The rule teaches us to listen to the circumstances of our own lives. We have to begin to face what our own life patterns might be saying to us… When we are afraid, what message lurks under the fear…? …When we find ourselves in the same struggles over and over again, what does that pattern say…?
Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily
In her book about living the Rule of St. Benedict today, Joan Chittister is explicit about the possible patterns that the circumstances of our lives might reveal. Am I terrified of failure? Am I trying to cover up my weakness? Do I panic at the thought of public embarrassment or the sense of valuelessness that comes with the loss of approval? Do I always begin things with great enthusiasm and abandon them before I am finished? Am I reluctant or afraid to change no matter how good or right the changes might be? Do I keep imposing the same unsatisfactory relationships with people from my past into the present ones? Have I ever really given myself, down deep, to anything except myself? What patterns do the circumstances of my life reveal?
In the quiet of my morning, I have times of insight, repentance, and gratefulness—then I go back to being the person who gets stuck in my own solitary world and am irritated or afraid when other’s inadequacies mirror my own. I ponder and even plan the perfect life I will live—in the near future, when I have established my house or have landed in a particular setting. I long for a beautiful view and a big table to engender conversations and welcome for all kinds of people that just happen by. I imagine a life where I will have meaningful work to do at leisure. You know, that’s what I kind of thought before I moved here, to this place and house and people where I live now, at this moment.
I remember over 30 years ago, we lived in a newly built house with light blue carpet, south of a large metropolitan area. I remember writing in my journal that I wished for a house with hardwood floors on the other side of the city. Aside from the wooden floors, the houses on the other side of town were older, smaller, and required sweat equity to match the ease of lifestyle to which we were accustomed in our suburban neighborhood. I’m not sure what I was really searching to gain.
My last three houses have had hardwood floors: one with worn-out narrow oak planks, the next one gleaming newly refinished, and now the pine floors where we live have comfortable dog scratches already built in. Listening to the circumstances of my life might tell me that I sometimes imagine my life looking toward the next stage or location or configuration, particularly when those circumstances are challenging. I could also surmise that the substance of the floor I walked upon had little impact on how I lived beyond that surface.
I continue to encounter parallels between the wisdom of spiritual traditions that similarly require living the paradoxes. My life of faith moves unevenly between life and death, promise and struggle, solitude and community, and this present moment and the next. In his insightful look at The Promise of Paradox, Parker Palmer writes
Contradiction, paradox, the tension of opposites: these have always been at the heart of my experience, and I think I am not alone. I am tugged one way and then the other. My beliefs and my actions often seem at odds. My strengths are sometimes canceled by my weakness. My self, and the world around me, seem more a study in dissonance than a harmony of the integrated whole.
Dissonance. There is an attitude of mystery in the universe that guides every conversation and every common act. A contemplative awareness is possible that sanctifies the here and now when we accept the complexity and contradictions of our lives in contrast to the illusion that things are simple and we are in charge. Parker goes on to reflect that God sees through our illusions and delusions and meets us on the other side when it becomes clear that something has been leading us all along.
I’ve encountered this wisdom, over the years, in different forms. The Rule of Benedict challenges me to expose my ideas to the critical voice of wiser hearts, to seek community beyond my quiet morning reflection. In solitude and into community, we work out our connectedness to God, to one another, and to ourselves. The last few months I’ve been reading the words of an Ojibwe author, who has extended my community. In one of his memoirs, One Native Life, Richard Wagamese recalls teaching from his Spiritual Elder:
Through the ceremony of the medicine bowl, he taught me how to pray in gratitude, to ask for nothing, to be thankful instead for all that was present in my life right then and there. Then he told me to take the spirit of that ceremony out into the world with me.
Anyone can be spiritual in a quiet room, but out in the world is where the challenge presents itself.
It’s the knowledge and acceptance of the mystery that surrounds us—and the awareness that allowing it to remain a mystery, celebrating it rather than trying to unravel it, engenders humility and a keen sense of the spiritual.
Sister Joan Chittister adds to this mystery that the real monastic walks through life with a barefooted soul, alert, aware, grateful, and only partially at home.
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to me—the very contradictions in my life, the dissonance, are evidence of God’s mercy and mystery. Blessed am I when I wait; when I don’t strive to manage, figure out, and react to the noise of the world. My teacher will not hide. My eyes shall see my teacher, and my ears will hear a word behind me saying, this is the way, walk in it (Isaiah 30:21).
Listen and celebrate the mystery.