The Abbot’s Notebook for February 14, 2018

My sisters and brothers in Christ,

Blessings to you!  Not along ago I mentioned how grateful I was that our community had not had flu or colds much this year.  That has ended and for most of the past week we have had 7 to 10 monks down on any given day, some with flu and some with colds.  It is a challenge to keep everything going and sometimes we cancel one or the other of the smaller prayer services in order to devote more time to caring for the sick.  Already health is beginning to return and we can be grateful that the experience was not worse!

The really important event this past week was not illness but was the solemn profession of vows by two of our monks:  Brother Dominic Paulraj from Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu, India, and Father Simeon Cook from Rifle, Colorado.  These kinds of important consecrations take a long service and here the solemn profession usually lasts for about two hours.  And so it was this time also.  These two should be the first of several who will make solemn vows this year.  Some years ago we had an enormous novitiate class with sixteen novices.  I could put that figure down and know that most people would think that it was a typographical error.  They did not all stay, but half of them did, so we have eight monks who made vows in 2015.  We also have one who made vows in 2014 who will probably make solemn vows this year.  And then there are four brothers from other communities who have spent a sufficient time here to make solemn vows here or transfer them.  It is an embarrassment of riches and will strengthen our community wonderfully.

After that enormous class of novices we have had two or three temporary professions every year.  That is a more normal number.  In 2017 we again had 5 novices and they are all persevering and could make vows this year.

Needless to say, we are not lacking in vocations.  Our challenge is to continue to form these men to be strong and holy monks of Christ in the Desert.  Prior Benedict is in charge of the formation program and does well.  Father Thomas-Benedict is returning to the community and will work with Prior Benedict in the formation and that will help immensely.  We have plenty of professors to teach the Rule, Scripture, Monastic Customs, Liturgy, Constitutions, and whatever else needs attention.

The challenge for our community is always the same:  lead a strong monastic life, form brothers in that life and keep the attention on Jesus Christ.  It sounds easy!  And in many ways it is easy because we have a fairly long and consistent tradition of how we live the monastic life in this community.  Once in a while we hit a bump in the road and have to look once more at how we do things.  In general, however, we are pretty content with our way of life and accept the challenges of forming new monks to lead this way of life.

The only way that formation really works is if those who are doing the forming are themselves leading the life that they want to impart.  Saint Benedict tells the monks in his Rule that if the superior is not doing what the superior preaches, then the monk must try to do the right thing.  On the other hand, he is clear that the superior will have to answer to God for every soul entrusted to him.  And so he encourages the superiors of the communities to live what they preach.  He says that the superior should teach both with words and with actions.

How difficult that is!  Always I see my brokenness and my lack of being faithful to the Gospel and even to the way of life of the house.  Most of this in me is inner rebellion and most brothers don’t see my brokenness as strongly as I do.  But some brothers call me on it at times.  So at times my spirituality is simply to try to carry on no matter what mistakes I make but being humble enough to acknowledge the mistakes and to try to change my ways.

Because today is Ash Wednesday, it is a good time to renew my commitment to change and to embrace some practices in my life that could help in conversion.  For all of us, Ash Wednesday is a good time to do an examination of conscience and to make a discernment about what elements of my life could be changed for the glory of God.  This is a not an exercise to promote penance and suffering but an exercise to help us life more and more profoundly the gifts of life given to us by God.

Lent for many of us older people was a time of rigor and sometimes even of meanness.  That is not the Lent of the early Church.  For sure there was a strong and even strict observance of Lent, even in the Rule of Saint Benedict.  Always, however, it was a preparation for Easter joy.  Saint Leo the Great called Lent a time to work at the “daily grime” of human existence.  Saint Benedict tells us that monks rarely have the capacity to live in a Lenten manner all year round and so we need a time of year when we can focus on the deep changes needed within us.

All penance is for the sake of being better able to love.  We learn in our lives that loving others requires effort and is not just something that comes naturally to us.  Instead we have to make an effort to love, especially to love those whom we dislike or to whom we feel some aversion or negative feelings.  Our monastic ancestors told monks that if there were no problem monks in their communities, then they should approach an abbot who had problem monks and borrow one!

There is a good deal of humor in all of this but it brings us back to the basic reality:  we are here in this life to learn how to love.  Learning to love will cost us our lives.  Learning to love will draw us into suffering for others.  Learning to love is a difficult process but well worth the effort when all is done.

Today so much of the image of love is that I feel good.  That is completely opposite the Gospel which tells us that true love is to lay down my life for the other.  And often it won’t feel good at all.  Lent is a time to look these realities in the eye.  Some do so and then leave Christianity or leave the Church.  Others continue to hope that it won’t be so difficult.  And some embrace the sufferings with their whole being and become saints in this life.  I am sort of in the middle there, try to love and hoping that it won’t be too difficult!

At times in my life, I would like to give myself completely and it is still a goal for me.  But I recognize that it is something so radical and that I should not reach out to try that unless I am pretty confident that I can continue forward.  It is like in the Gospel when we are told about the king who looks to see if he has the resources to win in a battle.  If he does not, he is better not to go into battle.  The one resource in the spiritual life is Jesus Himself, who loves us.  He is always with me.  But I am not always with Him.

May the Lord help us all embrace this Lent and allow the Lord to penetrate our lives and draw us to Him.  I send you my love and prayers.  As always, I will celebrate a Holy Mass for your needs and intentions.  Please continue to pray for me and for the sisters and brothers in the communities associated with ours.

Your brother in the Lord,

Abbot Philip