READ: Psalm 23
“The Lord is my shepherd; I lack for nothing. He provides for me a grassy meadow where I might rest. He leads me to a quiet stream where I might quench my thirst. He provides for my living. He guides me on the right paths so that I might be known as one of His flock. Even when I walk through dark, strange places, I fear no danger for the Lord walks with me, protecting me with His rod and staff.” – Psalm 23:1-4
On my way today to my hermitage (my writer’s cabin) I passed by the field where Brother Francois was tending our modest flock of sheep. By their nature, sheep must be moved from field to field so that the pasture grass might not be depleted in any one location. So the Brothers who have shepherd duty are always busy moving the sheep from here to there, at times, to guide them to water, sometimes to guide them to the sheep fold for the night.
I often see the sheep during my daily stroll along the river, but today, I felt the call to … well . to “contemplate” … the flock. You see our early morning prayers today included a reading of the 23rd Psalm, the shepherd’s psalm. So I thought it a good day to consider the sheep of the fields. As I watched those sheep, the ewes with their lambs, the few rams we have, a thought did come to mind. The sheep are of one flock, with a life of its own, and yet, within the life of the flock, individual lives are being lived, each in its particular way.
Together, the sheep, young and old, male and female, comprise the flock and together they write the story of that flock. They move as one unit – for the most part- guided by the one shepherd. The flock does possess a “corporate” soul, in a sense. When together, the flock finds comfort and courage in being one with all the rest. And the shepherd tends to the flock as a community, trying to get them to move in concert, trying to keep them together, not straying off by themselves too far and getting lost.
Yet, as I observed life in our Greyfriars’ flock, I witnessed forty or so individual life stories being lived out. This ewe caring for this lamb; that lamb searching for its mother; these lambs learning life by playing games; this old ram living at a slower pace; that young ram kicking up his heels. Though they were one flock, it did not take long for their individual personalities to make themselves known to me. Some were by nature, quiet; others, more vocal; some were by nature, comfortable with being cozy; others, not so much. They were all one with the Flock, but each was his or her own sheep. And the shepherd, a good shepherd like Brother Francois, knows them each by their name and each by their ways.
Jesus liked to refer to us as His flock. In some circles that characterization could be interpreted as a bit demeaning, maybe, a bit insulting. How often have we heard the cynical degradation …“My, they are a but a flock of mindless sheep!” Well, from my observation of flocks and sheep, particularly those found at Greyfriars’ Abbey and other such places of her kin, sheep are not mindless – if anything they tend to be a bit willful, not just the rams, but the ewes and lambs as well. But the sheep – for the most part – do have the good sense to realize that they need the flock in order to prosper. Something we human souls sometimes forget.
One of the sublime joys I have discovered in the Benedictine approach to Christian discipleship is the experience of being the cooperative flock made by so by our well-tended common humility and our well-tended common devotion. The Brothers (and Sisters) of Greyfriars’ Abbey nurture an exquisite balance between private contemplation and communal living. We sing and work in chorus; yet we pray and contemplate in solitude. We live together as a community; yet, we spend a good share of lives alone in our hermitages. We are one … and yet we are many; we are many … yet we are One. And in whatever place we might be at any given moment of the day, together or apart, Christ is our shepherd. And it is our shepherd who keeps us together while moving us from place to place.
I do believe the human soul has need of a flock … it is of our God-given nature and ought not to be neither denied nor neglected. And this is why, I believe, that Jesus so often uses that image … a shepherd and a flock. It is a descriptive of the truly abundant life that God so wants us to know. So my Loved Ones, we all need to create and then cherish a sense of the “Commons” in our living, that place in time and space where we share life together, and where we share it together, both often and deeply.
Brother Anthony of the Cross
— Visit my poetry site, Willow Words, by clicking www.willowwordspoetry.wordpress.com .
Also visit my new Psalter site for a reading of the Psalms www.thepsalmsbybrotheranthony.wordpress.com