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.

 

Cor Apertum:

Freedom, Mercy and the Open Heart

New Year’s Conference 2016

 

Let us begin with some aspects of freedom. First of all, it exists. It is true that we are subject to conditions and conditioning, to heredity, environment, education and life experience, the general causality of nature and to the effects of original sin. No man is an island; I am not my own. And yet, Romano Guardini, in his essay ‘Living Freedom’, writes: “Something in me belongs to itself.” Through my reason and my will, I have the capacity to make free choices leading to actions which originate from within myself. Guardini again: “I know I am free, I am not free completely, not always and to the same degree. But I am free with what is most profound, most proper to my being.” By free will I am able to shape my own life.

           

            What will be the basic content of our choices and to what end shall we exercise this real if impaired freedom? Our fundamental choice, says Deuteronomy, is between life and death, good and evil, truth and falsehood. “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse, therefore choose life.” (Deut 30:19) It should be self-evident; yet there is the possibility of failing to choose good things, as long as we are in this world, with the consequence of spiritual and moral servitude. We can end up in a cramped and narrow place.

 

            Conversely – and fortunately- if we have chosen badly or mistakenly, we can reverse the process; and here the question of grace becomes of great importance. It aids us both to turn back, to convert, and also to gather momentum in doing good, in acting freely. There is a close bond between truth, goodness and freedom. “The truth will make you free”(Jn 8:32). The Catechism tells us: “the more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no freedom except in the service of what is good and just.” (1733) and: “As Christian experience attests ... the more docile we are to the promptings of grace, the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence during trials ... by the working of grace, the Holy Spirit educates us in spiritual freedom, in order to make us free collaborators in his work in the Church and in the world.” (1742)

 

            On the other hand, the “choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the slavery of sin.” (1733) It results in the abandonment of the broad place of God’s favour for a narrow self-imprisonment. There is, nevertheless, a form of self limitation which is not an impoverishment. When the self is freely renounced to choose something greater than itself, it is rediscovered in the good chosen. Hence we understand that all prohibitions are not hostile to our freedom and may, in fact, safeguard it, as in the narrative of the Fall. God gave man immense freedom, forbidding him to eat from only one tree in the garden, an act which would cut him off from the source of freedom itself. As we know, to our cost, man failed to embrace this salutary narrowness and lost his liberty. For us, the narrow way proposed by Jesus, reverses this situation; it is the way back to life. The Psalmists understood this. The speak of the “broad place”, so desirable for the relaxation of man’s spirit and his true happiness in God. This breadth, however, is always bound up with the law. The law, with its demands and precepts, is a liberating force. The Psalmist in Ps. 118/119 has seen much, yet “your commandment is exceedingly broad, latum praeceptum nimis”.

 

            Christ, at His coming, brings this truth into focus. The Incarnation itself was a voluntary curtailment of freedom, a paradox seized upon by the liturgy. The antiphon for None on the feast of St. Stephen, for example has: “Praesepis angustia Christum portavit infantem ,immensitas caeli Stephanum triumphantem suscepit. The narrowness of the manger held the infant Christ; the immensity of heaven received the triumphant Stephen.” The Cross itself was a narrow bed, yet it fills the universe, becoming the still centre. We are redeemed from sin by this chosen narrowness. “O Lord, I am Thy servant ... Thou hast loosed my bonds.” (Ps. 115:16) For freedom, we have been set free.

 

            For the monk or nun, any Christian, then, narrowness is both a positive and a negative concept. In its good sense, it leads to freedom, which is fundamentally an interior condition or attitude of man’s being, as well as the capacity to make unimpeded choices. For this reason, exterior conditions count for little. St. Thomas More, you recall, never found such liberty as in his prison cell; his conscience was in a broad place, free. Similarly, our monastic enclosure favours interior freedom; we have chosen the narrow place only so that the unenclosed spirit may expand. And it does. The Welsh poet R.S. Thomas wrote in his poem ‘Gift’:

 

Some ask the world

and are diminished

in the receiving

of it. You gave me

 

only this small pool

that the more I drink

from, the more overflows

me with sourceless light

 

            Enclosure for the cenobite means, as well as a certain solitude, the experience of the common life. It is not, as is sometimes imagined, a convenient way of avoiding interaction. Guardini, again, remarks that man cannot be a recluse, immured in himself; “the doors stand open and roads lead from one man to another.” In some ways, this takes us along the grain. We all have common needs: practical ones, like food and shelter; emotional ones, like the need for recognition, reassurance and affection. In the monastic life, we have the inestimable good, too, of shared values and goal. The common life precludes the closed heart. “To be a brother or sister implies not wanting to have anything in which the other does not share.”[1] We have the daily opportunity to put into practice the Lord’s command to love our neighbour, to give and receive.

 

            This common life have its challenges, of course, especially for some temperaments. We sometimes need to transcend natural inclinations, perhaps at much cost, or to learn over time to experience the structures of our life, and its silence, as instruments of a freeing discipline. Constant proximity to the same people every day requires maturity and self-command and deep loyalty. At the same time, we have to be open to every genuine comer. There can be no stranger in our midst, no matter the differences in country, culture, language or idiom. Likewise, our concerns cannot be inward-looking; our communal heart has to expand, has to become ‘dilatatum’, according to St. Benedict, in order to draw within it all the world’s needs and gather them up in our prayer.

 

            The experience of a living community is thus a safeguard against a cramped spirit. One is obliged, almost, to be available, adaptable, accessible. If we allow ourselves to be drawn deeply into God’s love, the more undefended the heart becomes. It will suffer more, in consequence, but will take on an increasing likeness to the Lord’s Heart. It will be delivered progressively from the fear of suffering in all its forms, including the fear of blame and mental suffering. It will perceive that there is a whole spacious world of grace beyond the pain of a constricted self; perceive, too, that it has always received mercy upon mercy. How then, can it withhold mercy from any creature? To do so, would be to snap shut the doors of the heart. But when they are flung open, we utter a ‘yes’ to God, like the Mother of God, and peace and freedom are able to enter.

 

            Each act of opening the heart is an act of freedom which further enlarges the heart. It is true, also, of the mind. How to reconcile fidelity to the truth with openness of intellect? There is a false presumption here, perhaps, that an open mind is going to lead to heterodoxy. However, this kind of openness is designed to lead to more truth, not to less, nor to a distorted truth. It is a call to confidence in the truth, which is itself, a form of intellectual freedom. It implies an unworried contemplation and discernment of ideas and facts; in other words, the absence of the narrowness of prejudice, in favour of the broad place of truth. The length and depth and breadth of truth is accessible only to the faithful and openly questioning mind. Indeed, the narrow judgement cannot help but miss the mark. In the recognition of the truth and spiritual values, says Guardini, “something in me becomes master of itself, something in me is loosed, expands, develops the proper sphere in which it can life.”

 

            In this question of openness, especially to others in a community, there is a difficulty which is not of the moral order. How can we share our innermost being with another? As we are often reminded, and rightly, every soul is a special creation of God. Each is unique, called by name, by God. While this is a divine gift, it constitutes a definitive solitude. There is a corresponding duty, therefore, to respect the “sacred and delicate mystery” of the other, that is, her inner liberty. It is a question of both allowing her to exist in her otherness and also to enter into mutual understanding and communication with her. We have to be careful not to fashion others in our own image, in a more or less subconscious attempt to subvert threats to our own autonomy. So may the bridge be crossed? Yes; and the solution to the conundrum is, as ever, love, the act which says ‘you’. Here is Guardini: “It is in that act that one ego moves toward another. He takes his eyes off himself and looks to the other.”  In this act, I am moving away from the attitude that the centre of the world is me, that everything revolves around me. I am choosing to recognise that the other also has a centre, “a personal origin and a personal goal.” It is “to reverse my customary point of view and to look upon the other in such a way that the whole world, all existence, centres in” the other. This is the meaning of the commandment: to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Such a love is not achieved once and for all, but requires a “continually renewed movement.” Love, says Guardini, is not a frame, nor a bridge, but a constant opening and re-opening of the heart. The same might be said of fidelity; fidelity to God, to our vocation, to our monastery.

            Christ is the source of this self-replenishing love, because He is the origin of our life in God. As we read in the Prologue of St. John, those who receive Him and believe in His Name, those who are born of water and the Spirit, are given power to become children of God. We thus lay claim boldly to the freedom of the Father’s House and to a special ‘room’ in the spacious Heart of the Son. This is the ultimate expansion and fulfilment; here we share in God’s infinity, in “His eternal, definitive, holy life.” His will is no longer experience as restriction; it is “the very heart of our own will.” Since this divine and human Heart of Jesus is both undefended and merciful, it is from Him that we learn sacrificial love and a wide compassion. And not only from His example, from the sight of the “One Whom they have pierced” and from the knowledge that the aperture of His Heart was caused by a wound, but also because we may enter into that Heart and live by it. Christ invites us to enter, with all our hesitations and proclivity to narrowness of view, just as He invited the doubting Thomas. St. Bonaventure calls the Heart of Christ “a secret fountain, from which we draw water” springing up to eternal life – it is a symbol for the intimacy of love He shares with us. We have the freedom of His Heart, with all the reverence of a holy love; yet it is more than an image. It is the mystical reality of incorporation or indwelling, which we experience, above all, in the reception of the Holy Eucharist. Here is a foretaste of eternal freedom and happiness. A Carthusian writer, Lanspergius, writes: “The wound of the Heart of my God is the gate of paradise, the entrance to life and the fountain of grace. The heart of Jesus shall be my dwelling place, my bulwark and my stronghold.” Here is perfect security and perfect freedom. COR APERTUM, the open or opened Heart, will be the motto for 2016. It invites us to the enjoyment of spiritual freedom; urges us to draw upon His mercy; allow Him to reach into our own hearts and break them tenderly open; finally, to make us merciful and kind, searchers of the truth and dwellers in His open Heart.



[1] Guardini, ‘Community: The History of an Experience’


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