Dear monks, artists, and pilgrims,
During this Jubilee year of sabbatical we are revisiting our Monk Manifesto by moving slowly through the Monk in the World retreat materials together every Sunday. Each week will offer new reflections on the theme and every six weeks will introduce a new principle.
Principle 7. I commit to a lifetime of ongoing conversion and transformation, recognizing that I am always on a journey with both gifts and limitations.
Conversion in monastic tradition is never a once-and-for-all event. Instead it is always a process of unfolding, ripening, emerging, arising. I like to think about this commitment to conversion as always being surprised by God, always remembering that God’s imagination is far greater than our own. Or in David Whyte’s words, through conversion we commit to opening our eyes again and again, seeing what is deep below the surface of everyday life. We let ourselves be moved by something unexpected, a momentary awareness of beauty or grace.
Do you ever have those moments when you are suddenly caught in the emotion of a past story you thought you had worked through already? “That again?” You might ask yourself. But the expectation that we somehow work through an issue and then are done with it is a very linear way of approaching life, when I would suggest our experience is much more of a spiral. We come around again and again to the very same things that cause us to stumble, but each time we see them from a new perspective.
As monks in the world, we are always on the path, always growing, we never fully arrive and so we always have more to learn. Being a monk in the world is not something we simply become once and for all. It means being committed to the process of discovery, it is the ongoing transformation of a lifetime. St. Benedict in his Rule writes “always we begin again.” These are four of my favorite words. Buddhism has a similar idea called Beginner’s mind. We recognize that we are always a beginner in life. When we think we have everything figured out, cynicism and cleverness clouds our vision.
Conversion calls us to a radical kind of humility, where we recognize that we simply do not know, we aren’t in control, that at the heart of everything is a great Mystery. Only when we surrender to that kind of radical unknowing can we be transformed. Only when each moment of life breaks us open with wonder and awe are we on the way.
The poet David Whyte writes: “What you can plan is too small for you to live.” He goes on to say that the moment we begin our planning each morning there is an opening to grace which closes.
When we focus on planning we miss the opportunity to discover new directions. We rely solely on our own agenda and goals for life.
Part of the monk’s path is cultivating what I call an organic spirituality, one where we practice deep listening so we can attune to what is next, where is the energy and grace calling us in this moment of my life and can I release my grip on the path I think I should be taking enough to hear this new possibility?
This is one of the reasons I am drawn to the practice of the expressive arts. Art-making becomes a pilgrimage or path of discovery. As I listen each moment to the creative impulse, I let go of what I think whatever I am creating should look like. I let go of my orientation toward creating a beautiful product and let the journey take me where it will. This is a wonderful way to practice this for life as well.
As a Benedictine Oblate I have made a commitment to live out monastic values and practices in my everyday life. Perhaps one of the most profound values for me is humility. Humility does not elicit much awe or admiration in our culture. It is a value that seems outdated in our world of self-empowerment and self-esteem boosting, negating much of the me-first values that our culture holds so dear.
Some of the reservations about humility are legitimate, especially for women. Abuse of humility can encourage passivity, low self-worth, and be used as a tool of oppression, imparting fear, guilt, or an abiding sense of failure, in an effort to remind people of their proper “place” and keeping them from rocking the boat or challenging institutions or those who hold power. There is also such a thing as false humility, when someone denies how good they are as a means to make themselves look even better.
The word humility is derived from humus which means earth. Humility is at heart about being well-grounded and rooted. Humility is also about truth-telling and radical self-honesty. It is about celebrating the gifts we have been uniquely given in service of others, as well as recognizing our limitations and woundedness.
Humility means to be profoundly earthed and to face up to truth about our human condition. Humility demands that we also celebrate our blessings as a part of truth-telling. It teaches us to recognize that our gifts are not of our own making but are gifts we receive and held in trust to give to our communities. Our gifts are not for ourselves alone. We are called to create not for our own satisfaction, but to participate in the co-creation of a more just and beautiful world.
Honoring our limits as creatures can be deeply liberating. Giving up our demanding inner perfectionism can be freeing. How often do I resist beginning a creative project because of my fear that it will not live up to the image in my mind? Humility invites me to release those expectations and enter into the call of my gift knowing that it may look very differently from my imagining. Recognizing our flaws in gentle and compassionate ways can bind us closer to others. We must have patience with the unfolding of our lives and the world. God’s kingdom unfolds in God’s own time. We discover that we are not solely responsible for saving the world. Acknowledging our limits, can liberate us from our compulsions and frantic busyness and lead us towards recognizing our interdependence. Each of our gifts contributes to the whole.
Humility is also about welcoming in those experiences which create a sense of resistance in us. Those places in say scripture text which make us wrestle are often the ones that bear the greatest fruit in terms of revealing our own hidden places of resistance and fear. The same can be said of the creative process, the thing we most fear doing has perhaps the most to teach us about our own places of restriction and block. Humility invites us to embrace the challenges as doorways toward deeper understanding of ourselves and God.
Humility is deeply rooted in the beginner’s mind I already mentioned. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes:
"If the Angel deigns to come it will because you have convinced her, not by tears but by your humble resolve to be always beginning; to be a beginner."
Bringing the mind and heart of a beginner to our lives helps us to discover the wisdom inherent in each moment. When we let go of our desire to be clever or successful or create beautiful things we may begin to open to the sacred truth of our experience as it is, not how we want it to be.
Wonder is at the heart of conversion, letting ourselves be moved by life, letting ourselves be surprised by God, letting ourselves be open to the grace of the moment.
Expectation can preclude the opportunity for discovery. When we try to reach a goal, we become fixated on it and we miss the process. Beginner’s mind is the practice of coming to an experience with an openness and willingness to be transformed. Art is one way to reconnect us with our childlike sense of wonder. When we engage art as prayer we can remember that play is also an act of prayer, praising God out of sheer delight. We can learn to take ourselves – our art and our spirituality – a little less seriously.
Thanks for spending this time with me pondering how you might invite conversion into your own life. In part two of this month’s reflections I invite you into a guided experience of lectio divina, or sacred reading. Blessings to you on the monk’s path.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Photo © Christine Valters Paintner