Benedictine Spirituality: Work, Prayer, and Study

st-benedict-fort-worthBack in late September I went on a three-day retreat to St. Gregory’s Abbey in Michigan. St. Gregory’s is a Benedictine community of male vowed religious from within the Episcopal Church. There are currently seven monks living in the community, and of the seven four are priests. I went on this retreat with a lot of hopes and goals and desires, but the chief among them was to be quiet and to let God do his work in me. I was not on a silent retreat, but benedictines don’t generally talk unless it is necessary. So I spent almost all of my time by myself. In the chapel for communal prayers, I was alone (most of the time I was the only visitor). Meals were taken in silence or while a monk read to everyone, so in that moment I was also alone. I spent the rest of my time in in one of three pursuits: 1) Prayer, 2) Reading, or 3) Walking/hiking (I did fall in the lake at one point). I intentionally did not bring any light reading with me (I had my Bible and a history of Byzantium, but that was it) so that I would feel more inclined to pray when the silence overtook me. There was no cell phone signal, so I did not have to battle that temptation. I was free to wander, pray, read, and be. I came away with a number of thoughts and impressions (one is that monks are bizarre as individuals), but my central insight is that the way the benedictines divide their days is nothing short of ingenious.

I have written some before about Benedictine Spirituality. One of the things I have noted before is that the central focus of Benedictine life are the three vows that they make. As I have noted before:

The first vow is the vow of stabilitas, which primarily means that one commits oneself to a particular group of people or to a particular place. One commits oneself to the good and thriving of a specific community. The second vow is the vow of conversatio morum, which means something like incremental (daily) spiritual improvement. The idea is that one will strive to live everyday better than one did the day prior. The third vow is the vow of obedience, which is not as truncated as it sounds. Obedience is primarily about listening attentively to another and accepting the obligations and calls that others have on one by virtue of shared humanity or any other kind of relationship. It is not merely, or even primarily, about submission to authority. It is therefore within this context, the context of commitment to place, neighbor, and God that the practice of habits will have their greatest ability to shape desire because external habits (which for me are things like reading, praying, and doing certain things) will be rightly ordered toward love of place, neighbor, and God. The habits will be inhabited by a spirit of loving submission and by the constant impulse to die to self.

But what I missed in this account, what I could not really have known until I had experienced it, was the value of the daily rhythm that the monks had cultivated. According to St. Benedict, the monks should divide their days pretty equally between prayer, study, and labor. The prayers are set, of course. Those are the canonical prayers of the Church. Labor seems to be whatever it is needs to be done. In addition to the usual household chores (cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc), benedictines have also historically produced a product to sell for the benefit of the community. The monastery I visited had so few monks (and most were pretty old) that they had, long ago, given up having an apiary. Their primary work at this point is the creation and distribution of spiritual materials, resources, and books. They also regularly offer retreats to people who come looking for God. As for study, I am not sure what the monks I visited get up to, but I do think they are regularly reading and writing. But what I found so incredibly life-affirming and valuable about following this same schedule (prayer, study, and labor) was that it seemed, in perfect proportion, to befit me as a human being. Now, as a secular person (one called to a vocation out in the world), I think it is clear that labor will predominate while study and prayer will have to come in at second place. That being said, the idea of giving attention to each seems valuable. So, for the remainder of this blog post, I want to use those three practices as categories for exploring various recent insights of mine.

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As you all know, my day job is as a Humanities (Literature, History, and Theology) teacher for seventh and eighth grade (that is, 12, 13, and 14 yr-olds in case you have forgotten your ages) at a Classical, Christian school. I also help coordinate our spiritual formation program, preach frequently in chapel, and coach the debate team. So, what I do for a living (my labor) has regular interactions with the other two categories: study (I am a teacher) and prayer (I do spiritual formation work). However, as any teacher (or pastor) knows, there is a big difference between doing the work of teaching and preaching and actually being in God’s presence oneself. I have to plan lessons, re-read and re-re-read the texts I am teaching, grade papers, conference with students about their work and their behavior, email parents, sit in meeting after meeting, craft both formative and summative assessments, etc. But what I have found is that I deeply, deeply love my work. Everyday Amanda asks me how my day was, and I always say the same thing: “It was good! I love what I do!” The labor that I do may make use of the materials of study or prayer, but the work (like all good work) is other-oriented. In its most bastardized form, work is primarily a means of gaining money so one can do what one wants to do. But the intrinsic nature of work (all work, whether debased like the work of a porn star or holy like the work of a priest) is that it gives to others. Like in the case of the porn star, it is not uncommon for the gift to be bad for you (think fast food, candy, soda, etc), but the act of laboring so as to produce something for another is oriented toward the good.

As a teacher, my primary work is the watering, feedings, and pruning of the half-grown humans in my classroom. Education is a subset of discipleship. If discipleship is about soul formation, then education is about the right ordering of minds. Of course, as any gardener knows, the flourishing of plants is not a necessary consequence of the sunlight, water, nutrients, or attention that the gardener gives. A plant is a finicky thing, and while it can be guided, it cannot rightly be controlled. The same goes for the half-grown humans I work with everyday. I labor for their sake, desiring their flourishing, but knowing that they may never flourish or, if they do, I might not be around to see it. And yet, like the gardener and like the farmer, I labor in faith, trusting that God will quicken the hearts of my students, and in hope, believing that what I do, how I cooperate with God and with colleagues and with the parents of my students, will bear fruit, and in love because, at our root, our telos is love. As Jamie Smith has pointed out (and as I mention in all of my blog posts), we are not primarily thinking creatures but loving creatures. We are what we love. We are not, as Aristotle would have it the animal rationale nor, as Kenneth Burke would have it, the symbol-using animal. Rather, we are the loving animal. My labor, at its best–what I spend most of my time doing or preparing to do or reflecting on having done as both a teacher and a father–is to guide little humans into the right ordering of their loves.

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Study, the cultivation of knowledge, is an intrinsic good. As a recovering academic, I am still beset (at times) with the misguided idea that study is primarily about being able to process large amounts of information very quickly. This is not the case. Study is not the possession of knowledge (as if knowledge could be owned), but is the cultivation of knowledge. To cultivate something (to carry on our gardening metaphor from above) is to facilitate the conditions in which that thing will grow. But what is knowledge? Knowledge cannot be reduced to information or facts. We use the word to mean both information as well as something like awareness gained through experience (e.g. “knowledge of the situation”). So, I would say that knowledge, at the least, requires an interaction between a person and the relevant information. While information can exist objectively, knowledge has to be known, which requires a knower. So, in my book, cultivating knowledge requires putting the oneself in situations most conducive to creating a relationship between oneself and valuable information. As I often tell my students, studying for a test requires far more than memorizing information; it requires categorizing that information, putting it into patterns, and ultimately assimilating that information to what is already known. With what remains of this section, I want to walk through various areas of study that I have been focused on lately.

First, I have been thinking deeply (in part inspired by 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation) about my own theological positions (I have lately read Kevin Vanhoozer‘s excellent book Biblical Authority After Babel, read through the recent ecumenical Protestant confession of faith, and been thinking a lot about the great contributions that Evangelicals have made to all areas of theology). I have a post here that walks through my personal theology (I update it with some frequency), I have this post about why I am not a Roman Catholic, and I have these two posts (here and here) that walk through some of my spiritual journey, but I do not really have detailed anywhere my own views on the relationship between Protestantism and Catholicism in my life. As many of you know, my brother is a Catholic priest. He converted to Catholicism in college and then went straight into seminary after college. He was ordained earlier this summer. As I said in chapel at my school on the Thursday before Reformation Day, the Reformation runs right through my family. I have long felt the pull toward Rome, but have so far resisted conversion. I have, at various times, determined to convert (in 2006, 2009, 2010, and 2016) and then not done so for a variety of reasons. But something that I did not expect to happen as I spent time with the monks was that I felt the pull to Rome lessen is some interesting and palpable ways.

It has become increasingly clear to me over the years that my draw to Rome is the sacramental life (I detail some of that here), the beauty of the liturgy and of the art and architecture, the undeniable ancientness of the Church, and the breadth and depth of its theological streams. The Roman Church has history, beauty, and diversity on its side but, as I discover again and again, it does not have a corner on Truth or Goodness. Or, really, even a corner on Beauty. As detailed here, I can reject Rome on an intellectual level because of persuasive arguments from history (primarily) but also from careful study of the New Testament. But, I have often enough felt that I could believe on faith (despite the intellectual arguments) for the sake of the beauty. Just as often, however, I have felt that I do not need Rome for that beauty. Something my time with these Episcopalian monks confirmed is that the beauty I have found in Rome is not exclusive to Rome. Among other things, these Episcopalians have it. But, more than that, anything that was part of the Church prior to the Western Schism is by definition shared property. Protestants should feel free to drawn upon the medieval Church just as much as Catholics do. It is a category mistake to refer to the medieval Church as if it is coterminous with the Roman Catholic Church. The medieval Church was just the western lung of the Church. That lung is now divided. I am drawn to my Protestant faith for all kinds of reasons (some of which I will detail eventually in a blog post devoted to the subject), but I see part of my mission within the Protestant (especially low-church Protestant) fold as to bring some of these great medieval insights (like St. Thomas’s theology, monasticism, and the value of an enchanted world) to Protestants. And if I have certain Catholic sympathies (like prayers to the saints, the canonical hours, a belief in purgatory, etc), I am also replete with Protestant sympathies as well. Because the Protestant faith is reformed and always reforming, it can draw from anywhere. As Peter Leithart notes, the Protestant actually has a greater claim to being catholic (universal) because he can accept any Christian anywhere, whereas Rome is forced to put up institutional barriers.

Second, I have, since my time at the Abbey, acquired a renewed love of the study of scripture. I have long neglected the actual study of the Bible, substituting the reading of theology or listening to lectures and sermons for the actual habit of diving into God’s word. I am currently reading through Acts and the NT epistles. I have just completed Titus. In a couple of areas, my reading of the Bible (as well as some lectures I have recently listened to and some articles I have recently read) has challenged my theology. The first area has been in the area of soteriology. I have long been an Arminian, affirming that God gives prevenient grace to every human on the planet such that their wills are regenerated enough to say yes to him of their own free will. I have prefered Arminianism to its main competitor Calvinism for a number of (rather unscriptural, I might add) reasons. My primary reason has been my fear that Calvinism turns God into a monster and us into puppets because Calvinism has to affirm that God chooses some and not others, which must mean that God does not actually love everyone. So, while any Calvinist worth his salt would reject these objections as caricatures and strawmen, it was essentially what I believed. Until I actually read Romans. And Ephesians. And really, most of the New Testament for the first time since college. And what I have come away with is that there is very little basis in the Bible for the doctrine of prevenient grace, and yet prevenient grace is a necessary doctrine for Arminianism because it is the only way to get past the obviously biblical doctrine of total depravity. To assert the freewill of humans without prevenient grace is to assert semi-pelagianism. But what there does seem to be the basis for is God’s sovereign choice of individuals for election. It takes, to my mind at least, incredible gymnastics by Arminians to avoid the plain meaning of Romans 8-9. And even if the Arminians are correct about corporate election (which, of course they are partly correct), God’s foreknowledge of who would be part of the corporation clearly delimits it. Individual election remains.

So, at the end of the day, we are left with three clear biblical streams: 1) humans are moral agents responsible for their actions, 2) God is in sovereign and providential control of the universe, 3) God desires all people to be saved. How are these things reconciled? Well, it is my belief that Molinism offers us some solutions. Molinism asserts that God has three forms of knowledge: he knows what could happen, what would happen (sometimes called middle knowledge) and what will happen. And those three proceed logically (though not temporally) in that order. God knows all possibilities, he also knows what would happen under any circumstances, and he knows the future. The way this works is that God, knowing all of the possibilities, begins to look at all the different collisions of possibilities to see what would happen under various conditions. In this, he is looking at all possible worlds he could create, but God has some conditions, namely that humans are to have free will. Knowing what would happen in all possible circumstances, God clearly knows that if he grants people free will, then there are some who would never, under any circumstances, choose him. He also knows that if he permits free will, then people will choose to do evil things. In order to preserve the good of free choice, he permits evil. Thus God, who sincerely wills the salvation of all, though he knows that not all would choose him even under ideal circumstances, actualizes a world in which those who would freely choose him under any circumstances are placed in situations in which they will freely choose him and those that would not freely choose him are placed in circumstances in which they do not freely choose him. In actualizing this world, God then sovereignly and providentially ordains what comes to pass. Therefore, in this scheme, all three biblical streams are true. God is sovereign, humans have free choice, and God sincerely wills the salvation of all. So where does that leave me? Well, I find myself affirming Calvinist soteriology (God’s sovereign election of some unto salvation), but simultaneously affirming (at least as possible; the encouragement here is that it is possible to reconcile these three streams even if this is not actually how it is done) that the basis on which God elects individuals is his middle knowledge of which individuals would freely choose him under certain circumstances. For further clarification on how this works, please see this article.

A second area in which my Bible study has altered my theology is in my eschatology. Growing up, I never thought about eschatology except for the belief that Christ would return one day. In fact, we even did the book of Revelation for LTC one year and I still never connected that with eschatology. It wasn’t until reading the Left Behind series in high school and then having that series debunked in college by my professors to I settle out my eschatology. Essentially, I became an amillennial, partial-preterist. That is, I believed that every event predicted to occur before Christ’s return took place during the first century A.D., most especially in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The millennium described in Revelation was symbolic of the age of the Church. The only event that remained was the return of Christ followed by the resurrection of the dead, judgement, and the creation of the New Heaven and the New Earth. However, since reading through the Gospels and the letters to the Thessalonians, I am now persuaded that I have been pretty wrong. Again, it seems like incredibile gymnastics are necessary to avoid the clear future language of Jesus in the Olivet Discourse and in Paul’s descriptions of a “man of lawlessness.” I remain an amillennialist (though the timing of the millennium seems almost irrelevant to eschatology), but I am now a futurist. That is, I believe that before Christ returns several things will need to happen: a) the Gospel will need to be proclaimed everywhere, b) the antichrist will need to rise and make war on the saints, c) there will be a Great Apostasy of the Church, d) there will be a period of great suffering that those faithful to Christ will have to undergo.

Now, none of this is to say that there were not partial -fulfillments of these things in the past, just that there will be a complete fulfillment in the future. Specifically, it seems clear to me that Nero is a type of the antichrist who is to come, that the persecutions of the early church are types of the persecutions that will come later, etc. Partial-fulfillment of prophecy is a major theme in the Bible, Isaiah’s suffering servant refers to a person in Isaiah’s time as well as to Christ, for example. Thus, I am happy to accept contemporary scholarship that reads Revelation as largely symbolic and using apocalyptic language to refer to things in the first century, but I also think  it is well within reason (especially if we take Jesus and Paul at face value) that there will also be future fulfillments. Furthermore, I still quite firmly believe that premillennial dispensationalism with its division of the Church and Israel, its secret rapture (where Christ inexplicably returns twice), and its claim to have a detailed timeline of the end all figured out is very wrong and based on bad exegesis. The same straightforward reading of Paul and Jesus that leads to my futurist conclusions also leads me to believe in only one future return of Christ (as Paul notes, this return will be obvious to everyone on earth and will involve shouting angels, the playing of trumpets, and the resurrection of the dead (I Thess 4)) and in the fulfillment of Israel in the Church (Romans 9-12).

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Perhaps my greatest insight from my time with the monks, however, has been in the realm of prayer and in its relevance to the rest of the Christian life. I have long struggled with prayer (as detailed here and elsewhere), but I believe I have learned how to pray because of the three days I spent doing almost nothing but praying. Indeed, what I have learned is that the formation of virtue does not merely require the cultivation of habits that will then shape our desires (though I clearly believe that happens), but it also requires a robust interior life. Broadly speaking, there are two forms of prayer. There is cataphatic prayer (prayer in which we create and make through words usually) and there is apophatic prayer (prayer in which we try to shut-up and stop listening and simply allow God direct access to our hearts). Cataphatic prayer is, by far, the kind of prayer that we are the most familiar with. It is what we do when we pray scripture, intercede for others, pray for ourselves, or wait for God to tell us things. But apophatic prayer has a long and venerable tradition with Christianity. Apophatic prayer has some commonalities with Eastern mysticism in form, though the theology that undergirds it is far different. Apophatic prayer is rooted in the doctrine of kenosis. That is, the idea (as discussed in Philippians 2) that Christ emptied himself and took on human flesh, that he put aside claims to his divinity. This idea of emptying the self so as to be filled with God in this life anticipates the theosis (the God-union) we will all undergo after our deaths when we are finally firmly one in Christ. One method of apophatic prayer is called centering prayer.

I have long known about centering prayer, but I have never been very good at it. But, at the monastery, I found a book in the library about it. I read the book on my second day there and I found myself transformed. Essentially, centering prayer is an exercise in which one attempts to let go of thoughts so as to make room for the Holy Spirit to work on one’s unconscious. If Paul in Romans 8 is correct that the Holy Spirit intercedes with groans when we don’t know what to pray, then it might be a good spiritual practice to make room for those groans. The way it works is that one sits in an upright position, closes one’s eyes, asks God to enter the heart and soul, and then waits. As one waits, one should take whatever thoughts one has (however good or bad) and gently let the thought go. One metaphor I heard was that this is like laying on the river bed at the bottom of the river while watching the boats pass by overhead. The boats are one’s thoughts. If one finds oneself inexplicably up on one of the boats (if one catches oneself in a thought), then one is to let go and sink back down to the bottom of the river. One way one can do this is through invoking a sacred word (God or Jesus or something similar) as a reminder to let go and sink back down. This should be done for 15-20 minutes at a time. Now, the spiritual benefit to an exercise like this is not in gaining some sort of deep spiritual insights or in having mystical experiences (both are unlikely to happen). Rather, the spiritual benefit is in the act of letting of go of thoughts, of emptying oneself, of choosing over and over again to submit to God. This, it turns out, trains the heart and the soul. I have, since I began regularly using centering prayer while I was at the Abbey, found myself feeling almost constantly in God’s presence. For the first time in my memory, I feel like I have a personal relationship with God. I not only believe he is with me or trust him because I see evidence of his work in my life, but because I can sense him. He closer to me than my breath is to my lungs. And I have found that submitting to his leading, living a virtuous life, to be easier. And the cultivation of this relationship with God has also encouraged me in other areas of prayer. I find myself more joyfully praying the hours, interceding for others, listening to God’s prompting in specific situations, etc.

I am deeply thankful for this area of spiritual growth.

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O Lord, I place myself in your hands and dedicate myself to you. I pledge myself to do your will in all things: To love the Lord God with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength.

Not to kill. Not to steal. Not to covet. Not to bear false witness. To honor all persons. Not to do to another what I would not wish done to myself. To chastise the body. Not to seek after pleasures. To love fasting. To relieve the poor. To clothe the naked. To visit the sick. To bury the dead. To help in trouble. To console the sorrowing. To hold myself aloof from worldly ways. To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

Not to give way to anger. Not to foster a desire for revenge. Not to entertain deceit in the heart. Not to make a false peace. Not to forsake charity. Not to swear, lest I swear falsely. To speak the truth with heart and tongue. Not to return evil for evil. To do no injury: yea, even to bear patiently any injury done to me. To love my enemies. Not to curse those who curse me, but rather to bless them. To bear persecution for justice’s sake.

Not to be proud. Not to be given to intoxicating drink. Not to be an over-eater. Not to be lazy. Not to be slothful. Not to be a murmurer. Not to be a detractor. To put my trust in God.

To refer the good I see in myself to God. To refer any evil in myself to myself. To fear the Day of Judgment. To be in dread of hell. To desire eternal life with spiritual longing. To keep death before my eyes daily. To keep constant watch over my actions. To remember that God sees me everywhere. To call upon Christ for defense against evil thoughts that arises in my heart.

To guard my tongue against wicked speech. To avoid much speaking. To avoid idle talk. To read only what is good to read. To look at only what is good to see. To pray often. To ask forgiveness daily for my sins, and to seek ways to amend my life. To obey my superiors in all things rightful. Not to desire to be thought holy, but to seek holiness.

To fulfill the commandments of God by good works. To love chastity. To hate no one. Not to be jealous or envious of anyone. Not to love strife. Not to love pride. To honor the aged. To pray for my enemies. To make peace after a quarrel, before the setting of the sun. Never to despair of your mercy, O God of Mercy. Amen. 

(found here)