Marvellous paradoxes

Reading the Rule of Benedict frequently reminds me of the mysterious way in which apparent gospel contradictions can reveal marvellous paradoxes – and, so, release different aspects of the same truth that then further enrich and transform us.

In Matthew 11, Jesus touches our hearts with a kind and light touch when he invites all those who are weary with life to come to him, learn from his gentleness and humility, and accept his light yoke and easy burden. In any true lectio on this passage, we will probably be given a glimpse of what metanoia means. We change our lives and undergo conversatio morum in such a way that we feel an unspeakable relief in the face of the heaviest problems and crosses we have to carry in life. Daily existence acquires something of the incredible lightness of being.

But then listen to Jesus speaking about following him in Mark 7. Here his tone is very different, sterner and less inclusive. The road that leads to life is narrow and only a few find it.

Benedict and the early monastic founders understood monastic commitment as a second baptism in which the true meaning of the Christian promises are re-discovered. Benedict warns of the hard challenges of this way of self-renunciation and emphasises the freedom we must feel when we commit ourselves to it. But then, he soon says, after an initial encounter with the hardness of discipline, we come to ‘run along the way of the Lord’s commands with an unspeakable sweetness of love.’

Maybe undertaking a contemplative practice is like starting to live the monastic life; they are each a re-baptism and re-discovery of what discipleship means. Because meditation creates community, we soon find ourselves inside a ‘school of the Lord’s service’. The Master of this School teaches each of us uniquely how we are to serve him and what kind of work we are called to undertake.

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Contemplative Exchange group in Snowmass

Narrowness and expansion, discipline and lightness. We reflected on these paradoxes recently at Snowmass Monastery in Colorado when a group of younger contemplative teachers and scholars converged from the WCCM, Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation, Thomas Keating’s Contemplative Outreach and Tilden Edward’s Shalem Institute. When the four ‘founders’ (though we were ambivalent about this description) met last year to discuss the work of contemplative wisdom today we agreed to invite five representatives of our communities or networks to explore the question in the light of the next generation. Two of our five were oblates.

I felt equally proud of each of them for the way they participated and represented our own path It was a most fruitful time of prayer and discernment, with a self-evidently deep and diverse group of twenty younger people committed strongly to the contemplative path and serving the Lord through it. It showed the vitality of the monastic path as a way of transmission but also the quite new ways in which it is already being transformed – so that tradition can be regenerated and we who are ‘students in the Kingdom’ can ‘bring forth things new and old’ from our inner rooms as a contemplative way of serving the global needs of our time.

Not a Nostalgic reflection

John Main & Laurence Freeman..Forty years ago today John Main and I boarded a plane from London to Montreal carrying a couple of suitcases and an embarrassing number of overflowing plastic supermarket bags holding last-minute remembered clothes and commentaries on the Rule of St Benedict. On arrival and under heavy rain we were met by Bishop Len Crowley, a rare free spirit among bishops, who had invited us to establish a Benedictine priory of monks and lay people dedicated to the practice and teaching of meditation. In the ‘quiet revolution’ in Quebec he had seen a once all-powerful church diminish and recede from public acceptance and suffer a devastating loss of meaning. Prophetically – and like John Main – he could see this was not merely an era of change but a change of era.

The archdiocese had bought a small new house for our new adventure, rundown yet with a unique charm. It was in an inner suburb of the city but a historic old home. As the sale was not yet completed, Bishop Len drove us to a nearby parish church where the priest gave us homeless monks refuge for several weeks until we were ready to move in. We used the time driving around collecting furniture that people were offering us, getting to know people and already embarking on our reason for being there – teaching meditation.

Over the next 13 years Montreal became, for me personally, a home-city with lifelong friends who are, of course, always what makes home and life worth living. Fr John and I became Canadians. It taught me a lot, often painfully, about myself. It was also the place where John Main fulfilled his personal mission, taught and put up with me and trusted me to share in laying the foundations of the essential teaching and shaping the outlines of what Montreal was to be the embryo of – the World Community for Christian Meditation.

Very soon after we arrived we realised that the house on Vendome Avenue was too small – new members and guests had to live close by with friends of the community or in a couple of rented apartments. We had no money but we had a rich vision – and we had Fr John. Soon we were offered an extraordinary house and garden, high on the mountain, Mount Royal, but it was in an easy walking distance of downtown. It had not been lived in for ten years; but it had an old Irish butler-caretaker and a sleepy young security guard. As Fr John showed me round and explained the terms of the gift, I felt we had won the spiritual lottery. Fr John kindly tempered my enthusiasm by saying: ‘it’s what we need now to do what we have got to do now, but remember it’s not the last step.’

We moved in. Some people thought we shouldn’t be in such a big place. But it was the right place. The windows didn’t fit and let in the snow. The plumbing worked when it was in a good mood and that made them feel we were being kept humble. The generous donor would also arrive unexpectedly and say the family needed a piece of furniture or books from the library we had come to think of as ours. Fr John (more than me) loved and laughed at this exercise in detachment and poverty of spirit. People came to meditate and to stay. We fixed the windows, got hot water and refurbished the garden. The extended community grew, in Montreal, in Canada, in N America and globally. Fr John died there knowing the meaning of his life was alive.

BONNEAUSTRALIA
Ernie Christie, Debra Christie,Teresa Tratnyek, Paul Tratnyek, Cathy Day

The stories of life flow into and inform each other. Anytime now we will get the keys for Bonnevaux. It is a place of tangible and spiritual beauty. As I write this a group of education leaders, committed to our work with children, are walking the grounds and talking about a seminar we will hold there next year. I am skyping with them, seeing how their exciting ideas are forming through the courage of their vision. I am also feeling how the spirit of Bonnevaux spoke to them yesterday, as they sent several hours walking around.

So today is not about nostalgia. It about seeing patterns and resonances in life, personal and communal, luring ever deeper into the experience of meaning. Never settle for just one level of meaning, every day, every decade tells us.

Nostalgia is melancholic. That is why Fr John said that prayer is not a ‘nostalgia for God’. Vision and meaning are about discovering that there are and always will be new ways of being. We have to see them and then believe that they are there for us. The beauty and hope they glow with invite us to trust. This is what prayer is – an experience of being that shows us new ways of being.

Doesn’t our whole world need this? At Bonnevaux it will be truth at the heart of the life we live there. People will feel it when they arrive and see its physical beauty, when they are greeted and settle in their room, when they meditate and when they work and when they learn through teaching, dialogue and discussion how this new vision of reality can be truly lived when they return.

We have many needs to ask you to help us with for Bonnevaux. The most important is to share in this vision with us and to share it with others.

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www.bonnevauxwccm.org

Muddling Through

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Our left brain view of the world believes strongly in strategy. Planning and controlling the future is an uncontested goal for most modern administrators and politicians. They seek a utopian, perfect algorithm that will beat even the common image of the know-all, do-what-he-likes God.

But when you see the chaos rampant in The White House or the confusion in the British government’s approach to Brexit or when you speak privately to most CEOs, the reality is very different. Behind the facade of being-in-control is the fact of fear, uncertainty and just trying to see how to muddle through from crisis to crisis without losing face or bonuses. People are generally surprised – with a vague sense of gratitude to something – when things work out as planned.

This is just Life, where the best-laid plans can be swept away in an instant by a hurricane, a medical diagnosis, drop in exchange rates or clicking ‘send’ by mistake. No wonder we are afraid and deal with fear by embedding ourselves in secure routines which ‘holidays’ only serve to reinforce.

Maybe this is where the ‘fear of God’ can come to our rescue. According to Scripture it is the beginning of wisdom. Fear is a bad translation, however, because it evokes punishment or guilt. We are rightly frightened of neo-Nazis but that is a different kind of fear. The fear of God is more like the sense of vastness and vulnerability we feel looking over the edge of a high cliff, or the wonder at the moment of birth or death or the mutual declaration of love, or the night before marriage or monastic profession.

This so-called fear of God is less like ordinary fear and far closer to wonder, awe and sheer excitement at seeing our familiar world being deconstructed and transformed. It is the revealing of new ways of being that we were unaware of or sceptical about before. The parables of Jesus effect this revelation by their exaggeration and near-absurdity. Would any father be quite so welcoming to a prodigal son? Would anyone sell everything for sheer joy to buy a field or a fine pearl? Would anyone who couldn’t fill all the seats at their banquet really bring in street people and social rejects?

The very far-fetchedness of these ordinary-seeming stories with their weird spin serves as an explosive device in the familiar arrangements of our mental and emotional world. Yet, once we have accepted this revelation of the unknown, we feel not the anxiety and insecurity we dread and evade, but a new kind of peace and the mysterious certitude of faith. The irony is that the way the church tells these dynamite stories usually makes them sound like a lullaby.

There is another way to balance the real, frightening unpredictability of life with a calm and humorous adaptability to circumstances. That is found through meditation as we make a habit of poverty and powerless-ness and discover that these qualities of consciousness are not the cause of psychological fear but the antidote to fear of all kinds, except the fear of God.

In saying the mantra we recognise and accept the muddle of our minds and lives. Eventually, we become fearless. We walk through the minefield of life with a lighter step. In that acceptance we begin to see potential and pattern in chaos. We remember that the Spirit of God can do what management consultants cannot. It brings cosmos out of chaos and sets the experience of creativity way above the compulsion to control.

No Decoration

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The present moment is the whole mystery. But it is so inherently simple, unadorned and simply what it is, that it is like one of those leaf insects, so perfectly camouflaged into its environment,  that it is easily missed.

Meditation is radically simple attention to the present moment. When this work of attention reaches a degree of purity it cuts through the razzmatazz of the mind. Layers and layers of thought and imagination that we have piled on top of the present peel away like old paint.

Until then, it can be frustrating, trying to be present. It can feel like looking from the outside into a warm and cozy house through an impenetrable window while you are drenched with rain and shivering with cold. Over time and in grace, the outsideness disappears. The window becomes a friend and we are inside. In fact we are both inside and outside and therefore free of that illusion – illusions are always one-sided –  that makes us feel forever as if we were outsiders.

Being in the present is to be an insider – a citizen of the kingdom as the New Testament said to its first readers who were, for the most part, total social and economic outsiders. To be truly on the inside is not to be first class, enjoying special privileges. It is to know that the sense of being outside – for both the have and the have-nots – is equally an illusion. In this way contemplative experience promotes social justice and equality because it dissolves the fear of losing what you have to those who want to take it away from you.

I have wandered from my original point which is the easiest thing to do when you are trying to talk about something that is self-evident. The present moment. In meditation we sometimes are led into a space where the great tide-currents of the mind become still. The energy is stronger for being still. Thoughts and problem-solving, fantasy and fears recede. Complex emotional and logistical anxieties are relativised and right proportion reigns. Meditation doesn’t solve your problems. It makes you aware that you are not your problems and that you are not imprisoned in them. You no longer have to decorate your mind, tidy it or make yourself look attractive. You become like a person totally assured of acceptance and love.

Outside the present moment we are always fiddling around trying to make things better or nicer. Inside the present moment we see that things are always becoming better and nicer if we allow them and collaborate with the power of goodness that is in all things all the time. We don’t need to re-create the world but to be in the world as it is.

The deep human instinct to decorate oneself, beautify oneself and one’s surroundings yields to the perception that we are adequate, more than adequate. We do not have to win recognition or admiration. We can quietly celebrate – and if we feel like it, even loudly – celebrate this.

Nevertheless it is hard to accept at first. The first stage of the opening of the present moment, as we get free of compulsive analysis of the past and scanning of the future, is surprisingly ordinary. You might then think, ‘well it’s calm and quiet and trouble free, but all a bit plain. Like being given a plain digestive biscuit rather than your favourite cookie. Is anything more going to happen? What about the glory of the Lord, ecstasy and bliss?’

You are not ungrateful but still wondering ‘what next?’ and that tells you you are no really in the present moment. It is a good place to be and you have to learn to be there and work inside and outside from this new place of calm and quiet. It is within you but you will find that you are influencing the external dimension too. Martha and Mary get on better. The ordinary is just what it seems because it is not what it seems.

So, when the mind calms down in meditation, keep up the work of attention, let go of the remaining thoughts and questions. And then, in this plain and quiet mind, pure streams of joy begin to bubble out of their deep source

Tradition

Traditional, traditionalist are two ways of describing how we relate to tradition as a human transmission of experience. There are, however, many nuances within the idea of tradition that we need to be alert to if we are to get our relation to the past and the future right. And in our era of instant excitement and chronic amnesia, getting it right is necessary to our survival

bernardLast week at the annual John Main Seminar (hosted this year by our Houston community) the presenter, Bernard McGinn was one of the great scholars of the Western Christian mystical tradition in our time. At eighty he radiates energy and a contagious enthusiasm for the field of study and research to which his life has been dedicated. The presence of his wife and colleague Pat and the benevolent evidence of their decades together was another kind of reminder that the past does not need to be the dumping ground of redundancy and obsolescence.  The past lives on when it is integrated into the present and fuels us for the future.

‘New’ does not only mean what has just now been invented or discovered. Human existence is not restricted to youth. Delightful and beautiful as youth is, it (and all beginnings and the early stages of things) has many limitations which only experience through time, trial and error can correct. On the physical plane, there is a price to pay for this, because of mortality and the fourth law of thermo-dynamics. Probably since humans first began to think about life they have been amused and saddened by the disparity between the capacities of youth and the knowledge that can only be acquired by ageing which involves the loss of capacity.

By the time we learn why we are making mistakes we have often lost the opportunity to repeat them as enjoyable and painfully as before. And even those in the full bloom of youth often undermine their own enjoyment because of a divided mind: thinking of what they might have chosen to do while doing distractedly what they did choose.  Transmitting the wisdom of experience is one of the defining responsibilities of the old to the young. To resist letting go of youth betrays this responsibility.

Usually, it seems inevitable that the young will make errors that their elders can foresee and perhaps cushion but rarely prevent. Their role then becomes one of giving reassurance and hope for the future.

Human existence is traditional. It involves the transmission of knowledge gained through mistakes and discoveries across the chasm of mortality. There are huge failures in this transfer of experience and wisdom, which is why we continue to repeat the same mistakes – such as the use of violence to resolve differences and the construction of unjust economic systems. But there are also amazing successes such as in the transmission of mystical knowledge that has created the interweaving wisdom traditions of the world.

In Houston, we learned more about our own mystical tradition from a mind and personality who had for long acquired and stored it in his tissue in ways with which Google or any hard-copy library could not compete. Humour, perspective, seeing new linkings across familiar territories, deepening one’s love for what is already very familiar – these are aspects of the transmitting of spiritual wisdom. The written texts are important – as will be the audios and videos of modern culture – but they are not enough. Tradition is not static. When it begins to gather dust it is not longer tradition – the inter-personal transmission of knowledge – but merely an archive. Dr McGinn reminded us several times that he was ‘only an academic’;  as a musician might remind us he is only an interpreter, an instrument player, not the composer. Nevertheless he communicated what he had learned with human skills that awoke or deepened curiosity and delight in us.

His listeners were fired with the excitement of making new discoveries, seeing new patterns. Some bought big books, which they won’t finish. For us all, the outcome was both a renewed understanding of our daily contemplative practice and of the importance of passing on the gift of meditation.

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From St Thomas University in humid Houston to the great cool valley of Snowmass monastery in Colorado, 8000 feet high in the Rockies. Last night we had the first meeting of a group of younger contemplative teachers and practitioners drawn equally from the World Community, Contemplative Outreach, the Center of Action and Contemplation and the Shalem Institute. The leaders of these four contemplative networks, with the inspirational support of the Trust for the Meditation Process, have invited these representatives of the coming generation of teachers who are taking responsibility for re-discovering and re-transmitting the contemplative tradition of Christianity in our time.

Bridges and personal relationships between the generations are vital. It is vital that the young take responsibility and use their capacities to the full with all their dedication and commitment. It is vital that their elders help them, offer sustained friendship – and, when necessary, get out of their way.

What’s the Meaning of Prayer?

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In the commonly understood sense today, prayer is difficult to make sense of. It may be tolerated when we are in a state of desperation. No one would mock someone who is facing a terrible crisis if they pray for help. Credible belief collapses. But a bankrupt kind of hope allows us to believe in anything. In desperation, we have to believe in something, however incredible. Diagnosed with a terminal illness, facing the bleak landscape of a life without your loved one, disappointed in love or failed in life, fallen from grace and favour with the world.

But in normal circumstances, prayer in modern culture is generally felt to be amusingly or distastefully self-deceptive, superstitious, superficial or just an embarrassingly cheap escape from reality. Better to sit facing the harsh blank wall of reality like an impassive zen monk, waiting for nothing or for the final end of an endless series of finalities, than to pin up on the wall pictures of false hopes on to which we project weak fantasies drawn from filtered childish memories of people who come to our rescue. In real life there is no escape. In reality, there is precious little altruism directed towards us even in childhood and even less after. In extremis, prayer may be excusable, because it is understandable in the light of human frailty, how hard it is to face reality honestly without false consolation. But, as a regular means of escape from the discomforts or loneliness of existence, it is merely a fantasy that diminishes human dignity.

There is another attitude to prayer. According to the seventh-century monk Isaac the Syrian, a person prays a lot when there is no other help. The more he prays the more ‘his heart becomes humble’ because you can’t cry out from a state of helplessness without acknowledging your powerlessness. This is the wisdom of humility as seen in the first of the twelve steps of recovery. We see here the beginning of a different approach to prayer in extremis. It is not that the person praying is expecting a supernatural divine intervention. But the very act of praying – and here prayer might mean no more than the verbal or mental expression of troubles, feelings and needs – the very act of praying changes us. It brings us to an experiential self-knowledge and self-acceptance that actually transforms us. Here, then, humility and self-knowledge are the same. To be in this state is to gain the happiness associated with poverty of spirit: depending on none of our own resources because we see that undeniably we have none to rely on, except the blessed ability to acknowledge this poor fact.

This is the opposite of passivity and despair. It is a long way from the fantasy of winning the lottery of God’s special attention. But it needs to be worked at and persevered in.

Isaac the monk says that until we have found this humility it is impossible not be scattered. Our imagination is working on one fantasy solution after another. Humility gathers the heart together, he says. It makes us single-pointed, mindful, still.

In this state the very thing that is not expected or fantasised about, happens. A sensation of divine compassion touches us surprisingly in the very poverty of our hopes. If we try to possess this, to manipulate it to obtain what we wanted before we stopped wanting, then God will be scared off and we will be in extremis again. But, let go of the anxiety generated by fantasy and what Isaac calls the ‘strength of trust’ returns.

Prayer then takes on a very different meaning. As indeed does God.

This is why the desert monks used to say ‘pray for the gift of prayer’. It is not that prayer fulfils our wishes but that prayer is the fulfilment of our deepest needs arising from the place of poverty that we usually prefer to avoid entering. This is pure prayer. The prayer that the great masters mean when they extol the fruits and blissful state of prayer.

Now, interestingly, this state of prayer, where words and intercessions, petitions and desires, are completely left behind because they are no longer necessary, can be entered by means of these words and cries from the heart. Provided they come from the heart. When that is, they arise from the pure need or bare desperation itself, not from an intermediary state of fantasy and addictive wish-fulfilment. Then we don’t need to stay long with the words. Or we reduce the words to a bare minimum. We don’t need imagination because the actual experience is more real and present. Then, as soon as they are faced in this poverty of spirit, the feelings of pain and anxiety themselves begin to change. Stay in this place, simple, undemanding, silent, and prayer itself – the direct participation in the presence of God – is the reward.

Meditation? Simply putting this into daily practice. It is the way of making this blessed realism a permanent state. Prayer then is understood not as an escape from reality. Not a lottery of wish-fulfilment. But as not less than a way of life that transforms, enhances and brings our humanity to the highest degree of being. Nothing to laugh at in this which becomes the laughter of the spirit.

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“.. when he feels that God is there and that he comes to his aid, immediately his heart is filled with faith and he then understands that prayer is the source of our help, the source of salvation, the treasure of our trust, the port that has been freed of the storm, the light of those who are in darkness, the support of the weak, shelter in time of trial, help at the crisis point of illness, shield that saves in combat, arrow sent out against the enemy. In a word, a multitude of good enters into him by means of prayer. So from then on, he finds his delight in the prayer of faith. His heart glows with trust. ((See, Isaac the Syrian, Spiritual Discourses, 1st series, no. 21)

 

Compassionate Contemplatives

 

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Photo by Turelio, 1986/CC BY-SA 2.0

I recently read these thoughts, quoted below, of Mother Theresa of Calcutta about the meaning of contemplation. Although controversial in some eyes, she was loved by most of the planet because of her passionate care for the poorest and most derelict and abandoned members of society. Members of her still thriving order are recognisable the world over. I often see them sitting in small groups of two or three at the back of the room or church, when I am giving a talk or leading a meditation. Quiet, observant, listening, in their white sari-like habits lined with a little blue border.

Whenever I see them I remember my meetings with Mother Theresa, the talks I gave to her sisters and the retreat she asked me to give to her contemplative sisters who live in a simple community close to Calcutta railways station. She was totally unconcerned by her celebrity. If she had a fault it was her intense concentration on her work and its expansion and the force with which she drew others into it in accordance with her plans. I felt it myself and it was hard to resist.  But I noticed too how totally, freely, she let go of the ego when she felt the force of a direction other than her own.  When I last saw her, at the funeral of the priest who had been her close friend and companion for many years, she told me with enthusiasm that he would now be praying fulltime in heaven for her intention of getting a house for her sisters in China.

She understood meditation intuitively and deeply. For her sisters, she said, the most important times of the day were the hours of silence at the beginning and end  of the day. In between they were to be unconditionally and boundlessly committed to the service of the poorest, on the streets, in the soup-kitchens, in the homes for the dying. But without these two pillars of contemplation each day their work would not be God’s work. She recognised in John Main’s teaching a reliable source of practical wisdom and authority that her sisters could draw on to nourish and deepen their contemplative prayer.

The Missionaries of Charity show a very special kind of vocation, as are all forms of consecrated and monastic life. But they testify to a healthy and demanding understanding of contemplation relevant and necessary to every walk of life. “Contemplation has nothing to do with shutting oneself up in a dark cupboard,” she says. True contemplatives are often hard-talkers and usually outspoken, like Thomas Merton who irritated his fellow monks when he told them they were not living a real contemplative life but were more like ‘introverts saying prayers all day’.

In our digital, media-saturated, individualistic culture, pathological introversion is a chronic danger. It is the symptom of a life-draining self-centredness like the dementors in Harry Potter. Behind it is an often undiagnosed narcissism, that manifests (as we can see today) in the highest corridors of power. It seeks, sucks attention rather than giving it. It is fascinated by images of the self rather than living the direct experience of the self that takes the attention off ourselves.

Outward forms of life – working with street poverty or living in a  monastery – do not in themselves produce a contemplative life. Each person in the unique solitude of their calling need to discover the sources and resources of contemplation for themselves. What is common to all, however, is the wisdom that urges us to adopt a contemplative practice – one that converts introversion into interiority. And this shows us that contemplation is no more and no less than being in the present, seeing things as they really are and relating to reality from the real centre of our being – a relation that is proven by the quality of our love and our spirit of kindness.

Meditating twice a day, morning and evening, is as universal a practical wisdom for living this as we can find anywhere.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) 

We have been called to love the world. And God loved the world so much that he gave Jesus to it (Jn 3,16). Today, he loves the world so much that he gives you and me to the world to be his love, his compassion and his presence through our lives of prayer, sacrifice and self-surrender. The response that God is waiting for from you is to become a contemplative, to be a contemplative.

Let us take Jesus at his word and we will be contemplatives at the heart of the world, because if we have faith then we are his permanent presence. In contemplation the soul draws directly from God’s heart the graces that the active life has been entrusted to distribute. Our very existence is to be intimately bound to the living Christ within us. If we do not live in God’s presence, we cannot keep going.

What is contemplation? It is to live the life of Jesus. That is how I understand it. To love Jesus; living his life at the heart of our own; living our own at the heart of his… Contemplation has nothing to do with shutting oneself up in a dark cupboard but in allowing Jesus to live his Passion, his love and his humility in us, to pray with us, to be with us and to make holy through us. Our lives and our contemplation are one. It’s not a question of doing but of being. In fact it is about the complete happiness of our spirit through the Holy Spirit who breathes God’s fullness into us and send us out into all creation as his own, personal message of love (Mk 16,15).