A Personal Gift From the Monastery

David G. Benner Part 17 of 17

My attraction to monastic life began in my mid-twenties, even surviving my marriage—which was the point when I determined that my own calling was definitely not monastic! I still recall the first time I met a monk. While I was in graduate school, a Cistercian monk spoke at a United Church of Canada congregation I attended. I was deeply touched by what Father Joe had to say, but more by the obviously deep walk with God that was his. He spoke with passion about meeting God in stillness and silence, and about a life of prayer that went much beyond speaking to God. I knew immediately that my response had much to do with his depth and stillness and with my own corresponding shallowness and restlessness.

As is the case for many others, Henri Nouwen was profoundly influential in my growing appreciation of these gifts of solitude and silence. He, in turn, led me to Thomas Merton, who quickly became the spiritual writer who has unquestionably had the biggest impact on my life. And Merton, in turn, led me to his fellow Cistercian brother and close friend, Fr. Basil Pennington, who is known to readers of this journal as one of the founding members of our editorial board. For many years I knew Fr. Basil only through his books, and there was a lot of knowing to be gained in this way, as he wrote more than sixty of them! But in March 2001 I met him while on retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, where he was abbot, and the friendship that resulted from this meeting will remain for me the greatest personal gift from the monastery.

In the years between that meeting and his tragic death on June 3, 2005, I spent many hours in conversation with Fr. Basil and many more in e-mail interaction. Twice we spent a week of retreat together, filling the days with talk as we walked around the grounds of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, where he was living by this time. We often spoke of the challenge of moving from offering prayers to living prayer—that is, making one’s life a ceaseless prayer. Monastic living undoubtedly offers significant advantages in movement toward such a life of prayer, but progress on this journey is as far from automatic for monks as it is for the rest of us.

Fr. Basil knew both the advantages and the challenge well. The deeply internalized rhythms of the monastic life—particularly the Liturgy of the Hours—had come to be an anchor for his spirit and soul. Long practice of centering prayer had taught him to sink quickly into God’s presence in stillness and move out from this with a keener sense of that continuing presence. Lectio divina had, by this stage of his life, become like sitting down to a good meal. Receiving the Word and then allowing it to wash over him as he opened himself to its message was a practice that nurtured his spirit and soul.

Stillness combined with expectant openness and trust was the default position of his life. This was the place to which he returned regardless of whatever might arise out of the openness. And things could certainly be counted on to arise out of openness in silence and stillness. Often it was messages from his inner depths. These he learned to note but then gently release, returning at a later point for prayerful reflection on them (and sometimes dialogue with others). It was, he once told me, like breathing in … pausing … and then breathing out. Breathing in is receiving whatever comes to consciousness. It must be received. To try to reject it is to choke and gag. But then, after a pause, it must be released. To attempt to hold it is like trying to hold one’s breath. You can do it for a short time, but eventually the breath must be released. So, too, it is with the thoughts that come to consciousness in stillness.

This basic posture of receiving his experience in openness—without defensiveness, judgmentalism, or a need to fix it—was the ground of his life. It was this that kept him centered. Without this openness to self, any apparent openness to God would have been seriously limited. He knew this. And he kept himself grounded by living this prayer of acceptance, openness, and trust.

But a centered life is a life of openness to both self and God. And this was where lectio entered the picture. Lectio was the other face of his life of openness to God and self. Again, without one, the other will always be limited. He shared often about his discoveries and insights from lectio. This was the place for conscious work on thoughts that floated to the surface in centering prayer. Here was the place where God spoke through Scriptures and other readings. He sought to make all his reading lectio—never reading simply for information, but rather reading to hear God’s voice. It is not surprising that God answered this prayer of faith and openness. And it is no surprise that lectio was, for him, the complement to centering as each deepened his openness to God and self.

Fr. Basil’s contribution to the discovery (or recovery) of these practices in the last several decades has been immense. His books, articles, and workshops have been the vehicle that brought these practices as gifts of God to many of us. He lived centering prayer. He did not merely practice it. And he lived lectio divina. These became so deeply a part of his life that everything else flowed out of this place of stillness, openness, and attentiveness. I thank God for the personal gift of the monastery that his life represents to me.

David G. Benner
Listen to all parts in this Conversations—Gifts from the Monastery: Silence and Solitude series