“When the decision is made that novices are to be accepted, then they come before the whole community in the oratory to make solemn promise of stability, fidelity to monastic life and obedience … Novices must record their promises in a document … Each must write the document in his or her own hand or, if unable to write, ask another to write it instead; then, after adding a personal signature or mark to the document, each must place it individually on the altar. As the record lies on the altar they intone this verse: ‘Receive me, O Lord, in accordance with your word and I shall live, and do not disappoint me in the hope that you have given me.’ The whole community will repeat this verse three times and add at the end the Gloria Patri. Each novice then prostrates before every member of the community asking their prayers and from that day is counted as a full member of the community.”
– The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 58 (emphasis mine)
It’s Saturday morning. I stuff my mouth full of pancakes at a diner with one of my favorite 19-year-olds. She looks across the table at me as if I am a surviver, someone once sick but now in recovery. She chews slow then stares in my eyes, says, “I feel like I believe in God one minute, like I’m thanking him and watching him do these amazing things…like I can sing worship songs and really believe them, and then, the next, I’m thinking these crazy thoughts. I hear my professors’ voices calling Jesus’ resurrection a myth. I can’t reconcile my brain and my heart. I don’t understand what’s happening to me. I’ve always believed.”
I stare back. How long have I been working through those same thoughts? How much fear sits in me? What right do I have to look in her eyes and talk about Jesus like I do in those cozy study chairs every Thursday night, our circle full of freshmen girls learning the world, and Christ, and themselves in both?
But she knows. I’ve confessed it enough–my doubt. How can I not? Even as we spread open the onion skin pages of the Gospel of John every week, even as I swear to them that God’s love is deeper than their brains, than their faith or lack thereof?
What can I say to her except that I know? What can I say except, Now it is time to lean back, sweet girl. This is a baptism of fire and you will emerge both burnt and refined.
I beg her to remember the past: every sweet moment where God’s voice broke Earth’s barrier and made its way to her ears. Set up a memorial in your mind, I say. Stones of remembrance, I say. And when the voices of doubt break in, hold up that memory and dig your fingernails in deep.
Jacob and the angel, I say. The wrestling that lasted all night. “I won’t let go until you bless me!” And how the wrestling and the clinging left him with the blessing and the limp.
“I do believe!” I quote a father’s prayer of hope for all of us faith failures. “Overcome my unbelief!” And the mystery of holding both those truths in the same heart, in the same prayer.
Who am I? I pray in my heart, my eyes on her young face, bringing my diner mug to my lips. Who am I to say anything, Lord? I know myself. I know the ache of my heart, how constant the tapes of doubt jog alongside my prayers of thanksgiving, how quickly my soul can break under the weight of their whispers. How often I kneel beside the couch, holding a physical cross to my forehead and begging: Lord, put this cross in my mind, bigger than the whispers. How I beg for my boys before they fade into the still of evening rest: that if they stray from the Lord, he will always bring them home again.
And then, I recall this prayer, offered by every Benedictine in the history of the order. Every monk has scribbled down the “solemn promise of stability, fidelity…and obedience.” Who can ever promise such a thing?
Of course, sweet Benedict offers them the sort of prayer of commitment that only a doubter would choose when presenting his or her life to the work of God. It is not a prayer of sacrifice, of promised perfection. No, it is a prayer that God would receive the promise, and a gut-beggar-plead that God will not disappoint us in our hope.
This freshman girl looks across the table at me as if I am a recovered doubter. As if these thirteen years of begging at God’s table for peace have finally delivered me smooth-faith brain waves. As if I’ve finished the treatment and come out pure. But the secret is this: I’ve been learning how to make promises, how to scratch them down and lay them flat on the altar. I’ve been learning how to pray with all my heart: My God! Do not disappoint me in this hope!
And I rise from the altar and lift my hands and shout out with the congregation on Easter Sunday, “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!”
And then I sing from my gut as the voices beside me raise: