This lengthy Gospel text from St Luke could almost be a manifesto for monastic life. I hear in every paragraph strong resonances with the Rule of St Benedict.
‘Sell your possessions and give alms.’
As I prepared to enter the monastery I went through several phases of divesting myself of my ‘worldly goods’. Most of my worldly good were clothes and shoes. One day I invited my friends round and opened up my wardrobes, inviting them to take whatever they wanted. It felt hugely liberating. In case you are now in awe of my ascesis, it’s probably best to explain that after 30 years in a monastery I have probably accumulated roughly the same amount that I gave away. I’m no minimalist.
‘For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’
It’s very easy to read this text just as a warning about having too many possessions. However, the word that I always hear loudly is ‘treasure’. Treasure can be a subtle thing: what I treasure you, might not treasure. What I might hide away in order to keep safe, you might not even notice. I’m reminded here of St Cuthbert’s account of the death of Bede. As Bede’s death approaches he makes this request:
‘I have a few treasures in my box, some pepper, and napkins, and some incense. Run quickly and fetch the priests of the monastery, and I will share among them such little presents as God has given me.’
Each year I wonder what my ‘treasures’ are now, what do I keep in a safe place? I also wonder what I will consider ‘treasure’ when my life nears its end. In monastic culture it’s often the little things that make their mark on us. Monastic writers talk of poverty and simplicity and the importance of non-attachment to ‘things’. The lived reality is far more complex. Each day I have the opportunity to evaluate my choices and to steer that careful path between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’. Perhaps the key thing here is not so much how much or how little you have, but how willing you are to share.
‘See that you are dressed for action and have your lamps lit.’
This text forms the basis of one of my favourite Antiphons in Advent. I love the dynamism and sense of expectancy. For the monks of St Benedict’s day their way of life allowed them to take this text more or less literally:
They sleep clothed, and girded with belts or cords; but they should remove their knives, lest they accidentally cut themselves in their sleep. Thus the monks will always be ready to arise without delay when the signal is given; each will hasten to arrive at the Work of God before the others, yet with all dignity and decorum.
Rule of St Benedict, Ch 22, The Sleeping Arrangements of the Monks
On one level the monks weren’t doing anything unusual in sleeping clothed. Having special nightwear was not part of Sixth Century custom. St Benedict takes an ordinary thing and gives it a special significance; being ready for the Work of God was the priority in St Benedict’s thinking. Every thing is the monastic’s day is so arranged so as make sure that the liturgy takes priority.
All of the above quotations have something to say to us about how we prioritise things in our lives. They have something to say about how we open our hearts to God. I hear the texts in a particular way because of my monastic path. How do you hear these texts?
How is God calling you open your heart?