Category Archives: Chapter Talks (Public)

Chapter Talk – Fr. Michael Casagram – August 2, 2020 – Prayer as the Path to Knowing our Deepest Selves


Recently I have been going through a book by a Fr Luigi Gioia, a Benedictine monk on prayer called Say It To God. I would like to share a few of his reflections with you this morning. In one of the chapters he speaks of “A Presence We Discover in Us’ and writes of how “the Lord himself opens a space for prayer in our hearts. He invites us there, to be alone with him, to find rest in him: ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ He awakes in us a longing to see our life centered on him.”

So much of prayer is really about coming to know ourselves as made for God, how restless we are, as St Augustine told us long ago, until we rest in God. Most of us live daily with a paradox for “there is something in us that feels uneasy with prayer and shies away from it, that repeatedly finds excuses for putting it off to another day.” One cannot help but wonder why this is the case, what it is that makes us even as religious, to run from what is true to our own deepest longing?

Jesus tells us, as you well remember from John’s gospel, how “the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”(Jn 4:23) Prayer is meant to be the hub of our lives, something we are called to do all day long as though the most natural thing in the world. Gioia goes so far as to say “prayer is.. not only the thing our soul desires but also that which all humanity, indeed the whole of creation, desperately need.”

Many of us in our world today have become increasingly aware of how much humanity and all creation groans “in travail” as we face the spread of the virus, have been given fresh awareness of how racism affects our society, the growing consequences of climate change that seems to threaten the future of human life on our planet. More than ever, we are experiencing the wisdom of St Paul that “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… in the hope that it will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (8:20-21)  We are all we want to be when we live as God’s very own children.

Prayer in this sense, is the most natural thing in the world, what our heavenly Father wants and expects more than anything from us. Continual prayer is the gift of our heavenly Father. The constant longing that arises from deep down within, is this pull coming from our heavenly Father. Jesus reminded us long ago that no one comes to him “unless the Father draws him.” This is as Gioia points out, “the living water that Jesus promised will rise in the hearts of those who believe in him… It is the deepestvoice of our heart that coincides with the voice of the Spirit within us that cries out Abba, Father.

God looks to those who worship in spirit and in truth. To have access, however to this deepest part of our hearts may have surprising results. When faced with it, we all too easily become rebellious, closed or resistant when God draws near to open our deeper selves so as to free them from all forms of self-centeredness or inner resistance. Gioia would have us venture to the root of our inner struggle with prayer, have us look at what may be difficult to face in our prayer life. For him, to plumb the depths of our hearts takes a lot of nerve. As he puts it:

“The tragedy is that our heart is at odds with ourselves too, it blames us too; as John says in his letter: our heart condemns us.” (1 Jn 3:20)

This means that trying to penetrate our heart, trying to get in touch with the deepest part of our soul, with our spirit, can be rather unappealing. It is like going back into a prison, a gloomy space closed and bolted in which we have shut ourselves, prisoners of a voice that accuses and blames us. We are locked in our hearts exactly as were the trembling disciples, who stayed huddled behind closed doors before the resurrection of Jesus: ‘the doors of the place where they had met were locked for fear of the Jewish leaders.’ (Jn 20:19) Fear was the key that locked their door, the same fear that keeps us hidden today behind our inner walls.”

Gioia goes on to point out how religiosity is of no help when we find ourselves behind these inner walls and it only makes them thicker. “There is a certain familiarity with Scripture, with prayers, in short, with religion, that can make us impervious to the action of the Lord.” While reading the scriptures it does not take us long to realize that, while his first disciples surrounded him and walked with him day after day, they had an awful time comprehending what he was trying to bring home to them.

The Scribes and Pharisees often quoted scripture to him but completely missed the good news he was trying to share with them. His disciples “could live side by side with Jesus and yet remain fearful and of little faith.” At such times we may begin to believe that God is powerless, distant or has abandoned us.

Strangely enough it is exactly at such times as these that we learn to truly become men of prayer. Faced with our utter poverty and inadequacy, our faith opens the door to God’s own generous gift of the Spirit. Through a humble and simple trust in the living God, who knows our weakness and inner struggle far better than we do, our spirit becomes united with God’s own. It is then that our spirit becomes one with the Holy Spirit who prays within us with sighs too deep for words.

Chapter Talk, Lectio Divina, Fr. Michael Casagram 3/1/20

+Lectio Divina, An Ancient Art                            Chapter Talk, 1 March, 2020

The morning I thought to offer a few reflections on the art of Lectio Divina in view of having distributed our Lenten books. Being faithful to our Lenten reading provides us with the opportunity to enter into a deeper communion with the living God. I thought to draw on some reflections presented by Fr Luke Dysinger, OSB who gave some talks to the community a few years ago. Also I’m going to put out in the Scriptorium a couple copies of two Chapter talks Fr Elias gave on this subject back in August of 2004. Having talked to him on the phone last Friday, he is fine with this.

Fr Luke Dysinger tells us that:

“This ancient practice [of Lectio Divina] has been kept alive in the Christian monastic tradition, and is one of the precious treasures of Benedictine monastics and oblates. Together with the Liturgy and daily manual labor, time set aside in a special way for lectio divina enables us to discover in our daily life an underlying spiritual rhythm.”

It enables not only to discover, let me suggest, but find delight in and maintain a healthy spiritual rhythm in our daily lives. In the early centuries of monastic life Lectio Divina meant contemplative praying with the Scriptures or Bible only but today it has come to include commentaries on the Word of God or any spiritual writing that conveys the truth of our Christian faith as exemplified by the books just given out to each of you. Whatever the inspired Word we expose ourselves to, what allows it to be truly divine are the inner dispositions of our hearts.

Dysinger goes on to say:

“The art of lectio divina begins with cultivating the ability to listen deeply, to hear ‘with the ear of our hearts” as St Benedict encourages us in the Prologue to the Rule. When we read the Scriptures [or the book we have chosen for this season] we should try to imitate the prophet Elijah. We should allow ourselves to become like those who are able to listen for the still, small voice of God (1 Kings 19:12); the “faint murmuring sound” which is God’s word for us, God’s voice touching our hearts. This gentle listening is an “atunement” to the presence of God in that special part of God’s creation which is the Scriptures.

This careful attentiveness or listening leads in turn to ruminating, to reflecting deeply on the words we hear interiorly as spoken to us. It is very much like Mary’s “pondering in her heart” what she saw and heard, allowing it to interact with our thoughts, hopes, memories and desires. Inevitably, this will also take us deeper into prayer where we struggle to truly live whatever is asked of us by the Word. To do so, is to become interiorly transformed.

This in turn will bring us to a contemplative experience, where to use a final quote from Dysinger:

“We simply rest in the presence of the One who has used His word as a means of inviting us to accept His transforming embrace. No one who has ever been in love needs to be reminded that there are moments in loving relationships when words are unnecessary. It is the same in our relationship with God.”

This is where our lives are oriented, the awareness we long for all our lives. All that is asked is that we give it the time, the inner discipline and attentiveness necessary for grace to work.

Chapter Talk – Fr. Michael Casagram – The Grace of Community 2/2/20

+THE GRACE OF COMMUNITY                                                          Chapter Talk 2 Feb. 2020

In recent years there has been a growing sense of the value of community as the means of providing ambient or support for human growth and maturity. As a starting point, I thought to draw on Michael Casey’s treatment of the subject in this book GRACE, On the Journey to God. The topic deserves two or three sessions so I will touch on a few aspects of it here.

Casey begins by drawing on the thought of a professor of psychology, Nicholas Humphrey, who shows how:

“the emergence of creative intelligence in human beings correlates with community living… This is because essential tasks are shared, there is more leisure, more time to think of creative solutions, the possibility of pooling knowledge and experience, the possibility of collaboration on tasks too great for one, and the incremental growth of knowledge from one generation to the next.”

Again and again in recent years I have heard of how the young are in search of authentic community. Communication has greatly increased with the growth of modern technology but this does not necessary mean that it provides the caring and loving atmosphere in which the young are able to humanly grow and reach maturity. This I suspect is not just the case for the young but is the crying need of all who are searching for creative solutions for their own inner growth and the urgent issues of our time such as the effects of climate change, the growing divide between the rich and poor, the rising occurrence of violence in our society etc.

Pope Francis has often reminded us of the value of applying the gospel to our everyday lives, of carrying the gospel into our places of work and family life. For us living the monastic way vocation this means applying the Good News to every aspect of our lives. The Word of God to which we are exposed all day long is to resonate in us wherever we may be and especially in our relationships throughout the day.

This will inevitably demand some renunciation on our part both externally and internally. As Casey says of the newcomer to our life:

The recruit is required to abandon components of the lifestyle that was previously followed.. [like] relinquishing some of their opportunities for social media. Internally, there are other more fundamental demands: adopting means appropriate to the common goal of the group, cultivating appropriate beliefs and values, having a different attitude to sexuality, .. to authority, .. to self-assertion, others. Underlying all this is the challenge of being open to the mystery of an invisible world, where the rules and expectations current in ambient society are not always relevant.

There is a renunciation that continues throughout our monastic life. While this demands a lot of detachment, it is inspired and sought after because of a religious experience that has taken place in our lives. St. Gregory the Great pointed this out long ago. We are in search of God because we have been deeply touched by a divine initiative. We became willing to give up whatever because of something far superior having taken hold of us. The surrender may demand more than we ever thought possible at the beginning of our monastic lives, but with faith we are able to stay the course. Its end is eternal life in a divine embrace.

A lot of things may change over the years but there is real value in recalling from time to time what inspired our undertaking of this way of life.  God’s grace never falters, what moved us in our early years gathers momentum, penetrating every  aspect of our lives, some of which we only gradually become aware of. While this will be challenging, perhaps even threatening at times, it becomes wonderfully liberating as we allow God’s own love to heal all our wounds. We in turn, become messengers of healing love to all those around us.

Casey writes that:

“Because Western culture is individualistic and other cultures are fast becoming so, most of us have been formed in this way… The opposite of individualism is mutuality: living in the context of others. When individualism yields to mutuality, selfishness is replaced by sensitivity, conflict is replaced by harmony, stalemate is replaced by dialogue, obstinacy is replaced by adaptability, aggression is replaced by patience, withdrawal is replaced by participation, dysphoria is replaced by euphoria. Of course, this beautiful state is not achieved effortlessly; it demands a lot of self-denial on the part of all.”

What inspired so many of us in coming to the monastery is, I believe, this very desire to practice self-denial, confident that it would unite us to the living God. Community life gives us countless opportunities to do this very thing and as we do, we can be sure it will guide us to our desired goal, a participation in God’s own Trinitarian life.

Chapter talk 11/17/19 – Br. Godric Begins his Novitiate

This morning our postulant Danny received the novice habit and this is the talk Fr Elias gave after Fr. Michael read from the  RB chapter 58:1-8


Sunday Chapter, November 17, 2019

Br. Godric Begins his Novitiate

Text: RB 58.1-8:

“…Let him be shown all the hard and rugged things through which we pass on to God.”

This last statement is the key to understanding the whole of the process of entrance and formation. First of all, we must be sure to hear it correctly: it does not say that we go to God despite hard and bitter things or that we go to God by merely putting up with unpleasant experiences; it says that we go to God precisely through such things. It might be considered a paraphrase of Jesus’ word in the gospel: “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life” (Mt 7:14).

Formation is not about conveying some sort of secret or hidden wisdom to newcomers. It has more to do with reminding brothers of the Christian way. We come to the monastery to live out the gospel, which is only possible if we are willing to go through the narrow gate.

Does the novice truly seek God?, Benedict asks. The answer to this question is not something to be gleaned from conversation about motivations and convictions. The answer is to be observed in practice. Are there visible signs that this brother knows what the narrow gate is and that he consistently chooses it over easier or more attractive possibilities?

The criteria Benedict mentions are both wide-ranging and specific: eagerness for the Work of God, for obedience, and for trials. The Work of God, specifically means the liturgy in church, but zeal for it means much more than just showing up on time. Since the Work of God itself is based on the conviction that God is present everywhere, the signs to look for here are whether the brother’s life is shaped by prayer. As the Rule teaches, to place nothing before the Work of God is an outward expression of the more important inner choice to place nothing before Christ. In a way, the narrow gate, in the monastic context, is the totality of the community’s customs. Seen as a whole, they are hard work and a bitter pill, but, seen up close, they are small, manageable practices to be chosen over and over again day after day and year after year.

If Benedict mentions obedience here, it is because this way of life constantly challenges the will. How important is what I want, and how powerful is the force of my self-will? The surest practices here are to allow the bell to determine one’s next move and to be willing to accept doing things someone else’s way.

The third criterion, eagerness for opprobria—or ‘trials’ as translated here—needs close attention. It is easy to get a distorted view of these trials as invented or as unnecessarily imposed hardships or, worse yet, as a sort of masochism on the part of the novice. Aquinata Böckmann’s translation of the term is probably the most helpful. She calls it eagerness for ‘simple services’. The focus is on the commonness of the tasks. A novice who is eager for opprobria is someone who has discovered the importance of humility and who willingly, even eagerly, engages in whatever promotes or safeguards humility. It his way of reminding himself of Jesus’ word: “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life.”


Chapter Talk – Fr. Michael Casagram – Sept 29, 2019 – Having Leisure Time

+HAVING LEISURE TIME                                      Chapter Talk, 29 Sep. 2019

This morning I would like to talk about the value of leisure time in our lives as monks. I am drawing again from Michael Casey, his book Grace, on the Journey to God.  The wisdom of what Casey shares with us is that leisure is not the opposite of work as is generally supposed but, as practiced in our monastic tradition, it is right in the midst of our work “a time and space of freedom and recuperation, in which the deep self can find fuller expression and, eventually, reach its perfection.”

We are about to move into our busy season of the year with the afternoon pre-packing about to begin and then the Thanksgiving and Christmas shipping. Tt is helpful to realize this extra work is not opposed to a holy leisure and may even serve its very purpose.  As Casey reminds us:

“If I give myself entirely to the task at hand, engaging my skills and putting my heart in what I am doing, it may not matter much what the work is. Whatever it is, I will come away refreshed and happy and the task itself will probably be better done. “

The practice of holy leisure becomes “the natural overflow of a heart that is undivided, that simply lives each moment and performs each task as though nothing else in the world mattered.” I have seen this go on again and again during the shipping season, when our work demands our full attention while underway.  To select the right items listed on the shipping label, to pack them carefully in the right box and have it sealed properly, requires real concentration. To do so becomes when rightly motivated, our way of serving the living God and meeting the needs of the community.

At the same time, as monks we are not to be defined by the work we do, for our life exists “primarily to facilitate the spiritual growth of those” who participate in it. There is always an ongoing discernment that goes on. While we need to work to support ourselves, we have to be careful not to exclude other activities that have as their main purpose the enrichment of the lives of the members. Casey brings to our attention that:

“Insofar as there is the possibility of choice, the range of activities embraced, encouraged, or allowed should grow out of the possibilities present by gifts and talents of each. Such occupations offer the possibility of self-expression and ultimately will be found to be fulfilling and character-forming.”

We advertise our products as made by the monks themselves and this is more than just a clever selling pitch. What our life represents to those who buy from us  is something they honor and value as truly contributing to the improvement of society and the values that will sustain it. I would like to think that our society and those who support us are growing in appreciation of what builds up rather than undermines authentic human growth for the future.

Michael Casey draws on Josef Pieper’s book Leisure, the Basis of Culture that many have probably read. It was a favorite of Fr Flavian who served as abbot of the community after Dom James. Pieper tells us:

“Leisure is a form of silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality. Leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity of steeping oneself in the whole of creation.”

Leisure has a wonderful way of grounding us in what’s really going on, freeing us from all forms of distraction that would pull us away from dealing with what needs to be done at a given time in our lives. It implies a deep appreciation of silence that is so treasured by our way of life. It is a silence “not only as the absence of outward noise and clamor, but also as an inner stillness that is the hallmark of an undivided heart. “ Anyone who has tried to enter into conversation with someone who is distracted or while you yourself are preoccupied with an aside, knows the value of total presence to one another. Authentic prayer, where we are fully open to the divine presence is dependent on just this kind of inner stillness. It is this that holy leisure cultivates in us.

As is true of anything precious in our lives, leisure is also a very fragile reality to maintain. Casey tells us, and I will end with this quote:

“[Leisure}…needs to be defended; there are too many things that can displace it or so modify it that it loses its particular character. A group that really tries to give its members room to breathe is a blessing. Time and space are, of their very nature, quantifiable and therefore limited. The gift of time is a very precious one: time for oneself, time for one another, time to listen, encourage, and support, time to step back and discern, to assess the quality of actions, time to develop culture and ritual and good liturgy. Space for people to grow, space for different gifts, space for the stranger, space to pass through crises. Leisure is, as Pope John Paul II often insisted, about building a culture of humanization.”

+Experiencia and Our Community – Fr. Michael Casagram- May 12, 2019

(Chapter Talk by Fr. Michael Casagram to the monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani):

When we began reading and sharing within community on the Experientia Project it was suggested to me that I might talk about it and our sharing on March 9thduring a Chapter talk. I thought to attempt doing this, this morning.

Early on in our discussion on March 9th it was mentioned that major changes have taken place since the mid-sixties, e.g. changes in our practice of silence, the unification of the Lay brother and choir religious, the praying of the Office in the vernacular, as instances. Generally it was felt that these changes were for the better though some aspects of our observance have been lost. I’ve wondered whether we are at a point where we might discuss in greater depth both the gains and losses of this period as a way of refreshing and deepening our experience of monastic life.

One does not want to idealize the past, for as many of us who lived through it know, it is only what the Holy Spirit is calling us to today that will give lasting vitality to our life. There is no doubt in my own mind that God is calling us as a community to live more authentically our way of life but how to discern this divine invitation demands a lot of soul searching if we are going to be really open to the Holy Spirit and not impose our own limited insights onto others. Back before Vatican II with the Spiritual Directory for Religious and The Book of Usagesour life was highly regulated. So much so, there was very little room left for personal initiative or responsibility. Now we are allowed more time for personal prayer, lectio divina, other reading and manual labor that is of service to the community.

As was said during the dialogue on the Experiencia Project, the monastery is to be “a school of charity, a chance to grow, to serve, to evolve—it is a training ground where we get to discover and appreciate diversity.” Another pointed out that: “In a world of fear and friction, we are a community of love and praise.” One does not have to expose oneself much to daily news, to experience just how polarized our country and world are so that to have an oasis of peace and mutual respect is important not only to members of the community but to the many visitors and retreatants who come here. Many of us have heard from them personally just how much this means to them who spend time with us.

This does not mean our community life is without struggle. Hardly a day passes for any of us without challenge for then we are brought to the limits of our own ability and have to rely more completely on the grace of God. I suspect in fact, that this is why we are here in the first place, that we might come to know the limits of our own resources so that in humility, we may experience the wonder of an all loving God. Initially we may have been attracted to this life as a way of truly seeking God, having experienced the movement of grace in our lives. Gradually we have to know what seeking God really means, for when push comes to shove we learn that only divine initiative can overcome what separates us from union with the Divine. The human heart has an unquenchable thirst for the divine, a yearning that only intensifies as the relationship deepens.  Faith alone, received as an undeserved gift, overcomes the divide.

Another brother said in our dialogue: “I can’t separate my experience of getting to know monastic life and life with my brothers from getting to know myself.” I don’t think it can be said often enough, just how intertwined all three of these aspects of our life are with one another. I suspect this is why St Benedict speaks of cenobites as being the strongest kind of monks. After all, we are destined to reflect the very Trinitarian of God, the close and fruitful exchange within the three Divine Persons. Should it surprise us then, that we enter into this through our lives with one another and come to know who we truly are in the process of doing so? Our relationships are constantly revealing what the love of God is all about and teach us in a thousand ways how to grow in this love.

Dom Bernardo Bonowitz, drawing on one of the early Cistercians, Baldwin of Forde, tells us of how our community life “leads to an experience of communion with one’s fellow human beings…  Beginning as a lowly communion in fallen human nature, this experience of oneness with others, particularly in the context of a monastic community, comes to flower in a communion of grace and finally in a communion of glory.” Self-knowledge is at the heart of it all, for then we see our own humanity in its continual need of grace through which it reaches its true destiny, realizes its full potential. A growing self-knowledge not only exposes us to but guides us through the degrees of humility that St Benedict elaborates so well in his Rule. It grounds us in the true self that becomes more and more made in the very image and likeness of God. It teaches us, as one member of the community has observed “the wisdom of insecurity” that “leads us to ask for help” both from one another and the divine source of all good.

Much more could be said about the exchange that went on in early March and during our last sharing in groups. The Experiencia Project has a great potential for building us up personally and as a community, and for making our life ever more attractive to those seeking religious commitment.

Chapter Talk – Fr. Michael Casagram 3/31/19 – The Presence of God Through Reading

+THE PRESENCE OF GOD THROUGH READING         Chapter Talk 31 March 2019

This morning I thought to share some reflections on spiritual reading from a book on Discernment by Henri Nouwen that may have value for our lives. We are all dependent on others to help us clarify our path along the spiritual journey into divine life. Spiritual reading or Lectio Divina is one of the chief means we have for exposing ourselves to the wisdom or spiritual insight of others so as to enlighten our own paths.

We use reading in order to acquire knowledge or to master a field but spiritual reading is different. Nouwen tells us of a:

“reading about spiritual things in a spiritual way. That requires, a willingness not just to read but to be read, not just to master but to be mastered by words.. We can become very knowledgeable about spiritual matters without becoming truly spiritual people. As we learn to read spiritually about spiritual things, we open our hearts to God’s voice. Discernment requires not only reading with the heart but being willing to put down the book we are reading to just listen to what God is saying to us through its words.”

You may be aware of the fact of how Henri Nouwen came to learn the art of spiritual reading. It was from Fr Louis or Thomas Merton whom he considers “one of the important spiritual pioneers of the last century.” Nowen writes of Merton as one who “also witnessed to me about how to read the people placed in your path, as well as events and signs of the times. God is always speaking to us, but it requires spiritual discernment to hear God’s voice, see what God sees, and read the signs in daily life.”

God is continually drawing near to each of us and to our community amid the daily circumstances of our lives and of our life together. If we are spiritually attentive, if our hearts become interiorly free every day provides the means of becoming spiritually transformed into the living presence of Christ, for our own benefit and for that of all those around us. It is all about seeing deeper into the events that surround us, of opening ourselves to grace under whatever way it seeks to fill our lives.

Like Mary, the mother of God, each one of our lives is to be full of grace, as we too allow Christ to grow and come to maturity in us. Angels may be coming to each of us if we have the faith to recognize the divine visitors and are able to respond to the invitation they may have for us. I know that reading The Story of the Soul, the life of St Therese of Lisieux when I was in minor seminary was transformative in my life as it opened for me the meaning of contemplative life.

How many of us here have been deeply moved by what Jean-Pierre de Caussade called the “sacrament of the present moment.” His book assures us “that God is speaking and revealing his will in every moment of every day, and that we can discern God’s presence and guidance through simple prayers.. when, each moment becomes a sacrament of joy, gratitude, and loving acceptance of the will of God manifest in that moment.”

Thomas Merton was himself profoundly changed by his spiritual reading of the book called The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy by Etienne Gilson. There he learned to experience God for the first time as “pure being, non-contingent and independent of any act of existing.” As Merton wrote in his own words:

“.. I discovered an entirely new concept of God—a concept which showed me at once that the belief of Catholics was by no means the vague and rather superstitious hangover from an unscientific age that I had believed it to be. On the contrary, here was a notion of God that was at the same time deep, precise, simple and accurate and, what is more charged with implications which I could not ever begin to appreciate, but which I could at least dimly estimate, even with my own lack of philosophical training.”

We have been hearing a lot in the Liturgy these days about opening ourselves to the presence and power of the Word of God. We as monks are continually being exposed to the inspired Word in the Divine Office and Eucharist each day. We are in a privileged position but one demanding of us an inner quiet if we are going to hear with our hearts and be moved by the Holy Spirit. Only then does it have its full effect in our lives. One of the early desert fathers tells us: “Just as it is impossible to see your face in troubled water, so also the soul, unless it is clear of alien thoughts, is not able to pray to God in contemplation.

So whether it is our time spent at spiritual reading, at the Liturgy or whatever work we are asked to do, we have many opportunities to experience the presence of a continual and deeply loving God. God’s love for us uses every opportunity to become manifest so that ours may become one with his own.

Chapter Talk – 11/11/18 – Fr. Michael – Developing a Contemplative Consciousness


Recently I have been going through a spiritual biography of Henri Nouwen called “ God’s Beloved” by a Michael O’Laughlin that came out back in 2004. Many of us are familiar with Nouwen as a spiritual writer who was especially gifted at articulating what goes on in many of our lives. As Robert Ellsberg recently said in his lecture at Bellarmine:

“By the time of his passing, thirty-two years later [after coming to the States from Holland] in 1996, he had become one of the most popular and influential spiritual writers in the world. His popularity was only enhanced by his willingness to share his own struggles and brokenness. He did not present himself as a ‘spiritual master,’ but—like the title of one of his early books—as a ‘wounded healer.’ Those who knew him were aware of how deep his wounds ran.”

In this Henri Nouwen was a lot like Merton who reached so many people through his Seven Story Mountain.Both had a living faith and a sense of their own vulnerability, weakness and sensitivity. As they shared their own experience, what was going on in the lives of countless readers was able to be articulated and understood perhaps, for the first time. There was a “down-to-earthiness” in both of them which takes on more and more meaning for our own time.

O’Laughlin quotes from Merton the following:

“Contemplation is not vision because it sees ‘without  seeing’ and knows ‘without knowing.’ It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words, or even in clear concepts. It can be suggested by words, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it knows the contemplative mind takes back what it has said, and denies what it has affirmed. For in contemplation we know by ‘unknowing.’ Or better, we know beyond all knowing or ‘unknowing.’

This is an experience that all newcomers to the monastery go through and in fact, what those who are long members of a community may go through again and again, this experience of unknowing. There is always a way in which we want to have some grasp on what is happening in our lives, want, in a way, to make sense of it but this is where real faith can take place. You would think that someone like Henri Nouwen with all his popularity and success as a writer or teacher, would have been satisfied or fulfilled but the opposite was true. We are told that he “was afflicted by an inordinate need for affection and affirmation; he was beset by anxieties about his identity and self-worth; there seemed to be a void within that could not be filled.” This, it is suggested is what led him to make several moves in his life, from one place or project to another. He moved from Holland to America, to Notre Dame and then to Yale, to our monastery of Genesee and then to Latin America, to thinking of becoming an affiliate of Maryknoll, then to Harvard and finally visiting a number of L’Arche communities in France and Canada, he settled down somewhat at one in Canada.

In the midst of all this Nouwen was drawn into a contemplative experience, like that of Merton in many respects but one that was uniquely his own: He writes:

“We are called to be contemplatives, that is see-ers, men and women who are called to see the coming of God.. The Lord’s coming is an ongoing event around us, between us, and within us. To become a contemplative, therefore, means to throw off—or better, to peel off—the blindfolds that prevent us from seeinghis coming in the midst of our own world. Like John the Baptist, Merton constantly points away from himself to the coming One, and invites us to purify our hearts so that we might indeed recognize him as our Lord.. Thomas Merton invites us to an always deeper awareness of the incomprehensibility of God. He continually unmasks the illusions that we know God and so frees us to see the Lord in always new and surprising ways.” (The Road to Peace: Writings on Peace and Justice, pp 196-97)

When Nouwen speaks of Merton inviting us “to an always deeper awareness of the incomprehensibility of God” there is something unsettling about this but also clarifying and freeing. The danger of any of us is the inclination to try to tie God down or to cling to a certain understanding of God that then puts limits on God’s way of acting in our lives and in the lives of others. Again, it is only when we approach God with faith that we are able to allow God to move freely in our lives. This can be a real challenge and it certainly demands of us a deeper faith or trust if God is to act pervasively in our lives. As they yielded to this mysterious divine presence, there continually opened new horizons in both Merton’s and Nouwen’s lives, horizons that allowed them to accomplish all that they were destined to do.

Any one of us becomes open to these new horizons to the extent that we allow faith, hope and love take hold of us. To do so is to come to realize our full potential. We are all invited to participate in God’s very own life and in doing so our lives are transformed. We allow ourselves to accomplish all that we have been destined to do during our brief sojourn on this earth.


Chapter talk by Fr. Michael Casagram 10/14/18 – Our relationship to Christ


When Fr Eugene Hensell was with us this last time and spoke to us about Christ being a Messenger of Divine Wisdom, he mentioned Dom Columba Marmion as also one who communicated this Wisdom within our Benedictine tradition. Having had a respect for Marmion in my own early monastic formation I thought to pick him up again and share some of his reflections with you this morning.

We have most all of Marmion’s writings in our library and I found a small one that was unfamiliar and have spent some time going through it. It is called SPONSA VERBI: The Virgin Consecrated to Christ.  The book was quick to renew my appreciation of Marmion and to provide what I feel to be, worthwhile material to share with you this AM. Most of you are familiar with Marmion from your own reading so no need to give you background other than to say he is an outstanding Benedictine writer from the early part of the last century, dying Jan. 30th in 1923.

His book, SPONSA VERBI or Spouse of the Word draws heavily on the writings of our own St Bernard, especially his conferences on the Canticle of Canticles. It is not easy for us as a male community to speak of ourselves as Spouses of Christ but if one is familiar with the vocabulary of St Bernard, the relationship of the soul to Christ cannot be better expressed if one is going to captivate its true depth. For Dom Marmion:

“The greatest gift made by God to the human creature is that of his supernatural adoption by grace into Jesus Christ the Word incarnate. The sovereign Being, infinite in all perfections who neither depends on or has need of anyone outside Himself, allows His immeasurable love so to flow over and permeate His creatures that they are elevated thereby to a participation of His life and Felicity. This gift exceeds the demands, surpasses the powers of nature, makes man the child of his Heavenly Father, the brother of Christ, the temple of the Holy Ghost.”

What Marmion reminds us from the very start is how this is all about the movement of grace in our lives, its ability to transform our inner selves so that we begin to share intimately in the very life of God. There are levels or participation in this life or stages of growth before one reaches this sort of communion. We may start off as simple servants, following divine commands as well as we know them. Then we can become the friends of God,  experience something that is a mutual caring. From there we can experience ourselves as children of God, “their life is one of honor, obedience and love give to their Father.”

This stage can develop into something more intimate where one’s relationship to God is like that to a Husband where there are no secrets and the soul “shares with him the greatest intimacy of love.” At this point there cannot be a more intimate union. Monks, by reason of their way of life are drawn more and more into this deeper communion with the Divine life. In fact, I believe this is what draws most of us to the monastery, a sense that communion with the Lord is the only thing that will truly satisfy our deepest longing.

Marmion sees this notion of intimacy with the Lord as grounded in the Gospels. He writes:

“It is in the Gospels that the idea is expressed in all its plenitude; there is its real source; there it stands most clearly revealed. The Incarnate Word, unchangeable Truth, does He not give Himself to the spouse in person in front of whom come the virgins destined to form His court? Is it not from His lips that the most prodigious invitation ever fell that could touch the human heart? ‘All things are ready: come ye to the marriage.’”

Then there are those chapters in John’s gospel, namely 13-17 that speak so intimately of the relationship Jesus wants to have with his disciples, an intimacy that He Himself shares with the Father. A little further on Marmion quotes from one of St. Bernard’s sermons on the Canticle of Canticles:

“When you shall see a soul leave all things to adhere to the Word with all her strength, live by Him, all herself to be guided by Him, conceive what she should bring forth by Him; a soul, in short, who can say: for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain, then you can indubitably recognize her for a spouse of the Word.”

Marmion saw clearly that in seeking this communion with the Lord it demands a willingness to leave all things in order to adhere to the Word with all her strength. It is a matter of entering into that unfathomable love of God for us involved in the self-emptying of the eternal Word in taking on our human flesh. It seems to me that this is why the whole mystery of the Incarnation was so dear to the early Cistercians, the way it so effectively manifests the love of God for us. Marmion shows, (and with this I will close) the excellence of our religious state and asks:

“Will not the contemplation of your high dignity inflame your hearts with a generous love for Him, who without your merit has predestined it for you? I shall essay [write], in the first place, to show you how the sacred Humanity of Jesus is espoused to the Word; for it is there that we shall find the best model of the intimate union that the soul contracts with Christ… May the Immaculate Virgin, from whose fruitful virginity was born the King of Kings, aid us in our task.”