The Abbot’s Notebook for August 16, 2017

My sisters and brothers in Christ,

Blessings to you!  It continues to be fairly warm here at Christ in the Desert.  August is always the month in which we have a lot of flies.  Sometime we purchase fly paper to put in the Church and in the Dining Room (the Refectory for us).  One year I put a bottle with some liquid in it on the back porch of my room, but the smell of the liquid was worse than the flies.

Recently Thumper has been sprayed by a skunk or skunks and so I am pretty sensitive to smells.  It keeps life interesting!  At least he does not jump on my bed or run under it.  Years ago a lovely dog companion got strongly sprayed and ran into my cell and jumped on the bed and rolled around and then hid under the bed.  That took a long time to deal with the smell.

Last Saturday, August 12th, several of the brothers went for the dances at Santa Clara Pueblo.  The whole community used to go every year many years ago, and then we got too big for us all to go and then we didn’t go for a long time.  I am really happy that some of the brothers went this year.  When I was ordained a priest in 1977, a group from Santa Clara Pueblo came a drummed at the Offertory of the Mass and then had social dances afterwards here at the Monastery.  It was a very moving experience.  On August 12th, the Pueblo always celebrates the Solemnity of Saint Clare, the older date of her feast.  She is the Patroness of Santa Clara Pueblo.

Father Jeffrey Steele, OSB, from Saint Benedict’s Abbey, Polokwane, South Africa, has arrived to be the chaplain for the Sisters of Our Lady of the Desert.  This is very helpful to us, since we always supply the chaplain there.  Now we don’t have to figure out ways to make a priest available.  We are always happy to serve the Sisters, even when it is inconvenient, but we are also happy when someone else is there and we don’t have to be!

From the time I was fairly young, I loved singing and listening to singing.  My sister, Billie, and I would stay up at night to hear Mahalia Jackson close off the local radio station.  When I entered the seminary at 14, I sang all the time until a certain monk told me that it was effeminate to sing.  I can remember thinking that that monk was surely not right, but I made sure that I was masculine in everything—and kept on singing.  When I entered the novitiate in the monastery, the choir master told me that I had a very ordinary voice and would never be in the group that led the singing (that group is called the “schola”).  I was hurt by that, but I kept singing because I loved singing.  When I made my first vows, the next day I was put in charge of the Mass Schola by the same choir master and began my many years of leading a choir, even though I have never been a trained musician.

When I first liked music, I played drums and percussion instruments.  When I entered High School, I studied violin for about three years.  In college I studied piano.  But I never mastered any of those instruments.  Later I learned guitar, but again without mastering it.  I can read music but it takes me time.  I can fairly well sight read Gregorian Chant and for me that has been a wonderful gift for many years.

All of this history is simply prologue to saying that singing is really difficult for me now and no longer a joy but only an obligation.  People who come to the monastery still comment on my capacity to sing, but within me, it is a totally different reality at this time in my life.  I hope that one day my ease of singing may come back but for now it is simply a daily struggle to sing and lead the choir and keep on going.

This is surely the spiritual life!  Praying is the same sort of reality for me.  There have been long periods in my life when praying was a delight and relatively easy.  At other times, praying was a struggle simply to be in the Lord’s presence.  I met a monk one time who told me that for about three years, whenever he sat down to pray, all he could think of was cursing.  I admired him because he persevered in prayer.  He told me that sometimes if he put a picture of St. Therese of Lisieux in front of him, he had some peace.  In my life I have never felt like cursing when I pray, but I do have thousands of distractions and know that I have simply to let them be.

One of the challenges for me is to give the time of prayer to God no matter whether it feels good, or indifferent or terrible.  I have to sit there and simply tell the Lord:  “I am here, trying to be in your presence.  Do with me what you will.”  It would really be nice if I were consistent in that, but I am not.  I don’t like doing things that are not fairly immediately satisfying.  This is part of modern culture, but it is deeply a part of me as well.

Because I have to sing every day, I give the “pain” of singing to the Lord.  So I am present in the common prayer.  But I sometimes skip my private prayer.  Part of the recovery from surgery has brought me to confront this lack in my life and in my soul and so I work a bit more consistently now at the private prayer and giving my life to the Lord, even when there is nothing at all gratifying about it.

Once again I remind myself that this life is a life of struggle, with joy and delights, but still a lot of struggle.  I want to become completely given to God—and I have a very long way to go on that road.  I know that I will never achieve it, but the task is simply to keep trying.  This is a strong and consistent teaching of the early monks:  keep on trying!  No matter how often a person fails, no matter how often I fail, keep on trying and develop a complete trust in the Lord and His mercy.

For me, there is a huge inner pressure to succeed and to give everything to the Lord.  The challenge is to resist that pressure and simply to keep trying.  Why?  Because that is a false pressure that makes me sad when I do not achieve.  It is like telling myself:  if you cannot be perfect, why even try?  This is not the Kingdom of God!  Rather, the Kingdom is about trying and failing and learning through that a complete trust in God.  Mercy within mercy until eternity.

Again I promise to celebrate a Holy Mass this week for all who read this letter, for your needs and intentions.  May the Lord give you some special awareness of His love for you.  Please continue to pray for me and for the sisters and brothers of all the communities associated with ours.  I send you my love and prayers.

Your brother in the Lord,

Abbot Philip