Lent begins. The Church observes Lent as a time for spiritual renewal. What does that mean? Spiritual renewal means that you and I recommit ourselves to seeking God, to obeying God, to doing His will lovingly in our service of one another. The traditional three foremost means for spiritual renewal during Lent are prayer, fasting, and giving of charity to the needy. On fasting you either know and understand by now, or choose not to take it seriously. Almsgiving or charity to neighbor includes not only financial contributions, but looking for ways to help the needy, and offering acts of kindness to all—especially towards those whom we naturally may not like. They are our brothers and sisters, too.
On prayer, practices include attentively sharing in the Eucharist (Mass); listening to God and speaking heart to heart; praying various devotions (such as the rosary or the stations of the cross); sitting still in the presence of God; and spiritual reading. This Lent, I have chosen to emphasize the importance of spiritual reading (lectio divina, divine reading) in the everyday lives of the faithful. Why do spiritual reading? To nourish your mind; to increase your appreciation for the truth, goodness, and beauty of God; to move you to love God more as the Beginning and End of all things; to increase your faith in God as your Lord and Savior; and to help you to know more truly and to walk more faithfully on the path of life.
What should you read this Lent to nourish you in God? First, I am asking all parishioners to read selected chapters from the book of Exodus, the work that for many centuries has been the foremost book for spiritual reading in the Church during Lent. To these I add some chapters from Deuteronomy. And with each week I add one or several short Psalms for your prayerful reading. Remember that the Psalms are the foremost prayerbook of Israel, and of the Church. Be attentive! Here are your assigned readings for the 6 weeks of Lent:
Week 1: Exodus chapters 1-5; Psalm 90
Week 2: Exodus chapters 6-13; Psalm 1
Week 3: Exodus chapters 14-20; Psalms 113-115
Week 4: Exodus chapters 21-24; and Exodus 32-34; Psalm 136.
Week 5: Deuteronomy chapters 4-7; Psalm 105
Week 6: Deuteronomy chapters 8-11; Psalm 106
In addition, for those attending our adult faith class that meets Sundays at Holy Trinity, Centerville, immediately after Mass (and includes a pot-luck meal), I request that each of us choose an additional book to read closely during Lent. Some recommendations would include: the Confessions of St. Augustine; the Proslogion of St. Anselm; Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales; the Story of a Soul by St. Thérèse of Lisieux (St. Theresa, the “Little Flower”). Each of these 4 books is a masterpiece of the human spirit, each written by a faithful, loving, gifted Catholic saint. Or, you may find another book which interests you and turns your thoughts and attention towards God. That is the point of spiritual reading: to immerse oneself more fully in the Presence of the living God.
May this Lent be a season of grace for you. Make good the gift.
In writing these brief meditation-memos, I have usually avoided including much personal material, although I use some of my life-experiences to illustrate more general points in homilies. On this occasion I reverse the process: discussion of my vocations may be too difficult for some to hear in homilies, so I sketch it out here, rather than in a homily. My purpose is to explain to parishioners something few apparently understand, because of lack of experience with Benedictines monks (men and women): the nature of the monastic vocation is strongly different from the call to be a priest in the Church. If this memo fails to clarify my vocational situation for you, let me know and I shall write a longer version and post it on our website.
We all have multiple vocations from God, not just one. To focus on a single vocation is naive and misleading. Our foremost and common vocation is to become what we have been created to be: happy, virtuous, fulfilled, engaged human beings, who find our ultimate completion in God alone. Furthermore, some have a calling as men, some as women. Most human beings find considerable personal fulfillment in being married and raising loving children. Furthermore, our natural abilities and interests point to having other vocations. In my case, I have long been interested in learning and in teaching; in music, photography, literature; in philosophy and in spiritual life. We also share the vocation to be men and women in Christ Jesus, and to live out this calling as faithful Catholics.
I have two additional vocations which have been highly significant in my life: I have been called by Christ and by a Benedictine community to live as a monk until death; and my abbot chose me to serve, at least at times, as a priest for the community, and in the larger church. Repeatedly I have learned that even life-time Catholics do not understand the monastic vocation; many consider it invalid, escapist, or inhuman. The essence of the Benedictine monastic calling is to seek God in community. We take three vows: obedience to the Rule of St. Benedict and to our abbot; stability of life as a monk until death; and a life of ongoing conversion to Christ. To seek God means that one truly trusts and acts as though “my happiness is in You alone.” Monks forsake marriage, family life, property. The vocation of priests is to serve parish families, helping to lead people to God. Priests keep their earthly families, are attached to place, may inherit and own property. In brief, whereas monks are called to seek God in prayer and study, Catholic priests are called to active ministry. They are very different and even conflicting vocations. Every monk who is a priest knows well the conflict, and seeks to find the right balance in his life.
Let me be practical. I entered St. Anselm’s Abbey in 1982 to seek God. With chaplains needed for the Gulf War, I entered the Navy in 1991, and since then, have been a fully-engaged parish priest. My life as a Benedictine monk was not negated, but was at least partially suspended. Active ministry has left much less time for study and contemplation. As I approach retirement from active ministry, my monastic vocation returns to the fore. My abbot has chosen to restore my status as an active member of our monastery. As such, I am obligated to spend generous hours in prayer, study, and meditation every day, as well as do some manual work. Most of the monks of our monastery share in some pastoral ministry, including writing, teaching, preaching, care of the sick, and so on.
When I retire on 1 July, I will no longer be a parish priest, nor am I a diocesan priest. I will return to full-time status as a Benedictine monk. I may on occasion preach in public, or offer a Mass, but my main form of teaching and preaching will take the form of writing. To write, I must meditate and study. To these ends, I will considerably reduce my social life, as Benedictine monks live a life of relative seclusion from the world, from business, from socializing. I am not leaving the planet, but please understand if I decline opportunities to socialize or to minister in public. Please understand: I am not a diocesan priest, but a man who vowed himself to seek God in prayer, study, and contemplation. This vocation requires large amounts of time in solitude. With the help of God, I will live out my Benedictine vocation until death.