Saturday, June 14, 2008

Learning to Accept Being Loved

In the recent newsletter of our fellow Subiaco house, St. Mary's Priory, Petersham, Mass., Fr. Anselm Atkinson, OSB, reflects:

"From time to time in the monastery, we hear that in community people get away with behavior that would never be tolerated 'outside'. This is probably true. We tend to be a little apologetic about it, but perhaps we shouldn't be. When all else fails, secular society can use fear to enforce conformity....The complaint that we are too easy-going might call to mind the objections of the elder son, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, to his father's indulgence of the younger son....Our life in community is an experience of the Father's love. We can always let it spoil us, like the prodigal, or let it fill us with resentment, like the elder son. Or we can experience it as an invitation to maturity: we can carry one another."

This beautiful reflection brought to mind a thought that has passed through my own noggin at times. I tell men who come here to test their vocation that our first crisis in monastic life comes when we encounter our sinfulness in all its naked baseness. There are three different responses: we can deny that we are at fault, point fingers at the community and claim that everyone around us is lax (the most common response, I think!) and probably end up leaving 'for a better community'. Secondly, we can 'act up'--this is the response of the prodigal, and I suppose that it is why people accuse monasteries of laxity. In this case, when we 'act up' or 'act out', I suspect that it is because we are ashamed at being loved despite our failings. We almost want to invite some kind of rebuke, to test God and our abbot to see if he will treat us as we feel that we deserve: badly! This is not such a good posture, but at the very least it demonstrates commitment to a relationship, and so promises a cure in a manner that the first responses does not. It is not easy to accept being loved when we don't like ourselves, which is the case for many of us. Conversion of life often means learning to accept being loved!

Thirdly, we can exult at the love that God the Father showers on us all, acknowledge that we do not deserve it, but who cares? Love is not love in its fullest, most mysterious sense, if it is merited. If we have ever fallen in love, we know that it is not about anything the person we love does or doesn't do, it is who that person is. In this case, we are in a position finally to respond maturely to this love and share it with others, who are also undeserving, except that God loves them as much as He loves me, so who am I to be sparing them love?

If I may close with a book-nerdy observation, the three Brothers Karamazov exhibit these traits: Ivan holds aloof (and thus conspires in murder!), Dmitri plays the buffoon like his father, inviting punishment (and ironically receiving it unjustly), but is saved and redeemed. He is saved and redeemed in large part because of the selfless love of the youngest, Alexei.

P.S. If you follow the link to St. Mary's, Fr Anselm is the self-effacing one trying to hide in the back.


Anonymous said...

Dear Father,

Could you elaborate further on this, by Fr. Anselm:

"we hear that in community people get away with behavior that would never be tolerated 'outside'."

What kind of behaviour is tolerated in community that would not be tolerated outside?

It was actually my gut response, I think, to assume the opposite: that the 'world' would be more forgiving and less harsh on one then the community.

Thank you

Prior Peter, OSB said...

Dear Anonymous,
I can't say for certain what behavior Fr Anselm had in mind, except that I have heard similar things said about our monastery.

Often, the complaint seems to assume that being monks is 'our job', and so we should be held to the presumed standards of conduct that employers demand of their employees: work hard on the clock, do good work (otherwise we'll fire you and hire someone else), not talk back to the boss, etc. It is the case, whether we like it or not, that monastic work is largely unaffected by 'market forces': we don't often need the same sort of expertise in any area to do business there, and in my experience, it is easy for monks to assume competence in professional fields where their own training does not warrant it. Instead, since we often get preferential treatment owing to the goodness of the People of God, we might imagine that this good treatment reflects on our merit.

Another type of complaint derives from actual incompetence, say a brother irresponsibly crashing a vehicle or wasting a large sum of money in a bad business deal. In the latter case, there is little risk that the monk will actually suffer in terms of the overall financial health of the monastery, which is not the case for families in the world.

In such a case, or in other cases of even bad behavior (treating brothers with disrespect, insulting guests or running off with them), the community must always work to heal the sinner while not getting caught up in a cycle of anger and recrimination.

In his article, Fr Anselm did make note of situations where we must withdraw support in order not to cooperate in evil. He did this, however, without specifying. The thrust of the article is that in the tough cases, we are probably as monks asked to err on the side of mercy, which is very much in the monastic tradition. There are many such desert stories, in which (for example) a robber comes and steals everything he can find from a sleeping monk. When the monk awakes, he chases after the robber and when he catches him, he hands him a pen that the robber had overlooked! Sometimes a word of encouragement to do the right things is added before the monk returns to his empty cell.

I hope that this helps.

As far as the monastery being stricter, it may appear that way from the outside, but the truth is, unless the monk undertakes the discipline freely, he will never be set free in love. So the conformity in monasteries is hopefully not a sign of the strictness of the superiors who are feared by their subordinates, but a sign of the love of many individual brothers supporting one another in community by freely chosen ascetical endeavors.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Father.

The story of the monk chasing down the robber to give him the pen that he forgot to take reminds me of a recent Gospel (perhaps even from today's Mass). It was about returning evil with good, "turning the other cheek", going the extra mile, that sort of thing. There is such a vulnerability in that, which immediately strikes a fear in me, and yet, it's absolutely beautiful, not just in word, but in deed--to truly live that way must be beautiful. Christ is beautiful, I think, in part because He is vulnerable.

I have a certain fascination with monks, probably inspired most by the things Thomas Merton wrote. On what exactly a monk does, on what his task is, on a monk's 'work', as you somewhat allude to here and in prior posts, and as Thomas Merton said, it seems the number one thing is to "seek God", and that plays itself out in a variety of ways.

Merton called the monk a bit of a rebel and his life a sort of scandal to the world, if I recall right.

I think some people think 'seeking God' is rather abstract and esoteric, but it strikes me as the most practical and necessary thing there is for anyone to do--monk or not. To my mind, it's all there is, or, at the very least, it ought to be the end that directs all else we do in between that is not directly related to this God-seeking.

If the world doesn't understand the monk's work, or if it has a code of behavior such that it doesn't have a place in it for the mercy that the monk hungers to show, then it always has seemed to me, if we put the two in competition against each other, that the monk has it right and the world wrong.

It's not simply that the 'world' should be nicer or kinder, but that it should quit being removed from reality--it ought to not simply put on a fascade, a gloss in tone and feeling, as what seems to be happening in a lot of cheerful religion and just general 'happy-fyingness' all over the place (in the worldplace, there are smiley faces all over emails, conversations built on bland, mirthful sentiments whose core is a dull politeness), and on the other extreme, these 'severe' and serious, very important endless circulations and systems of plans and ambitions whose ultimate end, it seems, is never thought of. It's even an absurd notion to the world to question the ultimate end in the first place!

I've found myself so in confusion over it that I almost think there is a secret that the world knows that I don't know about such plans and happenings. I don't know how else to explain the weight that it gives to what it does.

Obviously, I simply don't understand the 'world' in this regard (or really in any), but especially in the odd codes of dress, speech, behavior, rules, and so forth that it thrives on. It's the world that seems esoteric and removed from reality, requiring an effort to really 'ascend' to and participate in. I've never felt less myself than in this context of the 'world' and I simply, no matter how hard I try, don't get what all the fuss is for.

Easter Joy said...

Dear Anonymous,

I think all "the fuss" that you discussed in your comment exists because people believe that this world is the only one that exists. If a person believes that this world is the only one that exists, and that when his or her life here ends there will be nothing else for him or her, he or she will then begin to live out those "severe and serious' acts of desperation.


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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