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.

 
 
 

Missus Est 2018

A creature like us, Mary was instructed in heavenly things.  Eruditur æternis.  She was prepared for eternity just as we are.  There are obvious differences, too.  Predestined from eternity to be the Mother of God and preserved from all sin, Providence saw to it that her human instruction would be without deviation or error.

            The Gospel is silent on her early life, but there are many traditions concerning it in a number of apocryphal gospels.  The Protoevangelium of St James, for example, has a charming episode about her education from a tender age in the Temple school.  “The priest received her and kissed her and blessed her, saying, ‘The Lord has magnified thy name in all generations.  In thee, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest his redemption to the sons of Israel.’  And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, the Lord sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet and all the house of Israel loved her.    And Mary was in the Temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there.”  There she would have made the acquaintance of the ancient scrolls and become well versed in the prophecies about the Messiah.  We recall, also, that she was related to the priestly family of Zachary, which, in all likelihood, possessed some books (cf Mary the Mother of Jesus: F M Willam).  She would, finally, be steeped in the worship of Israel from her attendance at the synagogue; the psalms and scripture would be the substance of her prayer and meditation.  We know that she stored them in her heart.

            As far as humanly possible, then, Mary was prepared for the pivotal event in her life, in the life of mankind.  But this human preparation was not enough.  There was nothing adequate here to prepare her for the inbreaking of eternity into her existence.  The Annunciation was something completely, qualitatively, new.  Thanks to her fullness of grace, to her purity of mind and heart and the special favour granted her in view of her divine motherhood, she is made capable of opening herself to her destiny.

            A glimpse into the angelic word is itself an instruction in heavenly things.  Gabriel is not described in the Gospel: we know only that he was sent from heaven; that he is, therefore, a messenger of great significance, a confidante of the Holy Spirit.  Not only is his greeting likely to have troubled Mary, but also his presence: sudden, unannounced, immaterial, no doubt of extreme beauty and radiance.  His holiness must also have been apparent, since Mary has no difficulty in believing him, in posing simple questions on how she should proceed.  For his part, he speaks with authority, outlining the course of the Son and his eternal origin and destiny.  We learn from him, as Mary does, about the nature of heavenly designs; that God has the destiny of our race in his hand; that he cares so deeply for it that he is about to send the “Son of the Most High”, his own Son, to assume a human nature through Mary.  In this, we are further instructed in rudiments of knowledge about the divine society of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the last of whom will overshadow Mary in her virginal conception.  We learn that there is a mysterious fruitfulness within the Blessed Trinity, which will be reflected in Mary’s miraculous childbearing.  As in all supernatural mystery, a creature cannot penetrate it, can only surrender in trust.  Her response and ours is a renouncement of the desire to comprehend totally in a conceptual way and to assent with the whole being to what seems impossible.  Mary does this: fiat mihi.

            From that moment, she carries the child of the Most High in her womb.  She carries the kingdom of heaven within.  The liturgy and the Fathers never tire of expressing wonder at this fact: a creature bears her Creator; He whom the heavens cannot contain is contained in Mary’s womb.  Virgo Dei Genitrix quam totus non capit orbis, in tua se clausit viscera factus est homo (Gradual Benedicta Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary).  St Ephrem compares Mary herself to heaven.  “This day Mary has become for us the heaven that bears God, for in her the exalted Godhead has descended and dwelt.  It has grown small to make us great – but its nature does not diminish; in her it has woven us a garment that shall be for your salvation” (Homily on the Nativity).  Looking into her own heart, she understands heavenly things.  She is aware both of heaven’s silence and its imperative to praise; to rest in contemplation and union and to break forth in ecstatic liturgy.  Hence, the Magnificat, overflowing from Mary’s joy at the life being knit together in her womb (cf Ps 138:13).  “My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”

            In the stillness of the Holy Night the note of adoration deepens.  Ephrem comments that, at the birth of her child, Mary holds heaven on her knees, holds the flesh which will become the Bread of Life.  St John writes, in his first epistle: “That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands … the life was made manifest and we saw it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us” (1Jn 1:1-2).  Mary could truly have pronounced these words of the Beloved Disciple and made them her own.  She saw and touched and heard eternal life made incarnate in her baby.  Thus she adored and drew others into the circle of her adoration: the shepherds, the Magi.  God is born in the flesh and, in the much loved words of Zechariah, creation falls silent before the Lord of creation.  Silent omnis caro a facie Domini (2:13).  Their silence imitates the deep quiet of the Godhead.

            A new, small society is now formed on earth: the Holy Family under the guardianship of St Joseph.  Like all of us, they strove to live in and reverence the present moment, to embody eternal values in the small and simple actions of every day.  “Heaven in ordinary” (cf George Herbert).  This, unexpectedly, is how God is on earth; yet they lived in his presence in a unique and extraordinary way.  They absorbed from their child, as well as through the normal exercise of their parental care, the peace and harmony of heaven.

            As Jesus grows, he would ask and tell his mother many things, just as she would question and learn from him, the eternal Word.  She learnt, first of all, like others, for example, the scribes and elders in the Temple, the worshippers in the synagogue and the crowds.  Secondly, we may infer that he explained to her in private what could be put in human words, concerning his Father, himself and his mission and destiny.  His words addressed to her at Cana: “My hour is not yet come” seem to indicate that she knows to what he refers.  Mary understands what he tells her, because there are no obstacles in her to truth.  She has already been overshadowed by the Spirit of truth and knows secrets hidden from ages.  Not for nothing is she called Mother of theologians, since she places herself attentively before the mystery and ponders it in her heart.  Mary knows through her faith: and this knowledge is a pledge of clear, future vision.

            Mary understands because she prays and she prays out of her understanding; or, we might say that she sees because she is seen.  She looks at Jesus and he looks back.  In him she sees the Father, not only in the tiny baby or the growing boy or man; she contemplates his being, sees into his heart which is God’s Heart.  The Son is flesh of her flesh; it is not entirely metaphorical to say that their two hearts beat as one.  Gazing on his face, she is drawn into his own intimacy with the Father, far beyond herself.  It has to be said of her, more truly than of any contemplative, that her prayer becomes one with Jesus’ prayer to the Father.  There is nothing in her pure nature to hinder surrender to the powerful current of the Holy Spirit of love.  Thus her prayer on earth prepares her for the uninterrupted vision and share in the endless interchange of love and life of the Blessed Trinity.

            First, however, she must suffer, as Simeon prophesied, and her heart will be struck by a sword.  In Mary’s case, suffering is always on account of her Son.  He admits the Mother to the secret of his suffering and allows her to bear it with him.  This, too, is a preparation for heavenly life, not that suffering is a desirable good, or exists in heaven, but that it was, mysteriously, a necessary part of the Redemption and therefore a prelude to the eternal life won for us by Jesus’ Blood.  Stabat Mater: and she will “stand before the Son of Man” (Lk 21:36) in great honour and glory at his coming.

            After the Crucifixion, what then?  How does this barren period prepare her for heaven?  There is a new depth here to her poverty of spirit, for she knows her need of grace, must draw on that fullness acknowledged by Gabriel.  Her pierced heart has gone after Jesus’ Heart.  She is suspended between heaven and earth in the greatest solitude, and this is fruitful beyond measure for the Church.  In the powerful, though difficult saying of St Paul, she fills up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his Mystical Body.  Now it is she who prepares the Church for heaven, since her own life is consummated with Christ’s.  Mary, the holiest member of the Church embodies it in herself and makes it worthy for eternal life.  “And the Mother of Christ was there” – at Pentecost and ever after.

            The day comes when she enters fully into eternal life, fully instructed, fully prepared by her journey on earth.  The wedding at Cana had shown how Jesus provides in abundance the new wine destined for God’s marriage feast with humanity, that wine which is “the sign and gift of nuptial joy” (Pope Benedict).  Such is the goal towards which God directs history: the history of the race and the history of the redeemed soul.  Mary is the first creature to enter body and soul into the everlasting feast of heaven.  In a phrase of Fr Matthias Scheeben, she clothed the Son of God “in the unpretentious raiment of the form of a servant” that he might be exalted in the form of God, “above every name” (Phil 2:9) through his obedience unto death.  Mary, likewise, is clothed and transformed, rising to the dignity of the Mother of God and, in heaven, to Queen of all creation, through her humble and obedient fiat on earth.

            Like us, Mary is as one who is taught; but her case is always unique.  In her, heaven and earth were reconciled and intertwined.  Virga Jesse floruit: Virgo Deum et hominem genuit: pacem Deus reddidit, in se reconcilians ima summis (Alleluia Common Blessed Virgin Mary).  The Rod of Jesse has blossomed: the Virgin has brought forth God and man; God has restored peace, reconciling in himself the lowest with the heights.