Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Living in Community

I have featured a book in my Amazon Widget call the Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris.
I have just finished this book, and know that I will be reading it again and again. I will be using it not only as a devotional but inspiration to remind me of so many things…………just one of them attending church, and being involved in the family of God.
I would go into great detail about Kathleen Norris, but I don’t want to bog down in information, the book jacket will tell you all that.

Norris, though a Protestant, went through a year of becoming an oblate in a monastery outside Lemmon South Dakota. The word “oblate” is from the Latin for “to offer,” and Jesus himself is often referred to as an “oblation” in the literature of the early church. It may well be translated as “associate”, and while that may seem to describe the relationship modern oblates have with monastic communities, it does not adequately convey the religious dimension of being an oblate. Substituting the word “associate” for “oblation” in reference to Jesus demonstrates this all too well; no longer an offering, Jesus becomes a junior partner in a law firm.

Her book is a recording of not just the events that took place, and the impact on herself during that time, but a spiritual journey that exposed the idea of community to me in a whole new way, and did not lightly admonish me in my views of “community”, in regard to my local and familiar body of fellow followers of Jesus Christ.

As I read about life in a monastery I was pricked in being reminded that there is a reason for “family” in our spiritual lives, as much as there is in our physical lives.

She bases and establishes the lessons learned from this ancient culture on the very fact that the idea of this community IS ancient. (the Romans lost everything to barbarian invaders. Ironically, it is another legacy of the fall of Rome, the Benedictine Monastery, that is still going strong fifteen hundred years later.) Yet she is quick to ease the readers mind in assuring them that these are not people who are cloistered away from the world, living their own prayerful lives, blissfully unaware of what goes on outside the walls of their “community”. Quite the opposite, not only do monastery’s welcome guests, entertain visitors, but many in the order will work in prisons, hospices, as counselors, teachers, nurses, and doctors, and establish AIDS homes.

But this is not a book of facts about monasteries, this is a journal, so to speak, of someone who spent a year of her life being immersed in the ritual, and practices of a community of believers who practice that belief on a level that made her want more of Jesus, and encouraged and strengthened her trust in God.

“When a Benedictine community is deciding whether or not to accept a candidate (not referring to oblate) questions that would be primary in the business world—what this person’s credentials and skills, what will they add to the organization’s efficiency and the productivity?—are secondary, if they’re raised at all. Even the question of “acceptability,” which is so often a mask for prejudice, is muted. People are simply asked to consider whether or not this person has a monastic vocation for that particular community. The fact that you might not like the person, certainly not enough to want to live with them the rest of your life, is not supposed to be a factor. The monastic value of not judging others, of giving them the benefit of the doubt, can become extremely painful at a time like this, because once a person becomes a part of the community, they are family.”

Like any family they too have their moments, and suffer their differences:
“differences between individuals will either be adsorbed when the community gathers to act as one, or these communal activities become battlegrounds. As one monk once said to me, “Go to the dining room and to prayers, and you’ll find out how a monastery is doing.””

In between the beginning and the end of the book she shares her lessons of the Saints of the Catholic church, who they were, how and why they were named as saints, and all in the context of being moved by their love and devotion to Jesus to the point of giving their lives in some way, usually physically, for that love.
The literagy, hearing the scriptures, especially the Psalms, being read out loud, during this time brought her to a new awareness and understanding of the ceremony, and ritual that we in the modern church seem to have so easily and quickly set aside.
“The goal of a monastic life is to let oneself be changed by community ritual, ceremony, and the repetition of the psalms, until, in the words of one hymn, our lives become a psalm in praise of the glory of God’s name.”
In that bent, the monastery is a place to focus on such depth of devotion to God in a communal setting that gives evidence that there will be in heaven, “the family of God”.
In her chapter on Augustine she writes of being questioned by a college student as to why she would continue to attend church, and be surrounded by all that “hypocrisy”. Her reply and explanation of it are evidence of her “conversion” to the idea of communal life in the light of God’s love.

“The only hypocrite I have to worry about on Sunday morning is myself.” Even when I find church boring, I try to hold this in mind as a possibility: like all the other fools who have dragged themselves to church on a Sunday morning, including the pastor, I am there because I need to be reminded that love can be at the center of all things, if we will only keep it there."

She then shares a story by Pastor Cecil Williams, the pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco:

"On Easter Sunday at Glide the pastor invites people to tell their own stories during the service. One year he said, “There’s an empty tomb somewhere in this room this morning. I invite you to come forward now.” And people got up to speak of living two year with AIDS, nine months free from drugs. Then a man came forward who, Williams says had a skittish look in his eyes, “ that told me he was still in the tomb…..still tied up in the grave clothes of crack cocaine.? The Man told the congregation that the drug counseling at the church had been enough to keep him off drugs for days at a time. He admitted that he had a little crack still in his system that morning, but he said, looking around the church, “I wasn’t gonna miss this!”
A healing straight out of the gospels, in which repentance and healing happen simultaneously, as in a lightning strike, in which the desire to worship is a step from death into life, and a cause for celebration in the body of Christ, who welcomes all who seek him. BLESSED BE THOSE WHO THROW THE CHURCH DOORS OPEN WIDE.”
(emphasis mine)

This book reminded me that like the communal monastic life, the goal of the Christian walk is to allow oneself to be changed by the “family of God”, through the encounters, shared circumstances, rituals, celebrations, sorrows, and “life” to the point that we become a living testament to the God we love and worship, and our savior Jesus Christ. “….that the basis of community is not that we have all our personal needs met here, or that we find all our best friends in the monastery…….what we have to share and what we have to struggle for, and to preserve, is the shared vision of the why, why we live together. It’s a common meaning, reinforced in the scriptures, a shared vision of the coming reign of God.”