The great monastery of Monte Oliveto–nestled in the hills of Tuscany just South of the city of Siena.
I visited there on my 1987 hitch hiking pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and re-visited last summer on a trip to Italy.
I hitch hiked from England to Jerusalem staying in monasteries all along the route.
As I walked I prayed and as I prayed I was healed. I won’t go into the details, but God was cleaning house, and to do a really thorough house clean you have to move the furniture, throw out the trash, salvage the treasures and restore order.
Walking and praying and then staying in monasteries was the balm I needed, and I learned many things, but here is one:
In a world of fugitives the one who is heading home will seem to be running away.
We live in a world of fugitives. The majority of people live shallow lives on purpose. They do not want to examine life. They do not want to ask the important questions. They want to be entertained. They want to blot out the world with the sedatives of drink, drugs, food, sex, possessions, power, prestige and pleasure.
If you feel like the urge to get away, to hunker down, to be still, to be alone is weird and you are some kind of an odd ball, then take heart.
In a world of fugitives, the one who is heading home will seem to be running away.
In other words dare to be different. Dare to be who God created you to be, and you will only find who that person is by spending time alone. The pilgrimage is always solitary, but the pilgrim is never alone.
You are never alone on the pilgrimage because God and all the other invisible pilgrims are with you. By “invisible pilgrims” I mean that “great cloud of witnesses” that surround us. When you are alone you can connect with the saints and angels.
If you are reading this, then don’t forget today to pray. Spend time alone with the One. To remind you, here is a little word play/poem I wrote about contemplation years ago.
Be Still and Know That I AM God
Be Still and Know That I AM
Be Still and Know
Seriously, what I said to my wife was, “Can’t we just pull out, leave, check out, unplug, get a cabin in the mountains where I will have you, my books, a fireplace, a dog and a view. I should have been a monk.”
This desire to get away from it all is good, and I’m not just saying that because I’m an introvert. We try to fulfill this desire to get away from it all by taking a vacation, traveling, escaping in some way. These things are good, but they don’t ultimately satisfy.
That’s because the desire to get away from it all, to retire, to head for the hills or the beach–this is simply the deeper desire to get away from this world and get closer to God.
Have you thought about it? Why do we like the beach? It’s not really the girls in bikinis and the boy on surfboards. Its not really the sun, the sand and the surf. We love the beach because we are close to the endless sea. Its the horizon we long for. It’s the land beyond the end of the world that we gaze upon.
And why do we love the mountains? Its not just the fresh air, the trees, the calm of nature and the joy of being free. It is also because, from time immemorial the mountains have been the holy places. They are the uppermost parts where heaven meets earth and we want to climb up and be there to be closer to God.
So do not despise your contemplative spirit. It is good and right to want to get away from it all. You can do this–you must do this each day as you light the candles, gather the books, kneel in your own holy place and pray.
There, until the day when you can get away from it all for good, you will find peace.
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!”
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.
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.