Here’s my confession: I don’t feel like it’s Christmas. I caught the flu almost two weeks ago and have been feeling miserable ever since. This holiday is generally a low-key affair in my house anyway, but I usually try to celebrate Advent and attend Christmas Eve services. I listen to sacred choir music in the car while running errands and enjoy seeing the light displays others put up.
I didn’t get to do much of that this year. I’ve spent most of the last week in bed or in the comfy chair in the living room reading or playing computer games. And now it’s Christmas morning and I feel like I’ve missed it. I’ll still cook the stuffed crown roast of lamb that I make every year, plus the apple pie, but aside from that it could be any other day. I’m currently sitting in the comfy chair typing on my computer, my kids are playing computer games, and my husband is trying to put his office back together. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas.
Some of it’s because I’m still sick. Some of it’s because I’m prone to depression and perfectionism anyway, and I hate that I’ve been minimally functional for over a week. Life has also been particularly hard for my family recently. But I refuse to give in. One of the blessings of the Benedictine life is its constancy. St. Benedict wrote his rule for us to be closer to God, but he also highlights the fact that God is constantly trying to be closer to us. God never ceases to open the way to us. It’s that promise that I’m clinging to today.
So without further ado, here is my Christmas Poem for Hope:
C ome, O Lord, into my heart
H eavy with fear and despair
R estore my hope for love and peace
I n the face of doubt and menace
S ave your people from our desolate longings
T ransform us into your vessels
M ake us whole and connect us all
A ssured of your love and grace
S aved by your Son, the infant Christ
D ignity incarnate
A bsent the trappings of power
Y et all we need to reclaim creaton's goodness.
May Christ be your light this Christmas Day and every day.
Benedictine monastics vow stability, fidelity to the monastic way of life, and obedience. As an Oblate, I don’t make those vows. However, as a Benedictine, I try to live as though I have. But what does stability in the day-to-day life of an Oblate look like?
The Long View of Stability
It’s easiest to view stability through the wide-angle lens of time. Stability means faithfulness over the long haul. It means endurance and reliability, showing up and being present and active on a regular, on-going basis. Stability is a monastic who has been in their community for decades, or a marriage that has lasted decades, or a teacher, volunteer, or any other worker who has served in their capacity for a good number of years (usually–you guessed it!–decades).
It sounds romantic. It sounds comforting. In some ways, it seems almost magical.
But it’s a lot of freaking work.
Each Moment a Decision
Decades are made up of years. Years are made up of months. Months are made up of days, and days are made up of moments. Hundreds of them. And moments are decision points.
Every single moment is a decision point. Each decision involves not only the person’s values, but also how the person feels right then. It involves their environment, and whom they’re interacting with, and what just happened thirty seconds ago.
We’re not always at our best in those moments. In fact, we’re not at our best during most moments. But those moments define our stability.
The Basement Remodel
This reality has been on my mind a lot this week.
I have been married to my husband for fifteen years. I dream of us being together for decades: a couple that has weathered the storms of life together. In that view fifteen years is a good start, but it’s just the beginning.
And we still have to weather the basement remodel.
Let me be clear: we both want this basement remodel. We’ve been using the semi-finished basement as our shared office for most of our married life. I like silence. He likes music. I like curtains and decorations. He likes minimalism and utility. We both work from home. Stability in the day-to-day has been a challenge in this situation. So remodeling it to give us each our own distinct, individual space is definitely a good idea.
Have you ever seen those pictures of happy young couples repainting a room, or working together to lay pristine drop cloths over spotless furniture or gleaming floors? You know the ones who smile at each other over their electric drills?
That’s not us.
We’re stressed. We’re under a time constraint. This basement needs to be finished before my husband’s vacation time ends. I’m coming down with my son’s flu and not feeling great, but I have to paint. The paint fumes are not helping. Neither is the incessant hammering my husband is doing a few feet away. Because he needs to install the lighting. He needs to interrupt my painting so I can help him with the drop ceiling. He’s got to get as much done as possible before he comes down sick, because we all know he’s next.
The boxes containing our desk areas dominate the family room. We stored our office furniture in the garage. Random books, files, and test equipment have relocated to the living room and even my bedroom. The house is chaos.
I hate chaos. I don’t do well in chaos.
My husband can ignore the chaos, but he gets so hyper-focused on a goal that he forgets how to “people.”
Ideally, we wouldn’t snap at each other. We wouldn’t resent the interruptions we both cause. Instead, we’d graciously help each other and recognize each other’s needs. Especially me, since I’m a Benedictine.
I’m also human.
Fortunately, the two are not mutually exclusive.
Small Moments, Important Decisions
It’s these moments that will determine our stability. I can try to not resent the interruptions. And when I fail, I can forgive the interruptions. I can forgive the snappish comments rather than shutting down in anger or sadness. And so can he. My husband may not be a Benedictine, but our marriage vows included a vow to forgive each other, and we both take care to remember that.
We will weather this basement remodel. Just as we weathered the six moves in the first six years of our marriage. Those moves involved a lot of small moments in chaotic situations, and plenty of opportunities to forgive each other. They also provided plenty of opportunities to choose compassion and kindness. Not all of our choices required forgiveness.
We look back on those moves now as something we got through, and someday we’ll look at this basement remodel the same way. It may not feel like choosing compassion and forgiveness in the midst of drywall dust and paint fumes and drop ceilings is a spiritual endeavor, but it is. In fact, according to St. Benedict, it’s the core of spirituality. My husband and I are living in community together. Every moment of every day, we’re in community. Our stability in the day-to-day ordinariness of our lives will build those decades. There’s no other way to do it.
Think about your own community, whether it’s at home or at work or within another context. When can you choose compassion or forgiveness? What choices can you make, even in the midst of challenging circumstances, that will add up to a long view of stability?
Shortly after I embraced a Benedictine Christian identity, I found myself at a weekend retreat at Camp Calumet in Freedom, NH. It was the Mother’s Day weekend retreat, which I’d been attending with my two children for years. We were one of several returning families, and it was nice to see familiar faces.
There was one woman in particular I’d become friends with over the years. She had four children who were in the same general age bracket as my two, and we were both homeschooling moms. Her Evangelical Christian beliefs were more conservative than my ELCA Lutheran beliefs, but we had enough in common and enough respect for each other that our doctrinal differences were never really a problem.
That is, they weren’t a problem until she found me reading St. Benedict’s Rule.
I’m sure I didn’t explain the role the Rule played in my life very well. I was very new to the whole thing, and I’d never tried to articulate it to another person before. In her view, obedience to anything except God alone was idolatry. A good Christian shouldn’t need any more instruction than can be found in the bible itself.
Our relationship ended that weekend.
Christian Living for Dummies
Since then I’ve wrestled with the question: Why be a Benedictine Christian? Isn’t just being a Christian enough? If not, isn’t being a Lutheran Christian enough? How many labels or qualifiers do I need?
When I first attempted to live according the Rule, I did so because I wanted a deeper spirituality. The competitive part of my brain thought I was trying for a more advanced spirituality than regular, ordinary Christians.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In the very first line of the Prologue, St. Benedict addresses the reader of his Rule as “my child.” In the second line he refers to himself as a “loving parent” giving “advice” to help the reader return to God. The Prologue ends with St. Benedict stating his intent to “establish a school for the Lord’s service,” which would “introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.” In Chapter 73, the final chapter of the Rule, he describes the whole thing as “this modest rule we have written for beginners.”*
I’ll be honest, I laughed out loud the first time I read that line.
Except he wasn’t kidding.
As I’ve tried to live according to St. Benedict’s Rule, I’ve come to realize that it is a rule for beginners. It distills the entire wisdom of the bible into a simple set of instructions. It’s Christianity 101. It’s Christian Living for Dummies.
“Simple” Does Not Mean “Easy”
By the time I sought spiritual depth as a Benedictine Christian, I knew what I believed. My struggle was figuring out how to live those beliefs. Yes, the bible gives a lot of instruction. My friend wasn’t wrong about that. But it was not written as an instruction manual, even for its original audience.
Despite what my friend at Calumet may have believed, it’s not that easy to find relevant, concrete guidance in the bible. It’s there, but it’s not easy to find.
St. Benedict found it and based his entire Rule on it.
The Rule is an instruction manual, helpful for people like myself who couldn’t figure it out on our own. In it he gives practical advice that applied to the real environment of his day.
The environment has changed, but the wisdom he based his advice on has not. St. Benedict’s Rule is still a helpful instruction manual for those who need a step-by-step guide on how to live their Christian faith in their real-world environments. The steps are simple; as promised he did not introduce anything harsh or burdensome.
But simple doesn’t mean easy. “Love your neighbor” is a simple statement, one that most Christians understand regardless of denomination. But understanding a simple statement and putting it into practice are two very different things. There are a lot of people who seem to go out of their way to make it difficult for others to love them. We’re called to love them anyway. St. Benedict gives simple advice on how to do that, but putting that advice into practice is a daily challenge.
So that’s why I’ve added another label to my faith life. “Christian” identifies my religion. “Lutheran Christian” helps to define how I interpret my religion. “Benedictine Christian” demonstrates how I live my religious beliefs in my daily life. But who I am is much simpler than any of those labels.
Before anything else, I am a beloved child of God. And that is an identity I share with all of humanity. No exceptions. For God it is that simple. And that easy.
First, I don’t want to give the impression that I have it all figured it out. Practicing Benedictine spirituality in the middle of my crazy secular existence is a constant challenge. This blog will describe some things I’ve done that have worked well and some things that haven’t. And I’ll be honest about what I’ve learned from both. I’m sure I’m not the only unbalanced Benedictine out there, and I want to provide a safe place for others who feel this way.
Let me be clear: I’m not a good Benedictine role model. You won’t find me consistently praying the Hours or keeping a regular meditation practice. I don’t have uplifting spiritual encounters or insights every time I sit down for Lectio Divina. I’d love to be able to do all that, and it’s what I strive for, but that’s not where I am. I’m writing this blog as a companion for anyone else who struggles with incorporating the Rule of St. Benedict into their secular lives.
Second, I want to challenge the whole notion of Benedictine spirituality being about balance.
Striving for Balance
Conventional wisdom holds that the Benedictine life is—by definition—a life of balance. The Rule of St. Benedict prescribes times for corporate prayer, private devotion, work, rest, and taking meals. What can be more balanced than that?
When I first began taking the Rule seriously, that sense of balance really appealed to me. At the time I was homeschooling my two young children. I was also responsible for all the financial and administrative work for my husband’s consulting company. And I did all the other things a modern wife and mother does. I was too busy, and my spiritual life was virtually nonexistent. There was no time for me figure out who I was as a person. Benedictine balance seemed like the perfect solution.
But it wasn’t.
I added morning and evening prayer to my daily routine, along with regular bible reading. I set rigid boundaries around “school” time, “work” time, “faith” time, and “me” time. This, I believed, would achieve the balance I was looking for.
All it did was give me more things to fail at.
And fail I did. I was a very unbalanced Benedictine.
But I kept with it.
It’s Not About Balance
Over time I’ve discovered that Benedictine spirituality is not actually about balance. It’s about putting God first and seeing God in everything. Yes, scheduling specific times for prayer and devotion is helpful and beneficial. But treating these things as ‘tasks’ that need to be checked off my to-do list is not helpful. Deepening my relationship with God is not something I’ll ever complete. Nor is it something that I can only accomplish through formal prayer or bible reading.
God is in my prayer time, yes, but God is also in my relationships with my husband and children. God is in my paid and unpaid work, my leisure time, and everything else I do.
My life, like most people’s, is not in balance. And it probably never will be. Sometimes my husband needs more attention than I’d ‘planned’ to give him on a given day. Or my kids (now teenagers) will have some crisis that requires my immediate and undivided attention. Occasionally my body gives out and demands extra rest. Also, being a writer means now I have deadlines. And I have to be attentive to all of it.
And the Rule allows for this. In fact, the Rule was designed for this. While Benedict does prescribe set times for prayer, work, etc., he also allows for a lot of variance, depending on local conditions and individual frailties. But in all cases, the Rule of St. Benedict keeps one’s focus on God, and that’s the heart of Benedictine spirituality.
My life is unbalanced. It’s also Benedictine. And I truly believe that the lack of balance is part of what makes it Benedictine. A Benedictine life is not about achieving perfect balance; it’s about embarking on a journey to God and with God.
I’m on that journey. I’m sharing it on this blog. And I encourage any other unbalanced Benedictines to join me.