Set a watch, O LORD, before my keyboard

Certain events over the last couple of weeks seem to have coalesced to bring about this post. Some time ago we received Father Prior’s “Benedictine Approach to the Use of the Internet & Social Media“; shortly thereafter our reading of the Introduction to the Devout Life brought us to the chapters on conversations and detractions; this past week saw some celebrations of the vetus ordo at the Fatima shrine, the main celebrant being a well known American cardinal. The flood of invective on Portuguese social media on the part of the laity and, even worse, priests has brought all the more to mind St. Benedict, St. Francis de Sale and Father Prior’s words on silence.

Perhaps it is the age we are living in, or perhaps it is just my impression, but it seems that we live in a time when most people seem to be very opinionated and they make a fact of letting everyone know their opinions whether others want to know them or not. Yet looking to the Holy Rule for guidance, what does the Holy Patriarch have to say about much speaking? In Chapter VI, after quoting the Scriptures St. Benedict puts the matter quite succinctly:

[I]f at times we ought to refrain from useful speech for the sake of silence, how much more ought we to abstain from evil words on account of the punishment due to sin.

While the Rule is essentially directed at those living the cenobitic life, general rules can be taken from it that can be applied to the lives of those of us living in the world, as D. Mark Kirby shows the aforementioned commentary. One of the verses of Sacred Scripture that I am most reminded of is

In the multitude of words there shall not want sin: but he that refraineth his lips is most wise. (Prov 10:19)

Looking back at St. Benedict’s injunction to refrain from talking even for “useful speech” through the lens of Proverbs 10:19, I can look back at everyday situations in my life where conversations (be they in person or online) that start out innocent enough many times slowly begin to degrade: a complaint is made here, a fault of another is revealed there, and the conversation suddenly snowballs, leading either one or both parties to murmuring, sinning against charity, etc. And this is not even when the conversation has started off maliciously! On those occasions where one happens to be caught in a situation of gossip, I have found that if one doesn’t extract oneself immediately then one is easily sucked into a whirlpool of complaint, detraction, etc., even if one was initially unwilling to join in at all.

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Guardian Angel

June 10th is the feast of the Guardian Angel of Portugal. For those familiar with the story of Fatima, the Guardian Angel of Portugal appeared to the young shepherds, as a way of preparing them for Our Lady’s visit. Providentially, this centenary the feast has fallen on a Saturday, a day liturgically dedicated to Our Lady.


Historically, the Guardian Angel of Portugal has always been believed to be St. Michael, who is also referred to in the Liturgy as the Angel of Peace (another title which the Angel of Portugal identified himself with). So, there is the pious belief that the young shepherds actually saw St. Michael! I leave you with the Collect of the votive Mass of the Guardian Angel of Portugal, as found in the Bragan missal:

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui angelicam custodiam homini et hominum regnis, provinciis, et civitatibus contulisti:concede propitius; ut nostri regni ac civitatis praesul et custos, Angelus tuus sanctus ipsum totum regnum ac cives ab instantibus periculis corporis et animae et ab omnibus adversitatibus protegat et defendat. Per Dominum.

For the children

Since last year we have bought a couple of these magnets every time we visit Fatima. I think we probably enjoy them more than the kids! Here are the one’s we have so far:

Left to right: St. Benedict (a well known Portuguese image, S. Bento da Porta Aberta); St. Anthony of Lisbon; St. Jude; St. Christopher; St. Therese of the Holy Face
Left to right: Our Lady of Fatima; Senhor dos Milagres; Our Lady of Sameiro (which is actually of the Immaculate Conception); St. Michael the Archangel


For the past few years I have particularly enjoyed this version (by the same choir that sung at our wedding and our children’s baptisms) of a traditional Portuguese Lenten hymn. Here is the refrain:

Padeceu grandes tormentos
Duros martírios na cruz
Morreu para nos salvar
Bendito seja Jesus

He suffered great torments;
Severe afflictions upon the Cross;
He died to save us;
Blessed be Jesus.

The hymn speaks of Jesus’ suffering for us out of love, but it focuses mainly on His Passion, describing the terrible suffering He underwent. I am not exactly sure in what context it was formerly sung: if in the Senhor dos Passos processions (which are a form of Via Crucis), or with the Ementação das Almas (a practice of praying for the Holy Souls of Purgatory at night during certain days of Lent, while also reminding the living to convert while there is time).

An Advent prose

To see the Cross is to see Life. To come  to the Cross is to come to Life. And yet why do I run from Life? Why am I so afraid of Life; why do I embrace Death? Oh sweet Death that comes to me by my mouth, my eyes, my ears, my nose, my hands and my feet! What manner of master are you that the slave loves the chains keeping him in bondage? And yet the sweetness soon turns bitter, and while once the chain was as a melodious chord, now it is yanked and one is dragged in the mire.

The lamps have gone out, their oil spent foolishly. The walls are in disrepair. The watchman has fallen asleep at his post, leaving the roaring lion to have free rein, prowling about. How long, O Lord, how long, will you leave the temple of my heart in abandon? Arise, oh my soul, awaken from your slumber! The Lord is coming, and shall not long delay! He is coming from the East, to enlighten your eyes! Your Saviour is coming, and He shall build up the walls again – open wide the gates!

Lord, that I may not fear the Cross. That the Life-giving Wood may be as a plough on this stony heart of mine. Work this arid soil, O Lord, that it may be found a worthy temple as that virginal womb which saw You come into this world; rain down on it your mercy and grace, that it may see You finally come to dwell therein.


Pax Christi [I]

This past Sunday’s Epistle reading managed to capture my attention much more than the Gospel, especially the following part:

Brethren: Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience. Bear with one another and forgive one another, if anyone has a grievance against any other; even as the Lord has forgiven you, so also do you forgive. But above all these things have charity, which is the bond of perfection. And may the peace of Christ reign in your hearts; unto that peace, indeed, you were called in one body.

Col 3:12-15

What was it about the reading that made me pause? While I try as best as I can to accompany the readings in the missal, looking after two fidgety children makes for a distraction-ridden Mass. Still, as  the priest intoned the words pax Christi, suddenly my attention re-directed from the kids to the reading. Since reading Chapter IV of the Rule some weeks ago, instrument no. 25 – “Do not give a false peace” – has stuck in my mind, almost as though a splinter, a source of constant “irritation”. What does it mean to give a false peace? And before we can even speak of a false peace, what is the peace that St. Benedict speaks of?

I will be dividing this topic into two posts as a matter of practicality, allowing me to flesh out the ideas as I write.

A much forgotten aspect (at least in the Western world) of the spiritual life is that it is a struggle, a combat. I say this at the risk of sounding repetitive, but it bears repeating again and again. The Christian spiritual life is not something merely therapeutic, a form of spiritual hygiene, the finding of an inner equilibrium. Our communion with God, our participating in the life of the Trinity is to be fought on three fronts – the Devil, the World, and the Flesh. It is a prize that does not come cheaply. If I was already aware of this, the reading of the Desert Fathers has hammered the lesson home quite emphatically. In the words of the Apostle Paul:

For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.

Eph 6:12


If we do think of the spiritual life of a struggle at all, then perhaps we relegate it to the monastic life. After all, aren’t monks and nuns the ones’ who have answered the call to remove themselves from the world to do spiritual battle? “I’m OK aren’t I? Sure I may gossip and get drunk and vent my frustration on others and completely forget to pray, but I haven’t killed anyone; I haven’t done any of that negative stuff explicitly stated in the Decalogue. I don’t notice any struggle at all…” In such a case, of course there is no struggle because the demons need not bother with one in such a state. Monastic literature speaks constantly of how material complacency is an enemy of the spiritual life, that it deadens the fear of the Lord, of how it lulls the soul into a torpor, and how one goes on to become little better than the beasts. I often wonder if that is not was has happened with us in the modern world, if we have not become too soft, too puny, too lethargic due to all the comfort that is available to us if only we have the ability to purchase it.

But if one does decide to be faithful to one’s baptismal vows, if one does decide to take up the standard of Christ, then one will see how much of a struggle the Christian life is, not only exteriorly, but interiorly as well. Are there not days when one can almost feel the struggle within? Days when it is as if a fierce war is being waged in one’s heart, that temptations of all sorts come in wave after wave, that the passions inflame, either individually or in concert, and beat down relentlessly upon one’s heart? And in these moments one realises how utterly fragile, utterly weak one is, and one’s only defence is to cry out “O God come to my assistance; o Lord make haste to help me”! No, spiritual warfare is not only the portion of the monastic.


We fight then to attain peace, but this peace is not the absence of conflict. The conflict will be within till our last dying breath, for the Enemy is a relentless one and will not give quarter until then end. Paradoxically, we are fighting so that we may die in order to live. We are putting to death the Old Man each and every day, so that the New Man may be born within and, in His being born, bring us to life.




Light (or, the Ascent) – Part II

Picking up from the previous post: what exactly did I believe, and which was the God that had answered my prayers?


At that moment I simply knew that the God who had answered my prayers could be only one, and that monotheistic God could only be He who had given up His only Son. I did not know what that meant at the time – I couldn’t perhaps even articulate it – but I was certain of it, almost intuitively you might say. There was only one God, and He was the God of the Christians.  And remember, at this point I knew next to nothing about the Christian faith; I could hardly recall  anything of my Sunday school upbringing, and  studying for several years in a Catholic school did not really impart any profound or significant Catholic teaching.


I did not return to the Church all at once. For a while, all I could do was pray Psalm 23 (22). For a time, that – and the promise to lead a virtuous life – sufficed. Christ’s death and resurrection were to be understood allegorically. Though I did believe that He had died on the Cross, His resurrection was something that my reasoning abhorred. If He did “come back”, it couldn’t have been in body; maybe it was a spirit or such. And how could His death do anything for me? Why was His passion effective for me if He had undergone it? (Remember, radical individualism was still in my system) No, if His death and resurrection  were to have any import on my life, it was that they signified all those times that I die to myself and arise anew after hardships, purged and a better/stronger man. And yet, reading through the entries of that period, I see that the conversion was a gradual process. Coupled with the desire for a virtous life, there were still pagan elements in it, thoughts and desires which  were still quite opposed to Christian morality.

At the same time this was going on a Russian and a Dane came into my life. I can no longer remember exactly, but I think I discovered Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard in relation to Nietzsche. From the Dane I learned that following Christ was something “radical”: that there had to be a change in my life, that following Him could not be a merely intellectual exercise, with no impact on the way I lived my life. Either I would follow Him and my life would change, or I would follow Him not at all. There was to be no middle ground. From the Russian’s novels came the subtle fragrance of the Gospel, stories of repentance and forgiveness. I was puzzled at the belief of a physically resurrected Christ that came across in the novels, but I decided not to mock it and remain “open”.


Somewhere along the line I realised that this one man show was not tenable, and so I began to consider my options. If I were to be a Christian, I needed to belong to a body of believers; I could not make it up as I went along. Christ had certainly left something behind which would have lasted to the present and which could be easily identified. I saw three options: Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism. As for Protestantism, I dismissed it straightaway. The idea that Christians had been wrong up until the Protestant “reformers” came along was absurd, and that Protestants could not even agree among themselves was enough to convince me that that such a position was ridiculous and a recipe for disaster. That left Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Orthodoxy at the time was a bit of a mystery to me. All I knew was that the Orthodox believe pretty much what Catholics believe, only expressed it differently, and have no Pope. Given that I had been baptised into the Catholic Church, was culturally connected to it and the fact that there was a “final arbiter” in the person of the Pope, (re-)joining the Catholic Church seemed like the logical thing. Here was an institution that had been around for two millennia; if it didn’t know human nature and how to help one lead a virtuous life, who would? I decided from then on to start going to Mass. And though I knew I didn’t believe everything the Church taught, I considered that day my “official” return.

Doctrinally, I held (without my knowing it) many heretical/Protestant ideas in the beginning. The Church was just a human institution with a common faith and Mass was just a gathering of the faithful where they celebrated their common faith; the sacraments were merely symbols; infant baptism was “invalid” or at least pointless (one needed to understand the sacraments); the three persons of the Trinity were “masks” for the same Person; Jesus was not God, but He was the greatest Creature;… These I held because they made sense to me, but I had always remained open to what the Church actually teaches and eventually, as I began to learn what she does teach, I gave up these ideas in favour of her doctrine. The Eucharist was perhaps the hardest of all, even more than the Resurrection of the Dead. I was open to believing that it truly was the Body and Blood of Our Lord, but I did not believe it. Knowing that I did not believe what the Church did kept me from receiving Holy Communion. Then, one day, out of the blue, it just flashed within that it could only be His Body and Blood and from then on I never once doubted.

Upon returning to the Church and learning more about her, I discovered that what I had despised for so many years was not her, but the image I had of her, of what I thought she was, especially morals-wise. Morally, there was a lot that had to change with me. There were many ideas and beliefs that I had to give up. Some have told me that I am merely being reactionary, reacting against the beliefs I once held merely to distance myself from them and the person I was. And for a long time I did question if that was in fact the case. But eventually I came to realise that it wasn’t a reactionary impulse; that I had always been searching for Truth, and that in finding it (or rather, having allowed Him to find me) I could only submit to it and act accordingly. It took quite some time to make peace with myself, to come to terms with who I had been and who I was to become. Paradoxically, it was “necessary” for me to be without of the Church to come to the conclusion that all I had ever wanted was within it. I had gone on a journey across foreign lands and discovered a wonderous kingdom which was, in fact, the home from which I had left. The prodigal son had finally come home.


And so, here I am 9 years later, a different man than I had once been, and yet at the core, still the same. I have come a long way, and yet each day seems as though I’ve just begun. I walked in darkness, and now am slowly coming to the light. And while the initial zeal and fire (and naivety) has long burned out, with God’s grace I carry on because I have experienced the love of the Son who gave Himself up for me.

Darkness (or, the Descent) – Part I

This week marks 9 years since I returned to the Church. With the 10 year mark coming up, and with news of friends and acquaintances losing their faith in these past few years,  I decided to dig up my journal from the period before and during my conversion so that in looking back I can understand how I have gotten to where I am.

Reading through those pages, at times I did not recognize the person who wrote those words. It wasn’t due to the fact that certain passages were vague and I no longer remember what events they refer to (though there are plenty of those); rather, it was the tone, especially of the period before. So much anger, hubris, lust, envy… So much confusion swirling about at the time, and no compass to point the way out of the fog.


Where was I in the period just before I converted? I was a man searching for meaning, for the meaning of life, and a meaning to my life. Having left the Church at a young age not knowing what she is, I tried reading up on other religions. Buddhism and Toaism especially interested me, but shorn of any mysticism or anything that might smack of esoteric. (This desire for something with a lack of the supernatural element might have been due, in part, to experiences growing up, with my own relatives’ beliefs.) Eventually these did not satisfy me and I moved on to Philosophy (though I did hang on to what I called “Philosophical Taosim”). For a time Philosophy satisfied that hunger and I tried to read as much as I could, trying to make sense of life. Eventually I came upon Nietzsche. (I can’t recall how I came upon him; perhaps due to some of the company I kept at the time.) Nietzsche opened the door to Camus (and, to a lesser degree, to Schopenhauer, to radical individualists, etc.). I drank all of it in. Looking back now I realise the dangers of reading things which one is not equipped to read, especially without a guiding hand to show the way. Reflecting on this (among other things) would later on make me look to the Fathers – trustworthy guides to  interpreting the Scriptures.


I wanted to live a meaningful life, a virtuous life, but, at the same time, I wanted to indulge my passions. Yet what was this virtous life? I had swallowed hook, line, and sinker the German’s talk of morality as something of weaker men (and Christianity as being the morality of the weakest of all), and from the Frenchman I took that life was absurd and only I could give it meaning (the opening lines of The Myth of Sisyphus are still engraved in my mind all these years later, even after I have seen through their emptiness). From a political-philosophical point of view, I recognized no authority except that which I admitted. The Individual was supreme above all else, free from the fetters of society, of history, of culture, and whatever he entered into with another Individual was licit as long as it was agreed upon by both parties. Yet there was a small, almost imperceptible sensation that wanting to live a virtuous life was not exactly in conformity to giving into my desires, and that unrestrained “freedom” – the ability to choose whatever I wanted – was not in fact liberty, but a form of slavery to the raging, disordered appetites. Enter cognitive dissonance. Factor into that the inability to indulge in most of those passions (especially the one that consumed me the most), the hubris of an inflated ego that resulted from the authors I was reading, and ending a 5 year relationship and you get an unstable situation to say the least. I believed myself to be a one-eyed man deserving to be king in the land of the blind. For all my knowledge, I could not even recognize my own blindness; I could see no one, nor move from where I was.


Though I never wrote down the event in my journal, the memory of my “conversion moment” is still vivid in my mind. Not wanting to go into too much detail, as it is a very personal matter, it should suffice to say that one night, after returning home from work, I melted down; my walls of Jericho came crashing down. I, who up until then was no longer a believer in anything, who prided myself on being an “agnostic” (but was in fact an atheist), fell to my knees in tears and prayed what a friend years later would say is the one prayer that one can be certain the Lord will always answer, the prayer of the broken, of one who has reached rock bottom and has seen himself for what he really is, immersed in sin, fettered, unable to do what is right. I recall praying “God, I don’t know if you exist of not, but if you do, please save me from myself.” Immediately, a calm as I had never known came over me. I do not know how to put it into words, except by saying that while this calm was within me I realized that is was something from without, i.e., that it could not be and was not a product of my own psychological state or anything else of my own mind. All the confusion, all the anger and sadness and everything else that was inside at that moment ceased. It was as though I had experienced the Psalm verse “Be still, and know that I am God” (which I only heard of years later). I got up, went to bed and had the first night’s rest in a long time. I had fallen to my knees an unbeliever. I had arisen a believer.

But what exactly did I believe? Which was the God that had answered my prayers?


Benedictine roots

We returned home for my holidays, taking advantage of the time to do some Benedictine-related tourism. We visited two important places – the Royal Abbey of Alcobaça (formerly Cistercian) and the Monastery of Tibães. It is of this latter that I want to write about today.

The (former) Monastery of St. Martin of Tibães is located in Mire de Tibães, on the outskirts of the city of Braga, in northern Portugal. The monastery was founded in the 11th century, having been built upon an earlier cenobitic edifice. In the 16th century is was chosen as the “mother house” for the Benedictine order in Portugal and Brazil. Portugal had an agreement with the Holy See (much like Spain) called the Padroado, which, grosso modo, meant the state’s/crown’s resources were used in missionary activity in exchange for the crown chosing bishops for mission territory. Many of the bishops chosen for Brazil during this period were chosen from among the monks (of noble birth, it seems) of Tibães. I am curious as to the rationale behind this, as I’ve only ever heard of monastic bishops in the Eastern Churches. To accomodate the growing number of monks as well as its growing influence and prestige, the monastery underwent renovation up until the 19th century, ending up as an example of Portuguese Rococo. In the mid-19th century, with the Dissolution of the Monasteries in Portugal, the monastery fell into the State’s hands and was auctioned (excepting the sacristy, church, and cemetery), resulting later on in its near complete ruin. It was bought by the State again in the 1980’s and has since been under renovation.

The monastery functions mostly as a museum now. Interested as I am in liturgical matters, it saddened me to find no mention of the Portuguese Benedictines’ liturgical rite – the rite of Tibães – which they used in all their monasteries and institutions up until the Dissolution. Given the rite’s relationship with the Bragan rite, I hope to write about it some time in the near future on my blog dedicated to the Bragan rite.

Given that we are novice Benedictine oblates, I wanted to visit our Portuguese Benedictine roots. The Benedictines were very important in the country’s history, especially in its foundation. It was a privilege to visit this former Benedictine house. Wandering through the corridors I tried to imagine what it might have been like in its heyday, what the sounds and smells might have been. It also saddened me to see it not serving its original function, to know that such a great house had reached such disrepair, that it was not allowed to “die” naturally, if it were to die at all. In the end, it serves as a reminder that all things in this world are fleeting…

I leave you with some pictures my wife took (I can’t be trusted to take any – I just gawk):