Preparing Our Hearts

Preparing Our Hearts

I want to share a few insights about how we should prepare our hearts for the work that we do, with the help of Esther de Waal, Joan Chittister, Richard Foster, and others. During our group discussion this evening, we can talk about the “how to” of Benedictine work. Benedictine work is not about what to do or what not to do. It is about stability, conversion, and obedience, which are bound together by common threads. They are so intermingled with one another that it is difficult to not talk about all three when attempting to define just one.

“My heart is fixed O God, my heart is fixed!” —Ps. 57:8

To accept that whatever situation we have—our place of residence, our family/friends, our career or retired life, the people we run into every day—this is the Way to God, and no other! There should be no evasion of this duty, but that is what many of us do very well. Whether that is by procrastinating the things we do not want to do because they may slow us down, or they are depressing, and we avoid them by filling time up with activities like checking our Facebook account every few minutes. One that is able to be “at home” so to speak, in each aspect of their life; not behaving as if irritated or annoyed with tasks that come up each day, has his or her heart prepared for God’s work. It is certitude that God is everywhere and we have no need to seek God elsewhere, as the kingdom of God begins within each of us.

Change and growth will occur in our lives if we allow it to happen; it is the ability to recognize God’s unpredictability, and is a vow of openness. Esther de Waal writes: “seeking God is giving God the opportunity to find us.” We have to prepare our hearts for God’s influence on our lives. To be open is to have space for God and others in our lives. It is something we have to agree to and act upon once the awareness of God’s presence is made known to us. Humans are rhythmic creatures, and in Benedict’s time this rhythm was of rest, prayer, work, and reading. Although known by different names today, it can be much the same in our time. If we honor the cycles that come naturally to us (and we have to be aware of them first, to listen closely to our bodies, our emotions, our behavior), then we won’t lose so much energy in making decisions or in avoiding them, or trying to stay “busy” so that we feel we have completed our to-do list and justify our expenditure of energy.

Sister Joan writes: “Work done in the Benedictine tradition is supposed to be regular; it is supposed to be productive, it is supposed to be worthwhile, but it is not supposed to be impossible.” How many of us feel like our days seem to be overwhelming; that we have allowed the day to overpower us and we feel we cannot break free? What do we do when we feel that way? Have we tried to do things differently?

From the Prologue of the Rule:

“The Lord himself has given us the time and space necessary to learn and put into practice the service of love that He continues to teach us. In this school of his let us hope that following faithfully his instructions, nothing distasteful nor burdensome will be demanded of us, but if it has to be so in order to overcome our egoism and lead us into the depths of true love let us not become disheartened, nor frightened and so ignore the narrow path in spite of its tight entrance—the path which leads directly to the fullness of life.”

Wil Derkse shares the concept of “free space,” of a freedom to be open to another person, a job, a task. This means to attend to that person or task, to not jump to conclusions, to complete one’s thoughts, to listen intently.
Allow “space” between tasks at hand (i.e., not multi-tasking)
Allow “space” before responding
Allow “space” to listen to others
Allow “space” for rest, renewal
Allow “space” for silent time with God
Allow “space” to focus one’s mind on God

The Abba Moses asked the Abba Silvanus, “Can a person everyday make a beginning of the good life?” The Abba Silvanus answered him, “if he or she be diligent, he can every day and every hour begin the good life anew.”

This is reassuring, as we often feel that perhaps this “work” is too difficult. It doesn’t have to be. We can start by being grateful for the gifts we have to share in God’s work.

Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline speaks of self-righteous service, which carries with it a negative connotation and one that we should not follow.
Self-righteous service:

  • Expends a great amount of effort
  • Is impressed with the big “ideal” (ie large scale, impressive feats)
  • Requires external rewards—others need to see and appreciate the effort
  • Highly concerned about results, often leaving a bitter feeling when they fall below expectations
  • Picks and chooses whom to serve
  • Is affected by moods and whims
  • Is insensitive
  • Fractures the community, as it centers on glorification of the individual.

Here’s an antidote to self-righteous service or work from Macrina Wiederkehr’s Seven Sacred Pauses:

Living mindfully is the art of living awake and ready to embrace the gift of the present moment.

She shares what she has learned from the monastery bell, calling the sisters to prayer several times each day: “The bell is good, it calls us to prayer, and the bell is annoying ….” But she learned to change the annoying sound of the bell into an instrument of invitation. How can we do that in response to those things that are annoying to us?

From whom must we seek permission to work mindfully, heartfully, soulfully? The permission we need may be from our very own selves.


Reflection by Carol Olson, Benedictine Oblate, March 11, 2013

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