Embracing the Cross

Sometimes there is a lot on our plate. Sometimes it is just too much what we have to bear. It is then that we realize what Jesus meant when he said everybody has to carry his cross. During my sabbatical time a couple years ago, I had the privilege to visit Glendalough, a 6th century monastery village in Ireland. Nestled in beautiful landscape are ruins of monastery houses and chapels and also a tall cross about twelve feet high. I was told if one was able to wrap one’s arms around the cross while making a wish, the wish would become true. I tried this, along with many others, but to be honest, I forgot the wish I had and I forgot if it later became true. Still it was a nice ritual.

Later somebody showed me the picture taken from the event and suddenly I realized what I actually did: I embraced the cross! This is the meaning of the ritual—if we embrace our cross, which always seems to be big – too big –, if we manage to fully take it on and accept it, our wish will be fulfilled. It means we will be okay. What will happen will be good for us. We will be ourselves instead of running away from ourselves, avoiding our cross. The cross is heavier if we don’t accept it. Instead, the suffering, if voluntarily accepted like Christ did, is a way to redemption. Seen from this perspective, it becomes again true what Jesus said: My yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Mt 11:30). It is difficult to accept our cross; it requires some stretching on our part, but we will be able to do it.

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“My yoke is easy.” (Mt 11:30)
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Being contemporaries

I remember the theologian Karl Rahner in an interview speaking about “Zeitgenossenschaft”. Even though Germans are used to long words, I had never heard this particular word before. It means “contemporaneity”, occurring simultaneously or concurrently, having a “contemporary communal presence”. Rahner dropped it in a melancholic kind of way, stating that over the years one develops this sense of contemporaneity together with those whom we share the same time. Living at the same time can create a bond of familiarity and love. Our journeys of life may change; we meet each other, we walk together, and then – for professional, or personal, or whatever reasons – our ways part. But still, we are of one generation and we experience the same world, even when we are at different places. We experience the blessings and the crosses of the same time. I guess one reason for our fear of death is that we don’t want to leave our companions with whom we have walked.

There is a silent tenderness in being contemporaries, in coming from the same time. This is because God has blessed the time by the birth of his Son. God wanted to be our contemporary. We celebrate this at Christmas. God became man and the companion of many. They walked together; He went with them through thick and thin. It is touching to know that God wants to be my contemporary too. He wants to share my time. He wants to walk with me. Over time, the familiarity with Him grows. We don’t have to be in contact every minute, just walking together connects us.

Thank you, Jesus, for being my companion. Thank you for walking with me. Thank you for being interested in my life – my simple, limited life. It is good to know you as my contemporary. You want to grow old together with me. In turn, I want to love and honor all those who are my contemporaries.

Being contemporaries

Lord, You Know Me

It is wonderful to have a friend who knows you well, with whom you have walked for many years. With whom you can share everything; who knows your story. With whom a conversation does not start at zero, you can just jump into it. To have a person who understands and who knows you, is a great gift of God.

However, sometimes not even a friend can reach my heart. This is an odd experience. Sometimes we are just left with ourselves, left alone. We cannot find a partner that adequately responds to our feelings, our story, our thoughts, situation or needs. But these moments that can be filled with darkness and sadness can also turn into a very precious experience. The situation breaks us open to realize that our loneliness is not an accident, but the reflection of our deepest call as human beings that goes beyond what another human being can grasp or understand. We realize that our loneliness touches the dimension of God; it is a result of the fact that we are immediate to God. This is the monk’s moment. The term monk stems from the Greek word “monachos” which means “single, solitary”.

Through God’s grace, we are able in these moments of aloneness to talk to Christ or to God and find his ear. And his response is always exactly what we need. We realize: HE understands, HE knows. His presence resonates with everything I utter and express. I feel understood, appreciated, loved. I feel liked by him as by a good friend. But even better, and in a perfect way. Nothing is missing.

One of my favorite Psalms comes to mind:  Lord, you know me. You understand my thoughts from afar. You formed my inmost being. My very self you know. (cf Psalm 139).

As we leave this our inner “cell”, which is more than a room, we become open for any kind of God-filled relationship. We feel connected with the world and with everybody or everything that crosses our way. Because we are connected again with ourselves and with God.

Lord, you are my best friend; you are better than any friend ever could be. Give me good friendships and help me to maintain them. Open my heart to you when I feel lonely. Let me not give in to despair or sadness, but instead make me seek your presence. You know me. You understand me. How precious this is for me to know!

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Gather Together

There are some words in our prayers that I just love. Words such as “gather together”; we monks chant them regularly in a hymn. These words resonate with my longing for unity and peace. In these times when our countries and our world seem to be more torn than ever, this longing is even stronger. It moves me to strive for unity and collaboration, in our small worlds, in our communities, in our families, and in the teams in which we work. When we live and work together as one, things flow better and we are happier and more successful.

However, one time while praying the hymn, I paid closer attention. It says, that all things are gathered together in Christ. Both the original Greek and Latin have a term that comprise the word “head” (recapitulare). The gathering happens in Christ, who is the head. He does the gathering together. This immediately gave me relief. I cannot do it. He will do it. He will gather us all. But, how does he do it?

“In him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us. In all wisdom and insight, God has made known to us the mystery of his will in accord with his favor that he set forth in him as a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up (gather together) all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth.” (Ephesians 1:8-10)

Our temptation is we want to sum everything up before its time. We tend to force others into what we think would be unity. We don’t have the patience that God has for us, that he has for everybody, without excluding anybody. Rather, we should allow him to wash away what is not in his favor within us, which separates us from him and others.

Lord, I can’t wait for the new heaven and the new earth. Make it come faster. Help me to accept you as my head. This will help to bring us humans together. I don’t have to gather everybody, but I have to let YOU gather everybody. You can do it. You suffered for us. You forgive us. You are gentle. And you are just.

recapitulare - gather together

The Apple Of Your Eye

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Unexpectedly, my eye was caught by this verse at Midday prayer: “Keep me as the apple of your eye”. (Psalm 17:8) At this moment I deeply realized what I had experienced often before: how much God protects and keeps me, like the apple of his eye. How do we protect our eyes? Nature has provided for it: There is the eyelid, very close to our eyes that allows us to close our eyes and even provide for moisture. But, also, if somebody would attack my face or my eyes, my reflexes would work right away, and with arms and hands I would protect myself.

The eye is one of the most vulnerable parts of our body. If we appeal to God to protect us, we point to our most vulnerable part, saying: Please, protect me where I am most vulnerable, because without you, I am not protected enough. At the same time, we call upon God that he might protect us like HIS eye. That is interesting. I don’t want to go into the question whether or not God has eyes he must protect, but with this prayer we ask him to treat us and take care of us as if we would be the most precious part of himself.

We truly are most precious to God. And this is why he protects us. I had many, many instances in which I thought: Now he and his angels have protected me—from near accidents or from making wrong decisions. He protected me more than I could expect. At those moments I realized I am like the apple of his eye. Sometimes I ask children in a sermon: How are the angels, small or tall? The children know exactly: there are small ones and there are tall ones. Imagine your car is at risk to run off the road, a tiny angel could not stop it. Angels must be tall at times. This is how God protects us: powerfully, like our arms and hands in a reflex to protect the eyes; and also tenderly, like the eye-lid that carefully closes.

Dear Lord, let me always be open and thankful for my guardian angels. Let me never forget that you love me more than I ever could, that you look further, that you know more. You want my life, intact and full. Watch over me and keep me from everything that could harm or hurt me. Please, keep me from hurting others or myself.

It Is a Blessing To Will

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We know those inner dialogues. Whether they take place between cerebrum and cerebellum, or between “spirit” and “flesh”, they make us wonder. Even Saint Paul said, We do not always do what we want to do. I am carnal. What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” (Romans 7:14-15)

Jesus himself knows: “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41) But what if the will is also weak? It is amazing how much we can accomplish with our will, if only we will it. “Where there’s will there’s a way.” Our will can help support our nature, our flesh, even transcend it and reach heights we have never imagined before. However, what if our will is weak? We realize, even the will is part of our nature.

Those questions come into play not only when we have a hard time to get up from the couch, but whenever we try to improve our lives, change a bad habit, and try to practice something good. Interestingly, St. Benedict is not overly enthusiastic about the human’s will, he is rather skeptical. To be exact, he does so when he mentions “one’s own will”. “Hate the urgings of self-will”, he says (RB Prologue 60), and recommends:

The second step of humility is that a man loves not his own will nor takes pleasure in the satisfaction of his desires; rather he shall imitate by his actions that saying of the Lord: I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me (John 6:38). RB 7:31-32

This is the key. Our will cannot save us. It is all about joining our will to God’s will. Our will in itself is nothing, maybe not even good. But if we do what God wills, he gives us the strength to really do it. Or rather we should say: He himself will do it, within us and through us. It is a blessing to experience, “I will.” It is a blessing to have a will. It is a blessing to do God’s will.

Dear Father, your will be done. Let me not get lost in the many things I will. Let me not get lost in my flesh’s desires. Remind me of your will and let me trust anew, that your will is good for me. Let your will be my will. It feels so good to be in synch with your will.

The Presence of the Saints

Saint Benedict, founder of the Benedictine Order, writes in his Rule:

When the novice is to be received, he comes before the whole community in the oratory and promises stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience. This is done in the presence of God and his saints … He states his promise in a document drawn up in the name of the saints whose relics are there, and of the abbot, who is present. (RB 58:17-19).

At the important moment of their vows, the monks are reminded of the presence of the Saints. The Church believes for some people with certainty that they are with God. They have risen to a life eternal, which means they are with God in unending light, joy, and community. In the Catholic Church we have the custom to invoke the Saints on certain occasions. For some this seems to be superstition. However, when you try to do it, you might be surprised that it “works”. St. Anthony has helped me a lot. He is the Saint you call when you have lost things. I often lose things. When I call him, I calm down. I trust that I will find what I have lost, and he has never disappointed me. One may argue this is self-suggestion – and if so, why not? There are other Saints you can call. Saint Christopher helps the travelers. Recently I heard about St. Leonard who helps to find a parking space. Yes, it made me smile. It is a playful way in which we recall the presence of the Saints. Who are your favorite Saints?

If the Saints are with God, then they can be present to me, too. We are a large community that encompasses heaven and earth. The saints are companions and friends; they encourage us. They help us to become open for God. This is why we celebrate their memorials and feasts. Their relics are kept, not because the bones are an idol for us, but because they stand for the real presence of the saints. Why does the presence of God not suffice? It does, but God loves the human beings, his creation, and he wants to have them close to himself always. This is why St. Benedict talks about “the presence of God and the saints.”

Dear God, you have surrounded yourself with a cloud of saints, a holy community. And so am I surrounded by them and never left alone. I am part of a larger community. Let me be connected with them. Let the awareness of their presence be part of my awareness for you.

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Giovanni Bellini (1490): John the Baptist, Christ, Mary, Elisabeth

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.

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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

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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!