In my very limited time being a Lay Cistercian, I have learned so much about the interior life, the realm of silence and solitude, the place where I had been afraid to look before now. I am actually astounded because I don’t even live in a monastery.
One of the dangers of being a new Catholic, a new Lay Cistercian, even a new member of a parish ministry, is being able to sustain it past the so-called “honeymoon” period. I remember being verbally and physically accosted by a newly minted Catholic on how I was a traitor because I left the ministry and became Laicized by Pope Benedict XVI. I just smiled and told her that I continuously ask for God’s mercy on me and that I would add her to my list. She turned abruptly and walked away, uttering words to the effect that I betrayed my Church. For this reason, I do not advertise my situation nor do I attend many publicly advertised functions. As one of the conditions of Laicization, I am banned from teaching, preaching, leading, or taking an active role in the faith life of my parish for fear of scandal. The Latin term for this is Scandalum Pussilorum or Scandal of the Faint Hearted. I agreed to this and can appreciate the thinking of the Church on this point, which is why I must write down all my thoughts–I may not teach them but I thought I could have others to teach them.
In addition, probably the main reason I write down everything I can think of is to preserve my heritage in writing for my daughter to read. I want her to have the heritage passed on from her grandmother and grandfather through me. All I do is so that God can be glorified, as St. Benedict counsels, but I want my daughter to not only know what I know, but have the feeling inside when you sit on a park bench in the middle of Winter, waiting for Christ to come by, and He does. As a Lay Cistercian practicing Cistercian practices and charisms, my goal, like St. Paul, is to seek God in daily living. He puts is so well: Philippians 3:8-16.
I remember thinking to myself, “I could never be a Cistercian monk because I could not think about God all day without going crazy.” St. Benedict probably had the same thoughts, so he created a Rule where there are at least four characteristics that keep us from going off the deep edge. This is my take on what I think the four are (you may have others). As it turns out, monks do both prayer and work (ora et labora). They also need:
BALANCE — We are not built to think about God all day long 24/7. Humans must be consistent with their humanity. This is one of the thoughts I had in one of my Lectio Divina meditations: why would God adopt me as a son when He knows my frame of reference must be tied to earth’s parameters (six senses, original sin, the struggle for truth, temptation to do evil, to name only a few)? I live in three dimensions. Heaven doesn’t have dimensions, it just is. My body will not accompany me to Heaven. I won’t have to eat physical food. Isn’t all of this a bit scary. I then thought that God has all of this covered since before time began.
Six principles that help enlighten my spirituality:
I call these the six Thresholds of Life, those through which all of us must pass to reach meaning (God’s meaning, not ours). These are the foundations of my Cistercian spirituality.
Balance means that my work, even if it is not in Eucharistic Adoration, is also prayer. That in all things, may God be glorified, says St. Benedict. For me, writing is my work, now that I am retired. I must be cautious in my balance that I don’t go off the deep end in work and not enough in actual prayer time devoted to Lectio Divina.
Another thing about balance is I have people I count on to tell me when I am out of sync. I can remember the late Dr. Marcus Hepburn, a deacon, who was unable to say “no” to those who asked him for help (and that was causing him to have health issues). We all kept telling Marcus to keep some perspective, all with mixed success. The same is true for Lay Cistercians. The zeal for my father’s house consumes me, says the Psalmist. Balance is necessary for Lay Cistercians to keep our feet on the ground.
FOCUS — When I first became a Lay Cistercian, one of the struggles I had, and to some extent I still have, was to keep my focus on Christ in Lectio Divina (Phil 2:5), or in silence and solitude before the Blessed Sacrament. I always had to have an agenda, almost always mine, as I met Christ on a park bench in the middle of Winter. It is cold in Winter, and hard to focus on anything when you are cold. I still have to practice focus. It does not come easily because of the distractions (always mine) that I put in the way of just waiting for the Lord in silence and solitude. I am beginning to be better, ever so slowly, ever inching closer to God.
I don’t live in a monastery, I live in a single-family house, but I do have a community of faith at Good Shepherd Parish, Tallahassee, Florida. I am ever so grateful that Father Mike Foley and the Liturgy of the Hours group allows me to be a part of their praise of the Father. I try to keep a very low profile in all my interactions with the parish, but enough to keep me focused on the need for others to help me have in me the mind of Christ Jesus. (Phil 2:5).
Focus is an important part of being a Lay Cistercian.
CONSISTENCY– Imagine being married and you live in Seattle and your spouse lives in Atlanta. That is not a recipe for a successful marriage in the traditional sense. Consistency is important for me because it means the more I am physically present and put myself in the presence of Christ, the more the Holy Spirit can empower me to have in me the mind of Christ Jesus. Erich Fromm, who wrote the classic, The Art of Loving, says humans are not naturally infused with how to love. It must be learned.
You must be present one to another to allow love to express itself. When I think of the ways that Christ has shown us what love is and provided us with the opportunity to be loved by Him so we can love one another (Love one another as I have loved you). Whenever I think of being consistent in prayer, I want to be with Christ, present to him, so that He can be present to me. I don’t ever want to take the relationship for granted like Christ owes me something. One of the ways we know that God loves us is that He instituted the Real Presence of Christ to be with us, both internally through prayer, but also externally, though being present to the community of Faith.
SIMPLICITY –– More is not always better. in my experience with prayer, since I was a novice Lay Cistercian, I have begun to appreciate simplicity much more than before. Simplicity means I strip away all those extraneous thoughts and practices that I have learned as living in the World and replace them with the sign of contradiction, what God thinks.
I had occasion recently to talk with a person about sitting on the park bench in the dead of Winter and waiting for Christ to come and sit next to me. I keep peering down the road, longing to see Christ. He could not grasp the fact that I was waiting for the Lord to show up because Christ is always with us. I tried to explain to him that Christ being with us is our representation of what Christ should be, rather than allowing Christ to choose us. It goes against our minds when Christ won’t automatically show up every time we snap our fingers. Granted that Christ is always present with us, the Mystery of Faith is that we don’t exploit that presence by thinking God does what we want. Humility helps to keep a perspective, a balance to our making God into our image and likeness and actually allowing God to choose us. Brother Michael, O.C.S.O., told us one time that we long for the Lord, not with the expectation that God will automatically show up at our beckoning, but with the humility and obedience to God we are grateful that the Lord has graced us with His presence, the Real Presence. Of course, he is always present to us, but we should not take that presence for granted. The simplicity of thought (mind) and love (heart) lays bare the relationship between God and humans. Adam and Eve did not get it right. Christ restored it once again. The Church Universal, of which you are a part, has the opportunity in each day to convert ourselves from pride and idolatry to love and obedience to God’s will on earth as it is in Heaven.
The Lord’s Prayer is a classic example of simplicity in prayer.
That in all things, may God be glorified. –St. Benedict
I like that you keep returning to the image of “sitting on the park bench in the dead of Winter and waiting for Christ to come and sit next to me”. Christ is always with us in the depth of our soul, and yet we long for him. What a beautiful paradox. Thanks for sharing your writings, and God bless you
Just returned from a Monastic retreat with the theme: the fire of the Holy Spirit. Wonderfully therapeutic medicine, silence, and solitude. Quite cleansing.