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.

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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.

Don't be afraid

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

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.

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!

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.

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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)

 

 

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

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.