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.

 
 
 

BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO MOURN FOR THEY SHALL BE COMFORTED  Mt 5:4

 

The Greek word for mourning here is the one used for lamentation for the dead.  When Jacob believes his son Joseph to be devoured by wild beasts, “He mourned for his son many days…and refused to be comforted…thus his father wept for him.” (Gen37,34f.) It is an exteriorization of a grief that cannot be contained and must break out in unrestrained weeping. Other causes in the Old Testament for such public grieving are national catastrophes (e.g. the Exile), fear of Divine punishment or the result of oppression.

Scripture, nonetheless, never presents a picture of total despair.  There is always the counterpart of God’s comfort. Consolation is the general theme of the Book of Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…he has sent me to bind up the broken –hearted, to comfort all who mourn’ (61,2) and many similar examples. The parallelism of grief and consolation is very marked in the psalms, too. ‘He that goes forth weeping (as at the Exile) bearing the seed for sowing shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him’ ( as at the return).  (Ps.126,6)   ‘Thou hast delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears (Ps. 114,8)’  ‘My tears have been my food, day and night’ yet ‘hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God’. (42,11) God sees and hears the weeping of his people; they will be vindicated. ‘Thou hast put my tears in thy bottle. Are they not in thy book?’ (Ps. 55,8 RSV)  The more dramatic the grief, the more emphatic the response. ‘Every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping’  but ‘the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping…the Lord accepts my prayer’.  (6,6f).

Jesus also wept. He weeps over Jerusalem, over her indifference, cruelty and sins.  Origen says that this is to be understood likewise of the Church and for the same reasons. (Homily on Lk., 38)  He weeps, mysteriously, at the tomb of his dead friend, Lazarus, whom he is about to raise to life. All the same, as God is the Comforter of his people, so Jesus is recognised by Simeon as the long awaited Consolation of Israel. Fr Hendrickx  writes : ‘As the Messiah sent and inspired by God, he chooses the side of the poor, the mourning, the hungry, the little ones.  Where he passes, mourning changes into joy, the sick are cured, lepers are cleansed and restored to the community.’   ‘In Jesus, who untiringly responded to all human misery, God’s consolation received a human face to such an extent that he could be truly called ‘God with us.’

 In Jesus’ own words: ‘You will weep and lament…but your sorrow shall turn into joy…I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you’ ( Jn. 16, 20f. ) Note that it is the presence of Jesus – seeing him again – which brings consolation. Hence the promise of the Counsellor, the Comforter, the  Paraclete sent in his name by the Father.

There are different ways of looking at the human misery that is so blessed that it leads to joy. Although we might define the causes in different terms than in the Old Testament, for the most part these causes are not dissimilar. One might place them roughly in three main classes. In the first instance, there is an immemorial, personal suffering which reflects both the human condition and social or national circumstances: illness perhaps especially mental illness, rejection, trauma, ill treatment and abuse, poverty and loneliness in an individualistic age to mention but a few. In a class of its own, there is death and bereavement, which robs us of our loved ones and seems to swallow up the unique and irreplaceable love which existed between them and us. More than counterbalancing this deprivation, there is the ultimate consolation of eternal life and reunion; yet this does not negate, at the time, our pain at temporal loss. Less easily defined, there is the personal angst which has its roots in the transience of human life, in our fallen state and our restless seeking after fulfilment, rest and perfection. Augustine opens his Confessions with the famous description of man’s unquiet heart. Not everyone understands the goal of this quest or the remedy of the heart’s melancholy. Substitutes may be found, which lead man deeper into the quagmire of depression.  But even if that route is not followed, we shall always feel the acute disharmony between the Absolute for which we were made and the relative nature of our actual life, until we rest in Christ (cf. Bible Chrétienne on Mt. 5)

It is not sadness of disharmony says Gregory of Nyssa which is a beatitude but the knowledge of the Good. Nevertheless, many have seen in personal suffering, not a good in itself evidently, but a skilful teacher, if one is a humble disciple.  Without some acquaintance with grief there is a real possibility of existing only on the surface of life. There is no pressing need here to grapple with the serious questions of existence.  As long as we do not allow suffering to embitter, it can bring us face to face with the deep things of life.  We touch reality, things as they are, without cushioning or anything counterfeit. In other words, suffering can ensure that we live in the truth, thus enabling an enrichment of the spirit. This is not to say that we have to enjoy it. Naturally, we don’t. We taste our vulnerability and lack of defences. Either we try to escape or control it, leading to failure and neuroses, or we open ourselves to God in our weakness and experiential dependence, to receive his comfort and strength.  We can even embrace it for love of God and neighbour. All this requires courage and grace, for it is an uncharted country, except that Our Lord inhabited it first and offers us his consolation unfailingly.

Secondly, mourning arises from compassion for the sufferings of others. The prime model is Our Lady at the foot of the cross; her com-passion as it is often called. For us, too, there can be an acute empathy, even identification with the suffering other: the hungry child, the trafficked woman, the abandoned old person, a beloved person bent on ruining his or her own life. The list is endless. Blessed are those who are shocked by these things. And blessed are those who would rather suffer under injustice than sin by resentment. When the kingdom of Christ comes, their scandal will be turned into rejoicing. This promise, comments Hendrickx is in the form of a ‘theological passive’, that is, a reverent way of saying ‘God himself will comfort them’. 

In the third place, those who mourn weep not only on account of suffering but also because of the memory of their sins. This is to have the grace of compunction from the Latin verb pungere or noun punctum… to prick or puncture. Their sorrow or contrition punctures their hardness of heart or pricks their sensibilities so sharply that it brings tears to the eyes. These are joyful tears, nonetheless, because they spring from the juxtaposition of God’s goodness and mercy with their own shabbiness; a forgiven shabbiness. ‘A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.’ (Ps.50, 17) we sing every day at Lauds. In this blessed stream of tears, we are washed and made clean. It is a sign and consequence of standing in the truth, with no other defence than God’s tenderness for the repentant soul. Pope Benedict writes:  There is a “mourning occasioned by the shattering encounter with truth, which leads a man to undergo conversion and to resist evil. This mourning heals, because it teaches man to hope and to love again. Judas is an example of the wrong kind of mourning. Struck with horror at his own fall, he no longer dares to hope and hangs himself in despair. Peter [on the other hand] struck by the Lord’s gaze, bursts into healing tears that plough up the soil of his soul. He begins anew and is himself renewed.”  (Jesus of N Vol 1 p.86)

We have looked at three main aspects of mourning as the reaction to suffering and the blessedness inherent in them.  These aspects are to be found also in the Holy Rule, especially that of compunction as might be expected in a document devoted to a life of prayer and penance. There is, nonetheless, some reference, too, to the first category of personal trial. The Prologue ends with a reference to those who share in the sufferings of Christ. The Tools of good works have a little clutch of sayings about the endurance of personal injuries, as in: “Do not injure anyone, but bear injuries patiently.” (30) There is a strong emphasis on this side in RB7, in the 4th degree of humility, where the monk in “difficult, unfavourable or even unjust conditions” embraces his suffering (tacite conscientia patientiam amplectatur), confident in his expectation of reward. He stands secure in God’s protection, not in spite of his trials but because of them.

In the second aspect of mourning, which we understood as compassion with the suffering other, the scope covered by the Rule is, unsurprisingly quite narrow. It is legislating, after all, for a stable community of monks. Yet empathy with all humanity is always implied, for example in St. Benedict’s concern for the poor, in his respect for them and even preference over those who do quite well for themselves. The poor pilgrim must be treated with special honour (RB55). Then St. Benedict’s concern for harmony and peace in community relations is very marked, with a corresponding sympathy for anyone out of sorts. No one says Our Holy Father, should be disquieted or vexed in the house of God (RB31); the brethren must ensure harmony by giving each other help as needed, “ so that they may serve without distress” (RB35). The Abbot, for his part, is to avoid crushing a bruised reed or cultivating an ambience only for the strong, those in no need of comfort. The weak are to be found a niche and made to feel welcome and useful, which, indeed, in St. Benedict’s world view, they most certainly are.  The sick, in effect, are to be given primary attention and importance for their resemblance to Christ; and the powerless, such as old men and children, are to be legislated for, even though human nature is “drawn to pity” towards those times of life. The network of exceptions, even down to the servers’ ‘bite’ in the refectory is likewise based on compassionate consideration. Finally there is the monk who offends the spirit of the Rule grieviously.  St. Benedict views him as sick, too, and deserving of special treatment, understanding and care. Above all, he must be surrounded by love and prayer.

Monastic compunction, as we have noted, falls readily under the third aspect.  “Every day with sighs and tears confess your past sins to God in prayer” (RB4) According to the chapter on Reverence in prayer, “ We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction (compuctione lacrimarum), not our many words”  (RB20); in RB52 on the oratory, the monk is recommended to pray “in lacrimis et intentione cordis.” In Lent, he also devotes himself to prayer, also “cum fletibus” (weeping) and to compunction of heart.  There are numerous references to repentance in general – too many to cite here – we note simply that this turning back to God involves inevitably sorrow over personal sins. (RB25,3)  In all these examples of mourning, St. Benedict ensures that comfort will be dispensed, whether through the good word, the consolation of the troubled brother by a senpecta, the healing acceptance of a secret sin or wound by the spiritual father, above all by the promise held out of eternal life.

Even in this life says St. Benedict we can start to run with overflowing hearts, having tasted the consolation of love  “solacium caritatis”; and having mourned with Christ, through sharing his sufferings in this life, we may hope also to share in his kingdom in the next. Here we rejoin the scriptural eschatalogical texts. In the Old Testament, there is the promise of God’s maternal consolation: “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you”.  (Is.66,30)   And in the New Testament, the Father himself “will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away”. (Rev. 21,4)  There, in the kingdom of heaven, Mary, Mater Misericordiae, will show to us, after our exile on earth, in the valle lacrimarum the blessed fruit of her womb, Jesus.