Questions to Ponder Alone

What is the capacity for evil within my own being?

What are the lies I tell myself about myself?

What are some of the darknesses of my life that have turned out to be stepping stones leading me toward the light?

Who are the enemies in my life and how can I befriend them without being abused by them?


Questions to Ponder with Others

How can everyday life be the canvas for holy living?

How can time, maturity, and the repetitive practice of daily life help us to become more fully human?

How can stability nurture holiness?

How can a pilgrim lifestyle nurture holiness?


Holy Realism

Benedictine spirituality looks at life in all its joy and sorrows, goodness and pain

Psalm and Process for Meditation

Jars of thingsThe popular wisdom is that the words “[holiness]” and “realism” don’t go together. Holy people, like poets, are dreamy and sentimental. Never get places on time. … Holy people are not of this world. [They are not real about life.] Their mind is always on higher things, including perhaps the old pie in the sky.

My goal today is to overturn [these] false notions of holiness, for I believe that it surfaces in human beings precisely when we are being most realistic, most grounded, most down to earth. Holiness is never fussy or sentimental. Neither is a good poem; it’s ultimate realism. My evidence for this belief is that holiness endures, persistent as a weed through the depredations of all the ages, throughout all the terrors that we human beings can inflict on each other and have inflicted over our history on this earth. Holiness prevails, and poetry. Religion and poetry are among the most ancient of human activities, predating even agriculture. And battered as they are today by secular indifference or co-optation … by legalism, fundamentalism, or terrorism, by right-thinking ideologies, [or] tyrants; religion and poetry are with us still, still witnessing to hope at the dawn of the 21st century. Both holiness and poetry [may seem] anachronistic, … [but they are] peculiar forces with a life of their own in the face of the dog-eat-dog world we know too well, and as necessary as breath, giving us the hope that evil does not have the last word.
[Another] point about holy realism is that it is grounded in the present, in the real world, and especially not in our heads. We have in our society so many temptations to live in our heads. We’re constantly invited to live our lives through the carefully packaged lives of celebrities, even people who are famous only for performing some infamously stupid or vulgar act. We might imagine ourselves in the glossy magazine ads. Our lives would be centered on a purse or a pair of sandals. We see a dress in a store window lit as if it were an object of devotion in a church. Holy realism rejects these false images of the world and human life, and it reminds us of who we really are.

I believe that we need poets … and we need religion to keep bringing us to our senses. I recently read a fine book by Garret Keizer entitled The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin, in which he suggests that the recent phenomenon of road rage in America is a good example of anger that results from our living in our heads, from our exaggerated subjectivity. Like many forms of quick trigger anger, road rage is ultimately, as Keizer says, “a loss of reality. Both the perceived offense and the response to it are completely out of proportion.” It’s ultimate narcissism, just one example in our culture where we could all use a good dose of humility and to sort of adopt what I think of as the ultimate Benedictine attitude, to say, “Well, who am I? I'm a mere mortal, like the person who just cut me off in traffic.”…

Holy realism asserts that life does matter, how we live it matters. It’s not willing to accept … that the endless daily drudgery is all there is to life. Holy realism takes a stand for awe and wonder and beauty even in the midst of ordinary daily activities. That is asceticism to me, I think. In a prose piece, [poet] Kate Daniels … writes of a burgeoning poem that she was forced to set aside, in a typical day of teaching, and couldn’t get back to [that] night because her children and her husband were coming home and had to be fed. “Like me,” she wrote, “they are tired and over-stimulated. The events of the day are clamoring inside them. The good events want to be shouted out, the bad see the inside or are precipitously acted out in ferocious sibling wars. We have all come home to each other to be healed and hailed, to be soothed as a victim, chastised if a perpetrator, and morally realigned. But we are so tired and we lash out in irritation, frustration, anger.” That sounds very familiar to me. In the midst of chaos in her kitchen, the children doing homework are littering the floor with paper scraps, the dog overturning the garbage pail, Kate Daniels takes a stand. “Try as I may, and I do, I have a hard time browning the ground turkey I'm planning to mix with canned spaghetti sauce for the glory of God. I try to find the poetry that exists even here.I know that God is here but in the chaos and the noise, I can’t seem to find Him.

Now this is a woman who can find God in the midst of changing a diaper, so we know she’s morally realigned and very strong. But now in that kitchen she feels bereft of any consolation. And I connect with that very much. I don’t have children, but I have been a caregiver for my husband for about three or four years. And so I really do understand that you sense that God is there but you really can’t find God. … But even the fact that Kate Daniels or I am aware of the absence of God is a form of holy realism. We can have faith and hope that there is something better than the ordinary pains and frustrations of life. Holy realism is grounded defiantly in the daily chores of life.…

Our culture, of course, is overloaded with data. It’s wanting in meaning. It tempts us to indifference and unhealthy detachment. We don’t really want to pursue even our evil thoughts or our good thoughts to find out where they could lead. We get shortchanged. The ancient monks spoke of the temptation of … indifference, not caring, as being tempted to look outside of one’s cell to see if the other monks were up to anything. Our modern day equivalent may be turning on CNN. But the temptation is the same. And the result is also the same, not caring, indifference. The holy realist is aware of this and knows all too well that temptation to indifference, but he or she resists, asserting that life does have meaning, life is worth caring about, and how we live it matters. …

Holy realism knows that life is worth living in any season. It counters that silly T-shirt I sometimes see: “Life is a bitch and then you die.” Holy realism knows that life is both gift and struggle, and then we die, each one of us. And we can’t begin to imagine the good things that God has in store for us then.

Benedictine [monastics] … really live immersed in the Psalms and Scripture so that death and even darkness come to be, if not acceptable, … at least seen in light of faith.

Kathleen Norris
Trinity Institute Benedictine Spirituality Conference, 2003

Most of us arrive at a sense of self … only after a long journey through alien lands. But this journey bears no resemblance to the trouble-free “travel packages” sold by the tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage—“a transformative journey to a scared center” full of hardship, darkness and peril.

In the tradition of pilgrimage, those hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself. Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost —challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for the true self to emerge. If that happens, the pilgrim has a better chance to find the sacred center he or she seeks. Disabused of our illusions by much travel and travail, we awaken one day to find that the sacred center is here and now—in every moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep in our hearts.

Parker Palmer
Let Your Life Speak

Darkness is the winter of the soul, the time when it seems nothing is growing. But winter, we know, is the fallow time of year. Winter is the time when the earth renews itself. And so it is with struggle. Unbeknownst to us, struggle is the call and the signal that we are about to renew ourselves. Whether we want to or not. …

…Struggle is what forces us to attend to the greater things in life, to begin again when life is at its barest for us, to take the seeds of the past and give them new growth.

Joan Chittister
  Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, 38-40.

The process of struggle is the process of the internal redefinition of the self. … When our expectations run aground of our reality, we begin to rethink the meaning and shape of our lives. We begin to rethink not just our past decisions but our very selves. It is a slow but determining deconstruction of the self so that the real person can be reborn in us, beyond the expectations of others, even beyond our own previously unassailable assumptions. …

Struggle is always an invitation to a new life that, the longer it is resisted, the longer we fail to become who we are really meant to be.

Joan Chittister
Trinity Institute Benedictine Spirituality Conference, 2003

Holy realism… [also] witnesses to [the existence of] evil. And … it can witness convincingly to evil precisely because it understands that enemies are real. That’s anathema in America these days because we all want to be friends. At the extreme, this attitude can be summed up in a sign that I saw at a recent peace rally: “Saddam Loves You.” Well, the evidence is that Saddam loves no one but himself, and even that is a dysfunctional relationship. Contrast that silly thing, “Saddam Loves You,” with a passage from Life Together, which is a little book that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the Christian community in an underground seminary in Nazi Germany. He writes, “Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. And at the end, all his disciples deserted him. On the cross, he was utterly alone surrounded by mockers. So the Christian too belongs within the thick of foes.” He [also] quotes some Luther: “The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies, and who will not suffer this does not want to be of the kingdom of Christ. He wants to be among friends.” Well, it’s tricky, isn’t it, to think of enemies. And of course, we all have to begin by saying the worst enemy is within. But I think we do also have important witness, both in the Scriptures and in poetry, to evil, to what enemies do. …

What is a Christian to do when we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves, commanded to love our enemies? There are situations in which making nice does no good and begins to do harm. As Garret Keizer insists, anger, righteous anger in the Biblical sense, not selfish, self-aggrandizing anger, can break through denial and lead to the prayer of forgiveness that makes anger no longer necessary, [even] perhaps the concept of an enemy.

But the question nags, how can I pray for my enemy? We need to be, first of all, suspicious of our own motives and keep a close watch on ourselves. “But if I truly love my neighbor as myself,” Keizer insists, “I am not looking for victory but a radical change of heart. It is love that impels me to pray for my enemy while fully intending to do everything in my power to oppose him. I intend to prevent his abuse,” he writes, “from destroying us both.”

Kathleen Norris
Trinity Institute Benedictine Spirituality Conference, 2003

Now probably the most valuable tool that Benedictines employ … in their spiritual warfare is the daily reading of the Psalms. They don’t allow us to escape the hard questions of good and evil in human life. As C.S. Lewis writes, “When we’re in the ancient world of the Psalms, we’re also in the world we know, with lies, betrayals, violence, and even massacres.”

…The tyrant du jour may seem to have all the power, but the Psalms teach us that justice matters more and it endures.

Kathleen Norris 
Trinity Institute Benedictine Spirituality Conference, 2003

Surely evil cannot be any more vile than the face it showed during the holocaust. Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka stand as searing reminders of the depth of human corruption. As Elie Wiesel, another survivor of the holocaust, continually reminds us, such horror should never be forgotten. Any religion that cannot acknowledge such bitter fruits of human sin is not worth believing. For only if we admit the rank horror of evil can we hope for a God and a faith strong enough to redeem it.

Lee Ramsey
"The Pianist"