October 2008 Archives

Listening to Tradition, Halloween Edition, October 31, 2008






The old house leans upon a tree

   Like some old man upon a staff;

The night wind in its ancient porch

   Sounds like a hollow laugh.


The heaven is wrapped in flying clouds,

   As grandeur cloaks itself in gray:

The starlight flitting in and out,

   Glints like a lanthorn ray.


The dark is full of whispers.  Now

   A fox-hound howls: and through the night,

Like some old ghost from out of its grave,

   The moon comes, misty white.


                             Madison Cawein


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, Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Reading is bound to silence. . .. Constant and attentive reading done devoutly purifies our inner self.

Peter of Celle

The School of the Cloister

Short Takes

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Asus Eee

I purchased an Asus Eee "netbook" computer for personal use. The few of you who have been steady readers over the years know that I have used a Dana Palm type device for a long time. I liked it because it was light and relatively simple to use. Alas, as time has gone on, the Dana's biggest weakness, the rather small, dimly lit screen, became an insurmountable problem - the old eye just couldn't handle it anymore. I looked at several of these mini-laptops, even going so far as to order the Dell Mini-9, which Dell seemed unable to deliver, even after nearly a month of waiting. When it became obvious that the Dell wasn't coming any time soon, I checked out Amazon.com, read several reviews, and decided on the Asus Eee 1000.

The Asus meets the Dell in terms of size and weight, comes with a real 160g hard drive, built in camera, lacking on the Mini-9, Bluetooth capability, and came with Open Office pre-installed, It was ready to go right out of the box. Best of all, costs over $100 less than the Dell. With its bright, clear, color screen, it seems a suitable replacement for the Dana. About the only negative is that the right shift key is very small, the size of a normal keyboard key, and a bit awkwardly placed, but I should get used to that quickly enough.

Inclusive Language

I've started on a book by Norveen Vest called Preferring Christ, which is a commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict. It has two strikes against it. First, the format of the book. It presents a short section of the Rule, followed by a "Commentary" section, then a "Reflection" section. The idea is to encourage the reader to read through the Rule as lectio. The problem is, when I read Scripture, or the Rule as lectio, I'm stubborn enough, and old fashioned enough, to want to do the meditation myself, without prompting. For me, an introduction with examples of the methods she wishes to introduce to the reader would have been more helpful.

The second problem is, in my opinion, worse. Ms. Vest has, apparently, modified the language of the Rule in certain places to make use of inclusive language. Its not necessarily that I object to inclusive language, the problem is that I object to putting inclusive language in the mouths, or on the pages, of authors who wrote long before our more politically correct era. A monk who wrote fifteen hundred years ago did not use inclusive language, or even think of it and it seems unfair to someone long dead to change what he wrote. It seems especially problematic when that author is considered one of the great saints of the Church and has been read in the original all this time. It seems a bit arrogant to assume that Benedict would want his language changed for him, and Ms. Vest is not the first modern editor to do so. I think this practice puts us in danger of losing touch with who these authors really were by trying to model them after ourselves. Enough said.

The Election

For the last two or three weeks I have spent far too much time worrying about the current state of the coming election. It finally dawned on me that I needed to step back and try to take a more Benedictine and Christian view of things and I tried to firm up in my own mind what that might be. It is, primarily, to remember that our future in all things rests in God's sure hands and my worrying isn't going to change that. I simply don't know what will happen tomorrow, much less what will happen next year, no matter who the president is. The government cannot be thought of as the source of our well being or happiness, that is in God's hands.


I had a bit of a shock yesterday. During my time in "the Nam", I was stationed for a time at a place called Lai Khe, which is about 40 miles north of Saigon, if memory serves. At the time I was there it was headquarters the 1st Infantry Division and was the base for Sidewinder FAC, the Air Force unit I was attached to and bustling with activity. On Thursday, with a few minutes to spare at lunch, I decided to Google Lai Khe, with no idea what I would find. What I found was pictures on a "Donut Dolly" web site of the place at roughly the time I was there, which brought back memories of the place as it was. The shocker came when I also happened on some pictures taken by a 1st Infantry vet who had returned to Lai Khe a couple of years ago. Apparently, most of the base has been torn down, and one picture even showed that the runway of the airfield and the area surrounding it overgrown with trees and grass. A market of some kind had apparently been built on one end of it. All that was left was a rather long, dirt strip. It kind of took the wind out of my sails; I don't know why I had assumed that the places I knew thirty or more years ago would remain unchanged, but I guess I had. It was shocking to see the place empty and in danger of being swallowed by the jungle. Many aspects of my time over there are nearly fresh in my memory, and to see such a vivid demonstration of time passing by was eye-opening, to say the least.

Listening to Tradition, Thursday, October 23, 2008


The Call, by George Herbert


Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life :
Such a Way, as gives us breath :
Such a Truth, as ends all strife :
And such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength :
Such a Light, as shows a feast :
Such a Feast, as mends in length :
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart :
Such a Joy, as none can move :
Such a Love, as none can part :
Such a Heart, as joyes in love.

Listening to Tradition, Tuesday, October 21, 2008


All Hushed and Still within the House


All hushed and still within the house;

Without - all wind and driving rain;

But something whispers to my mind,

Through rain and through the wailing wind,

          Never again.

Never again?  Why not again?

Memory has power as real as thine.


                   Emily Bronte

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 

Listening to Tradition, Tuesday, October 14, 2008


A Clear Midnight


This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,

Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,

The fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes

          thou lovest best.

Night, sleep, and the stars.


                   Walt Whitman

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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