The Abbot’s Notebook for February 7, 2018
My sisters and brothers in Christ,
Blessings to you! This last week was spent mostly in Louisiana at Saint Joseph Abbey, attending the annual Abbots’ and Priors’ Workshop. The theme this year was how to create a culture of vocations in a community. The presenter was Brother John Mark Falkenhain from Saint Meinrad’s Archabbey. It was a really fine workshop and provoked lots of questions and thoughts for many of us abbots and priors. I will take some time to absorb all that I learned and to seek ways to introduce some of the thoughts into actions in our community.
Although Christ in the Desert continues to grow and we have had very few major problems in getting vocations, there is still the challenge of screening the men who want to become monks. Sometimes, even in our own monastic congregation, some people have thought that we just accept anyone who asks to come. That has never been the case. On the other hand, over the years we have developed various ways of discerning if a candidate really might fit into our life here.
Because we have so many candidates from other countries, we have also had to find a way to discern with men from various parts of the world if they might be able to live our form of Benedictine life. At this recent workshop, it was fairly clear how different our form of life is from the majority of Benedictine monasteries in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Guatemala. The majority of these monasteries have schools and also work in a few parishes outside of the monastery. We don’t have that kind of life. Our vision has always been, at least since I became the superior of the house in 1976, a life following the Rule of Benedict as closely as possible and without any external apostolic work.
For us, receiving men from other countries simply happened to us. We never set out to look for vocations from other countries. Instead, such vocations asked us if we might accept them. The first monks from other countries in our community had no intention of staying with us. They came because of various challenges in their own communities and eventually all returned to their own communities or a few left monastic life entirely. From about 1989 to 1993 we received monks from South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Italy, Argentina and Vietnam. So in a very short period of time, our community had an international composition.
We did not worry much about discerning vocations in those days. Then monks were already monks and came to us through their superiors. Then we began to receive men who were not already monks but were from various other countries. We began to develop a questionnaire that would help us know these men better before we accepted them. We already had a questionnaire that we use for men from the United States and we adapted it so that a man from any country should be able to respond to the questions.
Later we developed a letter that we sent to the candidates telling them some of the bad and difficult parts of our community life. That letter was eventually expanded to begin with the virtues and good things of our life so that it would not be so negative! We wanted men, both from the United States and elsewhere, to be clear that they would be entering a truly human community with all the problems of any social group living together. The last document that we developed fairly well was a description of the stages of formation in our life so that a candidate would also be prepared to accept formation for certain periods of time. In the letter and in the questionnaire we make clear that we would hope and expect that any man entering our community would spend at least two years discerning if he had our vocation. This seems like a reasonable expectation of anyone who wants to come and live with us.
The spirituality behind all of this is to find men who are relative stable and self-aware and who might be able to make a gift of themselves to God through our monastic life. It always speaks to me of the need for consistency in my own life and the capacity to make choices and to stay consistent with the choices that I have made. Spiritual life cannot change from day to day, moment to moment, but instead requires a stable environment. That is why Saint Benedict even makes stability a vow for his monks. Only when we stay in the same place with the same community for a long time are we able to begin to see ourselves as we really are. When we are moving from community to community and place to place, it is very easy to ignore our brokenness and sinfulness and to live in the illusion that all is fine and wonderful.
Today there is a great instability in our world for lots of reasons. Some people are pushed to leave home and country for financial and economic reasons. Others must leave home and country because of persecution. Others move on simply out of having no stable work or because there is a more attractive work elsewhere. Lots of the time people don’t have any choices. They simply must move and relocate because it is the only way forward. What becomes important in the spiritual life is a sense of rootedness in God and a deep commitment to the Lord Jesus in every circumstance.
As a monk, I am spoiled because I have not had to move for over 4 decades! This has given me a freedom to spend my energies on the spiritual life. I don’t always do that because I am a frail human, but I always have the opportunity and over the years I have tried to become more faithful.
There is no ideal situation in the world and never has been. We must be grateful for all the positive things that we have and we must learn to live with and to struggle with the negative aspects of our lives and of our situations. The challenge is to keep walking with the Lord and striving to be faithful, no matter how often we find ourselves off the track and no matter how many times we fail. What builds our character and our spiritual life is the commitment to keep trying and the commitment to walk the way of the Lord.
I continue to pray for you and for all of your needs and intentions. I will celebration Holy Mass once again this week for you. May the Lord help you in all your needs. Please continue to pray for me, for the monks of Christ in the Desert and for the nuns and monks of the communities associated with ours. I send you my love and prayers.
Your brother in the Lord,