Abbot Philip: Virtues and Vices in Lenten Practice

monks3Lenten reflections from Benedictine Abbot Philip in New Mexico:

…[I]n Lent we can become focused almost exclusively on sin rather than on virtue. We are struggling to overcome our sinfulness and yet that does not mean to focus on sin. Rather it should mean to focus on living for God and that means to focus on virtue. It is also good to remember that the least offensive of the capital sins is lust, excessive sexual appetites. Often Christians tend to think of such sexual appetites and the worst of the sins. Instead, the worst of the capital sins is pride. From the least to the greatest of these sins, the order would be: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. Lots of us have different orders in our own minds, but this would be the classical order. The corresponding virtues are chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, forgiveness, kindness and humility.

For us monks, humility is often pointed out to us by Saint Benedict in his Rule for Monks. Saint Benedict has a very long chapter on the degrees of humility. Many people today do not take the time to read that chapter well because some of the ways in which Saint Benedict expresses himself go against our modern sensibilities. For instance, Saint Benedict tells us that we must not only think of ourselves as worse than others but believe it in the depths of our hearts. For many people today, who already have low self-esteem, this can be a fatal recipe. It was C. S. Lewis who stated in one of his books that the problem today for many people is not pride but lack of self-esteem.This does not call us to abandon humility, however, but to understand it more profoundly so that we do not confuse humility with a lack of self-esteem. Instead of trying to reinvent humility, we must simply rediscover its reality so that we can live it more completely in our lives. Continue reading “Abbot Philip: Virtues and Vices in Lenten Practice”

Synod on Family: Like Watching Sausage Getting Made


As an editor, I’m always interested when the fine art of copy editing gets political! I decided to run a “compare docs” program on the first and second versions of the report from the Synod on the Family currently going on at the Vatican. (See above. Scroll down to Part III in document for the “juicy” stuff.)

In case you are just catching up, on Monday, 13 Oct, the Vatican released an update from the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. Basically, at the half-way point, they wanted to let folks know what was going on.

Pope Francis is trying a “sunshine strategy” at the notoriously closed-door Vatican. Parts of the synod were even “live-streamed”! He seems to believe that many of the worlds 1.1 billion Catholics — and certainly most of its priests can handle the truth of how things are done, that they can handle spirited discussion, that they can handle more than one idea at a time. (This seems generally to be true, except for one or two really piqued U.S. cardinals.)

Pope Francis trusts that people are complex and intrinsically beautiful and that so is truth. In this, he is totally in sync with his predecessors.

After the first update on Monday, 13 October, the document went to small groups (based on language groups) for review. The agreed upon changes were then entered into a new document, which was released on Thursday, 16 October. (The final document will probably be released next week.)

You’ll recognize it by edits that now identify some families as “broken” (not “wounded”) and calling churches to “provide for” homosexuals (not “welcome”). These changes were ONLY made in the English language version, not the official Italian version.

Theology, like politics, can be messy to watch being made. However Pope Francis may be recalling the words of he predecessor a few years ago when Pope Benedict XVI said at Christmas in 2012 :

“I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity. To be sure, we do not possess the truth, the truth possesses us: Christ, who is the truth, has taken us by the hand, and we know that his hand is holding us securely on the path of our quest for knowledge. Being inwardly held by the hand of Christ makes us free and keeps us safe: free – because if we are held by him, we can enter openly and fearlessly into any dialogue; safe – because he does not let go of us, unless we cut ourselves off from him. At one with him, we stand in the light of truth.”

Here’s the link to the original English version as of 13 Oct 2014, prior to the small group review. (Scroll down about halfway through the post.)

Here are the links to the 3 English-speaking small group (Circuli Minori) reviews: English Group (Circulus Anglicus) “A” – Moderator: Card. Raymond Burke English Group (Circulus Anglicus) “B” – Moderator: Card. Wilfrid Napier, OFM English Group (Circulus Anglicus) “C” – Moderator: Mons. Joseph Kurtz

Here’s the link to the English version current as of 17 October 2014.

Serve up some buns and sauerkraut with that sausage!–Rose Marie Berger

Rule of St. Benedict: ‘On the Keeping of Lent’

spring-tree-buds_tn2“The life of a monk ought always to be a Lenten observance. However, since such virtue is that of few, we advise that during these days of Lent he guard his life with all purity and at the same time wash away during these holy days all the shortcomings of other times. This will then be worthily done, if we restrain ourselves from all vices. Let us devote ourselves to tearful prayers, to reading and compunction of heart, and to abstinence.

During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God “with the joy of the Holy Ghost” (1 Thes 1:6), of his own accord, something above his prescribed measure; namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter.” — The Rule of St. Benedict

Merton: The Art of ‘Distinguishing’

Photo by Thomas Merton

“St. Benedict never said a monk must never go out, never receive a letter, never have a visitor, never talk to anyone, never hear any news. He meant that the monk should distinguish what is useless or harmful from what is useful and salutary, and in all things glorify God.” —Thomas Merton

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton (Image, p14)

Joan Chittister: Why Community?

Joan Chittister, OSB
“Years ago when I was working with new members in the community, there was always one session in which I asked each of them individually, and in turn, why they went to prayer. The answers were always full of the piety that comes with newness and the theology that comes from books.

“Because,” someone would say, “prayer is what leads us to perfection. That’s why I go to prayer.” I’d shake my head: “No,” I’d say. “That’s not why we go to prayer.”

They’d think a while, then someone else would try. “We go to prayer to immerse ourselves in God.” I’d shake my head: “No,” I’d say. “We are always immersed in God but that’s not why we go to prayer.”

The brows would tighten around the table. “I think we go to prayer to remember God,” someone would say a bit more tentatively. I’d shake my head: “No,” I’d say. “Awareness is certainly a state we seek, but it is not why we go to prayer.”

By this time there were fewer quick answers. Finally, one of the brave ones would say, “then why do we go to prayer?” I’d smile. “We go to prayer around here,” I’d say, “because the bell rings.”

It took a moment or two of stunned silence and then they got it. We go to prayer because the community sweeps us along on the days we are too tired to pray, too distracted to pray, to overburdened to care. Then the community becomes the vehicle of our spiritual lives.

The function of community is to sustain us in our weaknesses, model for us the ultimate of our ideals, carry us to the next level of spiritual growth even when we are unaware that we need it, and give us a strength beyond ourselves with which to attain it.

For this reason I am inviting you to become a member of Monasteries of the Heart. Many of you have been faithful supporters of Benetvision for years and that is evidence enough that you are true seekers, that you care about the spiritual life. It’s for people like you that we initiated this new movement.

There are, of course, hermits in the Benedictine tradition. They are an ancient and honored way of life. But Benedict is clear about their place in life. “After they have been trained in community,” he says, they may be able to progress on their own. The message is as fresh today as it’s ever been. We join communities, we create groups, to get to know ourselves and to get the help we need to enable us to do what we most want to do but cannot possibly, continually, certainly do alone.”–Joan Chittister, OSB

Learn more about Monasteries of the Heart.

St. Benedict: Pray. Work. Read.

Painting of Benedict from Peramiho, Tanzania. Kanuni means "Rule" in Swahili.

Today is the feast day of St. Benedict. If you’ve had a chance to see the amazing movie Of Gods and Men – about Trappist monks in Algeria in the mid-1990s – then you’ll appreciate learning more about St. Benedict of Nursia, one of the founders of monasticism. Below is a short reflection on Benedict from Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine sister.

There is one thing Benedict teaches us before all other possible insights about the spiritual life and that is this: God is with us. It is as simple as that. God does not need to be earned. God cannot be merited. God is not persuaded by human behavior to attend to us. God is not intent on ignoring us. “The divine presence is everywhere,” St. Benedict tells us.

God is the very breath of our souls, the creative energy that gives us life and carries us through all our days. God, our hope, is the magnet that draws us and the spirit that carries us from dark to light through life. Our beginning and our end is God, our present hope and life eternal.

We come to rest in that assurance, St. Benedict says, by realizing that whatever happens to us in life — when things go wrong, when our plans go awry, when our future seems dashed and the present seems impossible — God’s will for us is our welfare and not our woe.

Along the way, God sends guides to light our path — spiritual mentors and models to lead us, taskmasters to train us, disciplines to curb us — so that, for those “who endure and not grow weary,” growth from the trivial to the significant may be complete. Then, aware of our own limitations, honest in our sense of self, subdued in our demands of the world and simple in our needs, we lose the demons of exaggerated expectations. We are ready now to take life as it comes to us, unafraid and secure in the presence of God to lead us through it.–Joan Chittister, OSB

From Searching for Balance by Joan Chittister (Abbey Press)

Can I Get A Witness?: Laura Amico’s D.C. Homicide Blog

Laura Norton Amico walk through an alley in Columbia Heights where a 17-year-old girl was found dead in a garbage container. (Washington Post)

I was asked this weekend why I write so much about the dead. The combination of an earlier article on the bodies of 9/11 victims left in the Fresh Kill Landfill on Staten Island (At the Hour of Our Death), my book Who Killed Donte Manning?, and my recent column for Sojourners Rachel’s Wail for a Murdered Teen appeared to set a pattern.

While the answer could be complicated, it’s actually very simple. In Catholic teaching there are the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. One of the corporal works is to “bury the dead.” One of the spiritual works is to “pray for the living and the dead.” Through my writing, I’m trying to practice my faith.

Attending to the works of mercy can lead one into some strange places. Over the past few months I’ve been talking with Laura Amico who runs a blog called Homicide Watch DC. Today’s Washington Post ran a feature article on her work and included a short quote from me. See an excerpt below:

On the morning of Nov. 15, Laura Norton Amico found herself penned inside a scrum of journalists who had packed a room at D.C. Superior Court for a glimpse of the lead suspect in one of Washington’s highest-profile murder cases: the 2001 killing of federal intern Chandra Levy.

But while everyone around her was jockeying for the best view of Ingmar Guandique, the man who would later be convicted of Levy’s murder, Amico waited patiently for the clerk to call the unheralded case of Vernon McRae, a 22-year-old Southeast man charged with fatally wounding Michael Washington, 63, during an argument in October.

Amico, 29, a former police reporter from Santa Rosa, Calif., has quietly carved out a role for herself as the District’s most comprehensive chronicler of the unlawful taking of human life. Since October, she has documented her efforts on a blog called Homicide Watch D.C. Her mission sounds simple: “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.” …

Rose Berger, 47, turned to Homicide Watch D.C. to follow the case of Ebony Franklin, a teenager whose body was found just before Christmas stuffed in a garbage can in an alley near Berger’s Columbia Heights home. A slaying leaves “a hole the community,” Berger said. And to be able to follow the case “allows for healing to happen.” Blogger Aims to Chronicle Every D.C. Homicide

Benedictine monastics have understood since the Middle Ages that in times of great social upheaval, economic distress, and environmental disasters that tear apart families and communties, the church can offer a very particular gift: stability. As Gerald Schlabach writes, “Precisely because it contrasts so sharply with the fragility of most commitments in our hypermodern society, the Benedictine vow of stability may speak more directly to our age and churches than anything else in the Rule.”

When I came to the Columbia Heights neighborhood to join Sojourners intentional Christian community (as it existed then), I had no idea how long I would stay. Now, 25 years later, much of that original community has moved away. However,  new communities grows up in the shell of the old, discipled by the witness of those who experimented with the gospel before them. And the Christian work of honoring the dead carries on in an new way.

The “Green” Issue of Birth Control?

Much has been said about Pope Benedict’s comments regarding selective condom use as a possible minor first step in taking personal responsibility for one’s actions. Below is a very thoughtful Letter to the Editor of the Washington Post from a member of a local Catholic parish:

The clarifications of Pope Benedict XVI’s comment on condoms [“Theologians debate meaning of pope’s condom remark,” news story, Nov. 24] are suggestive, given the oft-stated concern of this “green pope” for the environment.

Incongruously, he remains in denial about the reality of global overpopulation, even while accepting the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change.

But the view ascribed to him by his spokesman – of the moral imperative of “taking into consideration the risk of the life of another” and “avoiding passing a grave risk onto another” – applies as much to the ravaged world that we are leaving to posterity as it does to the AIDS epidemic.

Might not a sophisticated thinker such as Benedict eventually come to see that the ecological harm done by overpopulation is the strongest argument of all for birth control?–Daryl P. Domning, Silver Spring

In part, the issue Domning raises is whether principles of moral discernment can be applied in a variety of situations that require moral decisions or do certain virtue ethics apply in cases of sexuality but not in other equally dire situations.

Radical Openess

Sr. Joan Chittister is one of my heroes in the faith. Rooted in her life modeled after the 1500-years-old disciplines of St. Benedict, she writes and speaks from a position of prophetic wisdom.

The home of whites that has never had a person of color at the supper table is a home that has missed an opportunity to grow. People of color who have never trusted a white have missed a chance to confirm the humanity of the human race. The man that has never worked with a woman as a peer, better yet as an executive, has deprived himself of the revelation of the other half of the world. The comfortable contemplative who has never served soup at a soup kitchen, or eaten lunch in the kitchen with the cook, or clerked in a thrift shop, or spent time in inner-city programs lives in an insulated bubble. The world they know cannot possibly give them the answers they seek. The adult who has never asked a child a question about life and really listened to the answer is doomed to go through life out of touch and essentially unlearned.

“When someone comes to the gate,” the Rule of Benedict instructs, “say ‘Benedicite.’” Say, in other words “Thanks be to God” that someone has come to add to our awareness of the world, to show us another way to think and be and live beyond our own small slice of the universe. –Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB (Illuminated Life)

e-Vatican: 142 Years of Official Documents Go Online

Benedict and RowanFrom 1865 until 2007. From Pope Pius IX to Benedict XVI. There will no doubt be much scholarly debate on this new online content once these 142 years of monthly Vatican reports get translated out of Latin (!) into something the contemporary world understands.

The initial point of interest seems to be the unofficial texts relating to the period around the Second World War. These documents are separated out in files of their own.

The Catholic Church’s role in WWII has long been a tension between Jewish leaders and the Vatican. One the one hand Pope Pius XII signed the Reichskonkordat between Germany and the Vatican in 1933 to support Hitler’s moves against Communism; and many Catholics at every level of the society aligned with the Nazis in their “purity” campaign, including assisting in exposing and killing Jews. On the other hand, there was a strong underground Catholic popular movement to resist Hitler and to protect Jews from harassment, imprisonment, and execution.

The newly accessible Vatican files should offer greater understanding of the dynamics of the time and hopefully bring greater honesty and authenticity to Catholic-Jewish relations. When Pope Benedict XVI visited the Great Synagogue of Rome in 2009, some Jewish leaders asked him to open “all Vatican archives” regarding the pontificate of Pius XII, from 1939 to 1958, and to thoroughly investigate his policy regarding Jews. Now, that has been done.

The Vatican has proved itself capable of transparency on the very difficult issue of WWII and the Holocaust. Will it be so bold to act with transparency on the pedophilia scandal?

Here’s an excerpt from Luigi Sandri’s article on the new online content:

The documents show that during the pontificate of Paul VI, from 1963 to 1978, there was concerted discussion on accusations of “silence” by Pius XII during the Second World War on the Holocaust.

Accusations were that Pius XII never openly and unequivocally protested against the Holocaust and some historians have accused him of accepting actions of Nazi Germany under its dictator Adolf Hitler.

The Vatican has often rebutted this accusation by saying that while it did not condemn the Holocaust, Pius XII strongly encouraged a wide network of Roman Catholics – in parishes, families and monasteries – throughout Europe to help thousands of Jews escape death.

Documents show that Pope Paul VI entrusted a group of four Jesuit historians, headed by the Rev. Pierre Blet, to edit the Acts and documents of Holy See regarding the Second World War.

From 1965 to 1981 the group published 12 volumes. They contain not only official documents, but also letters of the secretary of state, of papal nuncios, and private letters of bishops to the pope. On the whole, according to the Vatican, these documents show that the Holy See did a lot to help Jews during the period.

Read the whole article here.