Thursday, August 27, 2015

Impossible Tasks

Why St. Benedict?  Benedict was the 6th Century saint and founder of the Order of St. Benedict, and he was remarkable for his sense of balance in spirituality.  He said, “Give the strong something to yearn for, and the weak nothing to run from.”

One of my favourite chapters in the Rule of St. Benedict is titled, “If a Brother Is Commanded to Do Impossible Things.”  There are times in our experience when our perceived responsibilities seem to extend far beyond what we think we can reasonably accomplish.  Benedict wrote:

“If it happens that difficult or impossible tasks are laid on a brother, let him nevertheless receive the order of the one in authority with all meekness and obedience. But if he sees that the weight of the burden altogether exceeds the limit of his strength, let him submit the reasons for his inability to the one who is over him in a quiet way and at an opportune time, without pride, resistance, or contradiction.  And if after these representations the Superior still persists in his decision and command, let the subject know that this is for his good, and let him obey out of love, trusting in the help of God” (The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 68).

There are times when the burden of the day seems overwhelming; the difficulty being twofold.  First, two or three tasks are pressing and foremost in our minds, but we have not objectified the “Do List,” and what we end up doing is fretting over them instead of strategizing what needs to be done.  Second, we don’t recognize the limit of what ought to be done in a day. 

Yesterday’s tasks, done, or not done, are past.  A few of them may migrate onto today’s “Do List”.  Some of them, it turns out, didn’t really need to be done, or at least, not by us.  Tomorrow’s tasks cannot be accomplished today; they perhaps can be scheduled, and at best organized.  The latter, if done too soon, may be a useless spinning of wheels; sometimes when tomorrow's tasks becomes today’s tasks, the organization is often more effective.

There is another important element that needs to be recognized.  It is important to live with a mixture of courage and forgiveness.  Benedict allows for our weakness by allowing us to acknowledge what we think are our reasons for not being able to accomplish a task.  The recognition of personal limitations is after all a basic principle in spirituality.  The psalmist says, “I am a man who has no strength.  I am shut in so that I cannot escape. I am helpless” (Psalm 88:4, 8, 15 ESV, RSV). 

We, however, have a tendency to be very hard on ourselves, and even though personal limitations are not sin, we need to hold ourselves in forgiveness; forgiveness for the vaguer guilt of not being able to live up to our own expectations, or the expectations of others.  This must be balanced by the recognition that God gives strength above and far beyond our limited abilities.  The psalmist also says, “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle” (Psalm 144:1).

Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, calls us to respond to the challenge of each day with courage.  Benedict recommends that we meet the challenge of the day out of love, trusting in the help of God. Hear the word of the Lord, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go" (Joshua 1:9). Be clear about this simple reality, the Lord is with you; take courage as you go forth to meet the labours of the day.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

What I Saw in the Secret Place.

I have seen the edge of your golden crown
Rich gold against the skin tones of your flesh,
      and from beneath that edge
      at your right temple
            a single rivulet of blood
            red against your skin
                        flowed copiously down,
      a reminder that beneath the golden crown
      you yet wear the crown of thorns for me,
            but not for me alone.
            I am one.
            I am one of many.

Our union,
      the communio peccatorum,
      common bond,
      reminds me
      You are one with us.
            Forgive us our trespasses.
            Mine alone.
            Mine as one of many.

Our union,
      the communio sanctorum,
      common destiny,
      uncommon aspiration.
      Make pure our hearts and wills.
      Your gift to humankind:
            We thirst and hear you say,
            “Come beloved of My Father.

I see transposed upon my hands, my feet, my side
Your gaping wounds.
      My brow is circled with your piercing thorns.
            Rivulets of blood flow copiously down.
Through me you suffer for your body,
the Church that you redeem.
      I am crucified with Christ.
      I am one of many.

Body of Christ
      inseparable from the Anointed
      even in His crucifixion.
            I am crucified with Christ,
            Nevertheless I live,
                  yet not I.
                  Christ lives in me,
                  yet not I alone.
                  I am one of many.

                                                      Dom Anselm+

Sunday, August 2, 2015

“In the Psalms where the Holy Spirit speaks to us, it is written….” St. Cyprian, 258 AD[i]

Lord, What Would You Have Me Do?[ii]
          There is some confusion in the contemporary Western Church over ethics. An important dynamic in the study of ethics in Holy Scripture is the understanding that prayer is not a monologue, but a dialogue. Lectio Divina presupposes that God speaks to us and that we should respond: Read the Word, Reflect on the Word, Respond in Prayer, Rest in the Presence of God. When we sing and pray the Psalms we sing and pray them with Jesus Christ the Incarnate Son of God who prays in us and through us. When we pray the Psalms we also pray them with all the Body of Christ throughout the world;, in whatever circumstances our brothers and sisters in Christ find themselves.
Even when we pray an imprecatory prayer; “O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!” [Psalm 58:6]; we pray with Jesus Christ who is the Enfleshed Logos; we pray with the persecuted Church, and we pray with the oppressed everywhere. Christ enfleshed in us speaks to us, and gives voice through us, to God the Father.
Lectio Divina takes us a step further; we Rest in the Presence of God, or more literally “before the Face of God. “Seek the LORD, and his strength: seek his face (paw-neem) evermore” [Psalm 105:4]. That dialogical relationship transcends the study of ethics and is the basis of ethics. Ethics says simply, “Now that I am before your face, O God, and before all the Holy Angels; what would you have me do?” If I hear and pray, “O Lord our God (O Yahweh our Adonai) how majestic is your name in all the earth” [Psalm 8:1], how will the majesty of the transcendent and immanent God transform my life; the way I think about things, and the way I act? The question is both personal and corporate; no Christian actually lives apart from the Body of Christ of which he, or she, is a member.
As we dwell in the holy dynamic of Lectio Divina, the Holy Spirit is at work in the transformation of our thoughts and actions. As that mysterious work goes on in His Presence, before His Face, we become radiant, “Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed” [Psalm 34:5 NRSV/RSV]. This has strong implications for our understanding of ethics. In his letter St. Peter tells us that as we become partakers of God’s divine nature we are to make every effort to supplement our faith with virtue:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.[iii]

“The Fear of the Lord (Yahweh) is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding” [Proverbs 9:10]. That is to say that in the practice of the awareness of the fear of God we will understand how to live; which of course is the question of ethics. The awe of God is to be met with humility, and with obedience to God who desires to work out his justice (mishpawt) through us in the midst of our wicked world; after all we live in “the habitation of dragons” [Psalm 44:19]. 
We share with Christ the responsibility of ministering justice. C. S. Lewis said “Justice is the old name for fairness; it includes honesty, give and take, truthfulness, keeping promises, and all that side of life.”[iv] Justice is not done in a vacuum, but in the real world as it is. If one is to do justice and righteousness, one will extend oneself to preserve justice in our society and in the world.  Christ incarnate in us desires to work out his justice through us in the very real situations that require our ethical decisions. “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandment!...who conducts his affairs with justice” [Psalm 112:1, 5]. Joan Chittister comments, “The Rule of St. Benedict treats work and lectio interchangeably. One focuses the skills of the body on the task of co-creation. The other focuses the gifts of the mind on the lessons of the heart.”[v] Our relationship with God and prayer must be transferred into actions.
St. Benedict tells us in his Rule that his 6th century monks were to pray the entire Psalter in a week, but he points out that earlier monks prayed the entire Psalter in a day. The only Psalm that is prayed in bite size pieces is Psalm 119. That Psalm throughout the course of its 176 verses stresses the importance of the law, not only for the Psalmist, but also for the Church that prays the Psalm. Half of Psalm 119 is prayed in the various Offices of Sunday, the balance of the Psalm is prayed in the Offices on Monday, that is; one begins the week praying about the importance of the law and its place in our lives.  “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” [Psalm 119:97]. The point being that early monasticism and the early Church prayed the Psalter as the basic language and thought form of prayer, including, “how I love your law.” In contemporary Offices Psalm 119 is prayed in the Midday Office being divided up over three days, Sunday through Monday. Where the Midday Office is shuffled aside in favor of the mid-morning Daily Eucharist it blunts the ethical emphasis of praying the Psalms.
What was meant by the law? The basic law in Exodus and Deuteronomy is given in the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments included basic life orientation and community relationships, but the ceremonial and food laws were given as an addendum[vi]. We should note in passing that in the addendum the laws regarding basic life orientation and community relationships are applied to specific circumstances and that the New Testament accepts those explications of the law as normative.
Far from approving of society’s sexual mores, St. Paul tells us that such things should not even be named among us [Ephesians 5:2]. That does not stop St. Paul from naming them. In doing so he holds the adulterous within the Church on an equal level with idolaters, greedy, drunkards, and those who practice homosexuality. [vii] There isn’t a nickel’s worth of difference between one reprehensible sin and another.  Then he adds, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” [I Corinthians 6:11].
When compassion for others and our corporate sense of guilt drives us to approve of things in others that Scripture forbids, we are out of balance. There is a difference between human compassion and the holy love of God that flows from the Incarnate Christ within us. Jesus in his mercy doesn’t say, “That’s alright dear; don’t feel badly about what you are doing.” What he says to all of us is, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more." [John 8:11]. 
When Jesus restates the law in the Sermon on the Mount he teaches about the former, life orientation and community relationships; but he fulfills the ceremonial law in the sacrifice of himself; and he sets the food laws aside. At the same time he re-emphasizes the laws about life orientation and community relationships.
And he called the people to him and said to them, "Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person." Then the disciples came and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?" He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit." But Peter said to him, "Explain the parable to us." And he said, "Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone."

            J. B. Phillips’ happy translation, “it is the straight-edge of the Law that shows us how crooked we are” is apt. While we live in the freedom of grace, we have the law to measure ourselves by to see if we are heading in the right direction. This is also reflected in the Rule of St. Benedict,
The first step of humility is that a man always ought to have the fear of God before his eyes ( Ps 35:1), never forgetting it, and always remembering all that God has commanded. He [each brother or sister] should keep in mind that those who despise God will burn in hell for their sins, and that life everlasting is prepared for those who hold God in awe. And while he guards himself always against sin and vices of thought, word, deed, and self-will, let him also make haste to cut off the lusts of the flesh. Let him recall that God always sees him from Heaven, and that the eye of God looks on all his works, and that the angels report his works to God every hour.[viii]

A Benedictine approach to ethics can only worked out in acknowledgement of the awe and majesty of God, and our response of humility and obedience. Once God is held in awe, all other considerations fade away.

[i] St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (Epist. 10, 2-3, 5: CSEL 3, 491-492, 494-495)
[ii] Paul’s question at his conversion, Acts 22:10
[iii] 2 Peter 1:3-9  
[iv] Mere Christianity, Chapter 12
[v] Joan Chittister, THE RULE OF ST. BENEDICT: Insights for the Ages, (New York: Crossroads, 1997), p. 135
[vi] Addendum is correct since the 16th century. Addenda was the older Latin form.
[vii] 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
[viii] The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 7, Humility, v.10-13