Things move slowly in a monastery, and there is good and bad in that, just as there is in any other type of human organization. Things move so slowly in a monastery that even though Christmas has been over and forgotten by most people, it is still lingering on here, and will do so until the celebration of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on February 2nd. Christmas also has its good and bad side – it is way too busy in the office processing donations and sending out calendars; it is way too busy in the kitchen making special meals for all the holidays; it is way too busy in the church flipping back and forth between books. Those things are part of the bad side of Christmas (and really they aren’t too bad at all). However, the good side of Christmas far outweighs the bad side – Christmas is all about gifts (our gifts to others, others gifts to us, but most importantly God’s gift to all of us). That gift God gives to us at Christmas and throughout the year is simply himself.
In fact, everything we have is a gift. We speak of human rights, and it is good to work for the expansion of human rights throughout the world. But in the biggest picture, standing before God, we have no rights; life owes us nothing – everything is a gift. Rights are granted to people who are merely tolerated; gifts are given to people who are loved. And we are loved – deeply, madly, unconditionally. This existential freedom from rights is (unlike in the human political sphere) a great freedom, because instead of demanding and expecting to have certain things, we are instead able to take everything that comes to us and be grateful while we have it and then gratefully let it go when it is gone. Demanding and expecting brings worry; while humbly accepting and receiving produces gratitude. When we expect to have our rights fulfilled or to be given our due, we are prone to bitterness and disappointment, because almost everything will not meet our expectations. But when we receive everything as a gift, everything exceeds our expectations, and so we are joyful. That works not only with things and situations, but also with people. Expecting people to meet our demands won’t ever work, because people are not created to meet our demands. Instead, seeing other people as gifts in our lives whom we love, and joyfully desiring their happiness relieves us of the burden of expectation and self centeredness.
It also relieves us of the burden of godhood. When we expect things and people to be and do what we want, we have taken God out of the center of our universe and replaced him with ourselves. We become the gods of our own pitiful little hells. No one wants to be around us, and people cringe when they see us coming. We become picky, pushy, easily offended and high-maintenance, and we think we know better than others. We set standards for other people and become angry when they do not meet them, but we are really angry at ourselves for not meeting even lower standards. We become whiners, and as Maya Angelou said: “Don’t ever whine – whining makes you ugly and lets a bully know there is a victim around” Why do we choose to be ugly? Why do we choose to be victims? It is so much better to choose to let God be God and allow ourselves to be our true selves: God’s beautiful children, living in heaven and bringing heaven to the world around us. When we demand our self appointed rights or expect our desires to be met, we are never satisfied and the little things annoy us and drive us crazy. When instead we joyfully accept gifts, the little things delight us.
But we know it is hard to see everything as a gift. We so easily fall into demanding and expecting – Benedict calls it “murmuring” in his Rule. That is where the discipline of constancy comes to our help. Constancy can help us because it does away with the need for patience. Patience so often implies that we are simply waiting for things to get better, and that brings disappointment. It means enslavement to our emotions and surroundings. On the other hand, constancy means that we choose to do our tasks and live our lives in a way that is helpful no matter if things ever get better, no matter our feelings, and no matter what is going on around us, and that brings joy. We can patiently wait until our rights and expectations are met, growing more bitter by the day. Or we can receive and give gifts with constancy and joy. It is our choice. Why not choose joy?
There are three events coming up that call us to choose either the paths of impatiently demanding things or joyfully receiving things. First, we have an abbatial election this week. Of course, this is not a perfect monastery full of perfect people. That is good, because usually a perfect setting full of perfect people is the opening scene for a creepy horror movie. Instead, we are real people, not pod people, and so anything we touch, including this monastery, will be imperfect. But on the whole, the problems we do have here are amazingly small, compared to any other monastery I have ever heard of or visited, and compared to the wonderful things that happen here. We touch people’s lives around the world, and it is humbling to know all we have to do is gather together to pray – everything else is merely to support that. So, we can choose to dwell on the tiny amount of problems we have and inflate them out of proportion (demanding that things change to suit us), or we can truthfully acknowledge them and get on with the good things of the monastery. This monastery is an incredible gift to us monks, giving us a place to be monks. And it is an incredible gift to those who know us and count on our prayers. The second thing confronting us is our celebration of the baptism of Jesus, which is also a celebration our own baptism. We can choose to be angry with the way God rules the world and the church, or we can choose to accept the gift of baptism as a means of grace giving us strength to change the world and church for the better, working with constancy. And lastly, we are about to come to this table to receive God’s gift of himself. We can choose to dwell on the imperfections of the other people who gather up here and the imperfections of our celebration. Or we can choose to joyfully receive God into ourselves and be grateful to know that others are doing the same.
Let us choose joy. Let us choose to receive. No one else makes the choice for us. Let us choose to be good to ourselves and put off our bondage to self. Let us choose to let God be God so we can be God’s beautiful children. AMEN