{Practicing Benedict} A reputation for holiness

{Practicing Benedict} A reputation for holiness November 30, 2011

Welcome to Mama:Monk’s weekly Wednesday series examining St. Benedict’s Rule and what it’s teaching me about motherhood and the praying life…

“No one should aspire to gain a reputation for holiness. First of all we must actually become holy; then there would be some truth in having a reputation for it…” (St. Benedict’s Rule, Chapter 4).

Oh, Mr. Benedict, if only you knew! If ever there were a day in the Church in which people attempt to gain a reputation for holiness, it is now. Now: when worship is most often a song about how fun it is to go to the movies with Jesus and we clasp our hands together or lift them up in semi-honest emotional response (sometimes our hearts really mean it and sometimes we’re thinking about what Mr. Hotface down the aisle thinks about our earnest hand-clasping). We are gifted people: We know what impresses the other. We know what it looks like to be “passionate” and “authentic” and “powerfully connected” to Jesus. Holiness is often a sham.

It’s not always a sham. But if we’re gauging it by performance-based worship. Yes, it’s a sham. Holiness has nothing to do with how moved we are by the music or even how happy we are about Jesus. (Can I say here that it’s wonderful and powerful to be moved by a time of musical worship…it just doesn’t define holiness?) It has nothing to do with how good we are at having spiritual conversations or how many non-churchy ways we can describe God’s movement in our lives. Holiness is not even about our apparent sacrifices of time or comfort in order to serve. Holiness doesn’t arrive through our impressive holy acts. It comes deliberately, secretly.  The truest servants are not necessarily the ones giving up their vacation time to go overseas to serve the poor for two weeks.  The greatest servant is the one who lives service, day in and day out: It’s Brother Lawrence washing pots and pans in the monastery, an unknown with unimpressive gifts. It’s the teacher in the public school system who secretly sits at every desk and prays for every kid by name each morning. It’s the man or woman in the marketplace who works, not simply because he or she can bring light into the work place, but because work is making something meaningful out of chaos, because creation is something God loves.

Holiness grows deep and narrow, a carrot in the earth, its beauty and color unseen by the passerby, its tuft of green insignificant to the eye.

“The way to become holy is faithfully to fulfill God’s commandments every day by loving chastity, by hating no one, by avoiding envy and hostile rivalry, by not becoming full of self but showing due respect for our elders and love for those who are younger, by praying in the love of Christ for those who are hostile to us, by seeking reconciliation and peace before the sun goes down whenever we have a quarrel with another, and finally by never despairing of the mercy of God” (SBR, chapter 4).

Loving chastity is more than the practice of faithfulness to your spouse or your season of celibacy. It’s the choice to love that calling, to find joy in that calling, to see it as God’s best. I had a discussion with my aunt over Thanksgiving about how many of her own pastors or those known to her over the past 40 years have been caught in extramarital affairs. The number was amazing to me (and heartbreaking). These were men of great importance, charismatic leaders. Holiness is not just the secret decisions we make: whether to click on that link, whether to sneak a longer glance, whether to consider that person in our minds. Holiness is deep and narrow. It lies even deeper than the decision. It lies in the heart’s contentedness, the heart’s belief in God’s goodness, the heart’s hope that God and the gifts he has already given are enough.

Hating no one. Forgiveness is never surface level either. It’s the daily work of kneeling at the cross, believing that the one who broke our hearts is beside us there, in need of the same dose of God’s grace, in need of the same covering of God’s mercy. Forgiveness doesn’t just happen once, especially when our hurt runs deep. It’s a choice we make every day to bow our lives at the cross, lift our heads and peek at our hurt-dealer kneeling there as well. It’s the reminder that I need the cross as much as the one I want to punish.

Avoiding envy and rivalry. Materialism always leads to envy. But sometimes we’re envious not only of the stuff but of the life of another. I’m envious of the stay at home moms who are organized and do meaningful things with their kids. I’m just trying to survive! How are these women cooking meals and working through their weeks at home with Letter themes and special snacks and the appropriate books from the library that coincide with the week’s theme? Plus, somehow they’re in shape and they run half-marathons on the weekends! And, yes, their clothes are cuter than mine.

It’s in us to hate each other. Or at least to hate ourselves. That’s because our world is broken. Avoiding envy and rivalry for me means avoiding those thoughts in my brain. (Easier said than done, Micha. I know, I know.) It’s taking every thought captive. It’s reminding myself that we are all broken and we are all aching for a better life, a more productive life, a more fulfilling life. We find that through Christ, not through success or stuff.

So we ask God to show us how to love our elders (which means we need to actually know their names in our churches, or seriously consider why they’re not in our churches…I say this to myself as well) and how to love those younger than us. We ask God to make us peace makers who do the hard mental work of praying for those who hurt us. We live as people who believe in the power of reconciliation, who love mercy and beg God to plant mercy deep in us, so that it flows out of our mouths and our hands and our daily decisions.

And we pray that holiness would overtake us, not in order that we might be beautiful to each other, a stunning lily blooming for a moment and causing each passerby to gasp. But that we might become the thick skinned carrot, bright but covered in dirt. One that takes some time under the earth to make its color vibrant, one that nourishes.

Because the holiness we need is the holiness that comes with time and labor and deep struggle.

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