September 2008 Archives

Listening to Tradition, Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Repentance is the renewal of baptism. Repentance is a contract 
with God for a second life. A penitent is a buyer of humility. 
Repentance is constant distrust of bodily comfort. Repentance is 
self-condemning reflection, and carefree self-care. Repentance is 
the daughter of hope and the renunciation of despair. A penitent 
is an undisgraced convict. Repentance is reconciliation with the 
Lord by the practice of good deeds contrary to the sins. 
Repentance is purification of conscience. Repentance is the 
voluntary endurance of all afflictions. A penitent is the 
inflicter of his own punishments. Repentance is a mighty 
persecution of the stomach, and a striking of the soul into 
vigorous awareness. 

St. John Climacus 

Listening to Tradition, Thursday, September 25, 2008


An activity that is based on the frenzies and impulsions of human ambition is a delusion and an obstacle to grace. It gets in the way of God's will, and it creates more problems than it solves.  We must learn to distinguish between the pseudo spirituality of activism and the true vitality and energy of Christian action guided by the Spirit. At the same time we must not create a split in the Christian life by assuming that all activity is somehow dangerous to the spiritual life. The spiritual life is not a life of quiet withdrawal, a hothouse growth of artificial ascetic practices beyond the reach of people living ordinary lives.  It is in the ordinary duties and labors of life that the Christian can and should develop his spiritual union with God


From Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness, pg 8


Listening to Tradition, Tuesday, September 23, 2008


            As I've said a few times, my purpose in posting short poems and quotes from the Desert Fathers without comment is to entice folks not familiar with these things to try them on their own, to delve a bit deeper into works that truly form our Tradition.  I have almost always posted these without comment because, for the most part, they speak for themselves; they have stood the test of time and there is little I can do to improve on them.


            One exception I make is that I am now going to include some bits by a more modern writer whom I am coming to conclude might be deserving of inclusion in this group.  Fr. Hugh Feiss, in his book Essential Monastic Wisdom, gave me the idea because he includes Merton along with such writers as Benedict, Peter of Celle, and many other more ancient writers under the category of "essential" monastic writers.  The choice is surprising, at least to me.


            I have long regarded Merton as an enigma, a monk, a best-selling author, and a man who, I think, may never have been content in either role.  Add to that his seeming infatuation with all things Zen, and I was wondering if, by the end of his life, he had not lost his faith altogether.  So, I went back and began to reread Merton.  The first book I picked up was a late book of his, published in 1963, Life and Holiness.  Here is a quote from the introduction, it is today's Listening to Tradition offering:


"Nothing is here said of such subjects as 'contemplation' or even 'mental prayer.' And yet the book emphasizes what is at once the most common and the most mysterious aspect in the Christian life: grace, the power and the light of God in us, purifying our hearts, transforming us in Christ, making us true sons of God, enabling us to act in the world as his instruments for the good of all men and for his glory."


This is surely the work of a Christian writer.  As far as being an excellent statement of Catholic faith, as taught by the Church, it is right on, Merton has lost sight of nothing of the faith.  So, Merton will be included henceforth in Listening to Tradition.  It is comforting to know that, at least into our own time, if not today, the Tradition of the Church was alive and well, and still being explored and developed. 

Listening to Tradition, Thursday, September 18, 2008


"A poet ought not to pick nature's pocket.  Let him borrow, and so borrow as to repay by the very act of borrowing.  Examine nature accurately, but write from recollection, and trust more to the imagination than to memory."


Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Listening to Tradition, Tuesday, September 16, 2008


When you pray, pray in spirit and mind; enter into your room, close the door, and pray to your father, more with heart than voice, more with faith than singing.



Comments on The Rule



And so we are going to establish
a school for the service of the Lord.
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.
St. Benedict, from the Prologue to the Rule.


            There are any number of good books written to help laymen understand and live the Rule of St. Benedict, most of them written by Protestants, mostly Anglican or Episcopalians. The names of Kathleen Norris, Esther de Wahl and Norveen Vest come quickly to mind.[1]  I enjoy their writing and have learned much from reading them, but I still have a bit of a hard time with this, if only because Benedict is clearly an important part of the heritage of the Catholic Church and I wonder if the Church has lost sight of him.  I'm tempted to do my own book just to help correct the balance, but I'm not the one to do that.  What I can do, is put some notes up here as I read and study and pray over the Rule and, by doing so, perhaps help other Catholics gain some insight into what I believe to be a valuable resource for Christians today.


            Why am I so intrigued by this small document written over fifteen hundred years ago?  Above all, because Benedictine spirituality is grounded in the ordinary.  Benedict didn't believe in running off to a mountain top, or some small fishing village in Mexico to "find oneself."  He would have agreed with Flaubert, "Your Paris is here, or it's nowhere" or the more recent, "Bloom where you're planted."  The Rule presumes that the monk will be humble enough, grounded enough, not to run away but face himself where and as he is.  This is expressed in many ways and I'll try to very briefly discuss three of them below. 


            The first word of the Rule is "listen."  Every time I read the Prologue, this word grabs my attention and won't let go.  Listen to whom, for what?  And here I am sitting in a room with television, radio and an iPod close at hand, it's pretty hard to hear much above the din.  Truth is, if I let them, these things allow me to immerse myself in noise and distraction in order to avoid listening for the most important things, like God's voice or the voice of someone nearby who could be helped if I would stop and listen.  I can choose to isolate myself in my own little world, but Benedict warns against that.  He realizes this will be a struggle, he says we must be prepared for it in the same way we would be prepared for battle, it can be that hard.  Yet, he wants us to make the effort to stop our busy-ness so that we can just stop and listen.  A quote from Fr. Flavian Burns[2], writing about Thomas Merton, describes what I think would concern Benedict the most:


I believe that the writings of Father Louis on prayer and contemplative living give much practical aid and inspiration for improved attentiveness to God applicable to any way of life. If our way of life is too busy or too filled to permit our being a hearer of God's Word, then let's face it: our way of life is too busy and too filled. Not to have room for attention to God is pragmatic unbelief!


Busy-ness is a trap I find myself constantly falling into; following Benedict's way forces me to make time to slow down and listen.  I need to take time to look at the mountain on the drive into work, or watch the rain fall, or take a few minutes for solitude and, another essential for Benedict, prayer.


            For Benedict, prayer is done both in the community and in private prayer.   Private prayer is mostly practiced through lectio, or holy reading, but also constant meditation.  I am attracted to the fact that Benedict doesn't expect his followers to engage in great spiritual exercises, or to have extraordinary mystical experiences.  I have proved to be utterly incapable of such things myself.  What Benedict does ask for with prayer, as with everything else, is moderation.   What he's hoping for is not miracles, but purity of heart achieved over a lifetime of constant prayer.  That may seem to be nothing other than a super-human spiritual exercise, yet it is done simply.  One way is by the constant repetition of a simple prayer or phrase from Scripture, such as the Jesus Prayer.  Thomas Merton describes the effectiveness of this: "The practice of keeping the name of Jesus ever present in the ground of one's being was, for the ancient monks, the secret of the 'control of thoughts,' and of victory over temptation.  It accompanied all the other activities of the monastic life imbuing them with prayer." 


            The communal aspect of prayer is expressed by regular participation in the opus dei, the liturgical hours of prayer in community.  The hours are scattered throughout the day and other activities are dropped immediately to take part in prayer with my wife.  What I can do, is pray the Morning and Evening and frame my day in prayer.  I find this helps keep a great many things in their proper perspective.  It also highlights the third element I find so attractive in Benedictine spirituality, community, or as it's more commonly referred to, stability.


            As I mentioned above, Benedict would not approve of the modern idea of running away to find oneself.  He would say, rightly, that simply changing geographic location does nothing to change who or what we are; we can't run away from ourselves.  Neither can we run away from the situations we find ourselves in everyday; there will always be the difficult co-worker, the impossible task, the incompetent boss.  I find, in my own experience, that there are some people who change jobs constantly.  They seem to think that the grass is always greener in some other situation, and they almost always end up just as unhappy. 


What Benedict asks is that we face up to the underlying causes of these situations.  He would not say that we should stay in an abusive relationship, but with the ordinary difficulties of everyday life, he would ask us to find the solution within ourselves.  He would say we should honestly face up to who we are, here and now, and deal with the problem, here and now.  That is the only way to "find ourselves."  I know that I often feel like I'd rather just not deal with some problem, particularly a difficult relationship, I'd rather leave.  Now I remind myself of Benedict's vow of stability and try my best to deal with whatever the situation is, working within the community in which God has placed me.  It usually works much better.


            What I hope I have described here is simply Benedict's insistence on the ordinary; the listening for God in ordinary, daily events, moderation in the practice of prayer, and building community, "blooming where I am planted," trying to follow God's will in the situations I find myself in every day.  These things are what make a document written centuries ago so relevant to my own life today.


[1]  There are several resources by Catholic authors that I think are especially good.  One is, The Rule of St. Benedict for Beginners, by Will Derkse, and another, Finding Sanctuary, by Abbot Christopher Jamison of Worth Abbey.  A third is How to be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job, by Brother Benet Tdvedten of Blue Cloud Abbey.  Finally, a good general resource on monastic wisdom is Essential Monastic Wisdom, edited by Fr. Hugh Feiss of Assumption Abbey in Jerome, Id.


[2] Fr. Burns, O.C.S.O was the Abbot of Gethsemane Abbey at the time that Thomas Merton went on his final journey to Thailand in 1968.

Freedom the the Blog


On occasion I note on blogs of magazines such as Touchstone's Mere Comments some veiled, negative comments about blogs and blogging, not hostile, just negative, kind of a looking down one's nose at a rather inferior breed.  It's as if publication of ideas is strictly the province of the professional writer.  While I'd be the first to admit that there is much appearing in the blogosphere that doesn't bear thinking about, much less reading, the Daily Kos comes immediately to mind, still, I must protest the right of bloggers to, well, blog.


In the United States, the constitution makes clear the rights of both freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In the past, these rights were expressed by people starting commercial ventures such as newspapers, or perhaps newsletters, with the market sorting out the survivors.  Not all of these were polished, professional productions, but anyone with access to a printing press was free to make his entry into the market of ideas.


Technology has changed the format, and the web has lowered the cost of entry.  The right persists.  Further, the market is still free to sort out the winners and losers.  Professional journalists are not gatekeepers to publication, it seems they should, in fact, be in the forefront of support for the right of bloggers to publish, for better or worse;  if freedom of press is limited in any way, it's limited in every way. 



Hilary (?) Redux



Now that McCain has patently ignored my (only half kidding) advice to pick Hilary, it seems appropriate to offer a few thoughts on the Palin nomination.  In a word: inspired.


            Palin does a number of things that hugely benefit McCain.  There is the standard comment that she solidifies the Republican base, which she does nicely.  But there are other elements to having Palin on the ticket. 


One thing is that it contrasts the kind of person McCain is when compared to Obama(nation).  Obama(nation), if he had any brains, would have selected Hilary and been a lock to win this election.  He didn't, and it looks to me like the only reason for that is he didn't want to risk being upstaged by Hilary, either on the campaign trail or in the White House.  She would have been a huge presence in his administration and I think he couldn't tolerate that; it's all about HIM.  Instead, he chose Biden, a rather dull choice who won't upstage his president.  He's a career senator who has made his living exclusively on the Government dole; he's safe. 


            McCain, though, is strong enough, and humble enough, to make the courageous decison; he doesn't have issues with arrogance and he's willing to break new ground.  He went for a fresh face, someone who has fought corruption, been hugely popular as Governor of Alaska and lived by her principles no matter the cost.  She is, clearly someone who could upstage him, and that doesn't worry him.  It's a good thing, because from the moment she was announced, she upstaged just about everyone.  Between Gustav and Palin, Obama(nation) has nearly dropped out of sight; he's at least temporarily become an after thought.  The real excitement is on the Republican side right now, everyone is talking about it.


            Not only has McCain created excitement, he's neutralized the Biden pick. Biden was most likely selected to be the attack dog against the Republican VP nominee, whether Mitt Romney to the Minnesota governor, or who ever.  But it's harder for Biden to really go after Palin; he risks looking "mean-spirited" if he is really nasty to her.  That could backfire mightily.  With this pick, McCain has probably neutralized much of Biden's potential effectiveness on the campaign trail. 


            On the experience issue, Sarah Palin has more executive experience than Barack Hussein Obama(nation), Joe Biden, and for that matter, John McCain put together.  She has been in charge of the geographically largest state in the nation, and, actually commanded the military units that comprise the Alaska National Guard.  She has attacked corruption and over-turned an extremely powerful, well entrenched, and somewhat corrupt establishment to clean house in Alaska.  She sold the damned governor's plane on eBay for gosh sakes.  She's also managed to be a devoted mother, one who welcomes new life when it comes.  What a record.


            Obama(nation), by contrast, has never run so much as an Amway business, and has worked in close association with a thoroughly corrupt Chicago political machine to further his own career.  He has associated extensively with known and unrepentant, terrorists, and attended, for 20 some years, a black liberationist church with a pastor that advocated the most exteme forms of racism.  All of this without protest, indeed, as he would have us believe without much idea of who his associates were or what they were up to.    What a record, and nothing much to brag about.


            As to the attacks on Palin for her 17 year old daughter becoming pregnant or her husband have a 20 year old DUI on his record - give me a break!  If that's the worst the democrats can do, it simply shows how good a pick this was and how desperate they are to defeat her. 


            I think McCain made a fine choice in nominating Sarah Palin to be Vice-President of the United States.

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