October 21, 2015

We Are In This Together

Mother Rebecca

Oct 21:  Vs 11-12:  Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.

Some call this chapter a shortened version of Ch 4.  Ch 72 is nine times shorter but has been referred to as a 2nd list of good works.  Ch 4 is in singular; Ch 72 is plural.  Rightly so, we begin with ourselves in Ch 4 but Ch 72 reminds us we go together.  Ch 4 is not complete without Ch 72.  So let us recap these 8 manners of love, or eight maxims.  They are:

vs 4 - anticipate one another in honor
vs5 - patiently endure one another’s infirmities whether of body or of character
vs6 – competing in obedience to one another
vs7 - following not what is considered useful for oneself, but rather what benefits another
vs8 – loving with purity our sisters
vs 9- fearing God in love
vs 10 - loving their abbess with a sincere and humble charity
vs 11 – and preferring nothing whatever to Christ

Fr John Eudes Bamberger wrote:  For St Benedict a monk is a cenobite, in this he differs somewhat from Cassian.  In St Benedict’s mind the community is not just temporary and relative.  It is a reality, good in itself, of absolute and lasting value.  Our fraternal relationships remain in the beatific vision.  John Eudes states, “One is not alone with God.  One can perhaps be so close to God that one feels alone with Him, but this very fact puts us in communion with all who are united to Him.  The tensions between solitude and communion are thus resolved in God.  Tensions remain in this world, but it is resolved in God in a way of transcending the limitations of too individualistic an intimacy and too superficial a communion.”  In the beatific vision we shall enjoy communion, but at a very intimate level which does not destroy differences.  Yet how often in community we subconsciously try to destroy differences by wanting others to conform to our own measures.  But the end result is actually perfect unity and perfect plurality.   With these thoughts of John Eudes, we could say that we can know how close we are to God in reality by how close we feel to our community.
                Marion Larmann studying the Latin word ‘pariter’ (meaning “together”) says this is an extremely important word.  She said older translations completely trivialize it by rendering it “likewise” (“bring us all likewise to everlasting life”).   Benedict envisions eternal life itself as communal.  We do not just use each other as the means to our own salvation as though the communal life is a means to our individualistic goal.  A cenobite is so thoroughly committed to the welfare of the other community members that entering heaven without them would be unimaginable. 
                When I was a novice I remember Dom Bernardo Olivera visited us.  Commenting on this verse, he used the image of all of us sitting on a bench outside of heaven waiting for our Cistercian brothers and sisters to arrive so that we could enter together.  He thought that was beautiful BUT THIS DID NOT APPEAL to me!  I think it is beautiful to greet our future and past Cistercians in heaven but I do not want to wait on a bench outside until they all get there!   This brought me to the question:  Is there anywhere or anyone in Scripture who reflects this mentality…and what does it look like?  What came to mind was Moses pleading with God not to punish his people for having made a molten calf to worship.  Moses boldly tells God “forgive their sins and if not, then strike me out of the book that you have written”!  Wow…What loyalty!  If all his people can’t join him, then Moses won’t go either.  Moses loved his community so much that he could not imagine heaven without them!  What would you say?  If God said only you would be saved in the community – would you intervene and dare to be like Moses saying “Lord, we all come into eternal life or blot me out of the book you have written.”  It is a bold and scary thing to be like Moses!
                There is a story of a monk who felt that it was easier to pray and be in communion with God in solitude and nature - more so than in community and the common life.  Then one winter day the abbot invited the monk to sit with him before the fireplace in silence.  The abbot then took the tongs from the rack and pulled out a single coal from the fire.  He placed the glowing ember on the hearth.  The two watched the coal quickly cease burning and turn to an ashen gray while the other coals in the fire continued to burn brightly.  The monk then understood his error and returned to full community life.
                I think this is what Benedict is driving at – we go together to Christ, not with “an individualistic intimacy” or “a superficial communion”…but united…together.   “All these tension are resolved in God”…and to accomplish this we must, each of us, “prefer nothing whatever to Christ”.

October 12, 2015

Mutual Obedience

 Mother Rebecca

Sept 23:  Vs 5-6:   supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another.”

Last week we spoke about our responsibility for maintaining good zeal through showing respect to others and today we have two more maxims for fostering this fervent love:  “supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another”.   Chapter 26 expounds on how we are to support the sick.  We are to see Christ in those who struggle with illnesses and bodily limitations.  Benedict states that there are responsibilities on both sides.  “The sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ” but adds “Let the sick on their part bear in mind that they are served out of honor for God, and let them not by their excessive demands distress their sisters who serve them.” 
            However, the ways in which we are to support each other in behavioral weaknesses is not listed in one specific chapter but is sprinkled throughout the Rule.  And this is a more difficult precept to practice.  Seeing Christ in the sick is easier than seeing Christ in those who are angry, controlling, lazy, or abrupt.  Yet we are called and challenged to find Christ in these exchanges as well.  Both bodily and behavioral weaknesses entail a need for patience, which means we must cultivate a peaceful, selfless, and generous heart.  None of us are without faults or a certain lack of charity, so we must see our self on both sides of this picture.  When I am rough on the edges I look to my sisters to patiently bear my weaknesses.  In turn, knowing this, I can more patiently carry other peoples’ weaknesses.  Do I recognize my own faults which others must carry?  And how do I bear others weakness of character?
If that isn't hard enough, we are given a second precept of “obedience to one another”.  We are to work at being obedient not only to the abbess and way of life but to each other.  However, how many of us actually “compete” with each other in obedience!  As novices, Mary and I decided one day to compete in charity.  We use to have the practice of washing the abbess’ dishes after supper.  (This is when we ate supper in common after Vespers.)  We waited until we could be in front of the abbess in the dish-washing line and started aggressively fighting over who was going to clean the abbess’ dish – trying to yank the dishes out of each other’s hands.  It was done in humor.  However, there was something to this competition towards charity.  What would community be like if we competed not only in opportunities for charity but also in obedience?   What does “competing in obedience” even look like?  To compete in obedience implies two things:  one is that there are different degrees of obedience and secondly that we should to be vigilant and attentive to these opportunities to let go of our self-will for another.  In these differing degrees I suppose the worst case would be the failure to even recognize a call to obedience…this reflects a blindness. Then there is obedience with reluctance - shown by facial expressions of being put out or done with hesitation or half-hearted…this reflects a blandness.  But there is a perfect obedience in letting go of our self-will and to do so cheerfully and w/o delay…this reflects a blessedness.  If we lived this one precept well, just think of the perfect harmony we would have in community.   So what does your call to obedience look like?  Blind, Bland, or blessed?
            One obstacle to this ‘obedience to service’ is a preoccupation or worry over our own jobs and duties.  We can become so responsible for our charges, that we lose sight of the charity demanded of us by circumstances and other people’s needs.  Responsibility is an important quality but never above that of charity.  What would please God more, another item crossed off our work list or helping each other in charity in the larger scheme of things?  Most of us have more jobs than we can accomplish during candy season and so we have to discern priorities.  Some jobs will have to be done less well during this season. 
But another tendency can be to see work responsibilities as more important than our other monastic duties of prayer and study and holy reading.  So there is a balance that needs to be discerned…a giving of self in patiently bearing with our own and other people’s weaknesses. And as we can see there is a direct tie between this and the call to compete in obedience…not blind or bland but blessed obedience to one another. 

We must pray for each other and be gentle with each other in this delicate balance of love.