Abbot Philip: The Spirituality of Easter

Abbot Philip

From Abbot Philip at Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico:

“Part of the spirituality of Easter is learning to believe in the presence of God in all that happens. All we need do is think of the earlier followers of Jesus who were so discouraged and disheartened when He was crucified. From a human point of view, that was the end. All of the hopes of His followers were dashed and broken. So a challenge of spirituality is to believe that God is always present and always bringing about a good in every situation. We don’t always see the good. Perhaps even often we don’t see the good. Yet we are called to believe.

At the heart of all spirituality is this deep and unfailing belief that God is God, that God is present and that God is involved in all that happens. Immediately this takes us to a different level of belief. Our world today, to an enormous extent, believes that there is nothing after death. So many Christians even believe that now. Jesus is a good figure and a good man, but surely Jesus was not God! Once a Christian no longer believes that Jesus is God, then such a person really can no longer be called a Christian. Such a person may well live in a way that brings him or her to heaven, but in this life there is a huge lack of faith.

How different our lives are when we believe that there is another life after death! In the past, of course, some would say that we Christians use the idea or even the reality of heaven to avoid living the realities of this life! For sure, when we believe that this life is not the whole meaning of human reality, then our understanding of how to live changes incredibly. It is more important to be good than to achieve a lot of money or have a lot of sexual relationships or to have power over others. What matters is living in Jesus Christ, living as He did and trying to love others and serve others. Continue reading “Abbot Philip: The Spirituality of Easter”

Abbot Phillip: Not Hermits, But Communal Creatures

Abbot Phillip
Abbot Phillip

Abbot Phillip writes a weekly notebook from Christ in the Desert monastery in New Mexico. Here’s an excerpt from his recent offering:

More and more I see that an authentic human life has to be centered in this relationship of each person with God. This personal relationship with God always expresses itself in relationships with other people. Even hermits are not so apart from the human condition that their relationship is with God alone. Instead, in our Christian tradition, we always expect hermits to be praying for the world, for the Church and for other people.

Most of us are not hermits. Instead, we live in communities. We live in families or we live in religious communities. And families and religious communities live in a larger society as well. We are all connected in various ways. Often we think that the deepest connections are of our choosing. On the other hand, it is God Himself who has chosen us and who has given us our being, our bodies, our families of origin and who even now is working within us in the depths of our being.

Jesus almost presume that ti be human is to live in community. In every society there are people, both women and men, who live apart by choice—but most of them are not hermits. They are people who for one reason or another don’t have a bond to another person or to family in which they live.

Does it make any difference? At most levels, not much. No matter whether we live with others or not, we are still called to love everyone and to seek the face of this God who loves us. For me, it is very easy to forget about God and to live just trying to avoid difficulties in my life and in the life of others.

Spending time with God often feels to me like wasting time doing nothing. That is my challenge. Others have other challenges. Even the most active and extroverted person needs to take time along with God now and then. When I do take time with God, it is a very positive experience. I don’t know why I avoid it so much. Don’t think that I avoid God completely. Even on a normal day, without focusing on spending time with God, I probably spend about four hours in community prayer and another hour in lectio or private prayer.

What do I mean by spending time with God? For me, that indicates putting aside the other things that I do, such as correspondence, arranging schedules, being touch with brothers and sisters all over the world, checking on the business affairs of the community.

When I spend time with God, I have to put all of that aside and ignore if anything else is going to happen. Often I go into a room where no one will look for me and sit with the readings for the Mass that day—not trying to accomplish anything with the readings, but just being with God and with His Word. Sometimes I just sit an pray the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. Sometimes I seek to be aware of God’s presence without words. Sometimes such times of being with God are really easy. Other times, it is like doing exercise that I do not like!

The challenge for me is simply to do this, whether I feel like it or not. For me, it is like a commitment to be with the Lord, whether I feel His presence or not, whether I feel a drawing to His presence or not. It goes along with my commitment to be present at the common life in my community.–Abbot Phillip, Christ in the Desert Benedictine monastery

Ready Abbot Philip’s full reflection.

Abbot Philip: Change is part of our Spirituality

Abbot Phillip
Abbot Phillip

“Changes are part of normal life but are also a part of our spirituality. I dislike changes very much and prefer that everything goes on without change. I dislike it when people leave the community. I dislike it when we have to discuss how to change various parts of our life. I dislike it when I have to make personal changes. And so on and on and on. Yet I recognize that my likes or dislikes never stop the need for change and adaptation. Over the years I have come to see the positive side of changes and the challenges that changes put in front of all of us as humans.Appreciating the value of change does not mean that I like change! Part of my personal spirituality has come to be accepting things that I don’t like, appreciating things that I don’t like, and being still and silent and not reacting about things that I don’t like. This has served me well over the years.

I was sharing with one of the brothers the other day that when I was a young superior … who was almost 30 years older than I, kept telling me this: don’t write or speak when you are angry! Over the years I finally learned that he was correct. Not writing or speaking when I am angry could become a way to avoid an issue, but that is not what it is supposed to be. Rather, it is a way of remaining in peace so that I can truly see before I act. Anger is only one of the ways in which we can be blinded. All of our natural desires can pull us away from this inner place where we see things as they truly are. As I continue to grow older, I find some solace in still learning how to be peaceful and to see what is happening, rather than just reacting to what is happening.

Sometimes I laugh to myself when I look back at how impulsive I was as a young monk and then a young superior. My temper can still flare, but much less than when I was young. The last three meetings that I have been at have been so peaceful for me because of learning to be still. One of the Italian abbots asked me: what is wrong with you, Philip? You haven’t commented on anything.
I replied to him that finally I had learned to be still and just to listen. Most of the time any views that I have are expressed by others and I don’t need to say them. I still speak up if something is clearly unacceptable to me, but most of the time, if I just wait, everything turns out well enough. The few decisions that I would disagree with are usually not important at all.

Someone told me that I was avoiding responsibility by not speaking out. From my point of view, this is simply not true. If there is something that I totally disagree with and which is set to become the norm, then I do speak out. Others listen to me more, the less I speak. I see much of this way of thinking expressed in the wisdom literature of Scripture.”–Abbot Philip, Christ in the Desert Monastery

Read Abbot Philip’s complete reflection.

Abbot Philip: The Practice of Lectio Divina

"The Road to Christ in the Desert, I" by Bob Baker
“The Road to Christ in the Desert, I” by Bob Baker

It’s been a busy spring for me and postings here have been less regular, but you are constantly in my heart where ever you are!–Rose

Reflections from Christ in the Desert monastery’s Abbot Philip on the practice of Lectio Divina:

I have been reading the Gospel of Matthew for my lectio. Lectio is part of the monastic way of life. It is a slow and prayerful reading of the Scriptures. In our Benedictine tradition, this practice of the slow and prayerful reading of the Scriptures is fundamental. The purpose is to know the Scriptures profoundly and this can take place only over a long period of time. This type of knowledge of the Scriptures is focused on encounter with the Word and no on some form of academic knowledge. It requires a daily commitment on the part of the monk. At Christ in the Desert we have a small booklet that we call our Customary.

It sets down for the monks some of the things that we do and sometimes how to do them. Regarding Lectio, the Customary tells us that a monk must strive to spend at least a half hour each day in silent prayer and at least one hour each day in this practice of prayerful reading with a focus on Scripture.All of us who have been monks for a number of years know that it is easy to avoid praying and to avoid reading Scripture. It sounds so easy at first. Continue reading “Abbot Philip: The Practice of Lectio Divina”

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”

Abbot Phillip: ‘Seek Peace and Pursue It or Play Host to Anger’

Abbot Phillip
Abbot Phillip

Abbot Phillip Lawrence, OSB, at Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico, offers these reflections on the paradoxical struggle for peace:

“The challenge for anyone who wants peace is to create peace within.  That is the first challenge. Saint Seraphim of Sarov said in one of his sayings that if we acquire a spirit of peace, and thousands of souls will be saved around us.  We don’t have to fight the world or to fight others. The first and really only battle is with ourselves. In much of the spiritual tradition, there is reference to the spiritual struggle, the spiritual battle, etc. That battle is always against ourselves so that we may have peace and love others without judging them.

In my own life I have gone through times when peace has been easy and has been a wonderful gift. At other times, though, I can feel my own reactions which are against peace. That is the point where there is a choice: seek peace and pursue it or play host to my bad feelings and angers and lusts and fears and let them push my life in all directions. Just because I try to choose to seek peace does not make it easy! Instead, part of growing in the spiritual life is learning to embrace such battles and not weary in pursuing peace. Most of us know when we have accepted anger or lust or fear or laziness.

It is when we become aware that we have accepted such realities in our lives that we have the chance to choose against them.  Sometimes these realities creep up on us and we are not aware of them. But in that moment that we become aware, we have the choice. If we are engaged in the spiritual battle regularly, we tend to make better choices, even if not always the best choices. So if I were to give advice to anyone about the spiritual life, it would be simple:  start now to try to do God’s will!  No matter how often you fail, keep on trying.  In time good things will begin to happen along with the necessary suffering that trying to do His will entails. … Stay with it! …

So often, when we seek the spiritual life, we are hoping to feel good.  An honest spiritual life sometimes has those moments of feeling good.  But it also has long stretches of not feeling much and sometimes periods of feeling awful about ourselves, about others and even about God.  Be prepared to suffer if you want a deep spiritual life.”–Abbot Philip, Christ in the Desert

Read Abbot Philip’s whole reflection.

Abbot Philip: Why Being Regular is Good for Your Prayer Life

Abbot Phillip
Abbot Phillip

Abbot Philip is serving at Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico. I find his “notes” very helpful. He writes:

“One of the aspects of my life is that often I cannot keep any kind of regular schedule. For sure, I keep the external schedule in the monastery when I am home, but even within that schedule, there are aspects that simply do not work for me. I love to have a short nap after Vigils, but often that is impossible because of something that must be done at that time. After Holy Mass I like to be quiet and still but that is not always possible when brothers come to knock at my door. After Terce I try to go for a walk, but sometimes there are other appointments that get in the way.I like to try to get my regular work (answering letters, mostly, but sometimes working on music for the community) done so that I can have a nap after lunch. That time after lunch should be sacred for all monks, but there are still times when it must be give up for the sake of seeing someone. And so my days go by.

I often think of myself as one who works to have a regular order in his life, but who most often must respond to the exigencies of whatever is happening. When my trips are also added into this mix, it is easy to see why all I can do is work towards order in my life. There is always a basic order but it never is able to be lived for long periods of time. Sometimes I long for a type of work where I could clock in and clock out and no one could bother me afterwards. Each of us has his or her own life.

Most of us have some order in our lives. Many live as I do: seeking order and sometimes finding it. Why order? Because with order we are able to focus our inner energies toward prayer and towards that deep relationship with God that is at the heart of any Christian life.

The ultimate order, of course, is simply to live in God and to do all for God. For most of us, that requires an inner effort, both of mind and of will. In order to focus ourselves, daily order can be helpful. There are people who are completely ordered externally with no thought of God. Thus order is not a guarantee to think of God and to live for God alone. But it can help. For myself, when I let myself long for the Lord, I find that I want to put more order in my life so that I can give more time and attention to Him.

At other times, I find myself so caught up just in surviving and getting things done that I let my longing for the Lord simmer and almost become extinct, even though I seem almost always aware of His presence. So for me, both order and longing for the Lord are elements that help me stay on the path of the Lord. There are wonderful moments on the path and there are times when it is just difficult to keep walking. That is a normal part of my life. I rejoice when things are going well and I struggle when they are not. I continue to seek to put order in my life, no matter how often it eludes me. Most of all, I try to allow my heart to long for Him who is the only meaning of my life.”–Abbot Philip

Read more from Abbot Philip here.

Abbot Philip: ‘The Center From Which We Live’

Abbot Phillip
Abbot Phillip

“Spiritual life is the life that we live every day. It is not something apart from our daily lives. Jesus told us in the Gospels that it is not what goes into a person that defiles a person, but that which comes out of the heart. He was talking about food taboos in His own time but the words help us understand that we must live from the heart and be aware of what comes forth from our hearts. In some traditions, the heart is the place of feelings. In other traditions the heart is the place where feelings and thoughts come together. It is this meaning that I use. We can call this place the heart, the center of our being, our soul — or whatever. In each of us there is a center from which we live. Part of growing up is discovering that center and learning how to live from the center of our being. As we grow, we can come to recognize that not all feelings help us live well and neither do all thoughts. We recognize that actions have results and that not all the results of our actions help us live well.”–Abbot Philip, Christ in the Desert Monastery

Read Abbot Philip’s entire reflection.

Abbot Phillip: On Training a Puppy

Abbot Phillip
Abbot Phillip

From Abbot Phillip’s Notebook (2014-04-30):

“Many years ago when I arrived in New Mexico, a good friend gave me a horse and told me: you can learn a lot about humans by watching this horse. Some months ago, we received a beagle puppy who is now 11 months old. He is just learning the disciplines of obedience. Again, I can see so many human reactions and responses in this puppy and he grows into a mature dog.

I see a lot of myself in him, but also see so much of our human situation. Right now the challenge with Joshua the Beagle is to have him get used to wearing a harness and walking with me. I am not his master, but I work on his training. He hates the harness. When I put it on him, he stops doing anything and just stands there, stubborn as he can be. He will not come even for a treat. Becoming a monk, or even becoming a Christian, is a bit like that. Learning to live a spiritual life is very much like that. No one wants a harness today. We want completely liberty. Yet it is the harness and obedience that give a dog happiness in the long run and protect the dog against accidents and incidents that anger others.

Continue reading “Abbot Phillip: On Training a Puppy”

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.

Continue reading “Abbot Philip: Beauty Forms Us in Beauty”