About Me

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I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Reflections on Benedictine Values and Church Life


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Since I’m currently serving as Rector’s Warden/Senior warden at my home parish, I am very aware of November/December as “budget season” and of course these are challenging times for churches, with high anxiety around financial matters. From a spiritual point of view, this time of year raises for me deep questions about the way we do church, whether it’s sustainable, faithful to the gospel and how we measure that. So much of what we receive from congregational development experts seems aimed at figuring out what people need and giving it to them, attracting more members to sustain what we have built evangelism as marketing (which it is to some degree) – but a model very much attuned to the culture around us.

And at the same time I’m rereading Esther de Waal’s writings about monastic spirituality for our time, and remembering that monasticism began with people who felt that the values of the church and the values of the surrounding culture were getting blended together to a point of great confusion. When Benedict established his rule in the fifth century, he was building what I think turns out to be an abiding “counter cultural” tradition of Christian living, preserving what he understood to be the central values of the gospel.

These values are not really developed in response or reaction to the culture; they simply offer themselves as guides. And so as I prepared for the November vestry meeting, I spent some time reflecting on the three vows that monks take, the vows of “Obedience”, “Stability” and “Conversatio” or “conversion of heart.” Unpacking these ideas has been helpful to me – and was helpful to the vestry, meeting about the budget in November. So I thought I’d share some thoughts about them here.

First, “Obedience,” which de Waal reminds us comes from the the Latin for “to listen.” Looking at parish life and our own lives, how do we listen for God’s guidance/ What practices orient us toward discernment rather than simply the pushing and defending of competing agendas. Where in our common life are there opportunities for study and prayer together, especially for leaders? How do we pay attention to Scripture? Listening to each other – giving each person around the table an opportunity and invitation to speak, practicing “appreciative inquiry” and other ways of discernment that help us hear one another: all of these practices, I think, fulfill the spirit of the vow of obedience. We can move toward healing if we also pay attention to the ways in which we are “not listening” in our pairhs life – to the neighborhood around us – to the needs of the world at the moment (not so much for marketing purposes as for mission and ministry). We need to pray for a deepening ability to listen. A symbol for this kind of obedience might be the Rublev icon, with what one writer has called the “listening eyes” of its three figures attentive each to the other – or another image might be building blocks, shared by a community of leaders. In her book Seeking God, Esther de Waal writes:

The Christian and monastic model for discerning God’s will in a given situation is not that of finding the solution of a crossword puzzle . . . where the answer must be exactly right, fitted to some preconceived plan. A better model is that we are given building blocks and have to see what can be done with them, using in the task all our intelligence, sensitivity and love (p. 49)

Not a solution, but a process of listening: putting gifts and ideas together and seeing what new thing comes out of that process. I like this as a model for a leadership team. Even a vestry!

The second vow, which I find fascinating despite the challenging term, is “Stability.”(Perhaps a better word for us would be “commitment” – but let’s hold the two together). – in our “cafeteria-Christianity” culture, this is the value that calls us to seek ways of staying together: not by silencing difference but by hearing and receiving the diversity of our views. . It is the vow a monk makes to stay with the same community –and let himself be formed by its challenges. The call to stability is of course a great challenge in the Anglican Communion just now but it helps me to name it in that way – not a call to “unity at any cost” where a dominant voice “wins” – it’s not a call to put up with abuse -- but it is a call to stay at the table, stay in conversation stay in relationship– not to leave—or at least not to consider leaving and going elsewhere as our first option. In parishes, “stability is a deeper value than giving everyone what they want or keeping things the same. it is an invitation to commit to being together and worshipping God in this place, to stay on rather than move on, when leadership changes. It is the value that fuels sustainable stewardship, care for one another in crisis and in conflict. It requires faith and endurance. I’d like to see leaders in congregations reflecting more on what stability looks like for them – what the challenges are, what the obstacles and rewards. The symbol we have for the value of stability is the symbol of our faith: the Cross, which tells of endurance through suffering, for the sake of the whole Body. Joan Chittister says this about the Cross and stability:

The cross is not a dark aspect of religion. It is, on the contrary, the one hope we have that our own lives can move through difficulty to triumph. It’s the one thing that enables us to hang on and not give up when hanging on seems impossible and giving up seems imperative. . . . The cross says that we can rise if we can only endure (Wisdom from the Daily, p. 148)

The call to stability might sound like a call to stuck-ness or to doormat-like acquiescence if it were not balanced by the third vow of conversatio or openness to change – the most famously challenging value for congregations. The symbols or this are the water of Baptism and the fire of the Holy Spirit. Ours is a faith that is about transformation, and as leaders we serve people best when we lead them toward this kind of openness. I like what de Esther de Waal writes about this in Seeking God:

If the vow of stability is the recognition of God’s complete faithfulness and dependability then the vow of conversatio is a recognition of God’s unpredictability, which confronts our own love of cosiness or safety. It means that we have to live provisionally, ready to respond to the new whenever and however that might appear. There is no security here, no clinging to past certainties. Rater, we must expect to see our chosen idols successively broken. It means a constant letting go. (Seeking God, p. 70)

Meditating on these vows has kept me going in this “budget-season,” and as our parish’s annual meeting, always in Advent, approaches. The reason to be in the church is to be shaped into a counter-cultural community – and I think it is a wonderfully creative challenge to look at our life together in the light of these Benedictine values of listening, stability/commitment and openness to change.

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