The Abbot’s Notebook for January 3, 2018

My sisters and brothers in Christ,

Blessings to you!  May this New Year bring you closer to the Lord Jesus and thus give you intense awareness of His love!  May it also bring joy and other blessings.

Here in the community we were very happy to welcome Brother Isidore home from the Democratic Republic of Congo on January 1st.  He had gone to visit his family after his vows and various complications delayed his return to the community.  One of the complications was to secure a new Visa and the Consulate in the country kept closing unexpectedly and changing his appointment.  But he is home and we rejoice.

Brother Santiago from the Monastery of San Jose in Costa Rica has been with us for a couple of weeks now.  This week, the Prior of that community also arrived to spend a week with us.  We are always happy to welcome Prior Antonio and to share our life with him.

The New Year brings us many challenges, as always.  Our community continues to grow and the challenge of forming the large number of monks is a big challenge.  We will be looking also for some kind of work that will help our community and will allow brothers to do meaningful work that helps to support the community.  We do a lot of cleaning!  But we also need productive work.  We do some craft work and perhaps that is an area that we must expand.  Slowly….

We have the challenge of keeping the focus of our community on prayer.  It would be easy to change our focus and take up some kind of apostolic work, but that has never been the focus of our community.  We actually touch many lives and so are apostolic in many aspects of our life—but without any commitment to a specific form of work.  I often tell bishops, who invite us to start a monastery in a diocese:  “Are you sure that you want ‘useless’ monks?”

What kind of a New Year’s Resolution?  Only to seek the Lord more faithfully, if possible.  But what does that mean practically?  It means being faithful to the obligations of my state in life, no matter what that state in life is.  If I were a married man, it would mean seeking to be a better husband and father and being sure that I am doing my part in deepening the relationship with my spouse and any children I might have.  For me personally, as a monk and as a priest and as the abbot of the community, I must look first at being a truly faithful monk and all that means.  Then at the role of priesthood as service to my brothers and others.  And finally the service that I am called to give as abbot of the community.

Many times last year, in 2017, I thought longingly of retirement because of so much lack of energy and because of the daunting challenge of recovery from surgeries.  Nevertheless, because of being a monk so long, I knew that I should make no decisions about my life until I was more recovered and inwardly at peace with all aspects of my life.

So now, if I am to retire, it will be a choice of others.  I have regained a great part of my health and even of my energy, although the energy level is still lower than what I was accustomed to.  I still do not attend the early morning service of Vigils at 4:00 am and usually I am not present for Compline at 7:30 pm.  I still must walk a lot for recovery and take a good number of naps.  Such is my life.  In the midst of that, how to seek the Lord?

So often today people keep wanting to try new ways and new approaches to living.  There is surely some value in that.  On the other hand, there is always value is just seeking to do the same things in a deeper awareness of the presence of God.  My daily life does not need any outward radical transformation.  What is needed is the conversion of my heart, the inward challenge which is much more difficult.

During this last year of 2017, my confessor was very much caught up with reading St. Theresa of Lisieux and this helped me a lot.  For instance, I was told simply to pray, whether I felt like it or not.  I was asked to tell the Lord that I love Him, whether I felt it or not.  This seemed immediately right to me because I know that my own love and commitment to the Lord are so often inconstant and fickle. So no matter what I was feeling or thinking, I tried to take time simply to be with the Lord.  This was also the advice from John Chapman, who was a monk and an abbot who wrote about prayer.

The challenge of loving someone, even God, is to be with the person and to seek to know the serve the person, looking for what is good for the other and not for oneself.  All my life I have prayed and I have also read a lot about prayer.  It is much easier to read about prayer than to take the time every day and just pray, be in the Lord’s presence and stay there, no matter what happens.  But it seems pretty clear to me at this time that this is just what I must do:  sit in the presence of the Lord and stay there, no matter what happens.  If I sense His presence, I can rejoice in that.  If I feel nothing and sense nothing, I can still remain there and just be.  Prayer is not about feeling good, it is only about keeping the heart center on God in faith—no matter what is felt or sensed or whatever.

The spiritual life this year, I hope, will be about being with the Lord and seeking to be faithful to Him whether there is any sense of His presence or His absence.   From taking the time to be with the Lord, I also learn how to be with others:  being in their presence without any concern, being in the presence of those who love me and show that love but also in the presence of those who are indifferent to me and show that or perhaps even those who are antagonistic to me and show me that relationship.  God calls us to love all others, no matter how they relate to us or how they treat us.  Remaining faithful to loving others is part of the inner life and can only deepen our prayer, whether it feels good or bad or anything else.

Sometimes I find it difficult to believe that I have been a monk so long and still know so little about the presence of the Lord.  I still long at times for such a wonderful experience of the presence of God that I cannot resist the Lord.  But that has not come.  At the same time I can say that over all of these years, my faith has deepened and that I am much more committed to praying and being in the presence of God, not matter what happens.

One day this week, as I was taking one of my walks, I could see the sunlight shining on the other side of the canyon.  The sun had not yet risen enough for it to strike anywhere else but only on the top layer of rock on the canyon wall on the other side of the river.  It was a beautiful sight and a wonderful experience.  As the sun rose, it began to illuminate everything.  For me, I realized that whether God is present only in one small aspect of my life, nevertheless His light will eventually illuminate me entirely.  Give thanks to the Lord.

I will be celebrating Holy Mass for you and for all of your needs and intentions once this week.  It is a joy to be able to pray for you.  I ask your prayers for me and for the women and men of all of our communities.  I send you my love and prayers.

Your brother in the Lord,

Abbot Philip