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.

 

Sitientes in plenitudinem Christi: thirsting into the fullness of Christ.

 

The concept of God filling the whole world while being enthroned above the heavens is crucial to the Old Testament and to Judaism.  ‘“Can a man hide in secret without my seeing him?” says the Lord.  “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the Lord’ (Jer. 23:24).  We remember also the striking images of Wisdom reaching mightily from end to end and ordering all things well (Wis. 8:1); or the all-powerful Word leaping from heaven into the midst of the world, filling it and touching heaven while standing on earth (ibid. 18: 15-16).  These are not statements about the permeation of the material world by the divine, but are concerned rather with the truth of the omnipresence of the loving Creator in His universe.  He is distinct and transcendent, yet He dwells in His own creation, sustaining and governing it.  The earth is full of his glory.  If we fail to keep both ends of this cord in our hands (that is, God’s transcendence and His immanence) we tend to an impoverished spirituality.  If, for example, we over-emphasise His transcendence, we perceive the fullness of His presence as residing in a faraway realm.  In fact, fullnesss would be a misnomer here; there is something rarified and exclusive, and the human side of things would be second-best, must always be renounced and held-down.  But from our basic knowledge of the Incarnation, we experience this as a distortion of the truth.  The Christ Child came to share our many-sided human condition and was like us in all things except sin.  He revealed to us, too, that the oneness of Israel’s God is at the same time a living and fruitful Trinity of persons whose fullness overflows in love on to the world. 

If, on the other hand, we overstress God’s immanence, there is the danger of hubris, of spiritual pride, of over-fullness.  Some mystics have come perilously close to asserting the simple divinity of the human soul.  In between these two extremes, there is, says Von Hugel, ‘room for a middle position which puts God himself in the soul and the soul into God in degree and with results varying according to the soul’s good will and call’.  This is more familiarly called the mutual indwelling of God and the soul, which makes interchange and therefore fullness possible.  It acknowledges the givenness of grace, yet concedes to man his real affinity with God.  Man may, can become God’s friend.  We may share in God’s fullness despite the essential difference between them, due to man’s gracious redepmtion by the Son. 

The fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in this Son, as St. Paul reminds us (Col. 2: 2-9).  Put another way, Christ possesses the fullness of divine being.  We hear this so often that our astonishment can become blunted.  How can a man contain the fullness of God?  This is a mystery and no amount of analysis can explain it adequately.  One must simply affirm that God is not somehow shrunk to the measure of human nature, but that human nature is taken up, assumed by the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.  Jesus’ case is unique, for he is the God-man.  A creature can never become God; we shall always remain creatures even in heaven, even when divininsed.  But man is capax Dei; he receives to his capacity from the fullness of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. 

Man receives this fullness through the paschal events, the passion, death and resurrection of Christ.  Although the crucifixion was, in reality, a local shabby affair whose ignominy was the uppermost impression in the minds of the bystanders, artists have often penetrated to the inner meaning of the event.  However one esteems - or dis-esteems - some of the more dramatic representations of the scene on Calvary, there is something accurate in wanting to depict Him crucified from pole to pole.  He fills heaven and earth while nailed to the wood.  He even goes under the earth to shatter the iron bars of hell before ascending to the Father’s side above the heavens. 

Death, then, cannnot contain the fullness of life in Jesus.  He is so full that His risen life spills over into His followers, the ecclesia, and hence into the world, rather like the fragrance of the alabaster jar broken open by Mary of Bethany.  This life spilled out is the Holy Spirit, the living water promised in John’s gospel, grace and truth, light and love.  It is nothing less than a share in the divine nature, divine plenitude - divinae naturae consortes - because in Christ we have received adoption as sons and the freedom of the Father’s House.  As has been well said, God always gives more than He promises. 

The event through which the Church celebrates this overflowing of Christ’s risen and divine life is Pentecost.  The liturgy of the Feast gives rein to images of fullness and richness.  Spiritus Domini replevit orbem terrarum, the Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole earth.  More initimately, we pray: Veni, Sancte Spiritus, reple tuorum corda fidelium, while in the Sequence we beg Him to come with the fullness of the sevenfold gifts - the sacrum septenarium.  From the brimming fullness of these sacred gifts will come peace and stillness to the believing heart.  

Such a sense of fullness is discerned in Mary, in the pages of the Gospel.  She is even designated as the plena gratia, the one full of grace; and in the previous image, taken up by the Office of Our Lady, her fullness issues in a mysterious, fleeting fragrance that draws us after her: Trahe nos, Virgo immaculata, post te curremus in odorem unguentorum tuorum.  Hers is a unique fullness, because, by means of it, God is conceived in the flesh, as if he flowed from her fullness, though we are never to forget that her fullness is wholly derived from his.  This is the heart of the mystery of the incarnation; the Infinite is born of the finite, the Creator from the creature.  The liturgy never wearies of proclaiming that he whom heaven and earth cannot contain is contained in the narrow enclosure of the Virgin’s womb. 

The Church likewise is filled with Christ’s plenitude, since he grants her his own vital powers.  The Fathers like to say that the Church comes from the side of Christ on the Cross, as the rib was taken from Adam’s side while he slept.  She is, then, the Bride, the Sponsa who, though distinct from her Head and Bridegroom, shares integrally in all that he does and is.  As St Paul has it, the Church is “his Body, the fullness of the One who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23).  And there is the bold statement in Colossians 1:24 that he—and therefore we—fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the Church.  There is nothing defective in the fullness of the Redemption, but it will be realised only through the great ingathering of all who acknowledge Christ as Head and share in his Cross and Resurrection.  One may speak, then, of the Church’s own fullness, her completion, though never separately from that of her Lord. 

The monastery has its own contribution to make to the fullness of the Church.  It shares in Christ’s plenitude as a cell of the Church and as a recipient of His promise to be with those who come together in His Name.  He is in our midst; He is literally under our roof in the Blessed Sacrament.  Fullness is here.  Again our Baptism, our daily reception of His Body and Blood, our pondering over His Word and our consecration to His praise, all open us to the plenitude of His grace.  And by fraternal love in community, we likewise encounter Christ in our sisters and are called, by giving and receiving, to share in each other’s plenitude. 

For each individual is called to plenitude.  This is both a promise and a challenge.  It is a promise, since as already indicated the origin of religion consists not so much in a perception of the infinite as in the fact that man has the infinite within him.  It is a challenge, since we have to bring it to fruition in our lives.  In doing so, our own capacity for it increases.  Thus St. Gregory of Nyssa writes: “Sharing in the divine fullness is such that it makes whoever achieves it ever greater, more illimitable, so as never to cease growing.  Because the spring of all reality flows ceaselessly, the being of everyone who shares in it is increased to grandeur, so that the capacity for receiving grows along with the abundance of good gifts received”. 

The challenge exists alongside the promise.  We are to become hollowed out receptacles, so that God may fill us with himself.  Here lies the task of clearing away obstacles in his path to our hearts.  It was Kierkegaard who said: “When a man has his mouth so full of food that he cannot eat, then the only way to feed him is by taking something away.”  There is, then, a wrong kind of fullness and a right kind of emptiness.  We have to starve ourselves of our egoism and pettiness in order to be able to receive God, who cannot come into us if we are full of ourselves.  The right kind of emptiness, however, does not always seem right.  It seems all wrong to be hungry, to feel unimportant and of shoddy virtue, to be unable to put two good thoughts together in prayer.  Consider that, far from being bad signs in our spiritual lives, they might be the merciful working of God’s light shining directly in our souls; that our sense of unimportance and unworthiness and emptiness is, in fact, an essential permission given by us to God to enter us in His way and to fill us with his own plenitude.  In aridity, the senses are empty and clean; the fullness of God is not felt but may be deeply experienced as an increasing purity of love. 

In dryness and emptiness of the senses, the desire of the Spirit burns all the more strongly.  As the psalmist declares:  “O God, you are my God, for you I long.  For you my body yearns; for you my soul thirsts, as in a dry and parched land where no water  is” (Psalm 62:1).  The desirous soul, in the thought of Richard of St Victor, no longer thirsts for God but into God.  The pull of its desire draws it into the infinite plenitude of Christ in God.  Only in heaven shall we pass utterly into that other glory which absorbs all earthly desire and glory.  But even here and now we may and we must become that desirous heart that thirsts into Christ’s fullness. become sitientes in plenitudinem Christi, literally ‘thirsting into the fullness of Christ’.  May we all grow in the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that all may be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19).


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