Friday, August 26, 2016

What is a monastery for?

Note:  I originally wrote this in two posts for the Prior's Blog on the Mount Calvary Monastery website, and then edited it for our monastery newsletter's Summer 2016 edition.  I thought it might reach a slightly different audience by offering it here.


What is a monastery for?

People have been writing about this question for at least 1,650 years, if you date the beginning of setting and answering the question with the Life of Anthony by St. Athanasius shortly after the saint’s death in 356. It is a very considerable body of literature! And it seems presumptuous to write more about it!

A monastery is “for” creating a place and a style of life to allow both the monks and our guests to pursue closeness to God seriously. Any- one can do this anywhere, of course, and many people do it in their daily lives without monasteries and do it better than we do.

Monks need to be with other people who want to do the same thing and so we try to create a place and a way of living to facilitate it.  Maybe we need it because we are fallible, not especially strong, or because we are not very heroic and need mutual encouragement. At any rate, what we do is build places and styles of living that facilitate rather than hinder the pursuit of God.

So what do monks do?

We work. We pray. We study. We try to practice the Benedictine bal- ance of all three.  Everything about our life is supposed to lead us into God’s presence, to encounter God. Our work makes this economically possible for us. Our studies prepare our minds for this encounter.

But most of all, our prayer directs our hearts to God.  Like Christians everywhere, we pray the Lord’s Prayer, remember the needs of the world and others, turn to the Lord in joy and sorrow and contrition.  We share the Body and Blood of Christ. We sit in silence to meditate and contemplate in the presence of the triune God. Just like every practicing Christian.

But monastic prayer has another component, and it is what makes monasteries what they are.

Several times a day we pray the opus Dei, the work of God. This is not especially personal. We recite the Psalms, listen to the Word of God, spend some silent time together in the presence of what we have recited and heard, and collect its themes in a prayer. For centuries this was done eight times a day. Many monasteries, in response to our clock-centered and work-centered culture, now gather four times a day.

These services are laid out in advance: which psalms, which lessons, which prayer, how much silence. This might seem to leave little room for the movement of the spirit, but anyone who does this kind of prayer knows that the spirit is moving in the mind and heart, but in a special way.

One of the oldest Christian theologies of Scripture is that all of the Bible is the Word of God: what God is actually saying to the world, as complex as that is. If we want to come close to what God is saying to us, Scripture is the place to go. And the way to do it is to listen.

What monks do is set our own concerns aside and listen to Scripture unfiltered. No preacher or teacher or commentary. Just the words of God. The Word of God. We allow ourselves a great privilege: speaking the Word through our own mouths when we recite the psalms.  Hearing the Word read by one of us. As though we are worthy to say the psalms and as though we are worthy to read the Word, to be the mouth by which it enters the world and the ears which are ready to
listen to it.

In monastic tradition the psalms are the very thoughts and prayers and reflections of Jesus himself, Son of Man and Son of God.  When we recite them, we are inviting the resurrected Jesus to enter us, to utter his thoughts and prayers and reflections through us. It is a kind of incarnation, if we let it happen. And if we do, we are putting ourselves close to God.

Benedict begins his Rule with a pregnant word: Obsculta.  Actually, Benedict begins with three words: Obsculta, o fili. Listen, O son. These words have a sequence, a causality. Listening to the Word creates a re- lationship. If we listen to the Word, if we make that Word our words, we will enter a new relationship. We will be sons. And daughters.

So. That’s really what monks do.        

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Lent 1 - The Temptation in the Wilderness

Lent 1C - 14 February 2016
Luke 4:1-13
Preached at Mount Calvary Monastery, Santa Barbara CA
Adam D. McCoy, OHC

Matthew, Mark and Luke all begin Jesus’ public ministry with the temptation in the wilderness.  Together with the baptism it is the “formation event” of the story they tell.  It sets the scene.  So it is interesting to ask what the underlying theme of this story is, since it is a foundation for everything that will follow. 

In the temptation story the devil plays on the importance of Jesus’ identity: Son of God.  It has just been given to him, in the two passages which immediately precede the Temptation story: the baptism of Jesus and his genealogy.  They form a sort of triptych at the beginning of Luke's narrative of Jesus’ ministy: all three focus on Jesus’ identity as Son of God.  At his baptism the voice from heaven says, “You are my beloved Son.”  The genealogy which immediately follows traces Jesus’ human lineage back though all his patriarchal ancestors to “Adam, the son of God”.  In these temptations the devil tests Jesus in what it means to be Son of God.  

The devil picks three particular temptations: food; power over “kingdoms”; risk taking.  Are they perhaps connected to who Jesus is and what he is going to do?

As the devil presents them, the temptations are outrageous, because they depend on who we and the devil know Jesus is: Son of God: bread from stones; total power; safety from foolish and dangerous actions.  Each of these temptations tries to lure Jesus into cashing in on his identity as God’s Son, to get things for himself: resources for himself; power for himself; his own personal exemption from the consequences of his actions.  

In our monastic Bible study yesterday Timothy pointed out how the story of the temptations in Luke ends: the devil will be back: always there will be another time.  But perhaps this is not the first time they have contended.  The devil seems to know Jesus already. 

Maybe this is a drama which has been going on for a long time.  Maybe the theme these temptations portray from Jesus’ human life apply to the relationship of the Word of God to the world the Word has created.  Maybe they represent the ancient struggle between God and what is against God that has been going on since time began.  And what is the theme of that drama? Humility - the love and action of God for the benefit of his creation, for us and for all he has made, which is the power and glory of God.  The devil wants to corrupt that, to turn the power of God away from the love God has for the Other into self-glorification.  

In his ministry Jesus will act in all three categories: resources; power; protection.   Jesus feeds the people in the wilderness; he claims jurisdiction over the kingdom of the demons and proclaims a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God, to replace the kingdoms of this world; and he takes life-threatening risks when he encounters authorities and when, in his proclamation of the new kingdom, promises to displace them.

The difference between what the devil holds up to Jesus and what Jesus actually does is: the place of the self.  The devil urges Jesus to feed his own needs, claim his own power, act outrageously to test his own self preservation.  But Jesus refuses this temptation. 

Instead of acting for himself, Jesus does these things for others: providing what others need; acting with power to overthrow the demonic powers of the world by healing others; putting himself at risk to proclaim a new Way for the world.  As he does so, Jesus shows how the Word of God has acted since the beginning of creation: acting to create and sustain the world.  In this Jesus shows who God is: self-emptying to create a reality that has its own life, loving that life so much that God loves and pours out God’s self in never-ending and always-replenishing love, with abundance without measure.  Jesus shows us the secret of God: self-emptying humility. 

Jesus’ call into the desert to be tempted is a bedrock basis of the life of monks of whatever type.  Is it for ourselves alone that we go apart to come close to God?  Is it for ourselves alone that we arrange our lives as best we can to conform to the love of God?  Is it for ourselves alone that we arrange our hearts to constantly claim that love?  It is not just for ourselves, or rather, we as selves are built up as we follow the example of Jesus: we find ourselves when we act for others first.  That is the humility of Jesus.  He is glorified because he became one of us, because he used what he had to build up a new kingdom centered on God’s immeasurably self-emptying love, because he risked his own life, not recklessly throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple but allowing himself to be lifted up from the earth by others on the instrument of shameful punishment and death, which is now the sign of life.

So monks, and the rest of us too, should be humble, just as Jesus was humble.  In the tradition of the desert fathers and mothers we find this:

Amma Theodora said that neither asceticism, nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save, only true humility can do that.  There was an anchorite who was able to banish the demons; and he asked them, "What makes you go away?  Is it fasting?"  They replied, "We do not eat or drink."  "Is it vigils?"  They replied, "We do not sleep."  "Is it separation from the world?"  "We live in the deserts."  "Then what power sends you away?"  They said, "Nothing can overcome us, but only humility."  Amma Theodora concluded by saying, "Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?"

Humility is what is different in what the devil tempts Jesus with and in what Jesus actually does. How might we follow him into the desert, to find that the devil already knows us?  How might we meet our own temptations to magical, imaginary self-glorification with humility, and in that humility find the victory that lets us look for, find and serve?