Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 16, 2009

Gettin’ Medieval on Your…


St. Benedict of Nursia, proving that good guys really DO wear black.
St. Benedict of Nursia, proving that good guys really DO wear black.

Those who have seen and love Pulp Fiction can finish the above title. And those who know the religious crowd I usually run with will understand why I did not complete it. (Even though the word “ass” is in the bible, as I was instructed at age thirteen by the late George Carlin — with whom I have continued a strange love-hate relationship over the years…)

Anyway, semi-dirty words are not today’s topic (though obscenity does tend to grab all the attention, doesn’t it?). Medieval history and monks are our theme of the day. Sort of.

I’m still relishing, in small doses, Kathleen Norris’ memoir of her Benedictine  monastic journey, The Cloister Walk. I find the whole contemplative/monkish thing to be a necessary counterbalance to the “fast, loud, crude and marketable” sensibilities of most modern cultural and (unfortunately) even religious messages nowadays.

On the other hand, medieval symbols and iconography have a certain marketability and cache nowadays, too. For example, I was pleased and shocked to discover a beer called Monty Python’s Holy Grail Ale (begun in 1999). Black Sheep, a microbrewer in Yorkshire, apparently cooked up the idea, paid the Pythons a licensing fee or percentage, and now is probably reaping the benefits of all us fanboys out here who appreciate a good beer with our absurdist British humor. (Mark hits self in head repeatedly with wooden paddle and chants in Latin… to achieve same dizziness as with consumption of a Python six pack… which was too expensive for my typical beer-buying tastes.)

On a more personal note, I have greatly benefitted this year from a short daily meditation via email by Father Richard Rohr, one of the leading American Franciscans. Interestingly, Rohr ties a contemplative mindset to a strong belief in community and social action. In other words, meditation/contemplation does not automatically mean becoming a hermit. It means prayerfully getting intimate with God, so we will then have the power and wisdom to go out and spread love and forgiveness among all the messy, silly people we meet, or who govern us… {Click the above link to go to the sign-up page for Richard’s meditations, or to hop over to the Center for Action & Contemplation’s homepage. This week’s theme is the “body of Christ” in all its forms, because last Sunday was the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi.}

Even outside the Christian tradition, I have still spent much of the past year with my head somewhere between the years 600 BCE and 1400 BCE. For example, I have read the 14th centrury Sufi poets Rumi and Hafiz, whose audacious and creative perspective on Yahweh keeps me thinking outside the box. I have dabbled in understanding the Buddhist monk’s approach to non-attachment, and experiencing God through nature. (Though the Christian monks do this just as well… they just have that “white man’s burden” thing held against them by the non-religious.)

I have even taken to occasionally practicing gardening, dishwashing and other mundane “work” as opportunities for “practice of the presence of God” (title of a famous medieval work by Brother Lawrence… though I have not read it yet, I think a click above will give you access to a free version online).

I can’t be the one to say if it’s working or not, though. That would be narcisissistic, which is the antithesis of contemplative thought and action (and narcissism is the main vice I’ve been trying to avoid this year). Fortunately, others are telling me that my poetry and writing have improved, as if I’ve found my voice through listening to the Spirit.

It’s one of those divine paradoxes: give up your riches, your self-importance, your post-modern hipness, and you get access to what’s eternal, universal, and more valuable than anything “new” produced by Sony, CBN, or any of a thousand competitors for your time, money, and attention.

As Thoreau the hermit once said: “Read not the Times, but the eternities.”


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