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: ‘If we always agreed, there would be not much need to listen’

Abbot Philip is part of Christ in the Desert monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico. I’ve visited there only once and it was a profoundly transforming experience. He writes:

One of the great challenges of the spiritual life is that of accepting ourselves as we are, even when others may not understand us nor accept us.

Each of us must walk a path of righteousness, seeking to do what is right in our own lives and in the lives of our families or communities. That sounds, as always, fairly simple. It never is. Why is it that others always have the answers to our lives when they seem unable to navigate well in their own? Why is it that others think that they should be able to make the decisions in our lives? These are questions that are asked of me from time to time. I see these questions played out in our own community and in relationships. In a monastic community, we get used to having others involved in our lives. It is part of living in community.

We monks are never to make decisions just by ourselves. Married couples are supposed to do the same thing in their family lives. Even the abbot cannot make decisions in a totally autonomous manner in the monastic life. I have to consult a Council or a Chapter on almost every important decision. It is not just that I have to do that, it is also that doing so is a real help in living the monastic life and serving a community.There are times when the advice or the votes of the Chapter or Council are not what I want to hear. There are times in a marriage when one spouse really does not want to listen to the other. That is the nature of advice.

If we always agreed with one another, there would be not much need to listen to one another. Ultimately, of course, each of us must make his or her own decisions when they are decisions of the deepest levels of our lives. We must listen carefully first, we must weigh carefully all that is told to us—and we must make a decision. Most of the time in the spiritual life, we are not making earth-shattering decisions. I do not have to decide every day that I am going to remain a monk! I do not have to decide every day that I will try to pray! Daily spirituality is mostly about trying to do well the things that I have already decided to do. That is why it can get so very boring at times! There are times in everyone’s life that an important decision must be made. My personal experience is that those types of decisions have become less and less as I mature. There are decisions that I must make in my own life, but they are not the direction setting decisions of my younger years.

Now it is a matter of faithfully living out what I have promised and decided. For me, this is one of the reasons that life is more peaceful as I mature. One decision builds on top of another. If the first decisions are well made and strong, everything built on them remains strong. Sometimes I see people struggling so very much because they have never made good decisions. Or they made good decisions and later abandoned them. I certainly wavered about lots of decisions when I was younger, but in due time I reaffirmed those decisions and kept on the path which they indicated. Spiritually, it is very important to make good decisions, especially about the most important things in life. With good decisions, we have something on which our lives can be built.–Abbot Philip, OSB (The Abbot’s Notebook for Wednesday Apr 18, 2012)

Bob Sabath: What it Takes to Avoid Success

Sojourners co-founder Bob Sabath has written a wonderful reflection titled “Poorer, Poorer. Slower, Slower. Smaller, Smaller.” I commend this to all faithful dreamers and those who once were and are now floundering a bit.

Below is an excerpt from Bob’s reflection and then a poem by Rilke that Bob uses with his meditation. As an extra bonus, Bob’s son Peter set the Rilke poem to music.

…You had to be a bit crazy to be in the early community. And yes, we were poor. And we were small.

We tried to slow down. I tacked to my office door Thomas Merton’s warning to social activists about the violence of overwork:

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects … is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism … kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

To stay alive, we needed prophet, pastor, and monk. Continue reading “Bob Sabath: What it Takes to Avoid Success”

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.

Homicide Watch D.C.: Marking Death To Claim Life

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’ve been doing what I can to support Laura Amico Norton and her work as founder of the blog Homicide Watch D.C. Its mission: Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case. As Laura says, “Their deaths needs to be marked if we are living consciously in this city.”

She’s a 28-year-old former newspaper reporter whose web site chronicles every murder in Washington D.C. Laura supports her work out of her own pocket and is hoping to get grant funding.

Recently, BBC reporter Jane O’Brien met Laura at a Bloomingdale neighborhood prayer vigil for Billy Mitchell. Mitchell was murdered when he, allegedly, tried to intervene in a street altercation between a man and a woman. You can listen to O’Brien’s excellent interview with Laura on BBC Outlook (starts at minute 16).

“I think those people who don’t even get a funeral announcement are just as important as the ones who do get the coverage,” says Laura. “Who they were and how they died say as much about our city as the one’s who do get a news write up.”

By being online, the web site provides a place to form community for the family and friends of murder victims. It becomes a place of solace; a place that meets the need for the victim’s community to get concrete information about the legal aspects of the case and as a place to meet others who knew their loved one, but whom the family might not have met.

As one neighbor put it, “She’s putting a face on every victim who is murdered in DC.”

For more on read Can I Get A Witness?: Laura Amico’s DC Homicide Blog

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.

True ‘Family Values’ Means Loving Your Gay Kids, Say Latino Catholics

Migdalia Santiago: "My daughter is lesbian. I learned this when she was 13. I am Catholic."

The Christian Right has maintained a strong anti-gay plank in their “family values” platform. However, many Christians believe that true “family values” are rooted in the family as a model of Christian community.

Christian families are kinship groups where the basics of Christian virtues and life are taught to the young and exemplified by the elders  — including sacrificial love, deep prayer and study, charity and justice  within and beyond the family, and a bottomless well of mercy and forgiveness.

Latinos are known for holding the family at the core of culture and values. The Public Religion Research Institute’s July 21, 2010, report on Religion and Same-Sex Marriage in California indicates how “family values” are defined among Latino Catholics and Protestants in California when it comes to gays,  gay marriage, and justice.

Here’s what the statistics show:

*57% of Latino Catholics would vote for the legalization of same-sex marriage compared to 22% of Latino Protestants

*Latino Catholics “say they trust the parents of gay and lesbian children more than their own clergy as a source of information about homosexuality.”

*According to the Pew Forum, an estimated 31% of California’s population is Catholic. And of that between 40-50% is Latino.

Joe Palacios, adjunct professor of sociology at Georgetown University, reflects on this trend in On Faith:

Family First: Latino Catholics orient their social lives around the family and extended family even in the context of high Latino single-parent households (estimated 33% of all U.S. Latino households; 36% of all Latino Children in California live in single-parent households). Family solidarity is strong and even though children may not follow “traditional family values” as projected by the church and the U.S. society, parents want to keep their children within the family. It is not surprising that Catholics in general and Latino Catholics in particular, as the Public Religion Research study shows, see that parents learn about gay issues from their children. Their moral and ethical judgments are primarily made through this social reality rather than abstract pronouncements from their church leaders.

Catholic Communal versus Protestant Individual Faith: Catholicism is a communal faith that highlights the life cycle process through the sacraments of baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, and marriage. Families experience their moral lives through communal participation in the sacraments, as well as the Latino community’s cultural observances of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Posadas, Dia de los Muertos, etc. Protestant Latinos, on the other hand, have a faith that is individually driven through faith conversion (“accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior”) that often separates a person from the Catholic sacramental life cycle process and the social fabric of the Catholic-based cultural celebrations. Fundamentalist Protestantism sees such Catholic cultural practices as contrary to a pure Christian faith. The study illustrates this communal-individual faith difference by noting that Latino Protestants (37%) lean toward a style of religious social engagement prioritizing “personal morality and faith” over a Catholic (59%) orientation that prioritizes “justice and action.”

Latino Catholic Tolerance versus Protestant Fundamentalist Judgment: Catholics allow complexity and ambiguity in moral decision-making since Catholicism is neither fundamentalist nor literalist regarding the Bible. Rather, Catholics can weigh factors such as the Bible, church teaching, and social reality affecting decision-making. Latino Catholics in the United States live in this social context that allows the free exercise of conscience rather than enforced scriptural fundamentalism or bishops’ and pastors’ exhortations in making decisions regarding homosexuality and gay rights– as is often exercised in Protestant fundamentalist and evangelical denominations and now by increasingly doctrinaire Catholic bishops. Further, as noted in the study, Catholic priests rarely mention homosexuality or gay issues in sermons except when forced to by the bishops as happened during the Prop 8 campaign.

Read Palacios’ whole column here. Read the whole Public Religion Research Institute report with more valuable data on religious views correlated to gay/lesbian issues. Including this:

A significant number of Californians who initially say they  support civil unions but not same-sex marriage say they would support same-sex marriage if the law addresses either of two basic concerns about religious marriages:

*With a religious liberty reassurance that the law would guarantee that no congregation would be forced to conduct same-sex marriages against its beliefs, support for same-sex marriage increases 12 points, from initial support of 42% to a solid majority at 54%.

*With a civil marriage reassurance that the law would only provide for ‘civil marriages like you get at city hall,’ support increases 19 points, from 42% to about 6-in-10 (61%).

Also read Why Would More Latino Catholics Be For Same-Sex Marriage Than Protestants? by Candace Chellew-Hodge

And for an excellent discussion on the Bible and gay marriage, see earlier post The Good Book and Gay Marriage.

Denise Giardina: Mourning in the Mountains

Chris Keane/Reuters
Chris Keane/Reuters
There was a lovely reflection in today’s NYT by novelist Denise Giardina about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia. Denise spent some time with Sojourners community in the late ’70s and early ’80s when she was working on her first book Storming Heaven. Since then she’s gone on to write Unquiet Earth, Saints and Villains, and Emily’s Ghost. Currently, Denise is the writer-in-residence at West Virginia State University. Below is an excerpt from her column:

Halfway through Saturday night’s semifinal against Duke, our star forward, Da’Sean Butler, tore a ligament in his knee, and the Mountaineers crumbled. And on Monday evening, while Duke and Butler played in what for us was now merely a game, West Virginians gathered around televisions to watch news of a coal mine disaster.

On Tuesday, the headline in The Charleston Gazette read instead: Miners Dead, Missing in Raleigh Explosion . And we cried.

Despite the sunny skies and unseasonably warm weather, the mood here in southern West Virginia is subdued. As of Tuesday afternoon, 25 men have been confirmed dead, two are critically injured, and four are missing and presumed dead. Their fellow West Virginians work round the clock and risk their own lives to retrieve the bodies.

Already outrage is focused on Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine. Massey has a history of negligence, and Upper Big Branch has often been cited in recent years for problems, including failure to properly vent methane gas, which officials say might have been the cause of Monday’s explosion.

It seems we can’t escape our heritage. I grew up in a coal camp in the southern part of the state. Every day my school bus drove past a sign posted by the local coal company keeping tally, like a basketball scoreboard, of “man hours” lost to accidents. From time to time classmates whose fathers had been killed or maimed would disappear, their families gone elsewhere to seek work.

We knew then, and know now, that we are a national sacrifice area. We mine coal despite the danger to miners, the damage to the environment and the monomaniacal control of an industry that keeps economic diversity from flourishing here. We do it because America says it needs the coal we provide.

Read the whole column here.

It’s Time to Move Our Money

board_community_bankLet’s be honest. Most of us have what money we have in some big bank because of a) convenience or b) our little bank got eaten up by a big bank and we just didn’t have the time or energy to find some place new.

Last year I went through several hoops to get my accounts out of Bank of America only to find that, 2 months after I switched, my new bank had been taken over by Wells Fargo. Argh!

But now, I’m going to try for it again. I want to try to move most of my accounts to Self-help Credit Union in North Carolina and keep a small checking account here in DC with Lafayette Federal Credit Union that serves D.C. residents.

It’s time for Americans to reinvest in community banks. This movement has been building for a number of years. Churches in particular have made community economics a priority.

Ched Myers and the folks at the Sabbath Economics Cooperative have been educating on community investing as a faith act for 25 years. Now, what was once only practiced by a few is graduating into a mainstream movement of the many.

Eric Stoner over at Waging Nonviolence has a nice post on the movement to get Americans to shift their money out of big banks into community banks and credit unions. There’s also a great little video (below) out promoting the Move Your Money campaign.

Sojourners’ Jim Wallis also just put out a book called Rediscovering Values on what the Bible teaches us about our current economic debacle and had a good piece in the Washington Post called A Religious Response to the Financial Crisis.

Wallis says, “The market’s first commandment, “There is never enough,” must be replaced by the dictums of God’s economy — namely, there is enough, if we share it. … Already, pastors, lay leaders and innovative faith-based practitioners are suggesting creative answers: mutual aid; congregational and community credit unions; and new cooperative strategies for solving such problems as hunger, homelessness and joblessness. If these initiatives succeed, the economic crisis may offer congregations a rare opportunity to clarify their missions and reconnect with their communities. ”

Tell me your stories on where you store the green stuff and what it helps to grow!

‘Waiting for Real Change’ in Columbia Heights

Sara Stahlberg, an American University student, who blogs at Trust Me: I’m A Reporter, has got a nice piece up about Columbia Heights and the public art installation at 11th and Park Roads NW done by Albus Cavus that I wrote about here. She includes a quote from yours truly:

Columbia Heights resident and author Rose Berger enjoyed what the exhibit represented in terms of the direction of the community.

“The Albus Cavus project with its panels of creative graffiti (as opposed to rage/wound-based graffiti) placed on the construction fence of the abandoned Bi-Rite represent a new generative force in the life of the neighborhood,” she said, explaining also that the “reclaiming of the Bi-Rite by a local green architectural firm committed to Columbia Heights (as opposed to the megalith big box stores that tower over 14th St) seems to have created a renewed affection for the neighborhood and the neighbors.”

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