Sunday, July 27, 2014

An Unexciting Life: The Value of Consistency

This is one in a series of meditations on passages from the book An Unexciting Life, by Michael Casey, a Trappist monk. For the rest of the series, click on "an unexciting life" in the Topics section on the right side of this page.

Today's passage from the chapter "The Value of Stability" is about the ongoing challenge of maturing in the faith, or as we Catholics describe it, ongoing conversion.

"This mature and ongoing formation comes about chiefly by our wholehearted embrace of conversatio [continuing fidelity]: liturgy, prayer, lectio divina, work, community involvement. These are the unexciting buttresses that support our commitment. To keep practicing them, in turn, involves a fair degree of fidelity to the elements of traditional discipline that safeguard and protect the way of life: regularity, silence, self-denial, and obedience."

This was written for monks, so might seem a bit severe for those who don't live in such an ordered environment. But it does point us to the things that can help us to grow in holiness. To the degree that we take note of the level of regularity, silence, self-denial and obedience in our lives, we can strive to improve our experience of them. How often do we allow ourselves a time of conscious silence? How often do we consciously practice self-denial or obedience? When we do these things consciously we reap the reward of deeper faith, of greater stability. That should be a positive motivator to practice these things more often!

Anyone can create a Rule of Life to help them reach a greater level of internal stability. By attempting to be obedient to my Rule of Life (I'm by no means perfect at it!) I have found a much deeper level of peace, and a greater discernment as to what is important in a given moment and what is not.

To the degree that we seek to include liturgy, prayer meditating on the Word, work and community involvement in our lives we will grow in righteouness, or as we say in spanish, rectitud. This is, of course, a lifelong process. Perhaps my own example might be helpful to one of you readers. An old friend recently asked me how I have managed to be consistent in prayer and after some thought I told her that my prayer life improved tremendously when I learned the habit of praying the same prayers every day before I even get out of bed.

I start by orienting myself to God through the Church - that is, thanking him for creating the church to be our teacher and guide - and then focus my attention on thanking him for creating me, adopting me into his family, and surrounding me with his love. Then I offer my life to Jesus to do whatever he wants with it. I thank Mary for being a role model for me, and Joseph for being a human father for me (I never had a relationship with a human father, so now I'm learning how to have one through my relationship with Joseph). I pray for my husband, for the specific things he asked me to pray for, and end with asking God to grant me what I dare not ask for myself. Then I get out of bed.

Because I don't need to come up with new words every day I am freed to enter into the spirit of these prayers, and I often start praying before I am fully awake. Amazingly, even if I fall asleep again, I remember exactly where I was in my prayers before I drifted off, so it's a perfect start to the day. Once I've gotten up and done some "first thing in the morning" tasks, I sit down and spend time meditating on the Word, using the morning readings from the Magnificat. Then my husband and I read the day's scriptures for the mass together.

Even if I don't follow my Rule of Life for the rest of the day, that has gotten me off to a great start, orienting me toward God every day. And it doesn't even take any extra time - just the time you'd otherwise spend reading something while having your morning coffee.

I'm sure that you readers can think of many instances in your own lives of the rewards of faithfully practicing one or more of the things mentioned in this passage. What treasures they offer! May these treasures be embedded deeply in our lives.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

An Unexciting Life: Monasticism for a non-monastic

The Pirate has gone to the States for more than a month to help our son remodel his house (the one the Pirate built in 1969 when we were hippies). That leaves me alone with the garden and the dogs, and an opportunity to practice more fully the monastic life that has always lurked in the back of my heart.

Before the Pirate left I revised my Rule of Life (email me if you want to know what a Rule of Life is or how to make one, and I'll send you a PDf from the CS Lewis Institute on it). I wanted to make sure that I had set times for doing all kinds of different tasks each day, including maintaining the vegetable garden (which is the Pirate's domain) and focusing on all the things to be made for the vacation rental house before we can start renting it. Things like bedspreads, curtains, dish towels, etc. Without having fully scheduled days I knew I was likely to space out, since the Pirate is the core around which I do everything (imagine a May pole - the Pirate - with me weaving whatever I do each day around that core).

One thing that I committed myself to doing during this period is to write a post every Sunday on the book An Unexciting Life, because I have MANY more highlighted segments to go before I allow myself to finish reading this book...and I just bought another of Michael Casey's books, Seventy-Four Tools for Good Living which I won't allow myself to read until I've completed the current book.

So, from the chapter "The Benedictine Promises", in the section "The Promise to be a Good Monk", is a single sentence that is elegant and simple in its description of the life devoted to God:
"Each day one allows oneself to be converted a little more, by attending to the Word and allowing it to shape one's options".

I spent my professional career helping people to identify their options and learn how to be wise (or at least prudent) in deciding which ones to pay attention to. Some of my clients were christians; many were not. But God had put me in a position to impart good sense and recognition of virtue to people who live in a society that has lost its ability to recognize or practice either one. For that I am deeply grateful. But how do I put this concept into practice? What do I do to allow God's light into the dark recesses of my soul, that they might be converted?

In general, it's best to approach a significant issue by figuratively walking all the way around it. There is the first, most obvious, perception to keep in mind, but wisdom requires that the more difficult or uncomfortable possibilities be considered as well. For instance, the other day the Pirate made a remark about how much time I've been spending playing solitaire. I seem to go through seasons of doing this - over the years I've had periods where I waste a huge amount of my days playing solitaire, and then I'll completely ignore it for long periods. This time, in response to that remark, my first thought was "So what? I spend more time praying every day than most people, so this is my acceptable mindless relaxation".

On further thought it seemed to me that what I'm doing when I play solitaire is in a certain way "girding up my loins" to do something that is daunting, but that I know that God is wanting me to do. I thought, "I'm basically doing what Peter describes in his first letter: 'Therefore gird up the loins of your mind; be sober...' I'm psyching myself to face the daunting task". That's okay, I guess, and true enough, but then I read the second half of that passage: "and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy'".

Now the issue is clearly not one of sin, but of increasing holiness. How much do I want to increase in holiness? Enough to change the little, non-sinful things in my life when God's light shows them for what they really are? What my solitaire playing really is, as I have come to realize, is a substitute for coming before God and admitting my inability, my weakness, my lack of confidence to do whatever it is that He is calling me to do at that moment. I am girding up my loins, NOT by resting my hope fully upon His grace, but by zoning out until my conscience can't stand the dithering any more and forces me to act.

I thank God that He is faithful to answer my prayer that I could see myself as I really am - not as I hope or fear that I am - and that He has the power to change me, if I offer myself to Him to do so. As St. Therese of Lisieux described it, God has an "elevator" that will lift us up to holiness quickly, and that is offering ourselves to Him in love and confidence, as little children. As they say here in Mexico, asi sea, let it be so.

If you want to read my past posts on An Unexciting Life, click on "an unexciting life" in the list of topics on the right side of this page.