Every Hour

In my home monastery there was the old tradition of praying every hour. As soon as the bell rang, you had to stop your work and say a prayer. I remember some monks who did this very faithfully, in the garden, in their workshops, wherever they were. Even our abbot would stop in the middle of a conversation, and we would spend a short time in silent prayer. At first, I found this a bit awkward. But today I see this custom differently. Because it is St. Paul who tells us to pray without ceasing:

Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. (1 Thess. 5:17-19)

How can we pray without ceasing? How should that be possible? Isn’t that just an ideal? Perhaps it is more a matter of adopting an attitude of gratitude, all the time, an attitude of praise, of attachment to the Lord. The psalm says we should pray at least seven times a day (Psalm 119:164), which would cover the whole day symbolically. Most monks pray their Divine Office five times a day. That makes almost 3 hours a day – that’s something! Of course, you can pray at any time. You don’t have to pray by the clock. But I have found that thinking of God at least once an hour helps to lift our hearts.

God does not need our prayer. As a good parent, you don’t need to hear from your children all the time. They can come to you anytime, and that is enough. Similarly, it must be with God. We can come to Him at any time. But it is good for us to be in contact with Him. It is good for us not to lose the connection. The longer we are out of touch, the further we can get away from Him. It becomes more difficult to return, but certainly not impossible. But as I said, once an hour seems to be a good start. Looking at a crucifix, spontaneously thanking God for a grace we have just experienced, asking in prayer for someone who is suffering. Simply a sign of touch. A little “hello, God, here I am”, a thumbs up, a smile, a prayer from the heart.

We don’t have to set our timer for this, although the bells in a monastery can really help, as can the bells in the parishes. In the end, we want this to become our attitude, so that from within there is a desire to be in contact with HIM.

Lord, when I am no longer by myself, bring me back. When I forget you, remind me. When daily work or worries occupy me, knock on the door of my heart and invite me to pray. Let me pause and pray. Amen.

What Is Heaven Like?

Of course, we cannot know for sure what heaven is like. How could we? But the Bible and our faith give us images. I just mention two here. A beautiful image for heaven is the wedding feast, the supper of the Lamb, the banquet.

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.” (Is 25:6)

If you are someone who loves to eat, or let’s better say feast; if you love to be with people, to savor every course, to enjoy every detail that the cook has put into a great meal: then you know what heaven could look like. Only better!

Another beautiful image is music: the choirs of angels around the throne of God are singing. With them – we hope, by the way – the monks. “Music in the air”. If you love music, if you love to listen to it; if you love to make music, to sing, to play – then you also know what heaven is like – only better. Many walk the streets with headphones because they want the music with them all the time. When you’re surrounded by music, you see the world differently. It makes things easier, more pleasant. But how is that going to work in heaven? Because there are very different tastes in music…. Okay, everyone has their “apartment”, if we go by Jesus’ words, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2) So I could listen to my favorite music without disturbing my neighbors? But is that heaven, sitting in my own room, isolated from others? I want the music to be heard everywhere, in public…. How God does that – I have no idea. That’s why we call it heaven or the Kingdom of God. Because we can’t make it. We can’t even imagine how to do it. God will be in control. But it will be wonderful, for me, for us, for all of us. We wouldn’t interfere with each other, on the contrary.

If you’re not so much into music or food, I’m sure you’ll have something else you love. This will be heaven for you. And much more. Well, are these thoughts too anthropocentric? What makes the difference in heaven? “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself, that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:3) That’s it: Heaven is where Jesus Christ is, where He is with me and with all His friends, His brothers and sisters. He turns to us, He turns to me as I am, He wants to be with me.

Receive me Lord, as you have promised, that I may live; and disappoint me not in my hope.

I chose the painting by Brueghel only because it contains both music and food. It may not fit with your idea of heaven…. Maybe you immagine rather silence? How do you dream about heaven?

New Skins

In times of change, when we have to decide what to keep and what to let go, we can learn from a word of Jesus. He said:

“No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins, and it will be spilled, and the skins will be ruined. Rather, new wine must be poured into fresh wineskins. And no one who has been drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”  (Luke 5:37-39)

Jesus speaks of a blessed moment: new wine is available. New possibilities open up in our lives, a new path lies before us. We should not spill this moment. While Jesus honors this situation, he also does not devalue the old: the old wine is good! If we bless both, the future and the past, each in its own way, it will go well.

What could the wineskins stand for? They could represent patterns and expectations. The old wineskins could be our habitual behavior, our typical limitations, our fears, our unhealed wounds, our memories. If we hold on to them, we will not be able to move forward. We will not be open to the new. The new wine will be spilled. We need to frame the new in a completely new way. We must let go of the old skins in order to preserve the new. We may have already made changes, but we have found that we have stumbled over our old patterns. Therefore, we doubt whether we are really able to embrace the new. For example, when we embark into in a new relationship. Jesus encourages us: Yes! New wine. Fill it into new skins!

The old wineskins could also be our own expectations. If we hold on to them, we will end up where we have been before. We are invited to find new ways to evaluate the new differently, to judge it with new standards. Perhaps, after all, the new goes far beyond my expectations. If I constantly compare the new with what I used to expect, I am still carrying the new wine in old wineskins.

Lord, you invite us to convert. You encourage us to true inner renewal. With our baptism, You have opened the door for us: We can enter into a new life, together with You. A life in fullness. You believe in us. People CAN change. I can change. I can be healed. The good remains, the new is truly new. Thank You for the freshness of this good news!

Growing Joy

There are different kinds of joy. There is the exuberant jubilation. Like the soccer players at the end of the game, after the victory, jumping, dancing, splashing prosecco. The joy is so great that one does not even know how to express it adequately. I once discovered a different kind of joy in the liturgy, which I later found in reality. This, by the way, is typical and a meaning of liturgy: it opens our eyes, increases our capacity to perceive the immense richness of reality. What millions of forefathers and foremothers have expressed in their songs and rituals, we do not have to invent from scratch, we can learn from them, benefit from them and their experience with God.

I first noticed this while practicing the introit of Easter: “Resurrexi et adhuc tecum sum.” The melody is very measured, almost timid. One wonders, “Hey, it’s Easter, rejoice! Why so hesitant?” The answer is, because you have come from a journey. Because you have a story. Jesus came from the experience of exclusion, betrayal, suffering, torture, crucifixion. You don’t just get up and jump. The rising “needed three days.” Communicating the good news also takes time: the disciples didn’t get it right away, the joy of Jesus’ resurrection took time to be understood, time to be celebrated and expressed.

When we go through deep sorrow, when we are confronted with severe problems, and when God finally – unexpectedly – delivers us from this distress, we need a little time; our body needs time, our soul needs time to understand, to let it sink in. The joy comes slowly – but: this is the greatest, most complete, deepest joy of all. This silent joy, which is ready to grow, cannot be stopped. It is like a small flower that begins to grow tenderly and subtly, but becomes large.

Dear God, I look forward to the next experience of joy. I look forward to when you surprise me with either jubilation or quietly growing joy. I pray for all who are in great need, who are suffering, who are grieving, who are sad. Deliver them and let their joy return, slowly but surely. Thank you, dear Lord, for the joy of Easter, for the joy of the risen Lord.

In Temptation: Fight, Flight, Freeze

Animals and humans have learned how to react adequately in a dangerous situation: Fight, flight or freeze. This can also be applied to any temptation. In temptation, something is near that wants to harm our lives and puts our lives in danger. One way is to escape from the temptation. This is the first reaction of the monk, because he “flees the world” (fuga mundi) in order not to be exposed to temptations. We know what he finds in his deserted place: new temptations. So fleeing is a good method, but there are other instruments that can be used. Fighting temptation is also a suitable tool. The monk does this with words, good words, words that he takes from the Holy Scriptures, and he throws them at the demons, trusting that these words, inspired by the Holy Spirit, will overcome the evil thoughts and feelings.

Finally, there is a third way to respond to strong temptations. I found it impressively depicted in a painting of Domenico Morelli. It shows St. Anthony the Great, the first Christian monk and hermit, suffering a carnal temptation in the desert. It threatens him from all sides. No escape possible, fight hopeless. Instead, he falls into frozen mode. He seeks the closeness to the Lord, his cross, which overcomes all evil and even death, and keeps still. He goes on “autopilot,” so to speak. Knowing how weak he himself is, he surrenders himself entirely to the Lord, clings only to Him, and leaves to Him the struggle against evil. It is as if Anthony wanted to say: I am no longer here, it is only the Lord.

I don’t know what your typical temptations are. If we are awake enough, we discover things that want to harm our health, our relationships, our lives. God has given us means to respond, to say “no.”

Dear God, surround me with your guardian angels. Let me practice always being attentive to your presence. That way, I don’t have to be afraid. Let temptations become an opportunity to draw closer to you, to surrender my life to you, who protect me and who love me dearly.

From Psalm 91:

Say to the Lord, “My refuge and fortress,
    my God in whom I trust.”
He will rescue you from the fowler’s snare,
    from the destroying plague,
He will shelter you with his pinions,
    and under his wings you may take refuge;
    his faithfulness is a protecting shield.
  For he commands his angels with regard to you,
    to guard you wherever you go.

“Because he clings to me I will deliver him;
    because he knows my name I will set him on high.
He will call upon me and I will answer;
    I will be with him in distress;
    I will deliver him and give him honor.
With length of days I will satisfy him,
    and fill him with my saving power.”

The Heart of Man — An Abyss

Psalms have always given me comfort. In a strange way, I was recently comforted by a very dark verse from Psalm 64.

“The inside of a person and his heart – they are an abyss!”

Most English translations do not put the verse so drastically: “For the inward thought and the heart of a man are deep.” (Psalm 64:7) However, the context of the psalm shows that “depth” here really means “abyss.”

We know that every human being is created in the image of God; we know that every person has dignity. We encourage each other to see the good in others and in ourselves. This is a very helpful approach. But sometimes we discover abysses in other people, not only in times of war. People we thought we knew suddenly show another side of themselves that we could not have imagined before. I don’t want to open the list here: Hatred, aggression, violence … It is like looking into a yawning abyss, dark and impenetrable. Here we might have the dark side of our freedom. I am not advocating cynicism, rather realism. The psalm encourages us to have a kind of detachment that does not hinder us from loving and trusting. It rather invites us to take a sober look at what human beings are capable of; myself included.

The Psalms take seriously what I experience in this world. As God has accepted this world, so may everything have a place in my prayer. Starting from this acceptance, we can stop looking into the abysses and rather turn to the good. It is better to look to Christ.

Dear Lord, you created me as a free being. I thank you for this wonderful gift. I ask you to always choose the good. I ask you to protect me from the evil that may come from my heart or from the hearts of others. On Holy Saturday, you descended into the underworld. You stretched out your hand, even into the abysses of our existence. There, where we would rather not look – there you are with your healing, saving and life-giving power.

When God says NO

Have you had this experience? You wanted something, but God said no. You asked for something, but you did not get it. Sometimes you might only realize later that it was God who said no—that it was not the people, not the circumstances, neither your own unworthiness, nor your failure. Why does He say it?

When Saint Paul was on his mission trip, “the apostles had been prevented by the Holy Spirit from preaching the message in the province of Asia” (Acts 16:6) One could  wonder why. Paul was just in full flow, evangelizing and preaching, why not in Asia? The Holy Spirit knew. Historically we do not know why the circumstances did not allow the apostles to go into the province of Asia; the Scriptures do not tell us either. It is only clear that the apostles interpreted the situation by thinking: this did not happened by chance, it was the will of the Holy Spirit.

People are wishing for a child, but do not receive it, wishing for a partner, but don’t find one. People have dreams regarding their professional career, but never get there. Why? Is it their “fault”? It might be a relief to find out that it was the will of God not to receive this or that, even if it still hurts, especially when the no touches an important topic in my life. However, it can be an act of faith to “blame” God, rather than people, circumstances, or ourselves. First, because He can take it. Then, because often we experience that God’s no is transitory. Maybe it is too early yet. And finally, we realize that God, in fact, has the overview over our lives and knows much better than we do what is best for us.

Even Jesus had to experience a no from God the Father when he asked him to let the chalice pass. This no of God was actually in line with the “no’s” Jesus himself had said throughout his life: when people wanted to make him king, and he withdrew (John 6:14-15); when Peter wanted him to be kept from being killed, but he sharply rejected him (Mt 16:23); when Jesus was mocked and challenged to come down from the cross, and he did not “help himself” (Lc 23,35-37).

God knows us better than we ourselves. This is sometimes not easy to understand and to accept. When we believe that God loves us unconditionally, when we believe that whatever Jesus did, he did for the sake of the people and out of love for us, even when he said no, then we may believe, too, that a no from God is a gift.

Lord, you asked us to pray: Your will be done. This is what I ask for. You cannot say no to this request I guess? I believe that this is for my best.

Isn’t She Lovely?

“Isn’t she lovely?” Stevie Wonder sang, stunned by the birth of his first daughter, adoring her when he first saw her. “Isn’t she pretty? Isn’t she lovely made from love?” Looking at his baby made him proud and humble and happy. And he started to praise God: “I can’t believe what God has done. Through us He’s given life to one.” So it is true for every father and mother what the Psalm says:

“I will sing of your majesty above the heavens with the mouths of babes and infants.” (Psalm 8,2-3)

How fascinating that Wonder was inspired by his daughter to write this song. Isn’t that an incredible phenomenon that a parent can be inspired by his child? Honestly, I have never seen a parent who was not inspired by his child. And even if he would not love his own – something you can hardly imagine – he would still be inspired.

If it is true that God, the Father in heaven, is an even greater and more loving father, I dare to think that He also is inspired by the birth of each of his children. I dare to imagine that He, whose love is abundant, starts singing, full of happiness and love whenever a human is born: “Isn’t she lovely? Isn’t he lovely? Isn’t she wonderful? Isn’t he precious?” And he continues to sing.

That God not only created me, but that I also inspire him is breathtaking. It is his love that makes this possible. His love comes to completion when he sees us. I am lovely because I am made from love. The history of men and God has proven it. God did not just create us and throw us into this world. When He saw us “the first time”, he fell even more in love with us–so precious were we, so wonderful. Because of this he can never let go of us.

Lord, it touches me deeply to think you sing a love song for me like Stevie Wonder did for his daughter. I am precious to you. Nothing and nobody can cancel that out. Let me live in this love. Let me hear your song for me. The song of love you are singing for me.

Can I love the Church?

“Can I still love the Church?” I asked myself recently. Having been part of the Church for many years as priest and monk, the honeymoon of the first years is over. I have seen a lot, both good and bad. It probably is similar to any relationship. There are things in the Church I love and things I really do not. There are things that bother me and others that sustain me. There is, over and over again, the moment to forgive and the joy to be forgiven.

However, compared to the first fresh view of the Church with the dreams and vision I had for her; the love, beauty, justice, and protection I expected from her; and after many years and experiences, one can feel disillusioned. I see the need for change. I suffer from her weaknesses, from her habitual problems, in parts from her dysfunctionality. I suffer mostly from the potential for evangelization and charity that she is missing out on. Knowing well that I myself am weak, I wonder: Can I still love the Church?

One could answer with Saint Benedict: love the brothers/sisters – hate the failure. In that sense: Yes, it is possible to love the Church by loving the brothers and sisters. However, what if I cannot stand some of them anymore? What if I have a hard time to love all the Church’s brothers and sisters? Pondering in prayer this question, it came to me: yes, I can still love the Church because I love Christ, because the Church is the body of Christ. It is Christ whom we love in the brothers and sisters. Not their sins certainly, but Christ in them. Christ who is present in them. Christ who constantly looks out for the good in them. Who has promised to stay with us. We love the Church because we love Christ. That is what keeps us.

Perhaps we must go even deeper: Why do we love Christ? It is because he loves us. Because he loved us first. It is his constant loving gaze that draws us in. It is his profound unconditional love and respect for us that binds us. It is his trust in us that makes us follow him.

I found the answer: our love to the Church is a response to Christ’s love for us, for me.

Dear Lord, you promised to be with us always, until the end of the age. We trust your promise. Do not leave us, especially, when we are in difficult times. Your love for us is like a “first love”. It never withers. Continue to love us, Lord, and continue to bless your Church.

Good and meek eyes

We have been in quarantine for four weeks already in our monastery at Sant’Anselmo. The new situation is challenging for us, like for everybody during the Corona pandemic. However, all monks are still healthy, and that makes us grateful and humble.

Every day I learn something new. For example, I noticed that in a crisis like this things surface that we can hide in normal times. Usually, there are many ways of avoiding in a community. Now this is no longer possible. We are – one could say – naked. On one hand, new parts of us appear–new creativity, spontaneity, a sense of responsibility, a readiness to selfless giving and support. On the other hand, our weaknesses that we do not want others to see, lie bare. I believe every relationship has secrets and that does not destroy it. Maybe in contrary. Now, however, we are together continuously, and are left uncovered. We see ourselves as we are, more aware of our bad habits–emotions erupt, perhaps from ancient tensions that were latent, but with which we could deal. In a situation of stress, it becomes more difficult.

What are the remedies? It helps me to remind myself that God is looking at us with his good and mild eyes. This is what I am also supposed to do: be good with myself, good and patient and meek. But also, be good and patient with my neighbors–To not judge them, to be merciful with them, to forgive them for how they are.

In paradise, we were naked in God’s eyes, but we did not notice it. When we let us be looked at by him, in these days, we can discover a new and good way to treat each other.

Lord, look at me. If I don’t like to see myself, look at me. If I don’t like to see the others, look at them. Your heart is so much bigger than ours. Cleanse me during this time, make my heart wider, my eyes milder and my faith deeper. Forgive me as I forgive my neighbors.