Saturday, March 1, 2014

MONKS IN THE MIDDLE

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XTREME MONASTICISM?

I think of myself as a middle-of-the-road sort of person. I exercise, but not to excess. I watch what I eat, but I'm not obsessive about, say, never eating red meat. You could say that I'm a believer in that old Latin adage "In medio stat virtus," "Virtue lies in the middle."

The Rule of St. Benedict is famous for its sense of moderation. One timely example is the chapter "The Keeping of Lent," in which Benedict clearly tries to head off any excesses in Lenten discipline by individual monks. We Benedictines, then, are supposed to have this sense of balance and "moderation in all things," following the Rule's "wise avoidance of extremes."

Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across this passage in an essay by Fr. Michael Casey OCSO (in a different book from the one I cited last week): "Mediocrity is the bane of historic Benedictinism. When much attention is devoted to avoiding extremes, there is a danger that the end-product will be superlatively bland."

When I read that last sentence something inside me shouted "Yes! He's right!"

XTREME EDUCATION?

Recently I've become aware that one of the chief reasons why St. Benedict's Prep has succeeded so well in its mission of educating inner-city boys is that we're always doing extreme things. For instance, yesterday we had all 550 boys in the auditorium for an assembly to watch an interesting 90-minute documentary on the Newark Riots entitled "Revolution '67." We began with our usual praying and loud gospel singing, then the kids took attendance. There were announcements, and a few words of wisdom from the headmaster. Then came the film, after which there was a question-and-answer period with the filmmakers.The kids sat there for three and a half hours without budging, paying fairly close attention the whole time. That's an unreasonably long time to ask a bunch of teenagers to sit still. Kind of extreme. But life's extreme sometimes. Like when two parents have to stay in the emergency room all night with their sick baby.

Earlier in the week the students in the second lunch period were uncooperative with the senior who had
asked them to clean off their tables and pick up stray garbage from the floor around their seats, so all of them had to report back to the caf after school. Too bad if mom was parked outside waiting. Kind of an extreme reaction. But consequences for messing up are often extreme for young black males -- ask any of them in the Essex County Detention Center.

Every freshman must complete his school year by backpacking some 50 miles on the Appalachian Trail in May. Wow! That's almost as challenging as real life!

All of this is rather extreme, but I firmly believe that this wacky extremism is one of our most important characteristics, one that truly sets us apart, and that makes us successful..

Let me re-state Fr. Casey's comment, substituting just two words:

"Mediocrity is the bane of our schools. When much attention is devoted to avoiding extremes, there is a danger that the end-product will be superlatively bland."

Does that sound correct or am I off base on this? At St. Benedict's we've never considered making ourselves into a "normal" high school where the grownups think they run everything (which obviously they don't), and where students know that consequences for their behavior are limited by such reasonable constraints as the administration's fear of parental litigation or grievances from unions or School Board members, or the inflexibility of the after-school bus schedule. (None of these reasonable constraints seem to be aimed at "what's best for the students.")

Of course in our major urban centers we would be ecstatic if we could raise our schools to the level of being "superlativly bland," but that's for another post.

So the next time I'm teaching a novice about the Rule's famous "wise avoidance of extremes" I'll remember to stress not the word "avoidance" nor the word "extremes" but the word "wise." Avoiding extremes is not always the wisest thing to do. It just takes less effort and creates less stress for all involved.

XTREME GOD?

Is your God the reasonable middle-of-the-road type? Are God's demands on you moderate and within comfortable, rational boundaries? Think about what an old rabbi once said:

"God is not nice.   ...   God is not your uncle.  ... God is an Earthquake."


JOIN THE E-PILGRIMAGE!
Morehouse Publishing has just launched a Facebook page designed exclusively for readers of my Lenten book, Pilgrim Road: A Benedictine Journey through Lent. Since the Facebook page was my suggestion, you folks have to help me by either going on Facebook yourself and "liking" and sharing the page or, if you are not on Facebook (I'm not), share this address with all of your friends who might be interested in having some company on the forty days' journey of lent this year. Ash Wednesday is March 5, 2014. Click here to visit the page.

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1 comment:

  1. where doe this quote from Michael Casey come from?

    ReplyDelete