GENESEO — Although SUNY Geneseo’s campus lies barely five miles from Abbey of the Genesee, it’s rare for any of the abbey’s Trappist monks to venture even that short distance because they are cloistered.
So it was a pretty big deal when Abbot Gerard D’Souza, OCSO, appeared at Doty Hall Oct. 22 as keynoter for the annual MacVittie Lecture that brings noted theologians to the college. Approximately 125 people, mostly students, crammed into a lecture room to hear Abbot D’Souza’s 40-minute evening presentation on "Desire and ‘The Word.’"
The monk told his audience that desire begins "in the desert of our hearts," a barren and dark place borne out of loneliness and frustration. He added that we, as humans, are saddled by an incessant drive to achieve pleasure and quench that desire — but the drive has no upper limit and only leads to frustration and disregard for other people’s needs.
"Pleasure for pleasure’s sake cannot suffice," he stated, adding that true fulfillment and the squelching of our desire is available through God alone. However, he said we are separated from that fulfillment by a great chasm. The bridge for us? Jesus Christ.
"The word was made flesh," Abbot D’Souza said, quoting John 1:14.
He emphasized that by following Christ’s example, we achieve "a release from the tentacles of individuality" — a willingness to seek loving relationships and care about others’ needs, as opposed to simply treating those people as objects toward fulfilling our personal desires. To achieve this transformation, he said, we must remove the protective shield around our hearts.
"To be vulnerable is to be hurt and in pain," Abbot D’Souza said. However, such vulnerability is necessary in order to truly love and be fully engaged in the world around us: "Love allows reality to inform me of its presence. You can never have this if you only seek gratification of desire."
Abbot D’Souza acknowledged that incorporating the ways of Christ is gradual and difficult — "it will not be a quick fix for us" — and also means submitting to God’s will, as opposed to invoking one’s own terms.
"When you try to make a deal with God, yours is the only signature on that contract. God does not make deals," Abbot D’Souza said, drawing laughter from his audience. "He cannot be bought off, he cannot be manipulated."
Despite all the apprehensions and fears one might harbor in the shedding of desire, Abbot D’Souza said these actions yield not only a closer relationship with God but immeasurable personal growth.
"They bring us to the deep end of ourselves," he said, remarking that the alternative is to remain in "the shallow end of life."
Abbot D’Souza, who was born in Qatar and raised in India, has lived in the United States since 1988 and at Abbey of the Genesee since 1992. He was ordained a priest in the Cistercians of the Strict Observance — also known as Trappists — in 2001, and last year was elected and installed the new leader of the cloistered monastery, replacing Father John Denburger, who retired. He is serving a six-year term as abbot.
He was invited to speak at SUNY Geneseo by Mike Sauter, Catholic campus minister at the college and pastoral administrator of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish. Sauter noted that several Geneseo students are already well-acquainted with Abbot D’Souza, thanks to an ongoing book-discussion group at Abbey of the Genesee that was led by Father D’Souza before he became abbot.
The book get-togethers are among several ways the abbey strives to connects with the outside world. The Livingston County monastery, located near the hamlet of Piffard and famous for its production of Monk’s Bread, also is a popular spot for retreats and day trips, with Masses and prayer services open to the public.
Abbot D’Souza told the Catholic Courier that he enjoys venturing off abbey grounds under special circumstances, such as his appearance at SUNY Geneseo, because he gets to promote the Trappist priests’ and brothers’ ministries.
"We want to make the monastery known, to reach out to the wider community," he said.