The Abbot’s Notebook for September 26, 2018

My sisters and brothers in Christ,

Blessings to you!  It has been an interesting week because the Weimaraner Benny always gets into trouble.  Sometime he seems more accident prone than any dog that we have ever had.  He just got his stitches pulled from the last accident where he cut his thigh open.  That is all healed now.  So he has cut his ear.  I did not think that it was so important and so did not take him to the vet this time.  It seems to be healing well.

This last Monday I had a colonoscopy and there don’t seem to be any problems, but I have not received the official and final report.

One of the challenges that I fairly often put to our community is to remain in the heart of the Church and to pray for others.  When I ask the brothers to stay in the heart of the Church, I mean that our monks should not be at the extremes.  There are plenty of people at the liberal and the conservative extremes.  Almost always those people use their energies in seeking to convince others to live at the extremes.

For us monks, the goal is to use our energies in prayer and to intercede for others with prayer.  When I was a young monk here, we decided at one point that it was better to pray than to write about prayer, that it was better to pray than to talk about prayer.  Praying and seeking God are the heart of our Benedictine monastic vocation.  Yes, we have to work as well.  Working is a way of supporting our life of prayer.  Yes, we have to study and to do lection as well—but always for the sake of knowing the Lord Jesus better and being able to pray.

We are not isolated in our monastery.  We have access to news and to all that is happening around the world.  That was not always so here at Christ in the Desert.  For many years we had no electricity and did not use any means at all to have contact with the outside world.  We tried to have only one trip to the outside every few weeks.  That was not difficult to accomplish when there were few brothers and no guests.  But as we began to grow, we eventually decided to have solar electricity.  The number of trips out of the monastery increased because of the needs of the brothers to visit doctors, dentists, etc.

Always we were astonished when we went out to find people completely captivated by news and by what was happening in the world, even when it was not such a big deal.  Today, we usually are aware of what is happening outside even if we are not caught up in it very much.  Most of the time the monks are not able to identify the voices of world leaders because we have never heart them.  Much of the time we are not even able to identify with the names that seem important outside:  sports heroes, actors, etc.

I mention this because it is important that we monks know what is going on but not be caught up in much of what is going on.  The younger monks often know when the World Soccer Cup will take place whereas generally the older monks don’t.

Once again, this is a choice of how to focus our energies.  We are aware of the conflicts within our Catholic Church—and we pray for them.  We are aware of the sins of our Catholic Church—and we pray for those harmed and also for those who have caused the harm.

In any spiritual life, there is a need to keep a strategic distance from all that happens while still being aware of what is happening.  When I was young, we were encouraged at times to be “indifferent” to most things.  That word does not sit well today.  Instead, I use the phrase “strategic distance.”  It means to be aware, perhaps even to have an opinion, but never to let our opinions and thoughts pull us so that we cannot pray for everyone, so that we cannot forgive and so that we end up judging without knowing the facts.

A huge challenge today is to come to know the facts.  There is so much that is seen or heard in the media that is simply opinion and turns out to be false.  The age of “yellow journalism” is still here even if the younger monks have no idea what that term means.  Hardly anyone remembers the origins of the term.  For today, we could simply state that any journalism which uses exaggerations of news events, which makes assertions about events without any proof, which tries to use emotions to change the way we evaluate what is happening and various techniques of a similar nature—that is yellow journalism.

Today we can read on so many web site or even in printed papers and magazines incredible stories which turn out to be not true.  We can make accusations and assertions against others without any evidence.  At times it seems as though the media forms all our opinions because it takes extreme positions without showing any facts to support the positions.

For all of these reasons, I always try to focus our community on not taking sides, not judging until there is proof, not making decisions by feelings (although being aware of feelings).  In order to do this, each brother must develop a sense of “strategic distance” from all that is happening.

I pray for you daily and send my love and prayers.  As I do each week, I will celebrate a Holy Mass for you and for your needs and intentions.  Let us pray for one another and please pray for the men and women of our communities.

Your brother in the Lord,

Abbot Philip  —  see below for a thought provoking essay by a  youung monk


The Good Life by Dom Anthony of the Desert

If I had to put it in one sentence, the good life is living according to true faith and right reason.

This overview will consist of what the good life consists in, why this understanding came to be considered best, and how this notion developed and spread.

I’ll start with reason.  It is largely a mystery why philosophy (in the sense of trying to systematically understand all of reality) began in ancient Greece, but it all started with certain men coming to recognize that there is an order to the world and that things could be broken down into simpler things.  The first philosophers, well before Plato and Aristotle, sought to figure out what was the universal cause of all things.  In the beginning, they thought it was one of the four physical elements (fire, air, earth, or water), but then a guy named Anaxagoras came along and said that what was ultimately behind everything was not one of the physical elements but a mind which ordered things according to reason (the Greek word is logos, which will be important later on).  From then on, Greek philosophy moved gradually toward understanding the ultimate cause of things as something immaterial, particularly with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Aristotle really hammers out basically as much as reason can figure out about this first cause, which he calls the “first mover,” in his works Physics and Metaphysics.  It is truly remarkable how close he comes to what we would call God.  For example, he says that this first mover:

  • is without matter, eternal,
  • (absolutely) necessarily exists,
  • is pure act (which manifests itself as thought (contemplation) and thus life),
  • this contemplation consists of its own self,
  • is supreme beauty and goodness,
  • is simple, impassive, unalterable, with infinite power, without magnitude,
  • is one (both intrinsically and there is no other first mover),
  • and is wisdom itself.

It is examples like this that would later lead St. Paul to write that “from the creation of the world, his invisible attributes, both his eternal power and deity, are discerned clearly, being understood in the things created, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

This search for the ultimate cause, the search for wisdom, was not merely an intellectual endeavor, however, rather it was a whole way of life.  Probably Aristotle’s most famous work, Nicomachean Ethics, lays this out rather clearly.  He starts that work by saying that “every action and deliberate choice seems to aim at some good,” but he also recognizes that most people misunderstand what is truly good.  For example, he says that money and honor can’t possibly be the ultimate good because money is only valuable insofar as we buy things with it (it is a means, not an end) and honor depends on other peoples’ fickle dispositions toward us (it is too volatile and doesn’t always follow reason).  He also shoots down other contenders for what we should spend our lives trying to attain, like pleasure and political power.  Then he spends most of the book talking about virtue (what it is in general, what are specific virtues, what are the opposite vices, etc.).  Two of the most important aspects of virtue is that virtue is a habit (i.e. it is a way of life, not an act done once or every now and again) and virtue is not self-control.  For Aristotle, self-control implies that we desire to do something we shouldn’t do and yet we resist.  Virtue, on the other hand, implies that we no longer desire to do something against reason (it is quite a high bar).  But what it probably most interesting in Nicomachean Ethics is the last chapter, which says that, while virtue is necessary to live a good life, the best possible thing is contemplation of truth.  He gives multiple reasons for this, but one of them is that it is the most divine action we can do.  As noted above, one of the attributes of Aristotle’s understanding of God is that God contemplates himself, who is wisdom (truth) itself.  Another reason he gives is that our ultimate happiness must consist in the use of our highest power, which is none of our senses or physical power, but rather the intellect, our power of reason.  We are the only animal that can contemplate the truth itself.  Thus, our ultimate happiness consists in contemplating the truth itself (God), but this does not negate the need for the virtues.  On the contrary, being virtuous makes contemplation possible since being virtuous allows for the interior stability and peace necessary for contemplation to take place at all (e.g. trying to contemplate truth while getting drunk or hooking up with some girl is an exercise in futility).

Now for faith.  I am defining faith here in a basic way:  believing what God has supernaturally revealed.  Revelation has some bad news and some good news for Aristotle’s conception of the good life.  It is within revelation that we learn that God created all that is by his word (Greek: logos) and everything was good.  The bad news is that man threw a wrench at this goodness through what later came to be dubbed “Original Sin.”  One of the consequences of Original Sin is a fun word called “concupiscence,” which means we are naturally inclined toward evil (vice).  We also learn that God is not some impersonal force, but a personal God who personally relates to those whom he wills (like the nobodies in the Ancient Near East that we call Israel).

Excursus on where faith and reason, revelation and philosophy, originally met: 

It is noteworthy that Greek philosophy meets the people of Israel well before the coming of Christ.  The long and short of it is that Alexander the Great (who himself, it is claimed, was tutored as a child by none other than Aristotle) took over the world and spread the Greek language (and Greek thought along with it) wherever he conquered.  This lead to the translation of the Old Testament into Greek in the period of 300-100BC in Alexandria and to some later Jewish writings being written exclusively in Greek (such as the book of Wisdom (which shows an influence of Greek philosophy) and 2 Maccabees).  There was more than a little tension in the coming together of these two civilizations, but this is the reason why the Jews who wrote the New Testament wrote it in Greek rather than Hebrew (or Aramaic).

The culmination of revelation is, of course, Jesus Christ, who is the good news.  In John’s Gospel, he begins in a truly remarkable way:

“In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God. This one was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and apart from him not one thing came into being that has come into being. In him was life, and the life was the light of humanity… And the logos became flesh and dwelt among us…”

There is so much packed into these verses, but what is essential for this overview is that Jesus is the logos.  That means that Jesus is both the fulfillment of all that has been revealed to the people of the Old Testament (since he is the word (logos) which created the heavens and the earth) and the fulfillment of Greek philosophy which constantly sought the first cause that ordered the universe according to a reason (logos) that we can understand.  But there’s more!  Not only did he fulfill, but he also raised up both faith and reason to a level that no one expected.  Reason was brought to know that God is a Trinity of persons (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and that means that the order of everything is ultimately founded on a community of self-giving love.  This was primarily illustrated by Jesus “becoming sin” (2 Cor 5:21) and dying on the cross, reconciling us to God, and opening up the floodgates of his grace.  This grace not only gives us the ability to live what Aristotle laid out and gives us the ability to be truly pleasing to God, but it also gives us the ability to attain complete union with God and contemplate him from the inside by sharing in his divine life of self-giving love, for all eternity (see 2 Peter 1:4); something reason alone never would have dreamed of.  This is attained primarily through persevering and growing in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

These theological virtues, like the natural virtues, are also habits (not a one and done act, but a constant way of life).  This does not negate the need for the natural virtues.  On the contrary, perseverance and growth in the theological virtues requires the perseverance and growth in the natural virtues.  That is, you won’t get very far in faith, hope, and love if you kill, steal, get high, reject the poor, and sleep around.

True faith and right reason come from the same source, the divine Logos, and so they can never contradict each other.  In fact, they both build up and protect each other:  right reason prevents superstitious faith and helps to systematically explain the faith, while true faith prevents the idolatry of rationalism and leads reason to know truths it could never know on its own.  History has shown time and time again that truly horrible things happen when people try to break up true faith and right reason, or forget both altogether.

Thus, the good life is a life of true faith and right reason.  In one sense, these can be understood to be the same thing, since man, through his reason, is the image of the Logos, which is divine Reason; it is reason that makes man most perfectly and fully man, which is why Jesus specifically says that it is the truth which will set us free (John 8:32).  In practice, the good life is most intentionally lived in monastic life since the whole focus is seeking God by building up the natural virtues (both moral and intellectual) and theological virtues through prayer, asceticism, and study.  While most people would see what I am doing as crazy, if what I have written is true, it is actually the most sane and rational way to live.  And I can personally attest that I have never had so much peace and joy.