or the stones of ancient buildings, not that in America we have ancient buildings.  Even our Lord Jesus himself sought times of solitude where he could be alone with his Father on a lonely Galilean hilltop.
The answer is not to be found in the World or even in the Church.  “Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.’”[iv]  Rest is not to be found in the lost ideal of a Christian nation nor is it to be found in the beauty and diversity of the Church.  It will not be found in feverish attempts to cloak social morés in the garments of holiness.  That is like a gold ring in pig’s snout. Rest is to be found in the ancient paths where the good way is.  “Now . . .  we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.[v] 
Rest is not to be found even in the ancient paths, but where the paths lead.  Rest is to be found in the God of love who is also a consuming fire where all of our pretensions are only dust and ashes.  One cannot in truth separate love and holiness, and it is precisely the demands of holiness that caused Saints Benedict, Anthony, and Teresa to flee from the Church within the World and the World within Church.  Were they wrong?  Many would tell us today that they were. 
For you and for me the practical answer is to be found in taking deliberate time for solitude like these ancient saints.  Pascal wrote, “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”[vi]  As Oblates we are not called to live in endless solitude, but we are called to enfold times of solitude into the rhythm of our lives and our search for solitude needs to be supported by the simple round of psalms and lessons, the prayers of the Church, and corporate worship.

[i] Jeremiah 6:14-15 
[ii] Romans 3:10-12 
[iii] Jeremiah 7:4  
[iv] Jeremiah 6:16 
[v] The Vincentian Canon: Vincent of Lerins ~ AD 434
[vi] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 172

Copyright © 2012 Robin P. Smith

Sunday, August 12, 2012


What happens when we are thwarted?  Most of our problems come because of a wrong view of ourselves. Life is simpler when we acknowledge our place in the universe: The Lord is God and I am not!  Along with that simple fact there is a corollary: He has many children and I am only one of them.

Peter Kreeft writing on Pascal tells us,
The essence of sin is selfishness, “me first”, self-love or pride.
            Pride is essentially competitive. “Me first” necessarily means “you second”.  Pascal would like Rodney Dangerfield’s line, “When you’re looking out for Number One, you’re going to step on some Number Two.”
            Self-love, or pride, is not the same as self-respect.  Self-respect means treating yourself, like all selves, as valuable. . .
            Self-love on the other hand, means making yourself your own God: that is your own end, good and goal; seeking your happiness and purpose and destiny and meaning in yourself rather than in God.[i]

There is a twist in human behaviour that needs to be noted.  Another more subtle form of self-love is seeking others as “your own end, good and goal.” Make no mistake; that is also another form of self-love, because in doing so you are not seeking others for their own sakes.  May God deliver us from people who want to put us in first place, for the first place belongs to God alone, and people who make a habit of doing that can be a tremendous nuisance to the people they love in this manner.

The only antidote is truth, and truth is not loved by those enmeshed in self-love.  Pascal says that the nature “of self-love is to love only self and consider only self, . . . The predicament in which it thus finds itself arouses in it the most unjust and criminal passion that could possibly be imagined, for it conceives a deadly hatred for the truth which rebukes it and convinces it of its faults.”[ii]

In Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers gets to the heart of her plot by uncovering a motive for an attempted murder.  Lord Peter Wimsey, in conversation with the teachers of a women’s college, holds forth,

My first task was obviously to find out whether Miss de Vine had actually ever murdered or injured anybody. In the course of a very interesting after-dinner conversation in this room, she informed me that, six years ago, she had been instrumental in depriving a man of his reputation and livelihood—and we decided, if you remember, that this was an action which any manly man or womanly woman might be disposed to resent . . .

Incidentally, I established for a certainty, what I was sure of in my own mind for a start, that there was not a woman in this Common Room, married or single, who would be ready to place personal loyalties above professional honor.  That was a point which it seemed necessary to make clear—not so much to me, as to yourselves.[iii]

            The point being that part of our acknowledgment of the Lord being God is an acknowledgment that it is the Lord who sets the rules and not we ourselves.  His rules are that Truth and Integrity must prevail, and that in so doing justice must be carried out.  Justice includes truth and integrity, and making your word your bond.
            Is Kreeft too glum when he says?

“We are all born into the world as selfish little pigs . . . our working philosophy is always “I want what I want when I want it”; and that even when we later learn to cover up and compromise this demand, it remains down at the bottom of our heart.”

This truth is easily uncovered by the experience of feeling thwarted, and being thwarted is a common every day experience when we human beings interact with each other.

            How easily we are annoyed, perhaps even angered, when some other equally self-centered person encroaches on what we consider to be our rightful territory, be that territory our time or our personal space.  When that happens what we really are saying is that “I am my own,” and “What’s mine is mine.”

            A good deal of the salvation history of the children of Israel was involved with the issue of territorial claims, one encroaching upon the other, and that conflict persists to the present day.  What was largely missing was the fundamental underlying question: Just whose land was it anyway?  Even Job, at the outset had a clear understanding, “The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away,”[iv]  And King David is his dedicatory prayer of the offerings for the temple confesses,

"But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.  For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.[v]

There is an ancient Navajo understanding that we don’t “own” the land, we just inhabit it.  We are stewards not lords.  From a Benedictine viewpoint this governs St. Benedict’s general attitude towards material possessions.  St. Benedict in his rule tells his monks,

Let it not be allowed at all for a monk to give or to receive letters, tokens, or gifts of any kind, either from parents or any other person, nor from each other, without the permission of the Abbot. But even if anything is sent him by his parents, let him not presume to accept it before it hath been make known to the Abbot. And if he order it to be accepted, let it be in the Abbot's power to give it to whom he pleaseth. And let not the brother to whom perchance it was sent, become sad, that "no chance be given to the devil" (Eph 4:27; 1 Tm 5:14). But whosoever shall presume to act otherwise, let him fall under the discipline of the Rule.[vi]

This is not socialism in action but something quite different.  It has to do with the nature of original sin.  Benedict does not want his monks grasping at material possessions and shrieking, “Mine! Mine! Mine!”  Nor does he want his monks to consider time their own.  When the bell rings it’s time to worship and if you are so inconsiderate, not of others but of the Lord, that you are late there will be an act of discipline.  In this context discipline is a better word than punishment.  The monk has to learn that even time is not his own.  The Psalmist prays, “But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, "You are my God." My times are in your hand.”[vii]

The experience of being thwarted may actually be a gift from God because it helps us understand that the real issue of spiritual life is a call to a deeper acceptance of our place in the universe and our place in the family of God.  Surrender is not an abstract quality so much as an action verb.  In all of this, with time, space, and material things, we are to live with open hands not with wicked closed fists.

[i] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 147
[ii] Ibid. p. 149
[iii] Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night, (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), p. 478
[iv] Job 1:21
[v] 1 Chronicles 29:14-15  
[vi] The Rule of St. Benedict by chapters (Boniface Verheyen OSB, Atchison, 1949) OSB Website
[vii] Psalm 31:14-15