Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
RCL - Feast of St. Benedict - July 11, 2010
St. Benedict's Window, Holy Cross Monastery
Originally Uploaded by Br. Randy Greve, OHC
O God, in the course of this busy life, give us times of refreshment and peace; and grant that we may so use our leisure to rebuild our bodies and renew our minds, that our spirits may be opened to the goodness of your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I am just back from a week's vacation on Cape Cod, and here I am preaching on the feast of our Holy Father St. Benedict. What would St. Benedict have made of a monk going away for a week's vacation? My guess is that he would not have approved.
Benedict in his Rule for monasteries is deeply suspicious of and concerned about a monk's absence from the monastery for any reason whatsoever. Chapter 50 of the Holy Rule cautions those working at a distance or traveling to be careful not to omit the prescribed prayers. Chapter 51 admonishes the monk sent on a errand not to presume to eat outside the monastery “even if he receives a pressing invitation.” And Chapter 67 tells us: “Brothers sent on a journey will ask the abbot and community to pray for them....When they get back from a journey, they should, on the very day of their return, lie face down on the floor of the oratory at the conclusion of each of the customary hours of the Work of God. They ask the prayers of all for their faults, in case they may have been caught off guard on the way by seeing some evil thing or hearing some idle talk.” Moreover: “No one should presume to relate to anyone else what he saw or heard outside the monastery, because that causes the greatest harm.”
It all sounds somewhat exaggerated, even a bit pathological, to our ears, doesn't it?
But the fact is that travel was and is inevitable and common....even in 6th c. Italy...even among monks. So it was no accident that Benedict devoted whole chapters of his Rule to the proper reception of guests and of visiting monks. And he carefully provided rather detailed practical directives for his own monks who were setting out on a journey, including the provision of decent traveling clothes and clean underwear! Benedict would not have written about these if they were not a recurring part of his life and world, just as they are of ours.
Living in the very late ancient world, Benedict was of course keenly aware of the dangers of travel. There were the usual physical dangers: sickness, accident, theft, murder. And there were spiritual dangers as well. What if the monk became fascinated by the transient, the spectacular, and the glitzy or became obsessed with the different, the new, the exotic? What if he were tempted by a way of life that seemed more interesting, more rewarding, or more fun or was distracted from the monastic way of life or the Christian way of being?
I believe Benedict would, if pushed, acknowledge that edification and holy wonder were possible and available on the road, on the way. But for him the costs of travel outweighed the benefits. And yet there are at least two positive emphases in his Rule that are worth noting in with regard to travel.
The first has to do with Benedict's emphasis on stability, his advice to “Stay put!” This is an important reminder for the monk that it is in the enclosure of the monastery that the primary work of growth in Christian holiness occurs, that it is there that we are pushed up against our own weaknesses and foibles and our habitual patterns of evading God, ourselves and others. The monastery is, in this regard, a “school of the Lord's service” and sometimes it is a very hard school.
In his 2003 Trinity Institute address on Shaping Holy Lives, Archbishop Rowan Williams quoted Professor Henry Mayr-Harting to the effect that Benedictine holiness is “completely undemonstrative, deeply conventual, and lacking any system of expertise.” When I first read this, I was certain there was a typo. He must surely have meant to say “deeply conventional.” But no...he did mean conventual, as in “convent.” Williams continues: “...the holiness envisaged by the Rule is entirely inseparable from the common life [i.e., life together]....One of the things we have to grow into unselfconsciousness about is the steady environment of others.”
All too often we use our journeys, our vacations, our sabbath times, our days off or our time outs as escapes into fantasy and particularly into what the Desert tradition called logismoi (thoughts), those chains of fantasies that feed on themselves and remove us from the present moment, from the now. They lead not to reality but to an avoidance of the hard, ongoing and transformative work of being present, of being together, of being where God has called us and where our choices have lead us right now.
One of the fruits of the monastic value of stability, of staying put—whether in a monastery or parish or marriage or committed relationship or job—is learning about and learning to endure, learning to honor and maybe even learning to celebrate what Williams calls the otherness of the other, the sheer presence of another human being in all his or her mystery and difference and wonder.
One hopes, of course, that there is some mutuality in this, and that the daily living together of ordinary life with the same cast of characters over time can serve as a real school of self knowledge and of charity, of forgiveness and of mutual love. That's not always the case, of course. But when it happens the results can be astounding. It's a slow process, to be sure, and mostly undramatic, but it can be radically transformative. It is our road to holiness.
A second emphasis in the Rule is its implication that a monastic life well lived, well shaped, is itself so balanced that one would neither need nor want an escape. Days off? Not necessary. The round of feasts and fasts and ordinary days with their differing schedules and obligations would ideally provide for pauses that refresh and changes that restore. Retreat days? Vacations? Again, not needed. The quality and nature of the daily rhythm of prayer and study and work ought to offer rich enough fare for anyone. If the life is being lived well and is being lived fully and faithfully, there would be a gracious menu of busy days as well as days blessed with ample time for study and reflection and creative dreaming, days of hard labor balanced by days of gentle rest.
It's a lovely ideal, isn't it? But the truth is that no place, no monastery that I know of, lives up to the ideal. Even the most observant or isolated of “convents” has seem fit to make some adjustment to modernity and reality: a weekly sleep in day or late morning, a free afternoon, annual periods of communal study or refreshment, family visits, the ever-popular pilgrimage, sabbaticals and yes, even vacation weeks on Cape Cod.
The truth is that we all live in a world largely unimagined by St. Benedict. A world of 24 hour news and constant availability, of increasing work demands for those who have employment and grinding boredom and social opprobrium or poverty for many who don't. A world of information overload and of complex relationship webs, many virtual or electronic, extending far beyond six degrees of separation. A world of long lives and short fuses and of ever increasing demands and concerns, global and local and personal, that drive us to the edge of exhaustion.
And what, if anything, does Benedict and the Benedictine tradition have to offer us in the face of this reality? Certainly a caveat that we not turn our vacation time, our “free” time, into an escape from our real selves and into some fantasy that we mistake for reality. And if we are doing this repeatedly, an invitation to ask ourselves why: What is it we are running away from? As Sr. Joan Chittister says in her commentary on the Rule: “What life demands from us us the single-minded search for God, not a series of vacations from our best selves.”
Even richer, however, the Benedictine tradition offers us the concept of vacare Deo, of holy leisure, of of making an empty space for God. A monk of Pluscarden Abbey wrote some years ago that:
“The Latin phrase “vacare Deo” is hard to translate exactly in English. It has all the connotations of being vacant or empty, being at leisure, being free or unoccupied, being on holiday for God..... [And] it is astonishing how seriously St Benedict takes his monk's need for “holy leisure”. It forms an integral part of the balanced life he draws up. He assumes the necessity, daily, for several hours of silent time, without pressure, without external activity, without discernible results. And he assigns for this some of the best hours of the day, when minds will be fully awake and able to give of their best..”
I'd wager that few of us, monastics or not, are willing or able to claim such blocks of open time. We are, in fact, driven by work or our lack of it in all it permutations. Yet what Benedict offers us here is the exact opposite of work and (paradoxically) its deepest complement:
“St. Benedict is responding here not just to the demands of high Christian perfection, but to a basic human need. Aristotle rightly taught, centuries before Christ, that we work in order the we might have leisure. By this he meant that work...is never an end itself: it is never self-justifying. But leisure, holy leisure in the sense of contemplative openness to ultimate reality, is.”
We celebrate today a great man, a saint, a guide, a teacher, a fellow Christian. Perhaps the best way to honor him and to draw nearer to Christ with him this season is to learn to claim and embrace our holy leisure and to embrace it in a way that is not a flight from reality but are rather a dynamic exercise in loving curiosity and appreciative inquiry, gazing on our lives and our world for what they in fact are: the kingdom of God unfolding in our midst.
Grant, Lord, that we may so use our leisure...that we may be opened, again and again, to the goodness and wonder of your creation in us and around us and for us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.