Watching and Waiting

Revised from the original posting on Dec 1, 2018

Advent is a season of watching and waiting, a time of abiding in expectant hope, confident in the coming of the King.

Advent is so much more than preparing for Christmas. The early days of Advent focus especially on the second coming of Jesus. Our watching and waiting for his coming is not static or sterile, sitting here idly until some future day when he eventually comes. Rather, theologians speak of an “already but not yet.” Christ has not yet come in glory, but he is already growing and bearing fruit in the lives of his holy ones.

There is a famous Advent homily in which Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) describes a third coming of Jesus, in between his birth at Bethlehem and his coming in glory. No, he is not talking about “the rapture,” but rather the coming of Jesus into the heart of every true believer. As Jesus promised at the Last Supper, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come to him” (John 14:23).

This coming into our heart is a dynamic process of nurture and growth. As we abide in expectant hope, our desire for the Lord increases. That desire itself springs from a seed planted by the Lord.  The more we desire his coming, the more our capacity to receive him grows. The greater our capacity, the more we receive. The more we receive, the more deeply we desire. And the cycle of “already but not yet” continues until he comes again.

Think upon the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23). Christ sows his Word. Some seeds fall on the path, others on rocky ground, others among thorns, and others into good soil. Advent is a time to become good soil, totally receptive, growing in faith and hope.

That is the sad irony of December in the modern world. In the midst of Advent, we are constantly exposed to commercialism and consumerism and unneeded busyness. The self-indulgence of “the season” stands in stark contrast with the penitent cry of John the Baptist to “prepare the way of the Lord!” We can easily heap excessive expectations upon ourselves, thinking of all the things that we “have to get done.” Then we find ourselves too busy or stressed out to do any watching or waiting (except perhaps binge watching Netflix).

With God’s help, we can recognize some of the weeds and thorns in our heart, obstacles that need to be uprooted with firm resolve. We also have hard and dry places in our hearts, tough soil that needs the gentle dew of the Holy Spirit to soften and moisten, freeing us to become receptive, like Mary and Joseph.

Our free cooperation matters much. But in the end, God is the one who provides the growth and the fruit. We are called to abide in love. The watching and waiting is the most challenging part! We are so conditioned to expect instant gratification and easy results.  The parable of the sower reminds us to be patient and receptive.

Henri Nouwen wrote often about our powerlessness, and how challenging it is for us to be humble and patient. We depend totally upon God for the growth – much like the farmer in the field. Nouwen offers the image of an impatient gardener periodically digging up the plant to check on its growth. That tactic definitely doesn’t work! We hate to wait. Our restless hearts resist and sabotage the Father’s rest. All the while he gazes upon us with delight, inviting us to trust that we are his beloved children.

The growth will happen on his timeline, as we learn to abide in him. The fruitfulness will come in due time, so long as there is steady growth. By contrast, we will wither and die if we cut ourselves off from the source of all growth.

Healthy Christian community helps so much. True Christian friends will notice what God is doing in us and encourage us. It is good to notice the growth and to praise him for it. That thankfulness and praise stirs up the desire of our heart all the more. There is no risk of pride when our heart is Christ-centered and full of praise.

Psalm 1 offers an image of the tree that is planted beside the flowing waters, putting out its roots to the stream, staying green amidst the drought, whose leaves never fade, prospering and bearing fruit. Contrast that with the ways of the wicked, who cling to fruitless desires. They are like the chaff that gets blown away.

It is easy – especially at this time of the year – to become anxious or overwhelmed and then flee into one of our “panic rooms” – reaching for our phone, grabbing extra food or drink, plunging into pleasures that don’t actually bring peace.

Instead, we can choose to be patient and gentle with ourselves. It is normal to feel unsettled during changes of seasons and when reconnecting with family. Instead of isolating ourselves, we can choose to stay present to our minds and bodies, present to Christ, and present to those around us. We can receive grace and grow in patience. The fruit will come in due time.

Advent has always been a favorite season of mine. It touches the deepest desires of the human heart. May God give each of us the courage to root out the weeds from our hearts. May he cultivate and soften the hard and unreceptive places. And may he help us to abide in expectant hope, watching and waiting patiently as Christ comes to us, gives us growth, and bears much fruit.

St. Benedict and Conversion

Today we conclude a three-part reflection on the vow taken by many monks and sisters who follow in the footsteps of Benedict of Nursia. They enter a covenant of obedience, stability, and conversion of life.

Conversion is the most important of the three dimensions, balancing the other two and served by them. Obedience is for the sake of conversion. Stability is for the sake of conversion.

Without conversion, obedience and stability become toxic structures of decay and death.

There is an impostor stability that resists needed reform. It happens in every institution! There will be some who resist risk, while cheering for the changes to fail. They feel a perceived need to keep things the same, and an obstinate refusal to see the evident truth that the status quo is failing. This pseudo-stability is the idolatry of comfort . It is trying to serve God and mammon. It is wanting to have happiness in this world, rather than accepting our status as strangers and sojourners. It is a refusal to die and rise with Jesus.

There is also an impostor obedience that kills conversion. It comes in many forms, both among leaders and followers.

Some leaders rigidly demand obedience. At its “best,” this becomes authoritarianism within a benevolent dictatorship. At its worst, it is a dumpster fire of narcissism, in which the leader demands unquestioning loyalty and the admiration of all. On the flipside, many of us leaders resist responsibility for the hard stuff – which always means being hated and persecuted by some. Who wants that unless he or she is truly committed to dying and rising with Christ?

For followers, too, there is an impostor obedience that refuses to walk the path of conversion. There are always the kiss-ups who ambitiously angle for power of their own, with no interest in seeking first the Kingdom of God. Much more toxic and dysfunctional is the tendency of institutions to equate obedience with a demand for loyalty, even when loyalty means a loss of honesty and integrity. Well-meaning followers, in the name of obedience, will collude in cover-ups, stay silent in the face of failing policies, protect the perpetrator, or blame the victim.  Rather than abiding in love and truth, this impostor obedience is governed by fear and shame.

Now let’s state the obvious: disobedience is not obedience. Obstinate disobedience is a self-exalatation and a hardening of the heart. It is the opposite of conversion.

There are many ideological Christians these days (both on the left and on the right) who wish that their church leaders would become noisy political warriors. Their deepest thirst is not for the Kingdom of God – which is not of this world (John 18:36). They are behaving like the disciples of Jesus, who expected him to stick it to the Romans and bring back the good old days of the Kingdom of Israel. At their worst, they are the ones who prefer Barabbas and want no king but Caesar.

We leaders need to hear their concerns, which contain much truth. There are injustices to be upset about, and genuine reasons for fear and concern. What then?

For Benedict, it means we need to have a conversation. The Latin words for “conversion of life” are conversatio morum. It means turning around and following Christ, but it also means a conversation, a willingness to enter into and stay in dialogue in healthy relationships – even with people we dislike or disagree with.

Conversion does not mean hopping onto a social media platform, undermining authority, name calling, mocking, and shaming. That kind of criticism is not courage. There is no conversation and no conversion there. It is much harder to speak face-to-face and to listen with vulnerability and respect. No one possesses the truth; rather, we are possessed by Truth, and it is always greater than us. Conversion means I always have more to learn – even from those who are radically different from me. The disobedient do not tend to be lifelong learners.

One of the monks here compares monastic community with a rock tumbler. A group of hardheaded men are mashed against each other for years. As their rough edges smooth out, they emerged polished and beautiful.

Both obedience and stability are a grind, and our egos resist them. Who wants to be in an ongoing relationship with a bunch of hardheads, some of whom they really dislike?  The answer – someone with a deep desire to die and rise with Jesus!  On the day of their profession, the monks declare: “I desire to share in the sufferings of Christ in this monastery until death, that I may also share in his glory.”

Conversion is about turning around from our present misery and joyfully journeying to our real goal. Benedict urges us to hasten along the path of holiness: “Run while you have the light of life … If we wish to dwell in the tent of this Kingdom, we will never arrive there unless we run there by doing good deeds.” The Latin verb is currere, which means “to run, to move quickly, to hasten.” Think of it not so much as a sprint, but as a marathon or (better yet) a pilgrimage.

I once walked a 120-mile pilgrimage. My longest day was 31 miles. It became 32 miles because I missed a turn at one point. My stomach dropped in dread when I realized my mistake. I felt such an ache to get to my destination, and now it would take longer. In this case, by far my clearest option was to turn right around and go back to the crossroads. But one could easily imagine another scenario in which a new path would be much faster, and going back would be disastrous. Conversion is all about hastening to the true goal.

On a pilgrimage, you ache for your destination – and I mean that you feel the ache all over your body. You might linger here and there to delight in the scenery. Sometimes you sing as you walk and enjoy the journey. Other times it is sheer pain. But the one thing you do NOT want is to journey in the wrong direction. Conversion corrects our course whenever and however necessary.

Most of us prefer to live in denial about the fact that we are pilgrims in this life. Our true homeland is in heaven. Absolutely nothing in this world will last except for faith, hope, and love. The Benedictine vow of conversatio morum is a renewal of the baptismal vow. It is an absolute decision that I want to die and rise with Christ, and that I renounce all seductive counterfeits.

In the Prologue of his Rule, Benedict teaches that God does not will the death of the sinner, but our life (cf. Ezekiel 33:11). God lengthens our lifespan to give us adequate time to turn around and hasten to the Kingdom. God gives us many chances to commit and recommit on our journey of conversion. He is patient with our wanderings and opens up new (even if rugged and longer) paths. He shelters and guides us along our way, and is so eager to welcome us when we finally arrive at the Feast. Will we remember who we are and where we are going?

St. Benedict and Stability

As I finish my final month of sabbatical in a Benedictine monastery, I’ll continue reflecting on their threefold vow of obedience, stability, and conversion of life. Last time we considered obedience. Today we’ll consider “stability.”

Benedictine monks vow to stay in the monastery that they enter, unless obedience sends them elsewhere. Historically, monks were sometimes sent out as missionaries, or to be abbot of another monastery. But normally their promise to God includes a definitive choice that this monastery is going to be their spiritual and physical home for the rest of their life.

Other religious communities, like the Missionaries of Charity or the Jesuits, are mobile by their very nature. They expect to be moved many times during the course of their life.

The hyper-mobile spirituality of some orders and the ultra-stable spirituality of the Benedictines each have their place in the life of the Church. The frequent call to be moved is a reminder that “here we have no lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14). It is a share in the mission of Jesus, who had “no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). It prevents stagnation.  On the opposite side, fruitful growth can only happen with patience and perseverance, through ongoing relational connection. Even when serious reforms are needed – especially when serious reforms are needed – it takes a stable and patient commitment.

We live in the FOMO age in which people young and old spend much of their day avoiding solid commitments as they restlessly “connect” through social media. We live in an age in which people quite easily move from job to job, state to state, or marriage to marriage. Even when such moves are good and necessary, they are incredibly challenging for all concerned. Benedictine stability deserves our attention!

We can begin by naming what stability is not. It is not easy living with a resistance to change. Every virtue has its shadow side. A week ago, I had Mass and coffee with a neighboring community of Benedictine Sisters. One of them wisely suggested that a great temptation in Benedictine life is comfort. Comfort kills. When we settle into an easy life, we will find ourselves unhappy and stuck.  Comfortable living does not bring joy or delight. We can only experience joy if we are also open to risk or loss, to sorrow or death. There is no joy without vulnerability. Healthy relationships only survive and thrive when there is a willingness to make mistakes and repair the damage, to engage in difficult experiences, to work through healthy conflict, to admit truthfully what is not working well, and to move forward into the unknown with a trust that God will bring new life and fruitfulness. The Benedictine vow is threefold – including conversion of life. Stability without conversion brings death and decay.

The true invitation of stability is an invitation to be fully present and engaged – with God; with others; and with one’s own body, mind, and spirit. It is direct spiritual combat against acedia, sometimes called “sloth,” which is not what most people think it is! Too often acedia is viewed as “laziness” – which is to be combatted by discipline and hard work. As a recovering workaholic, I can personally testify that we can numb ourselves with lesser labors just as much as with any other drug! No, acedia, the noonday devil, is the siren call that pulls us away from being truly present, to stop feeling what we are feeling, to disconnect from our people and our environment, to hide and isolate. Yes, it can come in the form of “lazy” escapes, but the noonday devil does not discriminate in his tactics. He simply wants to lure us away from drinking in the present moment in all its fullness – and all the better if he does so without our even noticing.

Today’s restless FOMO culture is a prime example of acedia at work. FOMO (“fear of missing out”) paralyzes millions each day, keeping them glued to their smartphones while sapping their capacity to be truly present, to notice, to receive, to savor goodness, to mature, to give, and to bear fruit.

Even in the early months of social media and smartphones, I remember vividly a New York Times article in 2008, highlighting the experiment of an MIT professor with his economics students. They played a simple computer game, in which they clicked on one of three doors. Behind each door were real cash prizes. But clicking on one door caused the others to shrink, and eventually, to disappear forever. Instead of finding the door of greatest value and clicking on it repeatedly, the majority of students “kept their options open,” terrified of committing to one thing only. FOMO.

Both FOMO and comfort are enemies of authentic stability. On the one side are those who are afraid to commit, even when the pearl of great price is at hand. On the other side are those who would keep clicking on the same door even when it is no longer paying out – indeed, even when it is depleting them! Isn’t it interesting that 1,500+ years of Benedictine history also included sweeping and successful missionary efforts? Stable living in one monastery was the norm, but when those stable monks planted a foundation elsewhere for the sake of spreading the Gospel, their new monasteries often became hubs of faith, culture, and civilization. Evangelization takes much patience and time.

Benedict begins his Rule with some sage commentary on these attitudes of the human heart. He discusses different “kinds of monks.” There are solitary “hermits” (as he once was), and there are “cenobites” – those who live in a stable community life. Then there are the “sarabaites.” Rather than surrendering themselves in obedience and allowing a community to correct them, they build up a self-made rule and a self-given salvation. “Their law is what they like to do, whatever strikes their fancy … Anything they believe in and choose, they call holy; anything they dislike, they consider forbidden.” Sound familiar? It is the attitude of so many towards religion today – picking and choosing for themselves that which is good, true, and beautiful rather than allowing themselves to be changed by the living God.

Finally, Benedict discusses the “Gyrovagues,” who refuse to settle down and tend to drift from monastery to monastery, region to region. They become “slaves of their own wills and gross appetites” and “are in every way worse than the Sarabaites.” At that point Benedict effectively says he should move on, because he has nothing nice to say.

In our age that over-exalts being open-minded and keeping options open, the words of G.K. Chesterton come to mind: “Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Benedictines understand that. They find the pearl of great price, and they commit to spending the rest of their life steadily pursing it in conversion of life. I’ll consider that third and final dimension next time!