Lent with St. Benedict

Reflections on the Rule of St. Benedict

Chapter 49 – “On the Keeping of Lent

jesusLet each one, however, suggest to his Abbot what it is that he wants to offer, and let it be done with his blessing and approval. For anything done without the permission of the spiritual father will be imputed to presumption and vainglory and will merit no reward. Therefore let everything be done with the Abbot’s approval.

My introduction to the need for a Spiritual Director/Father – an “Abbot” in St. Benedict’s parlance and system [Middle English: “abbod,” from the Late Latin: “abba,” “abbat,” from the Greek: “abba,” ”abbas,” from the Aramaic “abba”“my father”] – came from reading Morton Kelsey.  I discovered Morton Kelsey right after I graduated from seminary. 

I once heard David Hubbard, the President of the first seminary that I attended, compare seminarians to people who love driving so much that they go to mechanic’s school to learn how cars work, but in the process, sometimes forget how to drive!  In the years of my seminary education we talked about God all the time, but we didn’t actually talk to God very much.  On my Kindle right now I have a book from the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy that describes seminary as a place of spiritual formation that is designed to produce men and women of prayer.  In that tradition the true theologian is the person who prays well, who can speak of God firsthand out of the depth and wealth of their experience with God.  But that wasn’t my experience of seminary.  Seminary was academically and intellectually stimulating for me, but spiritually, it was largely empty.  What saved me was finding several peers who were in the same boat that I found myself in, feeling the same thing, and getting together with them each day over lunch to pray the order of Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.  That spiritual discipline proved to be my lifeline.  It kept me in touch with the fact that behind all of our thinking and talking about God, that there really was a God; not a “something” to be researched and mastered (what seminary was especially good at), but a “someone” to be known and loved, and to be mastered by.

Out in the church after graduation and ordination, away from my seminary prayer partners, I sought out some new spiritual companions, and I found them in an ecumenical prayer group that met at the local Catholic Church in the community to which I had been called to serve as the associate minister of one of our churches in the Panhandle of Texas.  That prayer group was led by a Benedictine oblate of the Monastery in New Mexico of which I am now an oblate.  And it was in his teachings to us that I was first introduced to the writings of Morton Kelsey.  Morton Kelsey was an Episcopal priest in Southern California who would up as a professor of spiritual theology at the University of Notre Dame.  His “expertise” was the reality of spiritual phenomena.  He was not content with what Calvin Miller once called “false front Christianity.”  He didn’t want a religion that looked like a Hollywood film lot, you know, a row of picture-perfect houses that looked real enough facing the street, but that once you went in through their front doors, turned out to be nothing more than painted plywood propped up by a scaffolding of 2×4’s.  Morton Kelsey refused to be a “creed dweller.”  He was going to “taste and see that the Lord was good” (Psalm 34:8) for himself.   And when he did, he wrote about it.

I started reading Morton Kelsey’s books 35 years ago, and I am still reading them today.  He has provided me with the conceptual frame that I use to make sense of spiritual experience, both my own, and that of others.  And one of the big recurring themes in Morton Kelsey’s writings about the spiritual life is that we should not think of it as a solitary journey undertaken by ourselves as a kind of Lone Ranger riding off into the sunset. Just like the instructions my parents gave me whenever I went to the beach in Southern California – “Don’t swim alone!”  “Take somebody with you!” “Have a buddy!”  – so Morton Kelsey urged spiritual pilgrims to find a companion, somebody who knew the way firsthand and who would be willing to travel with you.

I find that there is a nearly universal naïveté about the spiritual life that convinces people that it’s going to be an easy, obvious and invariably positive journey.  It’s not.  Just because something is “spiritual,” it doesn’t mean that it’s good.  In his book Resurrection, Morton Kelsey explained –

Spiritual growth is a continual process and for some a constant battle against forces that would keep us from our spiritual destiny. …It is very hard to listen to the darkness without being overwhelmed with it.  The darkness knows all our faults and presses them home against us and then builds them into hopeless obstacles. (7-8)

And then, to illustrate from his own experience something of this darkness that awaits us all in the spiritual realm as one of the voices, one of presences that we will encounter, Morton Kelsey narrated a conversation that he had had with it, and then with the voice and presence of Christ (8-11).   This account of his experience was something of a “speed bump” in the road for me, a warning to slow down and get a better sense of what it was that I was stepping into.  As Paul told the Ephesians: “For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (6:12).  And so, in his book on Discernment, Morton Kelsey observed that –

Discernment is necessary because there is a real spiritual world with elements in it that are neutral, elements that are destructive, and elements that protect one and lead one to God. (8)

And because it’s not always clear which ones are which, it’s best not to venture too far into this realm without having a trustworthy guide, someone who has been there before to accompany us, and in a Benedictine family, this trusted companion for the inward spiritual journey is the Abbot.  

The second chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict is about “The Qualities of the Abbot,” and in it the task of the Abbot is explicitly named as “the guidance of souls”“to care for and guide the spiritual development of many different characters – one must be led by friendliness, another by sharp rebukes, and another by persuasion.”  An Abbot in the sense of a Spiritual Father or Mother is someone who is on the spiritual journey himself/herself, and who is open to accompanying other people on their spiritual journeys.  They don’t just exist in monasteries and they aren’t just automatically ordained ministers.  Spiritual Mothers and Fathers are all around you.  They don’t hang up shingles and open offices for business, at least the ones with whom I’ve trusted my soul, but they are out there.  Carl Jung once told Morton Kelsey that people are subconsciously able to discern when they are with someone who is on the spiritual journey, in the presence of someone who could help them on the way, and I think that’s right.  I believe that it’s a matter of the leading of the Holy Spirit, and so you know that you are on the scent of a Spiritual Mother or Father when you become aware of that potent combination of fruit (Galatians 5:22-24) and gifts (I Corinthians 12-14) that are the evidence of the Spirit’s empowering presence in a person’s life.

In the desert tradition where the gift of Spiritual Mothers and Father first flourished, the way that contact was established with one was by simply asking the question, “Do you have a word for me?”  And I think that’s still the best approach, but don’t ask if you aren’t prepared to listen and to act on what you are told.  As St. Benedict explained: “For anything done without the permission of the spiritual father will be imputed to presumption and vainglory and will merit no reward.”   DBS+



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