Tender Competence

This Lent my internal reflections began on Ash Wednesday with issuing an invitation to the members of our Trinity Cathedral Congregation to ‘keep it simple’ in our desire to use Lent as an opportunity to deepen our sense of being in relationship with God.  What I had in mind was our need to become intentionally careful and take more deliberate care with those things that already fill the contents of our days rather than adding more to our burden and feeding our general sense of distracted failure. As I then reflected on Mark’s portrayal of Jesus cast-out into the Wilderness in the readings for Lent 1 I became especially mindful of our human experience of living within limits over, which and beyond which, we have no control. My thoughts about this can be seen in my earlier post The Wilderness.

In a parallel track to my wider reflections on Lent, in our Thursday evenings adult formation process a group of around 30 of us have been exploring since January the Rule of St Benedict. For Episcopalians, who are Christians of the Anglican Tradition of Catholic Christianity, Benedict holds a special place of importance. For his Rule and its monastic practice have been the single most formative influence on the development on our communal temperament and practice. At the weekly Sunday Sung Evensong at the Cathedral, using the Thursday evening experience as a springboard, I have been developing additional thoughts stimulated by reading Norvene Vest’s book Friend of the Soul; A Benedictine Spirituality of Work, on Benedict and the current experience of work. I posted my musings in the two postings Vocare and Barriers to Vocation. 

My thoughts about the relationships between work and a sense of being called (vocare) leads me to reflect on Benedict’s teaching on Stewardship found in many places throughout the Rule but principally in the chapter on the qualities of the Cellarer. For I desire to take better care with those things and people entrusted to me to care for. I would like to be able to report that I have got this mastered. Instead I experience that the principle obstacle to the element of better stewardship in my life and work is not the frustrations and limitations I experience imposed by the world around me. The chief obstacle lies in my own inner resistance to trust. Can I really trust that God goes before me and is already here taking care within the situations and people in my life and my work? If I can then this means my stewardship is not about having to shoulder the caring responsibility alone – something my own life experience often tempts me to do. This is the daunting fantasy – that its all up to me, which forms the chief obstacle to my being a better steward. Benedict reminds me that God is here first. Therefore my stewardship is simply my response to God’s continual invitation to enter into that relationship Jesus promised as an extension of the relationality within the Trinity. Relationality in action marks the key quality of God’s nurturance of situations, people, and objects in my work and my life. If I can entrust myself to the reality of this invitation then the elements of my stewardship responsibilities become aspects of co-operative participation in God’s ongoing stewardship. Being a good steward becomes an experience of not being left alone with my tendency to feel I need to shoulder responsibilities to care for things, situations, and people around me in some kind of solitary manner.

I am in need of a constant reminder that in the situations I face in my work and my life being successful – whatever that term really means I am usually a very poor judge – is not the goal. I don’t have to fix, solve, or resolve. Mastery, control and expertise are not the essential qualities I need.  Stewardship means taking care with an attitude of tender competence (Vest). I turn my attention to discerning how God is already present to and within any situation I face. I have to husband stabilitas – by which Benedict means the energies of commitment, perseverance, and faithfulness. However, for me an additional element of stabilitas is fearlessness in the face of obstacles to tender competence whether originating from outside me or within me. I face obstacles not as frustrations but as stepping stones to relationship with God (Basil Hume cited by Vest 1997:73).

Norvene Vest comments that: we are each day to create with and alongside God the transformation we canon yet imagine. Based on our own situation and gifts, each of us is invited to lead a life illumined by these two factors: a desire to respond to God and a willingness to see daily life as the place where that response is formed. … The Rule of St Benedict helps us to expand our understanding of how to be stewards in our own work in the attention given to everyday life. (1997:76)

This is where the need to trust comes in. I have to trust that God news my involvement through tender competence to bring about something I have yet to imagine. The fact that my life operates on a daily basis within the space of limitation makes my co-operation with god all the more crucial. I need courage in the face of my experience of those external forces that distort, disturb and destroy human well being in our culture. These are forces powerfully present in the world of work where we can come face to face with the ongoing experiences of abuse, humiliation and intimidation. I need trust to hold to the realization in the face of my internal narcissism that in the situations I face in my life and work its not all about me and its not all up to me. An attitude of tender competence enables me to stay in the tension of events and to make internal space for the presence of God’s care, concern and involvement to be experienced. This is not only Benedict’s stabilitas in action, but the path to what he termed converse morum – transformation in living.


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