Another monastic moment, unspectacular but meaningful. A Psalm popping into my mind explains to me what I have just experienced. Opening the shampoo bottle, about to wash my hair, I smelled the fragrance. It seemed I had never smelled it before. Not only was my nose opened all of a sudden, but my whole being felt differently. I felt more life within me. It was Psalm 115 that I remembered:
They have ears but do not hear, noses but do not smell. Psalm 115:6
The psalmist speaks about the idols of the peoples, but I applied it to myself. God gives me more gifts than I use. Smelling is one of these underappreciated gifts. We humans are very much vision oriented. Listening is more difficult; tasting and smelling are usually not at the forefront of our awareness. However, those senses go really deep. We “have a nose for somebody or something”; we have our intuition.
My novice master used to say: If you lose the meaning of your life and nothing makes sense, use your senses! The senses bring back the sense. Evagrius Ponticus, one of the most relevant monastic authors of the 4th century wrote: “If you want to know God, know yourself first” (Migne, PG 40,1267). Whatever we perceive is precious, because it can lead us into a greater knowledge of God. So why be afraid? Why do we close our noses? Because we don’t want to be bothered by bad smells. But how can we know that the smell is really bad and not just in our imagination? Like an idol that exists just in our imagination? At our baptism our senses were opened by the priest or deacon in the Effata-Rite. Christ has given us new life. He invites us to have life to its fullest. (John 10:10) We often don’t live to our fullest potential.
Dear Lord, let me pause for a moment and use my senses. Let me take a deep breath. What do I smell? Open my attention to what is around me. Let me take a moment when I pass by a flower, and smell. Let me smell the fragrance of the forest. Let me take in the air of the morning. Let me smell while I eat. Let me taste how good you are. Every day. Every moment.
I was working at my desk trying to finish up something when the bell rang. That is nothing special in a monastery; the bell rings five times a day to call us monks to prayer. This time, though, as sometimes happens, I caught myself having a little inner discussion: should I go instantly to Midday Prayer, or should I rather continue working for two or three minutes? I would still make it to church in time. What didn’t seem to be a big deal at all, and certainly not a question of life and death, is still of interest for Saint Benedict:
“On hearing the signal for an hour of the divine office, the monk will immediately set aside what he has in hand and go with utmost speed, yet with gravity and without giving occasion for frivolity. Indeed, nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God.” RB 43:1-3
My father used to say: “Obedience means: do it immediately”. I didn’t like to hear that because he always said it when I was not following right away. This very moment, when I hear the call of the bell, holds a great opportunity. It invites my soul to decide: Do I follow God’s call or not? Whom do I follow? Christ, or my own to-do-list? “The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all”, St. Benedict says in his chapter on obedience (RB 5:1-2), and he points to this holy moment:
“Almost at the same moment, as the master gives the instruction the disciple quickly puts it into practice in the fear of God; and both actions together are swiftly completed as one”. RB 5:9
In the midst of my day-to-day activities I am offered to let my ego die and become ONE with God. The readiness with which I follow is an expression of my surrendering to God. No excuses; nothing more important than Him; everything to be left behind. What if I miss the opportunity of this moment? In the monastery, we are not practicing compulsiveness. Not much later the bell will ring again for another prayer time. Another chance to follow the inner voice, the conscience. Another chance to surrender.
Lord, you praised the Roman officer because of the swiftness of his following. Give me the freedom to trust deeply that nothing is more important NOW than YOU. It is so freeing to follow you. Thank you for the bell. It tolls for me.