From The Holy Way
Let us consider, then, how we ought to behave in the presence of God and his angels and let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.(Rule of Saint Benedict)
Surprisingly enough, it was my mother who first told me about them. She actually got the newspaper out of the trash just so she could show me their picture – the four members of a new rock group with oafish haircuts who were causing a major sensation. It was 1964, I was twelve, and they were the Beatles. That week they sang, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” on The Ed Sullivan Show, and on the playground the day after their performance, I realized that I now understood the term devotee. This was a word I’d recently guessed right on a vocabulary test: “someone set apart for a special use or service; someone who has given up himself to some purpose, activity, or person.” Now I had a visceral, heart-pounding sense of what it meant: a devotee was a person like myself, twelve years old, who was ready to lie across the railroad tracks for her particular Beatle (mine was George; I chose him because John, Paul, and Ringo were already taken).
As I found out later, this was only Level One; genuine devotees engage in rituals, make solemn promises, collect and display relics, write loyally impassioned entries in their diaries, dream nightly of their gods, and most importantly, go together to massive concerts where they scream themselves hoarse, become hysterical, and sometimes even swoon. By that standard, I ultimately did not make the devotee cut. It was one thing to gather with the faithful each day at lunch and endlessly talk Beatles or to go see A Hard Day’s Night en masse. It was quite another to actually make the pilgrimage to the Hollywood Bowl and put myself in their live presence.
I don’t remember even bothering to ask my parents if I could go. The urge must not have been strong enough to fight that fight. I suppose I knew at some level that my devotion was really a pretty thin thing compared to, say Stephie’s – Stephie who had scrapbooks filled with Beatle memorabilia, Stephie who was willing to save her money for months to pay for the ticket. I sensed that, unlike hers, my devotion was primarily peer-generated, something you professed just so people knew you were normal. I admitted to myself, guiltily, that I really didn’t spend that much time thinking about George anymore, certainly far less than I’d led my friends to believe.
The night that Stephie went to see them, I had a talk with my mom about this disturbing realization of mine. She described a Frank Sinatra concert she’d been to as a teenager, the shrieking and the fainting, the helpless pubescent passion of the female crowd. “I didn’t scream,” she confided. “I didn’t feel like it. I thought it was fake anyway.” This was one thing I respected about my hardheaded mom; she didn’t fool easily when it came to what she called “mob hysteria.” She gave me a couple of helpful analogies. “It’s the same thing that happened during the Russian Revolution,” she said. “People just lost their heads. Or you could also think of it like one of those big religious revival meetings. You know – the kind they have in tents?”
Though this explanation left me mildly confused – Communism, Pentecostalism, and Beatlemania, all in the same package – I was left with the conviction that crowds of devotees were not to be trusted. You could apparently lose your normal personality in one of them. You could be swayed into doing things you wouldn’t normally do. My short stint as a worshipper in the cult of George Harrison pretty much fizzled to an end that night.
As the 1960s unfolded, I continued to be haunted by the issue of devotion and drawn to the lives of people who inspired it: Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. I read their biographies and wondered what fueled their ability to change the course of other people’s lives. For a long time, I wanted to be one of those people – not a devotee, never again a devotee, but instead the focus of other people’s devotion, a force to be reckoned with. Most of this, of course, was nothing but ego inflation; the remainder seems to have been an early manifestation of a call that would grow stronger throughout the decades – the call to be better than the oftentimes miserable creature that I was.
I was reminded of this call years later in a philosophy class when I read a book called, After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre. In it, he describes a “crucial turning point in history,” a moment when at least some people in the Western world gave up on the hopeless task of holding the crumbling Roman Empire together and began seeking another way to live instead. MacIntyre writes that they sought a way in which “both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.” He suggests that we modern are in the same boat as the Romans were, except that the barbarians “have already been governing us for quite some time.” He says, “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – Saint Benedict.”
Saint Benedict – I’d heard of him, but that was about it. Here he was, being offered up as a possible savior for my own chaotic age. I was intrigued then, and thought that I should read about Benedict, but it wasn’t until one of my retreats at the hermitage that I finally picked up a biography of his life. In it, I discovered that nearly 1,500 years before the Beatles, Saint Benedict got a startling taste of what it must have been like for John, Paul, George, and Ringo in the Hollywood Bowl that night. As a young man seeking to live a holy life, he inadvertently became an object of veneration – and this not once, but several times. Unlike my former idols, however, his initial response was to get as far away as he could from his would-be devotees.
Saint Benedict and the Price of Fame
Benedict was born about A.D. 480 in a small town called Nursia, nestled among the Sabine Hills. This area of Italy was famous for its old-fashioned virtues – Cicero called its inhabitants severissimi homines, or “most severe men” – and among these, the people of Nursia were seen as particularly austere.
At the time of Benedict’s birth, the political situation in Italy was bordering on chaos. Rome had been sacked and burned by the Visigoth Alaric seventy years before, and in 476, the barbarian Odoacer replaced the last emperor of the Western empire. Though the imperial structure had still not completely collapsed, disintegration seemed imminent – not only of the secular system but perhaps even of Christianity itself. Despite its official recognition by the emperors, Christianity did not have much moral or spiritual clout in Rome, which had become a famously wicked city.
Sometime between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, Benedict arrived in the imperial capital to study either rhetoric or law – scholars are unsure. He was accompanied by Cyrilla, a woman whom his first biographer, Saint Gregory the Great, refers to as his “nurse.” She came along to cook for him, to keep his lodgings clean, and to watch over her young charge as he faced the temptations of the big city for the first time.
Whatever it was he was studying, the strictly raised young Benedict soon found himself in a life crisis. He could not commit himself with a clear conscience to the path laid out before him. Soon, and in somewhat the same manner as his famous predecessor Anthony, he abandoned both his studies and his father’s money in order to seek “some place where he might achieve his holy purpose.” This turned out to be the small village of Enfide, less than fifty miles from Rome, where others of like mind were already living in lodgings near the Church of Saint Peter. There, he spent his days in silence, prayer, and the study of scripture and the works of the Fathers, particularly Cassian’s.
He might have stayed in the small community of Enfide for years, for the peace and quiet suited him and he was slowly finding his way to God in the manner outlined by theologians Tertullian and Origen: through a “solitary life within the social framework.” Under this model, lay Christians understood themselves as contemplatives within a wider secular community, a separate people who were to practice their way of life regardless of circumstance.
Overnight, however, everything changed. His faithful housekeeper, Cyrilla, accidentally broke a borrowed earthenware sieve. He found her weeping disconsolately, and in an attempt to comfort her, picked up the two pieces and went down on his knees to pray over them. When he stood up, the sieve was again whole. News of the miracle spread rapidly, and soon the healed utensil was on display in the porch of the local church. Realizing how much attention he was attracting, he made his escape, this time all alone.
Benedict hiked to the northwest out of Enfide, following the river Anio. Eventually, he met a monk named Romanus, who pried out of him his plan to become a hermit. Romanus apparently took the young man seriously, for it was he who gave Benedict the traditional garment of the Eastern monk, a sheepskin “melota,” and showed him the way to an almost inaccessible cave in the side of a precipice near Subiaco. Every day for the next three years, this same Romanus, who lived in a clifftop monastery above the cave, lowered whatever bread he could spare from his own small allowance down to his young hermit friend below.
As had happened in Enfide, however, Benedict once again began to attract attention, this time for his austerity and holiness. Eventually, a band of monks who were living in a series of hand-carved caves called Vicovaro begged him to become their abbot. He resisted for a time, telling them that his discipline would be too harsh for them, but eventually gave in. Here I found an interesting devotee twist: after a while, they began to agree that his rules were indeed too austere and decided to poison him. The assassination attempt failed, however, when he made the sign of the cross over their offering of wine and the jug obligingly shattered.
He made his way back to the cave at Subiaco but never again to the solitude of the previous three years, for by now his reputation had begun drawing large numbers of prospective novices. Eventually, he established twelve monasteries in the valley beneath the mountain. Each housed twelve monks overseen by superiors who came to him for direction – a small-scale Pachomian experiment in the north of Italy. These communities, in addition to observing their hours of prayer, did the hard work of the local peasants, and the valley prospered.
Eventually, however, his holiness put him at risk once again. A local priest named Florentius, who for a long time had been jealous of Benedict’s spiritual authority, turned murderous. Choosing not to imperil his other monks, Benedict and a small band left Subiaco in search of a new building site. Eventually, they constructed a monastery on the site of an ancient mountaintop acropolis, ringed by sacred woods and shrines dedicated to Apollo and Jupiter. This was Monte Cassino, where (most scholars believe) he composed his famous Rule.
What interested me about Benedict’s story was the way that other people had become such obstacles in his search for a simpler life, not just the evil priest Florentius or the irritable monks of Vicovaro but his eager young disciples, too. In fact, there were many more loyal followers than there were enemies, and at certain points Benedict must have felt weary under the weight of their dependence on him.
I had a small inkling – very small – of what he may have gone through. By the time I picked up his biography, I had been questing after holy simplicity for quite some time. I was long past my ambivalence about silence and solitude and the necessity for retreating at regular intervals. I knew what I needed to do and how often I needed to do it. Yet the more I tried to quietly withdraw from the world, the more the world seemed to come looking for me.
This could be frustrating at times – especially when those arriving on the doorstep wanted to watch, but not do; to question, but not try a way of life that had to be personally experienced to be “gotten.” Meanwhile, my own solitude was once again stymied, as my friends the monks could sadly confirm. I admired Benedict for his patience with that vast flock of seekers.
I was also drawn to his steady, plodding persistence when it came to working out his discipline. He didn’t move fast or change his mind quickly, yet he made a serious try at almost all forms of early Christian living before he invented a hybrid version that allowed his disciples to flourish. This was again familiar territory; I seemed to be perennially wrapped up in the problem of how to be simple in the midst of our extremely unsimple society. Just as often as I found this simplicity, I felt myself missing the point entirely.
I sympathized with Benedict’s goals, I respected his patience, and I understood how it was he kept attracting devotees. I found his Rule, which ultimately provided the rock on which Western monasticism was built, to be extremely helpful even for someone like me, a layperson living in the world. What I didn’t understand was why he should have insisted that the Opus Dei, or the Liturgy of the Hours (communal prayer and psalmody), take priority over all other monastic activities.
“Let nothing be preferred to the Work of God,” he said. What he meant by this was that monks should rise in the middle of the night to gather for vigils, then gather gain, during the daylight hours, for lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, and compline, for in this “we fulfill the duties of our service.”
On the one hand, part of me loved this crazy notion – loved it the way romantics love: theoretically, ideally. What a wonderful way to live! How inspired! To deliberately interrupt the workday for group prayer, to let go of the anxious striving long enough to chant some psalms: how rejuvenating this must be! How sad that I could not do it myself.
On the other hand, as far as I could see this forced communal worship effectively destroyed whatever remnants of solitude monks could still find in a crowded monastery. How could somebody who’d lived alone in a cave for three years insist on such a schedule? How could the contemplative Camaldolese, who’d given me my first taste of the hermit life, continue a tradition that seemed so antithetical to their basic orientation toward solitude? Though they observe only four of Benedict’s original eight offices, that is still a lot of time in church.
I wondered how the guys who actually had to live under such a rigorous schedule managed to handle it. It was a battle that even I, a sporadic visitor, often lost, this business of getting out of bed when the hermitage bell rang for vigils. It wasn’t the hour (5:15 a.m.); it was the principle of the thing. I wondered how they stood it, that relentless, clanging dawn bell. That four-times-a-day call to worship, regardless of head colds, insomnia, bad dreams, depression, or simple human resistance to being told what to do.
I was far from the first person to wrestle with these issues. Benedict’s famous statement about the Work of God taking precedence in his monasteries has inspired controversy for years, both within and without the Benedictine community. Adalbert de Vogüé, for example, finds the roots of the Opus Dei in Paul’s injunction to “Pray without ceasing,” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), roots that he thinks may have been forgotten over the centuries. In Anthony and Pachomius’s era, he reminds us, Christ’s words were followed, as much as possible, literally; monks kept to their cells, chanting the psalms and praying, for most of their waking hours. The first practice of the hours was simply a way for monks to “help each other, by dint of a common rule, to bear a personal obligation which each one [felt] too weak to discharge by himself.”
In addition, de Vogüé insists that Benedict never meant his statement to be taken rigidly, that he wrote his Rule for rural communities where there were crops to grow and animals to tend, not for urban monasteries where choir monks chanted before the congregations of great sanctuaries. In a rural situation, “the monks performed the office not only all together in the oratory, but also, if need be, in little groups and even individually, in the kitchen, cellar, garden, the fields, or on a journey.” It was primarily a way to assist one another in the lifetime effort to pray without ceasing rather than as a special “strong moment” in the midst of the monastic day.
Nowadays, de Vogüé says that the hours of the office at their best are meant to “mark the beats at which the monk can recollect himself. If need be, they relaunch the impetus of incessant prayer.” This, in fact, is exactly what the celebration of the hours did for me when I could let go of my struggle and simply comply with the schedule – it relaunched me, refocused me, and sent me back to my writing or my sitting with renewed enthusiasm.
The Snob in Church
Rarely did I make it to daily Mass at home, however, despite the fact that I only had to drive a few minutes in either direction to get to a church. Without the bell outside my window, without a community who might notice my absence, I found it easier, more convenient, more me, to simply take my cup of tea and the daily missal down to the turtle pond at home or the herb garden on campus. What’s the difference? I asked myself. Can’t I think spiritual thoughts just as well out in nature?
The fact was I had a capricious relationship to organized worship. I wondered if this persistent ambivalence might be connected somehow to that ancient conversation with my mom the night of the Beatles concert in the Hollywood Bowl – our discussion about groupthink. Perhaps the conversation had simply confused me that night, and I had never sorted it all out. Perhaps (and here I breathed a sigh of sudden relief) it was all Mom’s fault.
Certainly, she’d struck a deep chord in me with her talk of “mob hysteria.” Even at twelve, I recognized what she was saying and could see what was at stake. It was a matter of the individual versus the crowd. A few years later, I stumbled onto the novels of Ayn Rand. Rand’s fierce defense of the isolated human person swept me away. I was too young to grasp the political implications of her position; I only knew, caught as I was in the stormy seas of my own teenaged rebellion, that she was speaking directly to me. According to Ayn (what a fascinating name, I thought, not having the slightest clue about how to pronounce it), one had to fight hard for autonomy. It was one’s most noble lifetime endeavor.
It wasn’t difficult to figure out, then, why my childhood religion was the first thing to go. Who needed that Lutheran curmudgeon in the sky, that long, bony, wagging finger of judgment? If I were to be genuinely free, Ayn-ishly free, I could no longer be saddled with any Transcendent Beings; nor could I be saddled with church, where people were so homogeneously Scandinavian you could hardly tell them apart. Week after week, it was the same old hymns, same old liturgy, same old prayers. It was a travesty against the individual, I thought with enormous disgust. Ayn would be appalled.
I stopped going to church and didn’t return for nearly twenty years. Spiritual yearning returned first – vague restlessness, followed by desperate seeking. Eventually I found myself perched on rocks by flowing streams, trying to remember how to pray. I read, I pondered, I asked discreet questions of people who seemed to know something I didn’t – but at no time did I even think about returning to the pews. I told myself that church was for people who didn’t think – followers who needed to be led: weak and domesticated devotees. I was not one of those; God had not made me that way. He and I had our own relationship, and church would only interfere with this.
Then one day, a friend invited me to a service – a Catholic service, though he wasn’t Catholic. His wife was singing in the choir that day. We would sit with the kids in the front row and listen to the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
At this point, I can only bring back impressions of that morning: the unforgiving feel of the wooden pew against my spine, the swirl of dust motes caught in a high slanting beam, the thud of kneelers hitting the floor. I do remember being in a state of hyper-alertness, like a concealed deer with hunters ranging close by. What was going to happen to me here? Despite the years of fumbling my lonely way toward God, I was not yet ready for this, whatever “this” was going to turn out to be.
Then the singers stood before us, a small and motley crew in robes that had not, it was clear, been individually tailored. They were going to sing the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the fabulous chorus from Handel’s Messiah, with only an upright piano to back them up? I shrank in embarrassed pity for them, getting in return a sharp rap in the vertebrae from the pew. Then they began to sing, and what came out of them was joy, waves of it, and it knocked me flat. Suddenly, the candles, which had been lit all along, were blazing gold. Suddenly, the flowers at the foot of the altar burst into living color. I was a goner. This was an experience of God I’d never had before – not as a supercilious Lutheran delinquent, not as a middle-aged seeker by the side of trickling streams. This was (the term came out of nowhere) an experience of the Mystical Body, although at that point I had but the vaguest notion of what this term might mean.
The service that day, and the equally ecstatic experiences of Mass that followed it during those first few years after my return to organized religion, set a fairly high standard. For a while, I couldn’t get enough. Dailiness, however, was bound to take its toll. Finally the tug, the old Ayn-ish tug to do it my way, began to reassert itself in a life that had been in many ways transformed by the experience of church.
Ironically, the problem grew in proportion to the amount of time I spent practicing the disciplines. If I happened to be fasting, for example, I couldn’t help but take smug note of how many buttermilk crullers were disappearing down the hatches of my fellow parishioners during hospitality hour after services. If I’d been trying hard to live frugally, I couldn’t seem to keep from looking askance at the brand-spanking-new, paid-for-by-credit, gas-guzzling SUVs littering the church parking lot.
I noticed a certain peevishness setting in, an impatience with freeform homilies or a tremulous cantor. I was working so hard to be more focused; why couldn’t they? Where was the sense of excellence, the pride in doing a job well? I found myself analyzing a visiting priest’s drone: What, exactly, was he was trying to project with that? Ennui? Cynicism? The state of living death?
To put it simply, I had become a critic, hyper-conscious of slip-ups on the part of the celebrant or choir. Worse, I became increasingly irritated by signs of slovenliness in the congregation, especially in those who slouched up for Eucharist in T-shirts with Harley Davidson symbols or Slayer death’s-heads on the back. What was up with these people? Did they have no respect? More often than not, Mass in a parish church ended with me tense with frustration. The temptation, of course, was simply not to go, to wait until my next visit to the hermitage, where I could refuel in a place with some of the – let’s face it – class that seemed so woefully lacking in the average, garden-variety parish.
As my personal piques began to control my decision about whether or not I would worship communally that day, I felt a corresponding slippage in other parts of my life. My students, for example, seemed ruder, less prepared, far sleepier than in the past. My colleagues on campus had to be more dazed and disconnected; I could swear it. People were wilder drivers than they used to be. I couldn’t even make a simple phone call anymore without running into six days’ worth of instructions from a disembodied voice.
I was becoming a hopeless crank, old overnight and far before my time. My capacity for love was shrinking by the minute. Could this have anything to do, perhaps, with my reluctance to mingle with the hoi polloi in church each day?
In John 4, Christ has his long discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well. In the course of their conversation, he tells her facts about her life that nobody else knows – for example, that she’s lived with five different men. She is appropriately impressed and also possibly annoyed at his insight – whichever it is, she begins a little argument about the proper place of worship, which has long been a controversial subject between Samaritans and Jews. Jesus replies that “the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him.” (John 4:23)
He was saying, in effect, “Don’t get stuck in the physical details. Don’t get trapped in a pharisaic ritualism.” For “even if every least rubric is scrupulously observed,” the Benedictine directory The Monastic Hours warns, “a celebration can be cold, formal, pseudo-sacred, and dehumanized.” It will be, one would expect, if it becomes an end in itself. Christ also seems to be saying that a person shouldn’t become caught up in the criticizing of ritual. For the “quality of prayer assuredly does not depend on the number of psalms recited, nor on the number of hours celebrated, but on the inner disposition of mind and heart.” Neither of these – mindless ritualizing or critical intellectualizing – are the point of going to church.
What is the point? I wondered. My shilly-shallying about organized worship did me no good – I could see that now. It was time for me to develop an adult perspective on this issue; time to let my poor mother off the hook. I needed to answer these questions once and for all. Why communal worship? Why can’t we meet God just as well in the privacy of our own space? Why on Earth must we saddle ourselves with the crowd?
The Price of Privacy
Maybe that was the problem: the privacy part, the “own space” part. “I am the vine,” Christ says, “you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) Where was the “privacy” in that image? Shortly before he is betrayed by Judas, and knowing full well that in the first horrified hours after his execution his group of loyal compatriots will be tempted to disband and flee for their lives, he tells them, “This is my command: love one another as I love you.” (John 15:12)
Jesus’s final requests to God are for their protection: “I gave them your word, and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world.” (John 17:14) He also speaks of future believers: “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you. . . . I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:20-22) Finally, he envisions the relationship that must hold between his followers if they are to survive in a world in which they’re now aliens and strangers: “that they may be brought to perfection as one.” (John 17:23)
The Benedictine directory The Monastic Hours says, “We shall truly see God in the Work of God, that is, we shall receive the revelation of his agape-love, only if we are joined with our brothers or sister in genuine communion.” In other words, we will only receive this revelation from God if we are part of what’s going on in the worship service – not an “objective” critic or an individual praying in public but in one another as though we are one thing. We must be a single human body, singing our meager praises to what is “utterly inexpressible and indescribable,” as Basil the Great puts it. “Divine beauty blazing like lightning; neither word can express nor ear receive it.” We must help each other try to express the unexpressible, however, or at least that seems to be Christ’s point. Communal worship seems to be nothing more or less than the ongoing effort to do so.
Dostoyevsky, speaking of the spiritual price we have paid for our precious modern autonomy, says of Christian ages past, “There must have been something stronger than stake and fire. There must have been an idea stronger than any misery, famine, torture, plague, leprosy and all that hell, which mankind could not have endured without that idea, which bound men together, guided their hearts, and fructified the ‘springs of life.’” Sometimes, in a crowd of Sunday-morning devotees, I did see what he must have meant. People you’d normally find handling cash registers or fixing jammed drains or coaching soccer were all on their knees, waiting with great hope to be healed and forgiven.
According to Josef A. Jungmann, “In the Christian religion it is the assembled community, the gathering of the congregation, that is the main thing. Not the holy place, not the lifeless walls, not the gold and silver of its decoration are the primary things. No, it is rather the holy community, the plebs sancta, the gathering of the new people of God, who worship the father in spirit and in truth.” In communal worship, says Paul, we become the “temple of the living God.” (2 Corinthians 6:16) More than that, we experience the great split between ourselves and others, ourselves and nature, as momentarily healed, for as Paul Delatte explains, “creation as a whole possesses in a true and special way a liturgical character” that only we humans can put into words. We worship on behalf of the cosmos itself.
Perhaps it was this image that inspired Benedict’s deep commitment to the Work of God or Liturgy of the Hours. Perhaps he believed that this formal coming together, day in a day out, would lead, finally to a transcending of individual quirks, likes and dislikes, private peeves and objections – to a genuine humility. Benedict says in his Rule that the monk who has achieved this “will presently arrive at that love of God which, being perfect, casts out fear.”
Christ Within and the True Self
Seen in this light, my ambivalent relationship with formal worship started to seem insignificant, in the same category, perhaps, as a hormonally caused mood swing – nothing you’d rely on if you needed to make a serious decision. It was maybe even something to be grown past, the way I’d finally grown past (at about age thirty-four) my stormy teenaged rebellion – or, for that matter, the seductive philosophy of Ayn Rand.
My youthful investment in hyper-individualism may have been, all along, the single biggest impediment to a simple life. The belief that my personality – that peculiar combination of habitual responses to things – was my most precious possession made it extremely difficult to do things differently. For example, if I stopped reacting with vociferous moral indignation whenever I heard about some flagrant corporate misdeed, I wouldn’t be Paula anymore. If I stopped anxiously imagining the worst before I climbed on board an airplane, I wouldn’t be me. This held true for my tendency to flatter others, my secret passion for macadamia nuts, and my self-consciousness in front of a camera. I’d always assumed that, quirks though they were, they were my own, and thus inherently valuable.
The notion that I could simply ignore my occasional listening to the effete proclamations of my internal critic, was brand-new. At the same time, it was entirely consistent with what I’d learned during my experiments with silence, solitude, fasting, chastity, and the other disciplines. I had already learned that habits could be changed, attitudes could be relinquished, and life could become fuller, richer, and simpler, but not without giving up the proclivities of the personality for something perhaps less obviously “personal” though quite a lot deeper.
I’d seen references to this deeper self in a number of different places: the Hindu Atman, Merton’s true self, the Quaker Divine Spark, the Ground of Being, presence, essence, spirit, soul – the image of God within. According to most religious traditions and some schools of psychology, this deep self is universal – we all have it – though it is usually hidden from us under the complex layers of our personalities.
It is through this deep self, so mysterious and seemingly inaccessible, that we meet the Divine. Seen in this light, the spiritual journey becomes a long process of giving up the layers of the personal so as to uncover the hidden Self. In the process, of course, we become far less predictable to ourselves – and to others, who have come to think they “know” us and often prefer that we remain our old idiosyncratic but familiar selves.
Father Bruno Barnhart, a monk of New Camaldoli, says, “Awakening to the Self introduces a duality and tension between this deep center of a person and the practical center of the personality which is the ego.” In the New Testament, the “tension between ‘spirit’ and ‘flesh’ represents the contrast of two orientations of the whole person: toward the ‘old world’ which is centered in unredeemed self or toward the ‘new world’ which is participated in through self-giving in faith and love.”
This, I thought, might explain that first overwhelming experience in Mass the day of the “Hallelujah Chorus” – the sense of being momentarily caught up in the Mystical Body or corporate Christian being. This could only happen, of course, because I was so swept up in what was happening around me that for once I forgot to check in with headquarters. I had no time to draw back, assess, weigh, judge, or dismiss; no time to dig trenches, fortify the barricades, boil the oil. By the time I realized I was exposed and vulnerable, it was over: my naked and shivering little self had surrendered, and, for a moment, I was seeing through brand-new eyes.
I remembered the sudden flare of the candles, the swell of the music, the light falling from that high window, and I wondered if this had been what we were all looking for so very long ago when, twelve years old and filled with nameless yearning, we’d become Beatles devotees. Perhaps the urge to worship is so powerful that, denied, it comes bursting out anyway and carries us, tumbling and exhilarated, toward almost anything that seems larger and more magnificent than our own wee selves.
This could explain the peculiar joy that sometimes hits without warning during the most mundane morning Mass, bringing tears in its wake. I had felt it many times, but only when I was not feeling “me” at the same moment, when I had briefly let go of my precious individuality and oriented myself instead toward the “new world” that Father Bruno talks about, the world of “self-giving and love.”
From his prison cell, Paul writes a wonderful letter to the young church at Ephesus, a church that has experienced in a visceral way what Jesus warns his disciples that they too will feel: the weight of the world’s hatred. Paul reassures them that despite their set-apart condition, they are not, after all, alone: “So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:19) The apostles, prophets, and Jesus Christ himself provide the foundation for this communal habitation into which they have been welcomed. Paul informs both the Ephesians and us that, “Through Christ Jesus the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:21-22).
The notorious existential loneliness of the contemporary individual cannot withstand such an experience. When “our minds are in harmony with our voices” as Benedict puts it, we are no longer thinking and behaving as isolated selves, but have found our place in the Whole. When we do, we see what is normally hidden: we see that we are not alone at all, but, in joining worshipfully together with our fellow human beings, we have become the very dwelling place of God.
Benedict’s own life seems to bear this out. Saint Gregory the Great reports that Benedict, shortly before he died, had what has come to be known as his “cosmic vision.” Praying in a tower, “he saw the whole cosmos gathered before him as if in a ray of sun,” a stunning image that Gregory explains this way: “It was not that the world grew small, but that his heart was enlarged.” His heart was enlarged, rendered capacious, opened to universal love – and all after a rigorous lifetime practice of psalmody, liturgical prayer, and the holiness of genuine communion with his fellow devotees.