More Benedictine Thoughts

I’m still basking in the glow of my week at St. Benedict’s Monastery. It was a productive week of work on the conversion book and just a wonderfully prayerful time.

As I sat reflecting back on my week there, a couple of things came to mind that I thought I’d share.

The first relates to the end of the Prologue of the Rule of Benedict, which gives a good reminder that how things seem to us at first is not necessarily how they will always seem to us. In the last paragraph of the Prologue, Benedict explains that it was not his intention to impose anything that was harsh or burdensome in the rule. However, he implores

if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14). For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love.

Many things that seem difficult at first blush, may not seem so to us as we grow in the faith. It is a good thing to keep in mind both when we look at the behavior of saints, which sometimes seems so impossible for us to emulate, and when we think about practices that might be suggested for our growth in faith.

The second thing that came to my my mind was a comment one of the sisters made at dinner one evening. I was telling her that while I enjoyed participating in the communal prayers and went every day to Morning Prayer and Noon Prayer (and Mass), I almost never made it for Evening Prayer.

The reason is this: Evening Prayer is at 7:00p.m. On most days, Mass is at 4:30, with dinner immediately following. The result is that dinner is finished by 6:10 or so. If I walk back to my office and try to get some work done, no sooner will I get my head wrapped back into my writing than it will be time to walk back for Evening Prayer.

As I said that, the Sister quietly said, “Well, yes, sometimes coming back for prayer is a sacrifice – having to stop our work, but we do it.” She made clear that she had no criticism of my not getting back for Evening Prayer (guests are invited but not expected to attend prayer services), but it was clear she would stop what she was doing to attend.

I thought about the conversation again and wondered, whether I should adopt more the practice of the Sister. Stopping my work to come back for Evening Prayer even if it was inconvenient. Or maybe taking a walk or even just sitting in the chapel or oratory between dinner and prayer. Something to think about for my next visit.


Discipline and Discipleship

Discipline is in the category of words that don’t necessarily sound great to (at least some of) us. It is one of those words like obedience or renunciation that, at first blush, make us worry we’re about to face some unpleasantness.

Although I can’t remember where I first came across this quote from Henri Nouwen, it is, I think one of the best things I’ve ever read that both defines discipline in a helpful way and helps explain why discipline is so important to the spiritual life. Nouwen writes:

Discipline is the other side of discipleship. Discipleship without discipline is like waiting to run in the marathon without ever practicing. Discipline without discipleship is like always practicing for the marathon but never participating. It is important, however, to realize that discipline in the spiritual life is not the same as discipline in sports. Discipline in sports is the concentrated effort to master the body so that it can obey the mind better. Discipline in the spiritual life is the concentrated effort to create the space and time where God can become our master and where we can respond freely to God’s guidance.

Thus, discipline is the creation of boundaries that keep time and space open for God. Solitude requires discipline, worship requires discipline, caring for others requires discipline. They all ask us to set apart a time and a place where God’s gracious presence can be acknowledged and responded to.

I read this quote and I think, if that’s discipline, I’ll take more of it. Actually, I suspect most of us can use more discipline.

Discipline and Nourishment

As all Catholics know well, the three traditional Lenten disciplines are fasting, almsgiving and prayer.

My parish put out a nice brochure relating to various Lenten practices and prayer opportunities during this season. In it was something I had not before realized – that the word “lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for springtime, “lencten.”

What happens during spring? We plant our seeds which, nourished by the sun, water and nutients in the soil, grow strong.

I like the connecting of Lent to spring because it helps us to understand the lenten practices as sources of nourishment. I think that is particularly helpful with fasting, for example, which can so easily been seen as a hardship, something we endure. If we can view the Lenten disciplines as sources of nourishment, I think we can approach them with more enthusiasm and appreciation.

I used the term Lenten “discipline” a few times here because the paragraph in my parish brochure which talked about the origins of the word Lent also contained the reminder that the term “discipline” comes from the same word as disciple. Thus, alhtough we tend to associate discipline with punishment, makign us think of it as something unpleasant, understanding the root of the term reinforces the role of these practices as things that help us to grow.

So, if we’ve been a little lax thus far during Lent, let us renew our commitment to engage in these disciplines that nourish our growth in God.