A few weeks after my baptism, the rector of my parish suggested that it was time for me to try a retreat in a monastery, and pointed me toward a place called (unpromisingly) Mt. Calvary. When I asked him what one did on a retreat, he refused to tell me, and instructed me just to go and see.
So I made my reservations and, on the appointed day, went creeping up the hairpin turns of a narrow road that snaked up the mountains of Santa Barbara, California, a cliff on one side, a sheer drop on the other, until, at the peak, the cliff went away and I inched fearfully across a narrow span bordered by a thousand feet of emptiness. The monastery lay before me, an improbable paradise of graceful architecture, paintings and furnishings from the Spanish mission period, gardens shining silver in the sun, fragrant with lavender, sparked with hummingbirds: over all, a silence of deep peace and rest. The monks showed me to a small room with a window overlooking coastline and mountains; then the bell rang for chapel.
It took me about three minutes to learn a fundamental truth about the place: these monks couldn’t chant worth a darn. They sat there in voluminous white robes, singing flat in rhythms that hastened and faltered. They looked like they were having a marvelous time. For me, raised with the usual perfectionism of a young woman in the United States, it was a revelation.
Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, the sixth-century monk whose rule has been foundational for monasticism in the West, and is now recognized as a wise guide for non-monastic Christians as well. While the spiritual authorities of his time envisioned lives of rigorous perfectionism, Benedict wrote for beginners, for people who were just trying to learn to follow Jesus. He wrote for people like us: people who try and fail, who try again and fail again, who need to be encouraged, prodded, and kicked in the behind; for people who sing off-key and try to linger in bed when the chapel-bell rings, who want better food and sometimes quarrel, yet who have heard in their hearts the lovely threnody of God, just beyond the reach of their earthly ears.
Above all, Benedict does not claim that it will be easy to follow Christ. It will not be easy because it will be real-world. Holiness will not lift us into a place of grace and ease, at least not in this life. It is to be sought among the pots and pans of the kitchen, the dirt of the fields, the tedious labor of reciting psalms, day after day, one hundred fifty of them each week. For Christ does not come to perfect people in perfect places. He comes to make us beautiful, comes to us where we are, as we are, that we may come where he is, as he is.
Thanks be to God!
(For another look at monks, follow this link: