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.

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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!

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.

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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.

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.