For some reason, many of my favorite writers are Catholics. At the top of the list is Joan Chittister. Sister Joan is a member and former prioress, or chief nun, of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA. She’s one of those Catholic women who entered her order as a teenager and never left. Now in her sixties, she continues to inspire me. The interesting thing is that much of that inspiration comes from just one of her many books: Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today. I’d like to say that I have fully adopted the way of living outlined by St. Benedict in the 6th century and described in contemporary terms by Sister Joan. But I can’t because I haven’t. Yet reading and re-reading the way she describes how to make here and now sacred and life-giving encourages me.
Lest the Rule of St. Benedict sound too holy and hard, let me assure you that Benedict was a holy man, but he was also a wise man. And he knew a thing or two about human nature. He lived in an era when persons desiring to be deeply spiritual were doing all kinds of weird things to test themselves. They abused their bodies to show their devotion to God. Instead Benedict outlined a way of life for everyman and everywoman. In Sister Joan’s words, “(the Rule) assumes no great asceticisms and promises no great spiritual feats. It asks for no great physical denials and gives no mystical guarantees. It describes no specific life work and depends on no great organizational plan. The Rule of St. Benedict simply takes the dust and clay of every day and turns it into beauty.” I once asked a friend who is a Benedictine sister from Australia how she would describe the Rule. She said the most important thing to her is that Benedict’s Rule is a pattern of living for the average person. You don’t have to be a Mother Teresa to follow it.
Two characteristics of this ancient Rule of Benedict also apply to any serious Lenten journey. First is that it’s a trip that we can all take if we choose to. We don’t have to be holy or especially spiritual or saved in the traditional sense in order to use the 40 days and 6 Sundays of Lent to reach into the depths of our souls for truth. Second is that in the Rule, listening is the key to spiritual growth, and it is also a necessary component of an honest experience of Lent. Benedictine spirituality is spirituality of the open heart, and that’s the gift we are asked to bring as we start down our Lenten path tonight.
To what do we open our hearts? Who do we listen to? What do we listen for? To everyone and everything. In worship during this season, we will reflect on scripture together. What do we hear in the conversation between Jesus and the devil during his 40 days in the wilderness? He was offered all the things that tempt us today. Money…power…being special…we’re in that conversation big-time. We’ll also consider some of the Psalms during Lent. If God is our keeper, as Psalm 121 says, what are the implications for our lives and our choices? In John’s gospel, Jesus stops to talk to a woman getting water from a well. Her gender, race and class mean that their conversation breaks all the rules of his culture. What could it mean for us to cross a barrier to offer a gift? What does it mean to be healed from blindness? To be the healer yourself? To be hailed as a hero on one day and crucified a few days later? To be abandoned by your friends? To be so committed to your understanding of God’s call that you will give up your life? Whether it’s the text of the sermons or one of the other lectionary passages found in the Update each week, scripture has a word for us in this season if our hearts are open to what it has to say.
During this particular Lent, the road will take our congregation through an exercise of listening to each other as we prepare to make decisions about pastoral leadership for our church. We all come to this conversation with experiences and perspectives that influence how we would answer the leadership questions. We need hearts open to hear, really hear each other. To do that, I think, we have to listen first to the voices in our heads. They are often drowned out by our everyday lives, but they are talking to us just the same. Is it Mom, Dad, other family members, the churches of our childhood, the culture, our own fears and insecurities, the values we hold dear? Which ones offer us life and light? For some of us, it takes a lot of energy not to be ruled by those voices, or shamed by them, or made arrogant by them. Lent gives us an opportunity to open our hearts to ourselves and to one another. Only by separating the wheat from the chaff can we find an honest, authentic place to stand.
The prophets remind us that our Lenten journey must also include listening to the world around us. In the passage we read a few minutes ago, Isaiah doesn’t mince words. The spiritual discipline of fasting is worthless, he says, if we cannot hear the cries of the oppressed, the hungry, and the homeless. In describing the evolution of her community of sisters in to their sensitivity to the needs of the world, Sister Joan reflects: “We prayed a great deal when I was a young nun. We prayed over seven times a day for over three hours in all. In another language. On a rigid schedule. But no one ever came into our dining room. No poor slept in our houses. No children cried in our chapels. No refugees came to our doors. No one even thought to look to us for clothing or shelter or support or conviction about anything. We lived in one world. People lived in another. And we all prayed.”
The fast God chooses for us this Lent is addressing injustice in all of its forms. None of us can do that all by ourselves. As Quaker Thomas Kelly reminds us, “We cannot die on every cross nor are we expected to.” But the prophets clearly say that we need to die on at least one, and we can’t determine what that one is if we don’t listen. Where are the needs, and which one touches my open heart? James Forbes says it in a way only he can: “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”
What are we listening for? The prophets and the psalmist would call it “a word from the Lord.” We might say it differently now. A sense of knowing. A moment of insight. A feeling deep inside about what is right and true. A long-buried passion for a work that would use our best gifts. A clear understanding that the voice in our head is not God but a relic of the past we need to leave behind. A word of grace. At the beginning of my first year of law school, I felt a great deal of anxiety. I was in classes with a lot of very smart, ambitious people in a very tense environment. Everyone wanted to do well and an air of competition permeated the place. I had been a coach and knew a bit about competition. But I hadn’t seen anything like this. It was a whole new world for me and it was hard.
So on my commute from Apex to Chapel Hill each morning in the first few weeks, I found myself asking, “Why in the world am I doing this?” I went to law school so I could advocate for women, minorities and the poor, but I was beginning to question what I thought was a sense of calling. And then one day as I was driving across Lake Jordan, a thought came into my head. Not a voice. Not a flash of light. Just a thought. “I know what I’m doing sending you over here.” That was it, and that was enough. It was a word of grace. It doesn’t happen often—at least not often enough for me—probably because I’m not listening well. Not to listen, says Sister Joan, is not to grow. But if we do listen to birds and wise people and children playing and the beating of our own hearts, we find grace.
Our theme for this Lenten season comes from those wonderful, poetic words of Isaiah found in Chapter 43. “I have redeemed you,” it begins. “I have called you by name, you are mine…I will give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” In these special days of Lent, hear the Holy One saying to you: I will go with you. Do not be afraid. I’m telling you ahead of time that I will do a new thing in you. And when it feels like wilderness, I will provide water for you to drink. When the way feels dusty and barren like a desert, I will make a river through the parched landscape of your life.
Just listen . . . to me, to the words I have given you in scripture, to the people around you, to nature, to the cries of the poor, and especially to the yearnings of your own heart. Listening is a fresh spring. From listening flows life-giving water, water that will quench the thirst of your soul. And a watered soul bears fruit that can transform the world.