The Role of Sin

One of the Solitaries would like to share the following reflection with you.

We think of sin too often as the thing-we-did-wrong, the curse, the evil thought, the jealous glance, and so on.  We do not think of it as the habit or attitude that takes us away from God.

And thank God we don’t!  Sometimes when we are confronted with a bad habit that has become sinful —in other words a pattern of behavior that is destructive of the relationships we have with God and others— it can seem too overwhelming to conquer.  Sometimes we will even think, “Oh well, I guess I’m just going to have to live with this miserable, demeaning, destructive behavior!  Ain’t life a bitch?”

Recently I had such an experience, one that went on as a several month struggle with a kind of addiction and troubling impulses.

While I cannot say that I am free of this struggle, I am certainly free-er than I was.  And now, mere weeks after feeling almost despairing of my bad habits that were destroying me and my relationships, I feel a great peace.  This peace has come with going to confession, beginning to mend broken relationships, and a return to God in prayer.

Do not despair of your life.  It is not over.  The saying goes that one shouldn’t “write a comma where God has put a period,” but that falls short of the truth.  Sometimes where there is a period —sometimes not even of our own making!— God comes in, helps us grab a pencil, guides our shaky hand to erase that period and then gently write a comma, so that our fragile sentence may continue.

Do not despair.  It is not over.  Grab a pencil, or ask God to help.

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Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Oh, most beautiful flower of Mt. Carmel, fruitful vine, splendor of Heaven. Blessed Mother of the Son of God, Immaculate Virgin, assist me in my necessity, Oh Star of the Sea, help me and show me here you are my Mother. Oh Holy Mary, Mother of God Queen of Heaven and Earth, I humbly beseech thee from the bottom of my heart to succor me in my necessity (make request). There are none that can withstand your power. Oh Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee (say three times). Holy Mary, I place this prayer in your hands (say three times). Amen

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Carmelite Spirituality: St. John of the Cross

And this first night pertains to beginners, occurring at the time when God begins to bring them into the state of contemplation; in this night the spirit likewise has a part, as we shall say in due course. And the second night, or purification, pertains to those who are already proficient, occurring at the time when God desires to bring them to the state of union with God. And this latter night is a more obscure and dark and terrible purgation, as we shall say afterwards. 4. Briefly, then, the soul means by this stanza that it went forth (being led by God) for love of Him alone, enkindled in love of Him, upon a dark night, which is the privation and purgation of all its sensual desires, with respect to all outward things of the world and to those which were delectable to its flesh, and likewise with respect to the desires of its will. This all comes to pass in this purgation of sense; for which cause the soul says that it went forth while its house was still at rest.

The above is from The Ascent of Mount Carmel by John of the Cross.

Meditate upon it.

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Carmelite Spirituality: St. Teresa of Avila

It is well to seek greater solitude so as to make room for the Lord and allow His Majesty to do His own work in us. The most we should do is occasionally, and quite gently, to utter a single word, like a person giving a little puff to a candle, when he sees it has almost gone out, so as to make it burn again; though, if it were fully alight, I suppose the only result of blowing it would be to put it out. I think the puff should be a gentle one because, if we begin to tax our brains by making up long speeches, the will may become active again.

The passage excerpted above comes from Teresa of Avila’s Way of Perfection.  This work is less well known than The Interior Castle or her Autobiography, but it is richer in straightforward spiritual advice.

Teresa recognizes in this passage that in seeking solitude we can become lost somewhat.  While we may seek solitude in order to God’s will, we sometimes need a re-centering or encouragement.

It is telling that Teresa distinguishes between “a puff” and “blowing.”  If a candle is almost out, a “puff” will bring the flame back to life.  The same action would blow out a candle in full flame.

So it is with our spiritual lives.  Sustenance comes in small, discrete, humble bursts.  A call from or to a friend.  A few minutes sipping tea quietly.  Watching birds in a tree.  Playing with a child.  Daydreaming.  These things can re-enliven a dimming or floundering spirit.

When in full flame, however, a spiritual lives might not be able to sustain this or that, so we must refrain from it or encounter it with moderation.

Most telling, however, is what Teresa chooses not to say.  She probably expects her readers to make the connection for herself.  What does a blast of air do to a candle completely out?  Nothing.

So often, when we are in a rut or in a troubled time, we choose a dramatic solution or expansive resolutions that are hard to fulfill: a several day retreat during which we’ll “get things together,” newly assumed or renewed spiritual disciplines of great rigor, or the firm resolve to be the perfect partner/husband/wife/son/friend/teacher/etc.

Do these work?  Perhaps sometimes, and then only rarely.  Better the subtle, gentle, kind change.  The mere “puff,” the resolution that we can accomplish does more for our spiritual well-being than the grand “blowing” that is abandoned because it is too demoralizingly hard.

Teresa knows better than to allow grand resolutions to enter her nuns’ minds.  Start small.  Start now.  And when you flag, just a little, whispery puff will do.

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Carmelite Spirituality

The Solitaries of Saint Benedict are Benedictines, but they are heavily influenced by Carmelite spirituality, so much so that one the Solitaries’ patrons is Our Lady of Mount Carmel.  In honor of the upcoming feast on Friday, the Solitaries will be offering five reflections on Carmelite Spirituality, focusing first on the Carmelite rule, and then on three great Carmelite saints.  On the Feast a prayer to Our Lady will be posted in honor of the Feast.

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The Rule of St. Albert is much briefer than the Holy Rule of Benedict, but in spirit as well as many particulars the rules coincide.  While the Holy Rule of Benedict encourages silence, the Rule of St. Albert has one chapter that is particularly instructive regarding silence; it is to this passage which we will turn:

The Apostle would have us keep silence, for in silence he tells us to work. As the Prophet also makes known to us: Silence is the way to foster holiness. Elsewhere he says: Your strength will lie in silence and hope. For this reason I lay down that you are to keep silence from after Compline until after Prime the next day. At other times, although you need not keep silence so strictly, be careful not to indulge in a great deal of talk, for, as Scripture has it — and experience teaches us no less — sin will not be wanting where there is much talk, and he wo is careless in speech will come to harm; and elsewhere: The use of many words brings harm to the speaker’s soul. And our Lord says in the Gospel: Every rash word uttered will have to be accounted for on judgement day. Make a balance then, each of you, to weigh his words in; keep a tight rein on your mouths, lest you should stumble and fall in speech, and your fall be irreparable and prove mortal. Like the Prophet, watch your step lest your tongue give offence, and employ every care in keeping silent, which is the way to foster holiness.

As always, these rules seem harsher than is reasonable.  Yet it specifies that strict silence is not always the standard of conduct.  Rather, the rule here asks its followers to keep a rein on their tongues.

Silence is not merely something that one does (or does not do) with one’s mouth.  One can refrain from speaking all day and be far from silent.  At the same time, one can speak throughout the day and still remain —at least in some sense— silent.

Silence is an attitude or a cultivated habit, just as temperance, moderation, compassion, and generosity.  This complicates what we think of when we think of silence.  For example, if a person practices compassion, sometimes she might sometimes refrain from helping someone in particular way because such help might be cause more harm than help.  These virtues are not about simply doing something, but rather they are about having the right attitude or perspective on our activities.

Thus, silence is a disposition we can develop.  Silence is undoubtedly begun by refraining from speech.  However, anyone who has ever tried to do so realizes that with such silence, the mind often begins going into a state of greater activity, characterized by anxiety, uneasiness, jealousy, annoyance, and a nagging voice of criticism, both of self and others.

Because physical silence makes us aware of the internal chatter that physical non-silence covers up, we are forced to come to terms with this internal inquietude.  This coming to terms —and not mere physical silence or not talking— is the point of silence.

So how might does one begin entering into silence?  A person might start by repeating some word or phrase for a short period, say five minutes, every day or every few days, perhaps the name of Jesus or the Jesus prayer.  This person might begin to lengthen the period of silence and repeating the word or phrase only when the interior silence begins to be disturbed.  Eventually, a person may be able to enter a period of silence by means of a short prayer and use the word or phrase only rarely for re-centering the mind and spirit. Eventually, the quiet of these sessions will spill over into the rest of life, so that even when working or speaking or in a busy, crowded place, an interior silence is preserved, instead of the chatter that such activities often (blessedly) covers up.

This is a difficult path, and it should not be entered into lightly.  A spiritual director or close friend should be aware of this practice and consulted frequently.  An easier approach might be to try to refrain from wandering thoughts for five minutes a day and to focus on the task at hand.  Gradually lengthening this process will produce a kind of mindfulness that silence also produces, and perhaps this mindfulness can lead backwards into a silence by a sort of back door.

May you enter into a fruitful silence.

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A Hermit of Contradiction: Basil Pennington, OCSO on Thomas Merton

For this ‘blog’s first post and in honor of the Feast of our Patron, Holy Father Benedict, Patron and Father of Monks, the following reflection is offered.

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His [Merton’s] ascesis, his daily Cross, was “an ascesis of fidelity to life itself and tot he human measure. . . . An ascesis not of rigor and restraint but of openness and response: not of solipsism but of self-forgetfulness, celebration and love. . . . An ascesis of generosity.”  He let go of the imaginary, the maing and the role, of the abstract.  He lived “to the present, the real, what is in front of my nose.  Each time I do this I am more present, more real, more detatched, more clear, better able to pray.”  -Basil Pennington, Thomas Merton, Brother Monk, 144.

In Thomas Merton, Brother Monk, Basil Pennington describes Merton as he knew him and sees him, a view like and unlike the Merton of popular imagination.

The passage quoted above refers in part to Merton’s behavior on his trip to Asia during which he died.  Merton went to bars, stayed in luxurious hotels, and generally comported himself other than a monk and hermit might typically.  Pennington recognizes the contradiction and even admits to the difficulty or impossibility of defending it.

Drawing from Merton’s own writings in the passage above Pennington is able to understand and explain (if not justify) Merton’s seeming prodigality and indulgence.  Merton —a true hermit and monk— could nonetheless be un-monk-ish because life and the world has a way of ignoring the monastic enclosure, both literal and virtual, that should separate the monk from things like bars and fancy hotels.  How much of this is the work of the Holy Spirit is a question for another post.

The reality for every person —and every monk— is that while we separate ourselves to permit the solitude that makes holiness possible, such separation is rarely airtight.  While sin can never be thought of as a good thing, what might be permissible, appropriate, or even advisable differs from person to person, from situation to situation, from place to place.

This illustrates well the lives that the Solitaries of Saint Benedict commit themselves to.  Hermits, semi-hermits, and hermits-in-the-world are not recluses.  They do not live aloof and apart from the world.  Rather, the ascesis (the training of self-discipline) can be regulated by a Rule or a tradition,  but it must be a pliable, living ascesis, otherwise it becomes a mere chain, chafing at the skin.  The Solitaries of Saint Benedict seek to embrace a life of discipline that is all the while flexible, generous, open to the Spirit.

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