\We work on communication a lot in our house: naming and processing feelings; asking for what we need; not leaping to conclusions; checking out our assumptions; taking responsibility for our words and actions. It’s not just the kids practice these skills! Grown-ups too! The other day, we were dealing with something that had happened between friends on the playground. It can be so difficult to tell a friend that they’ve hurt you, that you felt left out, and that you want to be treated differently next time. It’s also hard to listen when a friend approaches you with a concern or grievance. It’s natural to get defensive or mad. As far as I know, no one enjoys saying “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong.”
\As the psalmist points out, however, having these challenging conversations is essential to our well-being. Avoiding the truth is torture. When I kept it all inside, my bones turned to powder, my words became daylong groans. Not asking for what we need, not admitting when we’ve done wrong, harms our health—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The pressure never let up; all the juices of my life dried up. An incapacity to engage in the discipline of confession and forgiveness is deathly. The capacity to do so gives life. Sweet relief. Healing release. Then I let it all out; I said, “I’ll make a clean breast of my failures to God.” Suddenly the pressure was gone—my guilt dissolved, my sin disappeared.
I’ve been reading along with our Lenten small group looking at Benedictine Spirituality. Saint Benedict, who lived in the sixth century, wrote a little book simply called “The Rule,” designed to guide life in community. I first read St. Benedict’s Rule in college. My friends and I focused on quoting and re-quoting the most obscure prescriptions of the rule. “No chickens in the monastery!” is one line we found hilarious. However, in her book, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, Sister Joan Chittister emphasizes the enduring relevance of the rule. Chittister writes:
The spirituality that emerges from the Rule of Benedict is a spirituality charged with living the ordinary life extraordinarily well. . . . The rule allows us to discover “how to make here and now, right and holy for us.” . . . Benedictine spirituality teaches people to see the world as good, their needs as legitimate, and human support as necessary. Benedictine spirituality doesn’t call for either great works or great denial. It simply calls for connectedness. (pp.4–6)
Benedictines take a number of vows. One of them is “stability.” Stability means staying where we are, being rooted and connected in community.
In today’s parable from Luke, a family is struggling with a lack of stability. I’m quite sure there’s something more than selfishness and rebellion motivating the destructive actions of the two sons. Something much deeper. Why did the younger son demand his inheritance, treating his father as if he were already dead? The father is often portrayed as a God-like figure. But what if he was just a human being? Maybe he had done something to harm his son. Or maybe he hadn’t, but he and his son didn’t see eye to eye. Perhaps the younger son felt left out. Perhaps he could never measure up, never please his father.
And what did the younger son have in mind when he fled? To cause his family pain? To throw money away? To have total freedom? Perhaps he was actually looking to prove himself. It’s possible he had big plans to have a successful life. And that, little by little, it all went wrong; he made a series of bad choices and people took advantage of him and soon the pile of money he had thought was endless, was gone. What about the older son? What caused him to be so angry and bitter? So hard-hearted and stubbornly unwelcoming? What wounds in his own history, what family or community dynamics were causing him to react this way? Jesus’ parable is a story about how difficult it is to find stability, to be at home where we are. At home in ourselves. At home in our families. At home in community. At home with the earth and our more than human siblings.
Diane Wilson’s novel, The Seed Keeper, tells the story of another family, a family of mixed Dakhóta and white ancestry. When she is very young, the main character, Rosalie Iron Wing, loses both her mother and father. After her parents die, she is stolen away from her family and native community. She’s placed in foster care with white families, and her relatives cannot not find her. Out of a desperate desire to escape a cruel foster parent, she marries John, a white farmer, while she’s still a teenager. Though their relationship is complicated, they come to love each other and raise a son together. After her husband dies, Rosalie reconnects with her native family. From an elderly aunt, she receives the gift of corn seeds saved and passed from generation to generation among Dakhóta women in her family. Preserving the seeds is central to maintaining their identity, their way of life, and their relationship with the land. In the novel, these sacred seeds are contrasted with the genetically engineered seeds produced and patented by corporations, which Rosalie’s husband and son buy and plant on their farm. Near the end of the story, Rosalie reflects:
I thought about John’s struggle to decide which crops to plant on his farm. He thought mostly about the cost, the quantity each variety would produce, the amount of chemicals they would require, and the specific demands of his contract with the ethanol plant. He had never been taught to think about seeds as his relatives, as living beings deserving of loving care. While not intending harm, he had been raised to believe that it was man’s God-given right to “fill the earth and subdue it; to rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky.” I thought also of my son. I didn’t know what he believed in. I was afraid he would follow his father’s teachings, that I had not done enough for him. (pp. 334–335)
This story, too, reminds me how challenging it is to be at home. Whether we are the ones who stole children, took land, and violated seeds, or the ones to whom those things were done, we all carry this trauma in the memory of our genes and it gets in the way of stability, of knowing ourselves and finding our way home. This trauma injures connectedness and complicates the task of making the here and now right and holy.
oan Chittister names humility as a central virtue of life in community. It is humility that enables us to create stability in a world torn by trauma. Chittister acknowledges how difficult it is to define humility in a life-giving way, steeped as we are in a tradition that has often equated humility with humiliation. And yet she says that humility is “the glue of our relationships. Humility is the foundation of community and family and friendship and love. Humility comes from understanding my place in the universe.” (p. 55) Humility, it seems, is a key to stability, to living well in community. Chittister emphasizes that humility is not about denying our own capacities and gifts, or being passive, or keeping quiet. The humble person can celebrate their gifts, can take leadership, can speak up. At the same time, the humble person is committed to an ongoing process of growth. Another Benedictine vow is to engage in “continuing conversion.” To illustrate this point, Chittister shares a story:
“What do you in the monastery?” an ancient tale asks. “Oh, we fall and we get up. We fall and we get up,” the old monastic answers. If we want to grow, self-disclosure and interaction with others are imperative. We admit our weaknesses and limitations and someone else—a friend, [spouse], parent, someone close enough to care about how we develop—guides us through the morass of uncertainties and struggles. . . . We put down all our false images and we become who we are with someone who cares. (p. 60)
In his parable, Jesus made an interpretive comment that has always struck me. He noted a change in the mind and heart of the younger son as this young man sat ignored and alone, starving, scared and hopeless among pigs and their pods in a distant country. But when he came to himself. Coming to ourselves is a process of claiming our full and true of identity. Coming to ourselves means making a turn toward home, belonging, and the stability of community—even while we are still in a state of alienation in a distant country. Coming to ourselves requires humility, the discipline of communication, and the dance of confession and forgiveness, repentance and repair. Coming to ourselves is often a long, uncertain, painful journey. And coming to ourselves is an experience of God, a gift of divine grace and acceptance. As Psalmist puts it: God-defiers are always in trouble. God-affirmers find themselves loved every time they turn around. Amen.