On Balance II by Linda Jani

Benedictine sisters walk along a path at St. Mary Monastery, Rock Island, Ill

Oblate Day 2008 was filled with provocative and nourishing presentations by the Oblates, and many have agreed to post them here on the blog. Rock Island Oblate Ric Smith, a regular blogger here, posted his talk below, and Macomb Oblate Bill Maakestad’s presentation is previous to this post by Macomb Oblate Linda Jani.

Two quotes help me set the theme for these remarks:
1Cor 1:18 – “The message of the cross is folly for those who are on their way to ruin, but for those of us who are on the road to salvation it is the power of God.” (NJB)

Rule of Benedict, Prologue (Reading for Sept.3) – “See how God’s love shows us the way of life. Clothed then with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way with the Gospel for our guide that we may deserve to see the Holy One.”

Both of these quotes seem to frame the life of faith as a pilgrimage- a walking journey.

I think of walking as a good analogy for balance: in order to move forward we have to throw our bodies out of static balance. Yet we have to keep our frame balanced as we shift the center of gravity from one leg to the other. We shift weight to one leg and move the other one forward; then we shift weight to the forward leg and swing the other leg passed it. I am told that some 300 of our 605 muscles are involved in the process of walking. The whole body is active: muscles expanding and contracting, creating a rhythmic movement, and we stay balanced and upright as we move along.

As toddlers we have to learn the process of walking with many tumbles, plops and bumps along the way. We probably don’t remember our own learning, but our muscles do! And we may have had the joy of watching a little one learning and achieving this milestone in development. We can picture the process in our mind’s eye.

So let’s take this analogy a step further. (Pun intended.) The “road to salvation” St. Paul talks about or the “way of life” in St. Benedict’s rule is not for most of us a solitary, narrow path to a remote destination, rather, it is a path walked here and now in company with other pilgrims. For each of us the path is strewn with tumbles, plops and bumps and blessed with the company of others. We walk as pilgrims supported and challenged by the every day events and people in our lives.

Last May my husband and I had the privilege of seeing our daughter receive her Ph. D from the University of Maryland. The commencement speaker was Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project. (He is also the author of The Language of God, A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.) His was a memorable speech. He told the new doctors that he was going to pass along some wisdom that he heard at his own high school graduation: there are four things you need for a happy life-
1.) Work that is both challenging and fulfilling
2.) Faith that puts you in touch with something beyond yourself
3.) Love that makes you life rich with family and friends
4.) Fun that lightens and brightens daily life
These seem to me to be the framework for a balanced life.

Dr. Collins talked about each element, of course, and I want to relate them to our Benedictine values. Work and Faith seem to translate quite readily, though the order is inverted, into “ora et labora”, pray and work. These are foundational elements. Love of family and friends is found in our various communities according to our states of life.

A sense of fun sweetens everything. Dr. Collins himself said it is hard to talk about, so he brought out his guitar and sang a song- rather a parody of a song.
The fresh doctors in the audience with the ink barely dried on their newly minted dissertations heard his song about the blood, sweat and tears of the dissertation process to the tune of I Did It My Way with the chorus changed to the a refrain they’d heard so many times in the process: just do it like your major professor and committee want it done. I Did It My Way became I Did It Their Way. He brought down the house and received a standing ovation.

Did Jesus have a sense of humor? Well, I think we get a glimpse of it now and then. For instance, He nicknamed Peter, Cephas: the rock. Yes, “rock” refers to Peter’s steadfast, rock-solid faith, but maybe there’s something else in play here: rocks are pretty dense. And there are times in the Gospels when Peter just doesn’t seem to “get it”. (See Matt. 14:29-31, 16:22-23; John 13:6-11) Can you imagine living in any community, even the community of disciples without humor? Humor lets us see life’s incongruities and calls us to laugh at ourselves and with others. And perhaps if we look in Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:22) we can see the value of her sense of humor. Jesus seems to be trying to get out of town for a couple of days and here’s this Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter who is terrorized by a demon. Jesus, using the common speech of His day refers to her as a dog – or doggie, in some renditions – saying the dogs shouldn’t get the food meant for the children. Her response is wonderful: Yes, but even the dogs get the food that falls from the table. Can’t you just see Jesus’ face light up with this unexpected come-back? I think it was a moment for clarity for Him. He was able to see the woman’s faith, not her ethnicity. There must have been a grin on His face as He granted her request.
Sometimes feelings of restlessness may be part of the journey, too. We need to listen to those feelings, too. Maybe there is a call to change focus or to move beyond our current parameters or patterns. Restlessness calls us to stay “on the road” moving, not being caught in a web of out-grown patterns or habits.
So how do we know when our lives are in balance? Are all four elements of the framework for balance in play; is any one element dominating to the point of excluding the others? Are work and prayer in balance? Is there meaningful time for family and friends? Can I laugh at myself and with others and have fun? I can usually (eventually!) tell that I am out of balance when I gradually become crabby and “out of sorts”. It can develop over a few weeks or months when some project has taken over my life. For me what usually takes over is a work issue or family concern – not prayer or fun. It’s like trying to walk with a 100- pound sack of potatoes on your back. Things are bogged down, out of balance. I don’t “have time” for prayer. I avoid social commitments. I don’t have time to return or make phone calls. I have a sense of being overwhelmed. Everything in life is just more work, more responsibility. (Picture my part of the pilgrimage caravan stuck on a muddy road in the rain.) From the inside, I don’t catch it for a while. It is one of the gifts of good friends, a loving family, or a spiritual director to reflect back what they see from the outside. They help me re-gain perspective and maybe even to laugh at myself.

2 thoughts on “On Balance II by Linda Jani

  1. Linda,
    Your presentation is excellent. I love the balance that Benedict speaks of…and AM ALWAYS trying to achieve it….Blessings on you and your efforts in the Benedict way of life.
    Do you know the book, Radical Amazement by Judy Cannato; contemplaitve lessions from black holes, supernovas & other wonders of the universe. Believe you would like it; I use it for a book club. Peace Sr. catherine


  2. Dear Sr. Catherine,
    Thanks for your kind words. As usual, I’m certain thet I got more out of preparing for the talk than anybody got from listening. Funny hoe the Lord seems to work that way! I have one book by Judy Cannato, Quantum Grace. It is a Lenten book and I hope to use it this coming Lent. I appreciate another recommendation of her work.
    Maybe it would be good for our St. Paul book discussion group, too. It is helpful to read and discuss with others. Right now we are reading Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s Paul His Story. I read it once before for Fr. Mark when I was struggling to “make peace” with St. Paul. The group is enjoying it.
    Again Thanks, Peace, Linda


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