Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Simplicity 3

The word monk comes ultimately from the Greek monos, meaning one or single. It is not clear historically whether it originally referred to being alone, as in celibate and so forth, or whether it referred to a more interior unity. I think probably it began as a description of a state of life -- single, alone in the relational sense, and then in time had the other meaning added to it. In fact, both are true.

The monastic wisdom of the ages is that you really cannot achieve unity of focus on God unless your external life facilitates that focus. And while very few would say that a conventionally placed person, married or professionally employed, can not focus on God, the preponderance of texts seems to move in the direction of recommending the monos state of life for the monos state of focus on God. But then, many of the ancient texts were written by, and certainly all of them were transmitted by, monks. So there is a certain filter at work in Christian spiritual tradition.

I have, as a monk for 36 years and a monk not in residence and parish priest for 16 of those years, been on both sides of this issue. Not married, of course, but with plenty of experience in befriending and leading in a churchly way a lot of married people. The longer I am at the monk thing the more I am convinced that the point of spiritual life, whether married or single, employed in a career or living in a monastery, is focus. The ascetical disciplines do not exist for themselves but as aids to focus. The life of prayer in its organized forms exists as a way to achieve focus. Our concentration on the person of Jesus is a way to achieve focus. Silent, wordless and (sometimes) formless prayer is a way to achieve focus.

The whole point of any genuine religious life, in fact, is to help us redirect our attention from what doesn't ultimately lead anywhere very productive to the source of life and being itself: God. Focus on God is what we hope to achieve.

And so, yet another exercise in simplicity. What in our external lives, what in our inner lives, gets in the way of focus on God? That, it seems to me, is what the traditional ascetical program is for. That is what the leaving behind of the usual major life commitments for a monk is for. That is what the redirection of the life of a baptized person who is not a monk is for. And, frankly, in many ways, being a monk makes focus on God easier. I think achieving God-focus as a person "in the world" is one of the most remarkable and beautiful things I know. I have been privileged to know more than a few people like that. I admire them, and I know that I probably don't have half of their capacity to achieve that focus in the midst of ordinary life. Which is why I, and I suspect many others, become monks (and nuns, and other type of monos-people).

But all of the people on this path, it seems to me, face very similar challenges, monk or married. In a word, the challenge is to learn to evaluate the phenomena of our life in terms of how they promote this focus on God. This activity, this work that I am doing -- will it in some way bring me closer to God? This thing I have -- does its use help me in some way to get closer to God? This thought, or fantasy, or fear, or dream that I have -- can it open up a door for me to get closer to God?

There are the tried and true paths. Serious seekers will read the scriptures with these questions in mind. They will consult the ancient traditions, made accessible to us in texts like the Rule of Benedict, or John Cassian's Institutes and Conferences, or a thousand other wonderful places. These need to be read with an understanding of their original setting and purpose and the cultures out of which they came. But at a certain point we need to move from study to action. We need to apply what we read. I am going to write something about that process soon. But the bell for Compline is about to ring. And for sure, one of the ascetical practices that monks undertake to help them focus on God is to get into Chapel at the stated times and pray the Divine Office! So, off I go.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Earthquake in Haiti

A disaster of almost unimaginable proportions is slowly being revealed as the reports from Haiti come in. This should be a special concern to Episcopalians and Anglicans, as Haiti is a diocese of the Episcopal Church, and by membership is our largest.

The Sisters of St. Margaret have worked intensively there for many, many years, and their work is one of the most significant not only of our Church, but of Christians in Haiti in any sense. Over the years they have established or worked in educational, medical and adult education programs of every kind. Their convent has been a spiritual center for thousands and thousands of people. Their Haiti web page:

They have a brochure as well, in pdf format:

To make a donation for Haiti emergency and reconstruction work through Episcopal Relief and Development, click here:

Please keep the people of Haiti and our dear friends in St. Margaret and the Episcopal Church there in your prayers.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Simplicity 2

I ended the last post with an appeal to the practical benefits of a simpler lifestyle, with food leading the way. But in this post I would like to say something about the spiritual benefits of a simpler life.

The more things we have, the more things we worry about. If you don't have anything worth stealing, for example, you won't worry so much about your neighbor the thief. At least you won't worry about him in his thief persona, or at least, in relation to yourself. In fact, you will be freer than you would have been otherwise to regard him as a human being and to develop a relationship with him. Whereas, if you have Aunt Tillie's silver and an expensive big flat screen tv and a bunch of money salted away in the cookie jar and so forth, you will have (and should have) some suspicion toward him. Without them you do not need to fear their loss. Monastic spiritual writers all agree that this is a foundational principle for our life with God. The more you have, the more there will be between you and God. So, in the famous phrase, Sell what you have, give to the poor, and come, follow me.

The same is true with regard to less tangible things, especially with regard to things we have agreed to do. I know more than one person who is fairly careful about their possessions but loves to collect responsibilities. The more things we have to do, the more important we feel we are. And in fact, it is true. The more things we have to do, the more important we are. People depend on us. Good things happen when we do our work well, and bad things happen when we don't. Either way, it puts us in the center.

And that's the crux. If we have a healthy attitude to responsibilities, we will do them first because what comes from the work we do is good, and secondarily because it lifts us up. But if personal uplift is first, then something is probably wrong. The word for it is vainglory, and although vainglory was one of the original eight problematic thought categories, it got merged along the way with pride, and shoved into the corner. But in fact it's pretty primary. It's about the self, the ego.

If we are doing things primarily because they make us feel important or give us a good name among others, then we may begin to act to increase our sense of importance rather than to do a good job for its own sake. In fact, it is not unknown to sabotage our work in order that self-importance can be validated by disaster ("They'll be sorry...").

So simplicity is not just about stuff. It is also about what we do, the mutualities we enter into in the world of work and responsibility.

Things are good. We should value them for what they really are, and if we are fortunate to have them, we should use them if we need them. We should enjoy them. But we should not hoard them, keeping from others what might make their life better when it is simply a marker of success or status or inner security for us rather than something we need and use. A spiritually mature person knows how to share, how to give.

Responsibilities are good. We should value them for the good that work accomplished gives to others and to ourselves. Good work builds a healthy sense of self and contributes to the well-being of others. But piling up responsibilities for the sake of self ultimately undermines both self and others.

A humble person, a person who has been learning who he truly is in the sight of God, will try to discern what he really can do and what he should let others do. He will do the things he can do well and which he has has agreed to do, and let their value speak for themselves. He will be able to concentrate better on the responsibilities he has agreed to if he is able to let go of the ones he has that are too much, or which he has taken on to increase his sense of self, or which others can do better. One might actually relinquish some that one does well so that others may have a share in the work -- and in the glory. (Which is not to urge laziness, but that's another issue!)

I am of course speaking to myself in all of this!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Simplicity 1

The new year is now launched. The Three Kings have visited the Child, observant Christians are packing away the Christmas decorations, and most new year's resolutions are facing reality.

So I want to put in a word for a monastic value I want to last beyond its new year's resolution shelf life for me: Simplicity.

Poverty is not one of the Benedictine vows, which are Obedience, Stability and Conversion of Life (to the monastic way of life). A friend of mine once rejoiced (in jest, I think) that OHC, in changing from its older form of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, was putting aside chastity. But, of course, Not. Conversatio morum, conversion of life, encompasses the whole monastic program as known to Benedict, and is shorthand for the way of monastic life in general. So, chastity and poverty stay in.

As fraught as chastity may be in our modern church context, I think that in some ways poverty presents a greater challenge. People simply do not want to be poor. Being poor is looked on as an affliction, an affront to human dignity, something to be warred against, which is rather non-scriptural, actually. The monastic tradition, however, is a help here. Benedictines are not Franciscans. Which is to say, personal poverty aside, radical corporate poverty is not part of our ethos. Benedictines have things -- property, buildings, libraries, money. These things are held in common and used as necessity dictates. Less is more is the ethic, but not destitution. The famous Benedictine moderation is very much the way Benedictines have always lived, mutatis mutandis.

Having said that, however, we are still left with our modern dilemma. Ours is a culture which urges us to get what we want. Monks are not exempt from this cultural imperative. The idea of doing without is as difficult a sell within the cloister as without, except for a few exceptionally evolved ascetic souls. Suggesting that we might not have what we want, let alone what we need, is quite a hard sell in modern society. The word No is not heard very often.

And for good reason. We understand that to pray well, we must be well. An underfed or overtired or unhealthy body is a poor vehicle for prayer. Scientific understanding of human needs has made considerable progress since the early sixth century. So an ascetical regime based on the idea of deprivation alone is no longer viable. The ancients may have understood that the soul's capacity for contact with God increases as the body's strength diminishes, but that is not our understanding. Health and genuine well being are necessary for a good spiritual life.

So deprivation is not the path. But then, neither is having everything we want. Mary Margaret Funk, in her little book about Cassian called Thoughts Matter: The Practice of the Spiritual Life, makes the good point that even Cassian did not recommend edgy practices about food, which might be a stand-in for our consumption practices in general:

"Refrain from eating too much, but also refrain from eating too little. Eat at the designated time. Refrain from eating before and after meals. Eat the type of food appropriate to the season and the geographic region in which I live. My menu should not be too rarified or too delicate, nor should I select foods that are inadequate for the body's sustenance. I should prefer a middle fare."

Taken as a general principle, this can point us in a healthy direction. The word we are searching for in this ascetic is not deprivation. The word is sufficient. Or adequate. Or enough. Eat, use, take what you really need. Leave the rest for others.

Most Americans have more than enough, and not just as regards food. Putting this ascetical practice into effect in all the areas of our life will probably result in a slimmer body, a cleaner house, a less-stuffed clothes closet. It may also result in less money spent, less debt, more savings, in fact, more material security.

I will be writing more about this. But it is a good way to begin the new year.