The Abbot’s Notebook for November 15, 2017
My sisters and brothers in Christ,
Blessings to you! Will the weather change? Sometimes that is a preoccupation here because the weather affects us a lot. As it gets colder, those who are used to warmer climates feel the difference. The newer members of the community live further away and so feel it more than those who have rooms in the main cloister. Someday, perhaps, we will all live fairly close, but that won’t be for many years.
Father Joseph Gabriel has returned from his time helping in Saint Benedict’s Abbey, Polokwane, South Africa. Father Gregory and Brother Gabriel are still there and will be there for longer periods of time. For us, it is always a joy to be able to help another community.
In the community, we have been working to share out some of the work among the brothers. Prior Benedict and myself always end up with a disproportionate amount of work and we keep looking for ways for other brothers to help us get those works done. Immigration work is a normal part of our life here. Prior Benedict needs a good assistant in that area and hopefully one of the brothers will be able to do a lot of that work. Answering vocational mail is another area that takes us a good amount of time. I am convinced that one of the reasons that we have many vocations is because we respond quickly to anyone who asks about a vocation here. That does not mean that we accept everyone—although some seem to think that—but only that we assure the person that we have received their letter and will reply to it promptly.
In the process of thinking about vocations, I did a small study about people entering our community for the past 10 years. I took statistics from October of 2008 through October of 2017. During that period of time 73 men entered our community. Some came as postulants, some came as already having simple vows in another Benedictine community and some came as already solemnly professed in another Benedictine community. Of those 73 who entered, 33 have left in these 10 years. That means that 40 have stayed here, at least for now. Of the 33 who left, 10 were from the United States and 12 were from other countries. Of the 23 from other countries who left, 13 returned to their own countries of origin. 10 have remained in the United States. Of those 10 who have remained here, 9 are either priests or religious or seminarians.
I like studies such as this because they can dispel the myths. Sometimes our community is accused of just letting people come to the United States and get their permanent residency and then do what they want. The statistics show that this is not true. The one man who was not a priest or religious or seminarian who did stay in the country did so against our advice. Our official policy is clear to all who come to us from other countries: If your vocation does not work with us, you must return to your own country of origin. And we work to make that happen.
On the other hand, if it is apparent to us that a man who is with us does not have our vocation but does have a religious or priestly vocation in the Church, then we work to help him pursue that vocation. We believe very much that vocations to priesthood and religious life are to be treasured in the Church and we want to do our part to help them along. This has worked well for us because it also strengthens our relationship with other communities and with various dioceses.
One aspect of spirituality is learning to accept that others don’t see us the way that we do. Sometimes others misjudge us or our intentions and motives. We see this at Christ in the Desert as a community and most of us see it also individually. This is part of our human condition and why it is necessary in marriage or in any committed relationship, such as a religious community, to know how to forgive and to accept others as they are.
When I started religious life, I presumed that everyone lived with virtuous intentions and never judged others. That impression had to be changed. Monks are just like everyone else. There are some monks who seem to pursue virtue faithfully. The majority of monks pursue virtue sort of most of the time. And then there are monks who seem to be on the fringes and difficult and sometimes seem not at all interested in virtue. Saint Benedict describes this in his Rule for Monks.
Various commentators on the Rule for Monks have commented over centuries that Saint Benedict is writing about real situations, not hypothetical ones. That means that Saint Benedict had monks in his monasteries who were difficult, who resisted correction, who talked too much, who ate too much, who drank too much and who probably just didn’t have their hearts completely set on being “good monks.”
The early desert monks went so far as to tell other monks: if there are no monks who irritate you and distress you, then you should pray for God to send them!
The reason for this is that we don’t become holy by putting ourselves out of the way of all temptation and then thinking that we are good. Rather, our virtue and our goodness must be tested by others who don’t do what we want them to do, who think differently from ourselves, who don’t see us as very good people and probably even less good as monks, by brethren who put every aspect of our life to the test. There are monks who make up stories about us, monks who say that we are no good, monks who say that we are not faithful, etc. This is real life. In the midst of this real life, I must strive to keep my heart free and must seek to love every other person and especially those who do bad things to me or say bad things about me.
Spirituality is always the imitation of Christ, who had people seeking to destroy Him, people seeking to say bad things about Him, people who made fun of His ways, etc. Why should we expect that we would live differently? It is in the midst of this real life that we must seek and embrace virtue. It is with false brethren that we must love. It is with those who put us down that we must find a way of lifting our hearts to God.
What an idealist I was when I entered monastic life! How disillusioned I was when I began to know the reality. Yet what a gift of God to maintain an ideal even when disillusioned. My own personal vocation as a man and as a man was always helped by Abbot Damian Jentges, who believed in me. Without his steady presence, I would never have survived. He was able to forgive me and believe in me, no matter what kind of rebellion or craziness I did.
My own hope is that Christ in the Desert will be that kind of monastery which radiates love and mercy, which is slow to tell people to leave, which encourages brothers to grow in faith, hope and love and which is strong in practice and yet knows how to feast!
Enough! I send you my love and prayers. I will celebrate a Holy Mass for you and for your needs and intentions this week. Seek the Lord with joy. Please also pray for me and for the women and men of all our communities.
Your brother in the Lord,