In-Sight: A School of Love #3

Every good school has opportunities to “learn by doing.”  Chemistry classes include laboratories.  Home Economics classes include kitchens.  Language classes make field trips to places where students can speak what they have learned.

And so, Schools of Love practice love.  I referenced that already in last week’s post, but it must be identified specifically.  It is why the Franciscans emphasized a “lived theology,” and why John Wesley identified “Experience” (practical divinity) separately from the already-existing Anglican trilateral of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.

Monastic communities practiced love most on each other, until it became second-nature and would, therefore, flow naturally to those outside the community, or to those who came to it as guests. 

Dr. Glenn Hinson once described this practice of love in these words: “Think oneness with one another, shun arrogance, and go along with one another in humility.  Do not be smart-alecky.” (Weavings, Vol 24, No 4, p. 44).  When I read his words, I remembered similar ones written by Thomas Merton, confessing that this internal, 24/7 love of fellow monks was actually much harder than loving strangers–precisely because he had to live with the other monks all the time (until death), not just for a short time or a few days.

Here is the reason why the practice of love begins between and among Christians.  Here is the proving ground, and if we fail to love one another, the world will not be impressed with our alleged love for them–the world will not be drawn to the Church as a School of Love when it really isn’t one.

This is why we cannot sublimate the practice of love under any other idea or absorb it into any other concept.  It must remain highlighted so that it has at least a chance of being real.

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In-Sight: A School of Love #2

The monastic movement knew that, like any school, it had to have a curriculum.  If it was to be a School of Love, that curriculum would be (yes, you guessed it) love.  A two-volume textbook would be at the core: Volume 1–The Love of God, and Volume 2–The Love of Neighbor. 

In obedience to Jesus’ words, monasticism believed that all the Law and the prophets hung on the two great commandments.  And it reflected Paul’s conviction that when you stack up faith, hope, and love–the greatest of the three is love.  From this conviction, the School of Love expounded the fruit of the Spirit as the inner and outer essence of the Christian life–the life of the believer in character and conduct–the manifestation of personal and social holiness.

When this love was present, its chief evidence was humility, because love never exalts itself above another.  This love created a community where the members were servants of one another for Jesus Christ’s sake. 

And so, the atmosphere of the School of Love was (and continues to this day to be that of) hospitality.  Monastic evangelism was rooted in welcome and acceptance–another reflection of the Spirit of Jesus, who always welcomed the stranger and said, “Come to me, all of you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Over and over again, I have experienced my time in monasteries (and a few convents) this way.  The curriculum is in place, and school is always in session.  I have always left these Schools of Love refreshed and desiring to be more loving myself.  I always leave praying that the Church might catch the vision of the monastery and become more fully a School of Love–where all are welcomed, where the two great commandments define the community, and where the fruit of the Spirit is offered to all.

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In-Sight: A School of Love #1

It was at Gethsemani where I first encountered the phrase, “school of love.”  I was immediately drawn to it, but it would still be some time before I discovered it was the phrase Bernard of Clairvaux coined to describe his vision for a monastery.  Coming to stand in the Cistercian tradition Bernard was instrumental in starting, the Abbey of Gethsemani continues the mission which the Cistercians began a thousand years ago. 

But even if this rich history and heritage were not informing the idea of ” a school of love,” I would still be drawn to it.  Following in the path of St. Paul’s more-excellent way of love, what better phrase could we choose to describe a church or any other Christian community?  What better could we say to the world than, “Come in here and learn how to love”?

At first glance, a monastery seems so far removed from the way most of us live we can hardly imagine it to be a “school of love” in which we should enroll to learn how to love in the world we inhabit.  But a less-reactive and more-responsive posture in our heart disposes us to learn things we cannot so easily learn when caught up in a world too taken by itself and too greatly consumed in freneticism, noise, and violence.

If we are willing to stop, look, and listen, places like Gethsemani have much to teach us.  We can begin with the word ‘school.’  At the get-go, we discover that learning to love is a protracted experience, not a six-week study.  We see that it is a progressive experience which takes us into increasing degrees of love.  We move and grow in love.  Learning to love is a journey.

Like a laboratory, the monastery reminds us that we learn to love by loving concretely, not abstractly.  The monks are quick to tell you that they are thrown together with a group of people they did not originally know, choose, or perhaps even like.  Learning to love always happens in reality and imperfection.  That’s why folks who have a “pure church” mentality are always strangers to love.

Instead, we enter a ‘school’–an experience populated by anyone and everyone we meet.  As happened in our public education journey, we find ourselves being assigned a desk that is surrounded by people we have never seen before, and our only option (short of arrogance, chaos, condescension, and even violence) is to find ways to get along.  And so it always is in any “school of love.”

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Editorial: To Our Shame

On the heels of an event at our local church last evening, and having watched “After Charleston” on PBS tonight, I offer this meditation…

Jeannie and I have just completed a nine-year travel experience which has taken us into all of the lower 48 States and The District of Columbia.  In the course of our journeys, we have seen numerous evidence to document racism that has existed even before our nation was founded.  Multiple firsthand experiences have demonstrated to us the existence of White privilege used for centuries to express power and effect persecution against people of color.

Most of this was excized from our history classes and textbooks, leaving us with a sanitized educational experience that perpetuated a national story which never actually existed in all the ways we were taught that it did.  Without even realizing it, succeeding generations affirmed a patriotism that contained as much shame as virtue (but with the shame factored out)–and doing so with the sanction of an equally-erroneous interpretation of the Bible that allowed the justification of White supremacy (in all sorts of ways) and gave underpinning to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

At base, all this enabled generation after generation to define others as less than human (beginning back on the plantations where many of the “Founding Fathers” emmassed their wealth on the backs of African slaves, and enabling those same men to describe Native Americans as “savages” in ‘The Declaration of Independence’), creating the loophole in “all men are created equal” by declaring some people not to be genuinely or fully “men”–a view which swept women as well into their own less-than status, regardless of race.

From these early days, White privilege has reigned, enabling the spirit and substance of racism to live on.  And we come to our own time with many documented examples (including formal studies and credible writings) of racial disadvantage in social, economic, medical, educational, judicial, political and religious arenas.  Much of this has been maintained by the perpetuation of racial myths and other stereotypes put forward by those who are intent on sustaining White privilege in our day–untruths born of prejudice, but allowed to stand even by some holding and running for public office.

As White privilege persists, the damaging effects of racism continue (spilling over into White social-disadvantage expressions as well, and also into religious prejudice), and as has happened in the past, stress is increasing, pressure is mounting, and acts of violence are occurring.  Desperation is the result when fear and hopelessness are mixed together.

As one who went through the ’60’s (but even then as a White person buffered from knowing and experiencing racial realities in my own home town), all this is eerily familiar, including the need to speak out against contemporary racism, just as others have done in times past.  An understanding of our history must be an ignition of individual and collective will to name White privilege (and the increasing gaps it creates in society) for the social evil that it is.

No single answer will solve the problem because the fabric of our national life is woven from many threads.  But the starting point for any thread is to use every opportunity to call out White privilege wherever we see it, and to include non-violent actions that turn true words into redemptive acts.

Coming off the road from our latest trip and combining it with the past nine years, I am in the infancy of my awareness, and even less knowledgeable of how I might not only continue to speak and write, but also act.  Jeannie and I are fortunate to be part of a local church which has decided to address the uprooting of racism by identifying itself as being engaged in the effort, and by connecting our convictions with other religious and civic leaders in our city who likewise believe that the time is now to say “No” even while still seeking God’s “Yes.”

Beyond this, we have faith to believe that the Spirit of God is once again stirring the souls of folks who see our national inhumanities, weaving us into another movement willing to sing a 21st-century version of “We shall overcome” because we “have a dream” that  “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

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In-Sight: Gethsemani

Some of you reading this know that one of my favorite places on the earth is The Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky.  I never tire of going there, and it is easy for me to go there in my mind on days when I am far from its hallowed ground.  Today is one of those days.  I am thinking about Gethsemani.

Gethsemani is itself a paradigm of the spiritual life I so want to live.  Its architecture bespeaks simplicity and purity of devotion.  Its silence is a reminder that attentiveness is born in listening, not speaking.  Its cloister calls me to remember to walk in prayer.  Its grounds invite me into a fresh experience of the beauty and wonder of creation. The Cistercian monastic schedule followed in the Abbey each day (as has been true for a 1,000 years) connects the natural rhythms of the day to the formative movements of my soul.  The dress of the monks and their common grave markers together tell me that I am one with everyone else.  The liturgy and symbol maintain the centrality of worship and keep me rooted in scripture, sacrament, and tradition. The fresh graves call me to remember my mortality.

Gethsemani opens me to the great cloud of witnesses in general and to specific mentors who now sleep in its cemetery: Father Louis (Thomas Merton), Father Gregory, Father Timothy, and Father Matthew.  I can never visit Gethsemani without remembering that my “I” (here understood as the true self) exists because of the collective witness and influence of others. No one is an island.

I always leave my time at Gethsemani (literally or reflectively) refreshed and re-centered.  I feed on the new sights and sounds that I carry from each visit, and almost always with a new book and some cheese from the gift shop.  But most of all, Gethsemani teaches me that the ultimate reason for cherishing one place is to come to see all ground as holy–the purpose of giving thanks for the past is to be able to live better in the present.

P.S.—You can explore the richness of Gethsemani for yourself, by scheduling a personal retreat there or by visiting the monastery website:

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In-Sight: The Book of Nature

Jeannie and I recently completed a travel adventure with our pop-up camper and her Little Red Truck.  We still lacked ten states of the lower 48, so we used late July and much of August to complete the list.

We began with our 10th Anniversary “gramping” (grandparent camping) with family.  Zoe and Isaac were six and four when we began–now, 16 and 14.  We had a great week with them, Katrina, Chris, and “sweet baby James” at the KY Horse Park. Nothing compares to the blessedness our loved ones provide.

We then headed out to visit the last remaining states, including a brief trip into Canada for an additional blessing.  As with previous trips, the sights, sounds, people, and history combined to weave a tapestry of precious memories.

And as before, I was reminded what a great gift God gives us in “the book of nature.”  The older I get, the fewer categories I have, and the more connected I feel to all things. Breathing the fresh air day after day, and taking in experiences we will remember for the rest of our lives, the “creation volume” yielded one holy and fun chapter after another.

God waits for us in cathedrals and in the country–in devotional classics and breath-taking sunsets.  God uses nature to invite us into a broader spiritual life than we often find in our usual places and accustomed programs.  Stepping into a stream is an invigorating reminder that the Spirit never ceases to flow in our lives.  Looking into the stars at night brings Psalm 8 immediately to mind.

Soaking up two months of family, flora, and fauna is an exercise in detaching from things that can too easily distract us, making us worried and troubled about many things–too many things.  Reading the book of nature keeps our lives in the sacred context of cosmos, where we simultaneously  find humility, happiness, and hope.

It is in nature that we learn the difference between being involved in important things and being consumed by them. The soul is created to be invested, but not enslaved. There is a sacred breadth to existence, the narrowing of which causes us to confuse parts for the whole. The book of nature revives us by widening us.

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Update: The Fall Lineup

Coming off the traditional August writing break, I want to give you a preview of the Fall on Oboedire.

“In-Sight” resumes on September 9th. Each Wednesday I will post something having to do with spiritual formation. I want to recapture this focus for Oboedire, which was why I began it in the first place.

Everything else will be occasional. I will be devoting my writing time to other projects. I will use Oboedire to keep you posted about any new things, and to to provide you with resources to assist your growth in grace.

The Oboedire home page has other icons that provide additional information and resources. Check in there occasionally to see what’s happening.

As I do each year as the Fall begins, I ask you to consider letting others know about Oboedire so that they can join those who receive posts automatically, or simply visit the site from time to time. And as always, I ask for your prayers that Oboedire will be one of the things God uses to enrich your life.

Blessings! Steve

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