He rejoices in me—really?

It was a usual Wednesday morning. I was half awake, half asleep while I was saying prayers. All of a sudden, one verse strikes me:

“As a bridegroom rejoices in his bride
so shall your God rejoice in you.” Isaiah 62:5

I think how beautiful that is! I have witnessed bridegrooms rejoicing in their brides and brides rejoicing in their grooms. Such freshness of love! How beautiful it is when somebody rejoices in me, when it gives another joy to see me.

Then I am looking at myself, thinking: it was 33 years ago that I entered the monastery with butterflies in my stomach. But now? Not so much. At least while I am praying, I succeed in lifting up this longing to God, although I feel myself far away from this state. I share with God that I would like to be loved this way again, as the prophet Isaiah says: God rejoices in me. I want to feel it, to experience it, while knowing that all spiritual and mystic traditions say that experiencing and feeling it is not as important as believing in it. I end my prayers by starting my daily work and schedule with a new kind of curiosity: Would I see God today, in fact, rejoicing in me, in my being?

I was surprised how my day changed with this simple prayerful question! I felt peace, I felt joy. I saw good things happening around me. I did not pay too much attention to the bad things. It is a truth: God is happy with me and he rejoices in my being—and that changes everything. Often we don’t like ourselves—and for good reasons. Still, God loves each of us, and is happy to see us, to have us around him, to talk with us.

Lord, don’t let me forget how much you love me. “You did not choose me, but I chose you”, I hear you saying (John 15:16). I don’t know how I merit this kind of love—but it just fills my heart with great joy, serenity, and gratitude.

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I Will Wake the Dawn

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“I will sing and chant praise.  Awake, my soul; awake, lyre and harp!
I will wake the dawn.” Psalm 57:8-9

This is a bold claim—to wake the dawn. As if the dawn would not get up by itself. As if it would not wake me.

How do I feel in the morning? Sometimes full of joy and looking forward to the day’s events; sometimes worried and concerned, often just tired. For some of us the dawn is a relief because we could not sleep well.

In order to wake the dawn, I have to be up before the dawn. I have to be awake before the sun even wakes me. It is bold because as humans, we are part of nature and mother sun is huge and powerful. To be ahead even of her is an amazing thing.

The Psalm seems to point directly to Jesus Christ. The women discovered His rising from the dead “as the day was dawning.” This discovery, the resurrection of the Lord, brought a new light to their life that changed everything. It was truly a dawn of a new life. But when they discovered the empty tomb and the angel sitting there, the Lord was already risen. That means He had risen before the dawn. It means He is greater than the sun and moon; he is even before the sun. He is the true sun. He is the true light.

When we get up very early in the morning, when we wake the dawn – with our praise, with our joy –  we join the Lord. We can sense something of this new, everlasting, imperishable life. We are filled with joy because Jesus is even stronger than day and night, stronger than life and death. In Him all of this was created and finds its fulfillment.

Dear Lord, when I am tired and not motivated to wake up, let me think of you. You are ahead of me. You are ahead of this day, so I know that everything will be good. Let me be close to you. Let me be with you at the place where you have been even before all life was born. You give me a light and a life that cannot be destroyed, by no one and by nothing. Let my singing and chanting be an expression of this joy. Let me get up early. Let me wake the dawn.

Foolish Fears

During the summer months, we Benedictines here at Sant’Anselmo in Rome sometimes change the language of our prayers. We pray in English instead of Latin or Italian as we usually do because we have many international guests. The change of language always brings new discoveries and findings as I pray. Recently at our morning office when we chanted the hymn “As daylight fills the morning sky”, one sentence struck me. It goes:

May angry words and foolish fears
Be exorcised by heartfelt tears.

My attention was raised by the “foolish fears”. I was thinking: Yes, fears, for a Christian, are always foolish. Why should we be afraid? Of whom should we be afraid? “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?” says St. Paul (Rom 8:35). And he continues: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39).

If we look at Christ soberly, calmly, trustingly, there is no reason for us to be afraid. God is with us, he is in us; he has died for us and freed us from the slavery of sin and death. How could he give us more? How could he have proven more that he loves us? So, I tell my fears: “Yes, you fears that creep up once in a while upon me: Know that you are foolish. I don’t need you.” Of course, when we look with concerns on what is going on in the world: we might have some fears. I am not saying that there are no justified fears. Sometimes they function to warn us or to bring us the right energy level, for example, stage fright. Still, in the end, fears are foolish if we deeply trust in God. In his presence, our fears vanish. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31)

Lord, I place myself right in the middle of your presence. Let me be bold in trusting you. Fear is not a Christian’s business. Instead courage, freedom in word and deed, and trust are fruits of your spirit. Any other spirits are foolish. Let me always live in this spirit. Let me set my foot on the water, as you have called me to do.

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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)

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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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!