Having made my first promises in 2002 (after three years of dallying), next year I will celebrate ten years as a fully professed Benedictine Oblate. I’m sure my Holy Father Benedict is rolling his eyes, and thinking, “Oh, bully, kid, let me get my shoes and I’ll do a jig for you. Have you gotten that Rule down, yet?”
Errr, well, no, Father. Not yet. Especially not that part about receiving all guests as Christ. Let all guest who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, “I came as a guest, and you received Me.” (Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 53).
I became a Benedictine, rather than a Secular Franciscan, because my instincts have always been to the quiet side of life. I have always preferred prayerful contemplation and reading to almost anything else, and my instinct has always run toward the decidedly monastic-to-hermitish over the social. Franciscans, like their Father Francis, are much too jolly and prone toward get-togethers and celebrations. As an Oblate—with my own monastery hundreds of miles away, and no other Oblates living nearby, to my knowledge—there is little chance of my being invited to a mixer.
It’s not that I don’t like people. Generally speaking, I do like people; I think they’re funny, interesting, and mostly well-intended. I just don’t like being around them very much, and increasingly I wish I could communicate with everyone via skype or internet and leave all that physicality behind.
This has nothing to do with love. Whom I love, I love to near-distraction. And I dearly love the people I don’t want to be around. My husband’s family is more “mine” than my own biological siblings ever could be, my nieces and nephews amaze and delight me—and I just don’t understand why I have to get together with them all the time, or why I am having everyone over to celebrate Easter. When my son jokes that our doormat should say “go away,” he’s more right than he realizes.
Hospitality is a substantial part of being a Benedictine, and it is a confusing thing, for me. Once I get the people into my house, I like to serve them good food and wine; I like to laugh with them and share memories, and surprise them with little gifts. Sometimes I’m even sad to see them leave. But until the moment they’ve crossed that threshold, I am negative about the whole endeavor.
And this, I suppose, is the deeper, more hidden reason I am a Benedictine: because the God Who Knows what we need to work on supplies the therapeutic mechanism, in one way or another.
For this, I am grateful; by giving me the balanced Rule, which Benedict himself admits is “nothing harsh or burdensome,” God has not prescribed shock treatment for me; rather, he has allowed my continued evolution from neglected savage into something passably human to progress at a gently decelerated pace. The charges of my oblation—to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and attend to Mass and devotions as much as my station will allow; to visit the sick and help the downtrodden where I can; to adapt my life to the Holy Rule as much as possible—have wrought deep changes to my personality, manner, and understanding and they’ve done it slowly—psalm-line-by-psalm-line, bead-by-bead, volunteer-minute-by-volunteer-minute.
But on this issue of hospitality, I have been as recalcitrant as an adolescent, stomping defiantly out of my comfort zone and into obedience with deep, hair-blowing sighs, dramatic grunts, and the really deplorable whining—“Whyyyyy do I have to doo this? I haaate thiis!”—that would make me ground myself for a week, if only I wouldn’t love that idea so much!
You’d think after ten years of God’s remedial teaching, I would know better than to try to conquer myself with a dose of whimsy and will, but no, I am very thick-headed. Realizing how poorly I have embraced the Benedictine notion of Hospitality, I decided that this Lent I would do something valiant and noble—effect a personal change in my behavior through mere willingness. I was going to “receive everyone as Christ” or die trying.
Two weeks into the effort, I was still avoiding picking up the phone if I could (caller ID is the Devil’s Own Tool), still going to the less-populated masses, still whining whenever I had to open my front door either to admit someone or out forth into the world. I realized that valiant and noble deeds were not the stuff of Lent—that the season calls for a return to the tried-and-true fundamentals over reinvention. Slightly chagrined, I made an adjustment back to the most basic of basics: fasting. Without thinking much about it, I said, “Okay, no snacks. I won’t eat between meals.”
If you had asked me before this how much snacking I did, I would tell you, “Nuthin’ much. . . . I can’t understand why I am having so much trouble losing weight.” But since beginning this fast, I’ve learned how often I would, out of boredom or tension, not hunger, open the fridge and look inside or thoughtlessly grab a cookie. Confronting the difficulty of holding to this simple fast, I have been forced to think about motivation, and anxiety; tension vs. comfort, what it means to self-medicate, and why I feel the need to do so.
And that has caused me to think about what I am “treating” with the eating. The “eat” comes down to the same thing, actually, as my reluctance to “meet-and-greet”: how much of my worst and reflexive self I still hold on to, instead of just kissing all things up to God and moving forward in faith; my need to maintain the illusion that I can do everything wholly by myself when I needn’t, and probably shouldn’t; how all of my little “no’s,” even when they are disguised as reluctant “yeses,” end up creating a barrier between me and the people I love and want to know better—and the God I love and want to know more deeply.
The fasting is fundamental, and the lesson of it is always about surrender, and surrender, of course, is about nothing less than trust. And trust—when we really have it, when we fully give it—is the key to absolute freedom; it is the heart of the learning curve that leads us to “all things work to the Glory of God,” an understanding that dispels fear, relinquishes control, puts away pain.
Why do we have to relearn this every year? Is it because the growth that lasts is the growth slowly cultivated?
If that’s the case, my glacial, imperceptible growth may portend a spectacular garden, someday—one to rival Eden.
And maybe that’s been the plan all along.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.