July 11, 2011
St. Benedict 2011, Abbey Church
Mark 10: 17-31
Those of us who have been in the monastery for some time probably had our memories pricked by the first verses of our reading from the Book of Proverbs this morning, because it sounds so much like the opening verses of Benedict's Rule. Those verses from Proverbs are: "My child, if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your ear to understanding...then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find knowledge of God." The verses from Benedict are similar: "Listen carefully, my child, to the master's instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a parent who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice."
It would be easy to assign both sets of instructions to condescending swaggarts if we did not know the history of the authors. Although Solomon is not a good pattern for any ruler or father to follow, he did gather a lot of experience during his long and interesting life, and upon reading the Book of Ecclesiastes, one realizes that he did finally learn from his excesses and gathered much wisdom. Benedict also struggled with his own authority, but after his first monks tried to murder him and his sister had to bring on a storm to get his attention, he has become a pattern for many people (not only nuns and monks) in living good and fruitful lives.
So instead of dismissing the authors of these words as know-it-all blowhards, we would do well to listen to them and consider what they say. And what they seem to be saying to us is the fact that we need wisdom. Furthermore, they are saying that wisdom must be sought after - it doesn't simply land in our laps. As Solomon says in the Proverbs "...cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding...seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures..." Even further, by telling us to seek wisdom, they are also implying that we must first be humble enough to admit that we don't have it. The words of Benedict about "listening with the ear of your heart", "welcoming advice", and "faithfully putting it into practice" all speak of a humble type of listening, because only an open, humble, and accepting heart can take things in - cold, closed, self-righteous hearts will only deflect wisdom, because those kinds of hearts think they are already whole and self-sufficient. Paul gives a good list of things to do in order to cultivate humility and open our hearts and minds to wisdom in his Letter to the Colossians that we heard in our second reading. He says that we ought to "clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience." He also says that we should be forbearing, forgiving, loving, peaceful, and thankful. He wants our lives to be filled with the word of Christ so that everything we do or say is an outpouring of God in us. All of those things both require and cultivate humility, and one of the most important things that Paul reminds us of is the fact that God doesn't love us because we do these things; we do these things because God loves us. We do not earn our place in God's heart, it has already been given to us. Once we learn that, the foundation for humility and wisdom is laid, because then we are open to receiving our existence from God alone, and never form our own efforts.
Just as we can't rely on ourselves to give us life, we also need to stop relying on the things around us for a sense of security and legitimacy. In the gospel story this morning we heard Jesus telling Peter that only those who leave behind their families, homes, and businesses for his sake will inherit eternal life, as well as receive back much more than they gave up. Jesus is not saying that any of these things are bad (in fact they are all good), but we must learn to stop deceiving ourselves into thinking that our possessions and abilities can bring us life and joy. By relying on God alone, we learn that every moment is an infinity of peace and fulfillment, and so as Jesus says, we "inherit eternal life".
But learning to stop relying on our possessions and abilities to give us a false sense of security does not come easy to us. That is why we must humble ourselves and open our hearts so they can hear and soak up the words of encouragement and wisdom that come to us from people such as Solomon, Jesus, Paul, and Benedict whom we heard today, speaking to us from the past. There are others who speak to us from the past: authors of books in our library, parents and grandparents, old friends and schoolteachers, and we ought to take time to remember their words and examples and see if they offer anything to us now. Likewise, we are surrounded by people offering us insight in the present moment: people in our own families and monasteries, followers of other religions, and friends and correspondents. Since they are human, none of them will have a complete understanding of life, and some of them will be consistently wrong, but we still need to listen to them so that we can glean the bits of wisdom that each one does have, and we need to listen to the Holy Spirit weaving all those bits of wisdom together for us.
It takes humility to admit that we are not in full possession of all knowledge and wisdom and so need to listen to others, and that is not easy. But if we really want to grow and be happy and healthy, we have to do it. May all the great cloud of wise witnesses surrounding us pray that we may heed the words of Solomon and Benedict as they lovingly say to us: "My child... accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding...cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding...seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures...Listen carefully, my child, to the master's instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a parent who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice." AMEN