Abbot Philip: Perspectives on Being Uncomfortable

Abbot Philip, OSB (Monastery of Christ in the Desert , NM)

“How do we learn to live in circumstances that are uncomfortable for us? The early monks again remind us to think of those who live in circumstances much worse than ours and who cannot change their circumstances. It is easy for many of us to forget the difficulties of others, especially when we find ourselves in circumstances that we find difficult. For instance, even though I find the summer heat difficult at the moment, there are many people who live in much worse conditions of heat and can do nothing about it. Normally I have the conveniences of a shower and in the evening the temperatures cool down. Lots of people don’t have that. So one way of dealing with my own circumstances, when I find them difficult, is to think of others who are in a worse situation.

Another way of dealing with difficult circumstances is to use the opportunity to identify more completely with Jesus during His passion and death. Most likely I won’t die from difficult circumstances, but I can use whatever suffering and pain that I might have to come closer to the Lord and offer this suffering and pain for others. For me, the most recent experience of this was in my illnesses, where the pain level was completely out of control and all I could do was cling to a crucifix and ask the Lord to help me. It took extra energy to go out of myself and offer that pain for the good of others. Even in those circumstances, there are surely people who had more pain and suffering than I did.

Another way to deal with difficulties is to offer them in reparation for my own sinfulness. We can use very simple phrases such as: “O Lord, may this suffering unite me to you and also purify me from all my own sinfulness.” Or, perhaps: “O Lord, may this pain and suffering cleanse me of all my sins, past and present, so that I may be more faithful to you.”

I think that all of us can see that the secret to pain and suffering is simply to get out of ourselves and be with the Lord and to find ways to love others through the suffering. That ability to be with others through pain is a real gift and I pray that I can hold on to it in the times of profound pain and suffering! Right now my pains are pretty minor.”–Abbot Philip, OSB (Abbot’s Notebook – 19 July 2017)

Joan Chittister: Women and Their Stories

St. Scholastica by Andrea Mantegna (1431 – 1506)
St. Scholastica by Andrea Mantegna (1431 – 1506)

“February 10 is the feast day of Saint Scholastica, the twin sister of Saint Benedict. She’s the patron saint of women’s Benedictine contemplative communities.

Saint Benedict had a sister named Scholastica who also dedicated her life to the pursuit of God. She, too, founded monasteries and became an abbatial figure. The only story we have of Scholastica is told when Benedict was already an abbot of renown. The incident demonstrates clearly that the brother and sister were emotionally close and a spiritual influence on each other till the time of her death.

During one of their annual visits, Scholastica, inspired by the depth of their conversation, asked Benedict to remain overnight in the place where they were meeting in order to continue their talk and reflection on spiritual things. Benedict wouldn’t even think of it. It was getting dark; it was time to get back to the monastery; it was time to get on with the regular routine of the spiritual life. Unable to persuade him with words, Scholastica put her head down on the table in deep prayer. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a great storm brought with it flash floods and Benedict realized that he could not possibly return to the monastery that night. And the Dialogues say, “he complained bitterly.” He said, “God forgive you, sister! What have you done?” Scholastica answered simply, “I asked you for a favor and your refused. I asked my God and I got it.”

The story is a vein worth mining for a lifetime.
• It tells us that law is never greater than love
• It tells us to be intent on pursuing the values of the life, not simply its rules
• It tells us that discipline is necessary in the spiritual life but that religious discipline is not enough, that depth is a process and that depth costs
• It tells us that God lurks in strange places. And waits for us. And puts in our paths just what we need in order to become what we are meant to be
• It reminds us that a woman has as much power in the eyes of God as any man and that we must recognize women, too, as spiritual guides.”–Joan Chittister, OSB

From The Radical Christian Life: A Year with Saint Benedict by Joan Chittister (Liturgical Press)

Abbot Philip: Being on ‘Monk Time’

“The only thing that makes monastic life possible is keeping one’s eyes on the Lord and not on one’s brothers or even on the life itself. Saint Benedict knew that he was setting up a life that would not be easy, even though he calls it only a Rule for beginners. One of the big challenges today is about the use of time. Modern people want hours of personal time for their own enjoyment and relaxation. Our Rule does not have that kind of time. Contemplative life is not about sitting around doing nothing. It is not about just thinking of God and good things.

Serious monastic life is about being on the go all day long: from prayer to work to reading to eating to sleeping. We have no large expanses of time in which we just sit and do nothing. We actually have some personal time. Saint Benedict would never have dreamed of such a thing. He does talk about writing letters and so perhaps there were some personal moment from time to time. Because a monk is always on the go and always has things to do, the life of prayer is picked up in that way. We must learn how to pray while we are singing our prayers. Singing itself is a discipline. We must learn how to pray while we are working, and we must concentrate on the work. We must learn to pray while we are reading Scripture and other spiritual books.

On good days, after spending the first hour of the day in common prayer, called Vigils, then I go to my cell and meditate for 45 minutes until the next common prayer. After Lauds and Mass, I have another opportunity of about 45 minutes that I can also use for meditation. Then we have the work meeting. Most often after that I teach a class to the men in formation. Then we pray Terce in the Church and I begin our normal work period and work until 12:40 pm. Then there is a short break before praying Sext in the Church. Then there is the main meal of the day, which ends about 1:50 pm. That means that from rising at 3:30 am until 1:50 pm, there has been no personal time at all.

After the main meal there is time for a siesta or exercise or some personal reading. This is a period of about an hour and a half. After that there is prayer again at 3:30 pm, the Office of None. Then there is Holy Reading until 5:20 pm, when we have adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for a half hour and then Vespers for a half hour. So at 6:20 pm there is an optional supper, which I don’t normally take. I usually come to my room again and work or read for the 50 minutes until the evening Chapter meeting at 7:10 pm, which is followed by Compline at 7:30 pm. The day ends about 7:55 pm. I am usually in bed by 8:15 pm and asleep by 8:30 pm.

This is a life of leisure? No! And it is not supposed to be. It is a life that can focus all of one’s energies on seeking God. There is very little time to do anything else. Monks who try to live some other kind of life here simply don’t manage to persevere. Even those of us who do persevere have to keep working at it. It would be very easy to stop praying and find ways to do other things. For myself, during all of these years, I have fluctuated from being really serious about seeking God to periods of not caring much, one way or the other. Somehow, I have always been brought back to seeking God. I know that is a grace of God. My own witness is that this is a truly wonderful life when I strive to live it well. The older I get, the more this life appeals to me and the more I strive to live it well. In so many ways, it is not different from the life of anyone who is serious about looking for God.”–Abbot Philip, OSB

Abbot Philip: How to Get to That Inner Space of Peace and Tranquility

In April, our brothers at Christ in the Desert Monastery released a new disc of music titled “Blessings, Peace and Harmony: Monks of the Desert.” They were also interviewed on NPR last weekend about it. I urge you to practice mutual aid by purchasing this music. You will receive much more than you give!

Abbot Philip writes this week about The Cloud of Unknowing and practices of resting in God:

Someone wrote and asked me to write more about how to get to that inner space of peace and tranquility. What concrete steps are useful for reaching/learning to reach this space of inner tranquility? As I thought about that, for me, the most important step is to recognize that I have lost my inner peace and tranquility and need to return to that space where I am aware of God’s presence and where my whole being is quiet in His presence.

Years ago, my brother-in-law, who is a psychiatrist, taught me self-hypnosis. Then later I sat in Zen for some years. Both of these practices taught me a lot about myself, my body and my spirit. One does not have to be into psychiatry or Buddhism in order to practice such techniques. They are simply techniques for calming the body and spirit so that one’s inner being can then rest in the Lord and be aware of His love.

I am a Catholic Christian through and through in spite of early forays into various other expressions. Personally, I have one chair in which I sit when I am not living from that inner center of peace and tranquility in the Lord. I sit there and let myself relax. Sometimes I simply focus on breathing and at other times I focus on the name of Jesus or I use the Jesus Prayer. It is not a matter of pulling myself away from anything else. It is a matter of focusing on one thing. Always I find that if I relax first, then I am able to be aware of God present in that space/time reality. I go to that relaxation with the intention of becoming more aware of His love for me, not just with an intention to relax.

Much of this I also found in The Cloud of Unknowing, a book of the late 1300s. It is based on earlier Christian writings, but has always been popular among those seeking to know God more profoundly and those seeking union with Him. Here is an example from this book: When we intend to pray for goodness, let all our thought and desire be contained in the one small word “God.” Nothing else and no other words are needed, for God is the epitome of all goodness. Immerse yourself in the spiritual reality it speaks of yet without precise ideas of God’s works whether small or great, spiritual or material. Do not consider any particular virtue which God may teach you through grace, whether it is humility, charity, patience, abstinence, hope, faith, moderation, chastity, or evangelical poverty. For to a contemplative they are, in a sense, all the same. Let this little word represent to you God in all his fullness and nothing less than the fullness of God.

For me, always I find that I must begin with composing my physical body: letting go of everything and relaxing my body. Once that is done, then I let my heart be with the Lord, think of the Lord, be for the Lord.After all of these years of seeking God in the monastery, I cannot imagine any other way of living except prayer. I may not be as faithful to prayer as I would like to be. I am not always a very faithful person. Yet in the deepest recesses of my being, I know that this is what God calls me to every day.–Abbot Philip

Read more from Abbot Philip at The Abbot’s Notebook.

Abbot Philip: ‘Aware of God’s Loving Presence’

In April, our brothers at Christ in the Desert Monastery released a new disc of music titled “Blessings, Peace and Harmony: Monks of the Desert.” I urge you to practice mutual aid by purchasing this music. You will receive much more than you give!

Abbot Philip writes this week about the importance of spending time allowing God to love you:

“If I were to name one aspect of life that is the most important, not only for the monk but for anyone who is seriously following Christ, I would immediately think of that deep and intimately personal relationship of prayer.  As we seek to do God’s will, the most important aspect of life is deepening our relationship with God and that is done in prayer.  If we don’t have a strong and deep relationship with God, it becomes practically impossible to seek His will and strive to do His will.  The deepest question for me, many times, is this:  do I really want to do His will?  I have to admit that my answer is not always positive!  But I work at it.If we are going to pray, we have to take the time to pray.  Some people are able to do a million things and keep their hearts set on God.  Most of us need to focus on being still and trying to keep our heart on God.  Even for us monks who spend several hours a day in formal prayer and other time in personal prayer and adoration, there is a challenge to keep our hearts set on God.

Personally, I must take time every day just to sit in silence, aware of God’s loving presence.  It is really important to my life that I deepen my awareness that God loves me personally just as I am right now.  Being aware of God’s love for me allows me to love others in a very strong and wonderful way.  Being aware of God’s love for me allows me to go about my life with energy, joy and compassion.  There are stages in my life when I have abandoned God—never entirely, thanks be to God.  There are times when I lived my life externally but inside was in complete rebellion.

Thanks be to God for the grace of staying and persevering.  Why do we pray?  Somehow God has touched our lives and in that touching, we have found that prayer is important.  God has drawn us to Himself, even when we are not always sure what that means.  As we grow older and continue to try to do what is right, try to respond to this touch of God in our lives, there can be a wonderful flowing of faith and commitment.”–Abbot Philip, OSB (Abbot’s Notebook, May 2, 2012)

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)

Rowan Williams: ‘Let God Dissolve Our Fantasies’

Retiring Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams gave a thoughtful lecture on “monastic virtues and ecumencial hopes” this week at the Monasticism and Ecumenism conference at San Gregorio Magno al Celio in Rome.

The gathering was to celebrate the millennium of the monastic community of Camaldoli. Williams was followed by Robert Hale, prior of the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California. The Camaldolese (Benedictine) monastic community invited Archbishop Williams to join their millennial celebrations in Rome in recognition of the close connection of San Gregorio Magno with the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. The ancient Roman monastery on the Caelian Hill which bears the name of Pope St Gregory the Great was the place from which Gregory (himself a monk) sent St. Augustine of Canterbury and a party of fellow Benedictine monks to Britain in the late 590s. The Camaldolese have occupied the monastery buildings at San Gregorio since 1573.

Here’s an excerpt for Lenten reflection:

“This search to hold together what seem like opposites is of course grounded in a deeply traditional Christian anthropology. Christian solitude is the way in which we allow God to challenge and overcome our individualism; in solitude, we are led to recognize the strength and resilience of our selfishness, and the need to let God dissolve the fantasies with which we protect ourselves. In the desert there is no-one to impress or persuade; there it is necessary to confront your own emptiness or be consumed by it. But such solitude is framed by the common life in which we have begun to learn the basic habits of selflessness through mutual service, and in which we are enabled to serve more radically and completely, to be more profoundly in the heart of common life in Christ’s Body, because we have had our private myths and defensive strategies stripped away by God in silence.”–Rowan Williams, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury

Video: Desert Monks on What Work Means

In the 1990s I was able to visit Christ in the Desert Monastery near Abiquiu, New Mexico. Though my time there as a guest was too short, the visit expanded by gaze of the spiritual landscape. The lives of the monks there connected me more deeply with the early Desert Mothers and Fathers. Walking the rough lumenaria-lit trail to the chapel at 3 a.m. under a diamond-studded velvet desert sky was a conversion experience.

Possibly most profound was for the first time in my life I experienced a community of men where I felt completely safe and cared for. Women around the world live in constant fear and rarely have the joys of walking at night alone. At Christ in the Desert I experienced the best of the masculine spirit in service to God.

Lent seems a good time to go back to the desert.

The Hidden World of Hermits

Thanks to Bob Sabath for introducing me to Raven’s Bread Ministry. Karen and Paul Fredette have lived an eremetical contemplative life in the Appalachian mountains for years. They also offer Raven’s Bread newsletter that allows hermits to share their experiences, questions, and reflections with one another.

I like their description below of how they live where they live. I was especially drawn to the image of Petra, the boulder. As we think about Christ as our rock and setting the homestead of the Christian community on the firm foundation of the apostles, let these images deepen your imagination:

We treasure the peaceful quiet of our home (Still Wood), set on a secluded mountain slope in the Spring Creek area of Madison County, NC. In our stewardship of Still Wood, we are accompanied by Neill and Cynda, our border collies and Merlin, our magical white cat. Our daily routine includes time for contemplative prayer and reflective reading.

In the warmer months, we make use of our outdoor chapel (Beth El Shaddai), a shaded gazebo where we are serenaded by dozens of feathered choristers, accompanied by the murmur of a small waterfall, and delighted by melodious wind chimes. We often meditate on Petra, an immense moss-covered boulder estimated to be among the most ancient rock on the surface of the planet. On her rugged surface, we feel we are seated on the knees of our Mother Earth, contemplating forests which shaded the Cherokee who inhabited these mountains for countless centuries before a white person ever beheld their lush beauty. Touching stone which has endured the changes of millenia reminds us of how brief our lifetime is; how precious are the days we have, and what a gift it is to spend them in service to solitary watchers and pray-ers around the world.

Prayer is Infiltrating Christian Youth Groups

A group in Eureka, Montana, called Lighthouse Trails, recently warned people against me, Jim Wallis, and Sojourners because of our association with Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, and contemplative Christian spirituality.

The folks at Lighthouse Trails describes their mission thusly: “In the year 2000, we learned that a mantra-style meditation coupled with a mystical spirituality had been introduced to the evangelical, Christian church and was infiltrating youth groups, churches, seminaries, and Bible studies at an alarming rate.  Thus, in the spring of 2002, we began Lighthouse Trails Publishing with the hope of exposing this dangerous and pervasive mystical paradigm.”

At the same time I was reading the reports from Lighthouse Trails, I was also re-reading parts of Merton’s book Life and Holiness in which he lays out a few basic ideas in Christian spirituality.

Henri Nouwen writes in the book’s introduction, “It is not a book about doctrines or dogmas, but about the life of Christ. … In its great simplicity, this is a radical book. It calls for total dedication and a total commitment [to Christ].”

Here is an excerpt:

“Prayer is then the first and most important step. All through the life of faith one must resort constantly to prayer, because faith is not simply a gift which we receive once for all in our first act of belief. Every new development of faith, every new increment of supernatural light, even though we may earnestly working to acquire it, remains a pure gift of God.”–Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness by Thomas Merton (Image, 1963, p. 81)

I don’t have anything in particular to say about Lighthouse Trails, except they are located in what must be the most beautiful place in the world at the northwest tip of Glacier National Park.

I understand their concern about Christian mysticism. Christian mystics are those who have a direct spiritual experience of God through Jesus. (See John 10:30 on union with God.) It may be a one-time experience that informs one’s faith or it may be an ongoing experience that radically affects one’s faith journey. It is not about belief or catechisms or rational assent to dogma. It is about a total transformation in Christ — about being “born again.” And this is inherently uncontrollable by religious authorities or dogmatists.

Christian mystics have a long history of being a threat to institutional religions and dogmatic believers. Conversely, the danger to Christian mystics is that they may put too much authority in their personal experience of God, rather than submitting their experiences to the wider wisdom of the Christian community.

This is the paradox that Merton, Nouwen, and even I, know well. As a result, we try to live attentively and, as Merton wrote, “resort constantly to prayer,” asking always for Christ to have mercy upon us.