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.


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.

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.

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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.

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* 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

For Whom the Bell Tolls

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I was working at my desk trying to finish up something when the bell rang. That is nothing special in a monastery; the bell rings five times a day to call us monks to prayer. This time, though, as sometimes happens, I caught myself having a little inner discussion:  should I go instantly to Midday Prayer, or should I rather continue working for two or three minutes? I would still make it to church in time. What didn’t seem to be a big deal at all, and certainly not a question of life and death, is still of interest for Saint Benedict:

“On hearing the signal for an hour of the divine office, the monk will immediately set aside what he has in hand and go with utmost speed, yet with gravity and without giving occasion for frivolity. Indeed, nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God.” RB 43:1-3

My father used to say: “Obedience means: do it immediately”. I didn’t like to hear that because he always said it when I was not following right away. This very moment, when I hear the call of the bell, holds a great opportunity. It invites my soul to decide: Do I follow God’s call or not? Whom do I follow? Christ, or my own to-do-list? “The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all”, St. Benedict says in his chapter on obedience (RB 5:1-2), and he points to this holy moment:

“Almost at the same moment, as the master gives the instruction the disciple quickly puts it into practice in the fear of God; and both actions together are swiftly completed as one”. RB 5:9

In the midst of my day-to-day activities I am offered to let my ego die and become ONE with God. The readiness with which I follow is an expression of my surrendering to God. No excuses; nothing more important than Him; everything to be left behind. What if I miss the opportunity of this moment? In the monastery, we are not practicing compulsiveness. Not much later the bell will ring again for another prayer time. Another chance to follow the inner voice, the conscience. Another chance to surrender.

Lord, you praised the Roman officer because of the swiftness of his following. Give me the freedom to trust deeply that nothing is more important NOW than YOU. It is so freeing to follow you. Thank you for the bell. It tolls for me.

Tremble before the Lord

It was during Sunday Vespers. I must have been in a fearful mood. I can’t remember why. But as sometimes, I was not even aware of my emotions. Suddenly a verse of Psalm 114 caught my eyes:

“Tremble, o earth, before the Lord.” Psalm 114:7

I immediately felt consoled. The fear was gone. How could this happen? As I was reflecting later, it came to me: Trembling before God seems to be much better than trembling before human beings, or situations, or anything else on earth. HE is the one and only before whom everyone trembles. Before whom everyone must tremble.

This knowledge did not increase my fear, but erased it. Fear of God is just natural because we know God is mightier than we are. However, what is better? Fearing God or fearing human beings? Being afraid of human beings, including ourselves, may be more justified because our goodness is limited and we can act evil. Not so can God. So, fearing God is the better choice. He is the loving and merciful God as Jesus has shown us. In other words, I felt consoled because I realized: Fear has a place. It has its place “before Him”, in the presence of God. It is taken care of in the presence of the loving and merciful God. I must not be afraid, because any fear is in good hands with Him. He is stronger and He is better.

Prayer against fear

Dear Lord, take all fear from me. Let me grow in the fear of you, who is my loving maker and caretaker. Prevent me from thinking and acting out of fear. Let the earth tremble and be shaken so that it may become a better and more peaceful place. I am not afraid of trembling before you.

Truly Born to Be Wild

For a long time, I thought my last name “Wilde” meant “wild” in the sense of “not civilized, uncultivated, not domesticated, chaotic”. Only recently did I find out that in the German language “wild” originally signifies a “stranger”. People coming from unknown places were considered to be “wild”. Strangers, whose behavior, customs, language, traditions, were not familiar and did not match with accustomed expectations. Monks are born to be wild. “You should become a stranger to the world’s ways [Saeculi actibus se facere alienum]”, says St. Benedict in his Rule. And he adds the reason: “The love of Christ must come before all else.” (Rule of St. Benedict 4:20-21). He is pretty outspoken; he disqualifies those who are “still loyal to the world by their actions; they clearly lie to God by their tonsure.” (Rule 1:7).

Well, I don’t have my hair tonsured, but I wear a habit. So, lying is possible. How can I be wild? How can I become a stranger to this world? I am part of this world!  I realize how much energy I spend to be up-to-date, to go with the trend, to stay assimilated, to keep up with what is expected from me. Jesus words instead sound like a warm invitation to trust the roots I have in heaven. “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” (John 18:36), he says, and draws the consequence for us, his disciples: “They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world.” (John 17:18). Jesus came as stranger and became our best friend.

It still frightens me a little bit. The first monks were wild; so were the prophets. The Saints were wild, like St. Jerome. Jesus was wild. I admire them and know that I am far away from this freedom and wildness. But I hear their call. I feel that everybody is truly born to be wild, not only monks.

Christ, help me to be wild. Take away from me the fear not to be like the others. Let me enjoy that I am different and strengthen in me the awareness that I come from God. Get me away from all that is clinging to me, from everything I am too much attached to. Give me the courage to enter the wilderness and stay there. And open my heart to my true call.

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Paolo Caliari (1585/90) – Saint Jerome in the wilderness