The Abbot’s Notebook for October 10, 2018
My sisters and brothers in Christ,
Blessings to you! Last Friday night, October 5th, we had four more men enter the novitiate here at Christ in the Desert. First was Brother Seraphim who is 33 years old and comes from Kerala in India; then Brother Faith who is 39 years old and from the Ashanti Region of Ghana; then Brother Efrén who is 32 years old and from San Luis Potosi in Mexico; and finally Brother Columba who is 53 years old and comes originally from Canada. These four novices join nine others who had entered the novitiate at various times: three of them still from 2017; three on March 20th and three on June 30th of this year.
As you can imagine, housing is a serious challenge for our community. This year we realized that we still need more rooms. On the one hand, we do not want to construct a completely new monastery and make it larger than what we really desire. On the other hand, we don’t believe in turning down vocations. That is what is pushing us to begin one or two or perhaps even three new monasteries relatively soon in our future. We can’t just send a group of monks off to start a monastery, but rather have to make sure that we have leadership and a clear direction for such new monasteries. We also have to obtain permission from our Subiaco Cassinese Congregation at a certain point. So keep these intentions in your prayers, please.
Sometimes I get overwhelmed with things to do and as a result I get less done than normal. Part of my spiritual life is learning how to live with overload much of the time. Sometimes I just go and take a walk and hope that all the things that I have to do will take care of themselves and go away! But it rarely works that way!
So I have also learned how to sit and be still, first in prayer and then in organization. When I was in my 20s I suffered from ulcers through my entire digestive tract. Perhaps they were a response to lots of the difficulties in my life at that time. My doctor told me that most people never got over this condition but that I could get over it if I really wanted to change my way of living. And that is when I began to learn to sit and be still. I mean really still. I learned that I could just be completely silent inside and be in the presence of God—no words and nothing except an awareness that God was present. So I used to spend fairly long periods of time in the kind of sitting and being still. Slowly I healed physically and today there are no traces that I ever suffered from these ulcers.
The challenge for me was to focus on sitting and being still within. I did not begin to work on being still for spiritual reasons! Instead I wanted to be free of the ulcers. In the process I discovered a lot about prayer while sitting and being still. It is not easy to change the ways in which we relate to the world and to the actions and stimulations of the world. Yet with God’s grace we are able to let God change us. We have to do our part and even that is grace, but unless we begin to allow God to change us, life can remain more difficult.
So what happened? I first just tried to be still and to focus my mind on one thing. Inwardly I worked at letting go of everything except one image in my mind. The image at times was a physical image, such as the sound of waves; at other times the image was more of an intellectual concept, such as the thought that God loves me. In both cases, I worked to go beyond the image, just to be and to be without focusing on anything. I had various levels of success in this endeavor, but in the process I learned to relax almost completely, letting go of inner thought activity but always aware at one level that God was present.
The method of becoming still is not nearly as important as the encounter within oneself with the living God. Each of us can strive to be at that point where, in mystery, God connects with our being. It is not a physical point in the sense of a physical touching of another person, but it is nevertheless a reality. We believe that we are created by God and that God dwells in us by grace. It is that God, who dwells in us by grace that we seek to be in communion with. We strive to deepen that communion, to be in touch with that “point of grace,” so that our lives may grow in faithfulness to God’s will.
So many of the saints have told us that it does not matter how we pray, but that we pray. If we begin to spend more and more time seeking the Lord, then surely this Lord who is seeking us will at some point give us at least a glimpse of His presence. Learning to be still is simply one way of preparing ourselves for this inner quest of the living God.
As always I shall celebrate a Holy Mass this week for you and for your needs and intentions. It is part of the mystery of faith that we are always united in Jesus Christ. Please also pray for me and for the sisters and brothers of our communities. I send you my love and prayers.
Your brother in the Lord,
Abbot Philip — another Poem by Dom Frank below
Waked by a fake alarm,
A monk decides whether or not to go to vigils.
Hearing the loud knocks of a note from the prior,
He finally gets up and ready for vigils.
The Divine Office book becomes heavier than his body.
He wishes to hang it out in air and leave it supportless.
All the monks’ faces become uglier and angrier
As if they had spent a year without sleeping.
An hour seems as if it’s my whole life.
I become more worried seeing the prior write a note of penalty.
A monk gazes in every corner of the choir stalls
Searching for his missing neighbor
Who in his bed grins at all with a mocking tone.
Great love comes from sacrifice,
Abandoning what you love most to seek God’s kingdom
As seen in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ,
Hoping that one day we will resurrect with him into heaven.
The chanting of hymns making a beautiful unity of sound
That drives the sleepiness and awakens the soul to praise You.