Advent is a time of expectation, anticipation, and waiting. What should we do while waiting? Here is a podcast I made last year during Advent.
A Silent Meal
Monastic meals nourish the body and soul. In Chapter 38 of his Rule for Monasteries, Benedict describes what should happen during the main meal of the day. “The meals of the brethren should not be without reading. Nor should the reader be anyone who happens to take up the book; but there should be a reader for the whole week . . . And let absolute silence be kept at table, so that no whispering may be heard nor any voice except the reader’s. As to the things they need while they eat and drink, let the brethren pass them to one another so that no one need ask for anything.”
From Praying with Saint Benedict, my reflection:
At the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, following the Rule, no conversation takes place at the meals. At the midday meal on my first visit, after two chanted prayers, monks and guests sat to hear the first reading, a short passage from Exodus. Then, as the meal was served, the designated reader for the week began the second reading from a devotional book with chapters on compassion, forgiveness, anger, and humility. On other visits, the reader has read from biographies of modern saints. At the end of the meal, the reader read a short passage from the lives of the early fathers. Lunch ended with a chanted thanksgiving and a sung prayer to St. Benedict.
[Benedict’s] chapter on the meal readings underscores several principles of The Rule. The first principle follows Benedict’s teaching on restraint of speech: during meals, complete silence. The introvert in me found great relief in not having to make dinner table conversation with the strangers on either side of me. I was free just to sit in silence and listen.
The second principle is humility; the reader asks for prayer to shield him from “the spirit of vanity” and waits to take his meal with the kitchen workers and servers after others have left. A third theme addresses mutual obedience: the brothers being sensitive enough to one another’s needs as they eat and drink, so that no one needs to ask for anything. Mealtime, it seems, is a perfect time to practice holy silence, humility, and service.
Patient God, help me in every moment of my life, even during meals, to be obedient to you, looking for opportunities to listen and serve with humility.
Born from Above
The Gospel reading on Sunday for the second Sunday of Lent was taken from John 3, where Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” When Nicodemus doesn’t understand, Jesus elaborates: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’”
Jesus then compared the Spirit to the wind. It blows where it chooses, and we don’t know where it comes from or where it will end up.
When Nicodemus, understandably mystified by Jesus’ talk about being “born from above” and “born of the Spirit,” responds by asking, “How can these things be?” Jesus answers by comparing himself, the Son of Man, to the bronze serpent Moses put on a high pole. Anyone who was bitten by a snake could lift their eyes to look upon Moses’ bronze serpent and they would live. In other words, Jesus was saying, Look to me and I can give you eternal life, a life born of the Spirit.
Moments in our life when we have transcendent encounters with God can give us a “born from above” experience. My first was as a young boy having an honest, soul-wrenching conversation with Jesus in my bed one night. I immediately was enveloped with an incredible sense of God’s presence and love. Other encounters with God followed throughout my life, some powerful enough to shake up my life a bit and put me on a different spiritual path.
About twelve years ago I heard Elaine Harris speak about the Cornerstone Community and recognized immediately that the Holy Spirit was leading me in a new direction. It was a transformational experience that led me to becoming a Benedictine and adopt an ancient rule of life. Little did I realize then where the wind of the Spirit would take me. My life hasn’t been the same since.
Being born from above is not the destination of our spiritual journey; it is the beginning.
 John 3:1-17
Lent as Life
Benedict looked at Lent as a chance for a little spiritual house cleaning and an opportunity for personal growth. In chapter 49 of his Rule, he maintained that our lives ought always to have the character of a Lenten observance: that is, devoted to prayer, restraint in what we eat and drink, avoiding other vices, and “compunction of heart” (or the moral scruples that prevent you from doing something bad and acknowledging it if you have).
Realizing that few of his monks had the discipline and self-restraint for doing that as consistently as they should, Lent was a time for the brethren to “keep their lives most pure and at the same time wash away . . . all the negligences of other times.”
Lent was also a time for study. At the beginning of Lent, the abbot gave a book to each monk that they were instructed to “read straight through from the beginning.” In an age of wide-spread illiteracy, reading was a practice that Benedict embraced, and studying the scriptures was something he required of all his monks.
Most of all, according to Benedict, every act given to God during Lent should be offered “with joy of the Holy Spirit.” No long faces or martyr-like behavior during this holy season.
What should we give up during Lent? Michael Casey writes about compensatory attachments. When God is overlooked in one’s life, people often attempt to build their character around alternatives such as power, possessions, pleasure, or privilege . Laura Swan states that the primary goal for the spiritual journey is detachment from these things, which leads to interior freedom. She writes, “Our goal is a life of abundant simplicity.” 
Isn’t devoting ourselves to prayer, reading, and giving up unhealthy behaviors a good thing to practice year-round? We don’t do this to earn points with God, but rather out of deep gratitude for God’s grace to us and obedience to a better way of life.
Gracious God, thank you for the joy of your Holy Spirit and the grace that inspires me to resist harmful attachments and embrace those things that are good for me and bring joy to others. Amen.
Confusion exists about who St. Valentine was because there have been about a dozen St. Valentines, plus a pope named Valentine. “Valentinus” was a popular name between the second and eighth centuries (meaning worthy, strong, powerful), and several martyrs over the centuries have carried this name.
The Valentine we celebrate on February 14th actually may be two of these Valentines, one being a real person who died around 270 C.E. and who Pope Gelasius I, in 496 C.E., referred to as a martyr, his acts as “being known only to God.” The other possibility is that Valentine was a priest, beheaded near Rome by the emperor Claudius II for helping Christian couples wed (thus allowing the young groom to escape conscription into the Roman army).
He has become the patron saint of many things. People call on him to watch over young lovers, but also to intervene with epileptics, beekeepers, travelers, and those who faint or have the plague. Appropriately, he’s also the patron saint of engaged couples and happy marriages.
In his Rule, Benedict never addresses romantic love, but in the prologue to the Rule, he wrote that, as we advance in faith, our hearts expand and “we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love.” In his chapter on the tools of good works, he enjoins his monks to love their enemies and show mutual obedience to each other in love. Love permeates Benedict’s instruction on leadership and discipline. Most of all, he instructs his monks to “prefer nothing to the love of Christ.”
He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love. (Song of Songs 2:4)
Probably the most difficult challenge for focused, self-disciplined, achievement-oriented people on their path to God’s kingdom is giving up control of our own ambitions in order to take up our cross and follow Christ. However, our own will often stands in the way of God’s will. Proverbs 16 tells us that sometimes there is a way that seems to us to be right, “but in the end it is the way to death,” and Christ himself taught “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
In his Rule, Benedict states, “The first step of humility…is that we keep the reverence of God always before our eyes” (RSB 7). Michael Casey points out that those who have truly encountered God are filled with a sense of wonder at the mystery and, simultaneously, confounded by a sense of their own insignificance.
He continues, “This sense of littleness is what opens us up to be filled with the gifts of God, a God who looks with favor on the humility of God’s servants. Humility is not primarily a social virtue, the opposite of arrogance. It is the necessary consequence that follows an encounter with the loving holiness of God. After that it doesn’t matter much what status others assign to us.”
Benedict’s chapter on humility is the longest and—Esther DeWaal argues—the most crucial of the chapters in the Rule.  And I think her claim makes sense. It is humility that enables us to submit to those in authority, listen with “the ear of the heart,” offer hospitality, take our turn in the kitchen, become a servant leader, restrain our speech, tend the sick and the elderly, pray.
The derivation of the word humility is from the Latin humus, the ground or earth. In DeWaal’s words, it means “to be earthed, centered, grounded.” Laura Swan describes it as becoming very real, moving toward our true self made in the image and likeness of Christ.  It is a state of being that should appeal to all of us.
- Michael Casey, Balaam’s Donkey: Random Ruminations for Every Day of the Year. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2019).
- Esther DeWaal, A Life-giving Way: A Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), 57.
- Laura Swan, Engaging Benedict: What the Rule Can Teach Us Today. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2005), 72.
Today we remember the powerful leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the enormous role he played in moving ahead the cause of racial justice. According to researchers at Harvard Business School, King exemplified not just one, but two types of vital organizational leadership. First, he articulated a clear vision, set goals and established high expectations. Second, he was an example of servant leadership. He did not ask his followers to do anything he was not willing to do, including putting his life on the line for the cause.
In the 6th century, Benedict was ahead of his time in regard to understanding effective leadership. He delegated authority widely—to his prior, his deans, the cellarer, and the porter—and he listened—not just to his leadership team, but to the whole community. In chapter 3 of the Rule he states: “Whenever any important business has to be done in the monastery, let the Abbot call together the whole community and state the matter to be acted upon. Then, having heard the brethren’s advice, let him turn the matter over in his own mind and do what he shall judge to be most expedient . . .”. It is not just from the wise older men that he solicits advice, but from the young monks as well. “The reason we have said that all should be called for counsel is that the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best.”
Twenty-first-century books on leadership would not be too much different in their advice to readers. Among the eight essential leadership skills identified by Lauren Landry  is receiving and implementing feedback. In a survey by the American Management Association, more than a third of senior managers, executives, and employees said they “hardly ever” know what’s going on in their organizations. Asking for feedback from your team, says Landry, can not only help you grow as a leader, but build trust among your colleagues.
What stands out in Chapter 3 of Benedict’s Rule—in contrast to more authoritarian monastic rules—is the principle of humility, as modeled by the abbot in the way he leads. His leadership style is not an autocratic one and respects the wisdom of others in the community.
Gracious God, give me the wisdom to seek council when I am making decisions that affect others and the humility to honor and support the decisions of those who lead me. May listening, love, and mutual obedience be present in our life together. Amen.
- “Martin Luther King, Jr.: A leader to inspire businesses.” W. P. Carey News, Arizona State University, 1-17-2022. https://news.wpcarey.asu.edu/20220117-martin-luther-king-jr-leader-inspire-businesses
- Lauren Landry, ”8 Essential Leadership Communication Skills”. Harvard Business School Online, 11-14-2019.https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/leadership-communication
A New Year’s Resolution
I don’t always make New Year’s resolutions. Sometimes the resolutions made on January 1st have dissolved by January 31st. This New Year’s Day, however, I want to return to Benedict’s injunction in his Rule for Monasteries.
Many authors have pointed out that Benedict’s first bit of instruction in the Rule is to listen: “Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from one who loves you; welcome it and faithfully put it into practice” (RSB, Prologue). As happens throughout the Rule, it appears that Benedict’s inspiration here is scripture: “Listen, children, to a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight” (Prov. 4:1).
When I think of someone who could listen with “the ear of his heart,” I think of Nicodemus, whose story is told in the third chapter of John. Nicodemus was a Jewish leader and member of the Sanhedrin, the religious tribunal. He had many reasons not to be seen with a controversial figure like Jesus and came secretly to him by night with a burning question about the source of Jesus’s power.
Jesus did not give him a predictable explanation or one that was easy to immediately understand. They had a long conversation in which Jesus said to him, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” The Greek word for ‘again’ also contained a root that meant “from above.” In other words, eternal life—a life of the Spirit—begins with transformation, being born from above. Evidence of Nicodemus’s transformation came from his later defense of Jesus during his trial in the Sanhedrin and then claiming Jesus’s body for burial in the family tomb.
Deep listening, then, can lead to transformation. Where could I learn to listen “with the ear of my heart”? First, listening to God. Like others, I suspect, my prayers tend to be long on requests and short on listening. I’ve got to be more regular in my practice of contemplative prayer, as Cynthia Bourgeault defines it, “simply a wordless, trusting opening of self to the divine presence.”
I could do a better job of listening to the Holy Spirit, as she speaks to me in scripture and those I come in contact with.
I could do a better job of listening to my spouse.
I want to listen with the ears of my heart when I talk with others, especially those who are hurting.
As a New Year’s resolution, listening would be a good choice, a goal that would certainly lead to other positive transformations in my life.
- Translation from Joan Chittester, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages. (New York: Crossroad, 2009), 19.
2. Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2004), 5.
Advent has always been one of my favorite times of the year. I love the Advent hymns, readings, and its themes of anticipation, expectation, and hope. If we ever needed a season of hope, it certainly is now, having come through three years of political chaos, social unrest, a devasting pandemic, and economic uncertainty.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”
Is our recent turmoil a blessing in disguise? One of my favorite writers, Michael Casey, Benedictine monk, writes about the “grace of discontinuity,” a time when old habits and routines don’t work any longer and we are forced to look to new ways of being and new ways to practice our faith. We are called to a conversion of life, which Casey defines as a process by which the uncreative sameness of our life is fractured and we have the opportunity of reorienting ourselves toward becoming the kind of person God created us to become. Advent is a time for us to acknowledge our need for grace and to pray for the Holy Spirit to renew his work in us.
In his book, The Road to Character, the New York Times columnist David Brooks makes the distinction between our career-oriented, ambitious nature (Adam I) and the interior, moral nature that wants to serve rather than conquer (Adam II). To nurture your ambitious goal-oriented life (Adam I), it makes sense to nurture your strengths. To nurture our moral, self-giving core, it is necessary to confront our weaknesses.
As we move into this Advent season, let’s all do some inner work, beginning with welcoming our failures, frustrations, and life disruptions as opportunities for transformation, finding time for prayer and contemplation, reorienting ourselves toward becoming the kind of person God created us to be, a reflection of Christ.
 David Brooks, The Road to Character. (New York: Random House, 2015), xii.
From The Rule of St. Benedict:
“Monastics ought to be zealous for silence at all times, but especially during the hours of the night” (RSB 42:1). Benedict goes on to say that upon leaving Compline, the last service of the day right before bedtime, no one should speak. Absolute silence is required.
From Praying with Saint Benedict:
Years ago, I attended a men’s weekend retreat in Arizona. On the first night of the retreat, after the evening service, we were instructed to keep silence for the rest of the evening as we went to our dorm and prepared for bed. We followed those instructions and used gesture to communicate when we needed to as we made up our bunks, completed our evening ablutions, and undressed for bed. I remember how refreshing it seemed at the time not to have to make conversation with these men who were, as yet, strangers to me and to let the profound lessons and new insights from our evening service resonate within my head. I slept very well.
Visiting the monastery, it is also meaningful to end the day with Compline (our “evening sacrifice”) and then return to my room in silence, letting the events of the day sink in. Silence is the profound gift of my time there. The daily offices and the silent times in between them give ample time for God to speak to the heart.
In the afternoon, I sometimes sit by the river, reveling in the silence. Literally all I can hear is the breeze, a cricket rhythmically chirping nearby, and the sound of a chatty magpie somewhere off in the distance. Simplicity and silence have great value, removing the distractions in life, making room for other things in one’s consciousness and spirit.
From the hymn:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence, And with fear and trembling stand; ponder nothing earthly-minded, for with blessing in his hand
Christ, our God, to earth descending,
comes our homage to command.
Gerard Moultrie (1864)