2 Kings 2:1-12/Psalm 50:1-6/2 Corinthians 4:3-6/Mark 9:2-9
One of the things that drew me to this community back in 1996 when I was contemplating monastic vocation was the brand new Rule of Life. Br. Curtis, who was the novice guardian at the time, sent me a pre-publication copy. The new Rule was the fruit of eight years of reflection and revision by the Society. Since it was completed before I got here, I feel like I can “brag on it”, as we sometimes say in parts of the Midwest where I’m from.
It is a most extraordinary document. It is written with a depth and richness that reward reading and re-reading and re-re-reading over time (which is what we Brothers do, actually). I’m continually struck by the two chapters on Obedience. Each of the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience has two or three chapters devoted to it. I haven’t made a study of other monastic rules of life, but I suspect the chapters on obedience are ground-breaking in their depth and subtlety.
One of those subtleties is the curious absence of a word you would certainly expect: the Rule never uses the word “obey”, a verb. The noun “obedience” is used repeatedly, and more broadly, meaning a certain disposition: a disposition of attentiveness, of listening. (English “obedience” has its roots in the Latin word for “listening”). The rule also uses the word “cooperate” where it might have said “obey”. So, we are to be attentive to authority, wherever it lies; we are to “cooperate” with those individuals vested with authority.
The Rule as a whole—explicitly and implicitly–recognizes multiple voices of authority: the Rule itself, the scriptures, the Episcopal Church, certain authorized liturgical texts, the elected leadership of the community, those with responsibility in various areas. And Christ himself; he is the ultimate authority. We are to be obedient to all these voices of authority, that is, in a disposition of attentiveness and listening to these voices. Obedience, at least in our rule, is not passive or mindless compliance with someone else’s commands, but a different kind of cooperative engagement.
One of voices of authority recognized in the Rule—and this, I think, sets our Rule apart—one of those authorities is what the Rule calls “our true selves”. From Chapter 12, “The Spirit of Obedience”: “The vow of obedience requires us to be constantly attentive to the voice of the Spirit within our hearts, endowing us with our own unique authority and gifts. We are called to be obedient to our true selves as they are being formed in Christ.”
We are called to be obedient to our true selves as they are being formed in Christ. That statement alone is worth the price of the book—actually it’s absolutely free online if you go to our website. We are called to be obedient to our true selves as they are being formed in Christ. Or, we might say, we are called to be attentive to our true selves as they are being formed in Christ. Or, cooperative with our true selves.
Today we heard a story from the Gospel of Mark about a glimpse of our true selves as they are being formed in Christ. The story of the Transfiguration is about Jesus: the disciples see a vision of Christ in glory. But we understand this vision to be about us as well. In the brilliant light of the Transfiguration we get an imaginative glimpse of our ultimate transformation—a transformation that is only complete beyond the gateway of death.
This transformation from what we are to what we shall become is from our partial selves to our complete selves, from our less-than-true selves to our fully true and authentic selves, from our broken selves to our fully healed selves. In Christ we are called to be obedient to our fully true selves as they are being formed in Christ. We are to cultivate a disposition of attentiveness to, and cooperation with, this true, complete self.
A scene from a Broadway show, of all things, helps me begin to grasp this mystery. It’s been a few years, but this is how I remember it: Billy Eliot is a kid from a depressed mining town who has an irrepressible desire to become a dancer, much to the embarrassment of his family. One scene is a dream sequence, or, I suppose, a kind of vision of transfiguration. Billy is alone on stage, practicing at a barre in an empty studio. Then an adult dancer appears behind him: it is the Billy Eliot he will become after years of discipline, maturation, joys and heartaches. The adult Billy is invisible to the boy Billy, but joins him in making the same moves. The music is that very stirring opening of Swan Lake, with its plaintive theme floating above shivering strings that then opens up into the kind of ecstatic surges that Tchaikowsky does so well. At one point, boy Billy and adult Billy begin to dance together. When the music soars; the boy begins to swoop and soar—literally, lifted high in the air and across the stage by his adult self. In Billy’s dream, in his vision of transfiguration, what he is to become becomes partner to what he is now: in the literal sense of the word, he “co-operates”, with his true self.
Perhaps you’ve had this sense of an unseen presence in your life, the presence of that which is not other than you, but that which you will become. Our true selves as they are being formed in Christ, our complete and true selves, our fully transfigured selves already exist in the heart and mind of God. Our true selves, fully alive in Christ, can be partners to us even now, even in this life. They may even help us do a few leaps and lifts and spins around the dance floor.
Going back to the rule of life.—a rule of life is not so much legislation or a list of rules as it is a framework for life. My favorite metaphor is a trellis, like what roses grow on. The function of a trellis is to support the life which rests on it, giving it shape and strength in bad weather. And light: a trellis helps lift the leaves off the ground and up into the sunlight. A good rule of life lifts us up, exposing us to fuller light. A good rule of life helps us to be attentive and present, to be obedient to the light of our true selves, our fully, completely transfigured selves that are already alive in the heart of God.
Now, to close, here’s another dream sequence, an imaginary vision of transfiguration (you might find this a helpful meditation):
You are at the scene of the Transfiguration, on the mountain with Jesus and Peter, James and John. Like the disciples, you are drowsy—perhaps your eyes are closed. You see what they see: the pebbly ground, the rocks and pine trees, a little grass here and there, the valley below, and Jesus. Jesus in glory, his robe whiter than snow in dazzling light. Then you see someone in front of you walking up to Jesus, right into that dazzling light. Then you see Jesus take his robe, his own dazzling, whiter than snow robe, and put it around the shoulders of the person who has just come close to him. Then that person becomes as Christ himself: luminous, bathed in whiter-than-snow light, the light that radiates all grace, all truth, all life, all love. And then that person turns to face you and you see your own radiant face. And the two of you walk toward each other. Then, the two of you, but actually the one of you returns to the valley below. Perhaps, even, to bear a cross…
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