“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.
… At home in Christ in the Desert, everything continues to function well, even in my absence. This is one of the most important aspects of monastic life: the monastery continues to live a normal and regular life even when the abbot is away. Far too often people think that the whole monastery depends on the abbot. There is no doubt that any abbot gives a particular identity to a community. That is simply part of the job. One day there will be another abbot and all of us will have to adjust to his way of doing things. On the other hand, if an abbot can keep delegating as much as possible, the community takes on its own fairly clear identity, more leaders are formed and when it is time to change abbots, the change is not so difficult. …
Our life is supposed to be a life that is not easy to live. It is not supposed to be so difficult that no one can live it. The challenge comes from the necessary focus on the inner life and the disciplines that support that inner life. We rise early, we pray a lot, we work hard and we read the Scriptures and commentaries on them. The life is pretty much the same, day after day, week after week and month after month. The monotony is to free our inner energies so that they focus on prayer and contemplation. For me, it is an enormous blessing of God that we have so many men try our life. It is another great blessing that so many actually stay and persevere….–Abbot Philip, OSB
Read his whole letter.
“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.” 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 developing the habit of prayer:
“Within the community we have all of the challenges of any group of people living together. The relationships are supposed to be formed by the following of Christ and that is not always easy. Each brother has to dedicate himself each day to living the Gospel, not just talking about it.
Although I have been a monk almost 48 years already, I still have days when it is an incredible challenge to live by the Gospel and not just settle for a basic human response. If I were totally converted, of course, my basic human response would be the Gospel. Always I remind myself: the struggle goes on to the very end of life. One of the necessary virtues for a spiritual life is perseverance. We have to keep trying to be faithful each day. We have to pray every day and as much as we can, even when it does not feel good or even seems awful.
Whether we are married, single or consecrated celibates, we are all called to follow Jesus Christ and to try to be faithful to that call every day. What does perseverance mean in a normal life? For me, if I have any normal life, it means that I must take time each day to be quiet in prayer for a significant amount of time, not just a minute here and there, but 15 minutes here and there, a half hour here and there, even an hour here and there. Our Rule of Benedict sort of presumes that the monk will spend several hours a day in holy reading and in prayer.
It is much easier to talk about prayer than to actually pray. It is much easier for me to write this letter than to take the time to pray. Why? Because real prayer is just taking time to be with God without any expectations, without hoping for some religious feeling, without anything except the commitment to be with HIM for a period of time. There is no emotional feedback to speak of and that is why other things are easier to do: they at least help me feel like I have done something.Lots of the time I would prefer to take a nap rather than to pray. If I am really tired, I should take a nap!
On the other hand, I realize that without a commitment to prayer every day, to a significant time of prayer every day, I am just speaking about God and not giving myself to God. Commitment is not talking, it is doing. No matter how tired I am, I take the time to pray. No matter how boring the time of prayer is, I stay there, seeking to be quietly in the presence of the Lord. No matter if I must fight thousands of distractions, I keep letting the distractions go so that I am simply there with the Lord. Even when pray might seem repulsive to me, I stay with it.
Do I do that every day? No, I am not yet that good. Do I try it every day? Mostly but I am not entirely faithful even yet. My personal life has changed so much over the years because of my commitment to trying to pray. Without reservations I recommend to any and to all: pray every day! Pray as much as you can every day. Make a commitment to praying, to sitting quietly with God, each day.”–Abbot Philip
Read more from Abbot Philip at The Abbot’s Notebook.
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.
Today we have an odd collection of readings. Job, in the first reading, is so depressed and overwhelmed by the awfulness of life that he is sure that he will never see happiness again. The ending of the Book of Job, of course, shows him totally restored and once again happy. All of go through periods, however, in which we have some doubts about the happiness of this life, some doubts about God’s care for us and perhaps even a lot of doubts about our capacity to keep on living.The second reading, from the First Letter to the Corinthians, is about preaching the Gospel. The word, Gospel, means Good News or Good Tidings.
This is a huge contrast to the feelings of Job in the first reading. Paul is willing to give his whole life to preaching the Gospel and will receive no human recompense at all. Why? Because he knows that only in this way can he also share in the promises of the Gospel.You and I are called to preach the Gospel in the way we live each day. It is not as though we must leave what we are doing, get on the road and go about talking. No, we are invited to live in such a way that people will become interested in the Gospel just by seeing how we live. Mark’s Gospel picks up this same theme of preaching the Gospel. Jesus Himself tells us that He has come to proclaim the Gospel. No matter if He is tired, not matter if He is pushed on all sides—still, He knows that the Father has sent Him to proclaim the Good News.We are invited today to live with Christ. It is He who lives in us. All we need to do is allow His presence to shine through us. We don’t have to do anything spectacular. If we live with love and care for others, this shows through us. If we are willing to suffer for Christ, this also shows through us. We are not called to be unctuous or overly sweet or overly pious in a bad way. We are called to know Christ’s love for us and to respond to that love by loving others.–Abbot Philip,OSB, Christ in the Desert Monastery, Abiquiu, New Mexico
The mural above is found in the refectory at Christ in the Desert Benedictine monastery near Abiquiu, New Mexico.
Based on Rubilev’s famous Trinity icon, it depicts the Sarah and Abraham welcoming the three angel guests at the Oak of Mamre.
“The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day”–Genesis 18:1
In the center of the Christ in the Desert mural is a large scale version of the Rubilev’s icon of the Trinity, represented by three angels, seated at table.
To the viewer’s right is Sarah and to the viewer’s left is Abraham. Behind Abraham is St. Benedict, St. Francis, St. Juan Diego, Mary, and the Burning Bush.
Behind Sarah is St. Scholastica, St. Clare, Blessed Kateri Tekatwitha, St. John the Baptist, and an “Agnus Dei” representation.
California activist-theologian reflects on “Abraham under the ‘teaching oak’” saying:
The real plot of the Bible is about the liberation of both humanity and nature from our folly. God’s voice does not come through the centre of civil power but from an imperial defector in Moses, through a burning bush and from a dissident prophet Elijah in the wilderness. These ancient traditions portray a God who needs to be encountered through nature. The Bible also offers numerous peons to creation as a mirror of the creator’s glory. There is a lot of talk these days about our need to rediscover enchantment in nature. Let us take Abraham’s first encounter
with God which occurred under the oak tree of Moreh, an “oracle giver” which taps into an apparently universal tradition of the Tree of Life. Then God appears to Abraham as certain strangers under the oaks of Mamre; and later in Judges, the warrior Gideon is given courage by an angel under the oak at Ophrah.
At Christ in the Desert monastery the electricity and water-pumping at the monastery is solar-powered, as sunshine is plentiful throughout the year.
The mural art reflects a tradition now set in the context of the Chama Canyon wilderness in northwestern New Mexico, but the monks whose quiet cenobitic lives are shaped daily by the art also vitalize the mural through their own daily desert encounters with angels, trees, rivers, saints, bread, wine, work, and surprise.