It is now Spring break at my college, the time of hope when students travel for leisure or service and faculty and staff relax a bit. Our plans were to spend the break at St. Benedict’s Monastery Studium, a program for writers, artists, and scholars that supports contemplative concentration on a project. Monasteries have long been places of scholarship, and this tradition finds it roots in the work of many of the Desert Elders. So much so that Jean Leclercq titled his history of western monasticism The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.
So, I was looking forward to ten days of prayer and learning. But if you have read the last post in this series, you will know that this journey was interrupted by a call to spend Spring break with my mother in Florida, putting together a plan for care. I was expecting the rich oasis of the monastery and have found myself instead in the tinder-dry scrublands on the edge of that great swamp, the Everglades.
For my journey, it is a bit of the Desert. It has its own beauties: the singing of the early morning birds, the dark silhouette of the palm trees against the early morning sky, long intimate conversations with my mother – who at one time was my Elder and, if I allow it, will continue to be. The reconfiguration of this relationship brings with it the severe mercy of the Desert experience. Here, doing service for another becomes a cleansing of the self.
This perhaps requires some explanation. I have been trying to find my way in all the tangle of family matters, personal, interpersonal, legal, medical, financial. It is easy to be panicked by the sheer complexity compounded with the deeply personal. So I have been searching for the still point from which to grasp it all. My wife Almut, now at the monastery, is working on a paper on Hildegard von Bingen, and supporting me and my family work electronically. In conversation, she offered me a blessing, part of which I will reproduce here:
may God bless you with courage
to do the work at hand
to be in peace
to enjoy encounters on the way
to find what has been lost
and to welcome your fears
with a fiery humility.
There is that fiery humility again… What does one do with it? I found a key in conversation not only with Almut but also with a striking passage in the meditations of the Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr that I receive in email:
The contemplative mind does not demand, is not needy, and is not easily offended. It allows other things and people to have their own voices without trying to impose its own agenda on them. It takes a lifetime to learn this, it seems.
The day before I read this description of the contemplative, Almut and I were struggling with how I should approach family members and friends in my current negotiation. Recalling the Desert Elders, she reminded me that it was not my task to impress people with my competence or compassion. That it was, in a phrase, not about me. “The contemplative mind does not demand, is not needy, and is not easily offended.” Fiery Humility.
Lectio on Life. A Practice for your Pilgrimage
So this morning, I offer you this practice in fiery humility. You may remember a specific occurrence when you have been offended or fearful (I certainly do). Practice a quiet contemplation of that time.
Sit silently and practice breathing for a few moments, and then bring that time to mind in openness. Welcome it by telling the story and pausing to see each person in it, and their history and their future. Seek for your motivations in that moment, your expectations and reactions. And place them next to Rohr’s description of the contemplative mind.
Then return to practice of the breath and gratitude.
Once you try this, you might see the story in a different perspective. You might better see what the real offense or frightening thing was – there surely is something real there – and what your reaction to it was. If you can separate these two, you can act on them separately.