06 February 2008

Grace In "Groundhog Day"

A friend passes along this excellent essay on the workings and outworkings of the Benedictine virtue of stability.

Br. Christian Raab, OSB Saint Meinrad Archabbey

The 1993 Harold Ramis film, "Groundhog Day," is the story of the television weatherman named Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself stuck in a kind of time warp in which he is forced to relive the same day over and over again.

As the film begins, Phil is portrayed as a cocky, sarcastic, self-important prima donna who resents being sent to the small town of Punxsutawney, Pa, to cover the Groundhog Day Festival. He spends his day in Punxsutawney ridiculing the provincialisms of the people, bragging about his chances of becoming an anchorman and trying, rather rudely, to charm his attractive producer, Rita, played by Andie McDowell.

At day's end, Phil's TV crew gets snowed in at Punxsutawney. Phil awakens the next day to discover that, once again, it is February 2nd, though he is the only one who seems to notice. He relives the whole day, encounter by encounter, no more gracefully and with even more frustration than he had the day before. He finally goes to bed, hoping that he has just suffered the world's worst case of déjà vu. However, when he awakens, he finds that once again it is February 2nd. This pattern repeats itself for the rest of the movie. Phil, quite clearly, has become stuck in Groundhog Day.

As we watch this film, we get to see Phil relive his day and re-encounter the people in it countless times. As he does this, Phil's reactions to his experience change. At first, Phil meets his fate with utter frustration and angrily lashes out at those he encounters. Then, Phil decides that a life without consequences beyond one day might be used for hedonistic pleasure-seeking.

When he ultimately tires of this, he turns his attention to trying to win the heart of Rita, but he goes about this artificially. He spends a number of days figuring out who the perfect man is in Rita's eyes, and then he pretends to be this person. Needless to say, it doesn't work.

Phil responds with despair and, believing it is the only way out of his private hell, tries in numerous ways, to end his life. However, after each ill-fated attempt, he awakens again to the same song on the radio and sees that it is still February 2nd.

Finally, Phil recognizes that his selfishness is getting him nowhere. Having reached rock bottom, he changes direction and begins to live for others. He gets to know people and respond to their needs. He feeds a homeless man. He is kind to an annoying character. He helps counsel young couple. He knows what time every day a group of old ladies get a flat tire and so he hurries there to fix it for them.

Likewise, he knows what time each day a young boy falls from a tree and he rushes there to catch in him. He discovers that he has a gift for music, which he develops and shares. He becomes part of the community he once ridiculed and, finally, in forgetting himself, he escapes his fate and reaches February 3rd.

There is something about Phil's Groundhog Day that resonates strongly with the experience of living as a novice in a Benedictine monastery. Benedictine life, especially life in the novitiate, is very structured and, like Groundhog Day, repetitive.

For example, every day begins the same. At 5:15 a.m., the bells start ringing to announce that Morning Prayer will commence at 5:30. After Morning Prayer is breakfast, then private spiritual reading. At 7:30 a.m., we return to church for Mass. When this is over, we may grab a quick cup of coffee before the workday begins at 8:30 a.m.

Coffee break is at 10 a.m. At noon comes Midday Prayer and then lunch, followed by work or class again at 1 p.m. At 4:30 p.m., the workday ends. The monks go back to church at 5 p.m. for Vespers. After this, we have another period of private spiritual reading, and then at 6 p.m. we meet for the evening meal, which is usually eaten in silence while one of the monks reads aloud from a selected text.

After dinner, monks are usually free to recreate, study or go to bed. Occasionally, we have a religious service or a conference with the abbot in the evening. The monk ends his day, goes to sleep, awakens again the next day to the ringing of the bells, and the cycle begins again. It is a structured, repetitive and somewhat predictable life. In some ways, every day feels the same.

Of course, this structured life is not just a repetition of practices but, more importantly, it is a repetition of encounters with people. It is easy to know that a particular brother can be expected to sit at a particular place in the refectory during breakfast. A certain father will be arriving at the coffee maker at 7 a.m.

Some monks will sit on this side of the calefactory during coffee break, and others will probably sit on the other side. We expect to see certain monks in the computer lab before we open the door. We know who will almost surely be playing cards after supper.

We become familiar with the sounds of monks' breathing and walking. We begin to know who will like a book and who will hate it. Who will take a joke and who won't, who likes hugs and who doesn't, who prefers the mornings and who prefers the evenings. In the way that monastic life provides a series of repeating counters and practices, it isn't far different from Groundhog Day.

The monk, unlike Phil voluntarily chooses this life of repetitive practices and encounters in connection to the vow of stability. The vow of stability is a monk's promise to stay in the same place with the same people and engage in the same monastic practices for the rest of one's earthly life.

Like all the vows, stability is a means toward the end of conversion. Our Br. John Mark explains that stability aids conversion by providing the sure and solid context in which the human will may be conformed to the will of the loving God. Br. John Mark compares the human will to a steel rod which, in conversion, is bent into conformity with the divine will.

One cannot bend a rod without having something strong and solid to hold it in place while the bending is being done. This is what stability does. It provides the necessary strong and solid foundation that makes conversion, the bending of the rod, possible.

Stability means the monks stays put. He commits to repeat his day over and over again, in the same place with the same people doing the same things. And so the monk, in a very real way, is choosing voluntarily to do what Phil Connors did involuntarily, to stay in one place, to relive and re-encounter while being transformed.

Repetition can help us with this transformation, not merely by keeping us surefooted, but by supplying and resupplying opportunities to us for loving choices. For example, because I am in this repetitive life, each day I have the opportunity to be more attentive in liturgy and to be more open in prayer than I was earlier.

As each day I live and work alongside some characters who annoying me, I have the opportunity to "love my enemies," to set aside grievances, to practice patience, to exercise charity. Each day I have the opportunity to anticipate needs in the elderly monks, to clean things with more care than I did the day before, to listen with more receptivity to the lonely and the needy.

Because so many of our experiences and encounters repeat themselves, I am, each day and always, being given the opportunity to be humble where I was proud, to be chased where I was lustful, to be calm where I was angry, to be forgiving where I was unforgiving, to be assertive where I was a pushover. In this way, stability, by its repetition, can be accepted as a great gift that can be a tremendous help in the path to holiness.

The monk who perseveres can, like Phil Connors, be transformed. Like Phil we may come to this life with problems of self-centeredness, sarcasm, conceit, anger, despair or lust. But if we are open to the grace that comes with living out stability in a monastic community, we, like Phil, may be transformed into persons of charity.

In the last scene of "Groundhog Day," Phil has finally "gotten it right" and the morrow has finally come. On the morning of February 3, the now transformed Phil says to Rita with joyful single-mindedness, "Is there anything I can do for you today?" It is this novice monk's hope that he may be able to start his own day, each day, with the same happy singularity of purpose, saying to my brothers and to God, "Is there anything I can do for you today?"

Saint Meinrad Benedictine Oblate Newsletter
Winter 2008



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