Leading From the Center

Today’s Old Testament reading in the lectionary is taken from Joshua 6:1-14.

It is the story of the famous battle of Jericho, not the well-known part when “the walls came a-tumblin’ down,” but the calm before the storm as the Israelites marched around the city in silence:

“You shall not shout or let your voice be heard, nor shall you utter a word”

Meanwhile, the priests with the ark of the covenant walked between the front and rear guards of the people, leading from the center with the sound of music in the midst of silence:

“The seven priests carrying the seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark of the LORD passed on, blowing the trumpets continually. The armed men went before them, and the rear guard came after the ark of the LORD, while the trumpets blew continually.”

In the same way, it was the monastic mothers and fathers who led the way forward for western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Like the Israelites, they made their seven-fold rounds in prayer. Unlike the Israelites, their task was to preserve rather than destroy: they saved the very best of their culture from destruction. For a thousand years the monasteries were centers of education, hospitality, and healthcare while the rest of western Europe was struggling to survive the dark ages. It is no surprise that the leaders of medieval Europe, from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance, religious and secular alike, mostly had their formation in the monasteries.

Yet the preservation of societal treasures was not the primary mission of the monastic orders. They were not culture warriors by any stretch of the imagination. Their first call was to spirituality and prayer. Like the levitical priests, the monks and nuns made their daily rounds in the Liturgy of the Hours, “leading from the center” with music and silence as the city walls of Rome itself came tumbling down.

This idea of leading from the center with the combined music and silence of prayer goes against everything that industrial capitalism values. Our consumer-oriented economy prizes only that which obtains measurable results by way of traceable means. Even our churches fall into this trap. Just look at our paid staff positions: pastors, sextons, office managers. Within pastoral ministry itself, there are senior administrative pastors, pastors of Christian education, mission pastors, youth pastors, pastors for children and family ministries… when was the last time anyone saw a church with a full-time paid pastor whose primary task on staff was to pray?

Personally, I’ve never seen it and I doubt I ever will. Our culture tends not to value such things. Prayer is something that all parishioners theoretically want their pastors to do, but only when there isn’t something more important to do. Prayer is the first part of a committee meeting to be cut from the docket (save for a quick collect at the beginning and end). One of my seminary professors had a cartoon on his door: a parish priest kneels for prayer in his office while a parishioner pokes a head through the door and exclaims, “Oh good! You’re not busy!”

The one exception to this rule is in the monasteries. These are women and men whose entire lives are given primarily to the task of prayer (St. Benedict calls it “the Work of God”). Not surprisingly, monasticism is probably the least understood and least valued aspect of church life today. In a culture obsessed with money, sex, and power, people (even Christians) cannot fathom why some sisters and brothers would take lifelong vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and devote themselves to prayer. To them, that kind of behavior seems deviant (and it is); they are afraid that it will undermine their way of life (and it does).

I can’t tell how many times I’ve heard people talk about a beautiful nun or a good-looking Catholic priest and say, “What a waste!” as though attractive people had a moral responsibility to make themselves sexually available for the enjoyment of others. Only those who go out of their way to take up this way of life, or at least learn about it, can understand its value.

I am just beginning to learn. As the solo pastor of a small, inner-city parish, I could easily spend my entire day returning phone calls, going to meetings, replacing kitchen tiles, ordering candles, planning potlucks, fundraising, and fixing leaky faucets. I also visit the sick and the dying, write sermons, prepare the liturgy, educate the flock, and advocate on behalf of mental health issues in our community. After five years of ordained ministry, I have yet to reach the end of my to-do list (I’m told it will never happen). In light of this truth, it feels like an act of defiance to set aside the beginning and end of each work day for the liturgy of the Divine Office. All of the previously mentioned tasks, from replacing tiles to writing sermons, take on their truest and best meaning when they are led from the center and surrounded by the act of prayer.

Obviously, I’m not a monk (owing to the vows I’ve already made to the “holy order” of marriage). But I have recently joined the Confraternity of a local Benedictine abbey, which I have committed to pray for, support financially, and visit once a month. I also seek to broadly embody its principles of stability, amendment of life, and obedience through my daily living in the world.

I am only a beginner in this process. Joining the Confraternity represents the first step in following the Benedictine way. It is the step I am taking now and I look forward to seeing where it may lead me in the future. Most of all, I look forward to seeing how this way of spiritual practice will affect my approach to life at home and at work.

For me, the monastery helps me lead from center by being like a still spot on the wall, to which a spinning dancer can return his vision in order to keep from losing his sense of balance. This particular monastery focuses its work on prayer and hospitality (in that order). This community, centered in the brothers at prayer, and its 1,500 year-old font of Benedictine wisdom, is my “spot on the wall.” I don’t go there to “get away” from the pressures of work and ministry; my monthly visits and daily participation in prayer are spiritually centering activities that call me back to the Ground of my own Being, from which the rest of life and ministry can then flow.

In this day and age:

  • when some are beginning to wonder whether ours is a civilization in decline,
  • when those of us who advocate for moral and spiritual values feel quite small and helpless next to the towering stone walls of social injustice,

we would do well to remember the joint witness of the levitical priests and the monastic founders. We would have no hope of overcoming our societal problems if we depended on brute strength, political maneuvering, or bank accounts.

Like the ancient Israelites, we must realize that we are utterly unable to pull down the walls of injustice; we must pray them down instead.

Like the monastics, let us not seek to save our dying culture, but anchor ourselves in the Divine Rock which stands firm forever:

“Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Let us lead from the center with music and silence, faithfully making our daily rounds in the spirit of prayer.

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