The Myth of Permanence

Have you ever gone to a restaurant with a great reputation and discovered that the chef who made it so departed some years earlier? Often the prices remain the same, but the heart has gone out of the cooking and the experience of dining there is more than a little disappointing. It is the same with monasteries. I can think of some which have been truly great but are now shadows of their former selves, living off a reputation for scholarship or music, say, which is no longer deserved. Others, like yet-to-be-discovered restaurants, are in the process of becoming something that one day may be valued by many.

Linking restaurants and monasteries in this way may help to explain why, for a Christian, the daily call to conversion is so important. Permanence here on earth is a myth: everything passes, everything perishes, reputations not excepted. Every day we must begin again. The restaurant is really only as “good” as its last meal, the monastery only as “good” as its current community; we ourselves only as “good” as we are now.

The past we can confidently leave to the mercy of God, the future to his providence; let’s rejoice in the opportunity of the present, which has been well described as the “sacrament of the present moment”. It is the only one in which we can meet God, for with him everything IS.

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Good Zeal

Today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 72 which you can listen to here, has the title “On the Good Zeal which Monks Ought to Have”. The title isn’t Benedict’s but I think he would have approved. It is modest and unassuming and, occurring as it does almost at the end of the Rule, suggests an acceptance of human frailty which is encouraging. Benedict has spelled out in great detail how the monk is to order his life and devoted several pages to the demands of living in community. Yet here he is soberly talking about the good zeal monks ought to have and must cultivate with the most ardent love as though it cannot be taken for granted, even in the monastery.

Zeal can be dangerous. We can go seriously wrong for what we believe are the best of motives. We have probably all met people so consumed by what they see as evil that they have become unpleasantly like what they detest. We may even have been guilty  of being too rigorous ourselves in situations which called for forgiveness and understanding. Zeal gone wrong leads to fanaticism and that, as we all know, can be poisonous.

Benedict’s antidote is to put energy and enthusiasm into that which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. As you might expect, he singles out for mention qualities he has already written about: patience in bearing with one another’s weaknesses “whether of body or character” (including X’s annoying little habits), eagerness to show respect and obedience to other members of the community (including that odious Y), seeking what is better for another rather than oneself and, above all, loving God, one’s superior and the brethren. He sums it all up by saying that we must put nothing whatever before Christ who, we pray, will bring us all together to everlasting life.

It is a beautiful and moving statement of the inner dynamic of monastic life but there are days when it sounds just a bit . . . effortful. That’s the problem with zeal. It has a bright, tooth-paste tang about it which most of us prefer in small doses. At this time of year, when the Christmas decorations are beginning to look a little tired and 2011 is almost upon us, we can use RB 72 as a reality check on how we actually live our lives.

So, before you write your New Year’s Resolutions, ask yourself one question. Do you put as much energy into your service of God and others as you do into making things comfortable for yourself? I blush to think of my own answer. There’s nothing wrong with comfort, but comfort achieved at the expense of others is more questionable. I think even I could become zealous about that. At least, I hope so.

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Humility and Assurance

St John the Baptist by El Greco
St John the Baptist

On the Second Sunday of Advent our eyes are on John the Baptist. What a strange mixture of humility and assurance he is. Or rather, how his humility confounds our ideas about both.

It was precisely because John was so humble that he could be so assured. Like Moses in the Old Testament, he was “the humblest man on earth”; and his humility and assurance came, like Moses’, from his sense of the nearness of his God.

One who is close to God tends to see as God sees, and that perspective is utterly transforming. John looked at the world, saw the beauty and holiness of its Creator and wanted everyone and everything to share that transforming vision. Hence his passion and his joy, his severity and tenderness. He could not contain himself, so near was our salvation. If he were silent, the very stones would speak. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

This Advent the grace of sharing that transforming vision, of repenting, of turning again to God, is offered to each of us, if we will but accept it. Only the molehills of pride and self-sufficiency stand in the way, but we know how easily we stumble over them. Let’s ask St John the Baptist, with his humility and assurance, to show us the right path. For, as he himself would say, there is no other Way but One, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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