The Abbot’s Notebook for November 22, 2017

My sisters and brothers in Christ,

Blessings to you!  We are coming to the end of the year already.  This year has passed all too quickly.  Because we have an end of the Church Year on December 2nd and then the end of the Civil Year on December 31st, we have two ends of the year occurring soon.  Our brothers from Asia also, for the most part, celebrate the Chinese Year, which usually ends in February or March.  This year the New Year begins on February 16th.   It is important to recognize that things end—and sometimes even permanently.  For now, at least, the end of the year comes to announce the beginning of a New Year.

Brother Simon Nzomo Mutua has arrived from Kenya to begin his postulancy in our community.  We now have six men from Kenya in formation and more hoping to come.  In the past, the only larger national group that we had, other than Americans, was from Vietnam.  But now we have some other national groups increasing.  For us, this is always a sign that, if the increase continues, then in the future we will be planning a new monastery for that country.

Father Mayeul, Brother Peter and Brother Bonaventure went to Our Lady of the Desert.  There they were joined by Sister Scholastica and Sister Maria Mercy and they all traveled to the official closing of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in Canyon, Texas.  Father Mayeul had been chaplain for that community for many years.  It is always sad to see a monastery close, but this happens not infrequently in the present times.

As we come to the end of the Church Year and then the end of the Civil Year, I have been thinking about how I am living my life.  In our monastic tradition, we try to live our life with death in mind every day.  This is not a morbid practice, but simply a way to keep our values in order and to be aware that we could die at any time and should always be prepared to die.

Being prepared to die does not mean that we have become saints!  It means that we have grown in our complete trust in God and in His salvation.  In 1984 I had a close call with death when, unknown to me or to others, there was carbon monoxide in the room in which I was staying.  I was in Mexico at our Monastery of La Soledad.  The day before, I had presided at the funeral of our founder, Father Aelred Wall.  I was not feeling well and went to bed early.  Luckily, the monk who had come with me was in the same room.  All I remember is that about 8:00 pm, I realized—and how I do not know—that I was dying.  I cried out to the Lord:  “Have mercy on me.  I am no good at all.  But I trust completely in your love and forgiveness.”  Some 6 hours later I returned to consciousness.  I did not die.  But I was comforted that my faith was strong enough for me simply to put my life in HIS hands.

Really that is all that is necessary:  putting our lives totally in His hands at all times.  We are humans and for most of us, as long as we live, we continue to find ourselves trapped and overcome by our sinfulness.  It may not be a huge sinfulness, but we can recognize that there are elements of our lives, decisions of our lives, that keep us apart from God.  The real challenge for us is to believe in God and in His mercy—and then to keep trying everyday to respond to that love and mercy.  Our God is a God of love and compassion and He is always present, seeking to draw us to Himself.

My own personal challenge is to remember that God is there with me and that God loves me at all times.  In the very depths of my being, I believe that.  At the normal everyday life, I often forget it and just about living my life without any reference to God at all.  That happens to me even here in the Monastery!

When I first came here in 1974, I think that my own sense of God was not so clear nor so trusting.  My sense of God was not so clear that He loves us.  A monk-priest gave a series of homilies in 1975 or 1976 that made me rethink my sense of God.  I remember sitting in front of my cell in the sunlight, simply holding in my heart:  “God loves me.”  I could feel that my very being resisted that.  It seemed impossible to me that God could love me because I was so unlovable.  It did not matter that I could tell others that God always loves us.  Instead, somewhere in the depths of my heart, I could not believe that God could love me.

I spent more than a year with this practice of sitting in silence but reflecting with only these words:  “He loves me.”  My own inner sense would say:  “He cannot love you.  You are no good.  You are no good.”  Even to this day there are times when I feel deep within me:  “You are no good.”  This no longer bothers me because I know that HE loves me and that HE loves me even if I am no good.  His love overcomes all of my lack of goodness and HE simply seeks to draw me to Himself.

There are times, even now, when I return to that simple practice of sitting in silence and holding in my heart the words:  He loves me.”  This is at the very basis of all of our faith, Jewish and Christian.  God loves us!  No qualifications.  No conditions.  He loves me.

Why do I keep returning to that practice?  Because my faith gets cold without it and I begin to forget that HE loves me.  The Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, are filled with this pattern.  God shows His love and people rejoice.  Then God seems to disappear and the people forget and then abandon God.  So God sends difficulties in their lives and they begin to think of God again.

It is not that God sends many difficulties in my life.  Always there are some.  Surely this year with a lot of illness, I have felt difficulties in my life.  For me, however, the great difficulty is always striving to be faithful and finding myself unfaithful.  If I were not living in a monastery, I might even forget that I am unfaithful.  Instead, because of our regular rhythm of life, it is easy for me to recognize:  you are not keeping God in the center of your life.

The best way for me to remember to keep God at the center of my life is to be faithful to lectio and personal prayer.  Lectio is the word in our Benedictine tradition for a prayerful reading of the Scriptures.  Saint Benedict would have the monk spend at least an hour and sometimes several hours each day in quiet, peaceful, slow reading of the Scriptures.  Why?  Because the Scriptures are God’s own revelation to us.  Only in knowing the Scriptures can we know Jesus.  Even in the early Church, some wanted to abandon the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, because they did not seem as “nice” as the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus.  But it is only in the Old Testament, in the Jewish Scriptures, that we can really understand who Jesus is and why He has come.

As we read Scriptures, we have to have our hearts open to God and set on God.  If we do that, then the Scriptures can begin to come to life for us—and if we do this regularly, then the Scriptures become a daily food for our lives.  We must pray the Scriptures and we must pray daily to God.  If we do that, our lives stay centered on Him and we begin to see all of life in Him.

I send my love and prayers for you and prayers for your needs and intentions.  Please continue to pray for me and for the women and men of our communities!  May the Lord help us all be faithful.

Your brother in the Lord,

Abbot Philip