05 Mar A Focused Desire for God
The Christ-focus of Benedictine spirituality is immense. The practice of Benedict’s Rule is to always bring the attention to Christ. This focus is woven into the pattern of each day with periods of worship and study punctuating the daily routines of work, service and self-care. This pattern and focus seek to make life whole, where nothing is seen as profane and everything is seen as holy. Work is as holy as prayer. Prayer is a springboard for finding and honoring Christ in each moment and in every encounter. The Rule states that gardening tools are to be treated with as much reverence and care as the altar vessels.
What a radical message for our castaway culture with its planned obsolescence. We spend our lives working for money to buy stuff that we use unconsciously and throw away once they have run their course. To treat our cars or computers, our stoves or refrigerators as if they were vessels for the sacrament of Communion would strike most of us as strange. How would the quality of our lives change is we brought such care and attention to every part of our day?
It is this hard-to-describe but unmistakable quality of monastic life which has haunted me and sent me on a search for finding it in my own life. I find myself wondering why the church cannot find such a spirit and focus in its own life. It has me on a journey to discover more of a Christ-focus in my life and in the life of the church I serve.
I am reading everything I can on Benedictine spirituality. I am experimenting with my own practices and rhythms to keep my awareness alive to Christ’s presence. Recently, this has meant awakening at 4:30, engaging in what Benedictines call lectio divina, a slow and prayerful reading of Scripture, chanting of Psalms, journaling, and a Christian meditative practice called Centering Prayer. There is something sacred about the quiet and darkness of the early morning. On occasion, I have found that the dreams, with which I awoke, have worked their way into my interaction with Scripture. Before the concerns of the day have awakened and before my practiced identity has set into place, I am more allowing of the subtle and softer communication of the heart to speak to me as I encounter ancient and inspired texts.
I want to explore how our church community, how any church, could radiate with more of this Christ-focused energy of aliveness and compassion. We Presbyterians have a Book of Order, which in many ways, functions like The Rule of Benedict. It sets down core principals which make the life of Christ central to everything. Like Benedict’s Rule, it deals with very mundane yet essential parts of community life. Both The Rule and our Book of Order talk about the necessity of discipline in worshiping communities. Christ is everywhere in our Presbyterian founding documents, but we often forget to see him. Perhaps, more to the point, we have not developed an inner capacity to see. The gift of Benedict and all of our contemplative heritage is not so much in the information conveyed, but in the witness to a heightened spiritual awareness that is available to anyone who is willing to “attend…with the ear of your heart,” as Benedict writes in the prologue of the Rule.
The journey to Christ begins with desire. Appealing to Psalm 34, Benedict asks his readers, “Is there anyone here who yearns for life?” The secret sense that there is something lacking, that there is something more to our movements and strivings, is what opens us to seek changes in our lives to help focus our desire for God. “What…is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us?” asks Benedict. Upon hearing this call through our deep yearning, some are willing to take a new path and to commit to reordering their lives. If there is something missing in contemporary churches in our consumer-driven culture, it is this longing which leads to daily disciplines to focus our desire.
Church life for many of us has become undisciplined. Our lives are over-burdened and chaotic, and there is little energy left over for non-essentials, which from the perspective of our culture includes our spiritual lives. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The disciplines help to keep us focused and return us to center when, inevitably, we get knocked off course. They enable us to enter into the dramas and conflicts which surround us with a depth of presence which leads to more creative and less reactive responses. Because most church members perceive themselves as much too busy for spiritual disciplines, churches do not possess the capacity to create an environment in which a different quality of presence is experienced. Instead of offering a different felt-sense of presence, they end up replicating the unconscious and reactive environments of the culture-at-large. I am convinced that this lack of a qualitatively different experience of a deeper presence is why church in the west has been in decline.
What would happen if churches became centers where people’s deep spiritual hungers were nurtured and guided by the example and knowledge of our ancient monastic and contemplative ancestors? I know that reading about the experience of the early Christian desert monastics from figures like Evagrius, Cassian and Benedict is changing my life. As I try to adopt some of their wisdom and practices in ways that make sense for me, I am finding deeper access to the wells of wisdom and vitality which are always present as we learn to become more present ourselves.
Whether my journey into this ancient, and, I pray future path will lead to renewal for the church I serve I cannot say. Recently, I had a dream in which I was speaking to a group in an outdoor setting. I was reading a poem which was witnessing to the experience of a deeper self, when I noticed that someone was confused and irritated. I went to him to try to explain more clearly. As I spoke, I found that I was losing my voice. Soon it became a whisper. I left him with the thought that not everyone will get what I am trying to say.
One interpretation of the dream is that departing from the usual church script is difficult and that I frequently lose my voice or my courage. Another meaning is that in witnessing to spiritual realities, words might be the least effective tool. It’s the Benedictine quality of energy which I have found most compelling. As I have found throughout my life, spiritual experience suffers in translation. But spiritual hunger can open a door, and spiritual focus can create a new energy which speaks powerfully to human souls.