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Friday, June 20, 2014

St. Romuald: Weird or Wise


I like learning about various saints.  Most of the ones I come to know are saints within the Roman Catholic tradition.  Since Quakers don’t really honor saints, I did not grow up learning about saints nor even thinking about them.  Of course, there were a few legendary historical Quakers about whom all young Quakers learned.  For example, I learned about people like John Woolman, the seventeenth century Quaker who was far ahead of his time in working to free slaves.  But no one thought about him as a saint.  And I know all the religious denominations and traditions have similar saintly people, but few of them are called saints.

In the Catholic lectionary I use, I noticed yesterday was the special day honoring St. Romuald.  I like him.  I learned about him a few years ago.  I suspect even in Catholic circles, he is a pretty obscure saint.  Romuald lived into the eleventh century in Italy in the Tuscany area just north of Rome.  As a young man, he joined the Benedictine monastic group. 

By nature Romuald was a serious guy.  And by the eleventh century many Benedictine monasteries had lost their original medieval fervor.  Life for too many monks had become rather lax.  The zest and zeal of earlier monasticism had grown stale.  Romuald was disappointed.  And he tried to change things.  In his attempt to recharge the monastic life, he only alienated himself from many of the monks.  Becoming disgusted, Romuald asked to be released from the monastery and that was granted.  He headed to Venice where he found a saintly old hermit named Marinus.  Under the tutelage of Marinus, Romuald was able to live a much stricter life in the Spirit.  Some people would have discounted him as weird.

At some point, Romuald and Marinus began to attract followers who wanted the kind of life these two hermits were living.  At some point Romuald moved to an area called Camaldoli in central Italy and there built some cells for a few hermits. This gave birth to the movement called the Camaldolese.  This group of monks continues to this day.  I came to know them personally when I spent part of a sabbatical year in Berkeley, CA.   

There is a house near the Berkeley campus that houses about five Camaldolese monks.  I stayed with them for a few months.  I learned about Romuald.  It was an unusual way to spend some time on a sabbatical.  Some would consider it weird.  Maybe in this sense I am a son of Romuald.  I learned a great deal of wisdom from him and from the Camaldolese brothers with whom I spent time. 

Romuald and the Camaldolese monks combine a marked interest in solitude and communal life.  That dual focus suits me very well.  Maybe it is because I am an introvert, but I do like some time alone.  Furthermore, I am convinced the spiritual life demands that people spend some time in solitude.  If we are never alone with ourselves, how can we get to know who we really are?

In my experience I realized it would be impossible for me to get to know myself---my true self---if I never spent time alone.  I need time to confront my questions and my doubts.  As scary and unnerving as it is, I had to have time to wait in silence, to meditate and explore the large Unknown in which I (and we all) live.  My little world is too confined and defined.  God or the Mystery of the Universe is much bigger, more majestic and unfathomable than my little world.  In solitude I leave my cocoon and cross the threshold of that bigger world.

I am convinced this was the quest of Romuald.  He found the little world of the original Benedictine monastery too confined and defined.  He needed more space and grace to wander into the deep waters of the Divine Unknown Mystery.  And so he walked.  But he was not simply a loner. 

Romuald also knew the value of community.  Community was equally necessary, as solitude was.  He knew that the life of the hermit could lead to crazy things.  He needed community to guard against his craziness.  And I recognize the same thing.  Community---other people---are just as necessary as the life of solitude.

For me community is like the oasis in the desert.  Sometimes the solitary time---the alone time---seems like a desert.  I can feel lost, parched or even desperate by myself.  But when I have community, I have friends and encouragers.  I have people who satisfy my thirst for relationship.  I have colleagues in the spirit who walk with me, talk with me and feed my soul.

I value working with the lectionary and daily having set readings to ponder.  And I relish the days, which are saints’ days.  The saints give me a chance to have some historical friends who model for me aspects of the spiritual journey.  My goal is not to imitate their very path.  I want from them encouragement, hope the sense that I can do this spiritual journey in my own way.

I have no illusion that I am heading toward sainthood.  But I would like to do as well as I can.  It is my journey that I have to do as a solitary person.  But it is also a journey with other folks---my community---and for that I am grateful.  After all, it probably is a weird, wise journey that I travel.  And I am ok with that!

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