13th. Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 2, 2017
2 Kings 4:8-17, Romans 6:12-22 3, Matthew 10:40-42
This morning, I’m afraid I may be accused of trying to curry favor with the Sisters. My encounters with today’s readings have moved me to chew on two of the core Benedictine values: hospitality and stability. These values are foundational for many of us; directly for those of us who are oblates of this monastery, and indirectly for all of us who worship here and are nourished by the atmosphere of this place. The spirit of St. Benedict and his Rule is in the air here and, at least for me today, that spirit is especially alive in our reading from the Hebrew Bible. So, as just an amateur Benedictine, I’m going to walk out on a thin, wobbly limb and reflect a bit on some aspects of Benedictinism: what it means to me and what it might mean for all of us…and how it exemplifies and is underpinned by some deep truths of our Christian life.
In our reading from the second book of Kings, we have some scenes that clearly exemplify the virtues of hospitality and stability. The hospitality of the nameless Shunammite woman is apparent. She begins by providing the prophet Elisha with regular meals whenever he visits, and then moves on to convincing her nameless husband to put a spare room onto their house, so that Elisha has a room of his own when he visits. Now, some husbands might cringe at the suggestion of adding a new task to the “home improvement” list (I’m not saying who!), but we hear no complaints from the Shunammite husband. Elisha responds to this hospitality by offering to put in a good word for the hospitable woman with the powers that be. The woman says in response, “I live among my own people.” This response shows the depth of her commitment to hospitality. She gives graciously to Elisha, expecting nothing in return. Her reply also expresses a commitment to the value of stability. In saying “I live among my own people,” the Shunammite woman not only is eschewing any desire for recompense for her gracious hospitality, she also is expressing her commitment to her life as it is and where it is; and to those with whom she shares it. She has no interest in the surface attractions of the goodies she might receive from the king or the commander of the army. Instead, she remains constant and faithful to her life where it is. She is right in line with the masters of the contemplative life who tell us that there isn’t anywhere to go. Everything is right here, right now. The Shunammite woman’s vow of stability reminds me of the story told by the poet Gary Snyder about Florence Edenshaw: a contemporary elder of the Haida people of the Pacific Northwest. A young anthropologist who had interviewed her extensively was impressed with her calm presence and dignity. The young woman asked Mrs. Edenshaw, “What can I do for self-respect?” and Mrs. Edenshaw replied, “Dress up and stay home.”
The unexpected, invisible result of the Shunammite woman’s hospitality and stability is to be blessed with fertility, which I would amplify to include generativity, and creativity. Staying home–that is, remaining faithful and clear to ourselves–and being all dressed up–that is, being open to receiving and responding graciously to whatever the world presents–she blossoms and bears fruit. As with so many important lessons in our lives, this lesson is both very simple and very difficult. It’s difficult because it is unmanageable, unfamiliar, unpredictable. Stability….staying put, staying faithful to where and who we are, means having to deal with and accept ourselves…ALL of ourselves. Hospitality…being dressed up, being open to welcoming and receiving whatever and whoever is presented by the world, means giving up our efforts at control over our circumstances. The Benedictine-Camaldolese monk, Bruno Barnhart says it very well: “We humans prefer a manageable complexity to an unmanageable simplicity.”
A complex instability is our typical default setting. Restless with where and how and who we are, we think we need to be somewhere else, or live some other way, or be someone else. We dream up all sorts of alternative versions of our lives and of our selves, and pursue them, without paying real attention to where and how and who we actually are. We expend great effort in trying to get “there,” while what we most need to work at is trying to get “here”…feeling safe and secure in the simple, unmanageable, groundless depths of our own hearts.
And then there is that complex inhospitality that we so often busy ourselves with. In our efforts to control our experience, we put up all manner of complicated walls, visible and invisible shields, subtle barriers and defenses, all in the effort to guard ourselves; to protect ourselves against the unpredictable, ever-changing flow of life, both within and without. Instead of relaxing and welcoming the ceaseless stream of unexpected opportunities that flows around and through us every moment, we exhaust ourselves in vain efforts to bring the stream under our control; we try to make life predictable, manageable, controllable. As a contemporary Zen teacher puts it with wonderful concreteness: we stand in the shower under an open umbrella!
The puzzling thing about all this is that we know it. We all know that things are never anything other than what they are; that how we wish things to be is not how they are. We all know that we are never anyone other than who we are. Also, we all know that our life, our experience, is beyond our control; that rarely do we make good things happen the way we plan, and we almost never are successful in preventing bad things from happening. The umbrella leaks, no matter what we do. We pretty much know all of this to be true, but, alas, we forget it. Carried away by our desires, our fears, our ignorance, we forget these simple truths and press on with our programs for improvement and control. What would help us remember? The perennial answer is prayer and good works. Sounds pretty simple and pretty wise to me. I see no reason to depart from an answer that has been voiced for millennia by our Christian ancestors and by the ancestors in all the great world religions.
The answer is, in other words, PRACTICE. Like a basketball player every day practicing free-throws, or a musician every day practicing scales, over and over, we try to act consciously and mindfully, usually against the grain of our desires and fears. Returning to this intention, over and over, we gradually, little by little, turn ourselves naturally toward stability and hospitality. Yes, we inevitably fall asleep in forgetting, but we also eventually wake up to moments of loving awareness of ourselves and others. Our humility (another key Benedictine value) is in accepting this reality and continuing, however imperfectly. When they were asked what they did all day out there in the desert, the desert fathers and mothers used to say: Well, we fall down and get up…we fall down and get up. In the end, there is nothing special about it. This is the simple, unmanageable, and sometimes surprisingly fertile reality of our lives if we are faithful to the Christian path. There is nothing to do that is more exotic than to make …a small…chamber with walls, and put there…a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp…and welcome with open arms the next Christ who comes through the door.