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
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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!

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.

Truly Born to Be Wild

For a long time, I thought my last name “Wilde” meant “wild” in the sense of “not civilized, uncultivated, not domesticated, chaotic”. Only recently did I find out that in the German language “wild” originally signifies a “stranger”. People coming from unknown places were considered to be “wild”. Strangers, whose behavior, customs, language, traditions, were not familiar and did not match with accustomed expectations. Monks are born to be wild. “You should become a stranger to the world’s ways [Saeculi actibus se facere alienum]”, says St. Benedict in his Rule. And he adds the reason: “The love of Christ must come before all else.” (Rule of St. Benedict 4:20-21). He is pretty outspoken; he disqualifies those who are “still loyal to the world by their actions; they clearly lie to God by their tonsure.” (Rule 1:7).

Well, I don’t have my hair tonsured, but I wear a habit. So, lying is possible. How can I be wild? How can I become a stranger to this world? I am part of this world!  I realize how much energy I spend to be up-to-date, to go with the trend, to stay assimilated, to keep up with what is expected from me. Jesus words instead sound like a warm invitation to trust the roots I have in heaven. “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” (John 18:36), he says, and draws the consequence for us, his disciples: “They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world.” (John 17:18). Jesus came as stranger and became our best friend.

It still frightens me a little bit. The first monks were wild; so were the prophets. The Saints were wild, like St. Jerome. Jesus was wild. I admire them and know that I am far away from this freedom and wildness. But I hear their call. I feel that everybody is truly born to be wild, not only monks.

Christ, help me to be wild. Take away from me the fear not to be like the others. Let me enjoy that I am different and strengthen in me the awareness that I come from God. Get me away from all that is clinging to me, from everything I am too much attached to. Give me the courage to enter the wilderness and stay there. And open my heart to my true call.

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Paolo Caliari (1585/90) – Saint Jerome in the wilderness