Given that lambs
are infant sheep, that sheep
are afraid and foolish, and lack
the means of self-protection, having
neither rage nor claws,
venom nor cunning,
is this ‘Lamb of God’?
I’ve been re-entering the atmosphere of my “real” life after a month-long writing retreat at a Benedictine Abbey. It’s been a little hard. Thirty-one days is long enough to alter your body’s rhythms around sleeping and eating, not to mention your very way in the world: how you order your day, what you notice around you, what you prioritize in your life, what you let go.
When you pray five times a day in a Benedictine community–with the arresting beauty of the liturgy, the patient pace of the psalmody, the lush silences–it is easy to forget that monasticism began as a protest movement in the midst of political chaos and decay.
The desert fathers and mothers in the second and third centuries and Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica in the sixth established each of their communities as a counter-polis–an experimental social order born of grievance against corruption, scandal, and state power, and as a witness to the gospel’s call to humility, hospitality, and ceaseless prayer.
What terror lies concealed
in strangest words, O lamb
of God that taketh away
the Sins of the World: an innocence
smelling of ignorance,
born in bloody snowdrifts,
licked by forebearing
dogs more intelligent than its entire flock put together?
It is the gentleness of praying the liturgy of the hours that perhaps struck me most, moved me most–the unhurried attentiveness, the graceful cadences of sung or spoken lines, the ceremonial courtesy one must show to those with whom one prays. (Whether or not one feels particularly agreeable or amicable seems beside the point).
We live in the midst of a good deal of muscular Christianity–of stridency and bombast, of desperation for edginess and novelty and noise. And of course we live in a culture of violence and speed in which gentleness seems laughable, irresponsible.
But for centuries monastic communities of all kinds have entered the rhythm of daily prayer in order to be transformed by the way of gentleness. And it does not seem to me that this is merely an aesthetic or a matter of preference or, least of all, a retreat from the “real” world.
encompassing all things, is
has been tossed away, reduced
to a wisp of damp wool?
Is it implied that we
must protect this perversely weak
animal, whose muzzle’s nudgings
suppose there is milk to be found in us?
Must hold to our icy hearts
a shivering God?
The way of Jesus that St. Benedict and others sought to embody was revolutionary gentleness–a response to the imperium romanum no less political for being nonviolent, no less radical for resisting the status quo. And in praying the ancient prayers born of such a movement we go deep into the heart of our vulnerable God, where gentleness–against every intuition of our age–is revealed to be the way that leads to life.
So be it.
Come, rag of pungent
if something human still
can shield you,
of remote light.
Excerpts from Denise Levertov’s “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus – VI Agnus Dei”