The Abbot’s Notebook for September 20, 2017

My sisters and brothers in Christ,

Blessings to you!  We seem to have a mother bear and two cubs on our property right now.  These are black bears and generally don’t harm anyone.  We have been told that there are few acorns in their normal habitat, but is usually on the mesas above us.  So they have come down looking for food to fatten up for the winter.  It is not always easy to be calm when one walks out of a room and meets a bear!  Years ago we had a bear in the kitchen.  These at least are outside.  The Fish and Game Commission has brought a trap to see if the bears can be removed peacefully to another habitat.

Not only do we have bears on the property, but we have had a remarkable increase of skunks!  Years ago we had porcupines and they seem to have left now.  Then we had raccoons of all ages and sizes.  They are still here but in reduced numbers.  Now the skunks are the major source of challenge, especially when they become aggressive.  Years ago one of our brothers looked out his window and saw what he thought was a beautiful black and white cat with its head stuck in a tin can.  So he went out and took pictures of that beautiful cat and then removed the tin can from its head.  Thanks be to God that the skunk seemed grateful and did not spray our brother.  But the pictures showed clearly that it was a skunk and not a cat.

We also have mountain lions and bobcats.  But they are always shy about meeting people and generally are seen rarely, even when there are many of them.  The desert has lots of inhabitants!  And then we have our domestic cats and dogs—who are always friendly.  We have one cat, Monica, who thinks she is a dog and plays with the dogs and takes walks with the dogs.

When I first came to New Mexico in 1964, a former pupil of mine from the seminary gave me a horse.  I spent the first couple of years here riding all over our canyon and the adjacent canyons.  It was a wonderful time to be young and to be a monk in such a remote area and to have a horse to care for—as well as to life the monastic life.  Now we have four horses.  We have gone through various phases with our horses because they take a good amount of care.  At one point about 1987, the other brother who shared caring for the horses with me was away at school.  One of the horses foundered, which meant that I had to bring it both food and water every day and sometimes more than once a day.  And there was a crisis in our small community happening at the same time.  I remember telling the brothers:  I have to choose between the horses and you and actually I prefer the horses.  That was not a diplomatic thing to say to a community.  I gave the horses to our neighbors at Ghost Ranch.  The next year we saw them in the film City Slickers.

Part of spirituality is learning to make good decisions and to be able to discern what things are more important than other things.  I have not always been very good at that.  Perhaps better said:  I am not always very good at that.  From my childhood I learned to be silent in lots of situations and to wait and see before doing anything.  That part is fine as long as eventually I do something before a situation becomes a catastrophe.  I don’t always make it.  I have an ability, again from my childhood, to put up with really bad behavior on the part of others and still believe that they will eventually change.  When I was young, it was my dream that my parents would stop drinking—and eventually they did.  So deep within me is a belief that others can leave bad behaviors if I am just patient.

Also as a child, I learned that correcting others is often just a waste of time unless they are at a point that they can really hear me.  I also that it is better to be silent that to speak when someone is angry at me.  These ways of acting can be wonderful gifts but also can cause countless problems when another way of acting would be better.  Sometimes it is better to speak up when another person is angry at me.  But I kind of freeze when I hear anger and go into an internal hibernation!  Part of my ongoing growth is learning when and how to speak up in the face of anger instead of being silent.  Sometimes I need to say things out loud even if the other person cannot really hear me or understand me at the time.

In my first years as the superior of the community, if a brother wanted something from me and got angry with me when I said “no,” then I would quickly change to a “yes.”  Anger in another person still causes me interior panic.  As a young superior, eventually I put into our Customary—a book describing how we do things in our community—the statement:  “The superior retains the right to say ‘yes’ today and ‘no’ tomorrow.”  This was one way I began to combat my own inner fear when someone else got angry and I gave permissions that I should not have given.  Usually when that type of situation happened, at night I could see that I have given a permission only out of fear.  So I developed a habit of keeping 3 x 5 notecards in my habit pocket.  At night I would make a commitment to tell the brother “no” on the following day.  It was really tough for me, but eventually I came to be able to say “no” more easily and even when someone was angry at me.

Spirituality does not require human growth but surely they go hand in hand.  In order to live as a spiritual person, I have to continue to grow as a human being.  We human beings are always “in process.”  That means that we are continually growing and changing.  The challenge is to change for the better and not for the worse.  As we come closer to God, we more easily see our defects of character and our lack of will to do what is right, so it is easy for us to say that I am worse now than when I was younger.

As we mature, we can also recognize that we cannot do everything by will power.  This was a mistake in spirituality, when it thought that a person could change simply by willing it and praying for it.  Very often it is only the Lord who can change us.  We have to keep on trying and we have to will change—but the actual change is a gift of God if and when it happens.

As I continue to function as a simple monk in the house and not as the superior, I see more clearly my defects as a superior and have to admit them.  This time of not being the superior of the community is an incredible time of grace for me, even as I see more and more my defects.  God has given me incredible gifts of grace and has blessed our community as well.  A living spirituality seeks God in all that happens.

Our community helps many other communities.  There are three projects that I would like to write about here in my Notebook, because we don’t have the funds to help these projects completely.  First, the Sisters of Our Lady of the Desert at Gobernador, New Mexico, need to add more spaces to their living quarters so that they can continue to receive vocations.  The Prioress is Mother Hilda and her email is The new Carmelite community in Las Cruces, New Mexico, needs to build a whole monastery, which will be several million dollars.  The contact there would be Mother Teresa and her email is The Poor Clare sisters in Lilongwe, Malawi, Africa, need to construct an infirmary soon and the estimate is close to $500,000 because they live in the city.  The one to contact there is Mother Chiara and she can be reached at  We help all three of these communities as well as our own monastic foundations but invite anyone who has a special interest in helping women’s contemplative communities to find ways to help them.  I know that putting something like this on the internet can cause networking to happen and somehow the funds will be found for all of these projects.  These are good communities with wonderful nuns and I pray that through mentioning them in this Notebook, people will be found who can help them.  Thank you!

As always, I send you my love and prayers.  I will celebrate the Holy Mass for you and for your needs and intentions once this week.  Please continue to pray for me and for all of the sisters and brothers of our communities.

Your brother in the Lord,

Abbot Philip