Monday, March 24, 2008

Living in Community

I have just finished reading the book The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris. Normally I chug through books like Gatorade on hot day, but this one forced me to sip.

Ms. Norris, now a Benedictine oblate, fills a book with her thoughts about Benedictine religion and spirituality, most of it in the context of her time spent in the monastery as a guest. It's loosely themed around the liturgical seasons as she encounters them in the monastery, and the thoughts she finds herself thinking, and the issues she finds herself contemplating.

Much of the time the author seems to make things too hard, thinking deeply and convolutedly about life. For example, her discussion of the Virgin Martyrs, and whether or not a woman is better dead than raped, was more confusing than enlightening, although her final conclusion-- that some things are worth dying for-- was good.

One chapter that intrigued me was the one about learning to live with the Psalms. In the Benedictine monastery the Psalms are an important part of monastic life. The monks chant the Psalms often, day after day, hoping to absorb them in such a way that the words of the Psalms come to mind in odd and sundry moments, applying themselves to daily life. Ms. Norris found it difficult at first to chant psalms of praise when she felt depressed, and, conversely, to chant psalms of contrition or discouragement when she felt good. But --and this is what interested me-- she found something satisfying in submitting to the discipline of the Psalms, no matter what mood she was in. There was a meatiness, a learning of humility, to put one's self wholeheartedly into the Psalm of the day, even if it was far removed at that moment from her own life.

In my submitting myself to the Book of Common Prayer for the last three or so weeks, I have found the same thing. If I don't feel this way today, I probably will sometime-- and maybe very soon-- and if not I, then there is probably someone else who is experiencing this emotion right now that I can pray this Psalm for, in their stead.

In fact, I can give you an example. When I first began using the BCP, one of the Psalms I found myself reading over and over (I'm not sure why it was repeated over the course of the days. I don't know my way around the book that well yet) was Psalm 69:

Save me, O God;
for the waters are come in unto my soul.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing:
I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me.
I am weary of my crying:
My throat is dried:
mine eyes fail while I wait for my God...
Deliver me out of the mire, and let me not sink...
Hear me, O Lord; for thy lovingkindness is good...
Hide not thy face from thy servant;
for I am in trouble;
Hear me speedily...
Reproach hath broken my heart;
And I am full of heaviness...

I remember the first time I read this I thought of my husband. It seemed to describe so well the pit of depression he's been in for the last year. Especially the part about the eyes failing, because recently he's been showing signs of macular degeneration, probably caused by ocular histoplasmosis, which activates under stress.

I made a connection: Hubby's depression, stress, and beginning eyesight failure are related to his sense that God is not near, that He is not listening; that his prayers are not being heard or answered. He feels like he's drowning, and crying out, and there is no help or hope, and the feelings are showing themselves in the physical manifestion. The Psalmist cried out "mine eyes fail while I wait for God!" And Hubby could say the same thing.

So I prayed the Psalm in his stead, crying out for God to reach down and break through. I prayed it several days and nights.

And then, to finish the story, we went to a conference in Topeka, where one of the speakers began announcing and proclaiming healings, and suddenly Hubby turned to me and said, "It's gone!" He meant, the vision distortion in his eye was completely gone, and so was the headache. You can imagine our rejoicing, not only for the healing of the eye, but for the sudden certainty that the latter portion of Psalm 69 was coming to pass:

I will praise the name of the God with a song
and will magnify him with thanksgiving...
For the Lord heareth the poor,
and despiseth not his prisoners.

Another fascinating part of Kathleen Norris's experiences was her time living in "community." She had a lot of things to say about "real" life in a monastery. I admit, after reading, that I too, like many others, had a romantic notion of monastic life. I thought it must be so holy, so reverent, so meaningful, so restful.

It IS those things, but not without context. Life in a monastery is also: work, relationships, bad moods, good moods, sickness; even death. In fact, it is all of life in a micro-habitat, punctuated by scheduled prayer and scripture reading.

Part of what makes a monastic life different is the fact that the people there have made a conscious choice of how to live. They are living intentionally, and have made vows to that end. They make a life commitment to seeking God and living in the monastery.

The longer I read, the more I realized that in my family here, I am living in community. Instead of making vows to a cloistered life, I have made marriage vows. My marriage is my cloister; I have forsaken all other lifestyle options: other possible spouses, a career. I have submitted to this place to live, this particular home, this family, this level of income, this relationship.

As I write that, I realize someone may think I'm complaining. I'm not. I'm rejoicing, because comprehending the similarities between monastic life and married life gives depth of meaning to my ordinary life.

I have wrestled for many years with "doing something for God." I listened to many preachers who said that we were ALL called to GO INTO THE WORLD, and I felt I would never "be" somebody unless I became a missionary, or entered some form of full-time Christian service.

When my kids were young, I knew that being a mother was a ministry in itself, and I was reasonably content. But now.... now my kids are nearly all grown. Now what? Without going into details, I will just say that missionary work or full-time Christian service as I imagined is probably not going to happen. How will I ever be or do anything of worth for God?

Then I discovered the discipline of "fixed-hour prayer" --praying three, or four, or seven times a day, using helps such as the Book of Common Prayer, or any of a number of Celtic prayer books. When I take time throughout the day to pray, and wash my mind with the Word of God, I find something happening to me.

I feel part of a great community of saints throughout the world, and throughout the ages. Other believers, whether Catholic, or Celtic, or Anglican (the most common denominations that practice the liturgy of the hours) are praying the same prayers, or have prayed them in the past. I feel the "great cloud of witnesses" and suddenly when I pray "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven," I realize I am joining my voice with hundreds and thousands of other prayers and pray-ers, and our joined voices are rising up to heaven and filling the golden bowls of intercession.

Something else happens, too. It changes the way I look at my own ordinary life. I can live a contemplative lifestyle. All day, every day, I can take time to pray, envisioning myself with a company of monks, or early Christians, or Celtic contemplatives and be part of that vision. I can be like Brother Lawrence, practicing the presence of God in everything I do. I can begin to flavor the atmosphere around me, as I soak up scripture, and, hopefully, the fragrance of God himself.

Then I begin to see my grown children as fellow community members. This is important, because sometimes in our family we feel an invisible criticism from society. People are inordinately surprised, and sometimes disapproving, when they find that all four of our children are "still" living at home, even though they are 25, 23, 19, and 17. We have to rush to explain that the oldest has been fighting sickness, and the next oldest is preparing for a missions trip, and the other two work in our family business....hurry, hurry, explain that it's all reasonable, and that we're not somehow stifling our children, and they're not somehow irresponsible.

I begin to see that, if we go about it in the right mindset, we are actually being given a precious opportunity to live "in community." To work, and grow, and build relationships, and seek God together. And I am becoming convinced that it is a good place for a family to be, until God begins sending them out, like seeds on the wind, to plant their own homes and families.


PrayerMom said...

I shared this on a thread on which we were discussing bringing some of the old monastic disciplines of prayer into modern life. Jesus said that we live by every word from God, and it profits us to be as close as we can to it. I regret that the events of my life over the last few years have left me more distant from it than I used to be unless the topic was someone else's life--a situation that I'm working to remedy.

PrayerMom said...

Oh, and btw--on the second trip through, I noticed Ps. 69 and actually absorbed it. These are the kind of passages that are bringing me back to my Father, who was not the source of the string of disasters that occurred, but has preserved us through them. That's an illustration of why we need to learn to take the time to meditate on what's passing before us.

PrayerMom said...

btw--have you noticed the direct contrast regarding the function of community between this post and the last one?

My Ice Cream Diary said...

I love that thought of a mission of prayer. Some can travel across the world to share the gospel with others, and some can stay home and send prayers out for others. It is a lovely action.

I watched an interview with an accomplished Indian actress and she was being harrassed by the American interviewer about the fact that she still live with her parents. I loved her answer. It went something like:
Sure, I can afford to live on my own, but who wants to come home to an empty house? I travel all over the world but when I come home there is always someone I love there to welcome me and make me feel loved. Why wouldn't you want that?