Abbot Philip: Beauty Forms Us in Beauty

Ceiling of LightsAbbot Philip lives at Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico (left), but has been on retreat in Hawaii for the last few months:

“As far as I can tell, this will be my last Notebook from Hawaii this year. I am ready to leave later today and return to the mainland. It has been a wonderful time of renewal and restoration for me. One of the aspects of my life here and at Christ in the Desert is to live in incredible beauty.

I remember almost 35 years ago when a Trappist abbot commented to me that it is nearly impossible to lead a deep spiritual life in an ugly place. Monasteries that are founded in ugly places have to change them into beautiful places or they have to relocate. Part of our spiritual life has to include some awareness of our surroundings and an awareness of how those surroundings affect us. This is another aspect of living the incarnation.

For me personally, because I am a fairly strong introvert, there are many times when I pay no direct attention to what is around me physically. That does not mean that it does not affect me.Years ago when I was visiting a monastery of nuns, I made a concerted effort to note everything about the physical layout of the monastery and of all of the details of art work, architecture and spatial arrangements.

That night I commented on those aspects of their monastery to the nuns. They were totally amazed. So was I, because it is not my normal way of seeing! I have to work at it and when I do, I begin to see the spiritual aspects of the physical reality in which I live.As I write this, for instance, I can see the Pacific Ocean as it stretches to what seems to be infinity, but is just the horizon. I can see the incredible tropical green of lush plant life, palm trees, ferns, vines and other plants—all interspersed with flowers of every color: small flowers, large flowers and even brightly colored leaves. Then there is the texture of rock walls constructed freely from the abundant lava rock that is here.

Do the vistas and the physical reality affect my spiritual life? Of course! Just as at home, the incredible beauty of the Chama Canyon always enfolds me and affects me. Yet I rarely reflect upon it. In the last few days here, I have been spending more time just reflecting on the beauty that is here and how it touches and forms my life. In a monastery, we realize that the architecture forms us even as we choose the architecture. We also realize that the surroundings of the monastery form us, even as we may shape the surroundings. Truth, beauty and goodness are all attributes of God.

Beautiful architecture, beautiful surroundings, beautiful music — all of these things form us to live in beauty and truth and goodness. There can be extremes, of course. One can refuse to live in a place that is truly ugly or one can refuse to live in what is beautiful for another. …

For me personally, both Christ in the Desert and here in Hawaii touch on something deep within me. Both are healing places for me. I still have to do my own inner work, relating to the Lord, praying, loving others, etc.

But the natural surroundings make that easier for me. Many times people have asked me if I get used to the beauty at Christ in the Desert. My honest reply is that I do take it for granted and then it hits me again all over: wow! The same is true here in Hawaii. On my first visit, I was overwhelmed by the beauty—then gradually I got used to it. I take it for granted. If someone asks me about it, then once more I begin to reflect on how such beauty forms me. It is more than something just physical. It somehow touches something deep within. This is one of the reasons that the celebrations of the Holy Mass should also be beautiful. Such celebrations form us in beauty and in the Lord. …

Authentic spirituality means adapting ourselves to wherever we are and seeing the presence of God there. Authentic spirituality is living always in the present moment, no matter how difficult it is—and finding the presence of the divine there. God is with us always and God is always loving us. Spirituality is about discovering that reality, over and over and over. …”–Abbot Philip, Christ in the Desert

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