The Feast Day of St. Benedict

Preferring Christ: The Rule of St. Benedict

Today is the Feast Day of St. Benedict of Nursia. St. Benedict is among the posse of saints that surround my life, interceding for me before the LORD, our God. The Rule of St. Benedict which is so revered in the history of The Church is a rich tapestry of wisdom that is tightly woven with Sacred Scripture to guide us in living our ordinary life in an extraordinary way.

The Rule orientates us to the knowledge that God is everywhere, all the time, and because of this, every element of our ordinary day is potentially holy. Ascending to this truth that seems a little homely reorients us to our created identity because we learn to recognize that daily life is the grist for the mill of our consecration to our Creator. Does your day-to-day life seem stressful, challenging, hum-drum, or dull? Then St. Benedict is your guide through the ordinary into the extraordinary life in God.

The title, The Rule of St. Benedict, is better understood in its ancient context of the Latin word, regula, or guidepost. The prologue of The Rule begins with this: Listen, my child….incline the ear of your heart. Hearing and listening are two different things. Have you ever spent time with someone who hears you but doesn’t incline their spirit toward you enough to listen to you? Worse yet, do we hear the Word of the LORD without our spirit leaning toward him in order to really listen? St. Benedict emphasizes the importance of turning toward Christ with the posture of a child leaning into him to hear every word of beauty, goodness, and truth. In this way we are trained in preferring Christ above all things which is one of St. Benedict’s favorite themes. Praying with St. Benedict as we pray Sacred Scripture helps us look at our world through interior eyes. It helps us become better listeners to our Father and, in turn, better observers of the people and events of our lives.

Early in The Rule, we are guided in three monastic virtues: obedience, restraint of speech, and humility. Hmm? That sounds like the folk in the sixth century were just like us. St. Benedict makes it clear that these timeless virtues are inseparable. As we practice these virtues, we gain everything the LORD has promised us of the abundant life with Him. We, like St. Benedict, live in a culture of protest, excessive self-promotion, and overweaning pride. You and I can choose from the vices of the culture or we can pursue the virtues of God’s Kingdom; how is it going for you? It’s hard work to swim upstream in our downstream society! So let’s briefly consider these primary virtues.

Here’s a little side note, each of these virtues has its own chapter in The Rule. Obedience gets 19 verses of attention; Silence gets one verse of attention, and Humility has a whopping 70 verses of attention! Take a knee with me at this observation!

Regarding the virtue of obedience, St. Benedict writes that the first step of humility is obedience without delay. He encourages us to, immediately leave all that is our concern and forsake our own will, with our hands disengaged from what seems urgent to us. I am driven by goals, so much so that finding balance in the daily round is a consistent prayer I offer to the LORD. Do you suffer from tunnel vision as I do? Disengaging my hands from what seems so important to me in a moment takes monumental effort sometimes. I am learning to appreciate the slowness that St. Benedict emphasizes throughout The Rule because it is in slowing down my pell-mell thoughts and actions I’m trained in obedience. What I am discovering as I slow down is there’s very little in life that is worth the whims and appetites of my self-indulgent grasping.

Regarding the virtue of Silence, St. Benedict writes Let us do as the prophet says: “I said, I will take heed to my ways that I do not sin with my tongue: I have placed a watch over my mouth… He draws our attention to the importance of silence with scriptures from the book of Proverbs: In too much speaking you shall not avoid sin. (Proverbs 10:19) And, Death and life are in the power of the tongue. (Proverbs 18:21) Oh, so much could be said here (pun not intended). I kindle to what fellow Benedictine oblate Norene Vest wrote about this: it seems to me that the more we love words, we tend to let ourselves be satisfied by them, thus stopping short of the true satisfaction [that comes from Jesus alone]. It calls to mind St. Paul’s observation that people are always learning but never understanding. I respond to that verse by praying, Lord, I don’t want to be so caught up in speaking about what I am learning at the expense of not understanding it and living it out. Lord, remind me that it is through listening and silence that you teach and lead me into rest.

And finally, regarding the virtue of humility, St. Benedict gives us extensive guidance, beginning with the straightforward point: the problem of the spiritual life is pride (self-exaltation); the remedy is humility. St. Benedict emphasizes the need to contemplate Sacred Scripture; it comes down to this, the more we immerse ourselves in praying with Sacred Scripture we become acutely aware of our prideful leanings.

He writes that we must, by our ever-ascending actions, erect a ladder, like the one which the proud and fearful Jacob beheld in his dream in his flight from duty and responsibility. Daily life offers plenty of opportunities to learn how to descend and ascend the ladder of humility. As we practice humility, the ladder is lifted by the LORD to heaven; I like that! Yet, some days when I’ve forgotten to allow the LORD to teach me this way, the Holy Spirit remains on each rung with me, guiding me. How about you, friend? When you face an old struggle and bristle at someone’s words or actions, does pride knock you off the ladder of humility? I regularly find myself flat on my backside, wondering how I could fall off the ladder again!

When we follow the guideposts in St. Benedict has provided us, we receive the remedy for the consumer-driven society that peddles discord, disenchantment, and dis-ease. We live in the chaos of evil times, full of anxiety, anger, and the noise of modernity! St. Benedict shows us the path away from it into preferring Christ over all things (no matter how entertaining or attractive they are) and abiding in the dailiness of our extraordinary life with God.

Let’s pray with St. Benedict:

O Lord, I place myself in your hands and dedicate myself to you. I pledge to do your will in all things: To love the Lord God with all my heart, soul, strength

I desire to prefer nothing to the love of Christ…To desire eternal life with spiritual longing…to pray often. To ask forgiveness daily for my sins, and to seek ways to amend my life…Not to desire to be thought holy, but to seek holiness…Never to despair of your mercy, O God of Mercy.

I ask this in the name of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

As it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

Amen

Nobodies

This past week The Church honored the memory of St. Damien de Veuster. It was said of Father Damien that there was nothing supernatural about him. He was a vigorous, forceful man with a big kindly heart in the prime of life and a jack of all trades. He was a man of determined tenacity to Christ his world, specifically the world of the leper colonies of Hawaii. Ambrose Huthison, who worked alongside him and became a close friend of Father Damien, said that “he loved to work with him in his crusade to put down evil. There was no hypocrisy in him.”

Fellow priests thought Father Damien was too uneducated; they believed he wasn’t up to the task. Yet St. Damien persisted in prayer and study and depended on the intercession of St. Francis Xavier to be chosen for the mission to the lepers. St. Francis Xavier was a priest who served The Church in Portugal, India, Japan, and China. He, as well as St. Damien, died in their service to the people they helped.

The Church honors the memory of Saints of Scripture and Salvation History during Eastertide who continued Christ’s mission of setting captives free. The people they served are the nobodies of history that remain nameless to us, yet they bear the name: Beloved.

***

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The Gospel according to St. Luke 4:18-21

***

We read of the mission of the Early Church during Eastertide and we witness the disciples and followers Christing the world by setting captives free through the power of the Holy Spirit flowing through them.

The readings for today in The Divine Office and the Mass include two events from the Acts of the Apostles that embody the mission that Christ gave to the disciples. We recall Peter and John’s encounter with a nameless lame man in our Morning Prayer readings:

Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.  And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them.  But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

And then we read about Saints Paul and Barnabas’ encounter with a nameless lame man in our Mass readings:

[There was a] a crippled man, lame from birth,
who had never walked.
He listened to Paul speaking, who looked intently at him,
saw that he had the faith to be healed,
and called out in a loud voice, “Stand up straight on your feet.”
He jumped up and began to walk about.

The first saints-in-the-making saw the nameless nobodies and listened to their pleas for help, and they gave them Christ through the Holy Spirit flowing through their lives. Those nobodies, no doubt, had been crying out to other nobodies passing by for a long time, but someone different passed by them in these encounters. The disciples and apostles didn’t hear their pleas as noise; no, they stopped, looked intently at them, and listened. And it made all the difference for those nobodies! There have been multitudes of nobodies throughout Salvation History up to this very day who need someone to look intently at them, acknowledge their pain, and listen to them. And here we are Christing our corner of the world, living beside nobodies who wait for us to look intently at them. Isn’t the Holy Spirit just waiting for us to stop and listen?

The Saints in Salvation History chose to suffer as Christ suffered because of their deep love for God. They were ridiculed, ostracized, maligned, and persecuted, but they remained faithful to Christ’s mission to set captives free. Saints Peter, John, and Paul were martyred, and Father Damien became a leper himself. He chose to remain beside the lepers, and as he continued to fight against the prejudice and ignorance of his day, society gradually changed its mind about the “nobody lepers.”

Today we aren’t surrounded by the extremes of physical disease as our ancestors were, but I submit, that we suffer from the extremes of spiritual dis-ease–the blindness of pride, the lameness of fear, the deafness of pride–it emanates from the nobodies in our lives. Well, fellow saint-in-the-making, who is in your corner of the world just waiting for us to look intently at them and listen to the pain of their lives? How long have they been observing us as we come and go past them? How long have they been waiting for us to stand up for them in the face of prejudice and misunderstanding?

LORD, sometimes it’s not easy to listen to others’ complaints. We sometimes grow impatient with their fear, pride, and anger. Just as you bore our disease, may we love the nobodies that are difficult to love.

Holy Spirit of God, make us self-forgetful. Remove our self-preoccupation so that we may abide with the marginalized and forgotten in our corner of the world.

LORD, our Savior, and Healer open our eyes and ears to the reality of the nobodies in our life that need us to listen to them for you. Quiet our hearts so that we may join you in setting the captives free.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

As it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

Amen




Memorial of St. Anthony the Abbot


Today The Church honors the memory of St. Anthony of the Desert. He is known as the Father of all Monks because of his inspiring perseverance in holiness. It is said that when he heard the words from St. Matthew 6:34: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today,” he gave away everything and went outside the village to live a life of praying, fasting, and manual labor. What sets St. Anthony apart was that he wasn’t just a hearer of the Word; he desired to become what Jesus proclaimed; he desired to be another Christ. He told many wanna-be monastics who came to visit him that the key to the ascetic life was perseverance, not to think proudly, and treat each day as if it were the beginning.

We have just crossed the threshold into the new beginning of a calendar year. At least for me, the Memorial of St. Anthony has been divinely planned because I have been examining some of the patterns of my own life that require Holy Spirit-given perseverance to become more humble like Christ. In a frenzied world that has lost its center, I can be whipped around by the tail, or get so caught up in trying to control the beat of my life that I lose my breath in effort and striving. Sometimes my life sounds to me like clanging gongs and crashing cymbals as St. Paul wrote. The asceticism of St. Anthony and other monastics entices me, beckoning my heart to retreat from the noise that surrounds me, even the noise within me! I can’t retreat to the edges of the world, but I can retreat into a solitude of the heart through the monastic understanding that all of life is sacred, and God is present to me as much as I will allow him to be.

The word ascetic has negative connotations in a society that turns to superficialities, comforts, and conveniences to solve the deep hunger of our lives. The thought of denying ourselves anything sends chills up the spine. Nevertheless, the self-discipline and intentional practices of self-denial that Christ proclaimed are true for every age. We can take our cues from the hard-won wisdom of the monastic life as it is modeled after Christ’s teaching.

The common theme in the monastic tradition of reverence toward the LORD is striking. Saint Athanasius wrote of St. Anthony, “Anthony was not known for his writings nor his worldly wisdom, nor any art, but simply for his reverence toward God.” Christine Valters Paintner wrote in one of her many books on Celtic monasticism, [To reverence God] “is to see all of creation as woven together in holiness and to live this truthIn this loving act, we begin to knit together that which has been torn; we gather all that has been scattered.” She writes that when we begin to see the Earth as our monastery no matter where we are, our reverence for the LORD can bring Christ’s healing presence to the world. Oh, I desire that for myself?

On the outside, the monastic tradition looks restrictive and rather tedious. But don’t you ever rail against the restrictions of the dull routine of our lives? I’m learning that the more I’m reverent to the LORD, the more I see life with all its dull bits as an offering to him. I’m becoming more aware that the ground I am standing on is holy ground ablaze with God’s presence. Instead of turning to a distraction like eating too much, drinking too much, playing too much, speaking too much, working too much–I can take an ascetic perspective by simply slowing down and recognizing that the very distractions I run to are leading me farther away from becoming another Christ in my corner of the world.

When I begin to understand this, all of life becomes sacramental as I reverence the LORD, in that I persevere in the knowledge that God is making all things new in each moment. Our Catholic Faith is a sacramental faith, not just in how we worship at Mass, but in how we live our ordinary lives deliberately reverent of the LORD. The monastic tradition of our Faith embraces this intentional way of life: we all can benefit from that example! As I knead the dough for our bread for the week or as I fold our laundry I enter into sacramental worship before the LORD God with the work of my hands. And I respond as Moses and probably many monastics before us by taking off my proverbial sandals for the ground beneath me is holy ground, prostrating myself in the very stuff of earth from which I was created.

My burgeoning desire is to follow Christ in the steps of the monastic tradition where Christ calls to us to live mindful of who we are with more intentionality at becoming another Christ. Just as Jesus lived, monastics unite themselves to the rhythm of God’s providence. Words like reflect, linger, savor–can become the music of our life when we choose to NOT to worry about tomorrow when we choose NOT to distract ourselves with soul-sucking pursuits when we choose NOT to acquire more of the stuff of this world.

How about you, friend? Do you find yourself more agitated by life as you try to keep pace with the world around us? Are there some deliberate steps you know you need to make to slow yourself down, to slow your family life down? As you embark on this calendar year you may want to ask yourself some of the questions I’ve been examining the hindrances in my life to how I reverence the LORD.

What am I distracting myself with that is hindering my holiness and robbing my joy? Jesus answers, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal,  but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” –St. Matthew 6:19-21

Am I allowing this day’s trouble to overrule trusting in the LORD? Jesus answers, “…do not be anxious about your life, … Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? …Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin …  seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” –St. Matthew 6: 25-33

What peace of mind am I missing out on by delaying my decision to persevere in holiness and wholeness in this particular area of my life? Jesus answers, “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” St. John 14:26,27

Oh, Jesus, we long for your transforming grace in our lives. Holy Spirit, teach us how to reverence you, Blessed Trinity whom we adore!

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

As it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

Amen

“The-Saint-Who-Stocks-Me”

Remain in Me. It is the Word of God who gives this order, expresses this wish. Remain in Me, not for a few minutes, a few hours which must pass away, but remain… permanently, habitually, Remain in Me, pray in Me adore in Me, love in Me, suffer in Me, work and act in Me. Remain in Me so that you may be able to encounter anyone and anything; penetrating further still into these depths. This is truly the ‘solitude into which God wants to allure the soul that He may speak to it,” the prophet sang.‘”

–St. Elizabeth of the Trinity

I was visiting a friend recently, and I noticed a new picture on her wall of one of the Saints of the Church. I commented on it and asked if the saint was her patron saint. She replied, “No, it’s The Saint-Who-Stocks-Me!” She went on to explain how the writings and prayers of the saint had compelled her so many times in her walk with the LORD. I knew what she was getting at because I had had the same experience with St. Elizabeth of the Trinity. I had talked with my spiritual director about how the timeliness of St. Elizabeth’s prayers and letter at a point in my life was a surprise blessing for me. She said that St. Elizabeth had chosen me. My experience confirmed what she said. And now, since hearing my friend’s title for the saint on her wall, I refer to St. Elizabeth as The-Saint-Who-Stocks-Me. Her prayers have so melted into my prayers that, at times, I’m not sure who’s voicing my prayer, me or St. Elizabeth through the power of the Holy Spirit praying through me!

It’s been three years since St. Elizabeth began stocking me. You see I had reached a point in my life where after three surgeries to give me relief from a genetic disease failed to stay the deterioration of my physical abilities. I was in a dark place, unable to see any good coming out of the physical suffering. I was more focused on what I had lost than what I might find. And then came St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, offering me insight and wisdom from her physical suffering with Addison’s disease that eventually took her life at age 26 in 1906. Me, I suffer because of loss of ability and chronic pain, but it is unlikely I will end in a physical death because of it. I had so much to learn and so much joy and hope yet to discover! St. Elizabeth stocks me as a persistent companion along the path of holiness.

The first words recorded from her final days begin with the Latin word, Nescivi–“I no longer know anything.” That’s quite a declaration coming from a nun who consumed the Word of God as breath itself! I think, though, I know what she was getting at. We come to the place in life where we realize all that we thought was sure, dependable, and controllable illudes us. I echo her thoughts, for I no longer know anything that I thought I knew before permanent deterioration set in. Have you been in a place where your spirit screams Nescivi? We can say with St. Elizabeth in response to an altered reality, “I no longer know anything. I do not want to know anything except ‘to know Him, to share in His sufferings, to become like Him in his death.'”

The LORD’s ultimate goal for us is to conform us into the image of Jesus, our LORD with skin on. How he allows life to unfold to accomplish that perfection in us varies, but it will always include suffering in some form or another. According to the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, God redeems suffering: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” As uncomfortable it is to take in this truth, it does offer hope. My physical suffering isn’t unique when I consider this truth, and learning from St. Elizabeth’s short life is how the LORD opened my spirit to acceptance of life as it is and freedom from the futile doubting that delays spiritual transformation.

St. Elizabeth prayed, “O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to forget myself entirely so as to be established in you as still and as peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity. May nothing be able to disturb my peace…” She desired that every moment of suffering from Addison’s disease carry her into the depths of God. She asked Him to pacify her soul and make it His heaven. When I read that, I regretted the time I had wasted being agitated by what God had allowed in my life. I began to recognize that He chose me as his beloved daughter, and nothing escaped his divine plan for me. I began praying with St. Elizabeth in her prayer, “Come into me as Adorer, as Healer, as Savior. O Eternal Word, Word of my God, I want to spend my life listening to you; I want to be completely docile, ready to learn everything from You. Then, through all nights, all voids, all weakness, I want to fixate on you always and to remain under your great light.” 

What about you, friend? Is your spirit bogged down in the miry clay of disappointment and regret? Do you wonder if God is a loving God intimately acquainted with your existence? The Saints of the ages have suffered and questioned God’s love, too. They stand as witnesses to us, sometimes weeping with us, sometimes instructing us, always cheering us on in the good fight of Faith in God. The Saints do stock us because they have eternity’s perspective to offer us if we will but seek the LORD in the Communion of Saints.

Dear loving Father, into your hands we commit our spirits.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end.

Amen.