The following article was recently published in St. John’s Abbey Banner
We could all use a bit of levity and laughter these days, so I hope you enjoy it! You can read it online (click the link above), or the text is copied below
Several of the most influential teachers in my life have passed from this earthly life in the past two years: Fr. Mark Thamert, OSB; Abbot Joseph Boyle, OSCO; Fr. Thomas Keating, OSCO; and Ram Dass. Three of these men committed their lives to following Benedict’s Rule. All of them instilled in me a deep desire to seek God in a contemplative manner of life, while engaged in the daily demands of family, career, and community.
In my daily meditation (Centering Prayer) I hear their laughter, a child-like giggle, that rings in my mind from each of these teachers. They each possessed what Ram Dass calls “rascalliness,” which he recommends as one of the most important qualities in a spiritual teacher. While these teachers took the search for God seriously, they did not take themselves seriously. Nor did they take my little dramas and insignificant anxieties seriously. What they did take seriously is the suffering that my ego’s dramas create (for me and others); but they refused to reinforce my narrowly self-centered interests and frustrations. By being rascals, by laughing at my needless suffering, they provided a wonderful gift; they gave me permission to stop being so hard on myself, to lighten up, and to allow God to work in rascally ways. Mark, Joseph, Thomas, and Ram Dass embody a kind of “light-gravitas”; gravitas to draw my focus to what is important (seeking God and loving others), and levity to lower the volume on everything else.
This gift of “gravitas-levity” recently provided me a way to reframe a problem I was having at work. Two other colleagues and I were assigned to a team to work on several long-term, complex problems within our organization. All three of us were relatively new to our positions. We eagerly went to work, but we never defined what success would look like for our team. Meanwhile, we were becoming increasingly frustrated with the many organizational challenges we faced while trying to facilitate an organization culture shift. I also noticed that we were starting to turn our frustrations against each other. As my stress level began to reach a boiling point, I recalled Benedict’s strong condemnations against grumbling and complaining as detrimental to community and collaboration:
But as for coarse jests and idle words… these we condemn everywhere with a perpetual ban.
(RB Ch. 6, v. 8)
Inspired by the Rule’s insight into the caustic nature of “coarse jests,” I challenged myself and our team to return to our shared sense of purpose and good will toward each other. We have not dropped our bad habits over night, but we have recommitted to supporting each other, to clearly defining our goals, to not taking ourselves so seriously, and to working from a more centered space of patience and compassion.
Contemplative practices and values have powerful implications in the professional and personal lives of those of us who live outside the walls of the monastery. I am encouraged by the giggling rascals – Mark, Joseph, Thomas, and Ram Dass – who keep calling me back to creatively living the life of a Benedictine Oblate in the world.