Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Wednesday, Stewardship and Storms

Today is the feast of Benedict of Nursia, author of "the Rule" and progenitor of the monastic manner of life that most religious communities in the Anglican Communion draw their own domestic practice from as they seek to serve Christ in this world through vows of submission, poverty and life in prayer.

We started the day off in a slightly stifling chapel. I didn't even think about putting an alb on and pined for my buddy Scott's trick of putting a handkerchief in his prayer book in order to wipe the perspiration from the brow during a service...he knows what he's doing, but with air conditioning in the main sanctuary, I only remember the idea from time to time. And, almost always after the fact.

Still, there was the blessing of a cool breeze.

Benedict was an interesting person. At a time when poplar society had, in his estimation, lost its moral center he set out to find his own. The political and religious leadership were locked in arguments about who could claim authority over Church and State, the outlying cultures pressing in on the Roman Empire were moving closer and closer to Rome. He chose to do what many of us fantasize about: he up and left.

With intention, of course.

Moving up into the hills where other hermits and anchorites had withdrawn, he started to try to live life in line with a vision of practice that was defined by work, prayer and rest. In a way, he chose to reorient his routines from being responsive to the world...and instead made the effort to create a routine that allowed him to keep the world accountable to God. Prayer, social interaction, play and rest were all framed with, and couched in, prayer. After a time, a community grew up around him, and so popular was his practice (and the book, his Rule), that eventually Pope Gregory the Great utilized it as the template for Augustine's mission to the British Isles....this, my friends, is the Christian life!

What a challenge. In this day and age when politics and policy work to determine our personal and corporate agendas, we have here an example of a person who chose to work across the grain of public life and to embrace a communal path to a faithful practice that pushes back against the distractions and attachments of "the modern path."

Now, I don't think we can all just drop it all and run off to the monastery. It clearly did not work for Ophelia...and our problems, great and small, are not resolved by retreating away from them. What I know of, and from, monks and nuns is that it takes an extraordinary effort, much time and a great deal of support from those around you to be able to conform to that degree of religious life. The hardest part, I am assured, is the idea that the individual is no longer the focus and core of our personal perception. We are absorbed into, and become a part of, community.

The romance of that ideal is that somehow there is peace to be had...but that is just what it is, a romantic ideal. Few of us want the chapter pushing in to tell us our business. Few of us desire the accountability of an assumed poverty that mandates reliance on the other for almost everything. Few of us will tolerate not being the most important person in the room...and sometimes when we are just that, to assume the lowest place of all, servant.

What piques this for me is the recent news that the Roman Catholic Church has decided to reinstate the Latin Mass. No big thing, you might say. We Episcopalians have Rites I and II, and there are even places where the older rites from previous Books of Common Prayer are practiced. Thing is, there are bits in there that just make me nervous. I am not sure that I like the idea of a priest offering up a rite that he may not understand fully. Not many speak Latin fluently enough anymore to be able to truly offer up an authentic prayer in that tongue. It is meant, I am assured, to put before the faithful way to be more inclusive.

But the language itself is exclusive. On top of that, the old Latin Mass also calls for the conversion of the Jews. More exclusion. My sadness is that this Pope seems to be choosing to narrow and limit expression, even while he seeks in rhetorical flourishes to create a sense of expansion.

That does not seem to be the model that Benedict was proposing, even while expressing a desire for the community to forge a common practice. It was a practice that had at its core a radical and profound commitment to the extension of hospitality to the stranger.

We forget that too easily as we travel together across today's religious landscape.

Evangelicals don't trust Pentecostals. Conservatives lambast Liberals. Progressives shun Traditionalists. Most everyone has someone they don't cotton to. Too often we seek to define ourselves by what we are NOT over and against by what we truly ARE.

ARE we faithful? ARE we committed to life in community? ARE we willing to embrace and work with the people who are charged with authority and care in community? ARE we willing to be both institutionally AND personally self-critical in order to see how growth in Christ might continue to evolve our practice?

Benedict's answer was to create a routine that was both predictable and manageable in the face of the pressing vicissitudes of life's daily challenges. Our challenge is to forge a practice that faithfully serves Christ and preserves community. But, taking that image of the Latin Mass to heart, we have to be careful that holding on to something out of a sense of tradition does not mean we also take on the sins of our Church's past.

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