Entitled “The Monastery,” the show featured the Benedictine Monastery of Worth located in Sussex England. The premise of the program was especially appealing to viewers. Working with the television producers of the show, the twenty or so monks at Worth invited five men to experience the monastery over a six week period. Of the nearly 250 who applied, only five were eventually selected. Curiously, none the five was Roman Catholic, and most of them had little or no experience of organized religion of any kind.
Entering the monastery on day one, the participants all had their presuppositions about what monks and monastic life would be like. They imagined meeting austere, dry and humorless men in black robes who disdained the modern world, preferring instead a medieval world of dark rooms, Latin chants, and silent prayer. When their six week period concluded, however, their perceptions changed. What they found were normal, healthy people who truly felt called to the life they were living. Further, they found a Benedictine community that not only welcomed the outside world, but engaged it in the various ministries the monks undertook. Although the participants noticed the annoyances and conflicts of monastic life, they came to realize that the monks’ consistent life of work, prayer, study and rest was one that was conducive to happiness. For these monks, the life of faith was a healthy balance of caring for their own hearts and caring for the needs of others.
In a world of extremes, it can be challenging to find balance. This is true especially in the life of faith. Held in tension is the need to find both an inward prayerfulness and an outward sensitivity to charity and justice. Looking at scripture as a whole, we find that balance. In fact, both the Letter of James and the Gospel of Mark combine to give us that healthy balance.
In his letter to the early Christian communities, James couldn’t be more word-in-action oriented. Care for orphans. Care for widows. Avoid evil. James isn’t concerned with our “inner world.” For him, Christian faith take shape in the famous Nike slogan: Just do it. For James, actions do speak louder than words. But beyond that, they reveal our faith. Contrast James’ functional approach with that of the gospel. Mark’s gospel has Jesus teaching us that sin and grace affect our inside—our hearts-- well before they reach our words and actions. The message is clear. Inward cleanliness is needed for a life of authentic faith. Indeed, we have to do the dirty work of noticing what is really behind our thoughts and attitudes. Only then do we have the chance of removing the dirt and dust and revealing the shine underneath.
To be sure, we know that each of us favors either the interior or the exterior dimension. Some of us are better prayers than helpers. Some of us are more introspective than outward-looking. But even with our biases, none of us is exempt from either praying well or serving well. If we try to live one dimension to the exclusion of the other, our faith is impoverished. If we look within without looking around, we can fall into a spiritual passivity bordering on narcissism. On the other hand, if we serve others without a grateful or joyful heart, then our good works become nothing more than a list of chores.
You don’t have to be a Benedictine monk to realize the importance of balance. God’s grace affects the pervades the whole of life—inside and out.
©Fr. Tom Mannebach