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: The Habit of Prayer

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.

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: ‘Believing without acting on the belief is not belief’

Chapel at Christ in the Desert monastery

The good monks at at Christ in the Desert monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico, emails Abbot Philip’s weekly sermon. I especially appreciated his thoughts from Sunday, Feb 27. If you ever have a chance to visit them, please do. And donate to their life and ministry.

“Moses told the people:  “Take these words of mine into your heart and soul.” – from Deuteronomy 11:18,26-28,32

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” … – from Matthew 7:21-27

There is a contrast given to us today between the person who takes the word of God into his or her heart and soul and acts on it and the person who simply speaks the word of God but does not live it.  In our hearts there is the struggle to do God’s word faithfully. The first reading today, from the Book of Deuteronomy, puts so eloquently what God wants of us:  Take these words of mine into your heart and soul.

The author of this book goes on to give us some tips about how to remember these words so that we can take them into our heart and soul.  He tells us to bind them on our wrists and put them on our foreheads. In our present day secular culture, people often put notes on their computers or on their doors or on their mirrors.  This reading raises in us the question of how we try to remember the word of God and bring it fully into our hearts and our souls.

The Letter to the Romans, from which comes our second reading (Romans 3:21-25, 28), puts its focus on faith:  we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.  We could ask a question very similar to one that Jesus poses elsewhere:  who has faith?  The one who does the works of faith or the one who only speaks about it?  The Gospel of Matthew today also poses this same question about belief.

The Gospel tells us that doing mighty works is not enough.  Even doing mighty works in the name of the Lord is not enough.  We must believe from our heart and soul.  So today we are invited to become followers of Christ in a totally committed way, both believing and doing.  Doing, by itself, is no good.

Believing without acting on the belief is not belief.  Let us believe and do! —Abbot Philip, OSB