Gospel reading for Lent 2, Year B: Mark 8.31-38
This past weekend, those of us connected with St. Brigid of Kildare Monastery experienced a first in our history: a community-wide conversation. Given that we extend from California to the Dominican Republic, the conversation took place by phone. I’ve written previously here that St. Brigid’s draws from both Benedictine and Methodist traditions. Our community thus has ancient roots, while at the same time being a new expression of monasticism within a Protestant context. This combination of ancient and new makes for a rich mix as we continue both to explore our heritage and also to discern the shape that our community will take as we grow. Our weekend conversation was part of that ongoing discernment, and though we didn’t come away with many answers, some of the necessary questions came into clearer focus.
Being part of the St. Brigid’s community involves following the Rule of St. Benedict, the way of life that the founder of the Benedictine order laid out for his followers in sixth-century Italy. The Rule is elegant in the way that it seeks to order a community for the purpose of growing in its love of God. Though it embodies austerities that seem strange to many of us today (as a mild example, the Rule forbids a monk to “exchange letters, blessed tokens or small gifts of any kind, with his parents or anyone else, or with a fellow monk”), and which modern-day Benedictine communities interpret with contemporary sensibilities, the Rule offers a path notable for its wise marriage of discipline and grace. As many have noted, Benedict possessed keen insight into the workings of the human heart. The way of life that he established, and which has endured for more than a millennium and a half, recognizes and addresses our tendencies toward chaos, and it sets out a path that calls us to move through all that would deter us from God.
The recent St. Brigid’s conversation and our ongoing study of the Rule have been present with me as I’ve pondered this Sunday’s gospel lection. In his response to Jesus’ teaching about his forthcoming suffering, death, and resurrection, Peter embodies the very qualities that Benedict recognized in those around him and sought to address in his Rule. Peter longs for divine things, yet he grapples with human things. And understandably so: this is hard and harsh teaching that Jesus is engaged in as he speaks of what is to come. How can Peter, who just moments ago declared Jesus to be the Messiah, think of letting go of Jesus, now that he knows who he is? So Peter rebukes Jesus, and Jesus rebukes him right back, calling him Satan and chastising him for setting his mind on human things rather than divine things. One might wonder whether the intense energy that Jesus puts into his response indicates that he is not merely upbraiding Peter but also reminding himself where his own focus must lie.
The Rule of Benedict intrigues me for the way that it addresses the tension that surfaces in Peter and in all who seek to follow God: how do we integrate the realities of our human lives—including our fears and shortcomings—with our desire for the divine? Benedict knew that the members of a community, even a community seeking complete devotion to God, could not spend all their time engaged in prayer and other divine things to the exclusion of everyday, human activities. And so with his Rule he crafted a path that continues to inspire Benedictines to order our lives in a way that both frees us to focus our attention on divine things and also to notice the presence of God in the midst of the human things to which we must give our attention.
Some of the portions of the Rule that are the most telling about Benedictine spirituality are those that have to do with daily life and its physical aspects in the monastery. In the chapter that describes the qualities of the cellarer (the one who takes care of the monastery’s supplies, including food and drink), Benedict writes that the cellarer “will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected.” In the chapter “The Tools and Goods of the Monastery,” Benedict makes clear that the monastery should entrust its possessions only to those members in whom the abbot has confidence. All are to take part in kitchen service, for, as Benedict says, “the brothers should serve one another.” In arising for their prayers, the community members “will quietly encourage each other, for the sleepy like to make excuses.” The rhythm of daily labor and rest is built around the Liturgy of the Hours, which Benedict calls the “Work of God.”
Time and again, Benedict links the tasks of the monastery—the details of daily living that keep us from dissolving into smelly heaps—with our divine work in the world. How would our relationship with our own possessions shift if we understood them as “sacred vessels of the altar”? How might the mundane aspects of our work serve not as a distraction from God but as a window onto the Divine who is present with us in every moment? How would it be to build the rhythm of our life around prayer, instead of the other way around?
Not all are called into a Benedictine way of life—and that’s one of the things that Benedict is very clear about. Yet Christ calls each of us to a path that enables us to find and follow the presence of the holy in the midst of being human, not in spite of being human. The God who became incarnate and wore flesh beckons us to go into the deeps of our humanity, to meet the God who dwells there, and to reckon with all that would keep us from relationship with that God.
Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he talks, in this same passage, about saving our lives and losing them. Following Jesus and denying ourselves doesn’t mean giving up our humanness; rather, it means learning to see what it is within our humanity that hinders us from God, and letting that go. It means not clinging to our human desires at the expense of seeking to know God’s desires for our human lives. It means finding the path that will best enable us, in all the particularities and peculiarities of our lives, to find that intersection—that crossing, that cross that Christ invites us to take up—where the human and the divine meet in fullness.
Where is that intersection for you? Have you found a way, a path, a practice that frees you to find the divine in the particularities of human living? What is your mind set on these days? How does the season of Lent invite you to refocus and reorient yourself amid the ongoing competition between human things and divine things? Who can help you in this?
May this season free you to focus on the divine in the details of your daily life. Blessings.
[Quotes from the Rule of Benedict are taken from The Rule of St. Benedict in English, ed. Timothy Fry, OSB (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1981).]
Resources for the Season: Looking toward Lent