Finding Peace in Your Desert

IMG_0068Four years ago, my daily life was significantly different from what it is now. Living in Westchester County, New York, I had a uniquely challenging but rewarding ministry that required me to be out and about with lots of people working in the world of non-profit development. I loved working in and around New York City, and I loved the folks I worked with. Even though I was just a seminarian, I had plenty of room to roam and everything that I needed to do my job: a laptop, a cell phone, a debit card, and a 2001 Chevy Impala.

The Party’s Over

In the summer of 2011, my assignment was changed: it was time to cross the Atlantic to finish my studies for the priesthood.  I gave the laptop and cell phone to my replacement, turned over the keys to the Impala, packed my bags, and headed to JFK Airport with a one-way ticket to endless classes and research papers. The party was over.

Living in Rome is awesome, but for a full-time student like myself,Studying-book it’s not vacation. After three years of life in the Big Apple, working everywhere from the Upper East Side to Wall Street; after regularly socializing with the successful and phenomenally talented individuals with whom New York is full; after forming some wonderful friendships with beautiful people just as excited as me about spreading the Good News; I suddenly found myself enclosed in a tiny room with a pile of philosophy books on my desk, swatting at mosquitoes and wondering why Italians don’t put screens on their windows.

Living Simply

Last week, I posted a reflection on the beauty of monastic life. I did so because at times my own life feels rather monkish, especially in comparison to the more active one that I had before coming back to studies.

In the tradition of religious life, my days are lived according to the10523323_683907181696359_2501294587655256400_o ancient monastic motto ora et labora: “pray and work”. Each day starts bright and early at 5:05 am, followed by morning offering with the community in the chapel, personal meditation, and community mass. After breakfast, we have 30 minutes of housework before going to the university for classes. We return at 12:15 for lunch followed by riposo (a 30-minute nap), which in turn is followed by an afternoon of study or work. Dinner is at 7:50 pm, after which we watch news for about 15 minutes before going to night prayers. We are usually in bed by 9:40 pm.

That’s it: simple and stable. I’ll be honest, such a spartan lifestyle can be challenging, especially coming from an exciting job in Manhattan where I regularly interacted with people and spoke in public.

During my first two years in Rome, I was so fully engrossed in the research for my master’s degree in philosophy that I would go weeks without leaving the house. Some afternoons, while praying my rosary on the roof of our four-story dormitory, I would catch myself longingly watching the planes taking off in the distance from Da Vinci Airport, wondering when I would ever be  flying back to the Land of the Free.

Living Simply for Something Better

Christ in the Desert – Ivan Kramskoi

Over the course my three and a half years here in my personal desert of books and research papers, I have come to realize that I can either yearn for the life I had, or I can fully embrace the one that I have now and make the best of it. I am here because I have professed a vow of obedience, and such a vow is a burden only when I make it so. It all depends on how I look at it: it can be seen either as a shackle or as a condition for greater freedom.

Before Christ began his public ministry, he too lived a simple and quiet life in Nazareth. For 30 years, he worked and prayed, silently preparing for the event that would forever change the course of history. Immediately before going public, he withdrew even more from  the world, walking into the desert for 40 days of intense fasting and prayer.

This is how I see these last few years of my training for the priesthood: it’s a final intense preparation, withdrawn from the world, for the event that will change my life forever – priestly ordination.

We All Have Our Deserts

Since in a few short years I will be preaching homilies on a regulardesert_orange_sands_w1 basis, I like to mine from my personal experiences lessons that can be shared with my future flock. From the one just recounted, I would share the following: embrace your state in life, no matter how much of a desert it may seem to be. The difficulties of your present state, no matter how grinding, are nothing more than a temporary preparation for something bigger and better.

The challenges and difficulties of my life as a student and seminarian pale in comparison to the difficulties that others go through. Some people I know are dealing with difficult marriages that leave them no respite; others face the daily struggle of living in an environment that is hostile to their faith; some are fighting chronic illnesses; others are struggling to find the right spouse or a good job.

I am light-years from being a spiritual master and I still have years before my ordination, but, drawing on the wisdom of the Church, I think that I can safely say that the trick to being happy is simply accepting where you are at in life. This does not mean resigning yourself to a life of suffering, but it means focusing on changing the things you can while leaving the rest up to God.

1638738In other words, live simply. Do not complicate your life by trying to force things that are beyond your control. Just let go, let God be God, and enjoy the amazing blessings that He has in store for you. He brings us through the desert only because on the others side there is a Promised Land that exceeds all of our wildest expectations.


Made for More

National-Geographic-Channel-Captures-Dodge-Appeal-of-Living-off-GridIn the Hoh rain forest on the Olympic peninsula of Washington State, there lives a man by the name of Mick Dodge. This Washington native, whose great-grandparents settled the terrain he now inhabits, took off his shoes twenty-five years ago, left the modern world, and walked into the wilderness. When asked how he manages to live the way he does, he gives a characteristically quirky response:

“My family has perfected the art of dodging civilizations for hundreds of years. All I have to do is follow my feet.”

Leaving Everything Behind

After watching a show about him on the National Geographic Channel, I found myself very intrigued by this forest dweller. I was fascinated by the lifestyle that he had embraced: he lives in a tree, doesn’t wear shoes, and brushes his teeth with a pine-cone. Talk about simplifying your life!

The episode I watched showed him looking for meat after going days without any protein. It was a lot of fun to watch how resourcefully he solved his problem, never losing his sense of humor nor his positive outlook despite failed fishing attempts and other setbacks. “Following his feet” (and tiding himself over with some squirmy grubs) he went to a roadside where he stashed some road kill and headed to the seashore. There, he used the dead meat as bait to catch some crabs, from which he made a hearty meal.

Learning about him, I was impressed as much by his austerity as I was by his personality.  One might think that someone with a lifestyle like his, cut off from civilization, would be somewhat of a curmudgeon – reclusive and suspicious. However, Mick is anything but that. His unbeatable optimism and idiosyncratic sense of humor make him seem like someone whom I would love to get to know.

Leaving Everything Behind for God

Mick’s hermetic lifestyle is nothing new. Although it may look like aescobar_1505800c novelty, it really is nothing more than a secular version of an ancient religious tradition. For centuries, Christians have been voluntarily renouncing the world to live in the wilderness. St. Anthony the Great (c. 251 – 356 AD – also known as the Father of Monasticism) was one of the first to leave everything and go into the desert to seek greater closeness to God. His life and intense ascetic practices became legendary, inspiring St. Athanasius to write The Life of Saint Anthony the Great, which in turn inspired a religious movement that eventually developed into great Christian monastic orders such as the Benedictines, Augustinians, and Trappists, all of which continue to this day.

Why is it that over the course of thousands of years, people have so radically changed their lives to live as hermits and monks? What is it that moves men and women to give up the comforts of human civilization? Even today, in a world that offers the possibility of instantaneous satisfaction of almost every human desire, people still leave it all behind: why?

“My heart is restless, Lord, until it rests in Thee.” – St. Augustine  

Imago DeiI think that it has something to do with human nature itself. We are such that we will never be fully satisfied by things: and this is something that makes us profoundly different from animals. My family back home has a pretty Welsh Corgi named Lucy. I have gotten to know her well and enjoy watching her antics. Lucy does not need much to be fully satisfied: with food, water, exercise, and a good belly rub, she is as happy as can be.

However, experience and history show us that it is not the same for humans: we are always striving for more, looking for something else. Material things are not enough to make us happy and satisfied: we seek and long for spiritual fulfillment. Every human heart has a deep longing, one that can only be satisfied by knowing that one is loved infinitely.

You are Made for God

Every person is capax Dei, “capable of God”: we were made for Him and have the capacity to know and love Him, even if we do not realize it.

This is why people leave the comforts of the modern world; and this is why more and more men and women are reacting against noisy and hyper-consumerist Western culture in search of a simpler and more meaningful life. That small voice that has driven men to seek the solitude of the wilderness for millennia still speaks deep down in the hearts of each one of us.

backgroundIt is voice that spoke to Moses from the burning bush; it is the whisper that overwhelmed Elijah; it is the call that challenged the Apostles. It speaks to each one of us, asking us to leave the world to one degree or another. In a myriad of ways, each one as unique as the person to whom it is directed, the voice continues to say:

I AM WHO AM…Come, follow me.

When Life Gives You Raw Eggs…

20091207-raweggsJust in case anyone was under any illusions, seminaries are not five-star hotels. Life in a seminary is more like living in a big family – a really big family, like a 300-person-size family. We experience many of the problems that ordinary families experience, just on a larger scale.

Family Matters

Every family has to deal with the baby who wakes up crying in the middle of the night; we have to deal with the brothers who get back late and wake up half the dorm as they get ready for bed.

Every family goes through at least one flu or cold epidemic each year; we have to deal with the same thing, although ours reach such proportions that we refer to them as “plagues”. (Last winter, so many brothers were sick at one point that they had to bring carts and carts of food to the dorms just to feed all those who were bedridden).

Every family experiences cooking fiascoes now and again; we2010-06-09-disaster_chicken experience them just about every week. This is bound to happen when you put a group of young men with limited cooking capacity in a kitchen and tell them to prepare industrial-size quantities of food.

I will never forget the time in my novitiate when we tragically ruined our Easter Sunday lunch. My very foodie aunt was so horrified when she heard about such a waste of good lamb, that she bought us a huge Betty Crocker cookbook in the hopes that it would counter our culinary ineptitude. Thankfully, I have not seen any disasters quite so drastic since.

“Raw-Boiled Eggs”

Nevertheless, human nature being what it is, and young men being who they are, cooking fiascos still occur, the most common being the infamous “raw-boiled egg”. This is how it happens: every week we switch kitchen responsibilities, so every Monday there is a new team of confreres preparing breakfast. Often, the brother in charge of putting the eggs in the steamer is one who has never done it before, so either he does not know how long to keep them in, or he forgets to allow it to heat up long enough before using it. Whatever the case, he only has thirty minutes to get everything ready, so if he messes up, he does not have much time to recover.

Community mass usually ends at 7:20 am, at which time the silent, hungry herd of black-robed seminarians makes its way to the dining room, inwardly giving thanks to God for the mass that has just ended, but also eagerly anticipating breakfast. Each brother sits at his habitual place, places his cloth napkin on his lap, pours a cup of strong Italian coffee, reaches for the eggs or bread, and begins to consume with impressive efficiency.

Before cracking open my egg, I always look up at the microwave. If a14512 long line of brothers is beginning to form, I know that the egg is raw: those brothers have gone to make up with radiation what the brother-in-charge failed to do with steam.

I have to admit that there are few things more annoying than getting a raw-boiled egg on a Monday morning, but I have learned to cope. As the old saying goes, “When life gives you a sack of lemons, make lemonade.” Well, when life gives me raw eggs, I fry them! Instead of lamenting, I take a couple of the eggs to the kitchen, grab a frying pan, and prepare some nice sunny-side-ups.

Cooking taco meat with Br. Jefferson. (Thankfully, this meal turned out fine!)
Cooking taco meat with Br. Jefferson. (Thankfully, this meal turned out fine!)

Living with People

Part of living with other people is living with their imperfections, and the challenge  of family life is learning how to tolerate those imperfections with good-humor and optimism. If we allow the negative things to absorb us, we will never allow ourselves to fully appreciate and love the people we live with.

I am blessed to live with awesome people. Sure, we all have our quirks and problems, but it is truly marvelous to live with other young men who are just as excited about spreading the Word and bringing God’s love to the world.

With some of my confreres on a weekend outing. (Six different nationalities are represented in this photo: Mexico, Brazil, USA, Argentina, Venezuela, and Uganda.)

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers [and families!] dwell together as one!… It is like the dew of Hermon coming down upon the mountains of Zion. There the LORD commanded a blessing, life for evermore.

– Psalm 133:1 – 2

Fleeing Beauty

fliesSome years back, while doing an internship in New York City as a seminarian, I regularly went to the Upper West Side of Manhattan to teach a catechism class. It so happened that the family hosting the classes had an interesting contemporary art collection in their apartment. For weeks, as I went from the foyer to the living room, I would walk past a large black rectangular object hanging on the wall behind plexiglass. My curiosity was always piqued, but I never took the time to get a close look at it until the afternoon of my last class.

As I inspected the object, it took me a while to fully register what I was looking at: the artwork had a maximum depth of about five inches, the surface was uneven and lumpy, it was made of small pieces of something that I could not quite make out… As I leaned in to look closer, I realized what those pieces were: flies! I was looking at thousands of house flies that had been glued together and displayed as a work of art behind glass in the foyer of a private home.

Even though people will always marvel at beautiful things, this does not stop them from producing things which are not. I wrote previously in the Power of Beauty, that although we live in a relativistic world that rejects Truth, it can never fully reject Beauty: no sane person will call a truly beautiful image, like Michelangelo’s Pietà, “ugly” . However, we must nevertheless admit that the artistic world of today flies (no pun intended) from Beauty. A contemporary artist or an art collector may not deny the beauty of the Sistine Chapel, but he will likely deny that he is beholden to such standards of beauty.

beautyAs the English philosopher and aesthete, Roger Scruton, writes in his excellent book entitled Beauty, people flee Beauty because its acceptance implies a limitation of their freedom: to admit beauty is to admit that there is a deeper meaning to this world, one that is not compatible with narcissistic, arbitrary  liberty.

To admit that some things are objectively beautiful brings one very close to admitting that there is an absolute source of Beauty and, ultimately, of Truth, which is unacceptable to a relativistic world that wants truth to be submitted to the absolute freedom of each individual.

We live in a culture that is willing to sacrifice Beauty and Truth for the sake of a false idea of personal freedom. We must counter this by living lives that are charged with Beauty and oriented towards the Truth. We must show that true freedom can only be achieved by living lives in accord with the True and the Beautiful, which is to live in accord with God Himself.

This small reflection was inspired by a superb essay which can be found at the blog Journey towards Easter:  Roger Scruton: the Flight from Beauty.