Benedict's Dharma 2

Day 5- Saturday - May 3, 2003
Sister Mary (Meg) Margaret


SR. MEG: Again, we have all the time we need for whatever God wants us to do here, so I'm very pleased. But just a little further organization of what Reverend Kusala and I thought we would be doing today.

First, we'd like to close the book. We'd like to bring closure to the book, so we're going to do the last chapter on leadership and humility. And then we're going to pick up the questions that we had from yesterday about meditation practice, and we're going to come mainly through the door of Christian meditation and the difficulties in Christian meditation and some of the things we need to avoid; and many of you guide others, also, so some things that we can be of service to others on the journey.

The other thing, tonight we thought closure for each you one of you, and in a sense going around to all of us, where are we in Benedict's Dharma, where are we on the journey, you know, that we want to consolidate our learning's, lay out our thoughts to the group one to one to one to one. If there is some further clarification from Reverend Kusala and myself, we would offer it. But we were thinking this evening to be really closure without new agenda.

Okay, you can see the Buddhists' theme of this immensely rich text, this last chapter is too important to leave dangling, it is this whole dance between humility and leadership. There is such wisdom about leadership in the Rule of Benedict, but the centerpiece is humility.

___The force behind the Rule of Benedict is to seek God.___

So, I would like to start with the central controlling idea, the driving force behind the Rule of Benedict is to seek God. With a nontheist to my left I want to add, God is the word we use to point to whom we think God is, letting God be God. It is our ultimate concern. It's our total depth of heart. It's both personal and impersonal insofar as it's a mystery beyond person.

God for us is the way to say everything and each thing. It's a way, it's our heart's desire. And for us, desire -- and, again, the great teacher about the Christian notion of desire is Gregory the Great.

I would think he would be a masterful leader to follow up on many of our conversations, if you want to go into Gregory the Great, his idea of compunction, humility, and desire is marvelous.

Anyway, to seek God. If you would come, and I hope many of you do to my monastery, walk in the door, above the door is, "Seek God." Modern, not-so-beautiful building, but it's okay. It's a brick structure.

In big letters it says, "Seek God." After the entrance you go underneath to seek God. In the seeking, we know we already have God. We know it. We feel it. We sense it. There is a presence. And yet our opportunity day after day is to continue the search, continue the seeking.

When I see the dance between humility and leadership, the leadership is to initiate and keep everybody on the path of seeking God. Humility is my deference that my whole creaturehood is to lift up my body, mind, and soul to this seeking, even though I feel I've already found my heart's desire. So, seeking God is the center.

First I'm going to say something on humility. Humility is a disposition. It's not a practice. It's outcome, of practicing silence and obedience.

Silence is what we've done here, and I must apologize for speaking during the great silence after prayers this morning. At home, after the morning prayer we're finished with the great silence, but Karl and I found ourselves chatting.

I admired the fact nobody admonished us. Your posture showed us you were meditating, and so we went outside. I've been edified with your level of silence this week.

___The practice of silence has different parts.___

Isn't it freeing? Isn't it freeing to be silent? The practice of silence has different parts: One is to control the environment so it is silent. That's the idea behind cloister, behind times of silence, the idea of taciturnity, to refrain from speaking even good things, for the sake of greater things, our search for God.

That's the idea of the cell. Your room, your space is silent. That's the idea behind a stable place.

It took me all week to really get here totally, and of course tomorrow we go. But I feel the silence of the trees and the environment and the birds, it took a long time to seep deep into my body. There is the outer silence of the cloister cell times of silence, the space, the place, the stability of many years.

Then there's the practices of inner silence, to still that inner chatter. Basically all the practices of silence are for when the thoughts rise, you return them to the seeking of God and away from the self, so that there is no interior chatter, all that talking to yourself. You really lay it all out. You don't repress it, but you also don't express it. You transpress it. You lift it up to our mighty God.

That's why in our practice we have to have a default God. We've got to find the place in the heart that's always the same where we take our chatter. We need a default practice.

Like when you are waiting for somebody, and you are sitting there in silence, when your thoughts start rising, where do you take your thoughts? And, again, if you do the Jesus prayer, you would take the thoughts and put them right here between the chest and back to the heartbeat:

"Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner."

So, you would bring it right here, or to a sacred word, or to the mystery, or whatever is your prayer practice, or the cloud of unknowing.

Basically, you need to have this prayer practice in order to practice silence, that's how you transpress all that inner chatter. That's the work of the monastery, the interior work. That's what we are doing under the river, we are learning to deal with that interior life.

You reduce the afflictions because afflictions are not just chatter; they are shouts. They are just absolute compulsivity. We have to reduce each affliction as they rise, and the sooner the better; when we see a thought rise into an affliction, we are even vigilant. We anticipate it. We catch it early and often, as many times as it comes, and then we even do extra practice.

This is where the idea of mortification comes in. You practice ahead of time so that you are not surprised. The other big thing about the inner chatter and the practice of silence is the absolute negation of murmuring. We are not allowed to murmur in the Benedictine Rule. It is a most corrosive practice that takes away, cancels out all of our practices, practices of common life, practices of the inner work.

Murmuring is like a cancer, it cannot be tolerated in ourselves or in others, so we have to detect it. We really can't listen to it.

BC: What is murmuring?

Murmuring -- thank you, you want to know what it is. What would you say, Bruce?

BC: Complaining.

SR. MEG: Complaining, eating away ever so slightly.

BC: Negative chatter.

SR. MEG: It's pretty hard to murmur here because this place is so great. But at home it's, "Oh, so we're not having any good food today," same old food.

RC: Outward murmuring or inward murmuring or both?

SR. MEG: Both.

RJH: Grumbling.

SR. MEG: Grumbling. We are so used to it in our culture, but it is absolutely devastating to our common life, and it's devastating to our interior peace, because again what are you doing inside is murmuring, instead of accepting and seeking God.

We've had chapters to guard our
___heart and watch our thoughts from murmuring.___

We've had chapters to guard our heart and watch our thoughts from murmuring. We put up a list of what we murmur about, and then we are going to guard each other against it. We really work on it, because it can tear a group apart.

I have a very dear friend in the community, and we check in with each other every day, and we don't allow each other to murmur. She'll stop me, or I'll stop her and say, "Look, we can't go there."

We've had some years where we don't like the superior, and so we stop immediately and say, "No, we can't go there." Or we have a couple of things that are weaknesses in our community, and we have a little code about saying, "That's the weakness." But we don't go there, because we just can't allow ourselves to be taken down.

Now, you are probably saying, but what if there is a weakness that you should speak to and have the courage? That's something different, and comes from the place of peace, it has the ring of truth. It's not the self-centeredness of murmuring.

Sorry to go on about that.

KP: It's important. It's important.

CEE: We got a message from Brother Timothy from Holy Cross, who years ago came to our parish for a week. He came to our staff meeting of around twenty people, we asked him what he thought at the end. He said "Too much murmuring." We were astonished, because it was a way of talking, a cynical way of talking, but we made an important changes after that.

SR. MEG: I'd like to share something with you. Kusala wanted to give me a tour of his house. He has been staying at the Gate House, and I've been staying at the dorm, they are different residences entirely.

Can I tell them about last night, Kusala?

REV. KUSALA: Okay, sure.

SR. MEG: He didn't sleep a wink because he felt a presence in there, he wanted me to go and see if I felt the presence of others as well, we were going to get in the questions and answers period.

So, I went to his house, and he showed me around. He told me he moved bedrooms because one bedroom was particularly spooky.

There is this piece of art, and he wanted to know what I thought of it, I looked at it and thought it was dark. So, then, on the way back, I was saying, "How can we bring this up" -- now, it's an example of murmuring. We didn't like this piece of art, it sent a dark message. But how do you say that in a way that's not murmuring, you know?

Now, I just murmured, didn't I?

JO: Have a dialogue about it.

SR. MEG: You have a dialogue about it, that's correct. So, that's exactly what we did. On the way back we said, it's got to be there for a good reason because everything else in this whole complex has harmony. And what is that, and why was it there-- so, we had a dialogue.

Maybe it only offends us because we don't understand it, it just doesn't fit our lifestyle as renunciants or something. So, we tried to speak of it not the way I started out saying we didn't like it. How can you share something without negating it?

So, that's the whole challenge in letting things be because they just are. Also, we had a talk about the Psalms. Kusala found the Psalms to be a little dark. So, again, it's just about being skillful.

Yes, Kusala.

REV. KUSALA: Sister Meg and I decided it was part of our training. That's how I came to acceptance with the picture. If I may, just a few more thoughts about it.

After last night and my presentation, I was very still inside, and my breathing was very obvious to me. One of the things I have found about old houses and this one in particular is that they are very much alive.

JO: Oh, yes.

REV. KUSALA: When you go into a new place, for instance, hotel or motel, it's sterile, it hasn't been lived in enough to really give off any energy. But I'll tell you what, the Gate House, if any one wants to experience energy, it's filled with it. It's really neat, but it's also a bit distracting.

JO: Which work of art, tell me, I'd love to know what you found difficult?

REV. KUSALA: The work of art is in the lower bedroom. My interpretation of the art -- now, I don't know that much about art, but it seems to me to be a picture of Pan.

JO: Yes.

___I would have preferred Christ or the Buddha.___

REV. KUSALA: It was a bit disconcerting. I would have preferred Christ or the Buddha. But to see Pan, it was just unexpected. Sr. Meg and I --

JO: He invented the flute with the reed.

SR. MEG: But the flute was turned back upon itself.

JO: Well, Picasso -- that is a Picasso.

SR. MEG: It's a Picasso, oh.


RJH: Talk about dark energy.

JO: He was full of jokes. Full of jokes and full of tricks.

KP: There is a lot of humor in it.

JO: He did a wonderful sculpture of a baboon, and for the nose he used a little metal car, a little toy car, and it works. It works. But Picasso, I think he was, or at least claimed to be a Communist, you know. He joined the Communist party, but in his heart I don't think he was.

Guernica is perhaps the greatest painting in the world today. It was the destruction of this little town that meant a lot to him. And at the top of Guernica, you see a dove struggling to --

SR. MEG: Free itself?

JO: -- free itself from all the chaos, the bombing, and people weeping and wailing. The dove is pointing toward the west to get out of this morass. Some of his Communist comrades said, "That's not a dove. It's a chicken." But he said it was a dove.

SR. MEG: Well, you'll have to tell us, Jane, what the redeeming comedy is, of this picture. We couldn't find it.

JO: The what?

SR. MEG: The redeeming, noble part. We couldn't find the nobility of it. Of course I didn't know it was a Picasso, thank the Lord.

JO: It's just Pan playing his flute. I hear the first notes of a reed pipe. And, you know, Pan means universal, anyway. It also means panic. It could be derived, you were seeing the panic part of Pan.

SR. MEG: Maybe we panicked.

JO: Because, we've evolved from Pan, because he was the beginning of man and nature together. Like Pan-Europe, Pan-American, I think pan also has a universal derivation, the etymology of pan.

SR. MEG: The crossover from one to the other, I know.

JO: I think I can see where you would say, what is this painting doing here.

The first retreat we had was by Father Ewald in California, he was all in blue -- he belonged to a healing order that wears blue. We were all told to keep silent for a couple of days and meet in the Gate House for Christian prayer and healing.

There was a young Jewish boy called Marty Bason who lived on that street, a very orthodox Jewish boy, and he asked if he could join our retreat. Of course, we were only too happy to have him.

We were told from the outset to keep silence between prayers, and the only one who obeyed, was the Jewish boy. He had been better disciplined. He had an interesting career. He was a symphony conductor of the Siena orchestra in Italy, a beautiful young boy. Went to Bloomington, great music school. He was the only Jew, and a beautiful boy. I loved him. Since gone. He kept silence.

There has been prayer in that house. Kevin Moore stayed there. You saw his photograph? That blessed man. It's been prayed in.

Then those flutes of Pan in the reeds. I don't know, take it lightly.

SR. MEG: Thank you. Thank you. We will do that.

Again, notice how we've gone full circle on this -- instead of murmuring -- with understanding and with greater compassion, with greater openness, open our hearts to the reality. Again, it was in the light of he didn't sleep all night because of --

JO: You can always move the picture, take it out.

REV. KUSALA: No, no it's not just that. The whole house is filled with energy, it's not bad energy or good energy; it's almost like a living organism.  (Picture of the house)

SR. MEG: It's too alive.

REV. KUSALA: It's very alive, and it keeps stealing my attention. Every sound, every creak of the floor boards, the wind. It's a marvelous old house. There is just a lot of activity occurring, but I'm having a good time.


JO: But you are not sleeping. That's not fun when you can't sleep.

REV. KUSALA: Well, I can sleep when I get back to Los Angeles. This is a wonderful opportunity to explore different levels of reality.

SR. MEG: It's training. It's good training, what to do with your silence. You know, Kusala was actually kind of excited about it.

REV. KUSALA: I was silent; but the house wasn't.

SR. MEG: I hope this wasn't bad taste to raise that.

JO: Oh, I love it. I love it.

SR. MEG: Karl?

___Every year I have the same experience with the Poet's House.___

KP: I was just going to say, every year I have the same experience with the Poet's House. It takes me a couple of days to be able to sleep a full night in there because there is just so much going on.

REV. KUSALA: So, you understand.

KP: Yes, definitely.

SR. MEG: You know, we are going back to Indianapolis via Gethsemani because I want to get that book, Gethsemani II, I put together, and give it to the abbot. I never sleep at Gethsemani. It's too much spiritual activity for me, and I access that. They are up at 3:00. I don't get into my deepest sleep until 11:00.

I'm there a lot because that's where my journal comes out of. It's not that it's bad energy; it's just too much energy, and I feel it. So, it's no place for me to rest, but I certainly come out with higher vibrations, quicker vibrations, and my mind goes quicker. It would be a good place to write for me, I suppose.

Okay, Shall we continue?

Well, that's murmuring. It's murmuring shifted into dialogue, shifted into communion. We understand each other. That's the fruit of non-murmuring, like thinking something against someone rather than sharing it out loud.

The other way of practicing humility is obedience, you practice obedience through accountability. We literally are subservient. That means we place ourselves under someone. It isn't just mutual. It isn't just a partner. Really and truly, you bow before someone and give permission: "Please tell me, because I do not know." "What do you see?"

You say, this is what's on my heart. As someone on spiritual journey, we have to hand over. That's the idea of obedience, we need to listen.

We can't really speak it by ourselves, because we keep going into this loop. We need somebody to break through like God does. But God uses human channels. We need to be accountable to somebody, to manifest ourself to that somebody, both our external actions and our interior thoughts.

Obedience is always known by its fruits of service. Through obedience, we serve others. We put ourselves at the back of the line in order to serve. In Benedict's Rule, we serve the poor, the elderly, the young, the old, the outcasts, the stranger, whatever.

___To recapitulate, humility is a disposition.___

To recapitulate, humility is a disposition. You can only practice humility through silence and obedience. If you did have humility, what would it look like? It would show up in your speech, in the way you speak, in what you talk about, and your refraining from talking, so taciturnity, which means to refrain even from good things for the sake of God. You would undergo hardships with sweetness. You would gladly take the last place, not because it's the booby prize, but because it really is the way you like to live your life.

We can guard our hearts and watch our thoughts better in last place than we can in the first place.

Besides our inclination, humility shows in our bodily appearance. It should show in our walk, the absence of a strut, and noisy colors in clothes and shoes. Harmonious colors in clothes that lead others, not the clashing thing.

It should show in our speech, our listening, the deference, the cadence, the lack of any harsh words, swear words, or denigrating words. It should show in our eyes by the way we look at one another, the way we let another person greet us and we return. It should show in our entire manner of life.

Where we put our body really matters. What we do on vacation, what we do in our time off, how we conduct ourselves in our cell, in our room, in our car, in our work. Our bodies are a window. If you want to know how you are doing, check out your body, the way it's in a chair, the way it lays in bed, the way it eats at a table.

The body does matter.

I'd like to move to the other theme in the chapter on leadership. Benedict was so powerful about leadership. It's what he doesn't say, more than what he does say, that gives him the edge-on.

He set the dynamic of leadership in the whole monastic world. He believed in rank, roles, control, and focus on the least. He took a big stand on the way an abbot is elected. He made sure that the abbot was both a spiritual leader and an administrator.

Over and over it's happened that they'll elect an abbot who is a spiritual leader but not an administrator, or they'll elect an administrator but not a spiritual leader. The very person must have both qualities for them to bring people to seeking God, because the temporal goods of a monastery are oriented toward the spiritual gift.

You must be able to skillfully uphold the resources for the sake of what we're doing under this river. But you still have to be smart enough above the river to be solvent and to have a place of beauty and a place of order and a place of tranquility. So, it's a very delicate task to be a leader.

Now, the roles is where he stores the quality of persons, so in those chapters about a prior, about the treasurer, and about the liturgical ministers, the people that serve in the kitchen, and even about the priest who serves the community.

I'd like to point out one role that I find extremely insightful, and that is the senpectae. It's kind of buried in the Rule, but it's to send a wise elder. It's in the chapters on the code of excommunication, code of conduct.

When somebody has been really out of line, instead of him coming in right away, or her coming in right away, confronting the person, you are supposed to do it gently, not break a bruised reed, and all that, you send a senpectae. That's a wise elder, somebody that they would listen to, to try to coach them and to change them. It may take a year or two to bring that person around.

I know when I was prioress, I literally took some people out of their jobs in order to minister toward somebody else to bring them back, to take trips, give them plenty of money, to get a car, go there, bring them back, however long it would take, a week, a month, to really be there for them. Whereas, if I would go as an abbot, they would just go further away when they were alienated.

___This idea of a senpectae is a marvelous tool to bring harmony to the group.___

This idea of a senpectae is a marvelous tool to bring harmony to the group. It even works when somebody pouts and runs out of the room. Just send somebody later. "Would you mind going to the room and checking on them, and just be there for them." So the senpectae.

It's holding dear somebody who is alienated. In the sixth century they had this kind of dynamic. There really isn't much new under the sun?

I'm pointing out the senpectae role, but he also he also took stern control. He had these default positions of compassion, but as the abbot, then he drew the line of what was following the Rule, what was not following the Rule, and then going and -- what would you call it -- sanctions. In other words, there are penalties, there are some consequences of not following the Rule, and then keeping those lines clear.

It's a culture with boundaries that I live in, to have the combination of the senpectae and the role of the abbot, keeping the control, and making the controls very clear, but also having somebody that does the compassionate role. But you do it as a collaborator.

I would just end this little section with this, his big genius showed up in the election procedures. Before Benedict, the bishops, there were just abbots like Agustine and Basil. He is the one who separated out the church role of bishop. In fact, he allowed priests to be in the monastery, but only as monks, and then they served as priests in the service role. So, he clearly demarcated the difference between the bishop and the priest function compared to the monk.

The monk is mainly for contemplation and to do the under-the-water work. He did not want bishops and priests to be the abbots, and he didn't link ordination as a requirement.

He also learned from Pachomius, who was an abbot, he drew together people in a monastery. He was kind of the first one to do the community type of monastic way of life, but Pachomius made a mistake.

He thought if he lived the ideal monastic life, people would see him and imitate. He has marvelous stories about how it did not work. Finally he got so frustrated, he had this ceremony where he and the monks processed out the monastery gates, everyone thought it was just a ritual. But, he ran back and locked the gate, and nobody could get back in. He had locked himself in the monastery, and he stayed there and wrote the Rule of Pachomius. When people came through the gate, they had to agree to follow the Rule. So, there is a need for a rule that everybody follows, and it needs to be free standing from whomever is the abbot.

Another thing we learned from Pachomius, Pachomius wanted his favorite monk, Theophane, to be his successor. Well, it didn't work because no one liked him, and so then the community fell apart. Notice, there are no Pachomian monks today. So, you can't do succession in the Christian tradition, because there is no lineage. There is no guru. There is no transmission.

He instituted the idea of electing the best person from the ranks. But once elected, the abbot had the final say. It's really not very democratic. It's one of the last aristocracies left. It's a collaboration, there is mutual obedience. But for the abbot, the abbot does have a lot of power and control.

There are two controls. One is the chapter. The chapter is the whole assembly, the greater things are to be taken to the chapter. It also has a built in council, the lesser things are to be taken to the council; which is just the opposite of most groups. The council is more like an administrative team, as it were. So, the abbot selection was definitely the genius of Benedict.

To conclude this part, his leadership shows in very specific concrete ways. We know nothing about how Benedict looked, what his personality was like. We've got the dialogues of Gregory, which are rich in their meaning. But as far as personality, we know he was a Latin, and he was of upper class; at least he was training to be a lawyer, things like that.

But the Rule is ingenious. So, my conclusion to the chapter on humility and the chapter on leadership are to say a leader has to be the utmost example of humility.

Thank you.



_Day 5_

Sister Meg  |  Rev. Kusala   | Q & A