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.

 
 
 

 

Sicut Rivi Aquarum

New Year Conference, 2019

There is an intriguing verse in Proverbs (21:1) which reads, in the Revised Standard Version: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.”  Robert Alter has: “Water streams, a king’s heart in the hand of the Lord; wherever he desires he diverts it.”  Finally, Michael Fox, in the Anchor Yale Bible series, translates: “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; he directs it wherever he wishes.”  Water in this context means, as Fox specifies, channels, to distinguish it from other connotations which water had in the mind of the Israelite.  Channelled water lacks a destructive tendency to flood or overwhelm.  As a farmer employs irrigation channels to his own ends, so does God make use of the king’s mind.  Here the water is tamed, so to speak, but not in order to reduce it to something without power or significance.  Instead, it is purposefully contained, in order to irrigate, to give life and ensure productivity.  Such directedness is in the power, the hand of the Creator.

            This point is frequently made in the Old Testament.  Père Boismard, in the Dictionary of Biblical Theology (DBT), comments that God dispenses water according to his will and therefore holds the destinies of mankind in his hand.  Right at the beginning of creation, we see the Spirit of God at his directive work, moving over the face of the watery abyss, separating the waters below the heavens from the waters above, and congregating those underneath into one place.  God holds water back or releases it at will, as in Ps 103: “Thou didst set a bound which they [the waters] should not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth.  Thou makest springs gush forth … they give drink to every beast of the field”, and so on (vv9f).  God watches to see that the rains fall regularly and in due season.  “The land which you are going over to possess”, we read in Deut 11:11-12, “is a land … which drinks water by rains from heaven, a land which the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.”  Water is an effect and sign of his blessing on those who serve him faithfully (DBT).  Above all, it is God’s creature, ready to do his bidding.

            To compare a man’s heart, or his thoughts, to water in God’s hand is, therefore, to demonstrate the suppleness in obedience and trust characteristic of a servant of God.  Such a person, in the Old Testament, was King David the man after God’s heart, who did all his will in joyful and filial freedom.  Even in his dancing before the ark, he would turn this way and that in obedience, one might say, to his joy.  He is the Beatus vir of Ps 1 who is “like a tree planted by streams of water”; he is the righteous king with a fruitful reign.  In Israel we read that, when princes and kings rule justly, they will be like “water channels in parched ground” (32:2).

            Not only the consciously obedient man, like David, accomplishes God’s will.  Even the pagans are tools in his hand.  Cyrus is only one example of autocrats who, unknown to themselves, “fertilised God’s field as he chose” (D Kidmer: Proverbs).  Thus, fruitfulness from any source belongs to God and his providence.

            While water streams are a symbol for obedience and fecundity, they are also an image for interior purification.  The obedient heart is the pure heart; it desires only one thing, the will of God.  It rests contentedly in God’s hand, alert to his wishes and ready to be sent where he pleases.

            This is manifestly true of Our Lord at his Incarnation.  Julian of Norwich has him standing as a servant “before his Lord reverently, ready to do his Lord’s will.  The Lord turneth upon his servant a look full of love, sweet and meek.  He sendeth him to a certain place, to do his will.  The servant not only goeth, but starteth out suddenly, and runneth in great haste, for love, to do his Lord’s will” (Revelations, ch 51).  This is like a commentary on the Psalm verse: “Behold, I come to do thy will” (Ps 39/40).  Christ is, nonetheless, the God-man, in whom we see the double aspect of mastery and submission.  In the former, he shows his command over the elements by walking on water and rebuking the wind and the waves.  He uses water in his healing miracles, such as those at the pools of Bethsaida and Siloam.  All his miracles spring from the infinite power within his divine nature.  Even when he is transfigured in glory on Mount Tabor, it is by his own permission.

According to the second aspect, however, he does only and desires to do only what he sees the Father doing.  When he speaks, it is only whatever he hears from heaven.  Thus mastery and obedience are joined in him; his mastery is at service of his obedience and his obedience is given in total freedom and self-command.  This conjunction is particularly clear, in a moving way, when, through the ministry of his priests, he changes the substance of wine into his Blood during the Mass.  By his own will and power, he puts himself literally in our hands.

            Christ communicates the life of God to us through the Sacraments, which take their origin traditionally from the streams of blood and water flowing from his pierced side, as if from the split rock.  Thus he confers on us the Holy Spirit through “the bath of regeneration” in baptism (cf Tit 3:5), waters which he has sanctified through his own baptism at the hands of John.

            The Spirit himself always does the Father’s will; he proceeds from God’s Heart into the heart of man.  The Spirit is humble.  He is the one who discloses, but is never disclosed; he makes visible the works of God, but is himself invisible.  He is at the service of all, going wherever he is sent.  Fr Durrwell reminds us that “he is the Gift but not the Giver.  He works anonymously … yet it is through him that the Father, Son and prophets speak.”  He never works to his own advantage but “enables the faithful to know the Father and invites them to make the invocation, Abba … as a master of prayer, he prays, but only according to the mind of the Father” (The Holy Spirit of God).  There is a fluidity about him, reminiscent of water falling on the soul to purify, replenish and heal.  As the Sequence puts it: Lava quod est sordidum, Riga quod est aridum, sana quod est saucium.  The Spirit spreads and transforms interiorly, cleansing and soothing.  He always comes from the hand of God, who diverts Him wherever he pleases.  It is, as Boismard puts it “the invasion of a presence”, with an ever deepening expansion (DBT).

            Since we have received the Holy Spirit at our Baptism, we may hope, by corresponding to grace, to imitate and reproduce his dispositions and actions.  We are able to become like him in his supple obedience in the hand of the Father.  We can become like the little child whom Jesus took and placed in the midst of the disciples, in order to teach them the beauty of docility.  We may imagine him turning the child this way and that, while the child trusts, feels secure and loved, lets himself be turned.  Nearer our time, we have the example of Ste Thérèse of the Child Jesus, comparing herself to a little ball in the Lord’s hand; sometimes he played with it, sometimes he left it alone in a corner.  It reminds us also of St Bernadette, feeling she had been only a broom in Our Lady’s hand, to be put back in the cupboard, when her usefulness had apparently ended.

            Humility is useful to Our Lord.  He can achieve his purposes through the humble person; he or she does not get in the way of his plans, but waits expectantly for the next thing to be asked of her.  We return, in illustration, to our image of water, which St Francis, Christ’s “little, poor man”, lauds in his Canticle of Brother Sun: “Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water, which is very humble and useful and precious and chaste.”  There is no rigid sense of duty here, but a joyful compliance, an attractiveness.

            By this malleability of the heart, we are accepting of the requirements of the present moment.  There is no problem about going from this to that, no anxiety about sudden changes in routine.  Hence the much misunderstood phrase “holy indifference”, which is the opposite of a pious lack of interest in everyday events.  If we were in God’s hand like a channel of water, all our actions would spring from a single, intense love; therefore all would be done with the same loving intensity.  Some activities, it is true, may be more congenial than others to our particular nature, but love would make us approach all and accept and perform all with an equal fervour.  Such an attitude takes much of the strain out of living.  With holy pragmatism, St Bernard writes in De diligendo Deo (xi, 33): “He who is not willing to be ruled gently is ruled painfully by himself and he who is not willing of his own free will to take up the gentle yoke and light burden of love will bear against his will the insupportable burden of his own will.”

            The “easiness”, if one may put it like that, of life lived as if we were streams of water in the Lord’s hand, would become apparent in the different areas of our existence.  Our human relations, for example, are simplified if we are ready to go along with others.  We respond warmly to a person who is clearly putting others before herself, restraining love of self, directing love of God to the neighbour.  Mutual trust grows.  This water of good will spreads and produces pleasant fruits, agreeable to God and man.

            One might say something similar about our prayer.  In sung liturgical prayer, the Chant, in its simplicity, possess a certain fluidity.  It is contained yet directed.  Its effect is subtle yet powerful, like the Spirit Himself.  The prayer of the heart takes its qualities from the praying heart itself.  If that heart is completely in the hand of God, it will turn wherever the Holy Spirit guides it.  St Paul says (Rom 8:26) that the Spirit himself will move and direct the inarticulate heart, interceding for it “with signs too deep for words”; and, he adds, because the Spirit is docile, he always prays for us and in us according to the will of God.  In faith and hope we trust also that these waterstreams of grace, while they irrigate our own life and that of our community, may, imperceptibly for the most part to ourselves, produce fruits of peace and holiness in the Church and the world.  Like the water flowing from the Temple in Ezekiel 47, may our prayer always bring life and healing wherever it goes.  May deserts become orchards (Is 44:3f).

            The verse of Proverbs which forms the basis for this talk goes like this in the New Vulgate: Sicut rivi aquarum cor regis in manu Domini: quocumque voluerit inclinabit illud.  On account of its length, it proved impracticable to prune into a suitable motto, so I propose that we take the first three words of the verse, in the hope that they will suggest to you the wider context.

            Our motto, then, for 2019 will be:

 

Sicut Rivi Aquarum

 

Like waterstreams …