For a couple of months now I have been working on editing a remarkable set of letters in between preparing lesson plans, teaching college students, and doing research on the cross cultural influences during the Tang Dynasty. I sent Abbot Philip a first draft of the book called An Abbot’s Notebook late last night. I wrote the following for the book.
I first learned of Christ in the Desert in 1999 when I was living at Mor Gabriel Monastery in Southeast Turkey, where I had been living and working as a Syriac Orthodox priest. I needed to leave the country and return to the United States and renew my visa. I began to search the internet for a monastery in the United States where I would be welcome and could stay for a month or two. I wrote to Abbot Philip and received the most kind and welcoming letter from the head of a Roman Catholic institution.
Abbot Philip a deeply committed Roman Catholic extended hospitality to me without the slightest reservation or condition. He received me as a brother. Later I was to learn that this was a core principle of Benedictine hospitality. The stranger, the pilgrim, and the traveler are to be received as if he is Christ.
I never felt that Abbot Philip extended hospitality out of duty or obligation. It was a genuine act of Christian love. After I returned to Turkey I asked again to return. This time I stayed none months. It was in those months that I saw the inter-faith and inter-religious principles at work that Abbot Philip writes about in his Notebook letters posted online each week. While I was a Christ in the Desert on my second stay we were visited by Bon monks from India. We had delightful discussions as a community of brothers. Never was there any sense that non-Catholics or non-Christians were any less spiritual or inferior to the Catholic monks. It is this spirit of both hospitality and genuine openness without guile that makes Christ in the Desert a modern day phenomenon in Roman Catholic monasteries.
It is not news to say that many monasteries in Europe and America are in crisis because of lack of new members. Not so with Christ in the Desert. It is an extraordinary experiment that has caught the attention of the monastic and secular world alike.
I have edited these letters with little correction except for the most obvious changes needed in grammar, spelling, and syntax. For the most part, I have tried to keep the authentic voice of Abbot Philip before the reader. Abbot Philip writes the way he speaks which is not always true of most people who try to write. I believe this is what makes the letters so compelling and inviting.
Also, I have organized the letters based on themes that are familiar in the lexicon of Benediction spirituality. In the Rule of Benedict great emphasis is placed on formation, obedience, organization of daily life, and discipline. Abbot Philip writes mostly about prayer, obedience, and the life of the monastery. He is so candid and truthful that it brings a crispness to the notes and a tart revelation of his own struggles and the challenging life of the monks. It is an evolving consciousness expressed through confession of trial and error. Abbot Philip has no problem sharing his failures as well as his success. For these reasons I have put the notes in each chapter in chronological order. It allows the reader to capture the subtlety of the development of his wisdom over the course of thirteen years of posting these letters online.
With the suggestion of some of Abbot Philips friends I have given titles to each section. It adds to the flavor of the overall body of text.
I have been surprised at how much work this editing effort has required. The thirteen years of letters amounts to about 700 letters. I have also been stunned by the power and spiritual effect the letters have had upon my own meditation and life of prayer. Even though I am a priest, these letters have taken me deeper into the heart of God and for this I am most grateful.