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MONASTIC CHARISM OF PEACEMAKING
PAST AND PRESENT:
MOVEMENT FROM FEAR TO LOVE

Anne McCarthy, O.S.B.

It is an honor and privilege to present at the ABA on peacemaking. I have spoken and led trainings on nonviolence, but this is the connection that matters most to me-our Benedictine monastic charism and nonviolence. (And preparing for this session helped me. Every time I thought of it, I panicked, which helped me to focus on fear and its role in the world.) That's really how I got to the title, "Monastic Charism of Peacemaking Past and Present: Movement from Fear to Love."

When Mary Lou Kownacki wrote her groundbreaking book Peace is Our Calling for the sesquimillennium in 1980,1 the question of the relationship between peacemaking and monasticism was novel, shocking. It hit the wall of familiar stereotypes. Today, the connection is assumed, taken for granted even. But I believe there has been an essential link between peacemaking and monasticism from the outset, in both the past and the present. The link is the essential gospel movement from fear to love. It is the same movement essential to nonviolence and to monasticism. As Benedictines, we have a response to fear for our time that is of the gospel, that is deep, helpful and effective. It is a message needed now, especially in our frightened nation.

I hope this concept map first alerts you not to expect an outline. This afternoon, we will dance around a circle whose center is the movement from fear to love. This map may help you to follow the loop. My hope is to offer a few stories, examples, questions and challenges that will deepen both the discussion and the action that already engage us.

Focus on Fear

We focus first on fear. Our nation is locked in fear and locked in violence. Barry Gasser's recent best-selling book, The Culture of Fear,2 details and then debunks the most rampant fears in our society. For example, he points out that between 1990 and 1998, the murder rate fell by 20% but the number of murder reports on network newscasts increased by 600% in the same time period.3 The fear that captivates us as a nation is usually both irrational and exaggerated, though there is some basis in reality. And it controls us. It fuels tremendous violence and horrible suffering. We are aware of the images from today in Falujah, in Darfur, in the Congo, of children in our cities. . . .

Antony, the first famous hermit in the early Christian Egyptian desert, modeled a response to the fear of his day. When Antony went into the desert, he was walking into the place of greatest danger. The dead were buried in the caves in the desert.

Therefore, the desert was the place of death and the place of demons. It was the place most to be feared. Until Antony. Antony went into the desert, into a cave, a tomb, into the midst of the demons. He walled himself in with them so he wouldn't run away. He moved toward the source of fear and made it his home. His solitary life in a grave was the strongest Christian faith claim he could make in his age: death was overcome by Christ. Because of Christ, Antony could live in a grave without fear, and instead of being swallowed by demons or death, he thrived and gave constant praise to God. Others were amazed, stunned, and drawn to follow this outrageous and courageous model. Many, many years later, the monastic project we live has the same core. The monastic experiment is still to move toward fear and from there live a life of love. And, I believe the past and the present monastics model this movement and so model nonviolence.

The Violence System: Fight or Flight (Accommodation)

Fear is the foundation of the violence system. We have to understand how violence and fear work in order to move beyond them.

Violence is emotional, verbal or physical behavior that dominates, diminishes, or destroys ourselves or others.4 A threat or perceived threat elicits a fear response of violence. We respond in one of two ways: fight or flight. We attack or we run away. The "fight" part of the violence system is easy to understand: I hurt you in order to convince you not to hurt me. I hurt you until you say "uncle" and I win.

The response of flight, or running away, in the violence system is not as clear. It can take many forms. It can be actually/physically running away. Or we can flee in a different sense by accommodating to the violence. On a global level, a nation that accommodates might obey sanctions imposed, submit to occupation, give over their resources or pay a huge penalty to gain "peace." On a personal level, flight accommodation can be submitting to oppression or placating to deter a threat. The key word is submission with all trappings: silence, obedience, and humiliation. Fear of losing friends, position, influence can keep us in unhealthy silence or obedience. We all know, I think, what that feels like.

The Nonviolence System: Stop the Violence, Reach Out to the "Enemy"

In the nonviolence system the foundation is love. In nonviolence, a threat, or a perception of threat, is met, not with fight or flight, but with compassionate action for justice. An illustration of nonviolence is the simple two hand gestures:

  1. The first hand stops the violence/oppression;
  2. The second hand reaches out to the "opponent," the "enemy."

An excellent illustration of the two hands of nonviolence comes right from our tradition; or, until recent scholarship, I thought it was part of our tradition. But no matter who wrote them or who they might actually be about, the Life and Miracles of St. Benedict in the Dialogues of Gregory contain stories that have been passed on as important to Benedictines. So we use them-especially if they fit. We can ignore the troubling ones as not really by Gregory or about Benedict. One such story is that of Benedict, Zalla and the captive-or as it is titled in The Dialogues, "A glance from the saint sets a captive free."5

In the days of King Totila one of the Goths, the Arian heretic Zalla, had been persecuting devout Catholics everywhere with the utmost cruelty. No monk or cleric who fell into his hands ever escaped alive. In his merciless brutality and greed he was one day lashing and torturing a farmer whose money he was after. Unable to bear it any longer, the poor man tried to save his life by telling Zalla that all his money was in the Abbot Benedict's hands. He only hoped his tormentor would believe him and put a stop to his brutality. When Zalla heard this, he did stop beating him but immediately bound his hands together with a heavy cord. Then, mounting his horse, he forced the farmer to walk ahead of him and lead the way to this Benedict who was keeping his money.

The helpless captive had no choice but to conduct him to the abbey. When they arrived, they found the man of God sitting alone in front of the entrance reading. "This is the Abbot Benedict I meant," he told the infuriated Goth behind him.

Imagining that this holy man could be frightened as readily as anyone else, Zalla glared at him with eyes full of hate and shouted harshly, "Get up! Do you hear? Get up and give back the money this man left with you!" At the sound of this angry voice the man of God looked up from his reading and, as he glanced toward Zalla, noticed the farmer with his hands bound together. The moment he caught sight of the cord that held them, it fell miraculously to the ground. Human hands could never have unfastened it so quickly.

Stunned at the hidden power that had set his captive free, Zalla fell trembling to his knees, and, bending his stubborn, cruel neck at the saint's feet, begged his prayers. Without rising from his place, Benedict called for his monks and had them take Zalla inside for some food and drink. After that he urged him to give up his heartless cruelty. Zalla went away thoroughly humbled and made no more demands on this farmer who had been freed from his bonds by a mere glance from the man of God.

This is one of my favorite images of lectio-Benedict absorbed in reading and, at the same time, available, listening to the word and listening for the cry of the poor, just as he wants his porter to do.

Benedict's role in this story models the two hands of nonviolence. His first act is the first hand of nonviolence: he sets the captive free. The violence is stopped. The chain binding the abused peasant is broken. The fearsome ranting of Zalla does not distract Benedict; his gaze goes right to the vulnerable one who is in jeopardy.

Benedict treats the captive as a worthy human being, a child of God, one who deserves freedom. Benedict's second act is the second hand of nonviolence. He reaches out to the fearsome oppressor of people and persecutor of the church. This one kills the poor and wipes out monasteries. Benedict does not attack him, demonize him, or run away in fear. Benedict welcomes the terrorizing stranger as his Rule tells us to receive a guest. Zalla is given food and drink. Then he is admonished, urged to do good. Benedict treats him as a worthy human being, a child of God, one with the potential for good, no matter his history.

The two hands of nonviolence: stop violence and reach out. Always both. One without the other is the violence system. If Benedict frees the captive but demonizes Zalla, it will add more fuel to Zalla's hatred and he will return. Or, if Benedict invites Zalla in for food and leaves the captive in chains outside, Zalla will be empowered to come back later with another peasant captive.

Stopping the Violence/ Resisting Accommodation

We turn now to other monastic models of this nonviolence from the past and from the present. Let us focus first on stopping the violence/resisting accommodation.

I believe that, for monastics living in the US in our time, our greatest temptation is accommodation with violence. Since the end of the Cold War, as the sole superpower, the US controls resources far beyond our borders and uses violence and oppression to maintain control of those vast resources. In our time, international economic systems, especially the crippling debt in the global south, maintain a steady flow of capital and resources into the global north. The gaping wealth gap between the global north and the global south, and, in the US, between the rich and the growing poor, has been termed an economic apartheid.6

A growing system of US military bases maintains our control over resources, especially oil and, for the future, waters. The unprecedented, pre-emptive attack on the people of Iraq, overtly to find weapons of mass destruction, allowed the US to build permanent military bases in Iraq for the future. Given Iraq's wealth in both oil and water, and its proximity to other already identified "axis of evil" nations like Iran, these bases serve a strategic purpose in maintaining US political and economic domination. We know now that these bases were planned well before 9/11.7

What do we monastics do, living as small communities in the midst of such tremendous abuse of power? I offer three examples that give us hope, direction and challenge.

  1. The first example is from the fourth-century in Cappadocia. Macrina transformed her home into a monastic community. From a wealthy Roman villa enmeshed in the patriarchal Roman Empire, Macrina fashioned an alternative that was both a critique of her society and a model of gospel possibilities. She broke with the violence system by freeing the slaves of her household and inviting them to join her community as equal members. She herself did the work that was considered the work of slaves, cleaning and baking. In a society that devalued children and women, Macrina placed the most vulnerable in society at the center of her home. When a famine broke out and orphans were left on the streets, she and her sisters gathered them in and cared for them.
  2. The second example is from the present, from Mont St. Benoit in Haiti which I had the blessing of visiting several times. Mon St. Benoit is an oasis in the midst of mind-numbing misery and the ecological devastation of a once beautiful island. Their small monastic oasis welcomes all and models what is possible. The monastery runs on solar energy, an excellent and cheap energy source for Haiti. Likewise, they have bees, harvest honey, make candles from the wax, and teach the art of beekeeping to others as a good micro-industry.
  3. There are many examples in our US communities as well; I'll mention one. The Benedictine Sisters in Boerne, Texas, developed a Corporate Responsibility Program in 1990 to influence the corporations in which they held stock. The community uses their economic power to hold corporations accountable for just actions, actions consistent with gospel values.8 Their influence ripples out and has a positive impact on the global south.

Time doesn't allow it, but there are many ways that the Rule of Benedict structures an alternative to the structural violence of the Roman Empire of Benedict's time. A few examples are rank, calling the community to counsel, listening to the young and the visitor, and radical hospitality.

Reach Out to the "Enemy"

In the second hand of nonviolence, we reach out to the opponent, to one we would identify as "enemy."

And here we have to be clear. The movement from fear to love does not happen because we recognize that the "enemy" the "opponent" is really harmless. Often there is real intent and plan to harm. Zalla in The Dialogues is a serious threat. We take the threat of harm seriously, but refuse to demonize or destroy the person who opposes us. We do not question their motives; we assume the best about them. (This is very difficult to do consistently in a community of nice folks who generally like each other. As we all know, it is tremendously difficult to assign good motives to our "enemy.") Al Qaeda is acting and planning to harm us. What do we do in this reality?

How do we move in our own hearts in ways that allow us to reach out to an "enemy?" How do we make the move through fear to love?

I think that Benedict's Chapter 7 on Humility in the Rule of Benedict is a blueprint for this journey. Consider key steps in the climb-or the descent:

  1. Fear of God is the starting point and the touch point that puts all other fear into context. When we focus on fear of God/awe of God, for example, our fear of losing stored up resources melts away. Fear of God is a corrective for irrational and exaggerated fear.
  2. Guilt, shame and the fears that we hide erect barriers and walls around our hearts. Opening our hearts to the care and concern of wise, skilled teacher/mentor heals the shame, removes the guilt and dissolves the fear.
  3. With this healing and radical acceptance from others, we have the courage to face ourselves. In this self-honesty, we are both kind and probing. Then we are less likely to project our self-hatred onto others. We are more likely to be accepting, gentle, even tender, with others.
  4. Compassion is possible then because we recognize the suffering of others in their own "stuckness." We are moved to speak kindly of others, to protect others from ridicule or derision.
  5. Finally, our entire being is so whole and so loving that our bodies reflect reverence in every situation, before every person and even before all of creation.

This final stance of reverence is the stance that allows Benedict to welcome Zalla, a cruel terrorist, as a child of God and offer him food and drink.

Questions/Challenges

The Rule and examples from our tradition challenge us and raise questions for our time.

  1. How do we measure whether we are accommodating to the violence of the economic and social systems around us? The standard, the measure, is the status of the most vulnerable and the oppressed. Are the chains of the captives being broken?
  2. In what ways are our communities' alternative models that both critique the violence and oppression of our system and offer a more hopeful, a more gospel alternative? Can we live this with more clarity and intention?
  3. As communities in a nation that benefits from the same international economic structures that leave most of the world living in misery, how are our economic decisions informed by the gospel?
  4. In an age of ecological destruction, we live as monastics in the global north which uses far more than its share of the earth's scarce resources. Do I as a Benedictine leave a lighter footprint on the earth? Is our communal lifestyle sustainable?
  5. As a member of a canonical community in the church, I recognize my place of privilege. I struggle with how to respond when the church acts in ways and speaks in ways that evidence sexism, racism, and homophobia. How do I respond with integrity in the remaining places where protecting the clerical system is placed ahead of protection and justice for those who are vulnerable. For me, I have to admit at least that fear of the risks often keeps me in silence. The risks are real. But how do I move to a place where I am not controlled by the fear but act from love.

Focus on Love

As those who love the monastic tradition in this time, we face difficult, complex questions and challenges. At the same time, we have been given the most beautiful witness of the monastic charism of love. Shawn spoke beautifully this morning telling of the witness of the Trappist martyrs of Algeria. I hold them up for us again as icons of monastic peacemaking in our age.9

In the midst of the horrible conflict in Algeria, they refused to participate in the violence of either side. They did not run away when their lives were threatened. They also defied the message of modern society that builds walls and buys weapons for protection. Instead, they remained rooted in the place they had chosen as their home. They stayed intentionally despite the danger to be a sign of peace to all. As Christians living in a Moslem land, they defied the messages of our time that demonize the other- especially Moslems seen as "different" by Christians. Instead, they built religious understanding, respect and friendship with their Moslem neighbors.

The final testament of Dom Christian de Chergé, the prior, is a testament of love. In preparing for the possibility that he would be killed, he greets as a friend and forgives with all his heart one who would strike him down. His great concern in staying was not that he might die, but that Moslems he had come to love might be indiscriminately accused of his death.

As a community, this small group of men stayed in a place of incredible danger and were all killed. But in their hearts, they moved through fear to a radical love. They embody the monastic charism of peace in our day and in the future. We can only bow in reverence and pray that these loving, courageous monks give us a portion of their spirit.

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1 Mary Lou Kownacki, Peace Is Our Calling (Erie, PA: Benet Press 1980).

2 (New York: Basic Books 1999) 282.

3 Gasser, Culture of Fear xxi.

4 Violence to Wholeness, by Ken Butigan, in collaboration with Patricia Bruno, O.P. (Pace e Bene Franciscan Nonviolence Center, 1420 W. Bartlett Ave. Las Vegas, NV 89106).

5 Life and Miracles of St. Benedict, by Pope St. Gregory the Great. Trans. Odo Zimmerman, O.S.B., and Benedict Avery, O.S.B. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press n.d.) 62-64.

6 United for a Fair Economy has workshops and educational materials detailing this economic violence. See http://www.faireconomy.org.

7 For information on the Plan for a New American Century see Nicholas Lemann, "The Next World Order," The New Yorker (April 1, 2002).

8 See <www.boernebenedictines.com/pages/corporate.html>.

9 AIM USA Newsletter 5.2 (1996) 1, 6.

 

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