The title of this entry, “Living with Contradiction”, is the title of a book written in the late 1980s or early 1990s by the English mystic Esther de Waal. It is a collection of talks which she gave in 1988 at two different retreats at Holy Cross Episcopal Monastery in upstate New York and at Glastonbury Abbey in England. The retreats were part of a series of “Benedictine Experiences” that brought people together for a period of time to pray, work, study and play according to the pattern of the Rule of St. Benedict, an ancient guide for monastic living that has shaped virtually every Western Christian monastic community past and present.
Each of these “Benedictine Experience” retreats lasted a week, and de Waal writes in the introduction to her book that each week “worked at two levels. It was not only an individual experience in which each participant discovered much about him or herself through this daily balance and rhythm, it was also a shared life, an experience of making community, of learning to accept one another and to live together in love. In this is simply reflected one of the most profound insights of the Rule [of St. Benedict]: unless and until we can live with ourselves, we cannot live with other people. But equally, unless and until we have learnt [sic] to live fully and creatively with others we cannot hope to live with ourselves.”
Later, de Waal goes on to say, “We all stand in need of healing. We are all seeking wholeness. For most of us it is a most urgent and ever-present reality in our lives, one we may perhaps try to bury or neglect but which, if we are honest with ourselves, we find we cannot ignore. We all know also that unless we attend to our inner conflicts and contradictions, not only will we find ourselves torn apart by our inner divisions but also we shall very likely inflict wounds on those around us.”
These two ideas, of the necessity of learning to live with ourselves if we are to live fruitfully with others and of our tendency to inflict wounds on others out of our own unhealed woundedness, are very powerful to me, and ring with a terrible truth in our society. A quick look on the Google News feed this week opens a window onto the on-going violence in the Middle East, news of a professor denied tenure who draws a gun to kill and injure her colleagues, a man with a court date who inexplicably opens fire on middle school students in Colorado, teenagers arrested in Boston for killing a store clerk. And then, of course, there is the on-going shrill screaming of politicians who should be showing us what it means to work together on our shared challenges but instead prefer to do verbal violence to each other in a relentless effort to prove who is “right” or, alternatively, to prove who is most likely to ruin the country. No, one doesn’t have to go far or work all that hard to find the unhealed brokenness of humanity.
I am reminded of some words of Jesus, when he says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12b). It is a statement that reflects an understanding Jesus had of what his mission, in part, was: to heal those who were in need of healing. If Jesus understood this to be a part of his mission, we who are his followers should understand it to be part of ours, as well. What Esther de Waal was describing as “Benedictine Experience” retreats were experiments in living as intentional Christian communities for a period of time. What she recognized as one of the benefits of those experiments were how the intentional rhythms of prayer, study and work in community helped to enable the inner healing of the individual participants which in turn affected the quality of the community which those individuals shared. It seems to me that more permanent Christian communities, like those organized as churches, also have the ability to live with this kind of intention, with the same benefits of inner individual healing that leads to a new quality of shared community.
Such Christian communities can also have an impact on the larger world in which they are located. As we achieve a greater inner wholeness, and experience within Christian community the impact of that wholeness, we are able to notice the lack of wholeness in the larger world, and bring what we experience in our churches to bear on the pain of our society. In another of his teachings, Jesus suggests that his followers can be like yeast added to flour: there is more flour than leavening agent, but the presence of the leaven impacts and changes the flour over time (Matthew 13:13). So, it seems clear that part of our call as Christian people is to be an agent of healing in the world, and to do that, we need to experience that healing ourselves: Christian community should be the place for that to happen.
But Esther de Waal gives us an important insight into how that healing happens and into how it is shared. It does not happen by lecturing people about their moral failures. The Rule of St. Benedict doesn’t image Christian life as a sustained harangue. Rather, the healing happens through an intentional rhythm of prayer, study, work and play, rooted in a sustained awareness of God’s presence, love and grace. It is that very rhythm that opens us up to God, and that nurtures our healing. And when we share that rhythm with others, and live that rhythm among others, it impacts those around us, as well.
The Christian life does not happen by accident, but by intention. And if we live it with intention, not only will we change ourselves, but we may change the world, too.