Anniversaries are part and fabric of what it means to be human. Mine are no different, and I mark them (celebration is a bit too over the top for me) each year with the sober realization that I am now one year closer to my death, my parousia, my destiny as a human who has stumbled chiefly through life and failing to love Christ more than loving him when I meet other people.
I am approaching the anniversary of my final promises as a Lay Cistercian. I thought I would share with you some ideas.
I am not the person I was when I made Lay Cistercian promises in 2018. Hopefully, I have diminished in my false self, but Christ has increased. Some days have been better than others, but my movement creeps along despite my penchant for being such a bad person (not morally as much as spiritually).
I am a hostage to my mind and its parameters. Unless I put goodness there, it just sits there, waiting for me to use it appropriately. If I want to love Christ there, I must put it there. The Lay Cistercian practices and charisms ensure that I keep the discipline of trying to have in me the mind of Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5) each day. What these moments with Jesus do for me is to be present at my center, The Christ Principle. If I did not do this, like love, it withers on the vine and dries up over time.
A one-time renewal of promises is symbolic. A mindset that says each day I must seek God in whatever comes my way puts love where there is none. It is not without difficulty that this happens because of the aura of original sin that blankets my citizenship as a human being. Fortunately, Christ has lifted me up to become an adopted son (daughter) of the Father. I profess my citizenship in the kingdom of heaven at my annual renewal of promises as a Lay Cistercian.
If we don’t remember our promises, like those wedding promises we all made or the vows we made as a priest, a monk, a nun, a brother, or lay orders (Dominican, Benedictine, Franciscan, and many more), we lose its significance as those milestones become road markers of past experiences long since forgotten by lack of use.
A BLOG ABOUT MY PROMISES
Here is a copy of a blog I wrote for my lifetime promises as a Lay Cistercian in May 2018. With Christ’s help, I make all things new once again (actually, every day, if I am aware of it).
As I look back on my life, which is a very long look, I usually reflect on what is good and try to forget all those times (the majority of my life) when I made a fool out of myself or was outright full of myself. To list all those faults and failures would take a book of many chapters and quotes. I won’t bore you with all those details. I will, however, share with you one of my Lectio Divina meditations (Philippians 2:5) that looked at the positive things I have learned and try to keep before my eyes each day, in keeping with the perpetual promises I made as a Lay Cistercian, my anniversary of the final profession as a Lay Cistercian. http://www.trappist.net . I share with you this profession of Faith just as I read it two years ago and as I try to live on a daily basis until I pass over to be with Christ.
FINAL PROMISES AS A LAY CISTERCIAN OF OUR LADY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT MONASTERY (TRAPPIST), CONYERS, GEORGIA
I, Michael Francis Conrad, a member of the Lay Cistercians of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit, a community of Catholics living in the world, promise to strive for a daily conversion of life as my response to the love of God.
I commit myself to live in a spirit of contemplative prayer and sacrifice in obedience to God’s universal call to holiness, using daily Cistercian practices and charisms of simplicity, humility, obedience to God’s will, hospitality, and striving for conversion of life to move from self to God.
I thank my wife, Young, and my daughter, Martha, for standing with me on my journey. I ask for prayers from the Monastic community of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit and the Lay Cistercian community, including the Ecumenical and Auxiliary communities. I place myself in the hands of those already stand before the throne of the Lamb, including Holy Mary, Mother of God, St. Benedict, St. Bernard, the Seven Cistercian Martyrs of Our Lady of Atlas, Father Anthony Delisi and other deceased monks and Lay Cistercians of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, and also Deacon Marcus Hepburn. Finally, I accept the Rule of St. Benedict as interpreted by the constitutions and statutes of the Strict Observance Cistercians as my guide for living the Gospel within the time I have remaining. Ut in Omnia Dei glorificatur.
FIVE LESSONS THAT HAVE SHAPED MY LIFE
Here are the five lessons that have shaped my life.
I. HAVE IN YOU THE MIND OF CHRIST JESUS. This quote from Philippians 2:5 sums up my life purpose and the motivation that propels me forward to whatever awaits me when my life will change but not end. I use it as my Lectio Divina quote each and every day. I have tried to use it as far back as September 1962 (I don’t remember the day). It is the North on my compass, the reason for trying to transform my life from my false self (seven deadly sins) to my true self (seven gifts of the Holy Spirit). It is why I am here on earth for whatever time I have. It motivates me to want to sit on a park bench in the dead of winter and wait for the Lord to come by and grace me with His presence (God, of course, is everywhere). I can’t imagine what I would be without this North on my compass.
II. LOVE OTHERS AS CHRIST LOVES YOU— I went from thinking that having the mind of Christ Jesus means I must be in Church as much as I am the Church, the Body of Christ. The Church Universal are all those who have been signed by the blood of the Lamb, and all those whom God deems worthy to be in Heaven. Loving others as Christ loves us means that I don’t judge who goes to Heaven (a subtle form of idolatry) but worry that I am not worthy enough to be an adopted son of the Father.
III. CONTEMPLATION ENTERS THE PRESENCE OF CHRIST — Yes, God’s presence is everywhere, but I am talking about me making a conscious choice to place myself in the presence of Christ in a deliberate prayer. This is a spirituality of one Being, Christ, who is both God and Human nature, being invited to picnic with me. It is my invitation to Christ to be present to me in a unique way, with no agenda or hidden needs on my part. I just want to be present to and with him. Yes, Christ is everywhere, but I am not. In contemplation, I sit on a park bench in the dead of winter and ask Christ to grace me with his presence. Even as I sit in silence and solitude before the Blessed Sacrament in Eucharistic adoration, my prayer is for Jesus to have mercy on me for my lack of Faith and to wait until He wants to talk to me. I don’t want to presume on the mercy of God for me.
IV. TRANSFORMATION FROM SELF TO GOD— If my spiritual life is a room, have I cluttered it with so many useless values of the World that Christ has no room. To make room, I must be humble and admit that I need salvation every day. Each day is a lifetime of trying to move from self to God. It is only due to God’s grace or energy that I can even move or transform myself. I have found Chapter 4 of the Rule of St. Benedict of particular helpful in identifying the tools for good works and a list of those attitudes and practices I must perform to move from self to God. Each day, I read Chapter 4 in total or in some parts. My prayer for me is that I might become what I pray for, moving from pride and idolatry of my false self to humility and obedience to the will of the Father.
V. THE PEACE OF CHRIST IN MY HEART — Loving others as Christ loves me has the effect of being one with Christ and the object of that love in those around me. This is not the peace that the world gives, as the Scriptures point out. The Peace of Christ is the result of being in the presence of God in contemplation. The Joy of the Resurrection is the product of having in me the mind of Christ Jesus, without condition, open to the Holy Spirit in humility and obedience to whatever Jesus is telling me. Peace is not the absence of hostility but the presence of love, the real presence of Christ here before me just as he is in heaven sitting on the Throne of the Lamb of God. Faith alone, God’s own energy, enables me to be an adopted son of the Father. Church alone, the Body of Christ, allows me to love others as Christ loves me. It lets your light shine before everyone so that “..they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.” I am called to share that peace of Christ with those around me, those marked with the sign of salvation, and those who have not yet accepted Christ. I am called to judge not the motives or hearts of others in the church and let God judge those outside it. This is the peace that is beyond all telling.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever. The God who is, who was, and who is to come at the end of the ages. Amen and Amen. –Cistercian doxology
Pray for me and my fellow Lay Cistercians to become what we promise.
Posted on May 3, 2023, by thecenterforcontemplativepractice
My Lectio Divina today (Phil 2:5) was on how blessed I am to be blessed by Christ in what I do. St. Benedict says that in all things, we should glorify God. I asked myself, what things? The list is too long to recount here. If you turn to the very end of John’s Gospel, he makes a very practical statement about all those “things” Jesus did and why he did them for us. Read John 20:30.
|John 20:30-31 New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE)The Purpose of This Book30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[a] that Jesus is the Messiah,[b] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.|
Three statements stand out for me.
LAY CISTERCIAN FINAL PROMISES
This is the end of my five years of discernment and the beginning of my full commitment to seek God using Cistercian practices and charisms from the constitutions and statutes of the Strict Order of Cistercian Monks and Nuns. It is a lifetime commitment to have in me the mind of Christ Jesus. I don’t take this promise lightly because, given Original Sin, it will be a constant challenge to love God with all my heart, mind, and strength, plus my neighbor as myself. I have not achieved this as much as I keep on attempting it and attempting it each day. This, indeed, is the cross I take up to follow Christ. As I approach this momentous milestone, one which I do with humility and obedience, I do so in the context of my faith community, other Lay Cistercians, and my faith community at Good Shepherd, Tallahassee, Florida.
As I reflect on my Final Promises, four themes seem to pop up in my Lectio Divina (Phil 2:5) these days:
Silence and Solitude in the Wilderness — A monk told a group of Lay Cistercian novices that he wanted to have silence and solitude in his life, and the monastery was the only place where he could secure that without too many distractions. What is interesting for me is that, as a Lay Cistercian and not a monk, I try to use the same Cistercian practices and charisms that monks do, with a big difference. There is something purifying about the early Fathers and hermits going into the desert to rid themselves of all the distractions of the world and list to Christ in the wilderness. I had a thought about the wilderness, a place of intense silence, and deafening solitude, a condition where you discover who you are in the midst of seemingly no living things, a crucible to crush the temptations of the world to be great in favor of having in you the mind of Christ Jesus. The thought I had was I live in a wilderness, just as the hermits and early monks did. They had deafening silence; I have a silence that must struggle against the temptations of the world to be god. They had solitude. I live as a pilgrim in a foreign land when I try to practice Cistercian charisms as I try to seek God. The wilderness is not only devoid of life, but my wilderness is also devoid of life. The world is a wasteland of false promises and practices. Every word in the universe of physical and mental (the world) has meaning, but add the spiritual universe, and that word takes on a different meaning because of what Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, taught us. Christ says I do not give you peace as the world gives peace. Fake prophets tout that they know Jesus and speak for God. The greatest sin humans can make, made consistently by those who think God is on their side, is to be god. It is not without irony that it is the first commandment. Adam and Eve’s sin is part of every sin we commit. The silence and solitude that I learned from Cistercian monks help me sometimes to focus on where I am and who I am in the sight of God. The thought is always humbling to me. Lay Cistercian spirituality, especially the charisms of humility, obedience, stability, silence, and solitude, have helped me recognize that the world is actually the wilderness, devoid of the Kingdom of Heaven. We can live in the world but not be seduced by its allurements and temptations to be god. Just because we choose something does not mean it is good for us. Not to be confused, humanism, living in two universes (physical and mental universe), can be noble, fulfilling, and not evil. Like the scientific approach to all life, it is not adequate to live in the spiritual universe, one where loving God is the center and purpose of life and not loving self without God.
Practice. Practice. Practice. — Silence and solitude is the condition in which I find myself; in my case, I live the wilderness of dysfunction and the world’s opinion of what is meaningful. Here are some Cistercian practices I practice over and over and over in order to overcome the temptations of the world.
Lectio Divina: Chief among these Cistercian practices for me is Lectio Divina. I must practice this over and over and over; that habit of Lectio helps me focus on Christ every day for at least thirty minutes. As a novice, I tried to set aside thirty minutes and used the four steps of Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, and Contemplatio. Five years later, approaching my Final Promise to be faithful to my Lectio for the rest of my life, I don’t count time at all, and I have morphed from sitting in the chapel (although I still do that) to sitting in front of the computer to do Lectio (like I am doing now). Using the ideas and inspiration I have gained from Lectio Divina, I have completed forty-nine books and blogs for this site, all since 2000.
Gathering Day: This is the one day a month that Lay Cistercians meet in the community to pray, work, and experience silence and solitude together. During my last five years, since I first was received as a novice, there has been a noticeable shift in my approach to the Sacred, all due, I think, to my appreciation of the Holy Spirit working in and through other Lay Cistercians. I can’t point to a single instance or person that made this happen. I do know that I am more focused on Christ, have an increased capacity for god in myself, am more tolerant of the views of others, have more peace in my inner self, and look forward to Eucharist, Lectio Divina, Liturgy of the Hours, Meditation, Rosary, and Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament as not exercises, but as occasions where I sit next to Christ and allow him to show up or not and say what he wants to me without me trying to fill the silence with my own frustrations. Gathering Day is five hours away (one way) by auto. Someone once asked me how I could drive five hours (getting up sometimes at one in the morning to leave for the monastery), and I said this was the pearl of great price, something you would sell all you have to possess. It is not a thing, or property, or fame, or food, or adulation, but simply to be in the presence of God and wait for what happens. At the end of five years, I can tell you it is worth the drive each month. I have had health challenges during the past five years, including Leukemia (CLL type), in 2014. Through it all, I have tried to keep my eyes on the prize, as St. Paul says in Philippians 3: 7-16. Read the passage in its entirety.
|New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE)7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ,[a] the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ[b] and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Pressing toward the Goal12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal;[c] but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved,[d] I do not consider that I have made it my own;[e] but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly[f] call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us mature be of the same mind; if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 16 Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.|
This Scripture passage expresses what I have in my spirit as I approach Final Promises.
These are not Final Promises but rather hopes born of many, many times I have struggled to place myself next to the heart of Christ.
As a result of Cistercian practice and practice and practice, I am becoming more and more comfortable with faith as a mystery, the Resurrection as an enigma but one that holds my hope to live forever, the sign of contraction as the world, and the Kingdom of Heaven, the purpose of life, my purpose in life (Phil 2:5), what reality looks like, how it all fits together, how to love fiercely as Christ loved us, and how to prepare to live…Forever.
I am content with not knowing everything about Jesus, but rather just trying to have in me each day the mind of Christ Jesus. The struggle for me now is “each day,” not worrying about if Christ will show up.
The Rule of St. Benedict — I do not follow the holy Rule as written, nor, I understand, do Cistercians. I am not a monk, nor live in a place where all the chapters make sense. I read the Rule of St. Benedict in some form each day, especially Chapter 4 on the tools of good works, the core spiritual behaviors against which I measure my resolve each day and come up wanting. The Prologue is one of my favorite readings (listen with the ear of your heart), and Chapters on Humility and Obedience. The key for me as a Lay Cistercian is “every day”. Read the words of the late Dom Andre Louf, who wrote one of my favorite Cistercian books, The Cistercian Way. The Cistercian monks have taught me many wonderful insights that I do not immediately integrate into my spiritual way. One of those insights is to return to your heart. Here is what Dom Andre Louf writes about the realm of the heart, which propels us to want to love more and more and compels us to sell all we have of the world and follow Him.
Return to your heart.–
“The advice that the ancient fathers unceasingly gave to the novice was, ‘Return to your own heart.’ What does this mean? The young monk soon realizes how difficult it is to approach God to enter into contact with him. We have already described the first two unavailing steps which help him deepen his inner life. An important aspect of this maturing process is the discovery, perhaps at first only the presentiment, of an inner organ that will allow him to enter into contact with God. What is it that we pray to God with? What faculty do we use in order to pray? Do I use my intelligence? Do I reflect on my concept of God, trying to deepen and compare it with other realities I already know? Perhaps I can, to some extent, deduce some conclusions from this, for example, that God is all-powerful, knows everything, is the ultimate reason for my being, and is my creator.
These ideas are useful, but they can lead me to think that in this way, I can come to a full knowledge of God. In fact, they remain superficial and can end by wearying me. They are always open to very plausible counterarguments, which can sometimes shake my perhaps painfully acquired conviction. I must also ask if this reasoning can satisfy my thirst for God. Does reasoning of this kind truly put me in touch with God? The answer, I think, is “No”.
I can, of course, turn to my imagination. I can try to represent God to myself using images that are familiar to me. However, even these images–and they are holy, for they are used by the Church in the liturgy—cannot speak to me interiorly except to the extent that my heart has been made truly receptive to their spiritual depth. There is always a certain danger with feelings in religion. Are they artificial? How can I stir up repentance, sorrow, or love again in my heart unless God himself intervene and lead to them again, buried as they are in the deepest part of myself, in this place he wishes to reveal to me?
The Bible gives this interior place the name “heart”. The best description of the heart in this sense is given by some Fathers of the church who designate it as “the place of God in us”. There is a place in every man where God touches him and where he himself is constantly in contact with God. This is simply because at every instant God holds us in being. Ceaselessly we come forth from the hand. The place where this contravenes contact with God takes place deep within me. If I can reach it I can touch God. If I can arrive at a point where I can free myself from every other reality and be the gaze of my spirit to bear on this point exclusively, I can meet God.” (Dom Andre Louf, OCSO, The Cistercian Way, pp.71-71)
There are two dimensions or realms of my spirituality: the mind and the heart. As a Lay Cistercian, I want to use what is best about my humanity to access both the mind and the heart. This is a concept I have not always appreciated, although it has always been there. The Cistercian Way has gradually opened my mind (and thus my heart) to consider the importance of mystery, reality just beyond my knowing, although I know it is real.
The mystery of Faith with all its incredible dimensions — As I approach Final Promises, I am aware that what I don’t know far outweighs what I know. I can live to be one thousand years of age and it would not change. It is not that there is a set body of knowledge out there, as in memorizing the Bible passages, but that what it means is so deep and so mysterious we will never reach the end of all there is to know. In a way, trying to know everything is a form of idolatry. Christ bid us to love God with all our hearts, all our minds, all our strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. This is not attainable by only knowing about Christ but by loving Christ by loving others as Christ loved us.
THE SPIRITUAL UNIVERSE DOESN’T MAKE SENSE
There is a reality out there that we have difficulty possessing in our minds, quite simply because we do not have either the capacity or the capability for our mind to approach it. The Rule of Opposites, one of three rules of the spiritual universe, is one such mental contradiction that our minds do not seem to accept. In the spiritual universe, what is real is the opposite of what we know in the physical and mental universes. Think about it. Everything looks normal because your senses and mind process what it sees, hears, and knows to be true and is consistent with what you know is real. Yet, to be a disciple of the Master, we are called to renounce self and die to self in order to live. It just doesn’t make sense. Again, that God would become one of us when he does not have to leave the comfort of being God (Phil 2: 5-12) doesn’t make sense. That this sinless God who took on our sinful human nature would die for us voluntarily and then rise from the dead so that we could also rise from the dead makes no sense whatsoever. The whole experience of the mysterious as being more real the more mysterious it is is part of our Eastern Mysticism, a rich heritage of approaching God. In Western (Roman and Greek) thinking about what is real, the more you know about something, the more real it is. In Eastern traditions, the more something is mysterious, the more real it is. One of the happenings I find myself trying to explain is why I am not more disturbed to spend all my time knowing about God. For example, the more I know about God, the better disciple I will become. The more prayers I say, the holier I am. I am at peace with the fact that I can never approach God the Father except by sitting next to the heart of Christ and joining through him, with him, and in him as he gives glory to the Father in unity with the Holy Spirit. It is not that I don’t try as much as I can to know more, but I am satisfied that knowledge must lead to loving, and knowing and loving automatically produces service to others. Read Matthew Matthew 25:31-46. If you want to get a flavor of mystery, read The Cloud of the Unknowing, https://www.paracletepress.com/samples/exc-complete-cloud-of-unknowing.pdf. I must warn you, it is not for the faint of heart or mind. The Book of Revelations and the Book of Daniel are more readable but no less mystical documents.
As I approach my Final Promises with Cistercian practices of Lectio Divina, contemplation, and the Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 4, I am at peace with my mind, not trying to comprehend what is essentially pure knowledge. Even when I get to Heaven, with God’s grace, I will only be able to “see” that which I was able to link with the Redemptive Act of Christ. What I see now is, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, O.P., so much straw compared to what reality is, what God is, what the purpose of life is, How my purpose fits into the purpose of life, what reality is, how it all fits together, how fierce love is the nuclear fission that fuels all of what is, and how well I had in my mind the mind of Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5).
I will make my Final Promises to try, with the help of Christ, the Holy Mother of God, St. Benedict, St. Bernard, the Seven Cistercians Martyrs of Our Lady of Atlas, to seek God with all my heart, all my mind, with all my self, and love my neighbor as myself. Final Promises are not final but rather a continuation of what was begun in my Baptism and Confirmation. That in all things, may God be glorified. –St. Benedict
I add a poem that I wrote about my life. It seems to sum up where I am on my Lay Cistercian journey.
The Poem of My Life
I sing the song of life and love…
…sometimes flat and out of tune
…sometimes eloquent and full of passion
…sometimes forgetting notes and melody
…sometimes quaint and intimate
…often forgetful and negligent
…often in tune with the very core of my being
…often with the breath of those who would pull me down, shouting right in my face
…often with the breath of life uplifting me to heights never before dreamed
…greatly grateful for the gift of humility and obedience to The One
…greatly thankful for adoption, the discovery of new life of pure energy
…greatly appreciative of sharing meaning with others of The Master
…greatly sensitive to not judging the motives of anyone but me
…happy to be accepted as an aspiring Lay Cistercian
…happy to spend time in Eucharistic Adoration
…happy and humbled to be counted worthy of being an adopted son of the Father
…happy for communities of faith and love with wife, daughter, friends
…mindful that the passage of time increases each year
…mindful of the major distractions of cancer and cardiac arrest
…mindful of my center and the perspective that I am loved. moreover, I must love back with all the energy of my heart and strength, yet always falling a little short
…mindful of the energy I receive from The One in Whom I find purpose and meaning… Forever.
To The One who is, Who was, and Who is to come at the end of the ages, be glory, honor, power, and blessings through The Redeemer Son in unity with the Advocate, Spirit of Love.
From The One who is, Who was, and Who is to come at the end of the ages, I seek hope that His words about the purpose of life are true, that He is the way that leads to life…Forever.
With The One who is, Who was, and Who is to come at the end of the ages, I seek the fierce love so I can have the mind of Christ Jesus, my purpose in life and my center…Forever.