In early times, the daily Chapter was a traditional feature of the monastic timetable. The monks left church at the end of the office of Prime and processed to a room near by, where a portion, or "chapter," of the Rule was read and the abbot commented upon it. It was also the natural occasion for announcements to be made affecting the life of the community and for a blessing to be given upon the day's work. Soon the room itself came to be called "the Chapter Room, or House" or simply "Chapter." Even today some form of this practice exists in many monasteries, including our own. Each month this page will feature a chapter talk given to the Community, as well as news and features. We hope you will visit us regularly.


Seeing in Advent


The subject of faith provides us with a rich seam of thought in Advent, especially when considered under its aspect of seeing; a particular way of seeing, it is true, but nonetheless an enlightenment and so related to sight. I shall begin by looking at the theme, or a few examples of it, in the Advent liturgy and steal something from the Christmas liturgy in doing so. Then, in keeping with the main purpose of the Wednesday talk, I shall try to show, taking my starting point from these texts, how the Advent theme of seeing is applicable to our monastic life.


            The first reading at Vigils of the first Sunday of Advent from Isaiah begins with a vision, a seeing: “Visio Isaiah filii Amos quam vidit super Iudam et Ierusalem”. “The ox knows its owner and as ass, its master’s manger”, the text continues, that is, they see and recognise their master, but Israel, the nation as a whole, does not know, “my people has not understood”. There is a failure of sight. The responsory after this reading picks up the theme of seeing, the very Advent theme of seeing afar off, thus involving man’s faith, his God given power of recognition: “Aspiciens a longem ecce video Dei potentiam venientem et nebulam totam terram regentem”. “Looking from afar, I see the power of God coming, as a cloud covering the whole earth. Go out to meet him and say to him: Tell use; is it you who will reign over your people Israel? etc.” The whole atmosphere of Advent is summed up in this Responsory – joyful, faith-filled expectation, the certainty of hope, a suppressed excitement yet  of a quite spiritual quality.


            Whether it is a question of the first or last coming of Christ, the vocabulary of Advent is frequently one of sight or revelation. Thus, Tuesday Vespers has us waiting for the revealing of Our Lord Jesus Christ (I Cor 1:7). We, too, can expect to have the contents of our own hearts revealed in his searching light, as in Wednesday Vespers: “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our own hearts and then everyone will receive praise from God” (1 Cor 4:5). There is an implicit invitation to vigilance here. Since it is a question of a spiritual capacity for recognition of the truth and for living by that truth, we are exhorted to be vigilant and not fall asleep. Smaragdus in the reading from the Diadem of Monks, which we have at Vigils on the first Sunday, warns that those who sleep the sleep of sin or indifference “sleep so heavily that they do not open their eyes to keep custody over their hearts”, “sui custodiam codis oculos non aperiant”. Their sight is limited to things of earth, not directed to things which are transparent to God and can lead to Him.


            Nonetheless, the seeing that we associate with Advent and Christmas, concerns not only the eyes of the heart. The liturgy insists on the concrete nature of what, or whom, we are going to see. When we sing the Vigil Mass, ‘Mane videbitis gloriam eius’, we are referring to a baby; God in the flesh, in history, in a definite place on earth. Simeon pronounces prophetically: “My eyes have seen Thy salvation”. From Luke’s narrative, one surmises that the old man is holding the infant Jesus as he says these words and gazing at Him. In a final example among many other possible other ones, we have the Shepherds, in the Christmas liturgy, dazzled by the vision of the angels, saying to one another: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this word which has come to pass which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 1:15)


            These words lead beyond themselves. By faith, the scriptural saints of the Advent and Christmas liturgy see, in the actual or future events and in the infant Jesus, particularly the invisible glory of the Father. The Preface for Christmas captures this truth perfectly: “For the mystery of the Word made flesh, a new light of your glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind, so that as we recognise in him God made visible, we may be caught up through him in love of things invisible.”, and in the second Preface: “though invisible in his own divine nature, he appeared visibly in ours”.


            Let’s pause for a moment on this visibility, this corporality of God in Jesus Christ and reflect on its importance. Fr. Bernardo Borowitz, a convent Cistercian Prior, who began life in New York in an orthodox Jewish family, attending Hebrew as well as public school, tells how an important Rabbi came to his school to speak to the children. At the end the Rabbi asked if there were any questions. The eight of nine year old Bernardo asked if God had a body? Of course not, came the reply, “well, I think it would be better if God had a body”, said the child. “Why?”, asked the Rabbi. “Because we could get closer to him that way.” Understandably, this answer caused considerable consternation and earned him a grave warning on the danger of his thinking. But the child had grasped the principle of the Incarnation: Man cannot save himself. There is need of a mediator, equidistant, so to speak, between God and man, therefore a God Who assumes human flesh; a man Who is also God. Christ has to be mediator as man, remarks a commentator on St. Thomas, “for if it is true that Christ shares the human condition with us and by that very fact is ‘distant’ from God, he is equally distant from us by the loftiness of his grace, and so shares the divine condition with God. This then is how he unites the two extremes in himself”. (J P Tornell OP)


            The New Testament insists on the manhood of Christ as well as his divine Sonship. This manhood, remarks Congar, in the one sacred reality in the world, in which creation participates. He is born of Mary, who is wholly a creature; he is identified to his enemies by a kiss (cf Congar); he travels around Palestine – his body not immune to fatigue and human needs – preaching and healing; his physical presence brings the kingdom of God among men. It brings a blessing, which is extended to the Church’s members, in a sacramental form. In the sacraments, Christ touches us still and, in the Holy Eucharist, he is made sacramentally present. Our redemption flows from the fruits of the Sacrifice on the Cross, a physical death which took place in time, but whose effects remain forever. The little Jewish boy sensed that a real body, palpable and visible, was vital for God’s plan of salvation. His intuition epitomises the desire of man to see God in the flesh. The Communion Antiphon of the Vigil Mass sums it up: “The glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see the salvation of our God”.


            Desiring, watching, seeing by faith; these do not belong only to Advent but to our monastic life as well. I’ve quite often spoken on these themes before. What follows is no exhaustive treatment, but simply a few thoughts stimulated by Advent texts quoted earlier. Desiring and watching are linked to a faith-filled sight. “Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire”, says the sixth tool of good works (RB4). We desire, here, what we do not see with our bodily eyes, but we [believe that] we are assured that the vision of God will include all lesser seeings. There is a recognition by the heart[’s desiring] that in heaven we shall see God face to face. There our hesitations and dullness of sight will fall away like scales and there shall be a certainty that will make faith unnecessary. It is this hope of seeing God, of being forever with Christ, that drew us and now sustains us. Possession of this sight is not now, it is afar off, yet if it were not already drawing us actively, we would not be longing for it. There is a progression towards it, too. We have to go out to meet it, this vision, as well as nurture it within us. And here we question him constantly in our hearts:” Tell us, is it you?” (cf Responsory). Even if there are times when the question is anguished, the life of faith is a pilgrimage of happy expectation [,not unlike children on Christmas Eve]. St. Benedict is not a stranger to this joy, although he mentions it during Lent, urging us to look forward to the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection at Easter, cum spiritalis desiderii gaudio (RB44).


            As the liturgy prepares us for the revealing of what is hidden at the coming of Christ, our monastic life also tends to ensure an uncovering [a revealing] of what is in our hearts. What is hidden, what our real motives are, inevitably coming to the light. These need not always be murky. It is true that we have to purify our motives, if they need purifying, if we have been pretending to ourselves or supposing the truth; or if we tend to affirm ideals that we would like to be true but do not have much existence in reality. Still, the face that we see the point of these ideals and profess them stoutly shows that they have a certain ascendancy over us, over our hearts, as well as our behaviour. There is something here to build on; we can grow into them, so that what we say comes to bear and ever closer resemblance to what we are. St. Benedict seems to have met this little difficulty in his monks, when he says: “Do not want to be called holy, before you truly are”. But he does not say that the rather boastful, complacent or semi-deluded monk is never going to be holy or that he isn’t on to something. He has the right idea; he simply needs to lose his fear of being found out. Far better to be found out, so that he need not go through the exhausting business of constructing masks and adjusting them constantly when they slip, as they always do. Again – and I feel that this may not always be sufficiently stressed – we may discover that, in spite of our misgivings, there is a deep fund of sincerity in our motivations. We do want God: we do love him after all; we do want to be holy for his sake. Perhaps it is a modern malaise to be full of self-doubt. Our souls are often too grown-up; we need to recognise in simplicity that since Christ is in us and we in him, there is good in us, capable of infinite growth. After speaking of the revelation of what is hidden, that text from 1 Cor 4:5 ends, if you recall: “and then everyone will receive praise from God”. What is hidden is quite likely to be praiseworthy. But we are not to fall asleep. The Holy Rule is full of exhortations to keep awake, to keep watch, to keep guard over the heart, for example, “let us get up at long last” (Prol.); and: “then brothers, we must be vigilant every hour”, omni hora (RB7); and, the monk “must constantly remember everything God has commanded” (ibid), semper sit memor omnia quae praecepit Deus.


            The great apostle of the reality of Christ’s humanity, St. John, sums up “everything God has commanded” in the commandment of love of neighbour, the person we see with our bodily eyes. It is the sine qua non  for love of God. “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God Whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20). In love of neighbour, nonetheless, our faith comes into play. When we look at our neighbour, we have to recognise in him or her the face of Christ. But what do we mean by this? We cannot love truly in an abstract way; we have to love the neighbour in all her peculiarity. We cannot even say: I love only the part of that person which is evidently Christ-like. We have to love the whole person, then, in her concreteness, her faults and her multiple disguises. If we pause for a moment, we can see why. Would we think someone truly loved us who did not accept us totally as we are? This does not mean that others should not try to make us better people or vice versa. But we have to see the person we might want to be, shall we say, ‘evangelised’ as loveable in herself. If others do not appear to appreciate us or even hurt us or treat us badly, it might be quite difficult to muster the necessary objectivity, to see their innate loveableness. There is a necessity her for detachment from our own subjectivity and for the eye of faith. The recognition of goodness is the recognition of Christ and this leads in turn to the entrustment of ourselves to others and not only to our friends. It is to do what Christ does with sinners and the imperfect and those who let him down, that is, with all of us.


            Finally, we might consider that the contemplative life, is itself, as a whole, a life of vision, that is, a life entirely ordered to the sight of God; through a glass darkly, it is true, but with the single intent of seeing Him and witnessing to Him and to His truth. As we gather daily for Vigils before the light breaks, we are expressing our connection, through the concreteness of our horarium, that Christ is risen, that He is coming again, does come, and that we must wait for him in faith.  

Previous Chapter Talks