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.

 

St Gregory the Great and Prayer

 

St Gregory the Great, considered to be the first Benedictine Pope, was a man of many parts, but tonight I'd like to concentrate  on his importance for us as a man of prayer, on those conditions  for he spiritual life which he thought necessary for a vital life of prayer: self-knowledge and discretion; humility, purity of heart through detachment, compunction, love and fear of the Lord.  This is a very Benedictine programme, and even if it is disputed whether Gregory ever lived by the rule of St Benedict, it  is certain that he regarded St Benedict as a model for monastic living. There is a complete lack of  pseudo-mysticism here. One cannot skip the spiritual training and proceed forthwith to spiritual joys.  True contemplation cannot be divorced  from a thorough-going self-discipline, from authentic  self-knowledge, tempered by a humble willingness to go at one's own pace.  One needs to strike  the right balance  between desired progress and actual a capacity, hence a real need for  patience, primarily with oneself.

 

The first result of  self-knowledge is humility; its opposite, pride is compared  to a swelling of the eyes which effectively blocks the vision of God.  For Gregory, humility springs from the contemplation of the Lord's own humility, his patient acceptance of humiliation and suffering.  In the second place, humility is adherence to truth, palatable or unpalatable. Gregory here shows himself to be as devastatingly honest about himself as about others. In the reading from his homilies on Ezekiel which we have for his feast he laments: "I do not preach as I should, nor does my life  follow the principles  I preach so inadequately. . .What kind of watchman am I?  I do not stand on the pinnacle of achievement, rather I languish in the depths of my weakness."

 

Purity of heart is closely linked with humility.  Among the obstacles to this purity of heart, Gregory  notes noisy and anxious thoughts, envy and so on.  Positive helps include  a deep silence of the spirit, a type of spiritual "sleep".  Gregory illustrates this by  pointing to Jacob who sleeps on his journey with a stone under his head.  It is only when he has emptied  his mind of crushing  worries and earthly concerns  that he has a vision of angels.  This spiritual sleep is not laziness or quietism for Gregory insists on the practice of good works as a preparation for purity of heart.  It means rather that we recollect  ourselves within, in the deepest  region of ourselves, before the face of God.  Gregory symbolises this often in his writings  by images of mountain slopes and pastures or grazing lands  where the soul feeds happily on the experience of God; and the fruit of contemplation, interior vision, is often likened to grass or fodder.

 

The next condition for contemplation noted by Gregory is compunction, that pricking of the heart which makes tears flow, not only repentant tears for past sins but also tears of love and joy at the grandeur and beauty of God  who forgives, what Gregory calls "joyful tears."  Thus in compunction there is an inextricable mixture of godly fear and live, sorrow and joy.  According to Gregory, we are to lay far greater emphasis on the latter, and never cease to aspire  to eternal life, confident in the God's fatherly love.  Compunction even gives us  a better understanding of Scripture, because, he says, consciousness of sin increases the souls' concentration.  The soul is soften up, as it were , by the tears of compunction and is more easily imprinted with he truths of the faith.

 

Love, however,  is the vehicle par excellence which carries the soul heavenwards towards endless light which is god himself.  Love for Gregory is the summit of the spiritual life, reached by degrees of detachment, reverence and fidelity.  But it is love  that makes the journey itself light, enabling us to endure all, pardon all and to bear even what seems entirely negative, the weaknesses of sinners, including our own, the faults of our neighbour and sufferings of any kind.  Gregory had a keen sense of human weakness and an understanding of the uses of trial and temptations and failures.  His work on Job depicts man  in search of God through a thicket of suffering.

When Gregory turns to contemplation itself, it is expressed principally in terms of vision, light, knowledge. To know God is nothing else than to love God, for only love can know God: per amorem agnoscimus, we know through love.  The measure of knowledge is the measure of love. He expresses his perception of God  through the spiritual senses. We find phrases like the eyes of the heart, the eyes of faith, the eyes of the mind, the ears of the heart. The mooing, disengaging itself from  the things of this world, rises above itself to a momentary perception, a glimpse, a sighting of  unencompassed light as through a chink.  There is also spiritual taste.  Truth has a savour: "we taste subtly the limitless savour  of truth in sudden contemplation."  The ideas of savouring, listening and seeing are applied primarily to the experience of reading the sacred word of Scripture, the words of God are a real nourishment; they grow, says Gregory in a memorable phrase, with him who reads them, as if Scripture  knows a certain growth  within those who feed  on it.

 

Yet insight is brief and fugitive: "In that contemplation already the taste of interior quiet is experienced. And because it is so to speak, partial and cannot now be perfect, rightly it is written: 'there was silence  in heaven about half an hour.'  For heaven is the soul of the righteous when the quiet of contemplation takes place in the heart; there is silence in heaven. . .  but because the quiet of the mind cannot be perfect in this life, it is not said there was silence in  heaven a whole hour but about half an hour. . . "  There is always this accent of spiritual realism in Gregory, the pope as well as contemplative monk!  His characteristic emblem is the dove, from the legend  where Peter  the deacon saw his master writing under the dictation of a white bird with its beak in his ear.  There is a deeper meaning here expressed  in the Alleluia of the Mass for his feast day: Spiritus Sanctus docebit  vos quaecumque dixero vobis. "The Holy Spirit  will teach  you all that I have said to you."  He himself confided to his congregation "Most of the time  I am hearing, at the same time as you, what I am saying."  Surely it was this docility  to the Holy Spirit  which permitted him to "advise with compassion" and "govern with love" as the prayer for his feast  has it.  He is a saint for our times marked they are  like Gregory's by the sometimes anguished search  for meaning in the  midst of social upheavals.  We can pray to him for the growth  in holiness of the whole  people of God.

 


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