The Abbot’s Notebook for December 20, 2017

My sisters and brothers in Christ,

Blessings to you!  This was not as quiet a week as last week.  At least there were no deaths this week!  On Saturday, December 16th, we hosted about 100 Vietnamese from California in the afternoon for prayer time, Vigil Mass for Sunday and a huge banquet.  We don’t often do these things, but once in a while.  The challenge for us is that it throws our whole schedule off and we spend lots of extra time setting things up and taking things down.  And cooking for 160 people is a real challenge.

But it was a wonderful time.  Our Father Mayeul Tran Van Thu presided at the Mass, which was entirely in Vietnamese except for the Kyrie, Creed, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, which were in Greek for the Kyrie and Latin for the rest.  Some twelve of our brothers formed a Vietnamese Choir under the direction of our Brother Vincent Mary Nguyen Van Truong.  Prior Benedict organized the whole thing and made sure that there were enough chairs and other places to sit.  Our Church was filled to bursting level.  I really did not think that we could manage to get that many people inside and seated and still have room for anything to happen!

Several of our Vietnamese brothers cooked all day, preparing a true banquet for our guests and visitors.  Father Joseph Gabriel had purchased lots of items for our store to sell and we offered free bottled water for everyone.  Everything worked well and we ended the evening about 7:45 pm and the brothers worked until 8:45 pm cleaning everything up and putting things back in place.

Our Brother Charles was scheduled to return from Kenya on Friday.  That got cancelled for various reasons and we rebooked him and then that got cancelled.  So we rebooked again and got cancelled again.  Finally he arrived home on Monday night!  Traveling in the modern age is a true challenge at times.  Whenever these kinds of things happens, it takes hours of work from Brother Anthony to get things rebooked and hours from me in the communicating with the brother.  So every time that the ticket was cancelled again, we simply had to keep on working!

The spiritual life is the same way:  whenever things seem not work, we must keep on working!  And if everything always works well in our spiritual life, then the early monks and nuns would tell us to pray to have difficulties.  It is through the difficulties that we grow and mature and deepen in our human and spiritual life.

I hate difficulties and would always prefer that things go well without any ups and downs!  But my life has never been that way.  I remember thinking as a fairly young man:  will I ever have a normal life without lots of challenges and difficulties?  And of course that answer has been clear:  “no.”  God has not given me anything worse that he has given others and I have simply had to learn to live with ups and downs and challenges.

Wouldn’t it be nice if God simply were there beside me, making me aware of His presence, and always showing me the way forward?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I responded to everything challenge and difficulty and situation with a grace-filled response and always sought only the will of God?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful it God simply smoothed the way before me so that any challenge that was given to me also came with a clear response of how to deal with it?  Wouldn’t it be incredible if I could always respond to each and every situation and challenge and difficulty with a completely serene response that only looked at God’s presence in every situation?

To grow in the spiritual life is to face our brokenness and difficulties and emotions and attractions and repulsions—and to struggle to give ourselves to the Lord.  I think of Mother Theresa of Calcutta who had an inner spiritual darkness but seemed always to be committed to doing God’s well.  I seem to have plenty of spiritual darkness but am not always committed to doing God’s will.  I don’t usually go against His will, but neither do I embrace it with all my heart and soul.  I seem to be a pretty fickle being who responds well to God when it is not too difficult—and who struggles with a good response when life is not so easy.

One of the lessons of my struggles, however, and it is a gift from God that could be taken away, is that I have a deep confidence that He is always with me.  If I am just still and remember His presence, His hand is always there to help me.  And no matter how many times I turn away from Him, He is always there to love me and to be with me.  In some ways, I am completely spoiled as a person of faith because of having this inner awareness of His presence and a confidence that even if I should not feel His presence, He is there and loves me.  Unlike Saint Theresa of Calcutta, my life is not all darkness, but a mixture of lots of darkness and sometimes light.  Were God to cut all His light out of my life, I hope that I could be faithful and trusting.  But I can pray to the Lord mightily:  please don’t put me to the test!!

Why do some people seem to have such a gift of faith and others, even with faith, struggle with doubts all the time?  We cannot explain that except to state that God knows what is best for each of us and even what is necessary.  The only important thing in the spiritual life is to focus on God, on God’s love for us, and to try to respond to that love with our love for God and our love for neighbor.  Whenever things seem not work, we must keep on working!  Our spiritual life is not the sum of our works.  And God can choose to give each of us an incredible gift of grace and love in the knowledge of His presence without our doing anything.  That is because God is God and always knows that is best for each of us.

At the practical level, however, we must keep working.  There is a quote from Saint Augustine that not everyone appreciates:  “Pray as though everything depended on God.  Work as though everything depended on you.”

We can believe and even know that everything depends on God.  On the other hand, it is clear from the New Testament that unless our faith expresses itself in works of love for others, we don’t yet have a strong faith.  In the monastic life here, over the years that I have been here, it is really clear that if a monk is not working at loving his brothers in Christ and serving them, his faith is much less that the brother who really focuses his energy on loving the others in the community.

As always, I send you my love and prayers.  This week the love and prayers come with a very special Christmas Greeting:  may this Christmas be for you a grace of knowing the Lord more profoundly and being aware of His love for you!  Christ is born for us!  Christ comes to save us!  Christ is the image of God and manifests to each of us God’s love for us.  I will celebrate a Holy Mass for you and for your needs and intentions this week.  Please pray for me and for all the women and men associated with our communities.

Your brother in the Lord,

Abbot Philip