Written for a women's religious community, Tom shares his own experience of how the disciplines of community life can lead to personal growth and inner freedom. His thoughts on silence, work, fitting in, poverty, focusing on "the one thing necessary", charity and introspection are valuable for anyone living in society as well as in a monastery. (1973 words)
BELOVED OF GOD
Beloved of God: you embark on a beautiful and ever so serious journey into God. I would share with you a few minor reflections born out of experience; they are a mixture of autobiography and hypocrisy, and perhaps I share them in the hope that you will make something real of what I merely talk about instead! No – you will not make anything, for we are always and ever ‘God’s work of art’ and our part is not to create or perfect ourselves for him, but to try to pre-dispose ourselves, bit by bit, for him to create his masterpiece. He wills to do so, indeed he wills it so far more urgently than we ever can ourselves, that we must be ever content to rest in his creative hands, awake and watchful but not forcing his pace not hating ourselves for being who and what we are.
We have no right to love ourselves any less than he does, and that is saying something!
I like to think that each of us is a more or less chaotic collection of instruments. Our ego is sure that such a combination of trombones, flutes, violins and drums has only to present itself on the streets and the resulting music will not only draw and fascinate people, but will also, somehow, do God’s work for him. Indeed he is lucky to have us there doing his will.
But our true and inner self knows a deeper wisdom – that we are designed to become an orchestra, and that true freedom lies not in chaotic sounding forth according to the whims and fancies of our passions, compulsions and ideas, but rather it lies in the subjection of all our instruments to the discipline of the composer and the hand of the conductor. Only through the long haul of repeated practices, conscious application to detail, painstaking working in of each drum, triangle and double bass with the over-all work, does God achieve in us that marvellous (and quite unselfconscious) freedom which makes each instrument greater than itself, and the whole orchestra a realisation of the composer’s artistry and a vehicle of ecstasy and joy for others.
If that, then, be who we are and what we are for, do we not need to recover the role of ‘ascesis’, of conscious control, in our monastic life? It has had a bad press, partly because our contemporaries confuse licence and freedom, partly because it has been debased as a more-or-less Pelagian work of ‘making ourselves perfect’.
You must judge for yourself. What follows will seem often negative, perhaps petty. Select, discard, add. But ever remember who is the Composer and the Conductor. The great moment of ‘take-off’ is when we cease to ‘come to do God’s will’ and allow ‘his will to be done in us’.
As in most areas of life conscious attention to external behaviour develops and sustains the corresponding inner gift. (see Ch.7 of the Rule)
This is not hypocrisy – pretending to be what we are not – merely playing out in practice what we long for God to make us. If we study silence in practical things, we become silent in ourselves. (and silence is the vital element in any great music!)
* We have two ears (& eyes), only one mouth. Be a good listener and listen to the other’s silence more than his/her words.
* When meeting ask yourself: what has the other been involved in, and start there. Be wary of bending conversation back to yourself.
* Never defend yourself – especially when misunderstood or misinterpreted. This will provide for you moments of excruciating purification and inner laughter with God alone.
* Study quietness of movement in all things.
* Avoid compulsive talk and much chatter.
* Do all you do in the present ‘now’, without looking over your shoulder for recognition, nor assessing too much its importance. We do not work for our own self-fulfilment, nor to prove ourselves before the community and the world. What we do, we do because we are given it to do and because a generous heart finds joy in life itself – not ‘for’ anything.
* In that way you will find great joy in obscurity and God will be able to strengthen your inner solitude and poise.
* As regards other people’s jobs, be people-centred not job-centred. It is nearly always more precious for a person to mess up some task or even fail to do it at all, than for someone else to move in and over-ride his/her responsibility. (Many people in communities are led to have a low self-image of themselves by the moving-in dominance of competent superiors and others.) We have a marvellous lesson to learn from Genesis 2 & 3 about leaving people space to make a mess of things – God could have moved in earlier!
* In the same way, when working with others or doing their job for them when they are absent, seek to do it their way, not yours. God will arrange for your prowess to be revealed in due course! but for now be obedient and humble to the brothers or sisters.
* When boring, trivial, menial jobs make you want to scream, or leave you mumbling self pity on your bed at night; or when you see others doing jobs you could do far better; or …
then learn some simple arguments to have over with yourself again and again (to ensure a modicum of self-humour!)
o now Tom there’s no reason why this job should be done by you any less than by anyone else.
o there may be some reason I know nothing about as to why so and so is given such and such.
o and so on. You will find in due course such mental arguments become very persuasive; your inner self can easily out-argue your ego, given time.
* Always give priority to what you have been asked to do over that which your bright ideas tell you is urgent – if you see what I mean.
A beautiful feminine virtue whose practice can bring great strength to a community, as well as humility in the noblest sense to oneself.
* Beware of feathering your nest.
* Make no bright suggestions for 3 (?) months, and then only when you have appreciated any wisdom in how things are at present.
* It is possible, perhaps easy, to go along with things just because that is how things are, at present, without doing violence to one’s wider vision of how things might be, or a wider vision of what monastic life is really all about. We can live fully in the present without denying our dreams!
Again, outward practice leads to inner freedom. But we need to be strangely detached even from our pursuit of poverty itself, lest it become an over-conscious self-satisfying game.
We have talked much about it, but six little ‘rules’:
* Always release for communal use rather than personal use, whatever lands open to that decision. (It’s after all communal before it is personal, in any case.)
* Judge what you need by what you actually use rather than what you like to have or think you may like to have/need in the future. (The beginning of Advent and Lent are good times to apply this).
* Since accumulation happens constantly and almost unseen, let disposal also happen constantly.
* Keep ever poised to give to others anything, when God sends those moments of release (eg when someone admires what you have).
* You will find that your needs decrease month by month, year by year. Keep pace.
* What we consider as necessary and normal for life depends very much on who we include consciously in ‘our world’. If we constantly remind ourselves of and really identify with the hungry, dispossessed, homeless, then it becomes impossible to be fastidious or indulgent. I find this a crucial factor in determining criteria of simplicity and being ‘content with the meanest and the worst’.
One of the psychological effects of stripping our life, creating space, withdrawing from much that is superficial, is a tendency to heighten the significance of many small matters which we would otherwise hardly notice. Thence arise many small jealousies, anxieties about oneself, reading too much into the secondaries of life.
* Bring your mind constantly back to the centre, to the broad view, to the over-all picture – and deliberately talk yourself out of getting hung up on secondaries.
* When things go wrong for you, or when you find yourself skimping or omitting important (but vulnerable) things like prayer and reading, do not get over worried about particular failings – but use them as an occasion for re-viewing your overall pattern of life.
* Be cautious about endless talk about things that do not matter much, especially food and clothing.
It is, need one ever say it? never an accident that you are among the precise sisters with whom God has called you. In my crummy experience there is not one of my brethren from whom I have nothing to learn (often about myself) and through whom God does not mediate something of his grace. And in like manner God will find ways of using you for them. We are all ‘for others’ – but that means for these others, here and now, not some generalised ‘others’.
There is however a kindness which oppresses, and a good fellowship which is idle and takes no one seriously. I like to think that real charity is 40% thoughtfulness, 40% taking people seriously, 20% good fellowship!
* When you find yourself judging or mentally dismissing someone, remember that that in her which makes you suffer probably makes her suffer even more. She may not like being who she is.
Be very wary of saying to yourself ‘if only she …’ because ‘if only’ is unreal.
* When you fall out with someone let it not rigidify. Build a bridge or at least put out a pier. It is often a great thing to ask such a person for help with something, putting yourself as it were a little in her debt!
* Keep half an eye on the lonely, the inarticulate, the left-out-of-conversations; invite them in.
Most of the time we are not very well placed to assess our own lives very clearly or well. Worry and excessive introspection are not simply the afflictions of a sensitive heart, but can easily be forms of self-indulgence and self-pity.
* Talk your way through them, laugh with yourself, remember that last time it all turned out to be stupid fuss; and amazingly a constant habit of self-talking to, returning it ever and gently to the Source of All, will surprise, surprise, lift the clouds of introspection, self-pity, and sensitivity. God be praised.
“… the entrance must needs be narrow, but as we progress in our monastic life and in faith, our hearts will be enlarged and we shall run with unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God’s commandments … we shall share by patience in the suffering of Christ, that we may deserve to partake also of his kingdom.” St Benedict
“Then when all these degrees of humility have been climbed, the monk will presently come to that perfect love of God which casts out all fear; whereby he will begin to observe without labour, as though naturally and by habit, all those precepts which formerly he did not observe without fear … and this will the Lord deign to show forth by the power of his Spirit in his workman now cleansed from vice and sin.” St Benedict