What is good medication for this time of conflict and anxiety? This question was posed by Fr. Mauritius Wilde, OSB, Ph.D. at a retreat he led called “Sober and Merciful: St. Benedict’s Journey of Mindfulness.”
Fr. Mauritius suggests we can learn how to approach the tensions in our lives and the conflicts in our family, community, and world by looking at the recommendations for selecting a leader of a monastic community in The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 64. This chapter suggests that good leadership requires living the values of sound judgment, wisdom in teaching, pure motives, moderation, prudence, loving behavior, discernment, and as the retreat title suggests, soberness and mercy, among others.
Leadership starts with leading oneself. Cultivating the values of being sober and merciful can help us be our better selves in tough times. So often we want to escape or numb ourselves to any pain we may feel—to simply run away from our feelings, people, or situations. At other times we might become overwhelmed by distress or completely absorbed by worries. Neither of these approaches is effective to deal with conflict and anxiety but practicing soberness can provide a middle way—a more balanced, Benedictine way to help us accept our reality as it is, yet not becoming attached to it.
To be sober (Latin: sobrium) is to have an attitude of acceptance, to be temperate, and to take people, things, and activities just as they are. We can become “drunk with anxieties” of daily life, but as one who can compulsively think, ponder, wonder and what-if, this tendency can block one from seeing the truth of the way things truly are. It’s as if an alternate reality is created, one that takes us far away from the present moment.
Emotions can make us drunk; they can completely absorb us. Being sober and vigilant (1 Peter 5:8) is the absence of being drunk on emotion or being overcome with anxiety. By practicing mindfulness, we learn soberness tastes better—the purity and truth of circumstances are clear. One begins to sense when something is just too much—emotions, noise, activity, food, or drink—and is more able to set boundaries for what disturbs. Wanting more of this sobriety is craving what is real—the present moment, an ecstatic peace for only God can fill us with. To be sober is to be free. We must remain vigilant, alert, and open, for what God fills us with, for moments when Christ is revealed in our daily lives.
This retreat weekend is one of the last before I begin a new school year, so there is no shortage of uncertainty or anxiety. What I have learned about soberness is wisdom I will carry with me, a reminder to be gentle with myself while also being watchful and mindful of my tendency to be absorbed in emotion and the circumstances of a school day, whether it is a conflict with a student or colleague, disappointments of unmet expectations, or a frantic pace and frequent interruptions.
I was particularly excited for this retreat because it had been four years since I had been to a retreat led by Fr. Mauritius, who lives in Rome, and many kindred spirits I have met through the years would be at St. Benedict Center. I would also have an opportunity to practice SoulCollage® with Sara and Joyce and to spend time in nature.
The blessings of the weekend, the connection of sacred friendships and the beauty of creation, are captured in a SoulCollage® card I created. I spent an hour or more mesmerized by a blue heron when I first arrived—her attentive watchfulness, her leisurely, yet intentional wandering along the lakeside in what looked like a pure present moment, until that precise moment when she noted her opportunity for an afternoon snack. She snatched her prey, just the right size of fish who swam alongside those much larger.
Throughout the weekend, that blue heron brought friends together as well as small groups of people who may not have known each other, for conversation and reflection. (So obsessed with the heron, I forgot to take photos of all the special friends I spent time with.) This heron gave us a taste of mindfulness, a God-moment of “sober drunkenness.” On theme for the retreat, a heron represents “taking full responsibility for thoughts, emotions, and reactions,” for seeing reality as it is, reacting dispassionately, detached, soberly, and being open to surprises. (Source: Animal Spirit Guides, Steven D. Farmer, Ph.D.)
My card leads me to respond to the original question posed by Fr. Mauritius: What is good medication for this time of conflict and anxiety?
The answer given to me: To practice mindfulness and soberness, to stay awake to the sacred gifts that keep me in the present moment and fill my soul—particularly spiritual friendships and the beauty of nature—to walk steadily as the heron, to not be absorbed in emotion, to live in the eternal now.
I am one who is vigilant and awake. I will keep the oil burning; I will keep the light on.
I am one who notices the details and celebrates surprises. I am nurtured by nature, by the generosity of caring, giving and receiving friends.
I am one who approaches life at a leisurely pace but will seize an opportunity at just the right time. I trust my intuition.
I am one who is mindful— one who desires a slower, peaceful pace and response.
Learn more in four podcasts that Fr. Mauritius addresses different aspects of sobriety and in another blog post HERE.
HR-Soberness-1 An Introduction – “The Nature of Our Need” – The Holy Rule of St. Benedict with Fr. Mauritius Wilde OSB
HR-Soberness- 2 “Winding down with God” – The Holy Rule of St. Benedict with Fr. Mauritius Wilde OSB Podcast
HR-Soberness- 3 “Leadership and Soberness” – The Holy Rule of St. Benedict with Fr. Mauritius Wilde OSB Podcast
HR-Soberness- 4 “Finding Balance” – The Holy Rule of St. Benedict with Fr. Mauritius Wilde OSB Podcast
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