I am poor, too

Edouard Manet, Beggar with a Duffle Coat, 1865Whenever I see a beggar, homeless or poor person in the streets, I have this moment of “Shall I or shall I not?” Pope Francis encourages Christians to give something, in any case. I know that many beggars are part of a bigger, very well organized group. What a shame that the poorest are misused in this way. So, shall I give a donation?

Recently I found myself begging for something before God. I cannot remember what I asked for. It must have been something of minor importance, but I remember the intensity of my begging – and felt ashamed. To my surprise, it seemed that God had nothing against me begging. On the contrary. “Ask and it will be given to you,” Jesus says in Matthew 7:7, describing God as a good and loving father.

Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received. (Rule of St. Benedict 53:15)

Saint Benedict admonishes his monks to take care of the poor. They are a reminder that we are poor, too. We are tremendously blessed because we have a home, food, work, family, and friends, but in the end, we are beggars, too. Before God we are poor because we depend on him. By giving to those who are materially truly poor, we acknowledge our own poverty. Benedict sees this as a step to humility:

The sixth step of humility is that a monk is content with the lowest and most menial treatment, and regards himself as a poor and worthless workman in whatever task he is given.” (Rule of St. Benedict 7:49)

A confrere of mine encouraged me to always have a bill or two at hand for the poor. It does not matter if their begging is justified. They are begging. Just as I am begging in my prayers. God does not ignore our cries. We should not ignore theirs.

Dear Lord, I ask you for all poor people in the streets and for those who do not appear in the streets, for those whose cry can be heard and those whose needs are hidden before our eyes, to graciously listen to them. And I ask you to listen to me, in all my intentions and in all I bring to your attention. Do not despise me. I know that you don’t.

grumble grumble

Rule of St. Benedict 40:9: "Above all else we admonish them to refrain from grumbling."

We do it quietly, often unnoticed by ourselves: we complain and grumble. We are not happy and we certainly know why: it’s the boss’s fault, the neighbor’s, the situation’s. It seems to be an ancient temptation. Saint Benedict warns his monks 13 times in the Rule, as he is saying:

First and foremost, there must be no word or sign of the evil of grumbling, no manifestation of it for any reason at all. If, however, anyone is caught grumbling, let him undergo more severe discipline. (Rule of St. Benedict 34:6-7)

Grumbling is a slow poison. It is an evil and, yet, we like to do it together. We seek “friends” of whom we think would affirm our complaints. And so we go down to bathe together in the pool of gossip and negativity. It is infectious.

Where does healing come from? It all starts with awareness. “Jesus realized the intention of their hearts” (Luke 9:46). What a blessings that before Him nothing is hidden. It is not wild to grumble, it is terribly passive. It is, instead, wild if we catch ourselves and stop it. As we breathe and discern, we will be able to decide either to do something or to accept the situation. St. Benedict also knows “justifiable grumbling” (cf RB 41:5). Go and talk to your boss. Go and see your neighbor. Or trust that God has placed you in this situation to grow and to learn something.

God is good. Obeying God means to listen what the situation is calling us to, and to freely respond. With St. Benedict’s words: “Obedience will be acceptable to God and agreeable to men only if compliance with what is commanded is not cringing or sluggish or half-hearted, but free from any grumbling or any reaction of unwillingness. (…) Furthermore, the disciples’ obedience must be given gladly, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (Rule of St. Benedict 5:14.16)

Dear God, stop me if you see me grumbling. Chase away the negativity. Let me understand where you want me to go, what you want me to do. Let me admit what I really need. I don’t want to despise the gifts you are giving me. I want to gratefully accept them. And I know I can respond to the challenges you have placed in my life with your help.

In Times of Confusion

dsc06109-copy

Saint Benedict wants to provide an environment of peace in which the monks can live without disturbance and confusion. He warns the abbot of the monastery not to be excitable, anxious, or extreme, “because such a man is never at rest.” (Rule of St. Benedict 64:16) “The abbot is not to disturb the flock entrusted to him nor make any unjust arrangements, as though he had the power to do whatever he wished.” (63:2) He warns also the bursar: “As cellarer of the monastery, there should be chosen from the community someone who is wise, mature in conduct, temperate, not an excessive eater, not proud, not excitable, offensive, dilatory or wasteful, but God-fearing, and like a father to the whole community, (…) so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God.” (31:1-2.19) Not only superiors can disturb the community of a monastery, but also guests who come and “make excessive demands that upset the monastery.” (61:2) Even the heat of the summer, according to St. Benedict, can confuse the monks (cf 41:2).

How can we return to peace? Often the disturber comes from outside. But even more often he comes from the inside, from our own heart. If something unclean comes from outside, it has no chance to affect me if I keep calm with Christ. As soon as I get drawn into the whirl, being in favor, being against, planning strategies… I have already been affected, and have become part of the confusion. Certainly, I cannot do nothing. The disturbance I perceive is a fact I have to deal with and must respond to.

Sometimes it just takes time to calm down. For this I have to go into an environment that is tranquil. At other times I have to jerkily remove myself from the situation. Things look different from a place of peace, tranquility, and stillness. Things are put into a different perspective and order. Unimportant things don’t bother me anymore, important things stand out. The fear is gone. I feel connected with God. For us monks those places of recollection are our daily prayers, the liturgy of the hours. Each of them is an invitation to refocus. The Holy Eucharist directs our eyes to the cross of the Lord as the sign of death and resurrection and connects us most deeply with Christ and our brothers and sisters. God is ready and waits for us to bring back peace. We, however, are the abbot and the bursar of our own heart.

Lord, together with my confreres I sang at my profession “et ne confundas me ab expectatione mea – Don’t confuse me in my expectation.” So often I find myself confused. Only with you there is rest. Remind me that I can trust you without hesitation. You never confuse me but instead lead me to peace. Continue your work in me, Lord, continue!

A Constant Companion

I remember well when I first moved as a monk. I had just finished my novitiate, had made my temporal vows, and had spent some time working in the Abbey’s guest kitchen, school, and archives. My next step was to begin the studies of philosophy and theology in Würzburg, just 15 miles away, but still far enough away to let me feel sadness because I had to leave the monastery and community I had chosen to be my home. As monks, we feel deeply connected with the place where we live, having taken the vow of “stability”. And here I was, I couldn’t stay but had to move on. In this situation, as so often, I found comfort in our liturgy:

HE is before all things. By HIM all things consist. (Col 1:17)

These words struck me. Jesus is the one who lasts no matter what changes happen to me or around me. So I wrote this sentence on a small piece of paper, in Latin, because it made sense to me – it was a deeper way to express my longing for stability: Omnia in ipso constant – by Him all things consist. In my new room, I put this little piece of paper on my desk, and looking at it, I knew I was at home.

Little did I know that as a Missionary Benedictine I had to move more often. After five years, I moved back to the Abbey. After three more years as teacher, I was granted to work on my doctorate in Tübingen. The little piece of paper went with me. It had become a bit feeble. I loved that this continuity was written on a fragile piece of paper. To hold on to Jesus is not a heroic act, but a humble, weak, longing, seeking, attempt to be with the one who never changes. Certainly, it went with me to America six years ago. This time I forgot to put it on my desk, maybe because I had learned to internalize its truth.

At this moment, I find myself at a new calling in Italy. I will begin to serve as Prior of Sant’Anselmo Abbey in Rome shortly. While packing, the little piece of paper fell into my hands again, and I was delighted. The writing has faded, one can hardly read it. I share this with all those of you who are undergoing changes, wanted or not wanted, and are seeking for a foothold. Here He is: “In HIM all things consist.” HE has been there before; even before things that could change existed.

Dear Lord, let me return to you, over and over again. When serious changes happen in my life, or even if nothing seems to change, you always stand. Let me stand by you. It is safe ground, peaceful, hopeful. Wherever you are, there is home. Thank you very much, dear Lord.

san-francisco-3-018-copy-copy-copy

It Is Okay To Be Away

Sometimes we just want to get away – away from places, people, worries. We want to flee, to escape, because things have become unbearable. Our faith tells us it is okay to want this; it’s how monasticism started. The ancient monks were fed up with what they saw and experienced, and fled into the desert, far away from everybody and everything. They trusted what the Psalms say:

Free me from the net they have set for me, for you are my refuge.  Psalm 31:5

God is our refuge. There is a place where we can go. Certainly, they experienced that they could not escape from themselves. Their ego, their weaknesses, the paradoxes of their lives would follow them wherever they went, almost mercilessly. There is no way to get away from ourselves. Here, again, we receive consolation through our faith:

Where can I go from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee?  If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, there you are. If I take the wings of dawn and dwell beyond the sea, even there your hand guides me, your right hand holds me fast. If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light”, darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day.  Psalm 139:7-12

Who is there, when I am away, when I am even disconnected from myself? Who is there beyond myself, beyond my limits? It is God. In Him I can become myself again and be at peace. I think of Jonah who tried to escape from his call. God mercifully sent the whale and brought him back where he belonged. There are so many ways nowadays to escape; some ways are better than others. To escape into drugs, for example, can be disastrous. God doesn’t want us to be harmed on our flight. It is okay to be away. However, when we don’t want to see anymore, we still should not flee blindly. The light is finally awaiting us.

My Lord and my God, you know that sometimes I would like to flee, to be beamed onto the moon. But these are just moments. It is okay to feel this way. You are my hiding place. You are my refuge. Your loving eyes follow me, your fatherly hand holds me, your motherly heart walks with my wandering heart until it finds rest in you.

maine3-2015-florida-188-copy

Loosen Our Knees

They called it CPM machine, for me it was rather a torture tool. Though years ago, I still vividly remember how I lying in the hospital bed after a knee surgery, was suffering under this machine that tried to automatically conquer inch by inch in order to make my knee bend again. Finally I had to smile when in my prayers I ran across the hymn in Philippians:

At the name of Jesus every knee will bend.

So, eventually mine, too! To be able to bend our knees is a grace. I believe that God unlike this machine does not want to forcefully bend our knees, “bring us to our knees”. He has no need for that. We go to our knees as we realize how mighty He is and – in comparison with him – how small we are. We even more come to our knees as we understand that this mighty God became human, and small, and humble.

Because Christ humbled himself, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bend. (Phil 2:9-10)

Have you ever become aware of how you stand? We can stand in two ways: either with fully stretched knees or with a little leeway in our knees. To stand with fully stretched knees is not only unhealthy for the ligaments as I learnt from my doctors, but also an expression of “I hold on to myself”, “I only trust myself”. Sometimes we do it in a defiant way, asserting ourselves. We have more stability though, if we stand giving in – just a little bit – in our knees. We are more flexible and at the same time more stable. This is not a sign of going weak at our knees. It is a question of trust: whom do I trust? Only myself? Or the one who is greater and holds me carefully and lovingly in his hand. We don’t have to be on our knees all the time, it is enough to give in in our knees, just a little bit.

Lord, I trust that you hold me, wherever I go or stand. You are the ground that carries me, you are the heaven opening over me. You are the space that surrounds me. You want me as a free person, standing on my own feet. For this I am deeply grateful. I thank you for Jesus who has shown us this our dignity. I humbly bow and bend my knees before you as I realize this greatness you have planted in me, through Jesus Christ.

washington-dc-423-copy
The monk Jerome in the wilderness, by a follower of Pietro Perugino (1490). The lion of self-assertion sits peacefully aside the saint.

 

Seeking His Face

Towards what or whom do I direct my eyes? On whom do I look? Our eyes are busy all day long both when we work and when we relax. It occurred to me as I was praying Psalm 27 that I long to fix my eyes on the Lord:

“Come,” says my heart, “seek his face”. Your face, Lord, do I seek! (Psalm 27:8)

I was meditating how I could trust God more, and I realized: by looking more at Jesus. If I trust somebody I look into his or her eyes. Looking at each other fosters trust. Could I spend more time looking at Jesus’ life and face instead of spending so much time browsing the Internet? Could I watch more His healing and loving attitude than to be scared by things that happen around me and in today’s world? The eyes have a tendency to control, more than the ears for example. I can close my eyes but not my ears. Letting go control and letting my eyes sink into His eyes would strengthen my trust in Him.

There are many ways to look at Christ. I can place my eyes on the crucifix or an icon in my room. I can have an image of Jesus ready on my phone. Reading the Bible helps me to know Him better. I can spend time in Adoration gazing at the Blessed Sacrament. I look at Christ and Christ looks me. Every day innumerable people around the globe follow this practice. What a gift to the world and to themselves.

Lord, I want to seek your face. If I can’t see your face, let me at least try to seek you, in any way. Your eyes are seeking mine. This I know. You watch over me. You look at me because you love me. You offer me constantly to trust you more. Thank you, Jesus.

Chicago Art Inst 415
Jesus and the Samaritan woman seeking each other’s gaze (Piero di Cristoforo Vannucci, 1445)

 

 

Tenderness and Authority

Christian de Chergé, Trappist monk of an Algerian monastery, described his friend with these words:

He loved me with the benevolent but inexorable authority of a father, and also with the indulgent and somewhat nervous tenderness of a mother.*

The qualities of this friend just resonated with me. How much I would love to be this way: to be tender like a mother. I remember this nervousness of an aunt of mine, as she journeyed with her daughters through the craziness of their puberty. It was pure expression of love. I very much feel attracted by the fatherly quality, too. Authority is a difficult thing nowadays. We hardly believe that authority can be benevolent. But still, we long for this rock who is gracious and at the same time inexorable.

Upon reflection, I realize how much these qualities were embodied in Jesus–when he cared for his friends after Lazarus died and when he talked to the sinners, the sick, and the outcast. You can see God’s tenderness for us at work. But there was also his authority. People said he was speaking with authority unlike the scribes. I see Jesus walking away as people try to stone him. His mission was inexorable. I see him announcing his suffering even when his disciples didn’t want to hear it. He would not waver from his call.

In the confusion of today’s gender discussion, we often forget about those good qualities of both a father and a mother. We don’t trust that we really can develop them as they are given to us by God. Moreover, we cannot imagine that both go together, the indulgent tenderness and the inexorable authority.

Lord, I need you. I need both the tender and the firm from you. I need your caress, your closeness, your compassion and love. And I need you as my rock, the one who is inexorable, who cannot be stopped, who cannot be moved, the one who is big enough that I can be straightened up by you and grow with you. I thank you for giving your life to me.

DSC05488 - Copy

* L’autre que nous attendons, 455. In: Christian Salenson, A Theology of Hope, 26. The context of this sentence does not indicate clearly of whom Fr. Christian is actually talking, whether of his Muslim friend Mohammed who saved his life during the Algerian war, or of Christ. He is definitely talking about a Christ-like quality. Fr. Christian, holding on to his monastic and Christian vocation, was kidnapped and murdered in 1996.

What Can God Do For You?

Jesus sees the blind man and asks: What do you want me to do for you? (Mk 10:51) Does he not realize that the man wants to regain his eyesight? How can he be so un-sympathetic? We encounter here the difference between being sympathetic and empathetic. Being sympathetic is feeling compassion and pity for another, which is a good thing, but the empathetic puts himself in the place of the other without mingling his own ideas, advice or even personal issues with the one in need. “I feel so sorry for you. You know, I once had the same problem; this is how I would solve it …” Empathy, instead, stands respectfully before the other individual. St. Benedict says in his Rule:

Precaution must be taken that no monk presume on any occasion to defend another in the monastery [præsumat alter alium defendere] or as it were to take him under his protection, even if they are related by the closest ties of blood.  Rule of St. Benedict 69:1

What sounds harsh is rather St. Benedict trusting deeply that Christ dwells in everyone so that His life, His truth, and His grace will finally come forward and prevail. We tend to make the case of others our own case very quickly. We band together and fight for certain goals, often as long as our lives are not really touched. We don’t notice that we do our own thing, assuming and presuming. Jesus acts differently. He truly tends to the person and gets involved, but lets the blind man still have the control. He is not patronizing him. Empathy respects boundaries. It is not me who knows best what the other needs. It is he or she herself. Or shouldn’t we rather say: it is God. Like Jesus we can become channels of God’s love for others. If the blind man sadly would prefer to stay blind, Jesus would respect it. Jesus follows whatever the man wants God to do for him.

Christ, help me to listen. What is my brother, my sister actually saying when they talk to me? What does the other really need? Let me respect the intimacy that is between you and him. Let me be engaged to the fullest and at the same time stay totally out of the way, and mind my own business. I don’t have the answer. You have it. You will care for him as you care for me.

They Have Noses But Do Not Smell

Another monastic moment, unspectacular but meaningful. A Psalm popping into my mind explains to me what I have just experienced. Opening the shampoo bottle, about to wash my hair, I smelled the fragrance. It seemed I had never smelled it before. Not only was my nose opened all of a sudden, but my whole being felt differently. I felt more life within me. It was Psalm 115 that I remembered:

They have ears but do not hear, noses but do not smell.  Psalm 115:6

The psalmist speaks about the idols of the peoples, but I applied it to myself. God gives me more gifts than I use. Smelling is one of these underappreciated gifts. We humans are very much vision oriented. Listening is more difficult; tasting and smelling are usually not at the forefront of our awareness. However, those senses go really deep. We “have a nose for somebody or something”; we have our intuition.

My novice master used to say: If you lose the meaning of your life and nothing makes sense, use your senses! The senses bring back the sense. Evagrius Ponticus, one of the most relevant monastic authors of the 4th century wrote: “If you want to know God, know yourself first” (Migne, PG 40,1267). Whatever we perceive is precious, because it can lead us into a greater knowledge of God. So why be afraid? Why do we close our noses? Because we don’t want to be bothered by bad smells. But how can we know that the smell is really bad and not just in our imagination? Like an idol that exists just in our imagination? At our baptism our senses were opened by the priest or deacon in the Effata-Rite. Christ has given us new life. He invites us to have life to its fullest. (John 10:10) We often don’t live to our fullest potential.

Dear Lord, let me pause for a moment and use my senses. Let me take a deep breath. What do I smell? Open my attention to what is around me. Let me take a moment when I pass by a flower, and smell. Let me smell the fragrance of the forest. Let me take in the air of the morning. Let me smell while I eat. Let me taste how good you are. Every day. Every moment.

Taste and see that the Lord is good