Sink Deep Roots

3714072103_fdb1cdb23d_zI was blessed last week to have a few days at Belmont Abbey in North Carolina. Belmont is the Abbey where I am an oblate, but for various reasons I have not been there on retreat for some time.

It was great to be back.

In the midst of all the change and turmoil in our world it was a wonderful balm to spend a few days with the Benedictines. As I walked down the monastic corridor I thought of all the monasteries I have visited since my first visit to Douai Abbey in the Lent of 1980.

In each one of them I connected with a culture, a spirituality and a life that transcends our own age, culture and the worries and fears of our age.

When you visit a Benedictine monastery you are connecting with a life, a philosophy and a wisdom that is 1500 years old and which has stood the test of time.

I went feeling confused, dismayed, upset and stressed about various things: the state of our Catholic Church, the constant fighting not only between liberal and conservative Catholics, but amongst conservative Catholics themselves. I was stressed and annoyed by the disastrous and ludicrous American presidential election. I was stressed and confused about some personal issues that are (ultimately) transitory.

While there I connected with the one thing that really matters: as St Benedict says, “To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.”

I came home determined to blog again, and to use what little insights and wisdom I might have to help others see past the fleeting confusion and fear of this present time and to put their roots deep into their Catholic faith, into the love of God and neighbor and to move forward with the words of Pope St John Paul II in mind:

“Do not be afraid! Open Wide the Doors to Christ!”

Learning Lectio Divina


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Monk_Reading_Book_1Lectio Divina, or Holy Reading, is a wonderful, monastic contribution to spirituality. It combines two aspects of the threefold Benedictine life of Work, Prayer and Reading.

When we participate in Lectio Divina we pray and read. We read and pray. The essential idea is that we read the sacred Scriptures not critically or even to gather information, but so that the Word of God might be a bridge into the presence of God.

There are four stages to this devotional discipline which were first outlined in the twelfth century by a Carthusian monk named Guigo.

The first stage is leggere “Reading”. We use a short passage of Scripture and simply read it slowly. It is fine to use the gospel reading from Mass for the day or to use the Scripture passage from the Office of Readings or to work you way slowly through a particular book of the Bible.

Because we are so quick to speed read, some people use techniques to slow them down. Reading the passage out loud our mouthing the words slows your reading. Some people trace the words with their fingers on the page to slow down.

The second stage is meditare “Meditate”. In this stage we take time to ponder the passage explicitly–imagining what the scene was like, asking questions in our mind about the passage and ruminating on its message and how it might connect with our lives and our prayer intentions.

The third stage is pregare “Prayer”. Now we allow our hearts to turn to the Lord in prayer, prompted by the passage. If the passage is challenging to us we ask the Lord for further insights. If it prompts prayer requests or needs in our lives or those for whom we pray, we allow the passage to lead us into prayer.

The final stage is contemplare “Contemplation”. In this stage we open into the silence and stillness of God’s presence. We simply remain with him and he with us. In this way the truths of the Scripture penetrate and enter into the world beyond words. In contemplation the Word moves us beyond the words.


Why the Psalms?



Benedictine Monks Singing the Psalms

Benedictine Monks Singing the Psalms

Even a quick look at the monastic life will reveal how important the psalms are to the spiritual life.

In choir, singing the psalms is the major part of the Divine Office. In some monasteries  in the Middle Ages the monks would work their way through all 150 psalms in a week. In most places the majority of the psalms are sung through in a month.

Priest and deacons are still required to recite the Divine Office, and when the whole office is said–even in its modern abbreviated form we recite fifteen psalms a day: the Invitatory, three at the Office of Readings, three at Matins, three at Mid Day Prayer and three at Vespers and two at Compline.

Is this just to fill the time? Of course not. The psalms give us words for worship. We want to “pray without ceasing” but we lack the words. We run out of things to say and the psalms are just the words we need.

The psalms are not only the inspired word of God, but they are also the words of men, and they are not only the intellectual thoughts of men or the inspiring ideas of men. They are words of worship, words of prayer, words of supplication, words of anguish–all from the heart. The psalms are therefore important because they are one of the key ways for our faith to make the long journey from the head to the heart.

When we recite or sing the psalms our heart opens to God, and we step past the worries of the world to open not just our minds to the Lord in thought and logic, but also we open our hearts to God who’s sacred heart is always open to us.

St Mary Magdalene and Vezelay

The-Repentant-St-Mary-Magdalene-1617-21Today it was announced that the memorial of St Mary Magdalene is to be raised to a Feast in the Church’s calendar.

The ancient legend from the Eastern Church, and recorded by St Gregory of Tours in the 8th century suggests that Mary Magdalene retired to Ephesus with the Blessed Virgin and died there. However later traditions told how Mary Magdalene went to Provence in France and spent the rest of her days as a penitential hermit. From Wikipedia:

The French tradition of Saint Lazarus of Bethany is that Mary, her brother Lazarus, and Maximinus, one of the Seventy Disciples and some companions, expelled by persecutions from the Holy Land, traversed the Mediterranean in a frail boat with neither rudder nor mast and landed at the place called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer near Arles. Mary Magdalene came to Marseille and converted the whole of Provence. Magdalene is said to have retired to a cave on a hill by Marseille, La Sainte-Baume (“holy cave” baumo in Provençal), where she gave herself up to a life of penance for thirty years. When the time of her death arrived she was carried by angels to Aix and into the oratory of Maximinus, where she received the viaticum; her body was then laid in an oratory constructed by St. Maximinus at Villa Lata, afterwards called St. Maximin.[

St. Mary Magdalene’s relics were first venerated at the Abbey of la Madaleine, Vézelay in Burgundy from about 1050.[71] Jacobus de Voragine gives the common account of the transfer of the relics of Mary Magdalene from her sepulchre in the oratory of Saint Maximin at Aix-en-Provence to the newly founded Vézelay;[72] the transportation of the relics is entered as undertaken in 771 by the founder of the abbey, identified as Gerard, Duke of Burgundy.[54] The earliest mention of this episode is the notice of the chronicler Sigebert of Gembloux (died 1112), who asserts that the relics were removed to Vézelay through fear of the Saracens.



The great abbey church of St Mary Magdalene at Vezelay is a marvel of Romanesque architecture. In the ninth century Charles the Bald gave land to the Benedictines to build a monastery and the great church crowns the hilltop and is surrounded by the town of Vezelay. The relics of St Mary Magdalene can still be venerated there today.

Vezelay Abbey Church

Vezelay Abbey Church

One of the features of the church are the carved tympanum over the West doors and the carved capitals. The carving over the main door features Christ enthroned in glory as the Great Judge. It was one of the inspirations for the tympanum art over the West door of the new church of Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville.




Elijah at Horeb


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elijah2I see that the Suburban Hermit has been silent since the middle of February.

Readers have asked, “What has happened to the Suburban Hermit? Have you closed that blog?”

The answer is that I have been very busy and have been feeling for some time that my writing is going in a different direction, but I’m not sure exactly where. Suburban Hermit was started last Fall for the same reason.

Anyway, should people be surprised that a hermit is, well, eremitical? A hermit is not supposed to be talkative you know!!

Just kidding. Sorry not more has been done here. Now over the summer things are a bit quieter, so perhaps Suburban Hermit will get back to blogging a bit

What has prompted this post it today’s Mass reading of Elijah in the cave on Mt Horeb–the mountain of the Lord. This is probably my most favorite Bible passage from the Old Testament.

At the mountain of God, Horeb,
Elijah came to a cave, where he took shelter.
But the word of the LORD came to him,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.
A voice said to him, “Elijah, why are you here?”
He replied, “I have been most zealous for the LORD,
the God of hosts.
But the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant,
torn down your altars,
and put your prophets to the sword.
I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.”
The LORD said to him,
“Go, take the road back to the desert near Damascus.
When you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king of Aram.
Then you shall anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi, as king of Israel,
and Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah,
as prophet to succeed you.”

The Cave of Elijah on Horeb

The Cave of Elijah on Horeb

What I love about this is that Horeb–the mountain of God–is also the site where God appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush and where the Ten Commandments were given. We often think of that site as Sinai, but “Sinai” is better named as the region where this mountain is, although the mountain itself is also called Sinai.

God appears at the Burning Bush to reveal that his name is I AM–he is the source of Being itself and IS Being itself. Then at Horeb in the thunder, smoke and fire the Ten Commandments are given and God shields Moses from his glory. When Elijah goes there however, God is NOT in the earthquake, wind and fire, but in the still, small voice.

There in the silence the same God who gave the Ten Commandments and revealed himself as the ground of all Being comes in a personal and intimate way in the moment of contemplation. He is there in the timeless moment out of time. He is there whispering, “Be Still and Know that I AM God.” Thus Elijah is the forerunner of all contemplative prayer. He is the Father of Eucharistic Adoration.

That’s why Elijah is the forerunner and father of the whole monastic movement. He is the inspiration for the first desert fathers who went out into the same harsh Egyptian desert to find God in the caves of glory. He is the inspiration for the Carmelite order founded on Mt Carmel. Down through the whole monastic tradition from the Eastern Fathers to Benedict, Bruno and the Carthusians, the Camaldolese and the rest, Fr Elijah is the man.

The Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai

The Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai

The holy mountain can still be visited today. At its base is the ancient monastery of St Catherine of Sinai. I went there during my great pilgrimage in 1987 when I hitchhiked from England to Jerusalem. I climbed the mountain, beginning late in the afternoon and found a cave to sleep in half way  up. The next morning I joined another group of pilgrims to climb to the top of the Holy Mountain for sunrise.

It’s a wonderful tradition which connects you even today with Moses, the burning bush, the reception of the law of God and Elijah, the cave,and  the still small, voice of love.

Penitential Progress is Pendular



A-Monk lentThe American Alpha Achievement culture sells us the idea that success should be one quick upward spiral from glory to glory until we are the perfectly successful person with a perfect tan, perfect teeth, perfect hair, perfect body, perfect bank account, perfect spouse, perfect kids, perfect house (or maybe two or three houses) perfect everything.

Well think again. The spiritual recipe for success doesn’t look like that. It has at its heart authenticity and simplicity. The challenge is to be real even if imperfect for a time and the perfection we seek is the perfection of the person, the completion of the soul, the wholeness of a body, mind and spirit created in God’s image, but in need of restoration and reconciliation.

The path to that reconciliation and restoration is pendular. Progress is pendular.

What do I mean? Well, think of a pendulum in one of those old grandfather clocks. Back and forth it swings.

So it is with the spiritual life. We advance in prayer and penitence. Then we relapse. We stumble into sin. We are frail and we fail, but to repeat a truism, “It does not matter how often you fall, it matters how often you get up.”

The teachers of the Eastern Church say that a soul is never closer to God than when he turns in true contrition to the Lord. At that point the soul flies upward with speedy flight.

So progress towards God is two steps forward, one step back. Three steps forward, two steps back. Four steps forward, three steps back.

This is why we must never be discouraged by our failures and never be distressed by our seeming lack of success. As long as we get up again and return to God’s mercy, then our fall has been another learning experience and our heart’s orientation towards him has been confirmed not by our tragic fall, but by our graced return.


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