The Abbot’s Notebook for November 1, 2017
My sisters and brothers in Christ,
Blessings to you! This week the community and I had two very special guests—one more for the community (but also for me) and the other especially for me. The first was Father James Conner, OCSO, who was the superior here at Christ in the Desert when I arrived in 1974. If he had not been here, most likely this community of Christ in the Desert would have ended. When I arrived, Father James was here and Brother Christopher Gardner, OSB, a simply professed monk from Mount Saviour Monastery in New York. With them was Father Peter Bannon, who was a candidate at Mount Saviour Monastery and who had come to be here until I arrived on June 28, 1974.
Father James left us in January of 1977 and went to study in California and then spent many years as the chaplain to Osage Monastery in Oklahoma. Then he returned to Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, which was the monastery in which he began and in which he had his vows. Later he was chosen as Abbot of the Trappist Monastery of Ava, Missouri. Now he is 85 years old and still working in his original Abbey of Gethsemani. He gave us a wonderful presentation of his years here and his love for this community. The last time that Father James visited us was about 30 years ago.
The other guest, important for me but less so for the community, was Mr. Tom Petersik. Tom and I began High School together at Mount Angel Seminary in 1958. Tom was 13 and I was 14 at the time. We spent 6 years together as students and classmates. In 1964 I entered the novitiate at Mount Angel Abbey and Tom went to Saint Thomas Seminary in Kenmore, Washington. Tom and I met again in 1973 when I was studying philosophy for a summer at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. We had not seen each other since that time. Nevertheless, we picked up our relationship as though there had been no break at all. Tom was on his way to a reunion of other classmates in Oregon. I am not going because I am still recovering from the surgeries and illnesses of earlier this year.
There is truly something wonderful about reconnecting with people who have been part of our lives in the past. My own life for the past 43 years has been here at Christ in the Desert and has included very little “reconnecting.” Anyone who reads my notebooks knows that this lack of reconnecting is not because I never travel. It is just that my travels have always been to monasteries and to monastic meetings, with very few exceptions.
On Tuesday, October 31, Brother Rinh Van Dao entered the novitiate and was given the name “Brother Emmanuel.” That evening Dom Rodrigo, Dom John Paul, Dom Cyril, Dom Cassian, Dom Vincent Mary, Dom Maria Martino, Dom Anselm, Dom Peter and Dom Raphael renewed their vows for another year. And the morning that you receive this, Brother Isidore and Brother Anthony will make their first vows. So it is a strong time for our community.
One of the aspects of monastic life that always affects me deeply and is a part of any spiritual life is learning to trust others. One would think that trust should be easy in a monastery. It is no easier here than it would be outside. Men come from all kinds of backgrounds to join our community and each has a personality. We also live within a Congregation and within that Congregation (the Subiaco Cassinese Congregation) we have various authorities over us. We must learn to trust them also.
Perhaps when I was young, I idealized people in authority within the Church. With my own family background, I did not trust people very easily but I always presumed that people in the Church were able to be trusted. And that seemed true all through my first six years in the seminary. When I entered the Monastery, however, I learned that I could not trust people just because they were monks or religious. That was a struggle for me but has truly helped me later in life because I had to find a way to respect and honor those in authority over me, even if I knew that I could not trust them. Most of my superiors were really good men. Two were not. Yet I learned how to communicate with them, how to obey them—and still keep a distance that allowed me the freedom to see their defects.
This has helped me in my life over and over. I can see defects in people and come to know that they really are determined to hurt me or to destroy me or to cause me problems—and I can still love such people while keeping enough distance so that their attempts against me come to nothing. This has helped me not only in the monastery but also in the various interactions that I must have with people outside of the monastery. It is part of spirituality because we are called to love everyone, even—and perhaps especially—those who seek to harm us in any way. Jesus is always our model here and He loves and forgives those who take His life from Him. I have never had to go that far, so far.
I had one superior in my younger days who would always be watching everything that I did, in order to find ways to make my life more difficult. It was as if I were under 24 hour surveillance. I had another superior who wanted me to be his spiritual director, which was totally crazy. Always I was blessed because I could go to my abbot and speak with him about these things and even verify that I was not imagining things.
So the challenge of spirituality is to love and to pray for all other people, no matter what their relationship with us. If they are people who have no authority over us, it can at times be easier to love them. That does not excuse us from loving those who do have authority over us and who treat us wrongly or try to harm us in some way.
Always the challenge is to love. Spirituality includes the process of learning how to love others, no matter how difficult that may be. We should have no expectation that others should love, no matter how nice that might be. Jesus warns us against loving only those who love us. We are followers of Jesus and He tells us that even pagans love those who love them. We are Christians and so must learn how to love those who are our enemies in any way.
We never know when a situation might turn into something difficult or something threatening. In most of my life, things go along without having many enemies. But when there are the situations in which someone is trying to harm me, then the challenge of following the Lord becomes more difficult.
Every day I can give thanks when there seems to be love around me rather than enmity or some evil force against me. Every day I give thanks for the community in which there seems to be mostly love. On the other hand, if that changes, then I must still love and seek the good of others, even if it means that I will suffer. So much of modern culture today wants us to do only those things that make us feel happy. Following Christ says that we do those things which seek the good of others, whether we are happy or not.
For much of my early life, I could not believe that anyone would really want to harm me or to destroy my life. That changed when I entered monastic life and began to realize that humans have defects of character like anyone else and that even monks can do bad things. I had to go from an inner idealism to the difficult reality that all of us humans are broken and flawed. In that reality of brokenness and flaws, I must still strive to love all others.
As always, I send my love and prayers to you! I will offer a Holy Mass this week for you and for your needs and intentions. Please pray for me and for the women and men of all of our communities.
Your brother in the Lord,