Since my return from the General Chapter (about which I do still plan to write), we have implemented a new formation program at the monastery. Instead of assigning men in formation a certain amount of reading to be accomplished, we are reading important texts aloud in class and discussing them, sentence by sentence, word by word if necessary. I will have more to write about this approach as well. We are hoping to have a formation page on the website soon. Last night, I gave this chapter conference which is one fruit of our new approach, and I hope that you will find it helpful. What follows is a slightly abridged and edited version:
One advantage of our new class schedule and the close reading and discussion format is that certain themes begin to surface in the discussions. Often these revolve around hidden assumptions that we carry about with us and which affect our thoughts, feelings and actions. When these assumptions are made transparent, it can be surprisingly difficult to let them go, and at the same time, it is a very positive development. A wrong habit of thought that is not recognized will always tie us down and make the life of holiness and Christian perfection more difficult. What is more, we will try all kinds of solutions to our spiritual difficulties and still fail to make progress.
Now, having framed the situation thus, I have already arrived at one topic that has arisen that perhaps we don’t hear about enough. In several class discussions in different subjects the topic of grace has arisen in such a way as to suggest to me that we don’t really believe enough in grace. Even when we say that we do. Self-identifying traditionalists, for example, criticize the modern ‘horizontal’ liturgy on precisely this point. God seems to have been removed, and a kind of apotheosis of the community substituted for the absent God. We end up celebrating ourselves. And of course, no God, no grace.
In contrast to this, we will point to the natural verticality that should exist in the liturgy. This is merely to acknowledge God’s priority as Creator and Redeemer, as the infinite One Whose status will always be superior to ours. But once we have arrived at this insight, we should also admit that the ‘vertical’ orientation is meant to open a two-way exchange. I wonder if we substitute for grace another human-centered striving, a self-conscious act of worship in which we try to elevate ourselves to the realm of the divine? Or at the very least, worry that our ‘performance’ of the liturgy might not reach God because of mistakes, imperfections, distractions, and so on, as if the entire exchange between us and God comes from our end. Are we aware of God responding? Even more, are we aware that even our desire to praise God is itself a gift, which is to say (Greek) charis or grace? We could not possibly praise God properly had He not revealed Himself to us and instructed us through Holy Scripture and the Tradition. So the very fact that we assemble at all, in a traditionally shaped oratory, singing words that are not our own, is an indication that God has already called us to participate in the charism of the monastic life. The life is a gift. It is not something that we can take credit for.
A second though: Br. Ezekiel is preparing for solemn profession. We probably half-consciously think of formation for vows as something that we do. How often do we stop and take note of the ways in which the Holy Spirit has been quietly changing our habits, our actions, our attitudes? It seems to me that one weakness of the endless discussion about formation in religious life today is precisely that the preoccupation with programs and philosophies, required classes, group sessions and the like unconsciously plants the notion in our heads that formation is a human project, dependent on human ingenuity and scientific approaches to learning. And yet, the New Testament is clear on this point: what we are being formed into is a spiritual house, a temple of the Holy Spirit. And Who is doing the forming? The divine passive means that God is the primary Actor in this cultivation of the vine of which we are the branches. The renewal of our minds comes from our allowing them to be opened by Christ, the conversion of our hearts comes from the burning fire of the Holy Spirit Who speaks in the Scriptures. Are we listening? Or is lectio divina yet another things that we ‘do’, without reference to God speaking, to God teaching?
Dom Augustine Roberts, in his newest edition of Centered on Christ, rightly points out that developments in the understanding of religious vows have tended to move us away from an instinctive sense of the monastic life as a charism, a movement of grace, in which we encounter the beauty of Jesus Christ and leave everything to follow Him. We make promises, yes, but these are merely there as a tool for recalling God’s prior call. We don’t add anything to God by the gift of ourselves. We rather gain ourselves because God’s grace is an invitation to become our true selves in Christ. In the late Middle Ages into the present, the vows could easily be imagined as something primarily juridical, a contract between the religious and the community, a horizontal, humanistic initiative.
So to return again to grace: God loves us more than we love ourselves. We must constantly reflect on this. He is eager to give us more than we can imagine; only, since we can’t really comprehend or imagine God’s gift (“If you knew the gift of God!”), we easily forget that God is at work in us. We may learn to discern the effects of grace in our lives. Saint Benedict urges us to give God credit for whatever good that we find in ourselves, and this is a first step toward learning to find grace in all things. We too quickly take credit for our accomplishments. We even begin to imagine that we could do greater things if our brothers in community weren’t hampering our progress with their weaknesses. Ah! But our brothers are a gift! And the cooperation that we experience in praying the office together, in working on common tasks, and so on, is more gift. We cannot arrange these things. None of us decided on his own to found this community. Without Christ we can do nothing!
We also set our sights on accomplishments that are prized by human esteem. But what is prized by men is an abomination to God—we should take this seriously. Not that we can’t admire great men and women; but we must also praise God for their lives. No matter how great any one of us is, we did not make ourselves! Life is God’s gift.
Worse, when we set our sights on these outward goals, we lose sight of the quiet ways of God, the way of inner suffering embraced out of love; the way of silence and respect for others, even when they might think that we are dull or that we lack ambition; the way of patiently embracing truth not embellishing our emotions to make life more exciting, to present ourselves as interesting persons whom other are lucky to know; the way of putting the interests of others before our own, even when it means abandoning our most cherished projects; because we do not value these evangelical signs of Christ’s presence within, we forget that grace is active, that God is the prime Mover in the history of the world and in our personal history.
The way out of this is the habit of gratitude and blessing, simply to bless God at all times and be grateful for all things, especially things contrary to our unconverted nature. When we begin to recognize God’s nearness, we can learn to relax and trust, to grow in faith and hope. We can let go of our lives and the fear that moves us toward the smallness of self-preservation, and to embrace the gift that we can truly return to God, this gift of our lives.