Next Monday, the Feast of St. Benedict, I’ll be renewing my vows at the early morning Mass at my parish church. This has become an annual event. I first asked my pastor—I guess this is seven years ago now—if I might renew them privately with him: show up early; go to Confession; renew; go to Mass. But when I arrived that morning, he suggested that I make my renewal at the Mass itself, right after the Gospel. His idea was that it would not only make it more of a ceremony for me, but that it would also offer the congregation a model of lay committed life. He was right on both counts. There’s something about making the vows publicly, particularly at the Eucharist, that gives the renewal a solemnity more proper to the occasion than a private ceremony would afford. And it does indeed give the congregation something to think about. Even though Fr. Tom explains what I’m about to do, at first they’re not quite sure what’s going on. But as they listen closely to the vow formula, it dawns on them, and after Mass I’m swamped with congratulations and questions (“What was that you just did up there?”), so I get to do my elevator speech on St. Benedict, The Rule, monasticism, oblation, and, of course, Mt. Saviour.
So, in preparation for next Monday, I’ve been doing somewhat of a vocation retreat this week; reflecting on where Benedictine life has brought me thus far; listening for where it’s telling me to go. And otherwise just getting back to basics, part of which has been reading a wonderful book called Seeking God – The Way of St. Benedict by Esther de Waal. It seems to be a classic—or should be—so I suspect many of you are already familiar with it. But it was new to me (Brother Luke steered me toward it when I was at the monastery in May), and has provided exactly the mixture of wise reflection and fresh insight I was hoping for. An early standout: in her chapter on “The Invitation” and specifically in her exploration of the Benedictine vocation as an extraordinary call to utterly ordinary people, she quotes Thomas Merton from something written at the very beginning of his monastic life where he talks about “that concern with doing ordinary things quietly and perfectly for the glory of God which is the beauty of the pure Benedictine life.” I think that “…quietly…perfectly…” may be my mantra for the coming year.
I remember at last year’s Renewal Mass (as you can see, in my mind it’s taken over the whole liturgy), as the time drew near for me to go up on the altar, my heart started pounding and, as I actually made my vows, my voice was shaking. I didn’t quite get it at first. I thought that, since I had been renewing annually for some years now, that it should be, by no means pro forma, but certainly not feel like steering a Piper Cub into a Category 5 hurricane. Looking back, it seemed I was infinitely calmer at my initial profession. And that’s when it hit me: I was getting more and more nervous year by year because I was more and more aware of what exactly I was promising; more aware of what it means to live a life according to The Rule; more aware of what it means to live a life according to the Gospel. And it can be daunting. Overwhelming. Which Benedict knew and addresses with reassurance, encouragement, and fatherly love throughout The Rule, most reassuringly for me in Chapter 4, in which he lists the seventy-four good works we’re supposed to be dedicating ourselves to. At the beginning I usually feel like I’m doing alright (“Oh, I do that one.” “Oh, I kind of do that one.” “Oh, I actually do that one a lot.”), but by the time I hit Number 73, I’m pretty much ready to throw in the monastic towel. And that’s when Benedict hits us with Number 74: “And finally, never despair of God’s mercy.”
And I never will.
Happy Feast, everyone! God bless.