“Spirituality is about living with reality and always living in the connection with God. Spirituality is not exactly about praying, especially not about reciting prayers. It is about maintaining a living relationship with God at all times. It surely includes praying and includes reciting prayers. As a monk, I am always reciting prayers. The challenge is not just to recite them, but to pray them. Here in the monastery we have classes on the Psalms, for instance, and we can learn a lot about Psalms and about other Scriptures and even about hymns and prayers. The challenge is always to pray the Psalms, pray the Scriptures, and pray all the hymns and prayers.
Central to this challenge is to come to known my own heart and to be able to focus my heart on the presence of God. If I can manage that, then I can also begin to add to that the knowledge of what I am saying if I am involved in spoken prayer or spoken community prayer. The basic element, however, is always to have my heart set on the Lord, seeking His face. Most of us are able to be still and to pray, as long as that is all that we have to do and as long as nothing else very important is on our minds. The challenge is to keep that basic focus of our souls in the Lord when we have to pray with others, when we must live with others, when we have challenges, when we meet conflict, when we meet complex life situations. Only practice allows us to maintain this inner life of prayer at all times.
“As I reflect on the monastic life that is a gift in all of these houses, I see the mercy of God at the center of all that happens. I can’t always manage to live that mercy, even if I try my best. It is as though I stand on the shore and see another land in the distance at times and know that I must get there even when it seems impossible.
Following Jesus Christ and seeking to be faithful to Him and to His Church has been the beacon in my life for many, many years. For all of us who want to follow Christ and to deepen the spiritual life within us, it is necessary to have this perseverance of continuing to follow Christ no matter how many times we fail or set out in a wrong direction or simply are not aware of what He is asking of us. The only good that monastic life has to offer or that any Christian spiritual life has to offer is to point ourselves and others to Jesus Christ. In Him we find life and joy and all that is worth wanting. As many times as I have wandered away from this path, just as many times He has recalled me and pardoned me and told me of His love. It is humbling to know that He is always there, so faithful and so constant.
When I am at my best, I am happy simply to be in His presence, giving thanks. When I am at my worst, He is there trying to find a way to attract me back to Him and to His way.When I was young I wanted to be a saint and a mystic. Now I pray that I may persevere and always respond to His love. There is no desire to be anything or anyone, simply to try to persevere to the end.”–Abbot Philip, Christ in the Desert monastery, New Mexico
Read more from Abbot Philip’s Notebook.
Abbot Philip is a Benedictine monk who lives in the New Mexico desert at Christ in the Desert monastery. I find his reflections honest and clear. Here’s an excerpt from The Abbot’s Notebook (24 April 2013):
“For the past 50 years, there has been a movement of the Holy Spirit throughout the Church, bringing new ways of thinking, new ways of relating, new ways of dreaming.
This happens at times in the history of the Church and we should not be afraid of it. Not everything that happens in such movements is of lasting value. Not every road that is chosen leads directly to the Lord. Always there is enthusiasm and always there is resistance. The early monastic movement was in the midst of this kind of movement as well. What is important in our spiritual lives is seeking to choose the Lord Jesus and His ways. It is a personal encounter with the Lord that draws us to Him. I can sit here in my cell and spend time being still and listening. I can read Holy Scripture and understand what has been written.
It’s a funny ol’ world. You never know where grace and the monastic moment might appear.
For example, Abbot Philip (who I quote frequently on this blog) and 5 of his brothers from Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico appeared last week on NBC’s Today show!
They sang “Alleluia Lustus Germinabit” off of their new album, “Blessings, Peace, Harmony” by “Monks in the Desert.” Watch the video below:
The lyrics are taken from the prophet Hosea: “Alleluia. Justus germinabit sicut lilium: et florebit in aeternum ante Dominum. Alleluia” (Alleluia. The just shall spring like the lily: and shall flourish forever before the Lord. Alleluia.)
“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
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.
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)
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)
“St. Benedict never said a monk must never go out, never receive a letter, never have a visitor, never talk to anyone, never hear any news. He meant that the monk should distinguish what is useless or harmful from what is useful and salutary, and in all things glorify God.” —Thomas Merton
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton (Image, p14)
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.