“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.
“The early desert monks and nuns realized that there is a huge importance in learning about how thoughts work in our lives. Only by beginning to deal with our thoughts can we begin to deal with all of our lives. I hate to say that we must control our thoughts because that really does not describe the challenge. The challenge is to learn to live with our thoughts in such a way that we can direct them in some sense. If we try to control them, then there is usually a rebellion!
Learning to live with our thoughts is one of the reasons for learning how to be silent and still with the Lord. We focus on being silent and still, not on stopping thoughts. When thoughts do come, we simply let them pass by because our attention is on being silent and still. We have to practice this before we can truly understand it. And it takes continual practice to enable us to turn aside from thoughts that really attract us and focus on other thoughts.
Another way of learning to live with our thoughts is to develop interests in many things. For some people, a good book can draw and attract their thoughts in a very positive way. For others, a hobby can do the same trick. For still others, a long walk or a vigorous period of exercise can help. Still other persons can relax and let go of attachments by listening to beautiful music and being drawn out of themselves into the music. Others can play a musical instrument and get totally caught up into that. Others can do works of charity, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.
There are countless ways to learn how to live with our thoughts. Why would be want to do that? Because our decisions in our lives come from our thoughts. We want to be able to see our own thought process and to be able to direct our thoughts. In that we, we can build the Kingdom of God together. What often happens in present culture is that our thoughts possess us instead of us possessing our thoughts. This is why it is so important to begin now to know how to live with my thoughts and how to direct my thoughts.
So often I have heard people tell me to go where my thoughts lead me. To some extent, I can understand that and even honor it. On the other hand, I have to know that not everywhere my thoughts might take me is a good place for me to be. There is always a matter of discernment: I have to choose if the direction of my thoughts really is in agreement with the deepest choices of my life.
Each of us is invited to live life to its fullness. In order to do that, we need to listen attentively to those who have gone before. When we find ourselves wanting to set out on our own, we need to be strong enough to hear what we may not want to hear. We may even try to run away from the things that we do not want to hear. Deep within us we remember that it is God calling us and it is God to whom we want to respond. …”–Abbot Philip, OSB
Read Abbot Philip’s whole essay (Abbot’s Notebook, Oct. 9, 2013).
“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.
“… Inner silence and inner peace. What wonderful gifts are inner silence and peace in our lives. We have to work every day to maintain such silence and peace. It does not matter where we live or if we are married or if we are religious. All of us have challenges in our lives in order to remain silence and peaceful in our hearts. Almost every day of my adult life, I have had to take some time to refocus my mind and my heart. When I get distracted by unhelpful thoughts, by anger, by lust, by jealousy or even by laziness, I have to make a commitment to placing my life in the hand of God, of Jesus Christ.
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.
“Brother Christian recently gave me an article on the decline of Buddhism in Thailand as that country grows richer. This is a favorite theme of mine concerning monasticism in the West. It is clear from history that practically no monastery dies from poverty but quite a few have died from riches. This is also a wonderful Christmas theme, because Christ became poor so that we could become rich—on the spiritual level. Christ, who is God, becomes human and takes on our own nature. This is true poverty. …
Why would anyone want to become a monk today? The only reason is to seek God. Seeking God can be done in various ways. One does not need to be a monk to seek God. On the other hand, the monastic life, at least ideally, is established to help the monk focus all of his energy on seeking God.We monks don’t always live that out, but it is what we seek in our ideal world. It does not cut us off from the world in any bad way but it helps us resists being involved in the world in the ways that do not help the inner life. We don’t have to be anxious about anything. This frees our energy up so that we can use it to seek God. Perhaps at times a monk’s energy goes elsewhere, but when the life is orderly, that very order brings back the focus of life to seeking God.
Christ came into the world to save us. We are able to dedicate our lives to following Him, no matter what road we take. We monks want to follow Him in a somewhat radical manner, focusing our daily life and energy on Him. May this also be your gift! Wherever we are, we can seek the Lord and focus our energies on following Him.”–Abbot Philip, Christ in the Desert monastery
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.)
“In the early monastic writings, we find the monks extolling perseverance. Sometimes early writers defined a monk as one who falls every day, but who gets up and keeps on trying. One of the wonderful stories, for me, is of an old monk who encouraged a young monk by telling him that he, the old monk, continued to struggle with his sinfulness even in advanced age.
Years ago an artist pointed out to me that the most beautiful trees in our canyon are not those that are perfectly straight and without blemish, but those that have lived through storms and winds and have lost limbs and been twisted—but still keep growing toward the light.
None of this means to extol failure or sin, but simply to acknowledge that failure and sin are part of our daily human experience. What forms us as spiritual persons is the struggle against failure and sin. We should not become complacent as we age. We do come, I hope, to accept ourselves as women and men who will continue to struggle with failure and sin until we die. Over the years, hearing the confessions of older, mature men and women has brought incredible consolation to me.
There are times in life when we are aware very much of our brokenness, our failures and our sins. We need such awareness so that we are truthful before our Lord. We must not confuse this spiritual aware with depression or natural sadness. If we are depressed or sad, we need help. If we are sinners, we need God. Learning to turn to God is at the heart of the spiritual life. Learning to keep on trying to be faithful is a form of that turning to God, over and over.
At a practical level, this never implies that a Christian or a monk will always manifest complete joy. That might be an ideal. Most of us still struggle and find ourselves at times not able to be completely joyful. Often, however, I see older people who become more and more joyful as they accept themselves and continue in the struggle.”–Abbot Philip, OSB
I chose a longish excerpt today from Abbot Philip’s writing because of the topic: acedia. Some of you will have read Kathleen Norris’ book Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life where she digs into the ancient wisdom and modern rediscovery of this spiritual malady.
Abbot Philip from Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico expands on the topic. Here’s an excerpt from his recent newsletter:
Sometimes we find ourselves trying to be spiritual and don’t have much energy for it. This happens even to monks. Sometimes we go to the prayer services, we read Scriptures and we work—all without much energy or focus. Some monks in the early periods of monastic life called this acedia. The meaning of the word is simply without energy to do much of anything. It is not a clinical depression, just an inability to do much at all. This type of inner lack of energy can go on for days or months or even years. Part of the spiritual combat is learning how to fight against this lack of energy. That does not mean that we will always be highly energized. It does mean that we keep working at doing what we are supposed to be doing. That is a deep meaning of perseverance: working at something even when we don’t want to work at it. We can do this against acedia. We can continue struggling against it. That is why acedia can really help us learn how to struggle. With other vices, sometimes we feel that we can do certain things or take certain actions and overcome them, but often with acedia there is a sense of helplessness. To continue in the struggle, we must overcome that helplessness and pay no attention to it.
… 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.