January 28, 2015

Commentary on the Rule of Benedict

Mother Rebecca Stramoski
January 28, 2015

Vs 42-44:  If we wish to reach eternal life, even as we avoid the torments of hell, then – while there is still time, while we are in this body and have time to accomplish all these things by the light of life – we must run and do now what will profit us forever.
            Earlier we spoke about finding heaven on earth, but it appears we can also find hell too!   John Milton in Paradise Lost said, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven out of hell or a hell out of heaven.”  Our thoughts are the main builders of the environment we live in.  Imagine if we lived in a house with a lot of small children who were constantly running around, out of control, and unable to be disciplined.  (In other words, not like little Aimee!)  That house would be an unhappy and stressful place to live…maybe even unbearable over the long haul.  The same can be said of our minds.  If our inner thoughts are allowed to run around uncontrolled, w/o discipline, it would be a hell and a torment.  This is why nepsis is held as an essential practice for anyone on the spiritual path or who desires virtue. Our dominant thoughts will be expressed in our life, actions, and faces.  If my thoughts are on heavenly or godly things, I will be joyful and gracious, positive and hopeful.  Everything in life will seem a gift!   If my thoughts are often critical and judging, I will be harsh and arrogant in my behavior and negative in my outlook.  There is a slogan:  “Change your thoughts and you change your world”.  (Norman Vincent Peale)  Milton reminds us that nepsis, or guarding the mind, is the key builder that determines the kind of house we live in.
            Kenneth Leong in his book, The Zen Teaching of Jesus, defined hell as “an outcome of unawareness”.  In the parable of the ten wise and foolish virgins, Leong says the oil is a common symbol for mindfulness.  Many people miss the opportunity for enlightenment, or seeing Jesus’ presence, because they are not alert.  They are sleepy.  This is why we see St Benedict urgently reminding us again to RUN and do NOW what will profit us forever.  How often we have seen in the Prologue Benedict tell us WAKE UP!  Leong goes on to say, those who failed to share in “the great wedding banquet” were ordinary people who simply were too busy with their life - not mindful of the real invitation at hand.  He says hell is not a consequence of a crime - as the parable of the ten virgins show.  The only “sin” was that the foolish ones lacked attention to details, forgetting to bring oil.  He cautions us, “How tragic it is to miss out on the joy of heaven here and now simply because of absent-mindedness or a misplaced sense of priorities.”  So Leong says mindfulness, or guarding the heart, is a key builder that determines what we will create.
            Ronald Rolheiser asks a great question: How do we know if we are tasting hell or experiencing birth pangs?  He answers it with further questions for our own examin:  Do our frustrations unleash what's worst in us or do they cauterize our worst sins and teach us a humility that cannot otherwise be learned? {Do the hardships of} love demand more distance from others or {bring us closer}?  Does passion turn love into idolatry, or does it reveal its divine fire?
            So now let us go back to St Benedict.  He says if we want to reach eternal life, find the happiness of heaven, and avoid the torments of hell, it is to be accomplished “by the light of life”.  What else is this Light but Jesus Christ?    It is through the oil of mindfulness that the lamp is lit.  This light will not only enlighten our darkened mind but lighten our heavy hearts.  This “Light of Life” is the spark of divine love that causes our oil to burn.  We are the still, silent wick immersed in this oil. We can hold the flame because we have guarded our minds and hearts.   We can choose to be the small ‘wick’ carrying the great flame or to be (excuse the pun) simply ‘wick-ed’.  We are to choose life or death…and thus choose heaven or hell!   Let us encourage each other to run together and reach eternal life, that Light of Life.  Let Christ set fire to your mind and to your heart…all we need to do is remember the oil!!...and be the wick that carries this Great Flame.

January 18, 2015

Our True Vocation in Life

Mother Rebecca
 January 18, 2015
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time 

  In the Prologue of our Rule, St Benedict tells us that it is the Lord who seeks us and calls us to our    monastic vocation.   Benedict has all the action and emphasis on Christ, which wakes us up to the fact that our call is a precious gift given to us.   In verse 14, “The Lord calls out to us and lifts his voice      again: Is there anyone here who longs for life…”  And also in vs 19, “what is more delightful than      this voice of the Lord calling to us?”                                                                                                        
            We tend to think of our “call” as those few, but major, vocational choices in life – the big         things like becoming a nun, getting married, or pursuing a career.  But “the call” in today’s readings    tell us something different.  Samuel’s call from the Lord was simply…to listen!  Andrew’s call was to “come and see”.   Samuel’s call from God was not “Samuel, be a judge for Israel” or “Your vocation   is to be a prophet”.  Rather, through fidelity to this one action of listening, all these other things           would unfold.   If he had not been faithful to this call to listen, he never would have become a judge    or prophet.  These were secondary and contingent on that initial call…his first and foremost task was  to listen.  He did turn out to be the last judge for Israel and a prophet, but what made him great was     his unwavering obedience and his loyalty to God.  Samuel never let what other people thought of him sway him from what he heard God speak.  In his daily life Samuel spoke what God spoke.                  

            Then we have Andrew’s call to “come and see”.  He followed and found where Jesus dwelt,     and from that moment on he spent the rest of his life “staying” with Jesus…and “remaining” in            Jesus.   For we learn through Andrew’s example that if we want to know the mind of Christ, we need  to stay close to His Heart.  Everything in Samuel and Andrew’s daily life was based on this initial       call:  to listen, to see, and to remain.                                                                                                         

            Jesus had a call as well, and it too, was simply to listen…to listen to His Father.  Jesus will tell his disciples near the end of his earthly life:  Everything I told you I heard from my Father.”  (Jn 15:15)  His call was made up of dwelling and remaining in the Father:  “I have kept my Father’s                     commandments and remain in His love” and he asks us to do the same. (Jn 15:10)                                    

            So again, this is not a one-time choice but a daily living.  Our daily lectio helps to foster in us a listening heart.  Our whole life is one of remaining in Jesus and seeing Him everywhere in our daily life.  We are called to choir seven times a day in order to bring us continuously back to this “dwelling in Him”.  When we are faithful to this call, we help others to be called to this listening, seeing, and     remaining in Christ…not by preaching but by our daily actions, example, and prayer…for love’s         energy always ripples outward.                                                                                                                

            So all of us have the same call no matter what we are doing.  If we are a nun or married or a    waitress – our call is still to listen to Christ, to see and find Christ, and to remain in Him.  But I think to answer this call we need to have three important qualities.  We need to live this call as best we can, with much love, and with gratitude.   For us, it is a call to live our monastic life with focused               discipline and attentiveness that carries with it a cheerful disposition.  God loves a cheerful giver.  It    also requires that we put love into everything…and to always be thankful.                                            

--So am I making a cheerful effort to live the common life as the community requests?                        

--Do I show love through gentle actions and polite words?  Am I approachable? Available?                 

--And, am I grateful for my monastic call? For my life as it is?  It is good to remember that it is not     joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.  So we need to cultivate this sense of     graciousness if we want to be joyful, loving, and life-giving.  What do I convey in my daily life?        

            But let us shift our focus now and look in Scripture where a calling went terribly bad!  God      called out to Adam, “Where are you?”   But Adam did not want to listen to God’s voice, or to see        Him, and so he hid in the garden!  Adam listened, not to God’s voice, but to the serpent’s.  This one    act of hiding violated all three callings:  to listen, to see, and to remain in God.  But this calling of       God to Adam, the father of the human race, is a universal one.  All humanity is asked this question.    And note that it is God who takes the initiative to seek Adam.  The Lord calls out,  “Where are you?” as if to say “I want to be with you!  I want to remain with you!”   Charles Vaughan, talking about        Adam’s call said, “’Where are you’ is a call, first, to attention.  It is as though God had said, “Listen   to Me”.   That is the first step in all religion.  What we want first is a spirit of attention.”  (end quote)       

            But God is not asking, where are you physically - as in a place in the garden (or the                 monastery) - but where are you within?  Where is your heart?  Where is your mind?  Where is your    attention?   For we know it is possible to sit before God’s Presence and still be like Adam - hiding!     To pray is to be vulnerable enough to open our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts to whatever God wants    to speak to us this day.  In prayer we come and see, we listen, and we remain with Christ.  Those         same qualities about our call can be applied also to our life of prayer.  When listening in prayer do I    have focused discipline (or at least try the best I can)?  Do I “come and see” with a loving heart that    is available and approachable?  When in prayer do I remain in Him with a thankfulness that creates     joy within me?  Where does my prayer leave me?!                                                                                  

            So today, like Samuel, let us sit in prayer and listen to God calling out our name…what do       you hear? And how will you respond?  Like Andrew, let us see Jesus in our prayer asking us “what     are you looking for?”…What will be your response?  Let us always try our best to be attentive to this invitation from the Lord, for as Benedict says, “What could be more delightful than the voice of the    Lord calling to us”!                                                                                                                                   

1 Sam 3:3-10,19 and Jn 1:35-42

January 14, 2015

On Obedience

Commentary on the Prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict
Mother Rebecca Stramoski
January 14, 2015

RB vs 40:  We must, then, prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his instructions.

            Obedience is not only in the heart, it must be witnessed in the body – obedience, in other words, must be manifested both inwardly and outwardly to be authentic.  We can fool ourselves in thinking our heart is obedient yet we are still slaves to our bodily desires.  Or we can think we are obedient because we outwardly do the motions, but have resentment or criticism in the heart.  Benedict says ‘no’…there must be interior and exterior unity in holy obedience. 
            But we can take courage from the great saints, for even they had to battle with holy obedience.  St Paul said “I do what I do not want to do and don’t do the things I want to do” - a perfect description of a heart and body that are not united!  St Peter, in fear of being arrested, told a little girl at the fire “I don’t even know who Jesus is”!  As his mouth spoke, his heart must have broken – again there is this disunity of heart and body.   Yet who could deny that these people were full of God and wanted what God willed, yet their battle was intense and long lasting.
            Even Jesus had battles with obedience to the Father’s will.  In the desert for 40 days, He had to fight temptations, the first was of bodily hunger and the others were of the heart.  He conquered them by leaning on the words of Scripture.  Jesus also struggled with obedience in the garden of Gethsemane, fearful of the events to come.  To the point of sweating blood, He begged:  Please let this cup pass from me!  But your will, Father, be done. 
             We are told St Benedict, against his own heart’s desires, left the hermit life to become abbot of Vicovaro – this was not without interior struggle.  At another point we hear that St Benedict struggled with his bodily desires of lust and threw himself into a thorny bush.  We see that Benedict is telling us from personal experience to “prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience.”
            How do I respond to requests made of me that I don’t want to do?  Am I too busy, or do I too easily say “I can’t”, or as we spoke of last week, seek a second opinion?  Or do I let go of my own will and my time so as to do for another?   When am I too busy to be charitable or to love?!!  When did Jesus say “I can’t” and just quit answering other people’s needs?  Jesus asked us to follow His example and be obedient until death; not obedient until tired!  Is our obedience encompassing sacrificial love as Jesus showed and Benedict demands?
            But let us take courage from Peter and Paul who failed in their efforts many times.  However, we need to follow their example in their failings as well.  They acknowledged their fight, and sometimes defeat, but got right back on the straight and narrow road.  They used scripture to keep them focused, they knew they were loved, and they trusted with utter confidence is Christ’s unending mercy.   
            Warren Wiersbe says when we find ourselves in a difficult situation, most of us pray, “Father, get me out of this!”  If nothing happens immediately, then we prayer “Father, when will you get out of this?”  But what we ought to be praying is “Father, what should I get out of this?”  One of the purposes of struggles is that it reveals to us who we truly are and want to become.  We don’t want to be comfortable; we want to be conformable!  Our true desire and God’s, is that we “be conformed to the image of His Son”.  (Rom 8:29)   We may get tired in our battles but we should never grow tired of receiving them.  They are our teacher.  They give us grace and virtue.
            Wiersbe went on to say, enlarged troubles can produce enlarged saints – giants!  He says “can produce” because troubles don’t automatically produce giants.  Some Christians go through the furnace and the fight and come out midgets.  To be small in our outlook and small in our faith will make us small in our ministry.   King Saul and King David illustrate these opposite effects of trial.  Saul was a big man physically but was a midget spiritually – and his experiences in battle only made him smaller.  David while still a boy was already a spiritual giant – while physically little he could slay Goliath.  The difference was that David trusted God and knew God’s merciful love in his life. 
            Our tendency in the furnace and in the fight is to constantly check the thermostat…and the clock.  When doing this we focus on our self rather than God and His holy teachings.  We all must go through the battle of obedience in life and we must expect to be defeated at times.  Accepting this fact will make us masters rather than slaves of our circumstances. 
            Benedict is telling each of us that we are all capable of being spiritual giants – like St Peter, Paul, Benedict, and David – but it only comes through the battle of holy obedience.   So let us put on the armor for this battle which is our intimate and dynamic relationship with Christ, a trust in Love, a confidence in Mercy, and the Word of God always close to our hearts.

January 4, 2015


 Epiphany Chapter Talk
M. Rebecca

I remember Sr Kathy sharing a card she got for Christmas many years ago.  It stuck with me because it was funny but also because it had a message.   On the card were the 3 kings standing in a general store and the entire shelves were empty except one barrel over by the cashier filled with bags of myrrh on sale!  One king says to the other “I told you you should have shopped for your gift earlier”!!...So one king brought gold, another frankincense, and now we know why the third brought myrrh!   
            We heard repeatedly this past Season that Advent was a time for preparing.  So how and what did I prepare for the Lord this Advent?  This is what we lay before Him today!  Hopefully we were not like that procrastinating king who was left standing in front of a barrel of “discounted” myrrh.  Or like those five foolish virgins in Matthew’s gospel who were out shopping for lamp oil when the Lord came! 
            So back to the question:  what have I prepared or what have I been preparing?  St Benedict says our life should be a continuous Lent but we have also heard that our life should be a continuous Advent.  Our whole monastic life is one of preparing – and the only thing we can prepare is our self.  The only gift we can give our Creator is our life.  As monks, this is our sole preoccupation. 
            According to St Benedict, there are three criteria for cenobitic monks:  we live under a Rule and an abbess and in a community.  As Cistercians, these are the three ways in which we give our self to God.   We give our self to God under a Rule in which we live a life of on-going conversion.  We give our self to God under an abbess, representing Christ, in a life of obedience.   We give our self to God in community in a life of stability - remaining steady in love and service to our sister in this abbey.  These are three gifts each of us bring to Our Savior today…our renewed vows to Him.
            Matthew Kelty said in one of his homilies:  “I find it no problem at all that God Himself is quite capable of something as beautiful as the song of angels and wise men from the east guided by a star…As a monk I’m involved with things like cloister and abbot and a Rule of life…Celibacy and obedience, cowls and candles, refectory and chapter room, bells and incense.  Most of which mean little to many people.  To me it is all very beautiful.  To be involved in it is pure gift.  And it is a witness to the beauty of God and so is a boon to our neighbors and our world…because all of it speaks of God as much, or more, than stars do {or the singing of angels}.  It is all a witness to beauty and a solace to all whom it touches. It is a sharing of the Incarnation - a journey with the Magi.”   
            I think what Matthew Kelty is saying was represented in our Christmas card this year.  That guiding star stopped here…right over our abbey – and Mary and Joseph were coming to give birth to Jesus in our midst and to dwell with us that we might dwell in Him.  Our monastery is where we offer worship, where we prepare for the Lord’s coming, where we live under a Rule and abbess in community, where we offer our vows on the altar.  In other words, it is not only where, but it is how we offer ourselves to God.
            Evelyn Underhill asked “How large of a space is needed to contain the fullness of God?...the fullness of divinity?  The whole cosmos?...rather Christmas Day we are told it can fit into a tiny baby!”  Because the Infinite is contained in this infant, something infinite is contained in me!         Our Creator manifests Himself by fitting into a baby, but He also manifests Himself in a star, a song, a candle’s light, and in each of my sisters.  We worship Him by loving the beauty in all things that surround us and speaks of God.  This is what Matthew Kelty’s litany was for him.
            Evelyn Underhill said in one of her Christmas reflections:  “Adoration widens our horizons – it drowns our limited interest into the Divine Reality and redeems the spiritual life from all pettiness.”  Adoration widens our vision – it gives richness, meaning and depth to every aspect of our nitty-gritty life.  When adoration encompasses our whole life and stance, we can chant psalms or even wash dishes, to the greater glory of God!  Br Lawrence found God closest in the shoe shop and St Teresa found God among the pots and pans.  We too will find Him everywhere...IF our hearts adore!
            Evelyn says this Season – and I would add, our whole life - is one of Adoration, Adherence, and Attraction to God.  This “Adoration” reflects our vow of conversion.  Adoration widens and alters our vision to see things differently and anew - constantly turning back our wandering eyes towards Christ in order to adore God in all things.  “Adherence” reflects our vow of obedience.  By persevering in our monastic life and its demands, we can be assured that we are living God’s will for us as monks.  This brings meaning into all our actions and gives us the capacity to become an epiphany – a revelation of God’s love and mercy in our world.  And then there is “Attraction” which reflects our vow of stability.  We cannot stay connected or devoted in the long run to anyone or anything that does not attract us.  We want to be faithful because of love - to aspire to be what we admire. 
            So the magi remind us to prepare.   But they also challenge us to recognize Christ in our cloister, community, choir - to find Him everywhere.  Let us not, at the end of our journey, come to Him with bare shelves in the market place but let us each day create something beautiful for God with our lives.  Let us renew our vows this day and offer to our King the gift of our lives - in adoration, adherence, and attraction that never ceases.  When we do this, we will not only see God manifested everywhere, but we ourselves will be a manifestation of God in our midst!