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)

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: 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.

Joan Chittister: ‘Hospitality Is A Lifeline’

Lake Erie by Hank Plumley

“To live the monastic life in a monastery on the edges of a windswept Lake Erie makes something very clear: hospitality is not a matter of gentility or niceness. Here, as it was in biblical desert lands, hospitality is often a factor in physical survival. Too often, if it weren’t for the spirit of hospitality in this area, people would freeze to death in stranded cars or in city parks or in unheated homes.

It is an important lesson for people who live a monastic spirituality. It teaches us that hospitality is a lifeline that is part of the fiber of life. People need physical hospitality, spiritual hospitality, and psychological hospitality always. That’s why hospitality is a basic theme in The Rule of Benedict. That’s why there’s always someone in charge of answering the door at the monastery. Monastic hospitality dictates that there must always be someone there to care for anyone and everyone in need. The cold of February reminds us to open our hearts always. Someone is waiting to get in.

A Danish proverb reads: “If there is room in the heart, there is room in the house.” Who is there in life that you seem able to bear in unlimited quantities? Who is there that you have little room for at all? Try to remember that coldness of heart is always a call to personal growth.”–Joan Chittister, OSB

From A Monastery Almanac by Joan Chittister

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)

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.

On Becoming a Human Being

merton-jean-jacketCatholic monk, writer, mystic, and activist Thomas Merton plays with the concept that we become a “member of the human race” over the course of a life time. A concept that has great resonance for me.

It reminds me of John’s gospel (1:12-13): We are given authority to become children of God. (See Wes Howard-Brook’s great treatise on John titled Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship).

Merton writes:

Coming to the monastery has been, for me, exactly the right kind of withdrawal. It has given me perspective. It has taught me how to live. And now I owe everyone else in the world a share of that life. My first duty is to start, for the first time, to live as a member of the human race which is no more (and no less) ridiculous that I am myself. And my first human act is the recognition of how much I owe everybody else.–Thomas Merton

From Entering the Silence ( Journals, Volume 2) edited by Jonathan Montaldo (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, p. 451).

What Does the Contemplative Life Require?

merton-jean-jacketCatholic monk and writer Thomas Merton grew into his contemplative life at Gethsemane monastery in Kentucky. He didn’t enter the monastery as a full-blown contemplative. He learned his calling over time.

As I explore what it means to nurture and cultivate a Christian contemplative life while living in the inner city and working an 8-hour day to the rhythms of the American work force, I find Merton’s list below revealing.

This will give us some idea of the proper preparation that the contemplative life requires. A life that is quiet, lived in the country, in touch with the rhythm of nature and the seasons. A life in which there is manual work, the exercise of arts and skills, not in a spirit of dilettantism, but with genuine reference to the needs of one’s existence. The cultivation of the land, the care of farm animals, gardening. A broad and serious literary culture, music, art, again not in the spirit of Time and Life – (a chatty introduction to Titian, Prexiteles, and Jackson Pollock) – but a genuine and creative appreciation of the way poems, pictures, etc., are made. A life in which there is such a thing as serious conversation, and little or no TV. These things are mentioned not with the insistence that only life in the country can prepare a [person] for contemplation, but to show the type of exercise that is needed.–Thomas Merton

The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, edited by William H. Shannon (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003, p.131).