Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Living in community

© Saint Meinrad Archabbey

One day several years ago, our Br. Zachary was serving as lunch attendant in the monastery refectory (or dining room). As he was preparing the lunch line for the daily onslaught of hungry monks, into the refectory rolled Br. Stephen on his motorized scooter. (Br. Stephen, God rest his soul, has since passed away; he died in 2009 at the age of 85).

As he passed Br. Zachary, Br. Stephen barked, “Here, hold this!” Br. Zachary held out his hand, into which was deposited a set of false teeth. With his customary gracious humor, Br. Zachary replied, “Br. Stephen, how lovely! You’ve given me your smile!”

That is one glimpse of life as a monk in an intergenerational community. Here is another:

Our Br. Jerome recently turned 85 years old. For many years, he worked on the Archabbey grounds crew. He helped build Bede Hall. These days, he cleans the Archabbey Church, helps out with meal duties in the monastery infirmary, and dispenses the refectory wine. He’s one of the first monks up in the morning, getting up at 3 a.m. to put the coffee on for everyone else. In the evening before Compline, he typically sits on a bench outside the church watching the sun set.

Now, one of Br. Jerome’s pet peeves happens to be when someone in the monastery takes the last paper towel off the roll without replacing it with a fresh one. Surely, many can relate to this domestic difficulty. Imagine dealing with it in a household filled with 60 or 70 grown men!

One day, maybe 10 years ago or so, Br. John Mark was walking down the hall when he encountered Br. Jerome, who had an armload of paper towels. Br. John Mark greeted him, remarking, “Wow, Br. Jerome, that sure is a lot of paper towels you have there.”

Without batting an eye, Br. Jerome replied, “I live meekly in a state of war.”

Monks are fond of telling and re-telling stories about our lives together in the monastery. That one is my all-time favorite. As the psalmist says, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1). One thing is certain--it’s never boring living in a monastery.

Our monastic way of life is more than intergenerational, however. Our community life as monks is an inter-relational intersection of diverse ages, personalities, temperaments, interests, education levels, backgrounds, talents, and abilities. Present among us are various manners of expression, thinking, and acting. There is a wide array of opinions, habits, and yes, idiosyncrasies. Altogether, it makes for quite a flavorful stew—all kinds of stuff thrown into one pot!

Diverse as we are, however, one common objective unites us in a way that nothing else likely would. Each monk here is called to seek God together in our common prayer, work, and way of life. This life with one another as monks of Saint Meinrad is the one that God has chosen for each of us as we strive for conversion of heart. And that is a process that is mysteriously and inseparably linked with the rest of the community. It’s not a do-it-yourself project.

This is what makes the monastic way of life such a beautiful witness to the world—a world which applauds unity in diversity, yet often finds itself fragmented by exclusion, division, and self-absorption. St. Benedict’s Rule for monks calls us to live with, and love one another as brothers. The monastic community, in a certain sense, is modelled on the family. We belong to this place, and this community. We are guided by the Rule—and, by extension, the Gospel—as well as by the abbot, our father in Christ. Whatever our ages, origins, or abilities, we are bound by our vows to one another and to seeking God in this particular way of life and in this community.

As St. Paul wrote (cf. Romans 12; 1Corinthians 12), we are, though many, one body in Christ and individually parts of one another. Such is also the case with the family or any Christian community. We need one another to become the persons God calls us to be. “Living the truth in love,” St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians (4:15-16), we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love.”

So, as monks of Saint Meinrad, like any family or Christian community living under the Gospel, we are called, as St. Paul wrote to the Romans (12:10f), to “love another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor; … be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, and persevere in prayer.”

We are to preach the Gospel to the world, not only through our various works and ministries, but by living each day the good zeal St. Benedict calls for in Chapter 72 of his Rule when he writes: “support with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly compete in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.”

With such words, St. Benedict displays an especially keen awareness of human nature and the dynamics of community living. If such instructions were not necessary, they would not have been written down. He seemed to know what it takes to draw together monks of various ages, backgrounds, and personalities, and effectively guide them along the path to holiness.

St. Benedict exhorts the younger monks to respect the seniors, and the elders to love the juniors. Community rank is determined by date of profession, and not by age. Superiors are to seek counsel not only from the elder monks but also from the younger ones, because “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger.” In addition, the monks are to reverence Christ by caring for the sick and elderly. Perhaps most importantly, the monks are to practice obedience “not only to the abbot, but also to one another,” showing respect to one another. “Let them,” St. Benedict says, “prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”

Put into daily practice, such images and instructions are as challenging as they are inspirational. As Atticus Finch tells his daughter Scout in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, “You can choose your friends, but you sure can’t choose your family.” Imagine, if you will, living in the same place with all your aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, and so on. Young and old, similar and dissimilar, you share everything and care for one another—whether you’re particularly fond of one another or not. You’re together every day—to worship and pray, to eat meals, and for recreation and work.

In some developing countries and within more traditional cultures, such a way of life has been the norm for centuries. For most of us in the West, it is an unfamiliar concept. I’m not sure about you, but as much as I love my family and relatives, I wouldn’t want to live with all of them—and vice-versa, I’m sure.

However, when you’re a member of a family—whether in the ordinary way of understanding the term or in the analogous sense of a monastic community—it is God who chooses you. The community into which you are placed is a divine gift, a blessing intended by God to help you become the person you are meant to be. As necessary and valuable as friends are, we tend to choose as companions those who share similar tastes, interests and ideas. But a family or community of diverse—even sometimes difficult—people challenges, supports, and shapes us in ways that many friends cannot or will not.

You learn about yourself in community, and how to live with and love people who are different than you in a multitude of ways. You are uniquely challenged to recognize Christ’s presence in daily circumstances and relationships. With a heart open to God’s gift of the Spirit, living in a faith-filled community helps one to grow in hope—and that, in turn, builds up the community in love. It is as rewarding as it is challenging.

From my own perspective, living in a community of nearly 90 monks is not something I would have envisioned or chosen for myself 10 years ago. But in his great mercy, God mysteriously chose me for this way of life, and I heard the call and responded. When I was on my own, I called the shots. To a large degree, I did what I liked and didn’t do what I disliked. And in the long run, that made me very unhappy.

Coming to the monastery provided the accountability, purpose, and direction that my life had been missing. Living with a diverse group of monks united in seeking God has shown me things about myself—the good, the bad, and the ugly, as it were—that I may never have recognized otherwise. This way of life, and the community in which it is lived each day, have helped me to move forward along the path to becoming the person God has called me to be.

Here is an example of what I mean: Fr. Simeon (God rest his soul) died nearly two years ago at the age of 90. He was the Archabbey librarian for almost 50 years. In his later years, he helped out in the Development Office and did some writing. Fr. Simeon passed on some valuable insight to me, particularly when I was a novice, and I was edified by his monastic example—his regular presence at the Divine Office, his pitching in to do dishes at the age of 85 shortly after his recovery from one of several health scares, his daily commitment to feeding an fellow confrere in the infirmary who was too weak to look after himself, and his genuine joy in arm-wrestling with One Bread One Cup participants.

When I was a novice in 2007, I was assigned to Fr. Simeon on a couple occasions to help him clean out his office. This was after his recovery from a serious health crisis, and it was time for him to downsize, and to begin to put things in order. He would no longer need an office; everything had to go.

Mistakenly, I viewed this as just another assignment—work which I was anxious to complete so I could move on to the next thing. I began picking things up, stacking and carting them, and then impatiently awaiting instructions on what to do with it all.

Fr. Simeon, on the other hand, was in no hurry. Every single object or scrap of paper had a story, some special significance. Finally, he said to me, gently but firmly: “Put that stuff down and just listen. Don’t be in such a hurry.” And so I did, reluctantly at first. Then he began unfolding his memories of people, places, and events that were behind all the piles of what I had initially viewed as just stuff.

Fr. Simeon passed on a lot of wisdom in the process. Eventually, I began looking forward to my few hours with Fr. Simeon, and the time seemed to pass too quickly. I don’t think we really got much work accomplished, but I realize now that wasn’t the point. He had a story to tell. He needed someone to hear it, and he needed someone to help him close what must have been a very difficult chapter in his life. He didn’t need someone to lift boxes as much as he needed someone to listen. It was one of my first monastic lessons. Fr. Simeon taught me to find grace in the moment. As a novice, I needed to learn that lesson. So, we both had something to offer the other as we each transitioned into new chapters in our lives.

Now, not every lesson comes by way of someone like Fr. Simeon. Often, the grace of the moment is presented through a person or circumstance that is not quite so endearing. As we know, it is impossible to truly grow in virtue unless we’re challenged by opportunities to practice virtue. The key is to genuinely listen to what God may be trying to teach me through every situation or person I encounter.

Fr. Thomas, one of the youngest members of our monastic community, says it quite well in a comment he provided for an article I wrote for The Criterion last year. He says: “The fact that we have all ended up together in this place, and that so many different people have persevered for decades in our house, convinces me that God has called us here. Only God could be creative enough and trusting enough to bring us all together. Thus, I believe that each of my brothers has something to teach me, if only I am humble enough to listen and observe with a generous heart.”

In other words, every person in this community assembled by God has something to teach me; so I must listen—every day. The young bring energy, enthusiasm, and new ideas. The elderly offer wisdom, the example of perseverance, and the gift of prayerful reflection. Those in the middle bring generativity, purpose, and direction.

Beyond the age factor, the one with a listening heart can learn something from each person’s unique personality, ability, and behavior—no matter how attractive or unattractive they may be. In all these encounters, we are provided with numerous opportunities to grow in love as we seek God together in this place.

As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, though we are many, we are one body in Christ and individually parts of it. This is true of us in the monastery, and in the wider sense of the entire Church, it is true of each one of you. In Christ our head, we all need one another.

Let us all then, as St. Benedict wrote, “prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”

1 comment:

  1. Br. Francis, this is very helpful as I approach candidacy in October. Thanks for your reflection and wisdom.

    ReplyDelete