What Crisis Teaches: A Benedictine Perspective
The Great Conversation series began several years ago to convene people around pressing issues of the day. The purpose was not simply to describe an issue, but to explore its meaning in light of the Benedictine tradition. This Conversation, which ends the series as the Center pauses its ministry, focused on the pandemic. What might we learn from a crisis like this in the midst of waves of suffering, confusion, and chaos? Do we endure until the crisis passes or do we take from the experience a lessons that might guide us to a new place?
The framework for this Great Conversation drew on three key Benedictine values: attentiveness, listening, and conversion of life. They are potent values that equip people with the capacity to be always and everywhere a student of the moment. Being a student of the moment requires a disposition to open oneself to learning that can work against the assumptions about what we think will keep us safe as darkness thickens. The assumption often don’t keep us safe. Instead, those precious assumptions dull our eyes from noticing what is happening around us, causing us to stumble blindly into the very obstacles we seek to avoid.
Always We Begin Again
Benedict is a model of how to navigate crisis. He himself faced into the tumult of fifth century Rome. His response was to form a community dedicated to deep immersion in the Gospel and its call to discipleship. That first effort bombed, ending in an attempt by some of his new companions trying to poison him. This might be the source of the Benedictine wisdom saying, “always, we begin again.” Benedict did not abandon his vision but embraced it with greater clarity and intent. The crisis was a moment of refining his understanding of what was needed and strengthening his resolve to step forward more boldly.
With the pandemic, we are in our own moment of beginning again – as individuals, as families, as a society. There are those for whom the crisis and its anxieties are paralyzing. Not everyone has the capacity to “step forward boldly” because they are battling the devastating effects of the virus on their bodies, their psyches, their livelihoods, and their sense of community. So we approach the exploration of lessons-to-be-learned from this crisis with care not to trivialize the experience of those who are barely treading water. For those who can face into the crisis, however, how might the values of attentiveness, listening, and conversion of life prepare us for a new reality?
Noticing the Sacred in the Ordinary
Benedict believed that God is revealed in everything, especially in the ordinary. COVID is far from ordinary, especially the threat it poses for so many in countries around the world. Still, as we pay heed to what is happening, what are people noticing that might otherwise get lost in daily headlines? My conversation partners offered a range of insights. They described discovering that very few things really matter, but those that do, matter a lot. They noted as well changes in their relationships with friends, within families, with God, with their church communities and the inability to take them for granted. This observation is reflected in what one person described as the hollowness of rugged individualism, that we survive because of interdependence and an active spirit of mutual care. Because of the intensity of this moment, we no longer pass over cracks in the system but recognize the gaps in health care and the ugliness of systemic racism. This has underscores for some the importance of our social institutions and their essential role in advancing the common good. Other have watched and admired at how people are finding ways to find creative solutions to the obstacles posed to ways we have gone about doing life. Emphasizing attentiveness is not a palliative move. Rather, it expands our vision to see, even in the midst of the bleakness, light breaking through.
Listen With the Ear of Your Heart
If anyone knows just a smidge of The Rule of St. Benedict, it centers in the idea of listening “with the ear of your heart.” That exhortation is more than hearing the flood of words that wash over us every day. Rather, it is about discerning of what is really being said and taking note of what underlies the noise. “Noise” is the bane of contemporary society generally and more so in this crisis. Everyone has an opinion, rumor is pedaled as truth, no one seems trustable, and anger tends to be the only emotion we hold in common. Listening requires a posture of learning for how else do we cut through the noise to the cries of the heart to what drives us to speak so harshly and often with such despair?
My companions in this Great Conversation raised up some important ideas about listening that can be helpful reminders as we find our way forward. First, to truly listen takes greater and greater intentionality because conversations are often so passionate and the issues so intense. Second, because there is almost always something behind the words (and emotions) we hear, we listen with more compassion and less judgment. Third, because conversations can be so passionate, we find our bearing in the values we hold dear and by our commitment to live into them be how we respond to others. One of the revelations of the pandemic is that listening to others heartfully can enable us to find our way to a place of greater solidity.
Conversion of Life: a Call to a More Faithful Discipleship
Conversion of life, I think, draws strength from the Benedictine wisdom saying, “always, we begin again.” The pandemic has disrupted our patterns and preferences. The casualness with which we could breeze through a day now requires careful planning. How we do church, provide schooling, form and sustain group life, shop and recreate have all shifted. Whether we will ever return to normal as we once knew it is doubtful. We can try, but what the chaos of this moment suggests is that we need to create new ways of doing life more attuned to what we truly value and to what deepens us as individuals and binds us as communities. While being creative in these matters is a delightful idea, it also entails risk. We will try things and fail. We will seek to put in place new processes and practices, and they will wobble and creak. Some will collapse, some can be braced up, and others will gain weight-bearing capacity over time. Trial and error are not the result of not knowing the endpoint. We experiment and pay attention. We try an approach and assess its impact. We always begin again, but wiser each time and, because we believe in God’s grace, we do so with a clearer sense of mission.
Conversion of life in this sense supports us in times of crisis because it grounds us in hope. The best description of hope I know is “believing despite the evidence.” There are a lot of reasons to despair in this moment, wondering whether we can survive as anything but a backwater country, divided, distrustful, and at the mercy of raw power. Conversion of life, because it is a call to more faithful discipleship, positions us to break the bondage of despair and to draw near to each other with a clearer understanding of who we are, what we believe, and what we value. With those in hand, we can envision and make real the lessons of this crisis as they point us to more intentional, interdependent living.