rule of Benedict

Why the Benedictine Rule is Psychological Training for a Joyful Old Age

I once heard a discussion on the radio about preparation for old age. The focus was on making sure that you had sufficient financial resources and so there was talk of the need for people to start making contributions to pension plans early. One person offered a slightly different approach. While putting money away for the future was not a bad idea, he said, people should think about what they are actually going to do when they retire, furthermore they should avoid getting into the trap of living the whole of their working lives as though its only purpose is to provide for retirement. Why not try to find a way of earning money that you enjoy, he said? Then you will want to work after the age of 65 because you enjoy it and so reduces the amount of money that one needs to save; and makes the time both before and after retirement more enjoyable. As he pointed out, there is danger of being so fearful of being able to support yourself after 65 that the whole of you life prior to it becomes a waiting game in which retirement is a sort of 'secular afterlife', a reward for the drudgery of work. He had a point, I think. Firstly, pension schemes are not guaranteed however prudently one saves. Also, it is good to think about what we can do to enjoy life, before and during retirement, as well as having the money to do it.

Given that my physical capabilities are going to decline with time, shouldn't I be ready to change what do as I get older so that life is always interesting. I am 52 and so am aware of this happening already. I am reminded of my grandpa here. While he did the same job all of his working life which he enjoyed until he was 65, he always had strong recreational interests as well. He was an nationally known rugby player until he was thirty, when I he gave up rugby and took up tennis and golf. For the next 20 years he played for the local tennis club and got a golf handicap of five. Then at the age of 50 he gave up tennis and golf and took up the even more sedate activity of bee-keeping, which he did until he died at the age of 83 (at the end he was recruiting neighbours and family members to help him move the hives onto the moors for the heather-honey season). Bee-keeping was the hobby that he followed for the longest time and which occupied him during all of his retirement.

Ultimately, our happiness in life rests on more than having hobbies, of course.; but the principle of anticipating how we change as we get older applies as much to consideration of doing what is right and good, I suggest. This is where, for the Christian, consideration of one's personal vocation comes in. If we find out what God wishes for us to do then we will be fulfilled and He will give us the means by which we can do it.  I have written a number of articles on guidance that I was given and will repost one of these in the next couple of days.

In recent years I have seen a number of people approaching their last days and suffering from debilitating illnesses. This has made me think about the lives of those who cannot do anything without great help, cannot concentrate long enough on anything they observe to derive mental stimulation from it and cannot communicate with others easily. Is Christian joy on offer to them too? One has to believe so...but how?

It is distressing to see someone dying of cancer unable to do much more than watch television and eat when fed. I saw someone whom I loved slowly decline so that she was not able to concentrate or draw on her memory sufficiently well to engage in conversation. What made it worse was that she was aware of the decline in her mental abilities and was getting frustrated at not being able to respond and say what she wanted to. Unable to move without help, she was chair bound most of the day and would fall asleep periodically (perhaps under the effect of the pain controlling medication) and so could not even watch a television program long enough to follow what was going on and enjoy it.

I could not help trying to put myself in her place and imagine how life must be for her. How does one cope when there is little pleasure and continuous discomfort? It was a difficult question for me to answer, so I prayed that she could know that her family loved her. I prayed also that her capacity to respond to God's grace was always present, even as all other faculties decline in power. Then, I hoped, even in this last stage of life Christian joy can be hers too. Like the joy of the Christian martyrs who can inspire us, that there is a joy for her too that transcends the physical suffering and increasing isolation.

I have reflected also on what may be the future for me. Like any of us, it is quite possible that I will have to face such a situation myself. How would I fare? Is there any preparation anyone can make?

The only answer I could think of was a life of prayer, meditation ordered to participation in the liturgy. The Rule of St Benedict sets out one approach to such a life. As a Benedictine Oblate (of Pluscarden Monastery in Scotland) I have studied the Rule a little and have tried to adapt it a lay life.

A spiritual life should be focussed on the worship of God in the sacred liturgy and be a balance of participation in the liturgy itself, (the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours); quasi-liturgical prayer, which is structured prayer that echoes the patterns or content of the liturgy, such as praying the psalms, repetitions of the Jesus Prayer or the rosary; and personal prayer. The liturgy is the activity from which all other human activity is derived and to which it ought to lead us.  When this is understood, it makes all our everyday, common-or-garden activities fulfilling, while at the same ensuring that they don't become our primary goals in life.

In this context we can see that as we get older and our physical capabilities decline we will be forced to do things that are less physically demanding. If at this point we have developed the habits, then we will reach naturally for things that are in harmony with the principle of ordering our lives to union with God; and the activity of worship and prayer itself will start to occupy a greater proportion of our time, through default as well as desire.

For those I saw who were in their last days, even prayer becomes more difficult, they could not read a psalter, for example and gain anything from the text. What then? I remember being told of a lady who silently prayed the rosary all day in her chair. She could do this because the memory of it was indelibly imprinted on her mind through years of habit, so that her prayer was second nature, almost unthinking. This highlights the value of memorizing some set prayers when you can so that they are there to draw on later. I would go for some short psalms and the gospel canticles and the Jesus Prayer.

What if even the ability to do this has gone? It seems to me that contemplative prayer is what remains. Contemplation is a passive state of mind by which one is receptive to God's grace.  In his Rule, St Benedict insists on the regular practice of lectio divina (you can read about how to do it in my book, the Little Oratory or in more detail in a great book on the subject by Dr Tim Grey). St Benedict describes the fourfold process: three are active - reading, meditating (thinking) and praying and the fourth is contemplation a passive, receptive state of mind that we are lead to by the practice of the first three. We do not judge the success of this, incidentally by how feel during the process or even by the number of good ideas that might, occasionally, jump into our heads. Grace is not felt directly.

For Benedict,  the 'work of God' in which we participate is the liturgy, and so I have always understood lectio divina as a discipline that is part of a training that deepens our participation in the liturgy and so allows for a fuller union with God. In praying the liturgy we move from moment to moment engaging in one or other of these four processes and these constitute the dynamic of the exchange of love that is our goal.

It may be that the people who I have described and in whom even the possibility of active prayer and worship is reduced, that contemplation is the natural activity that occupies most time. I would like to think so, at least. I do not know of any reason to believe that the power of the faculty of the passive reception of God's love in contemplatio is impaired by old age.

There is no accounting for who will respond to His grace but, to the degree that any of us can develop that faculty, the answer seems to be to include the regular practice contemplative prayer in your prayer life now, would be an important preparation for a joyful old age.

I have been doing lectio divina daily this since I pondered over these things. I also try to put aside time when I can be 'alone with none but thee my God' - these are periods when I just try to sit and be aware of and enjoy being alive, devoid as much as possible from stimulation. It occurs to me that it would a useful to develop such as skill when there is discomfort and lots of distraction going on around me so that I can learn to cut it out.  I will not always be able to control my environment and I might have to try contemplatio in a nursing room lounge when the television if showing Wheel of Fortune at a loud volume.

Another point is that the limitations I describe are not the preserve of the elderly. Some are born with severe physical and mental handicaps and it seems to me that they too might be unsung, natural contemplatives among us whose presence brings untold graces into the world for the benefit of all. As I understand it, God is not constrained by the sacraments and neither is He bound to act in ways that require mediation of the senses for us to benefit from them.

When all is said and done, we may be surprised to discover who has contributed the most to the good of the world and who has lived a life of Christian joy.

Compunction of the Heart - A Form of Meditation for Lent

From: The Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 49 ‘The Observance of Lent’ ‘We urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times. This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge in evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self denial’ A small group from Thomas More College of Liberal Arts went for an evening Lenten retreat at the Benedictine Abbey in Still River, Massachusetts. As in our last visit (link here) we arrived for Vespers at 6pm, and then were the guests of the community for dinner. After dinner we had a talk from one of the brothers of the community and after individual reading or prayer we went to Compline before returning home. Just as before, it was a great experience for all of us.

To begin his talk the brother of the community who took care of us (most graciously too I might add) read the short chapter from the Rule of St Benedict on Lent. He told he was going to talk about a form of meditation called ‘compunction of the heart’. Before he described it he asked us who had heard of this. No hands went up. I have read the rule a number of times and so must have read the phrase each time, but it had never registered with me that it might be technique that I could practice. I must have just skipped over the words.

Here is my recollection and understanding of what he told us (any confusion present is likely mine, not his!): each time we go through the sacrament of reconciliation, the process of repentance, confession and forgiveness of sins moves us closer to God. The desire for reconciliation can be motivated both positively and negatively. The negative is the desire to be closer to God driven by a fear of the consequences of our sin and a need to escape the discontent of our guilt; and the positive is a genuine desire to be closer to God again for his own sake by healing the wound of separation. While the positive is better than the negative, either is better than none at all.

When we practice compunction of the heart, we recall our sins of the past and relive that motivation to be close to God but separated from the sin that caused it. We must be clear that sin has been confessed and forgiven, and so we are not to re- confess. However the recollection of that motivation to be with God and the desire to be Him can be used to spur us on to closer to him now.

We can do this anywhere – it is something that works well in snatched moments in a busy day.

Since this was our introduction to the idea, we were encouraged to read about it and find out more. We were warned also that if we tried it we should be sure that is was leading us to God. If it was a reliving of the sins of the past that was us to self-pity, we should probably stop and seek guidance. Also, he said, this is a something that is suited to a busy lay life because we really can do this anywhere. It works well for instance if we dwell on these thought for just a few snatched moments in a busy day.

So the next time I join the line for the supermarket checkout, who knows, perhaps some of those in front of me, apparently daydreaming while they wait are in fact practicing compunction of the heart.

Images: Ribera, (Spanish, 17th century) the Penitent St Peter; and the Penitent St Mary Magdalen

Below, people in a line for the bank teller, possible practising compunction of the heart.

And, below, relics of saints practising compunction of the heart.

The Practice of Lectio Divina (3): Ephrem the Syrian on the Inexaustible Treasury of Scripture

Scripture, Part of the Foundation of Joy (part three; part one here; part two here) This is from the Office of Readings of Sunday Week 6 of Ordinary Time. It is from a Commentary on the Diatassaron by St Ephrem the Syrian. It certainly inspires me to keep on reading the bible and makes this point that God speaks to me at the level I am at, and so the same piece of scripture can say different things to me on the next reading. The sub-heading is: God's Word is an inexaustible spring of life.

'Lord, who can comprehend even one of your words? We lose more of it than we grasp, like those who drink from a living spring. For God’s word offers different facets according to the capacity of the listener, and the Lord has portrayed his message in many colours, so that whoever gazes upon it can see in it what suits him. Within it he has buried manifold treasures, so that each of us might grow rich in seeking them out.

The word of God is a tree of life that offers us blessed fruit from each of its branches. It is like that rock which was struck open in the wilderness, from which all were offered spiritual drink. As the Apostle says: They ate spiritual food and they drank spiritual drink.

And so whenever anyone discovers some part of the treasure, he should not think that he has exhausted God’s word. Instead he should feel that this is all that he was able to find of the wealth contained in it. Nor should he say that the word is weak and sterile or look down on it simply because this portion was all that he happened to find. But precisely because he could not capture it all he should give thanks for its riches.

Be glad then that you are overwhelmed, and do not be saddened because he has overcome you. A thirsty man is happy when he is drinking, and he is not depressed because he cannot exhaust the spring. So let this spring quench your thirst, and not your thirst the spring. For if you can satisfy your thirst without exhausting the spring, then when you thirst again you can drink from it once more; but if when your thirst is sated the spring is also dried up, then your victory would turn to harm.

Be thankful then for what you have received, and do not be saddened at all that such an abundance still remains. What you have received and attained is your present share, while what is left will be your heritage. For what you could not take at one time because of your weakness, you will be able to grasp at another if you only persevere. So do not foolishly try to drain in one draught what cannot be consumed all at once, and do not cease out of faintheartedness from what you will be able to absorb as time goes on.'

I have just one comment on the icon of St Ephrem. Ephrem lived from the first part of the 4th century and in 1920 was proclaimed by Pope Benedict XV as a Doctor of the Church. Among his famous writing are his Hymns of Paradise. The sunken cheekbones in the icon are used to show asceticism. Ephrem was not a monk as monasticism as we know it was only beginning to take hold in Egypt during this period. However, he lived in a Christian community that had similar disciplines and he is venerated in the East as an example of monastic discipline. Hence the sunken cheeks.

Monastery in the Syrian desert (this is of St Moses the Ethiopian). I hope their spring is inexaustible, just looking at it makes me feel parched!

The Practice of Lectio Divina - a Source of Joy (1)

Scripture, part of the foundation of joy (part one, part two tomorrow)
A group of Thomas More College students and myself have just made a trip to the Benedictine community, St Benedict Abbey, which is at Still River, Massachussetts for a mini-retreat. We arrived for sung Vespers in Latin at 6pm and then left after Compline, which finished about 9.15pm. In between the two Hours, we had dinner with our host, the guestmaster, a talk and period of quiet reflection.
The guestmaster's talk focussed on the contemplation of Scripture, one of the four 'pillars' of the new liturgical movement - Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, Holy Scripture and Mystagogy (which I recently wrote about). The form of study of scripture discussed on this occasion was lectio divina. Lectio is required of all monks who follow the Rule of St Benedict, and so I had asked him focus on this aspect to help our students (and me) incorporate it into our daily lives. We were lucky to receive a wonderful, down to earth talk about this form of study of scripture, which gave us some great pointers on how to incorporate it into our own lives. 
What was so interesting for me was his description of how the the constant practice of both lectio and participation in the liturgy, Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours, each enriches and deepens participation in the other. So a quotations from the bible in an antiphon at Vespers, for example, might evoke the whole biblical context; and then conversely, how the reading of a phrase in lectio, would evoke the season or feast in the liturgy and place it in the context of our heavenly destiny - the worship of God the Father. Through this dynamic, each reinforces and deepens the experience of the other. As a monk, he told us, he spends more than an hour a day on lectio. As it is unlikely that lay people can regularly devote an hour to this, I asked if it was worth trying to incorporate it for perhaps 10 minutes in a day. Would that still be worthwhile. Oh, yes! I was told. What also struck me was how joyfully and generously it was offered to us. Tomorrow, I post a short summarise what I grasped from his talk and describe how I, and amateur at these things, have tried to put this into practice in my daily routine.
For those who wish to learn more about lectio divina you could always do what we did - go and listen to someone who practices it and will joyfully pass it on to those who ask. Failing that a book that I found very helpful and practical is "Praying Scripture for a Change" by Dr. Tim Gray.
I recently described, here, how in my opinion, these the pillars of the new liturgical movement  could be a basis of cultural renewal and as such, certainly, are the foundation of the Way of Beauty. But none of this is worth doing unless it is a source of joy, and our visit to the monastery yesterday reinforced the conviction that this is what the Church offers us.
Here is St Bonaventure (whose picture is shown) from the Office of Readings of Monday Week 5 of the year:
'The substance and fruit of holy Scripture is very specific: the fullness of eternal happiness. For this is what Scripture is – its words are words of eternal life, and it is written not just so that we should believe, but specially so that we should possess eternal life in which we may see, and love, and have all our desires fulfilled. When they are fulfilled, then we shall know the superabundant love that comes from knowledge, and so we shall be filled with all the fullness of God. God’s Scripture tries to lead us to this fullness, and to the truth of the preaching of the apostles. It is to this end, with this intention, that we should study holy Scripture, and teach it, and hear it.
If we are to follow the direct path of Scripture and come straight to the final destination, then right from the beginning – when simple faith starts to draw us towards the light of the Father – our hearts should kneel down and ask the Father to give us, through his Son and the Holy Spirit, true knowledge of Jesus and of his love. Once we know him and love him like this, we shall be made firm in faith and deeply rooted in love, and we can know the breadth, length, depth and height of holy Scripture. That news can then lead us to the full knowledge and overwhelming love of the most holy Trinity. The desires of the saints draw them towards the Trinity, in which all that is good and true is and finds its completion.'
Liturgy is the worship of the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. By worshipping the through and with the Church, which is the mystical body of Christ, we approach the Father. This is what we will do in heaven and we can step supernaturally into this wonderful place and by degrees (not fully before we die) partake of divine nature in this life. Bonaventure is describing this in this little passage above. The liturgy  - the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours - is how we can do it.
The liturgy is described by Church as the 'source and summit' of human existence. Worship of God the Father in heaven what we are made for, and the liturgy is the source of grace that guides us to it. I cannot imagine anything higher than the prize that contains full and eternal happiness, superabundant love and all our desires fulfilled: and this, according to Bonaventure is precisely what the Church offers us.
For more about Bonaventure, follow link here.
The painting below is of a monk reading scripture, by Rembrandt.