31 Jul Spiritual Athletes?
For the past three months, I’ve been trying to be more intentional about creating a rhythm of life, inspired by the Benedictine pattern of ora et labora, prayer and work. I’ve been reading from a contemporary Benedictine, Joan Chittister, who writes beautifully about the relevance of the Benedictine path. Also, I have been reading from John Cassian, who detailed the wisdom of the earliest Christian monastics from Egypt, Syria and Palestine and brought their inspiration to Europe, so that people like Benedict could learn from and pass on what these dedicated spiritual athletes had to offer to those whose hearts had been infected with a deep hunger for God. As I read from these great souls, I am also trying to create my own Benedictine balance which sees all of life as holy and everything as worthy of our attention and best effort.
There are times, when passages from Benedict’s Rule or Cassian’s Conferences with the desert monastics seem severe and extreme to my modern ears. Chittister’s interpretations of Benedict have helped me to get beyond my initial reactions and to see the gifts and the wisdom of his Rule. Cassian’s recounting of the discipline and insights of those who lived in the desert in order to give themselves completely to obedience and service of God, has humbled and moved me. I am beginning to look at my own path differently. I am seeing how addicted to comfort I am, how easily and frequently I fall asleep to Spirit, and how resistant I am to challenge and discomfort, which are necessary for growth.
Part of my practice is to journal frequently about my efforts to establish a new rhythm, to observe how I get stuck and reactive, and how I seek to bail out from the demands of being awake. There are all of my patterns of avoidance of the work of being truly present to life, and my reluctance to take on life’s suffering, consciously. What is most surprising to me is, as I begin to pay more attention to my ingrained patterns of coping with life, I am finding it easier to forgive myself for my humanness. In fact, my impression is that God is not impatient with me at all, and is rather pleased to find me making whatever efforts I make. The more aware of my shortcomings I become, the more I experience God’s grace and acceptance. It seems that God really does understand our human condition.
Chittister points out how Benedict was not interested in creating a school of spiritual athletes, if in striving for such a goal, what would be produced were people of inordinate spiritual pride. Benedict’s goal was more ordinary–humility, community, accountability, trust, discipline and a life well lived. He sought a balance between not too much severity of effort or denial, on the one hand, and, of course, the avoidance of self-indulgence and sloth, on the other. It’s the fine line of balance which is so difficult to find and maintain. And for Benedict, this fine line depends upon finding a balance between being alone and being in community.
In one chapter of Benedict’s Rule, there is the instruction that if one breaks or loses something while working in the kitchen or garden or while making a craft, or by failing in some way, that the sister or brother must come before the prioress or abbot and the community, admit their fault, and make satisfaction. Such an ordinary rule, yet so essential to maintaining community health. In commenting on this chapter in The Rule, Chittister observes how much our modern world suffers from a lack of this practice of accountability. Accountability, Benedictine style, is not about humiliation of one another. It’s not the finger-wagging spectacle of shaming which gets played out in our culture when some public figure gets caught in some questionable behavior. Rather, it’s about acknowledging that all of us bear responsibility for our world and our communities, and that, any shortcuts, deceptions, lack of compassion, or selfishness on anyone’s part will undermine the creation of a just and life nurturing community for us all.
Reading and meditating on these spiritual ancestors of ours, illumines how averse to challenging inner work we have become. Churches have stopped teaching this fundamental spiritual practice and, instead, have become imitators of the surrounding culture, promising quick fixes, entertaining the ego, and keeping the ego firmly entrenched. The demand for daily inner work which these ancestors practiced gave them the hope of being able to show up in the world with a capacity for true love and service. In comparison, our refusal of the daily practice of interior battle with the self, has guaranteed that we will do battle daily in the world outside of us, as our untamed self will be unleashed in combustible reactivity with other untamed selves, each self refusing to take accountability for its failings, while demanding punishment and rejection of the other.
The reason for a commitment to spiritual practice is to interrupt the spiral of division and impasse in our world. We desperately need to recover the spiritual wisdom and practices of our ancestors whose relevance has never been greater. I am grateful for my conferences with these long dead, but very present teachers, human and Spirit filled.