The Abbot’s Notebook for September 13, 2017

My sisters and brothers in Christ,

Blessings to you!  Here I am back at Christ in the Desert, thanks be to God.  This trip to Texas was important for the community at the Monastery of Thien Tam and for me.  In Thien Tam, the monks elected as their first Conventual Prior the Rev. Father Dominic Hanh Duc Nguyen, OSB, who had been their superior already for the last eight years.  The challenge in these elections is that after the election, no one is allowed to say who has been elected until the one elected received a confirmation from our Abbot President.  Even then, after the confirmation of the election, the prior does not have full jurisdiction until he is formally installed.  So we did all of that last week!

For me it was an important trip because I am now convinced that I won’t be traveling much for a long time.  I arrived exhausted and I returned exhausted.  And it is not that I did all that much.  I just don’t have the energy that I used to have and must adapt to that.  For sure, more energy will return as I continue recovering from the illnesses and surgeries, but it takes time—as my doctor keeps telling me.  The great virtue of patience….

The great hurricanes that are hitting our country now also affect our monastery because of the many ties with people both in Texas and Florida and in neighboring states.  Every day we are praying for those affected in the Caribbean and those in our country.

Prior Benedict was in Mexico all last week at the same time that I was in Texas.  In Mexico, the Canonical Visitations of Santa María y Todos los Santos and of Nuestra Señora del Tepeyac were taking place.  These are regular evaluations of monasteries that generally take place every three years.  Prior Benedict felt strongly the earthquake in Mexico but our houses have not been affected by it.  Thanks be to God.  We work closely with monks in Chiapas and even they were not much affected by the earthquake.

This past week we had a visit from Father Pancras Malayappan Raja of Tuticorin, Tamilnadu, India.  I had met him some years ago on one of my visits to India.  He has been very helpful in discerning vocations that might fit into our community here.  One of the challenges for us always is to discern vocations as much as possible before the person arrives here.

While I was in Texas at the Monastery of Thien Tam, I celebrated the 52nd anniversary of my vows as a monk and the 21st anniversary of my blessing as abbot.  When I was young, I would have thought of anyone celebrating such anniversaries as coming to the end of their lives.  Now it does not seem that way to me, even though I can no longer claim to be young!

Patience….  I was reflecting a lot about patience in this past week because I seem to have little reserves of patience in my own life at this time.  The word “patience” comes from a Latin word meaning to suffer.  Anyone who has lived very long should be able to understand that.  There are situations in which all we can do is suffer while we wait for the situation to change—and that is the basic meaning of patience.  Patience also has a sense, however, of doing that suffering with an inner detachment.  Not all of us have that inner detachment.

When I was having the two surgeries earlier this year, the nurses told me:  do not wait until your pain is unbearable.  You need to take medicine to deal with the pain because that will help your body heal better.  I was so used simply to putting up with pain and seeing how much pain I could endure before calling for help.  And I was told that such an attitude was counterproductive to my health.

I mention this because it is a way of understanding that patience must always be accompanied by wisdom as well.  Patience is not just enduring, but enduring using the other gifts that God has given to us, such as wisdom and understanding.  Spirituality is not just about doing what is right and clinging to the Lord, it is also about knowing how to do that in a way that gives glory to God and is not just about human stubbornness.

All of us need to know how to ask for help when we need it and how to follow good advice when it is given.  This is living our spirituality in a way that gives glory to God.

When I return home from a trip, it seems like everyone wants something from me.  I am not always patient, even when I want to be.  Right now, Prior Benedict is the superior—but that does not stop brothers from wanting to ask things from me.  Spirituality!  So much of spirituality is just living through the various things that happen in life and trying to cling to God in the midst of it all.  There are times when I feel completely overwhelmed and unable to cope with most things—and I have to keep on going.  There are times when I need time just to be alone, and then the knock comes at the door.  I remember as a young monk reading about the early monks in the desert.  For those early monks, the knock at the door was always a sign of God asking something of them.  They were clear that they had to drop whatever they were doing to attend the person who had knocked at the door.

Such an idealistic and romantic way of reading the early desert monks was easy when I was young and now I have to keep trying to put the person knocking at the door first, instead of pretending that I am not here!  I am certainly less idealistic and less romantic than when I was young!  Nevertheless, I still see that always it is the other person who must be put ahead of my own plans and schemes and hopes and desires.  This is easy to write about and difficult to live!  Consistently to make the other person, whoever that may be, more important than whatever I have to do?  Practically impossible at times!  But I keep trying and trying to do this in a way that is healthy and good and still keeps me aware of the presence of God at every moment.

What patience does for me is make me very aware of my defects of character and my lack of a very deep love for other people.  The counterbalance to that in my life is an even deeper awareness that God loves me and keeps drawing me to Himself.  I have an enormous confidence in God’s love for me and in the power of God’s love to save me and even to transform me.  There are times when I wish that I had cooperated more when I was younger, but the past cannot be changed.  So I give thanks that God is still present in my life and still draws me to Himself.

I will celebrate Holy Mass for you again this week and pray for your needs and intentions.  Always I count on your prayers for me and for the women and men of all the houses associated with ours.  It is a strength to me to know that you are praying for me.  I send you my love and prayers.

Your brother in the Lord,

Abbot Philip