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.

 

TODAY

 

“It was as if time stood still.”  This popular phrase to describe a moment of great intensity, depth and meaning might be said to provide an image of eternity.  The phrase suggests that it was an unusual thing for time to do; time, in fact, in our normal experience, does not stand still, but is a succession of events, a continual movement, something which passes quickly or slowly, but which always passes.  We link it in our minds with transience.  In a certain anguish, the psalmist prays: “Lord, let me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is!  Behold, thou hast made my days a few handbreadths and my lifetime is as nothing in thy sight.  Surely every man stands as a mere breath!” (Ps 38).  Or the prophet Isaiah in more serene vein: “A voice says, Cry!  And I said, What shall I cry?  All flesh is grass and all its beauty like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it” (Is 40:6-7).

            God’s eternity, on the other hand, is contrasted with the brevity of man’s life.  Speaking of the earth and the heavens, the author of Ps 101 has: “They will perish but thou dost endure; they will all wear out like a garment.  Thou changest them like raiment and they pass away; but thou art the same and thy years have no end.”  God’s eternity, however, is not simply endlessness or timelessness; it is the mode of His being and cannot be measured like human time.  There is an intimation of this in 2Peter 3:8: “With the Lord, one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day.”  Eternity is, in fact, the realm where all is simultaneously present, described by Romano Guardini as “the perfect still point of perfect being.”  Thus, those simple, all-embracing moments of inner serenity, such as we sometimes experience, hint in the direction of eternity.  In these moments, memory gathers in the past and looks tranquilly to the future, while abiding in the present.

            God is not indifferent to human time, as one might fear from such phrases as the “perfect still point of perfect being”.  Having created the world of time, the world in time, He has, in the first place, sovereignty over it.  Pope Benedict XVI contributing to “The End of time: Proceedings of a meeting” quotes Ps 30:15: “My times are in thy hand,” in manibus tuis tempora meaTempora can mean, he notes, “temples” as well as “times”.  Our times, therefore, are like the pulse-beat of our temples, which God holds in His cupped hands (Ibid).  His sovereignty is not remote, but one of care and tenderness, from birth to death.  The existence of time does not depend only on the movement of the stars; there is also a movement in the heart, in the spirit (Ibid).  Dante names God as “the love (amor) that moves the Sun and the other stars”.  Something new in our vision of the cosmos is introduced by the concept of amor, love; something relational that, to quote Pope Benedict, “accepts the other within itself and lets itself be accepted by that other”.  God enters into relation with man when He sends the only-begotten Son into the world of time, to be born of woman.  Henceforth, man, incorporated by faith, baptism and Holy Eucharist into the eternal Son of the Father, may have confidence that he will pass from the world of time into eternity.

            It is true that man has still to work out his own salvation within the framework or span of his mortal life, with its non-recurring events and opportunities.  However, the Thomistic vision presents history as a circle from origin to homecoming, from exitus from God to reditus to God, the turning point of which is the Incarnation.  In the beginning, God made created beings good, capable of making a response to their Creator in freedom and love.  Pope Benedict again: “The autonomous creature … accepts its creation as a command to love, so that a dialogue of love begins – that entirely new unity that only love can create.”  Created being becomes wholly what it is, precisely in giving itself.  The Fall, however, disturbed this free exchange. “The bow of exitus to reditus breaks apart” (Ibid) and man can no longer return to his Creator by his own unaided power.  “The process of turning back has to be set in motion by a power to heal, by a loving transformation of a broken freedom” (Ibid).

            This healing occurs through our Redemption by Jesus Christ, symbolised by the Good Shepherd of the parable.  The Shepherd takes the initiative to seek out the stray sheep, now incapable of finding its way home, its reditus.  In the parable, the Shepherd carries it back to the fold, to show how the wounds of injustice and evil in man become “signs of peace in the suffering that shoulders them.”  It is Christ’s shouldering of our lostness in a “love which gives itself away in death”, which “restores creation to its proper integrity” (Ibid).

            By His birth in time and His self-gift which ends in His Passover into eternity, all Christ’s acts are both in time and transcend it.  Human time is henceforth redeemed and sanctified by the presence of the Holy Spirit, which He pours out on mankind at Pentecost.  Says Romano Guardini: “He is present in all time, in its smallest as in its largest fraction; in the day, hour, minute … as well as in years, centuries, millennia. … God fills them all, and no one period is holier than another. … Every hour with its content brushes God’s eternity.”  This is very clear when we celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours.  George Mackay Brown, the Orkney poet, in his novel “Magnus” writes: “The monks in choir began to sing Terce.  They imitated with their voices the timelessness of heaven.”  Pope Benedict says, concerning the hour of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: “Something greater than time ripens within time” and goes beyond it, gathering all time into itself.  Each moment of our lives, therefore, participates in the sacredness of time.  The brief day, muses St Augustine, is a reflection of the great and eternal Day of heaven.  One might even say that it contains within itself the rhythm of the whole Christian mystery, in its birth, striving, falling asleep and rising again.  Our ordinary day is, then, of extreme importance; it can reflect the divinely ordained trajectory of human life, if, within its span, we choose the reditus, the homecoming, the yes, to God, the source of our being.

            We saw that man can either say “no” to reditus or respond in freedom and love.  Man, we heard, can accept his creation as a “command to love”, or he can turn his face away from his Creator in obstinacy or shame or through the attraction of other things.  Hence, the day, like the life of a person, is a continual process of turning back.  St Benedict in the Prologue to his Rule, following the Psalmist, issues the call to conversion: “Today, if you should hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”  Daily conversion requires us to give up the temptation to go it alone, to do without the other.  We need God who is the Other; we need others, because we cannot free ourselves from the snares and messes we have landed ourselves in.  Under God, we are each other’s liberators.  We have to turn to each other in our vulnerability and spread out our hands to them.  We come to each other’s assistance by simple, not extraordinary, ways, such as the kind look and the good word.  Again, in this day of ours, which is the mirror of our entire life, we have to redeem the time.  Our failed freedom, our wrong or negative response to God’s invitation to return to Him, has made us liable to squander or misuse our time (cf Pope Benedict).  This does not mean enslavement to the clock or leading an over-regimented life, where every moment has to be filled with useful occupations: that would risk putting oneself and one’s pet notions at the centre of one’s life.  It does mean a God-centred life, where the thought of God predominates in everything, everywhere.  If one looks at it like that, we can see quite easily the importance of quiet times with God, for God, perhaps not doing very much but resting in Him, preparing our hearts for the reditus.  Furthermore, if we see the day in the light of eternity, we shall want to live it in total integrity, in truth and in love, facing the unfaceable in ourselves and in situations, forgiving anyone who might have offended us, asking forgiveness if we have offended.  If we were, in reality, going to see our Creator at the end of the day, how careful we should be to do all things well and treat all persons well.  I think we would also be stung to contrition over past sins and present faults and tendencies.  We should overflow with gratitude for His benefits.  In short, we should put our house in order, morally and spiritually.  Even psychologically, the idea of the single day being our last can be helpful.  We should, for example, be very glad if some things were to happen only once, or if some serial irritation were to come to a swift conclusion that very day!  More seriously and usefully, it is the best cure we have for neurosis and complications, since things become very simple in the face of finality.  We would be likely to find the correct answer to our problems and questions, since we would be posing them in the face of reality.  What is unreal in them would be unerringly exposed.  That feud or grievance would seem absurd to prolong; that possessive attitude or ambition would melt away like snow in the sun.  That difficulty, which we have tried sincerely to address, that anxiety, would have to be left trustingly in the hands of God.  This last shows up what lies within my capacity – very little – and what belongs to the all-powerful God.

            Perseverance in prayer is definitely within my capacity.  It will remain to the end, while the love which inspires and accompanies it, belongs inseparably to it, will remain beyond death.  Even here, however, the thought of imminent death can concentrate the mind wonderfully, according to the author of the “Epistle of prayer”, (almost certainly the author of the “Cloud of Unknowing”).  He writes: “I think what is going to help you most when you start your prayer, and it doesn’t matter whether it is long or short or what – is to make quite sure you are certain you will die by the time it is ended, that you will finish before your prayer does!”  One way of banishing distractions!  But, as already implied, it is not just a spiritual dodge or stratagem; it inserts us into the truth about our relationship to God and eternity.

            The person practised in prayer has penetrated this truth.  He or she is a person who has one goal and who lives for the fullness of eternal life in God.  The time of her prayer, united to the prayer of Christ, is, therefore, plunged in God’s eternity.  St Paul, the great New Testament mystic, seemed to pass beyond earthly time and space: “I know a man in Christ who … was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know; God knows.  And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise … and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2Cor 12:2-4).  St John of the Cross, for his part, tells us that mystical prayer is the closest approximation to the Beatific Vision which is possible here on earth.  The soul, he says, becomes so closely united with God in Christ that it becomes transformed and already, while in time, anticipates and participates in eternity.  This is matter for our faith and hope, as well as our love.  Faith is the virtue proper to time; it is the night through which we journey to God, whereas “Day is God in His full beatitude” (MC,11,20).  This transforming prayer in Christ is a foretaste of the next life in this one, of the eternal Day in our temporal day.  It is the beginning of an eternal existence (cf Mouroux: The mystery of time).

            However, in spite of St Paul’s ineffable experience and St John of the Cross’s description of the prayer of the mystic as “extra-temporal oblivion”, we are not dealing with a spiritual anaesthetic.  The life of eternity is a life of praise and service.  It is a relational life, as we said earlier, enjoyed by the divine Persons, who are turned towards one another in the mutual love and knowledge made possible by the Holy Spirit.  We are called to share in this Trinitarian life even now, in the day of our earthly existence.  In Christ, we, too, are always turning homewards, towards the Father, in the power and grace of the Holy Spirit.

            The things of eternity are actualised today; the saving events and actions of Christ, the eternal Son of the Father are reactivated, so to speak, in the Church’s liturgy.  It is always “today”, and the liturgy resounds frequently to the call of hodie, the day which reveals the triumphant, undying reality of the truth made flesh in time.  Think of the triple hodie of the Magnificat antiphon of the Epiphany and the first antiphon of Lauds, which might be said to sum up our theme: Ante luciferum genitus et ante sæcula Dominus, Salvator noster hodie mundo apparuit.  “Begotten before the daystar and before all ages, the Lord our Saviour appeared to the world today.”

May each day of the New Year be  an image of the eternal Day, in which  we can, if we want, allow ourselves to be enveloped and transformed by the three-fold Light that flows from eternity.


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