The Abbot’s Notebook for December 6, 2017

My sisters and brothers in Christ,

Blessings to you! Well, it has been a quiet week. The funeral of Fr. Fred Brand is later today, after you receive this Notebook. The brother who was in hospital has returned home and is recovering. We finished our Annual Retreat on Saturday evening. Brother Emmanuel returned home from a short visit to his family in Dallas. A very normal and good week.

As I was thinking about spirituality this week, I was thinking about an inner longing that we must have for the Lord. Spirituality is not just about doing things or ways of living. Spirituality also is about what we want and long for in our lives.

Sometimes I seem to want nothing in my life. I get caught up in just doing what has to be done and forget to pay attention to what else might be doing on inside me. Often I have wanted things over the years. I remember one time wanting just to be a student and nothing else, to keep learning more and more things. At other times, I wanted to learn how to do various things. I wanted to learn wood carving. I wanted to learn guitar. I wanted to learn more about mechanics. (One time a neighbor gave me an old car and I managed to take it all apart, fix everything and put it back together—and it actually ran well after that for a while.) I wanted to learn how to sing better. When I was young, I wanted my parents to stop drinking. When I was young, I wanted to be a mystic. There have been some relationships over all these years that I have really wanted.

Out of all of these “desires” and more, only a few wants have survived. Most of the time, I want to know the Lord and His ways in my life. I want to pray. I want to be completely possessed by God. None of the present “desires” seems nearly as strong as such “desires” were when I was younger. Instead, the present desires are deep within me along with a recognition that anything that I want will only happen when God wants it within me.

On the other hand, I also recognize that my own energies are not as strong physically as they were when I was younger, even if my desires have deepened and are stronger. This is an aging process, for sure, and I am okay with it. Once in a while, however, I look again just to make sure that I still do want and desire God. It may sound strange to say that, but I recognize that unless I continue to give my energies to the Lord, I can easily just move away into other interests.

This is one of the values of an Annual Retreat in my life. Sometimes the Retreat allows me to refocus my energies or to recognize that I am not spending enough time with the things that give me life and spiritual desires. Because I am a person who is always caught up in the practical aspects of our life, I can forget to leave time in my life for non-physical things, such as dreaming, desiring, wanting, imagining, etc. I can get so caught up in the practical realities that I let the other realities wither within me.

One of the practices that keeps me balanced is our Benedictine practice of “lectio.” Lectio is just a Latin word for reading, but in our Benedictine understanding, it is not just any kind of reading. Rather it is a slow, ruminative pondering reading that takes a small bit of text and can spend a lot of time just thinking and savoring the text. The text for us is almost always Sacred Scripture, the Bible. Often I realize that unless I keep working at understanding Scripture—all of it, not just the New Testament—I put myself in danger of learning less about Jesus Christ.

When I was young, I just sort of presumed that I knew about Jesus already. The older I get, the more I realize how little I know Him in so many ways. It makes me laugh at times because I know so much more now than when I was young but I am so much more aware of how little I know. And what I want, what I desire, is not just the factual knowledge, but a deep and personal knowledge of Him and of His presence in my life.

So I look at two aspects of my life that help me know HIM better: lectio and personal prayer. The Lectio is a form of praying the Scriptures but it also gives me some factual knowledge of Jesus because it reflects what I learn about Him from his own culture and from the early Scriptures of the New Testament that give personal witness of the faith of those who knew Him personally.

The tradition of lectio sees lectio as the first stage and it leads to meditation—meditation. Meditation is simply chewing over the words that we have read. Always this is a challenge because it means that we must be able to read the same text over and over and over throughout many years—and still expect that something new might happen in our minds and hearts.

What can happen is that some word or some phrase touches us in a new way, gives us an insight, draws us into the text. At that point, we need to pass to oratio—prayer. We let our heart and our mind go with the Lord and we might give thanks, we might adore, we might ask for more, etc. If God so chooses, then He Himself can take us to contemplation—the contemplation for which our hearts long. There is a natural contemplation by which we arrive at the threshold of God’s present and there is a supernatural contemplation by which God takes possession of us—and it is all His work and not ours.

One of the challenges of monastic life is to be faithful daily to our lectio—and then to the whole process of lectio, oratio, meditatio and contemplation. We simply begin with the lectio and let it take us wherever it takes us on a particular day.

At a practical level, all of this can be affected by how we feel, what is happening with our health and all the other factors of life that touch on us as humans. For instance, as Advent began this year on Saturday, December 2nd, at First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent, I decided that I should be able to return to the full monastic life. I have been living a fairly modified version since my illnesses began on March 5th. I felt rested and ready to go back to the full life. I can heart our departed Brother Xavier telling me: It is just pride!

Anyway, I tried for the first two days and attended everything and then realized that I could not go on. I was just too tired and even so tired that I could not sleep when I needed to. So I have had to back off again. I was so tired that I could not sit still in the presence of the Lord without falling asleep.

A true spiritual life has to admit the good and the bad and then seek ways to deal with the reality of life. So I had to tell the community: I cannot yet live the full life. Be patient with me.

As always I promise my prayers for you and for your needs and intentions. I will offer Holy Mass for you once this week. And I continue to ask your prayers for me and for the women and men of all our associated communities. I send you my love and prayers.

Your brother in the Lord,

Abbot Philip