The Monkey and the Cat

The evidence of Iona Abbey being a Benedictine monastery is revealed in two stone reliefs on the south wall near the altar – in an area originally the church’s crypt. The carvings are of a cat and a monkey. These are the two sides of monastic life. The first is the call of the monkey – always active, always serving God, always striving for justice, to welcome the stranger, to heal. The monkey moves.

The cat, however, lounges. The cat rests. The cat reflects. The cat basks in the simple joy of a sunbeam. This is the internal life of a monk, the prayer, the reflection, the study of the Word.

These symbols should not be limited to Benedictine monasteries. This is the life of a Christian. It is the yin and yang, the action and reflection, the dwelling and the doing.

My fear is that in within my own tradition the cat has tamed the monkey. Reflection almost always drives action. It is after study and prayer and discernment that decisions are made. And it is often after study and discernment someone discovers what they do not yet know to be successful in action and so further study and discernment is called for. The monkey has left in search of bananas in another tree.

As one inclined toward action then reflection I find myself in danger of reversing that trap. Often I move from action to action to next action to another action without the proper reflection, prayer, contemplation and evaluation. It leads to ineffectiveness in the work. Both are needed.


The Word

Lots of Christians talk about the living word of God. In the Lutheran tradition in particular this means that the WORD is not something static, not limited to the divinely-inspired scripture but lives in the reading, the hearing, the preaching and the receiving of it. The word is always new, newly spoken into each context. The word is not simply carved into stone tablets never to change (this, THIS, is precisely what makes us stand apart from other Christians, and even other Lutherans. Our dogged clinging to the orthodoxy of a living word leads us to to such radical ideas like women are people and therefore equal and what Paul said about the gays might be a little different than the 21st century and also the GLBT community is people. Shocking, I know.).

Our first week in Ireland has been filled with what I’ll call The Irish Word. This is not the living word – at least not in the sense of revelation from God; its not exactly not either. The Irish Word, it seems, is storytelling. Some of these experiences have come in contrived – and brilliant – tourist experiences. The Leprechaun Museum – a series of rooms built around particular stories and legends – is led by a storyteller. Ancient tales of leprechauns and fairies reveal the history and myth of this place. The storytelling dinner at the Brazen Head Pub was another space filled with Irish folklore. (These two experiences included a shared stories, and as always, it is interesting to note how storytellers bring different variations and voice to the same tale.)

Alongside these performed stories are the countless stories that lie just beneath the surface. These are the stories of Irish liberation, the famine, and of The Troubles. Historical sites are always entwined with the harsh reality that has played out in this beautiful landscape. But even more than the prescribed historical sites, a casual conversation reveals how alive this history is for folks. Perhaps it is simply for the tourist to gain a bit more perspective, but my sense is that it is always there just beneath the surface. It is the word waiting to be told.

Beside The Irish Word came a stark juxtaposition: The Church Word. I saw this at the Book of Kells and in our compline service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Trinity College’s collection and display of ancient monastic books reveal the importance of Ireland in both Christian and Western history (in many ways consecrating their courtship since Constantine). As inspiring as Kells was, there is a fixed-ness to it. Scribes no longer copy it. They no longer add a tittle or jot, an illuminated letter or a graphic. It remains safely behind an air-tight case for the preservation of generations.

As beautiful as compline was, it felt like an experiential Kells – sealed safely for the preservation of generations, lacking fresh air and life. The priest and the choir performed the rituals of the liturgy. Apart from confession, a creed and a couple amens, the congregation had very little to do other than watch. The Word was spoken and sung, at the Word does not go out unfulfilled. So, obviously it has a purpose… but I can’t help feeling there could have been more.

And so now I am left wondering – are we people of the word or people of the story? Does the good news of Jesus live in us, just beneath the surface. Is it as ready to be shared as a bartender with a tale from the Troubles? Is it so thick that you can’t help bumping into it because it is everywhere? Do we have the same gospel, the good news, and does it change it the storyteller’s voice? Do we dance with the word as it plays off our tongue, delight in the telling and the hearing?

Or do we simply preserve the word? Learn it and know it so that it can be sealed-up airtight. Do we hold onto it so tightly that it become confined by tradition unable to dance?