Wednesday, April 5, 2006

benedict and esther de waal

I'm working this week on an article about the Benedictine oblate program at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, in which lay people of any denomination who want to live out the Benedictine charism and way of life can attach themselves symbolically to the monastery. It's an interesting topic to me; the spirituality of St. Benedict (who lived in the sixth century and wrote the famous Rule, which now guides Benedictine communities) has appealed to me ever since I first started reading and hearing about it, in much the same way that Celtic spirituality attracts me. It's earthy, not ethereal. There's a sense of hospitality and stability, finding the holiness in everyday things, seeing the face of Christ in others. It just feels real.

While I was reading about the oblate program, I ran across a copy of this speech given by the spiritual writer and historian Esther de Waal, who is Anglican. Her words can be weighty at times, but they always resonate with me. Here are some nuggets:

When I first picked up the Rule [of St. Benedict] one sentence leapt out at me. It was that statement in chapter 31 which discusses the role of the monastic cellarer, what we might call the business manager. Benedict tells us to handle the things of the kitchen, the pantry, the garden, with as much love, reverence and respect as the sacred vessels of the altar.

. . . It is compelling to me that Benedict always speaks in totally practical terms. He gives his teaching in the most practical and down-to-earth way possible. This is one of the reasons I can hear him and find him unthreatening. I have a built-in resistance, which I share with many others, to being presented with ethical demands and moral statements such as the declarations and pronouncements that emanate from the institutional church. However, my reaction is entirely different when profound theological teachings and spiritual insights are given in the context of real-life situations or through portraits of ordinary people. I am ready to listen, to hear and to follow. When Benedict talks to me about handling with care, about reverence and respect for material things, he does it in a way that is immediate and specific, and therefore difficult to evade.

. . . Above all, Benedictine spirituality is a shared, common, corporate spirituality. We have all these good things to share with the whole of God's family. We are partners with God in handling all these good gifts. This isn't an individualistic or isolated spirituality. It's about community life in whatever shape or form that may take. For those of us who are living outside monastic communities, we expect that form to change throughout our lives, involving overlapping circles as we are inserted into a succession of relationships, including relationships with the non-human. Benedict touches a deep and universal truth which traditional peoples know. Time and again in Celtic understanding — and you know it from Native American experience — we see that we are inserted into the whole web of creation. It's important that we stay with this.

And then there is this little passage of hers, which I have kept with me for a number of years, and which has helped ground me at times when I've felt like I'm losing my anchor:


Everyone needs to feel at home, to feel earthed. Without roots we can neither discover where we belong, nor can we grow. Without stability we cannot confront the basic questions of life. Without stability we cannot know our true selves. For we are pulled apart by so many conflicting demands, so many things deserving of our attention, that often it seems as though the center cannot hold.

Simply at the level of working out an acceptable life-style, the choices have now become quite bewildering. Shall I support Mother Teresa in Calcutta or help leprous children in Tanzania? Shall I take up liberation theology or go in for Zen? Shall I work for Save the Children or for battered wives? Shall I become a vegetarian or throw myself into the cause of solar energy? I may well end up flitting from one to the other until I have collected a ragbag for myself of well-intentioned but half-thought-out ideas based on a confused and superficial amalgam of some of the more attractive elements in each. The danger of course is that I too become confused and superficial.

Instead of this bewildering and exhausting rushing from one thing to another, stability means accepting this particular community, this place and these people, this and no other, as the way to God. The man or woman who voluntarily limits himself or herself to one building and a few acres of ground for the rest of life is saying that contentment and fulfilment do not consist in constant change, that true happiness cannot necessarily be found anywhere other than in this time and this place.


liz said...

What beautiful passages. I'm not familiar with that author, but now I'd really like to read more!

Surely you're familiar with this work, but I really love "The Cloister Walk" by Kathleen Norris, a Protestant who has been a Benedictine oblate for many years, and lived at St. John's for (I think) two years. It's an excellent read.

Emilie said...

Oh, I did read that! - and another of her books, shortly after I first moved here and started working at the paper. I interviewed Kathleen Norris once, in her hotel room in downtown Minneapolis, when she was here to give a talk, and it was rather frenetic (but worthwhile). I don't remember what we talked about, exactly, and the article ended up being cut pretty short, but I remember how her stuff was strewn all over her room, and how I wasn't expecting to see this messy, personal side of someone whom I probably had on a pedestal.

liz said...

Wow - what an amazing experience! I take a lot of comfort in knowing that you can be in touch with the holiness of each moment and still strew your clothes around the room. :)

Emilie said...

... and that there's sacredness in the strewing! :)

Ellen said...

The passage of "Stability" moved me. Sometimes the thought of settling down in one place just because that's where God has put me in the present is frightening, because all my life I feel I have been called to travel (and, okay, let's face it, I can't stand Hillsboro, which is the town I work in because that's why I found my first sought-after journalism job). It's funny that modern society allows us to choose our lifestyle — to have faith that we are exactly where God wants us to be, but on our terms none the less! It's funny that God calls some of us to faraway places. But there are others who are rooted. Our parents have lived in the same home for 28 years and anecdotally tell me "we're always here, you know." It's so comforting.