The Work of God – The Rule of St. Benedict

After the long chapter on humility, Benedict moves on to a series of instructions on the life of a monk in the monastery.  The chapters have titles such as “How Many Psalms are to be Said at the Night Office” and  “How Lauds are to be Said on Weekdays.”  A lot of it is certainly quite useful for monks, hence the longtime influence of this book.  What might someone like me, or anyone who is not living in as a monk in a monastery, take from this?

Two things come to my mind.  First, the importance of scheduling your time.  I know that if I want to take time to read scriptures or other spiritual classics, I need to schedule it.  For me this means setting my alarm to get up at 5:30 AM and beginning my day with reading.  For others it may mean turning the TV off a bit earlier in the night, reading the Bible during your lunch  break, or listening to the Bible during your commute.  No matter what the specifics, the truth is that if you wait till you feel like it or have free time you will never read or hear the scriptures.

Obviously there are limits to scheduling.  Those of us who are not monks have things that may ruin our best efforts at scheduling: Junia may get out of bed early (like she did this morning, 6:15 AM, come on!)  or the boss may call a surprise meeting over lunch.  Our schedule may get messed up and this is okay.  We are not gearing for a sort of spirituality that just checks off boxes (I read the Bible today, check!) and that gets pride in our accomplishment.  The scheduling is a mere help to get in touch with God and God, like a loving Father, will not get angry when the realities of life mess up our plans.

Second, spirituality is work.  Monks in Benedict’s communities work hard in both the spiritual realm, reading the Bible and praying, as well as in the physical realm, doing “normal” work.  We tend to only see work in terms of our 8-5 jobs during the week.  Maybe prayer is an add on, a mere spiritual thing.  We look at someone reading and think of it as “just reading.”  But reading the Bible, or other things, and praying is as important a work as our paid jobs.

It is important to break this sacred/secular dualism.  On one hand, we learn to see our secular, day-to-day, work as a Godly calling no less important in the grand scheme of things than “spiritual” church work.  On the other hand, we see our spiritual formation not as an add-on when there is time but a vital part of our functioning as a human.

So make a schedule and put time in for spiritual formation.


Exploring JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit by Corey Olsen (Review)

I have read and reread Tolkien’s classic The Hobbit many times. It is a fantastic story and a wonderful introduction into Tolkien’s Middle Earth. A few years ago I discovered the podcast of The Tolkien Professor, Corey Olsen. I have listened to many of his podcasts since then and it feels as if you are getting a graduate seminar in Tolkien as you listen. After rereading The Hobbit again in the fall I decided to finally read Olsen’s analysis of it.

It should be noted that this book was not written to piggyback off the success of the movies, Olsen was working on this book prior to the movies coming out. There are many books, or at least there were on the Lord of the Rings in the early 2000s, that purport to share lessons from the stories. The majority of these books are written with good intentions, almost as Christian devotionals, but are shallow and instantly forgotten. Olsen’s book is not such a book, it is fantastic work by a true Tolkien scholar. 
Further, the spirit of Olsen’s book somewhat reminds me of the spirit of Tolkien. Tolkien was a Christian but his books were not meant as allegory. There are truths and lessons in there if you look for them, but they are not as blatant as Lewis’ Narnia stories where Aslan = Jesus. In analyzing Tolkien’s book there were a number of places where Olsen could have gone the sermonizing route but did not. That

step is left to the reader. I greatly appreciate that, as, like Tolkien’s work, it demands a bit of thought by the reader. In other words, any lessons here are not spoon-fed.

If you are a fan of the Hobbit, then check this one out. You may want to read the Hobbit as you read this, because Olsen does not explain the story in detail. For example, when Gandalf leaves on his errand, Olsen makes no mention of this, assuming you know at what point in the story that happens. So at least have the Hobbit story fresh in your memory. And enjoy!

Be Humble! The Rule of St. Benedict

Humility is a big deal for St. Benedict.  Chapter seven of his rule focuses on humility and it is one of longest  (perhaps the longest) chapters in the entire work.  He compares the path to humility as a ladder to the heavens.  The first step on this ladder is fear of God which, for him, was a very literal fear, noting the reality of burning in hell!

The second step is to not desire to do your own will but to do the will of God.  And on and on it goes, Benedict lists over ten different steps which include things such as confession and obeying authorities.  The one that stuck out to me most was:

The eleventh degree of humility is, that, when a monk speaketh, he speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and sensible words, and that he be not loud of voice, as it is written: “The wise man is known by the fewness of his words.”

St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 354-355). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.

I am challenged by this because my inclination is to defend and justify myself with my words.  This is not limited to what I say, but by later defending what I said or seeking affirming words from others to know they liked what I said.  In other words, rather than just speaking with confidence and allowing my words to justify themselves, I speak with uncertainty and look for the approval of others.

My “take-away” from this chapter in Benedict is to put a lot of prayer and thought into what I say.  From this I ought to at times choose to speak and at other times choose to be silent.  When I do choose to speak , I ought to do so with both confidence and humility.  The confidence comes from knowing my words are not just diarrhea of the mouth, as my dad used to say, but well thought out and prayed through words.  The humility comes from being open to constructive criticism and disagreement without pandering for affirmation.

What steps must you take to move up the ladder of humility?

Human Trafficking Awareness Month

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month.  This comes with a Presidential Proclamation as well as dozens of news articles and events to take part in.  Ever since I first learned about the reality of modern-day slavery a few years back, it seems that more and more people are talking about it.  Awareness has been growing, though of course just knowing about it is merely a first step.

Freedom and Restoration for Everyone Enslaved (FREE) is partnering with Berks Karma Yoga Club for many events.  I am a bit late in writing, so some of the events are already passed.  But you still have time to get involved in three more events:

Saturday, January 26th : Shri Yoga and Wellness Yogathon followed by a Chinese Auction and Potluck Meal
Yogathon Times TBA at
 Shri Yoga and Wellness Center
1015 Penn Avenue, Wyomissing, PA 19610   /   Shri Yoga Website

Wednesday, January 29th : Free Screening of the Movie “Flesh” 
followed by interactive discussion
7:30pm at Penn State – Berks Campus   /   PSU Berks Website
Tulpehocken Road, Reading, PA 19610 – Perkins Student Center Auditorium
Movie Information: Flesh

Friday, January 31
: “Renting Lacy” Book Discussion 
7:00pm – 9:00pm at 1817 Liberty Avenue, Reading, PA 19607
Book Information: Renting Lacy

The middle one is most pertinent to me as it is being sponsored by CSF at Penn State Berks.  We will be watching the documentary FLESH which focuses on sex trafficking in the USA.  It is very well-done which makes it eye-opening and at times depressing.  But it is something we ought not close our eyes to, or allow the depression that it exists to overcome us.  For the sake of our communities, our children and our world we need to learn just so we know what to be aware of as well as to take action.

Please consider attending the film discussion (or if you like yoga, the yogathon, or if you like reading, the book discussion).

Stop Talking and Be Silent – The Rule of St. Benedict (With an Assist from Lisa Simpson)

I talk to much.  This often leads me to putting my foot in my mouth, saying things I ought not say, or at the very least just rambling on into nonsense.

In the words of St. Benedict:

Therefore, because of the importance of silence, let permission to speak be seldom given to perfect disciples even for good and holy and edifying discourse, for it is written: “In much talk thou shalt not escape sin.” And elsewhere: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” For it belongeth to the master to speak and to teach; it becometh the disciple to be silent and to listen (St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 284-287). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition).

Or, in the words of Lisa Simpson:

“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool then to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

After Lisa says this we hear Homer’s brain talk to Homer, “What does that mean? Better say something or they’ll think you’re stupid.”  Homer quickly chimes in: “Takes one to know one!

How often do we join Homer in thinking we need to speak, even if we really have nothing wise to say?  

How much better would we be if we took Lisa and St. Benedict’s advice and spent more time in silence?


The Value of Mentorship – The Rule of St. Benedict

I enjoy reading these Christian classics, looking for nuggets of wisdom that have stood through the centuries.  Perhaps one thing I like most is that these classics come from a different time and place.  This means that the authors think and write things that may sound odd or surprising or even totally wrong.

Today is one of the latter.  In his classic Rule, St. Benedict writes on Obedience in chapter five:

The first degree of humility is obedience without delay. This becometh those who, on account of the holy subjection which they have promised, or of the fear of hell, or the glory of life everlasting, hold nothing dearer than Christ – St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 264-265). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.

This obedience, however, will be acceptable to God and agreeable to men then only, if what is commanded is done without hesitation, delay, lukewarmness, grumbling or complaint, because the obedience which is rendered to Superiors is rendered to God – St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 274-276). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.

Obedience to the one in authority without delay, without complaining, without question?  Sounds like a recipe for disaster and scandal or worse.  Benedict does cite a Bible verse here, but I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ words in Matthew 21:28-31

28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.

Some people, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, were full of good talk.  Yet there was no follow through.  Jesus lifts up as an example those who might hesitate, even refuse, to obey but soon go to work.  For Jesus in this case, it is actions more than words that count.

Of course, everything we say is said in a specific situation.  To Jesus here, actions may speak louder then words.  But if Jesus is our ultimate example, we know the goal is not choosing one (actions) or the other (words), but having both.  The best son would be the one who says he will do the work and actually does it, but such a person does not appear in Jesus’ story.  Well, Jesus is that best son who perfectly combines actions and words, so that son is the one telling the story!

Benedict is writing to monks who have taken a vow to obey the abbot, the head of the monastery.  As Benedict says, quoting scripture, the one who hears the abbot’s command has heard God’s.  Our individualism and anti-authoritarian attitude balk at this.  A lot of bad has happened when people blindly follow authority figures, quickly and without questioning, as Benedict wants.  Much of this bad has happened when those authority figures claim to speak for God.

So I am not with Benedict here because I simply don’t think there is any human who deserves such unquestioning, unflinching obedience.  But there is still an important lesson to learn, for perhaps we have gone too far the other direction.  After all, a lot of good has happened when the authority figure is a good mentor.  Such good mentors, the best mentors, will direct those under them to obedience to Jesus Christ, the one who perfectly combines actions and words.  We don’t need to join a monastery to experience the value of learning from good mentors.


What I Learned About Judgment When My Toddler Wouldn’t Sleep

(I first wrote this weeks ago in early December, but never got around to posting it.  Over the holidays Junia slept great.  Today, the first day my wife is back at school, Junia refused to nap.  That is somewhat ironic timing as I post this.)

For most of her young life, Junia has been a fantastic sleeper.  She would take rather long naps and sleep all night.

When we converted her crib to a toddler bed, she had a few wild days but she soon settled down to regular sleep.  Until recently.  Nearly every night has become a battle: we put her to bed and close her door, she gets out of bed.  Sometimes she says she needs to go on the potty, so we let her try.  She is recently potty-trained and though we have encouraged her to pee before bed sometimes she really does need to go again.  Other times it is a ploy to get out of bed for a few minutes.

There are nights when she gets out of bed 1-2 times, then there are nights when after the fifth time of getting out of bed we begin to lose our minds.

She likes to sleep with a few books, stuffed animals and toys.  We told her we would take them away.  That worked for one night.  The next night she got out of bed to give us a toy and did not mind when we took them.

This is not so much a post as to what to do about kids who fight sleep (there are many posts by people with more wisdom then I have).  This is a post on punishment and consequences (dun-dun-DUN!).

The other day she would not take a nap.  She said she was tired and that she wanted to take a nap, but she kept getting up.  After putting her blanket on twice I told her I was done.  The next hour would be quiet time and if she stayed awake she was just hurting herself.  I told her I would wake her up when it was time to wake up from the nap and if she didn’t go to sleep soon she would thus get a short nap.  Then I went downstairs and ignored her, listening to her play another 30 minutes.

Eventually she went to sleep.

The whole thing made me think about the difference between punishments from the outside and self-inflicted harm.

Emily and I threatened a variety of punishments – no TV the next day, no apple juice, taking away toys, etc.  Sure she was upset when she couldn’t watch an episode of Dora the next day, but it did not seem to be a huge deterrent (plus, if she is sleeping less, limiting such things ends up punishing Emily and I more then it does Junia).

When she wouldn’t take a nap I just told her she was only hurting herself.  Without a nap, or with a very short one, she acted tired the rest of the day.  The punishment is self-inflicted, she is hurting herself.

Of course, she is probably too young to digest this lesson.  But it is a good lesson for adults.

I grew up learning that if you are bad then God will punish you; if you do not believe the right things about Jesus you will be sent to hell for all eternity.  The more I think about it though, most of our bad choices (sins) hurt ourselves.  Before we even get to any punishment from a God, we punish ourselves by engaging in self-destructive behavior.

I think I always had the impression that God commanded certain things almost arbitrarily.  So some things were good and some were bad.  Now I have come to see that God wants what is best for us, and living as a disciple of Jesus truly leads to human flourishing.  To use one example, it is more satisfying to live generously rather than greedily.  Jesus does not call us to give just to take our stuff away, we are better humans for giving.  And being greedy may lead to some sort of judgment or punishment one day, but before we even talk about that we need to realize greed will destroy us.

Maybe we could put it this way – sin self-destructs.  If you choose the path of self-fulfillment above all else you will lose yourself.  But if you choose the path of living for others, you will find satisfaction.  Reminds me of Jesus’ words in Mark 8:35 – For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

Or on a toddler level – If you choose not to nap, you’re just going to be grumpy the rest of the day which won’t be fun for you or anyone around you.  The parents don’t need to even punish you, your lack of sleep and subsequent exhaustion is punishment itself.  We want what’s best for you, which is sleep.  Refusing to sleep hurts you.  Take a nap and enjoy life!