The Abbot’s Notebook for October 17, 2018

My sisters and brothers in Christ,

Blessings to you!  It has been a relatively quiet week, although some fairly important things have happened.  Brother Charles went to have his fingerprints checked by the FBI.  This is one of the requirements for him to obtain a longer term visa to South Africa, where he will go and help in Saint Benedict’s Abbey with some other of our monks.  Brother Jude has gone for a family visit here in the United States.  Brother Antoine Marie has gone for a family visit in Vietnam.  Brother John Baptist has taken over as Kitchen Manager and is doing a very good job.

Father John-Paul had surgery to remove three tumors from his eyes, so he needs your prayers for a good recovery.

Last Saturday Sister Huong Mai, OP, from Vietnam, but studying in the United States, came to visit us.  Her uncle was a monk in our community who died in 2008 at the age of 37.  He suffered a brain aneurism and died immediately.  Sister Huong Mai came to pray at his gravesite and to visit our community.

We had the first snow of this season on Monday, October 15th.  It is very early for us to have snow and, of course, everyone will be thinking that it will be a very cold winter.  But only time will tell us about the coldness of the winter to come!

There are times when I almost get caught up with all the work that comes to me, but almost inevitably, something else comes along and I am left very far behind in my work once again.  There are days when always every 10 or 15 minutes there is a knock at the office door.  If I get desperate enough, then I put a sign on the door, asking others not to disturb me.  On normal days, however, I simply accept what happens and try to incorporate it into my spiritual life.  During my years of service as the superior of the community, I have learned to be peaceful in most situations and with at times enormous pressures.

Part of the spiritual life is remaining alert and aware of God’s presence, no matter what else is happening.  There have been and still are times when I forget the presence of God and just do whatever work is expected of me.  That is not enough.  I need to remain in God’s presence and do the work expected of me.  God can work in us and through us and for us if we let Him be present in us.  Surely God can also work without our consent at some levels, but God wants us to be open to Him and to His work within us, always.  This is a difficult lesson for me and one which I continue to learn more deeply as I grow older.  I still don’t always cooperate with the Lord but He continues to draw me to Him.

How does a person remain open to the Lord?  We can makes acts of our will, inviting the Lord to possess us completely.  We can spend time in prayer, silently, but also aware of His presence and inviting Him to show us His love.  We can simply pray the Name of Jesus—not even the Jesus Prayer, but simply the name of Jesus.  Repeating this name, praying this name, is incredibly powerful because it is the only name that contains the presence it signifies.

Clearly I cannot pass the whole day just repeating the name of Jesus!  On the other hand, it is such an easy prayer at all times.  When I am sitting here in front of my computer writing, I can stop for a couple of seconds and just return to praying that Holy Name, Jesus!  If I arrive at our Church early, there is always a short space to pray and I can repeat the Name of the Lord.  If I am stuck and can find nothing to write about, the name of Jesus can guide me.

Praying the name of Jesus is more than just repeating the name of Jesus.  I can repeat many words and my mind can be elsewhere as well as my heart.  When I pray the name of Jesus, I try to keep my heart aware of His love and my mind aware of His presence.  Even if I do not do that perfectly, I can still keep trying to do it.  It is a way of living in His presence and allowing Him to be part of all that I do and all that I think.

I find that even if I only pray the name of Jesus for a short time each day, it changes my life and my openness to God and to others.  At times I wish I were more consistent in this prayer, but the prayer seems to come back to me, almost on its own.  It is such a simple prayer.

As always I send my love and prayers for you.  I pray for your needs and intentions daily and ask you prayers for me and for the women and men of our communities.

Your brother in the Lord,

Abbot Philip  —  see another Essay by Dom Anthony below

Faith and Reason by Dom Anthony of the Desert

Having just finished Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Faith and Reason (Fides et Ratio), I delight in the synthesis and encouragement to pursue both philosophy and theology at the highest levels while lamenting the fact that this synthesis and encouragement, in the 26 years since it was written, has largely gone unheeded by clerics, religious, academics, and the rest of the laity alike.

One of many things that stuck with me is a quote from St. Augustine (354-430 AD) who said, “If faith does not think, it is nothing (nulla est)” (see section 79 of Fides et Ratio).  Notice what Augustine does not say.  He does not say that faith without reason is deficient or that faith without reason could be better.  No, he says that faith without thinking “is nothing.”  This is quite a bold claim and a serious challenge to the West today if he is right.  Of course, St. Augustine is right, for at least two reasons.

First, a faith which does not think has no content.  The content of the faith is God’s revelation, but this revelation must be meditated upon and organized in such a way so that it can be taught and lived.  This intentional meditation and organization is what we call theology.  As John Paul II reminds us later in the encyclical, “The chief purpose of theology is to provide an understanding of Revelation and the content of faith” (F&R, 93). This revelation must have some intelligible content which our reason can grasp, at least in a partial way, otherwise there would be nothing that we could reasonably assent to.  I use the term “reasonably” on purpose because it is all too common today to come across people, believers and non-believers alike, who think faith is about blindly assenting to something.  This is incorrect.  In fact, if we assent to something we think to be irrational, we would be committing a sin (of varying gravity depending on how irrational we honestly think it to be).  This is so because an irrational act is contrary to the rational nature that God has given us.

This leads into the second point:  St. Augustine also teaches that “to believe is nothing other than to think with assent.”  That is, a person cannot truly believe without thinking.  Divine revelation, properly understood, is not irrational but rather supra-rational.  This distinction is very important.  Irrational means that something is below natural reason (i.e. it contradicts reason), while supra-rational means that something is above and beyond natural reason.  Something which contradicts what I know to be true by natural reason should not be believed, but something which goes beyond what I know and understand can be believed and is the domain of faith.  

We all have a natural faith in the vast majority of what we consider to be our knowledge.  For example, how many of us have tested for ourselves all of the scientific theories which our modern way of life depends?  The vast majority of us simply have faith that scientists know what they are doing and are not lying to us, even though we could test these things for ourselves.  But even within the domain of natural faith, there are things that can never be absolutely verified.  For example, there is no way to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that someone truly loves you.  There are motives of credibility, but nothing absolutely certain.  This is analogous to supernatural faith, which relies on the truthfulness of God and the credibility of his witnesses who have handed down revelation.  Thus, the object of supernatural faith cannot be tested in an empirically verifiable way; faith is always necessary.

It is my hope and prayer that Christians start to wake up and get serious about both faith and reason.  The days are long past where the majority of Catholics are content with, “the Church says so.”  We must have reasons for what we believe, not only for the good of ourselves, but also because many people, even those still showing up in the pews, are starving for true faith and right reason.