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


“Like a Weaned Child”—Seeking Humility


About four and a half years ago, I was struck by a kind of imbalance in my life. I felt the need to “do something” to cultivate more fruitful spiritual practices to ground my days. I’d accumulated a lot of knowledge and information about life in the Church—its liturgy, theology, history and biblical study. But my spiritual life seemed weak. I did not pray regularly or practice service to others.

As I was casting about for guidance on what to do, I remembered somebody somewhere saying something about having made a good retreat at a monastery in Schuyler. Thanks to Google, I located the Web site for that community’s Benedictine Mission House and found the schedule of retreats. One title beckoned to me: “Experience the Life of a Monk for a Weekend.” I signed up and prepared to go, not really knowing what to expect. But that decision was for me a risk, inviting me to step out into the unknown.

For a few months at that point, I’d been trying to use some different devotional resources. I don’t remember now which one I was using for my morning prayers, but I do remember reading the New Revised Standard Version’s translation of Psalm 131 in my room at the retreat center after I’d gotten ready for the day.

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time on and forevermore.

(Psalm 131, NRSV)

That seemed to be a good fit for the hours ahead. I was preparing for a taste of a life with rhythms and practices and notions unfamiliar to me. I knew the bell calling the community to prayer would ring soon, so I left the room to walk from the retreat house to the oratory to join the brothers for the Office of Readings.

The small card in the pew stated the page numbers for the office in The Liturgy of the Hours and said that today was Saturday of Week I. As the seven resident monks and the scattered guests began praying together, we came to the first text: Psalm 131:

O Lord, my heart is not proud
nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great
nor marvels beyond me.
Truly I have set my soul
in silence and peace.
As a child has rest in its mother’s arms,
even so my soul.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
both now and for ever.

(Psalm 131, The Liturgy of the Hours)

A coincidence? Perhaps. But there’s nothing unplanned about the cycle of the psalms in the Divine Office. What if I’d chosen a different book for my devotions? What if the retreat were on another weekend? What if …?

What did happen is that the same psalm appeared twice to me in the same morning as I was seeking God and His guidance for my life. That’s how this day started for me. Later that same day, while walking from the oratory to the retreat house, another man on the retreat told me he was a Benedictine oblate and explained what that meant to him. That conversation struck me and stuck with me too. When I got home from the retreat, I Googled some more and found out about Sister Phyllis and this chapter. The retreat, that man’s witness, and my exploration became the first steps on my journey to becoming an oblate.

This short story explains why Psalm 131 is special to me. Through it, the Holy Spirit worked to change my life, to lead me down a new path, to guide me to seek admission to this “school for the service of the Lord” (Rule of Saint Benedict, Prol. 45). As a happy consequence, my ears always are perked up to listen for this psalm and my eyes remain vigilant to watch for it in my readings.

Over the past few years, I’ve come to appreciate the depths these brief verses contain within them. Often I find that when I pray this psalm, I am aspiring to a state that does not yet describe my life. When I look unflinchingly at my own actions and thoughts and feelings, I often see that my heart is proud. My eyes are haughty. I am preoccupied with things beyond my control. I drag my soul down into the depths of turmoil. I am restless, kicking against God’s embrace and trying to escape from His lap.

Pride and arrogance, feelings of superiority, self-appointment as judge of others—these are the spiritual challenges I often face. So thank God He guided Saint Benedict to turn to Psalm 131 for the biblical grounding of the first thoughts recorded in Chapter 7 of the Rule, the chapter entitled, “On Humility.” Saint Benedict writes:

Holy Scripture, brethren, cries out to us, saying,
“Everyone who exalts himself
shall be humbled,
and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”
In saying this it shows us
that all exaltation is a kind of pride,
against which the Prophet proves himself
to be on guard when he says,
“Lord, my heart is not exalted,
nor are mine eyes lifted up;
neither have I walked in great matters,
nor in wonders above me.”
But how has he acted?
“Rather, have I been of humble mind
than exalting myself;
as a weaned child on its mother’s breast,
so You solace my soul.”

(RB 7:1–4. The Rule of Saint Benedict, Leonard Doyle, trans.
Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press.)

Here Saint Benedict uses portions of Psalm 131 to reinforce our Lord’s teaching from Luke’s Gospel—those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted. The Rule teaches that pride and humility stand in opposition to one another. So long as I take pride in myself, I cannot be humble. And since our Lord desires for His followers to be humble, like Him, my pride stands in the way of following the Lord.

So, is there hope? How can one who battles with pride, with high regard for oneself at the cost of looking down upon others, be infused with a spirit of humility? Saint Paul tells us the way. He writes to the Church at Rome, saying:

Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.

(Rom. 6:3–4, NAB).

Our baptism makes us participants both in Christ’s death and burial and in the promise of His resurrection to life anew. This is the path of discipleship, the road we follow as oblates, who, like all Christians, seek to live as Christ does.

Saint Paul has another way to describe the trajectory of Christ’s life—and ours. In his letter to the Philippians, he writes:

Have among yourselves the same attitude
that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

(Phil. 2:5–11, NAB)

This helps me to see why humility so often eludes my grasp, why I cannot achieve it on my own. The path of humility that Christ blazes for us is one that we travel only in obedience to Him. It leads inexorably to death. But the good news is this: because we have been baptized into that death and because we live by the promise of new life, we can trust the Father’s promise that we will share in His Son’s exaltation through the working of their Holy Spirit. When the great day dawns, we will bend the knee with all who gather around the throne. We will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

In the meantime, we have Saint Benedict’s Rule to guide us along the path between the font and the grave. He turns to Psalm 131 and advises us to emulate the Prophet, who says,

“Rather, have I been of humble mind
than exalting myself;
as a weaned child on its mother’s breast,
so You solace my soul.”

(RB 7:4).

That is good enough for this mean time in which we live. The Father has delivered us from sin through the waters of baptism; we feed upon His Son’s body and blood in the Eucharist; and, like weaned children, we find solace and nourishment for our souls in the Spirit’s embrace in the arms of Mother Church. Amen.


This reflection was written by David Frye, who made his final oblation in 2009.