The brothers will arise earlier than usual on Sundays.
How do we live in community?
When we thought that St. Benedict had designed the longest prayer service possible, he describes the Matins for Sunday. This service adds nine extra lessons and some more sung responses and ends up being, what must be a feat of stamina but I’m sure, when done well, an impressive vigil of prayer and praise. Again, if it is to be cut short for whatever reason (and there really isn’t any good reason!) then one should cut the lessons and never the psalms. The psalms, as we have seen, are of such high importance to the prayer life of the monastery.
As we make our way through this more prosaic part of the Rule of St. Benedict it is increasingly hard to hear the deeper, spiritual realities at work. It all becomes rather tangible and material; what to do, what to say, rather than the aims and objectives of the Rule of life. We must draw on the previous chapters, I feel, to remind ourselves of what St. Benedict had in mind for the monks.
How do we live in community?
In our church at the moment we are following the Diocese of York’s 5 Marks of Growing Churches. I am due to preach on Sunday on the theme of ‘Partnership’. The passage I will be preaching from is Ephesians 4:1-7 which talks about how to live in communion with others,
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…
I’m reminded of the reality of living with others after the honeymoon period has worn off. We hope that our resolve to be loving, and gentle and humble and patient will remain in the years and decades which follow such declarations of love but the truth is it’s hard for us fickle human beings to sustain such emotion. Our love is paltry and transient; only God’s love is eternal. We look at the description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 and try to cut it down to manageable chunks; we say, ‘Well I’ll focus on being patient today and then will fulfil my commitment to love the other person’ as if that was love. Love is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. If any of that is not present then it is not love. It is all these things or it is not love. We human’s can never sustain it… that’s the point.
I quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer to couples as they prepare for marriage and on their wedding day,
It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “A Wedding Sermon from a Prison Cell, May 1943”, ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’ (New York: Touchstone, 1997))
This reality is true in all relationships and communities. St. Benedict, in his Rule established early on the necessary virtues needed to survive real community life, obedience, humility, perseverance… Well, the characteristics described by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians and how do we achieve these high standards?
There is no other way. We can try and strive towards community in our own strength but I have witnessed and experienced this and real community is never achieved because… the human will, despite what popular culture wants to be true, does not endure. Humans are not trustworthy, we never have been! We show signs of pure beauty and potential but these are rarely sustained without a Divine miracle.
The prayers set down here in the Rule of St. Benedict do indeed seem hard and overwhelming but when we acknowledge that they are there to continually remind us of our need for God to transform us and give to us the virtues described above, to conquer our human will to chicken out of change and obedience to the Other, then it begins to be put into perspective. My will is often to take short cuts or to postpone the difficult conversations with God about my character, motives and actions. Enduring prayer without engaging in that will defeat us and we will, after time fall into humbled obedience to the gracious God who is able to redeem our broken lives and re-shape us into the likeness of Christ to send us out into the world to change others and ultimately bring about His Kingdom on earth.
There is no escaping the essential part that prayer has in achieving all the spiritual character depicted in Christian literature, from the Apostles to today. This prayer, for St. Benedict, is not a short petition to the Almighty before work or as we fall asleep at night; it is a dedicated, often all conquering spiritual defeat at the hand of the Almighty. I read the demands that the Christian life makes on my life and my first instinct is to give up because it sounds impossible to achieve. Then I remember that it is with God’s help that I stand and walk in His way. It’s not about me achieving it but rather about me giving space and freedom for God to enter into my life and change the furniture. This seems such an easy activity to do and so many of us think that we’re doing it but we hold onto control and resist the complete surrender of our lives because, truth be known, we hate it. It is rare to find someone who has surrendered their life in this way. The people I have met who truly show this life are monastic brothers and sisters. I cannot escape the truth that there’s something in this way of life which gives discipleship a real transformative depth and the gospel becomes real and meaningful.
I can’t help but feel that the Christian Church, on the whole, is far from the life described and demanded in the pages of the New Testament. We have lowered the bar on so many aspects, like we do with our understanding of love in 1 Corinthians 13, that we settle for the easier option. Our expectations of one another and ourselves makes us pale reflections of true Christlikeness. Many people will think that I’m being too harsh on us but surely I am not alone in looking around at the state of the church and the world and see a large disparity to the life of the early disciples and now.
In this time of massive cultural change, where is the moral compass? Where is Godly wisdom found? Where is the Truth of the Divine Creator being spoken? During previous cultural shifts it was in the monastic life that the rhythm of tradition and spiritual heritage was preserved and sustained. Are we investing enough in this way of life? Where is the discipline, obedience to our tradition and heritage within our churches?
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you and I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road although I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.(Thomas Merton, ‘Thoughts in Solitude’ (New York:Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999))
Come, Lord Jesus