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The Virtue of Forbearance

November 12, 2015

This weekend our Mennonite conference will meet together as a delegate assembly for our annual gathering. We will be considering a few resolutions about what it means to be church together when we sometimes hold very differing perspectives. In preparation I pulled out an old copy of Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, and read from her essay on forbearance-an important word in Mennonite circles these days.

The brittle and divisive climate within the contemporary Christian church has forced me to take more seriously the value of forbearance as a Christian virtue. A conscious forbearance of the sort that Jesus demonstrates so amply in the gospels, and Paul exhorts us to in his epistles… Forbearance may be what has helped the two most ancient forms of Christian community-church congregations and monasteries-maintain their precious and precarious unity. It may be that with good care such unity grows supple enough to withstand the demands for strict uniformity that so quickly produce division.

The polarization that characterizes so much of American life is risky business in a church congregation, but especially so in a monastic community. The person you’re quick to label and dismiss…is also a person you’re committed to live, work, pray, and dine with for the rest of your life. Anyone who knows a monastery well knows that it is no exaggeration to say that you find Al Franken and Rush Limbaugh living next door to each other. Mother Angelica and Mary Gordon. Barney Frank and Jesse Helms. Not only living together in close quarters, but working, eating, praying, and enjoying (and sometimes enduring) recreation together, every day, often for fifty years or more. It’s not easy. But Christian monks have existed for close to eighteen hundred years, almost as long as the church itself.

How do they do it? They know, as one Anglican nun has put it, that their primary ministry is prayer, and that prayer transcends theological differences. They also have the wisdom of St. Benedict, who at the end of his Rule points out that there are two types of zeal; one which is bitter and divisive, separating monks from God and from each other, and another which can lead them together into everlasting life. Employing scripture (Romans 12:10), he defines this “good zeal” as acts of love: “They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other.”

Monastic people also make deliberate and repeated use of the tools that they believe Jesus Christ has given them to overcome the temptation to condemn one another. They say the Lord’s Prayer together at least three times a day, which is the minimum that St. Benedict sets forth in his rule for monastic life. He says he found this necessary because of the “thorns of contention” that spring up daily when we try to live with other people. Continually asking God to forgive us as we forgive others, Benedict suggests, warns us away from the vice of self-righteousness and also lack of love. [1]

I go back and forth with Mennonites and forbearance. There are times when we demonstrate this posture fairly well and I feel energized. But there are times when we seem incapable of it and I grow weary. I’ve heard the word forbearance used as a synonym for “compromise,” but I think I like Norris’ term better-a “virtue.”

In her description this virtue includes a true commitment to live together, with the tensions but also with the daily activities that are perhaps more spiritual than we realize (eating, playing, working, enjoying). It’s possible that this virtue could be a path to profound spiritual formation if we are willing to walk it.

This virtue also acknowledges a posture that allows for this commitment to one another to become reality-a posture of prayer. I’m being drawn to think about how this kind of prayer posture shows up in Mennonite life. In both denominational and conference settings we prioritize our confession of faith. The problem I’ve observed is that we Mennonites don’t seem very clear on the purpose of a theological tool like a confession of faith. I’m glad to see that one of the statements our local delegates will discuss this weekend names this fact. We lack a shared understanding (is it prescriptive or descriptive?/is a confession the same as a creed?). Which means there’s preliminary work needed if such a tool is to be most helpful for life in our faith community. So what if instead of quoting “the confession” all the time (at least the parts we agree with), we intentionally worked at developing a communal prayer life that might help us transcend our differences? And let’s not just stop at prayer-we can also eat together, play together, serve together, and work together.

Maybe with a different posture we could learn to love each other more in the process. That would certainly be a good witness in our communities.

At a recent meeting with my congregation’s leadership we meditated on a part of Romans 12, seeking to prayerfully let the words sink in and affect our hearts, minds, and lives. So as we continue to think about forbearance, I’ll close with those words and invite us to do the same.

love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. (Romans 12:10-12 NRSV)

 


[1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998) 158-159.

 

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2015 12:31 pm

    Thank you, Chris.

  2. November 13, 2015 10:13 am

    I wonder how the vows of a monastic community effect the ability to forbear (or create times when forbearance is not an option).

  3. November 13, 2015 12:15 pm

    That’s a great question, Nathan. And even though I’m getting ready for a busy weekend, you’ve compelled me to go find my copy of Benedict’s Rule and look deeper (I will need more coffee for this as well). From the experience of Norris and her monastic friends it would seem that the Rule doesn’t negate the need to forbear-for one, probably because any time human beings are gathered together there will need to be some level of forbearance. But it does make me wonder if perhaps, rather than Benedict, a source more helpful for Evangelical/Protestant contexts might be the structure of the New Monastic movement (https://sojo.net/magazine/january-2007/12-marks-new-monasticism). I’ve heard friends in this movement mention that forbearance is a frequent part of their life together, even with their vows and intentional commitments. I believe there’s good conversation partners here.

  4. November 13, 2015 5:42 pm

    I’d love to hear what you find. Benedict’s Rule is on my list of books to purchase… More recently I did purchase a 1947 copy of Franconia Conference’s Confession, Rule, and Discipline (and read it all today). I’ve been contemplating recently the similarities between old Mennonite Rules and monastic rules (and vows). It is interesting how we can sometimes romanticize monks habits (the article of clothing) while simultaneously demonizing the strictness of the plain coat when it seems to me that they were trying to accomplish the same thing but both were equally locked within their own time period, culture, and context.
    I wonder how we create a disciplined community that is still able to respond to and change with the surrounding culture.

    Now I’m rambling and way off topic from your original post, but in my mind, at least, it is all connected.

  5. November 23, 2015 8:34 pm

    I definitely appreciate your “rambling” and it’s helping me think about those connections. I’m wondering if a conversation with someone like John Ruth might be in order, to help explore the contrast you mention between Mennonite/Monastic rules. I’d love to hear about the Confession, Rule, and Discipline you picked up-I haven’t read that before.

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