The Abbot’s Notebook for January 10, 2018

My sisters and brothers in Christ,

Blessings to you!  The great celebrations of Christmas, Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord have come to an end and now we are back in Ordinary Time.  This time after the great solemnities and feasts is usually one of the most difficult times of the year for the monks of our community.  There is nothing to look forward to, it is the darkest time of the year although getting lighter now, it is the coldest time of the year and life can be pretty dreary.  So usually we schedule several weeks before Ash Wednesday for a little extra rest by changing our daily schedules.  Thanks be to God!

Father Christian has returned from his work in Rome to spend a couple of weeks with us.  He has been gone more or less a whole year and we have missed him.  He will continue his work in Rome for a few more years so we have to adjust to his physical absence from our community.  He will visit us every year, but we all know that is not the same as living here and being a part of the ongoing community.  We have brothers now also helping in Polokwane, South Africa.  We are fairly frequently asked to help in other situations and communities because we have a good supply of monks!  It is a blessing and a challenge.

Prior Antonio, the superior of the Monastery of San José in Costa Rica, is spend some days with us.  Brother Santiago, from that community, had arrived earlier.  They are always welcome guests here as are any of their brothers who can visit us.

Three of our brothers spend a couple of days at Saint Michael’s Monastery in Cañones, New Mexico, to celebrate Orthodox Christmas with them.  Because many of the Orthodox Churches use the Julian calendar, their celebrations come a couple of weeks after ours and we are able to have some of our monks celebrate with them.

Many people make New Year’s Resolutions.  Or at least they used to do this.  So much of culture today is based on whatever happens in the instant of now.  The beginning of a New Year is a good time to look at our spiritual lives.  We need to be constantly aware of God’s presence in our lives.  Saint Leo the Great reminds us, however, that most of us cannot complete the task of being always attentive to life.  Instead, we tend to set aside various times of the year for various aspects of our spiritual life, such as Lent for penance and Easter for rejoicing—and so on.

Being consistent in our spiritual lives is always a challenge.  It is easier to get stuck in a rut than to be consistent!  By that, I mean that we can get ourselves used to various spiritual practices or ways of doing things and then confuse that with our living and breathing spiritual life.  Spiritual life in our Christian tradition is a relationship with a living God and so is always in process and never completed.  It is a relationship!  Living relationships are always in process.  They can only become static when the relationship has ended!

So being consistent is sort of like trying to be faithful no matter how often we fail.  Or trying to be aware of God’s love and mercy in every situation.  I remember so well when I first realized that I really did not believe that God loved me.  I spent at least two years just sitting every day for some periods of time and holding in my heart “God loves me.”  Finally I believed it—not as a form of brainwashing but simply as the promise of the Father to those who accept His Son and Holy Spirit.

Having come to that point, I still need even to this day to spend time in simple awareness:  “HE loves me.”  The point is not that I love HIM but that HE loves me.  As I stay aware of that love, I strive to love HIM.  But when my awareness of HIS love for me fades, then I seem to love Him and others less.  So over the years, I strive to return to that awareness that He loves me.  At times I forget it and then I realize that I have forgotten it yet again and begin to take time to remember.

Consistency for me has never been completely possible in the sense of beginning something and then never forgetting!  Instead, I seem to stumble upon situations or realities that remind me to try to be consistent.  In lots of ways, I am just the same way as the Israelites of old are presented:  seeking God when in need and forgetting Him when all goes well.  I am just another one of the human beings who seeks God but not always faithfully.

Does that discourage me?  In the past, kind of.  In the present, not at all.  I have come to accept that I must keep trying to respond to His love and not be concerned about doing it perfectly.  I am a much better person about responding to Him when I spend my time trying to be aware of His love for me than when I spend my time trying to love Him.  It’s an odd situation because when I try to directly to love Him, I seem to fail all the time.  When I seek to be aware of His love, I am much more faithful.

Each of us must keep working at our personal relationship with God, both in the Church and in whatever commitments we have.  Always I keep the Church central because of a deep belief that Christ is always present in His Church.  The Church as Church is sinless, but the people of the Church have sins, including everyone.  Nevertheless, Christ has promised that His Church will endure and I believe that with my whole heart.

Saint Paul is a wonderful example for all of us because he also struggled with his humanity even as he gave his life to the Lord in total service.  We should never be surprised that we struggle to give our lives to the Lord.  When we finally accept that all of this life is struggle, then there can be peace.  Struggle is not bad but is truly the way in which God forms us.  The early monks spoke so clearly about the necessity of the “spiritual combat” in order to give our lives over to God.  What is good always comes from God but we still must struggle to hand ourselves over completely to Him.  If being aware of His love helps in the struggle, then that is what is needed.  If some other form of awareness of God’s love is possible, then that is what is needed.  If we are able to give our lives in various ways, then that is what is needed.  It is just that each one of us must make the effort to allow this personal relationship with the Lord to deepen and grow within us.

What a different world it would be if everyone were seeking the Lord!  Even I can say what a different monastic community it could be if every monk were only seeking the Lord and seeking that deep relationship with the Lord.  And finally I can say what a different person I could be if I gave my all for the Lord.  Instead, the Lord slowly draws me to Him against my own resistance!  I want Him, for sure, but I still resist.  God will draw me to Himself in His time and I trust in that.

I send you my love and prayers!  I will celebrate Holy Mass for you and for your needs and intentions.  May the Lord draw us all to Him.  Please pray for me and for the women and men of all of our communities.

Your brother in the Lord,

Abbot Philip