The Abbot’s Notebook for October 11, 2017

My sisters and brothers in Christ,

Blessings to you! As I continue to recover, no one really believes that I am still infirm! And so more and more things are asked me and I struggle to maintain enough time for naps and for exercise. Ah, the challenges of life. When I think of so many people throughout the world who must recover from all kinds of physical wounds and sicknesses and have not enough rest or not enough food or live in war zones, it is not easy to feel sorry for myself. The early always recommended, in difficult situations, to think of those whose situations were even more difficult. Such good and wise advice.

This week Brother David Bryant transferred his stability to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. This is the monastic way of saying that his vows moved here from his previous monastery, which was Saint Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama. There are several of us who originally made our solemn vows in other communities and who ended up here for a variety of reasons. I myself began at Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon. We are really happy to have Brother David as a permanent member of our community. He comes to us with incredible gifts in many areas (information technology, singing, repairing things, soap making, candle making, carpentry, etc.). Congratulations, Brother David!

Brother Luke María went to Mexico for the marriage of his sister. Prior Benedict went with him to preside at the wedding Mass. Prior Benedict will continue on and visit the Monastery of Nuestra Señora de La Soledad, the oldest of our monastic foundations; and then on to Corpus Christi Monastery in Chiapas, where we encourage a small community which is just beginning.

The other day, Father Simeon asked me to write some articles for our next newsletter. Always he has to keep the newsletter will with articles and news that will share our life with others. One of the articles he wants from me is something about our Father Odon, who died on August 2nd at the age of 81. Both Father Odon and Father Mayeul had an incredible gift of languages, being complete masters of Latin, of English and of French, as well as their own native language of Vietnamese. Even though I studied Latin for seven years and taught it for several years, my mastery of Latin was much less than theirs.

In my own life I find that I fit the expression: jack of all trades and master of none. Apparently the original of this statement was like this: “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” It was a compliment. Today it is no longer a compliment, but implies that a person knows lots of things, but is shallow in all of them and masters none of them.

My own sense about my life is that I have mastered practically nothing, but am good at lots of things in a general way. If I want a specialist, someone who has mastered something, then I look for someone else. I mention this because often we think of the spiritual life as something that can be learned and mastered. There is some truth in that but it is only a small part of the truth.

If we could simply learn the spiritual life and master it, it would not be a relationship with the Living God. Rather, it would be simply another area in our life. Instead, the spiritual life is about this relationship with God that can never be tied down and never completely mastered—because it is a relationship between two people. Yes, we know that a deep spiritual life can only happen as a gift of God and that it also requires a response from us as well. God can infuse a deep spiritual life into a person but God can also allow a person to grow deeper and deeper into a spiritual life.

I remember as a young monk thinking that if it is a gift of God, then there is nothing that I can do about it. God will either give me a deep spiritual life or God won’t—but there is nothing that I can do. Great spiritual writers tell us over and over: keep working at praying, keep working at trying to give yourself to God, keep seeking God. No great spiritual writer tells us to ignore God and to do nothing.

How do we come to accept that God loves us always and unconditionally and is always there for us? That is so often not our experience. On the other hand, if we have faith, we come to believe that God is always there for us and loves us puts no conditions on His love. So the heart of the challenge is faith. I can sit and try to believe. On the other hand, faith is at the bottom all gift and nothing that I can do. We keep running into this reality over and over. So should I do nothing? No. The answer is always that I can pray for faith, I can pray for more faith and I can trust that God will give me faith.

In my own life, I went through a couple of periods where I felt I believed nothing. I was not sure there was a God. I was, for practical purposes, a sort of atheist or at least a strong doubter. Eventually my own inner being kept pulling me back to faith, even if it was not yet a fully Catholic faith. All the time, of course, I was still a Catholic monk. I can still remember various phases in my life. I can remember when I was able to say: “I do believe in a God. And if there is a God, that God can only be a God of love. I can never accept a God that is not completely love.” And at another point in my life, I remember saying to myself: “I believe in the Catholic Church and I accept all that she teaches, even if I do not presently understand it. I will spend the rest of my life trying to understand rather than to reject.”

Prayer and the spiritual life is the same kind of reality as belief in God and belief in the Church: we must make a commitment to it and then keep trying to pray more and asking God to deepen our life of prayer. It is gift! We can never master it, even though we know that we will give time to prayer. What is important is to pray and to pray often and to know that God is present. We should not be looking at others and thinking that their prayers are better or worse. We must pray as we can and never be comparing. We need to commit our whole life to faith and prayer—and that does not mean for most people becoming a person who belongs to a religious community. And for the religious it does not mean that I will be able to give up the work that is asked of me so that I can focus my life on prayer. I don’t need to give up anything to focus my life on prayer.

What is needed is an inner decision to make all things prayer.

I don’t do that well, even if I can write about it. I get caught up in other things and forget to pray the other things. Sure, there are days and moments when it all seems to work and even to work well. Other days, however, it is only struggle and the challenge to remain aware instead of being forgetful. At one level, it does not matter that much because I know that I am loved by God. At another level, it is a matter of my response to that love and wanting to return more to the Lord.

As always, I am praying for you and for your needs and intentions. I will offer Holy Mass once this week for you. Please continue to pray for me personally and for the women and men in our communities. I send you my love and prayers.

Your brother in the Lord,
Abbot Philip