The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Friday, July 17, 2020

A Word for our times -- and all times

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts ... And be thankful. --Colossians 3:12-15

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Good news and bad

Most of us probably are paying a little more attention to the news these days than we ordinarily might. Probably a lot more. I know I am. We want to know what’s going on, what to expect. We seek answers. While we need to stay informed during times such as these, over-exposure to the headlines can be harmful. Too much focus on bad news can be overwhelming, distort our perception of reality, and induce anxiety that can ruin one’s mental, spiritual, and physical well-being. It’s difficult to find a healthy balance.

As most of you know, I worked in the newspaper business 17 years before coming to the monastery in 2006. First, I was a beat reporter for a few years, then later a news editor and managing editor at a small Ohio daily. Finally, from 1999 to 2006, I was the wire editor at a metropolitan daily. So, paying attention to the news is kind of ingrained within me. It was my job for many years, especially those last seven years as wire editor.

Minute by minute, I had to monitor world, national and state news issued by at least seven major wire services (along with several websites), remain in constant communication with editors, and edit the stories we published. Add to this excitement two nightly deadlines and a sometimes-difficult work environment, and you have a recipe for stress and anxiety. I’m surprised I didn’t have a stroke.

Even when I was not at work, I felt obligated to keep on top of everything, so that I wasn’t racing to catch up when I got to the newsroom. So, even at home, I usually had CNN on TV.

In some ways, the current crisis reminds me of both the fall of 2000 and the fall of 2001. During those two periods, the usual daily newsroom tension was injected with steroids – first during the unresolved presidential contest of 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore, and then during the horror and aftermath of September 11, 2001. If you recall, after the 2000 election, we didn’t know who had won for more than a month. Each day during that period, there seemed to be another dramatic turn. Then, after the shock of 9-11, there were rescue efforts, investigations, the implementation of heightened security, and retaliation and an international manhunt.

I had to be on top of it all 24/7, it seemed. I did my job reasonably well, but my mental and physical health took a severe pounding. At the time, I had no spiritual life. Mostly, I coped by drinking.

Fast forward to the present. I am still inclined to keep a close eye on what is happening. But I am no longer compelled (outwardly, at least) to “stay on top of it all.” It’s not my job any longer. Still, old habits can be hard to break, so I must be mindful of that. It helps to look for the inspirational stories out there – compassionate people helping neighbors in need, Italians defying isolation and death by singing together from their balconies. However, it is necessary for me to tune it all out occasionally—and listen to music, take a walk, read a good book or watch a light-hearted movie, share a funny story with a fellow monk, or check in by phone with a family member or friend. All these have become for me ways to flatten the anxiety curve, so that it does not spike out of control. (No baseball makes the task more difficult—but not impossible!)

However, the most important difference between now and then for me is my spiritual life. Though certainly not practiced perfectly, it is a life of faith rooted in the monastic way of life to which I have vowed myself. Scripture, prayer, and this monastery are rocks I did not have to stand upon 20 years ago. I am thankful for that.

Even so, faith during difficult times must be more than a coping mechanism, right? It must be the path by which we strive to find meaning -– and the path by which our response to circumstances is shaped. Faith is how we join ourselves to a wider human narrative of redemption.

C.S. Lewis famously wrote that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pain; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world." We in the monastery have not yet suffered because of the pandemic. We’ve been inconvenienced; our normal lives have been disrupted. But we aren’t gasping for air in a crowded hospital corridor. We are not doctors and nurses doggedly working around the clock to care for the ill at the risk of our own health. We haven’t lost jobs that provide for our families. Those people are suffering. What is God shouting to them in their pain? I don’t know … Maybe he shouts to all of us through them.

Certainly, it is true that God invites us all to ask ourselves: “What is God saying to us in this? What is he saying to me? What role should we – do I – have in the current crisis? What should be my response? Am I reminding myself daily, as St. Benedict urges, that I am going to die, while looking forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing?”

I don’t have answers. But I think we are being divinely prompted to ask the questions. In the light of faith, that is good news—even though it arises from a virus. The grace of faith seeks out and recalls the good in all circumstances. And as St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “all things work together for good for those who love God” (8:28). For evidence of that, we need look no further than to our crucified Savior.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The gentle wisdom of Francis de Sales

"Truth which is not charitable
proceeds from a charity
which is not true."

Thursday, January 2, 2020

A prayer for the new year

Steer the ship of my life, Lord, to your quiet harbor, where I can be safe from the storms of sin and conflict. Show me the course I should take. Renew in me the gift of discernment, so that I can see the right direction in which I should go. And give me the strength and courage to choose the right course, even when the sea is rough and the waves are high, knowing that through enduring hardship and danger in your name we shall find comfort and peace.

-- St. Basil of Caesarea

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Turning the page with gratitude

This is the last day of the year, so it is appropriate for us to take leave of the year in a Christian way. We are leaving a year behind us with its many days, its work, its cares, its disappointments, its bitterness, with the plans we have had, and which have perhaps come entirely to nothing or have only partly been realized. We are leaving it behind with our guilt, our failure—in fact with everything that our ungenerous hearts have made of the year. Let us bid farewell to the old year thankfully. God has given us all the days of this year. They have been gifts of his love, blessed days, days of grace and salvation.

Karl Rahner, S.J.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Wake up!

“Remain vigilant. Be prepared.”

These days, we hear such exhortations quite a bit – whether it’s in relation to an impending storm or a possible terrorist attack. We’re told to keep a close eye out for potential active shooters or child abusers.

Unfortunately, it is necessary to remain vigilant in today’s world. We do need to be on guard against foreign or domestic threats—especially for the sake of our communities, and for the most vulnerable people within them. But such vigilance can be taken too far. Fear and violence can easily escalate into a cycle of cruel absurdity. Moreover, I submit to you that the Evil One relishes our being fearful and hyper-vigilant about threats to our physical well-being while at the same time, we remain inattentive and sluggish about the state of our souls. Inordinate fear of bodily harm is one of Satan’s weapons.

So, while we need to be reasonably vigilant about our physical selves, it is more important to look after our spiritual well-being. Vigilance in the Christian sense is much more important. Most of us struggle to be as watchful as we need to be in this regard. We have our moments of wakefulness, but all too often we succumb to spiritual drowsiness, if not outright slumber.

Christian vigilance involves faith, trust, hope, and peace. It has nothing to do with fear. Instead, there is an element of expectancy involved—one that prompts us to remain alert and eager. I am reminded of the occasional summer day when, as a child, my family planned a trip to someplace like Cedar Point (an amusement park on the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio). On days like that, my siblings and I practically leapt out of bed in the morning. We were eager to get going.

That same type of eager alertness and expectancy is necessary—but often lacking—when it comes to our spiritual life. It is the good zeal that St. Benedict calls us to in his Rule. With such zeal, we are watchful and willing to be and do whatever God desires of us. St. Paul often urges us to the same thing in his letters. For example, in Romans he writes:

It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. (Romans 13:11-12, NAB)

This is Christian vigilance. It urges us to wake up and walk in the light of Christ. While on earth, Jesus himself encouraged his disciples (and us) to do the same:

Let your … lamps [be] burning, and be like those who are waiting for their master to come home … so that they may open to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. … You must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an unexpected hour (Luke 12:35-37, 40, RSV)

There are three things about this passage I would like to emphasize. First of all, Jesus is not talking about physical wakefulness. He was human, and as human beings, we all know that sufficient sleep is necessary. Jesus slept, just as we do.

Still, the gospels also tell us that Jesus often prayed at night. This is where our Christian notion of “keeping vigil” originates. As you know, monks (especially Carthusians and Trappists) keep vigil in the middle of the night while most of the world sleeps. So, there is certainly a valuable tradition of struggling against drowsiness and distraction to remain physically awake to pray. Monks commit themselves to this in order “keep watch” over a world shrouded in spiritual as well as physical darkness—to operate, symbolically at least, as the “light of the world” to which Jesus calls us (cf. Matthew 5:14).

In the secular world, this can be compared to the work of soldiers on night watch or third-shift security guards in the realm of business and industry. Someone must keep an eye on things because malevolent forces often operate under the cover of darkness. Comparisons could also be made with the watchfulness of a night nurse in a hospital, or a mother who stays up with a sick child. The vigilant person sacrifices sleep for the sake of the weak, the ill, and the fearful.

In like manner, the night vigil kept by monks or other ascetics is observed in order to intercede for all those in spiritual need – the sick and dying, the distressed and persecuted, the unenlightened and the sinner.

But even when physical wakefulness is involved in the Christian sense, the practice is always ordered toward an interior, spiritual wakefulness. The goal is a wakeful heart alert to God’s presence. Christian night watches, says the Trappist monk Charles Cummings, are always “aimed at awakening [the] heart and keeping it ready to welcome the Lord” He cites the verse from Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).

“People may be physically awake,” Cummings says, “but they will not hear Jesus knocking at the door of their heart unless they are also spiritually awake and vigilant. Some are walking in their sleep spiritually, not yet awakened to the horizon of spiritual values. They are still gratifying their senses, accumulating more [possessions], trying to control their world.” (Monastic Practices, p.142).

Secondly, the admonition to wake up and remain watchful is not only about Jesus’ second coming. Being spiritually alert for Jesus’ arrival at the end of time is necessary, but not enough. Vigilance calls for continuous wakefulness, from one moment to the next. In the passage of Romans cited earlier, St. Paul says that “now” is the hour for you to awake from sleep. Some translations of the same verse read: “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep” (NRSV). Each moment of every day requires us to be vigilant—to open our hearts to the voice of the Lord and to keep watch over our thoughts, words, and actions. There is an element of urgency involved.

Third, this involves great struggle. It is usually difficult to fight against drowsiness to remain physically awake through the night. Likewise, it is difficult to remain spiritually awake from moment to moment. Satan employs many tactics to lull us into interior drowsiness or lure us away from God with exterior distractions. He is always at work to disrupt our vigilance and to lead us away from doing God’s will.

The perfect demonstration of this spiritual struggle is played out in the garden of Gethsemane through very physical means, as Cummings explains:

The agony of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane was his struggle against the demonic power of darkness threatening to invade his heart and obliterate the light of his Father’s will. Jesus, praying at night in Gethsemane, is the model for watchers. His spirit proved master of his flesh, so that when the soldiers came to arrest him they found him prepared, awake, at prayer, ready to submit to his Father’s will. Jesus had asked his companions to watch and pray with him, but they all yielded to the weakness of the flesh and fell asleep; they were unprepared and fled in fright when the soldiers came. (Monastic Practices, p.141).   

At Gethsemane, Jesus showed us how to be vigilant—not so much physically as spiritually, so that we may always be prepared to do God’s will, especially amid trial and temptation. All Christians are called to practice such vigilance—not only to intercede for others, but especially for their own salvation.

However, Benedictine oblates, monks, and sisters have responded to a “call within that call.” That does not mean that everyone must stay up all night and pray—or even keep the same schedule as monks. Mostly, it means waking up from the spiritual slumber that constantly entices us and remaining watchful every moment of every day. It means, as St. Benedict says at the very beginning of his Rule, to listen with the ears of the heart to what God has to say. And this is for your own conversion. So, we must wake up and listen.

St. Benedict lays this out in verse 8 of the Prologue to his Rule when he says:

Let us get up then, at long last, for the Scriptures rouse us when they say: It is high time for us to arise from sleep (Romans 13:11). Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts (Psalm 95:8).

In short, St. Benedict is saying: “Wake up! Your eternal life depends upon it.”

At this point, you may be saying: “OK, but how do I do that, exactly?” That is a good question, and I am not going to attempt an answer here—at least not fully. Vigilance is a rich topic, and I suggest that you pray over the next several months. So, what I’m going to offer here are just a few ideas to get you started.

First, vigilance is complicated. There are things we can do to remain watchful, and there are things that only God can do to help us. Here, grace truly builds on nature. It is a cooperative venture.

In this regard, it must be noted that the call to “arise from sleep” must be understood in terms of baptismal spirituality, “in a way that resonates sacramentally and existentially with the resurrection of Christ” (Georg Holzherr, The Rule of St. Benedict: An Invitation to the Christian Life p.16).

This baptismal spirituality can be illuminated perhaps most fully by meditating on this famous passage from the Letter to the Ephesians:

Live as children of light, for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. …Therefore it says,

‘Sleeper, awake!
   Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.’

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. …Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:8-11, 14-20, NRSV)

The sacrament of Baptism is something that is conferred upon us by God’s grace. We cannot “achieve it” on our own. However, it is a grace that we must, in faith, actively nurture and live out. In one sense, the sacrament is like a spiritual alarm clock that prompts us to arise from sleep. But we must respond and get up, and not simply hit the snooze button. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop. … For all the baptized, children or adults, faith must grow after Baptism. (CCC 1253, 1254, italics added)

The Church, which includes the Benedictine order, is our guide and support in this effort to become fully awake. Through our Benedictine charism, we are striving in faith to live out our baptismal call to arise with Christ from the sleep of spiritual death to eternal life in the Resurrection.

Second, our baptismal faith must be rooted in prayer. St. Benedict tells us in his Prologue to begin every good work with prayer (4). Authentic prayer is when we are most fully awake to God’s call (and here we are speaking of private prayer).
Obviously, there are many ways of praying, depending on one’s temperament and personality. So, there is no one formula or practice that works for everybody. How one should pray is more a matter of attitude than method. Prayer is essentially about vigilance—watching, waiting, and listening for the Lord.

In this respect, some of the Psalms and the prophets offer guidance. For example:

I will stand at my watch-post,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep vigil to see what the Lord will say to me.
                                                                       Habakkuk 2:1

In the morning I offer you my prayer,
watching and waiting.
                                            Psalm 5:4

In these passages, the prophet or the psalmist expresses a desire to be silent, yet alert and watchful for the Lord’s presence. The prayer he offers is one of trust, hope, and peace. He expects to hear or see the Lord, and so remains vigilant and eager to do his will. This is the overall model or attitude we should take to prayer, whatever individual form it may take.

Third, this prayerful watchfulness should translate into attentiveness in all aspects of our lives—both interiorly and exteriorly. Unfortunately, we are often quick to speak, slow to listen (cf. James 1:19). We are often immediately ready to offer observations and opinions on the people and circumstances around us rather than prayerful reflection. This must be reversed. Speaking—if, and when it is called for—should always emanate from a place of attentiveness and charity. Consider what a difference it would make in the world if everyone did that!

The goal is to be aware of, and to examine, our thoughts, impulses, and motivations before acting upon them—a task, indeed, that seems contrary to human nature. But by practicing vigilance, it can and should become second nature. Living out our baptismal faith is about so much more than simply keeping the commandments. It means, as Trappist monk Michael Casey has put it, “going the extra mile by being on the lookout for further occasions of attaching the will to what is good, of changing our actions to something better than what we intended, of showing love. Simultaneously it is a means of blocking the unexamined impulses of self-will and its ambition to be in control of every situation” (The Road to Eternal Life, p.32).

This also involves being attentive to the voice of our God-given conscience: those little “pinpricks” we experience internally when we say or do something regretful or fail to say or do something we know is for the good. It’s important to listen to our conscience so that we experience those grace-filled moments of realization—things like “I should not have said that,” or “Ah, now I understand this situation or person more clearly; I was wrong in my previous judgment.” Such moments—what the monastic tradition calls compunction (piercing) of the heart—are calling us to conversion, but we must remain vigilant and attentive to them. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, they are trying to wake us up from our spiritual slumber.

Finally, it bears repeating that fostering an attitude of prayerful vigilance and interior attentiveness requires a reduction (sometimes a substantial reduction) of the noise, chatter, commotion, and sensory stimulation in our lives. To hear God’s voice, we need to turn down the volume elsewhere. As Michael Casey again states:

Becoming more spiritually aware means moving toward a low-impact environment. The voice of conscience and the words of the Gospel are but a still, small voice in our noisy universe. … [Otherwise] we are so awake on one level that there is no room for a more interior awakening. Most of us cannot truly listen to another speaking if we are simultaneously watching television, texting on our cell phone, and internally fretting about some imagined grievance. In the same way, we cannot be spiritually aware without turning down the volume of other voices. To be awake and alert spiritually we have to limit the amount of attention we give to other areas. (The Road to Eternal Life, p.33).      

I encourage you to spend some time thinking and praying about all of this. Ask yourself: “Am I awake spiritually? … What do I need to wake up more fully? … How can that be addressed?” Reflect upon what vigilance looks like in your life (or what you hope it looks like).

In the meantime: Wake up! Remain vigilant! Be prepared!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

'I am your merciful Mother'

"I am your merciful Mother, to you, and to all the inhabitants of this land and all the rest who love me, invoke and confide in me. … Nothing should frighten or grieve you. Let not your heart be disturbed. Do not fear any sickness or anguish. Am I not here, who is your Mother? Are you not under my protection? Am I not your health? Are you not happily within my fold? What else do you wish? Do not grieve nor be disturbed by anything."

Words of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego in December 1531
as recorded in Nican Mopohua, a 16th century historical account
of the apparitions written by Antonio Valeriano