by Kathleen Norris
One way to think about what monastic spirituality says to the world, and how our world can benefit from the monastic witness is to look at some of the dire NEEDS of contemporary society. I find that many things that our culture often ignores at its peril, but desperately needs to address, are expressed in the Rule of Benedict, and in monastic life.
ONE. The first is LISTENING. That is truly listening, without trying to “best” the other person, without pretending to listen just so that you can attack and rebut what the other person is saying. Much of our media, including talk shows, so-called reality programming, and even the news, consists of people engaged in shouting matches, sniping, and belittling each other. It seems that everyone wants to be HEARD, but no one wants to LISTEN.
Listening is radical, because if we are really listening to another person, we have to shift our perspective; we have to humble ourselves and recognize that we are NOT the center of the universe, and our opinions are not God’s truth. In any business, any church, any group, communication with colleagues is vital, and it’s the one thing that people will say is lacking when they are asked to point to problems within an organization. For good reason, many people don’t feel LISTENED to.
“Listen” is the first word, the first command in Benedict’s Rule, and those of us who have Benedictine friends know that they have an uncommon gift for listening, and for fostering genuine conversation that leaves one refreshed, grateful for talk that has been mutually stimulating and beneficial. I’ll never forget the time that I invited a Benedictine friend to a literary party in New York City. He was in grad school in a nearby city, and I wanted to introduce him to some friends; I also thought he’d enjoy a break, and a night out. He did, but the main thing that amazed him was the sight of people chatting away but not really LISTENING to each other; often they were eyeing the room, to see if there was someone else, someone more important that they should be talking to, or “networking” with. He told me it was one of the funniest things he’d ever seen, and I have to say that he has a point. But the joke is on US -- and our accepting such non-listening at business gatherings as the norm.
TWO. The next Benedictine values I want to discuss are Stability and Change. Americans pride themselves on having OPTIONS. We believe in social mobility, especially upward mobility; the chance to improve our lot by moving to places that offer better prospects for education or employment. Even in today’s stressed economy, with its increased threat of downward mobility for many, we enjoy a society with relatively fluid social structures. We don’t need official permits to be allowed to change careers, or move from the country to the city, or the city to the country. We don’t have a strict caste system: it isn’t necessarily family heritage that confers social status: earning a good income and becoming a philanthropist will do.
But this basically good thing can have a bad effect on us if we fall into a pattern of having to always move on, because no one place satisfies us, no group we belong to meets the ideal we have established in our minds. Having too many options can be a trap, because the constants in our lives -- the treasured relationships with family, friends, and colleagues -- are what help give life MEANING. But if we are just drifting along, with only temporary and superficial relationship, we may decide that life has no meaning at all. We face the old “why bother?”
BENEDICTINE WISDOM has something to offer us here, recognizing that while people need both stability and mobility, they also need some balance between them. The two vows of monastic profession that are unique to the Benedictine order give us some perspective. One is the vow of stability, in which you promise to remain in a particular community for the rest of your life; the second is a vow of conversion (the Latin name is conversatio morum). This means promising that you will remain open to change, open to conversation and dialogue with others that might have the effect of converting you; changing your opinion; changing the way you do or see things. The goal of these seemingly contradictory vows is to make you more balanced in your approach to life and the needs of your community.
Human beings need some stability; think of what the word HOME signifies to you. Even the homeless in our cities frequent the same places, day after day, in an attempt to create a sense of “home.” Most of us like some routine we can depend on. But we also gripe about “the rat race,” and even worse, we find that if we over-value stability, we stagnate, and are in danger of clinging to the familiar idol of “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
We also need change; it can shake us up in healthy ways. But often our first instinct is to resist it: my favorite comment about change came from a woman in a church congregation in South Dakota. They were involved in finding a new pastor, which is a major upheaval, getting used to a new person and their way of doing things. She approved the person this search committee had agreed to call, but she said, “I don’t LIKE change; even when I know it’s for the best, I don’t like it.”
Change is simply a part of our world. But like stability, it also has a downside. if we embrace change too avidly, for its own sake, we become lost, and rootless. We are unable to make commitments to the people and places that might be meaningful to us. Sometimes it takes a shock for us to recognize when we need to stop searching and settle down. I once met a young man who had gone to Thailand and tried to join a Buddhist monastery, but they told him -- “Go home and learn your own tradition; become a Christian monk first, and then you might be ready to become a Buddhist monk.” So he was slogging through a Benedictine novitiate, mopping and waxing floors, and immersing himself in the psalms.
THREE. The third Benedictine value that I’ve come to see as truly radical in our polarized and polarizing culture is that of HOSPITALITY. In fact I now regard hospitality as a monastic gift to the world.
I can look to my own experience here, a searching but confused young woman more or less stumbling across a Benedictine monastery some 25 years ago, and experiencing their hospitality before I even knew that it was such an important part of the tradition; before I had read that passage in the Rule of St Benedict, in which Benedict admonishes monastics to welcome all guests as Christ. At the time, I wasn’t even sure that I was a Christian. I’d been raised in mainstream Methodist and Congregational churches, but as a young woman had drifted away from church. I thought I had “outgrown” religion. The way that these monks, and the Benedictine sisters a few miles down the road, simply accepted me as I was, surprised me. In fact it was overwhelming. It’s a remarkable thing to find such open-ended hospitality in a world that is increasingly fragmented into “us” and “them.” We so readily harbor suspicions of anyone who is “the other,” and the only hospitality many of us experience is a commercial variety that is a pale imitation of the real thing.
After a few visits to the monastery, when I finally expressed my gratitude, I said something awkward about how surprised I was to feel so welcomed, as a woman; I’d assumed that the monks were there in part to get away from women. And the oblate director, Fr Robert West, said, “Oh. You came at a good time. We had one like that, but he died.” Hospitality can take many forms !
Lately I have been thinking about one aspect of monastic hospitality that is increasingly important in our conflicted world. Benedictines in some way are a TRIBE -- they even have a myth of origin, emerging out of Benedict’s cave. But their absolute commitment to hospitality means that they do not indulge in TRIBALISM, a human tendency which is causing so much pain and strife in the world today. Reading the news from the Sudan, including the new nation of South Sudan, Nigeria, the Congo, India, Iraq, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Serbia, and parts of Russia, one might conclude that TRIBALISM, rather than terrorism, is the main human problem today.
Benedictines are definitely “global” in their outlook, and they have been for years, long before “globalism” became a catchword. I know monks raised on farms in North or South Dakota, in tiny villages that are no longer on the map, whose studies have taken them to Paris, Rome, Vienna, and Louvain; whose foundation work and lecturing for novices and junior monastics has taken them to Colombia, Guatemala, the Philippines, Tanzania, Nigeria, and Australia. Some wags suggest that a new Benedictine motto is needed -- join the monastery, see the world. But the Benedictines demonstrate that people who have a stable grounding in one community can expand their world-view far beyond its confines, without suffering a loss of “tribal” identity. It’s precisely because they have a strong and clear identity that they can open themselves to others.
In America, I think many people are drawn to retreats in Benedictine monasteries as “safe houses” in which they can be free to explore their faith. Ancient and medieval monasteries were indeed safe havens from the hazards of the road -- often the only place a traveler could stay without being robbed or worse -- and I think they still provide that kind of safety, in a spiritual way.
When I got to know the Benedictines, as I was reconnecting with my own Christian faith as an adult, I was impressed with the way that monastic people incarnated faith. Because they are living it daily, in such an overt and disciplined way, they can afford to wear it lightly. Not pious, not holier-than-thou, not pretentious, not philosophizing, but LIVING their faith in an utterly realistic way. But Monastic people get a bad press, and you hear people say that it’s a shame that these talented people are hiding away in monasteries, withdrawing from what they call the “real world.”
But I don’t think that monastic people are escaping the world at all; if anything monastic living draws people deep into the world of human relationships. To better understand this, just think of a group to which you belong. Maybe the people in a church congregation, or at your job. Now imagine that you have committed yourself to remain with these people, living, eating, working, and playing with them for the rest of your life. Some of them you may love; some you tolerate; some you can’t stand. But now you are supposed to thank God, every day, for bringing all of you unlikely souls together. That is the challenge of monastic life, and it is completely grounded in the real world of human community. One Benedictine sister described it to me as like living in a rock tumbler; which is fine, she said, if you believe that eventually you’ll come out good and polished. Another sister had a profound insight that I think is at the heart of the REALISM of monastic life: “Benedict understood,” she said, “that just living in peace with other people is the only asceticism most of us need.” This is definitely an asceticism, a spiritual practice that any of us could take into our own worlds -- in our families, or our workplaces -- and put to good use.
I’ll end with a story about how I became an oblate at Assumption Abbey in North Dakota, When I started visiting there, they no longer had an active oblate program, but one monk still had the title of “oblate director,” and the two of us invented a program of study for me. This revealed to me something essential about monasticism: as tradition-bound and disciplined as the life is, it is also an experiment. A testing and playing with human nature in a remarkably flexible way.
At any rate, I kept showing up at the monastery, deeply attracted to the liturgy of the hours and also the fact that the monks had a good library. Eventually someone suggested that I become an oblate. I would be their first Protestant oblate, and Fr Hilary of this abbey was visiting, who announced that St John’s already had a number of Protestant oblates. And I said, “Oh, St John’s. Is that a Benedictine place, too?” You can imagine the response !
I appreciate being an oblate, because of the opportunity it gives me to attempt to practice Benedictine values in my daily life. They are remarkably portable and adaptable; it’s just that I have to remember to apply them. And that is the challenge. But it’s one that any Christian might take on: to remember that we are holy and beloved in the sight of God, and to share that good news with the community of believers and the whole world.
(These are Kathleen Norris comments from a Saint John's University School of Theology•Seminary board retreat on Benedictine Identity.)