The Abbot’s Notebook for August 23, 2017

My sisters and brothers in Christ,

Blessings to you!  As I begin to write this Notebook, there is thunder, lightning and a bit of rain in the air.  Always in the desert we hope for rain.  We never have enough, even when a strong rain wipes out our road.  It is a good lesson about how to long for God and how to pray the Psalms, which so often extol the wonder of thunder, lightning and rain.

This past week, Brother Antoine Marie Nguyen Van Hoa arrived to begin a period of probation to transfer to our community.  Then Paul Mugambi arrived from Kenya to begin his postulancy with us.  Just a week earlier Felix Murunga arrived from Kenya to begin his postulancy.  And more are coming.  Our largest national group, apart from Americans, is from Vietnam, but other countries are now beginning to increase as well.  Please pray for all of these young men and for their vocations.

We have almost completed the first of two buildings that we are adding in our novitiate area.  This will allow us to give each monk his own cell.  For a while we have had to double up with two men in one cell.  When I was a young monk in 1964, doing my novitiate, we were also doubled up.  Then just a few years later, so many had left that we had lots of extra room.  We cannot predict the future but simply try to live in the present.

Brother John Baptist Tran Van Chinh left on Monday of this week to begin his return trip to Vietnam, where he is studying theology.  He comes home in the summers and works on his English.  He also needs our prayers as he studies.

We have quite a few brothers doing studies right now, but most are doing them right here at home through the internet.  Nevertheless, they must be given regular time for studies.  This part of our life is really important so that the academic level of the community is strengthened.  It is nice to think of monks just praying—but we need to nurture our minds as well.  Even those of us who are not in a particular course generally read books in order to keep our minds alive and active.  This type of study can actually aid prayer for some people.

One of the things on my mind recently is resuming the role of abbot of the community.  This will not take place for some time yet, but—as you might imagine—there are times when I am content never to take up that role again.  This illness, these surgeries, this recovery—this is not exactly a vacation.  On the other hand, there is a sense of freedom about not having to make the decisions about the community.  I still have plenty of other responsibilities and I am never lacking for something to do.

So how does one make a decision in a community?  My first sense is to look at what is expected of me.  When I was elected the superior, I knew that the job goes, usually, until one is 75 years of age.  In my own heart, I have always been comfortable with life term abbots, not even retiring at 75.  But I belong to a community which belongs to a congregation and we follow the regulations of the congregation, which specify submitting one’s resignation at the age of 75.  I often joke about this because I have been superior of the community for 41 years already and cannot imagine that anyone would want me to go on longer than the age of 75.

So my first guidance comes from our Constitutions—the law of our congregation—which gives a direction.  Then I have to look at my health.  Right now, I am delighted that someone else is the superior and taking the burden of that off of my shoulders.  It is a really good learning experience for me and certainly foreshadows what it will be like when my resignation is accepted.  So many times over all these years, people have asked me:  “Do you really think that you can obey another abbot?”  My response has always been:  “If I cannot obey another abbot, then all that I have been teaching our monks is a lie.”  Sure, it is not easy to obey another person, but other monks have been obeying me for years.  If they can obey me, I should be able to obey someone else.

So a second guidance comes from spirituality:  obey and hear the voice of the Lord.  Obey what?  Obey whom?  I must obey our Constitutions and I must obey the will of the community.  I must also obey our Abbot Visitor in some instance and obey our Abbot President in other instances.

I have never had a direct “word” from the Lord and I doubt that I shall have one in any of this either.  I believe and I believe a lot!  These sicknesses and surgeries have only deepened my belief and made me more aware of the presence of Jesus in my life.  None of that takes away, even for an instance, my doubts, my insecurities, my lack of faithfulness, etc.  God’s love for us does not depend on our love for God!  Instead, God loves us and is faithful to us, no matter what we do.  God is always seeking a way to draw us to Himself.  God is seeking us in love and inviting us to learn to love Him.

This love that God has for us in Jesus Christ is overwhelming and cannot be doubted, even if we are weak in our response to it.  We may feel foolish in continuing to try to love this God when we are so weak and unable to respond in any adequate kind of way.  We must learn to trust that in spite of our sinfulness and our failings and even our lack of love for God, HE, our God, remains committed to us and continues to seek us out.  This is a huge consolation, even though it may make us feel even worse about our sins and lack of response to God.  We must learn only one thing:  He loves us and we must keep trying to respond to that love, no matter how often or how gravely we fail.

In my own life, I often feel foolish telling God that I love Him when I am so clearly a sinner and so little faithful in my daily life.  If I were telling another human that I love him or her and continued to be so faithless, I would surely be spurned and rejected.  But God is not that way.  God continues to love us.  Christ died for love of us.  Christ continues to give His life for us and to offer Himself for us.

One of my prayers is simple:  “Let me know your love for me so that I may give my love to you!”  This prayer touches how I live:  when I know the love of the other, I tend to respond.  When I forget the love of the other or am not experiencing that love, I tend not to respond and tend to go off in my own paths instead of following the love of the other.

As always, I promise my love and prayers for you and for your needs and intentions.  Again I will celebrate a Holy Mass for you this week.  I appreciate all who are praying for me and who have had Holy Masses celebrated for my health.  Please also pray for the sisters and brothers of all our communities.  May God shower us all with His blessings.

Your brother in the Lord,

Abbot Philip