Monastic Tradition: October 2008 Archives

Listening to Tradition, Thursday, October 30, 2008


This is the mark of Christianity--however much a man toils, and however many righteousnesses he performs, to feel that he has done nothing, and in fasting to say, "This is not fasting," and in praying, "This is not prayer," and in perseverance at prayer, "I have shown no perseverance; I am only just beginning to practice and to take pains"; and even if he is righteous before God, he should say, "I am not righteous, not I; I do not take pains, but only make a beginning every day." 

St. Macarius the Great 

Listening to Tradition, Thursday, October 16, 2008


From the Desert Fathers


The soul has followed Moses and the cloud, both of these serving as guides for those who would advance in virtue; Moses here represents the commandments of the Law; and the cloud that leads the way, its spiritual meaning. The soul has been purified by crossing the Sea; it has removed from itself and destroyed the enemy army. It has tasted of the waters of Marah, that is, of life deprived of all sinful pleasure; and this at first had seemed bitter and unpleasant to the taste but offered a sensation of sweetness to those who accepted the wood. Next it enjoyed the beauty of the palm trees of the gospel and the springs; it filled itself with the living water, that is, the rock. It took within itself the bread of heaven. It overwhelmed the foreign host - a victory due to the extended arms of the Lawgiver, which thus foreshadowed the mystery of the Cross. Only then can the soul go on to the contemplation of transcendent Being. 

St. Gregory of Nyssa 

Ancient Wisdom and Financial Crisis

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            In the short span of two weeks we have seen a virtual collapse of our financial system unlike any since the "break" of 1929.  The collapse will have all kinds of negative effects, not the least of which is the possibility of putting a lot of people out of work.  I think the collapse is also a sign of a breakdown of our understanding of work itself, at least in terms of the ancient Judeo-Christian meaning of the word.  Thomas Merton, in his book, Life and Holiness, neatly summarizes that understanding:


            Work in a normal, healthy human context, work with a sane and moderate human measure, integrated in a productive social milieu, is by itself capable of contributing much to the spiritual life. But work that is disordered, irrational, unproductive, dominated by the exhausting frenzies and wastefulness of a world-wide struggle for power and wealth, is not necessarily going to make a valid contribution to the spiritual lives of all those engaged in it. Hence it is important to consider the nature of work and its place in the Christian life.


            In light of events over the last few weeks, these words seem especially relevant to our present situation.  It seems clear that in places like Wall Street and at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a lot of the work done has, indeed, been "dominated by the exhausting frenzies and wastefulness of a world-wide struggle for power and wealth . . ." and, therefore, has produced little in the way of a "valid contribution" to either the spiritual or financial lives of those involved, or anyone else, for that matter.  In fact, much of what these people have been up over the last few years has caused, and will continue to cause, a lot of harm to a great number of people who had nothing to do with, much less any say, in any of it.


            Merton's words echo centuries of Christian, especially Benedictine, teaching, there's really nothing new here that hasn't been known, and indeed, generally put into practice up almost to the middle of the 19th century.  I think many people today could benefit reading and pondering what they have to say, but that's unlikely to happen because now it's fashionable to disdain anything resembling ancient wisdom.  This for the very reason that ancient wisdom is old.  It's a predominant attitude today that the past has nothing to teach us, that we're too smart and too far advanced technologically to learn anything from someone like a monk who lived in Italy fifteen hundred years ago; both because he was a monk and because he lived in the 6th century. 


            Still, that simple monk knew a great deal about human nature and, it would probably surprise many people today, about the nature of work and its place in our lives.  For one thing, he knew that to be successful all work should be grounded in prayer: "Every time you begin a good work, you must pray to him most earnestly to bring it to perfection."  I wonder what difference it would have made if everyday, just prior to the opening of the financial markets, executives had paused for a few moments of prayer for Divine guidance for the day's activities.  I wonder what would happen if we all followed that advice?  There might be a new attitude of humility infecting our work places that would have all kinds of positive results, including even making our work more pleasant and productive.  It's counter-intuitive, but certainly might be worth a try now that we know what happens in the absence of prayer.


            Benedict also had keen insight into the qualities that make for a good manager.  For example, Benedict describes the role of the "cellarer" or business manager in the monastery thus:


"As cellarer of the monastery, there should be chosen from the community someone who is wise, mature in conduct, temperate, not an excessive eater, not proud, excitable, offensive, dilatory or wasteful, but God-fearing, and like a father to the whole community."


            How many managers of publicly traded companies could be described in those terms?  How many could be considered "fathers" to their communities?  How many are "not proud" and not "excessive eaters?"  I am reminded of the story of a retired CEO of a major US corporation who had a heart attack and underwent successful by-pass surgery.  He held a press conference some time later and was asked what he had learned from his close brush with death.  His reply?  "I learned never to drink any wine that cost less than $100 per bottle."  Clearly, here is a man who has not has not contributed to his spiritual well being.  Again we might ask what difference it would have made if the qualities Benedict demanded of his cellarer were as highly sought after in today's executives?  Suffice it to say, we might not be in the mess we're in.


            Merton wrote 40 some years ago, after years of study of the Rule and other ancient sources.  From these he learned that work done in a sane, prudent, manner, done not for greed but for the glory of God, benefits not only the one working, but also the community at large, spiritually as well as financially.  Merton learned what is little understood today, that work done in this way becomes a spiritual act.  We've forgotten that lesson, but I'm still tempted to wonder if one benefit that might be realized from the current crisis is a dose of humility sufficient to get us over our chronological arrogance enough to learn from our mistakes.  Answers really are available, if only we are ready to listen. 

Listening to Tradition, Friday October 10, 2008


A Quote from John Cassian


TO which he replied: Good, you have spoken cleverly of the (ultimate) end. But what should be our (immediate) goal or mark, by constantly sticking close to which we can gain our end, you ought first to know. And when we frankly confessed our ignorance, he proceeded: The first thing, as I said, in all the arts and sciences is to have some goal, i.e., a mark for the mind, and constant mental purpose, for unless a man keeps this before him with all diligence and persistence, he will never succeed in arriving at the ultimate aim and the gain which he desires. For, as I said, the farmer who has for his aim to live free from care and with plenty, while his crops are springing has this as his immediate object and goal; viz., to keep his field clear from all brambles, and weeds, and does not fancy that he can otherwise ensure wealth and a peaceful end, unless he first secures by some plan of work and hope that which he is anxious to obtain. The business man too does not lay aside the desire of procuring wares, by means of which he may more profitably amass riches, because he would desire gain to no purpose, unless he chose the road which leads to it: and those men who are anxious to be decorated with the honours of this world, first make up their minds to what duties and conditions they must devote themselves, that in the regular course of hope they may succeed in gaining the honours they desire. And so the end of our way of life is indeed the kingdom of God. But what is the (immediate) goal you must earnestly ask, for if it is not in the same way discovered by us, we shall strive and wear ourselves out to no purpose, because a man who is travelling in a wrong direction, has all the trouble and gets none of the good of his journey. And when we stood gaping at this remark, the old man proceeded: The end of our profession indeed, as I said, is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven: but the immediate aim or goal, is purity of heart, without which no one can gain that end: fixing our gaze then steadily on this goal as if on a definite mark, let us direct our course as straight towards it as possible, and if our thoughts wander somewhat from this, let us revert to our gaze upon it, and check them accurately as by a sure standard, which will always bring back all our efforts to this one mark, and will show at once if our mind has wandered ever so little from the direction marked out for it.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Monastic Tradition category from October 2008.

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