The Feast of St. Bede the Venerable
Today is the feast day of St. Bede the Venerable, an Anglo-Saxon monk of the 7th century. He did lots of stuff. He was a monk, a historian, a theologian, and a preacher, to name a few. I won’t recount here everything about him. What I’d like to talk about is why his work, his life, has affected me, even to the point of my standing here today.
About two years ago, now, I was a novice brother in this community, in the midst of two weeks of retreat preceding my initial vows, at a rural monastery in another part of Massachusetts.
It was slightly bizarre to see this other monastic community. At once, it was easy to recognize much of their life. Certain features, from architecture to liturgy to dress, though not exactly the same as ours, were instantly familiar. But something very much stuck out to me about one difference in particular: the setting. The abbey is out in a quite rural area, and there’s not much in the immediate vicinity.
This bothered me. One man’s peaceful seclusion is another man’s lonely isolation, and for me, it was difficult not to see all our other similarities and immediately imagine myself in that community. And I wasn’t happy in those imaginings. The relative isolation felt claustrophobic. I was reminded of being a college student in a small town, where everything that exists seems dependent on a single institution, and the thought of my life happening in that context felt smothering.
Praying is hard. One of the reasons I came to a monastery was the sobering recognition of my own weakness. I wanted to pray, yet I found it exceedingly difficult to do so without the support of a community. It seems to me that all monks are marked by this weakness; even the early desert hermits rejected the idea that they were particularly holy, on account of the fact that they needed to venture into the emptiness of the desert in order not to be distracted. The real holy ones were those who could pray even amidst the din and cacophony of the city.
Throughout the pandemic, I have been lucky to be able to continue praying in community with my Brothers. It is perhaps difficult for me, then, to fully wrap my head around how much people may be struggling to pray in this time of isolation. And yet, I also know what it’s like to struggle in prayer: alone, before I came into community; and even now, in community, in light of the current circumstances. At this time, when so many Christians have found themselves in unchosen isolation, it’s helpful to delve into the Church’s theological understanding of what it means to pray alone, especially by venturing outside our own time and place to understand very different perspectives from our own. I’ve found this theology personally helpful, for two reasons.
Matthew mentions a handful of women in his genealogy of Christ. This is odd. If he was following the convention of the time, which held that descent, inheritance, and “Jewishness” were passed down the male line, he wouldn’t have needed to include any women. But if he was attempting to give a holistic family tree, the few women he does mention are wildly insufficient. So what’s he doing?
I think each time he does this, it’s to point out something surprising about the relationship in question. Tamar is the first mentioned; she, having survived two husbands who God struck down for their sins, was regarded as cursed, and was ostracized from her family; through cunning deceit, including deliberately getting her father-in-law to impregnate her under the guise of being a prostitute, she proved that she was being mistreated, and so acquired for herself the security and status of marriage, bearing sons to a husband who was not struck down for his sins. Rahab is mentioned after her; she was a Canaanite, and quite possibly a prostitute or the owner of a brothel. Yet, she was also regarded as a holy and righteous woman, without whom the Israelites could not have conquered Jericho. Ruth is next; she was a Moabite, a member of a nation normally in conflict with the Israelites, but she demonstrated her faithfulness to God so strongly that an entire book of the Old Testament is named for her. And then there is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah; King David committed adultery with her, and then had Uriah murdered to cover up the subsequent pregnancy.
I remember, nearly a decade ago, watching a video on YouTube. In the video, the hosts of the show, consistent with their political leanings, filmed their infiltration of an environmentalist rally. There, they spoke with attendees and asked for signatures on their petition to ban a purportedly dangerous chemical. This chemical was largely unregulated, had been detected in our water supply along with countless food items, and could cause death within minutes if inhaled in sufficient quantities. The chemical in question was described with the scary-sounding name, “dihydrogen monoxide.” You might know it better by its chemical formula: H2O. Largely unregulated, in our food and water, it can cause death if inhaled in sufficient quantities, it was water.
Our present circumstances have left me feeling very stuck. I feel some paralysis and malaise over the experience of not really moving forward, not really doing anything productive, constantly planning to do things, waiting for my working life to begin anew. Of course, my life contains work right now, but it’s work that feels like it’s in a bit of a holding pattern, work designed to keep things afloat until things can really start happening again. And I’m finding it difficult to pray in this time, because I just feel stuck.
I suspect many of us have similar feelings. The United States right now is a country ravaged by two sicknesses: a global pandemic and the violence of racism. Both are huge and intractable problems. Both simultaneously demand a response and seem to swallow up anything most ordinary people are capable of doing, to render our best intentions and actions impotent in the face of these deadly plagues. Actions, like protesting, that might help us to face one problem might play right into the hands of the other in a horrible lose-lose situation. We are in a position of having to trust the judgment and skill of our leaders, many of whom have proven themselves to be unworthy of that trust. So the question arises: when we feel paralyzed, when we feel impotent, when we feel stuck, what is God’s call to us?
I have been spending quite a lot of time with the Lord’s Prayer lately. It has become a regular feature in my own private prayer, and I have relished it more than I typically do when the brothers come together to pray in the chapel. I have seen much of what’s going on in the world for months, and sometimes, I just cannot put together my own words. “What more can I say? What more can any of us say?” is the common refrain of my heart. I can’t imagine I’m alone. Sometimes, in those moments, through some prompting of the same Spirit whose sighs are enough, I am given the gentle reminder, “Remember the words he has taught you.”
Of particular note for me recently is the plea, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” It’s difficult for me not to pay attention to the political situation of the country, from the very big stories to the particular zigs and zags of individual newsworthy figures. Again, I can’t imagine I’m alone. And, paying that attention in the midst of all that has gone on, the picture seems very bleak. The failures, incompetencies, and abuses of those in power right now leave me feeling sad and angry. But the words of the Lord’s Prayer, the hope for the coming of God’s kingdom, is a touchstone of hope for me, for three reasons.
First, that this is the prayer of Jesus, the one who intercedes for us, and who abides close to the Father’s heart, comforts me. Christ assures us that we, even in our imperfection, know how to give to the needy. “How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” The promises of Jesus, and the hope of Jesus, are not idle, for he knows the heart of the One from whom all good comes. The kingdom of God will come. When we show forth the love of God, we participate in that kingdom, and anticipate its full revelation.
Second, it assures me that God’s kingdom is something fundamentally different from what we see before us. It’s not the domain of earthly rulers to enact for themselves, even in the best of times. It is certainly at odds with rank and blatant injustice; as the psalmist writes, “Can a corrupt tribunal have any part with you, one which frames evil into law?”
Third, it reminds me that this sadness and anger, this dissonance between what is and what should be, is a normal part of what it means to be a Christian. “Here we have no lasting city,” reads the letter to the Hebrews, “but we are looking for the city that is to come.” We have been called to the greater kingdom, and it has not yet been revealed in its fullness and glory, its mercy and justice. We should feel somewhat alienated from the halls of power; we should be able to see what’s wrong. And the fact that we do is itself a sign of the hope to come.
Many of us are wearied by the changes and the uncertainty of our civil lives, our political communities. I certainly am. But we can take heart, and pray together for the coming of God’s kingdom; it is a hope, big and sturdy enough for us all.
Br. Lucas Hall, SSJE
This is my first Presidential Election since coming to the Monastery. I follow politics pretty closely; it’s what I originally went to school to study, and I ran for local office when I was nineteen. It’s an intense interest, and I cannot help but look on the political state of this country right now and feel a great deal of sadness, anger, and confusion. Things seem utterly broken and chaotic, and it seems foolish to think that there’s some quick fix, some reset button we can press to go back to when things were “normal.” Too much rot, too much that was and is wrong about the way we’ve been running our country and our world, has been laid bare.
I moved into the monastery on January 9th, 2017, about a week and a half before the inauguration of the current president. Several friends told me I was very lucky, as they couldn’t imagine a better time to enclose oneself away from the troubles and instabilities of the world, insulated from a constant torrent of news coverage.
They weren’t completely wrong. But I must confess, I speak today from a place of intense distraction, here in the midst of the longest and most stressful election of my lifetime. But it’s not just the fault of the media. Nobody requires me to have multiple tabs open on my computer, reading through various news sources, then, when I get to the end, going back to the first and refreshing the page, “just in case.”
No, the voracious consumption of this stuff is a symptom, not a cause. An unending appetite for junk points to a deeper dissatisfaction, deep-seated feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, isolation, confusion, frustration. I think our culture right now is very prone to this. And maybe your “junk” is not election news. Maybe it’s news about the coronavirus. Maybe it’s not news media, but the endless stimulation of social media. Maybe it’s work, ceaselessly giving yourself external tasks to complete. Or maybe it’s more embodied; maybe it’s alcohol, or porn, or literal junk food. It doesn’t matter. Maybe I didn’t list yours here, but there are myriad varieties of this experience, and I am convinced that they come from the same source of division, dissatisfaction, and a desire to be comforted in our inmost fears.
Eight years ago this month is when my conversion started. Sort of. “Conversion” begins at each person’s beginning, and ends somewhere between here and eternity. But eight years ago, I was 19, and not terribly interested in someone dressed as I am right now sagely dismissing my crisis.
I had reached a breaking point. I was out in the middle of the night, wandering the college campus, anxious and confused. I’d had a basically hostile attitude toward religion for several years, but my own sense of being, of purpose, the great “why?” echoing along the canyon walls of human hearts…my old answers just weren’t working anymore. I could no longer justify my existence through my own happiness, because why should I care about my own happiness? Everything was empty, and death was not far from my thoughts.
Out of desperation, I prayed. To no one, or anyone, I prayed. I tearfully offered my uncertainty, my instability, my weakness, hoping for something to alleviate it. Some assurance from heaven, whoever’s version of it existed. And what I got was…nothing. No warmth, no light, no angelsong. Cold, dark, silent nothing. But this Nothing was greater, more powerful, than anything I’d experienced up until that point. I felt broken. I felt destroyed. I felt like a demolished city, burnt to the ground. And it was horrifying. And it was good. Because the abject admission of weakness and vulnerability I encountered in this experience was the great clearing of the brush, the great pouring out of old and perishing things. I was shattered, and I was made new.
“You cannot serve God and wealth.” This is a great line from today’s Gospel lesson. In it, Jesus offers a clear and unambiguous teaching. In many contexts, you might hear the word, “wealth,” go untranslated, as “mammon.” This is sometimes accompanied by an explanation that “mammon” is an ancient pagan god. There’s no historical evidence for this identification; “mammon” simply means wealth or money, and if we over-spiritualize here, we might miss the point, justifying ourselves along the way.
But I do think it’s helpful to use the image of an idol, a creation of human hands that is in turn worshipped by the very people who created it. Paul gives us the instruction to “pray without ceasing.” This is possible if we begin to understand prayer not only as active petition and dialogue with God, but rather more simply, the understanding, acknowledgement, and encounter of God in his eternal presence to us and to all creation. We might then take this a step further: if prayer to God without ceasing is possible, it could be helpful to understand ourselves as always praying, in some form or another. Always offering up, in some way, what we have been given by God, what God has provided us for sacrifice. And with that understanding, we may begin to enter into a new way of self-knowledge, a new way of understanding our feelings, thoughts, and actions: if it’s all prayer, we can ask ourselves about any given experience, no matter how mundane or “un-spiritual”, “Who was I praying to there? To whom was I sacrificing? Was it God, or an idol?”