Below you’ll find an adaptation of a retreat address I recently gave. Over the next two weeks, I’ll post two more talks: “on beauty” and “on joy.” If you’re a longtime reader of my blog, some of these sentences and paragraphs will be familiar.
One of the greatest gifts of monastic life is being able to see God’s mercy at work in your brothers. It’s very easy to see other people’s faults. They have a way of glaring at us. But to see their virtues—and more, to see those virtues grow slowly and eventually flower—that takes time, patience, and an attentiveness borne of selfless love and gratitude. Attention is everything.
Monastic communities have always been spacious places in a crowded world. That space was certainly what drew me to Benedictine life. My whole life I had been driven by a longing so deep and powerful that I couldn’t find a name for it. This longing was a burning secret at the center of my life. And every context in which I found myself was simply too small to hold it, or to hold me. For much of my life I felt as if I were living on the margins, because there just wasn’t enough room.
When I came to Holy Cross, where I’m now a monk, my intuition told me that I had finally found a place with enough space for that longing. It was certainly one of the few places I had been where people nodded their heads knowingly when I mentioned this deep desire without a name. I dare you to try talking about longing at coffee hour and see what kind of stares you get.
I remember Andrew, in particular. He was an old Scottish monk with a wicked sense of humor, who would sit with me on my visits to the monastery. He looked me right in the eyes, he looked deep in my heart as only those who have lived the life of faith for decades can do, and he said, “I love you.” And as the tears streamed down my face, he said, in voice that told me he understood, “Yes, it hurts to be loved.”
It does hurt to be loved. And it also hurts to love. Which is probably one reason so many of us avoid loving as fully, deeply, and freely as Jesus calls us to do. In this world that is so often small-minded, bitter, and violent—and increasingly so—we harden our hearts to keep them from breaking. But it’s only the broken heart that has enough space to love as we ought. And it is only by breaking that our hearts turn from stone to flesh.
Monastic life participates, right here and now, in eternity. That is the secret to its spaciousness. In the hallowing of the everyday, Benedict’s rule illuminates the holiness of the incarnate life in which, as he points out, the tools of the kitchen or the garden are as precious as the vessels of the altar. With eternity as its context, there is enough space for the whole of one’s life to emerge.
How different that slow emergence is from the process of education, identity-building, and success in contemporary society and even in the Church today. We are all so focused on my life, my desires, my sense of how the world should be. The trouble is, there’s no such thing as my life. My life is idolatry. There is only God’s life, and I—and you—get to participate in that life. We get to hold it and embody it for a time, until we dissolve fully into it again.
The attitude of me and mine plagues contemporary Christian spirituality as much as it does the wider culture. We often talk of the goal of Christian spirituality as transformation of the self. This is particularly true in the progressive pop-spirituality we call “contemplative Christianity.” Such spirituality arises from a desire for deeper union with God and, through that union, a bettering of the world. Many of the leaders and the practitioners of this spiritual movement have done enormous amounts of good in introducing traditional practices of prayer to a wider audience.
Still, this movement has also tended to hew quite closely to the self-help market. In the ways that such spiritualities offer a well-lit path to self-transcendence, they eschew the hard grit of Christianity that always takes us first to the Cross, where we lose our lives in order to gain Christ. The path of Christian spirituality is not self-transcendence; it is self-immolation.
Traditionally, contemplation—or the total absorption in God—was understood as a pure gift, what we used to call “grace,” a word you don’t hear very much these days. You can practice prayer, lectio divina, works of charity, fasting, and love of neighbor, but you cannot practice contemplation. You can only accept the gift of it when or if it is given. Asceticism is, and has always been, the means of preparation for this absorption, because most of us have to reach the limits of our own self-will before we’re finally ready for the nuclear option: surrender to God.
The poet Kaveh Akbar puts it this way:
It wasn’t until Gabriel squeezed away what was empty in him that the Prophet could be filled with miracle. Imagine the emptiness in you, the vast cavities you have spent your life trying to fill—with fathers, mothers, lovers, language, drugs, money, art, praise—and imagine them gone. What’s left? Whatever you aren’t, which is what makes you—a house useful not because its floorboards or ceilings or walls, but because the empty space between them. (“The Miracle,” in Pilgrim Bell: Poems)
Akbar is picking up on the first part of Paul’s great hymn to the enduring power of love. Everything is passing away. Everything we have will leave us. All the gifts we so treasure in ourselves, the little prizes we pile up in the storeroom of the self—prophecy, tongues, knowledge (I’m sure we could add to this list)—all will vanish like mist in the valley when the sun crests the peaks. For we know only in part, and we prophecy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Cor. 13:9-10)
In Benedictine life you don’t “become someone.” You don’t “make it.” Instead, over a lifetime, you surrender to God’s desire to stitch back together the fragments of your life, so that, what once seemed maimed, ugly, or shameful becomes, through the persistent and loving movement of God, beautiful, whole, and holy.
The Benedictine vision of the Christian life, in fact, asserts that it is precisely these parts of ourselves we would most like to deny that are the gateways to holiness. We are not to jettison the shameful inner fragments, nor to exile or erase them, as if we even could. No, we are to allow God, in the context of our community life, to heal and transform those parts so that even they carry nourishing blood throughout the body.
This process is grounded in stability of place and relationship. Only when we can allow others to know us can we begin fully to know and love ourselves. We must risk being seen in order to learn how to love, and we can only do that by committing ourselves to the ordinary, sometimes boring, often infuriating mess of real, human relationships. Most of us have some vision of who we want to become, some life that we think is ours, if we can but create it. Often we become so wrapped up in that vision that we never wonder who we actually are.
One of the unexpected graces of the monastic life has been an entry into the tremendous gift of friendship. We impoverish our language of relationship when we limit it to the sexual realm. Though I am not “in a relationship” in the Facebook status meaning of the phrase (though I guess you could say, “it’s complicated”), I have many varied and deep relationships with friends who see into my soul and reflect the riches of that place back to me. Through their eyes and their faces and their words, I come to a much deeper knowledge of who I am. They also offer me the opportunity to practice, for a time, seeing as God sees and loving as God loves.
The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist has a beautiful chapter on the graces of friendship that reminds us that friendship mirrors the soul’s relationship to Jesus:
“For us no honor exists that could be greater than Jesus calling us his friends. The more we enter into the fullness of our friendship with him, the more he will move us to be friends for one another, and to cherish friendship itself as a means of grace. The forging of bonds between us that would make us ready to lay down our lives for one another is a powerful witness to the reality of our risen life in Christ. In an alienating world, where so many are frustrated and wounded in their quest for intimacy, we can bear life-giving testimony to the graces of friendship as men who know by experience its demands, its limitations and its rewards.” (Ch. 42, “The Graces of Friendship”)
In our friendships with one another, with Jesus, and with ourselves, we not only know, but more importantly we are known. In that being known, we can come to flourish in ways of which we remain blessedly unaware. We mature in and through our friendships with Jesus and others, shedding the layers of self-will like clothing on a hot day, until we stand, whole and unafraid and free before the one who makes and sustains us.
If this movement toward wholeness is true on the individual level, how much truer it is for the community. Salvation is never individual. It is always communal. Each member of the community is essential to the health of the whole body. Each has their unique contribution to make. None of us can or will be saved in isolation. It’s all of us or none of us. Because love is never finally satisfied. As any monk or lover will tell you, the more your desire is fulfilled, the deeper that desire becomes. It has no limit, because, ultimately, our desire is to be in total union with the one who made and sustains us, the one whose Love is our true name and our true nature.
The more I live the monastic and the Christian life, the more fully I am convinced that no one and nothing is beyond God’s love. No matter how dark the times in which we live, God is still working, through each of us, to break the world’s heart open so that it can become a heart of flesh.
This is a challenging vision in the times in which we live. The forces of evil swirl around us and they seem to tighten rather than loosen their hold. And yet, even— probably especially—when evil seems strongest, we are called all the more to allow our hearts to break open, and to love without reservation.
I do understand the impulse to defeat and to vanquish evil. But such violent impulses are actually a part of evil’s grip on us. Although we can and we must resist evil, we can never destroy it. Such is not within our power. Rather, we are called to bear witness to the one who can heal and integrate evil, to the one who can break evil open, and turn even the stoniest heart to flesh. We are called to point the way, through our own fleshy hearts, to the one who can transform and convert evil into good, so that, at the end, even Lucifer will bear God’s light again.
James Stephens puts this idea beautifully in his poem “The Fullness of Time,”
On a rusty iron throne
Past the furthest star of space
I saw Satan sit alone,
Old and haggard was his face;
For his work was done and he
Rested in eternity.
And to him from out the sun
Came his father and his friend
Saying, now the work is done
Enmity is at an end:
And he guided Satan to
Paradises that he knew.
Gabriel without a frown,
Uriel without a spear,
Raphael came singing down
Welcoming their ancient peer,
And they seated him beside
One who had been crucified.
There is nothing and no one who does not, ultimately, belong to God. There is no part of us, individually or collectively, that is beyond the reach of God’s healing and reconciling love. And if, rooted in place and relationship, we allow ourselves to be known, who knows what kind of spacious sanctuary we may become?