One of the things that I have likened my journey with ALS to is the monastic life. The Monastic life, or the life of monks, has been part of my life for a very long time. I grew up with a Benedictine Abbey just a few miles out of town perched upon a hill overlooking the valley below. Monks were part of my life early on as pastors of my parish. I grew up with monks and an awareness of the value of the solitary life of prayer and silence they lived. Sadly, that particular monastery is now closed for lack of monks. But I hope and pray that one day monks will return, and revitalize our diocese through their witness of a silent, simple, yet full expression of traditional Benedictine life.
Even though this monastery has closed, I have found another spiritual home in the Monasterio di San Benedetto in Monte in the birthplace of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica, Norcia, Italy. The monks there live an authenticity Benedictine life. They keep the full monastic schedule of liturgical prayer, lectio divina, and fasting, all while being incredibly joyful! They have taught me much about the kind of monasticism that God, through my ALS, is calling me to embrace.
My spiritual father, a monk of the monastery in Norcia, recently said:
The desert tradition is fond of repeating: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you all things.” Your cell consists of the four walls of your uncooperative body. Let the interior man stay there: you are like a hermit, even a recluse in your cell. The prayer for the feast of St. Benedict talks about his death as leaving the “ergastulum” (prison) of his body. Your soul will be liberated when the time comes, and in the resurrection, your body will be transformed. For now, however, the Lord asks you to stay in your cell. He is there.
It was a confirmation of sorts, as from the beginning of this journey, this is how I thought of what would happen to me as my disease progressed. But to think of something coming in the future is far different from it being here in the present. As I wrote in a previous post, I have ascended into silence. This is essential to the life of a monk. Since it is in silence that the darkness of evil is overcome by constant prayer. In the cell, a monk engages in hand to hand combat for his soul, and the souls of all men. It is a place of silence where the hidden God is found.
Monks are, or they ought to be, ascetics. Meaning they live a life that seeks to build virtue while quelling the evil passions. This requires self-denial. Monks live this by fasting, separation from the world, rising in the night to pray for a world still sleeping, the keeping of the schedule, Holy obedience, and stability – which means they don’t move from monastery to monastery – these and many other ascetic practices make up the life of a monastic.
ALS has been a grace in that it has renewed in me these very things, to a greater or lesser degree. For instance, I can’t rise at night to pray Matins, but stability is no problem. I ain’t gonna go anywhere! I cannot, for lack of energy, keep the monastic schedule, but I can spend time every day in lectio divina. I may not live in a monastic cell, but I can, and do, engage in battle as a monk does in the cell of my body. And let me assure you, it IS a battle. The devil disturbs me with temptations to discouragement, lack of faith, hope, and love. He tempts me to rebellion, to reject the Cross, to curse God and die. The cell is where monks engage in this battle. It is where I engage in the battle. It is not for the faint of heart. Were it not for your prayers, and the prayers of monks and nuns, I would be dead and in hell already. I say that tongue in cheek, but there is a certain truth in it. Were it not for God’s grace, I would not be in the fight. But with God’s grace, the intercession of the blessed mother, St. Benedict, and all the saints, we know certain victory, as long as we stay in the fight.
A new monastic practice, thanks to ALS, is now part of my daily routine, and that is fasting. I knew when I began this journey that the day would come when I would no longer be able to swallow. So, it was no surprise when, recently, God called me to a personal perpetual monastic fast. All my nutrition now comes via a feeding tube. Those of you who know me in person, know how much of a sacrifice this is. I “was” a foodie. I loved cooking for family, guests, and myself. Equal to the cooking was the eating! Oh, how I loved to savor good food, and my waistline proved it. But God is calling me now to fast. As Catholics we are known for our feasting and our fasting. Now God has called me away from feasting and toward fasting. It is another way that I can choose to give God everything as priest, victim, and monk, of sorts.
It is hard, yes. It is hard for my family and friends to see me no longer enjoy something I love, but this is what I signed up for when I literally laid it all down on the cathedral floor on the day of my ordination. I choose that day to give everything as an oblation to the Lord. I renew that sacrifice every day by my silence, by staying in my “cell” to do battle, by praying, by my stability, and now, by my daily fasting.
There was another day when I chose to give everything to God as an oblation. And that was the day I became an Oblate of St. Benedict. I became an oblate first at the monastery near my home, then when it closed, at the monastery in Norcia. The very name, oblate, implies a sacrifice of self by embracing a monastic life according to one’s state in life. This I have taken very seriously. I knew, when, upon the Altar itself, I signed my oblation, that I was giving my life away to God. He has chosen me to make this oblation real, even in my very flesh. I chose then, and I choose now to give all till nothing remains. This is my calling as a priest and as a monastic, living in the cell of my uncooperative body. There, amidst spiritual combat, I will find the Hidden God.
Please continue to pray for me. Pray for the monks of San Benedetto in Monte, pray for the Benedictines who formed me in my teenage years, especially the ones who have fallen asleep in the Lord, and pray that traditional monks will soon return to the hilltop.