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.

 
 
 

In Abscondito Faciei Tuæ

Solemn Profession of Sr Anne Eason

Saturday, 9th February 2019

We begin our reflection on the hiddenness of Christ’s Face in the upper room, on the evening before His Passion and Death.  Viewed from the outside, this room is a small place, secluded and especially chosen by Jesus for His own purposes.  Here, visible actions express an invisible truth.  The man who bends to wash the stained feet of His disciples is the Lord of the Universe; in laying aside His garments, say the Fathers, He lays aside His glory and girds Himself with humility.  The glory, however, is not nullified by the servile action; it becomes only more interior.  It cannot be seen by Judas or by the undiscerning; only love perceives its inner beauty and splendour.  This connection between abasement in service and glory is shown most clearly in the ultimate lowering of Himself in His Passion and death, which is His definitive Hour of glorification.

            Even the upper room has a share in the paradox.  “O blessed place,” sings St Ephrem the Syrian, “your smallness is able to stand up to the whole world.  However small you may be, what is contained in you fills the entire world” (Hymn on the Crucifixion, 3).  Within these walls are found purity, holiness and faithfulness.  Jesus is there in the centre of His little community of the eleven, flawed men but full of love and loyalty.  He is radiant, sorrowful, intent on bequeathing them Himself in mystery.  In their limited comprehension, they rest in the communion of warmth and love.  “And it was dark,” says St John (Jn 13:30) in the world outside; light and life inside, emanating from the Person of Jesus.  They are sheltered within this intimacy, as Jesus is protected within the Hand of the Father or, in Isaiah’s image, like an arrow in the quiver (Is 49:2).

            John sees and understands the most.  He drinks straight from the fountain and as his thirst is slaked, it only increases.  Again, the visible is the sign of an invisible, hidden truth.  As he rests in the bosom of the Son, in an attitude of receptivity and listening, the Son rests or abides in the bosom of the Father.  As John looks upon the Face of Jesus and is looked at by Him, Jesus is always gazing upon the Face of the Father in mutual knowledge and love.

            John enters into the mystery of the Beauty of the divine Face through his thirst and is pervaded, sanctified, made beautiful by that same mystery.  As Nicholas Cabasilas writes in ‘The Life of Christ’: “It is the Bridegroom who has smitten [souls] with this longing.  It is He who has sent a ray of beauty into their eyes.”  In passing, but not without appropriateness, it is remarked that the “Immaculate Conception is full of grace because she is first made pure by God, like thirsty land waiting only for Him.”  For pure understand pre-eminently beautiful.  Man’s unmerited redemption in Christ is “the grace of a new participation in God’s beauty” (cf ‘The mystery of beauty’, Communio, Spring 2018).

            An action takes place in the upper room, within the familiar ritual and psalmody of the Israelitic cult.  “Blessed are you, O holy place, for in you Our Lord broke His Body …  Blessed is your dwelling place, in which bread was broken by a blessed Hand!  In you the grape, which came forth from Mary, was pressed into the chalice of salvation.  As altar and lamb, victim and sacrifice, priest and food, He Himself and through Himself is able to suffice for all, and no one can suffice for Him.  O blessed place in which the paschal lamb meets the true Lamb; symbol of weakness, it enters into this haven of peace and is enclosed therein” (Ephrem, op cit).

            In this small place, which opens onto eternity, weakness is taken up and enclosed within glory; and the glory itself is wholly interior, like the brightness within the cloud.  Simple elements, bread and wine, the work of weak human hands, are transformed into the Sacred Body and Blood of the Saviour.  And this Saviour goes out to the moment of supreme weakness.  Calvary becomes the new place where the hidden Beauty reigns.

            Before this, the Lord enters into dialogue with His Father, which he allows the disciples to overhear.  The Son reveals His Face to His Father; indeed, if one is permitted to say it, they show to one another their Face.  The disciples are caught up into this mystery of mutual indwelling.  Even when they must go out into the darkness of the Garden of Gethsemane, they remain, in a very real way, in that small place of light and love.

            Ephrem calls the upper room “a spectacle for the whole world”.  We see here the essence of our ecclesial and monastic life.  We may even see in it an analogy for monastic living.  We live a sacramental life in the monastery, not, of course, only by the frequentation of the sacraments instituted by the Church, but through our whole way of being.  If part of the familiar definition of a sacrament is the outward expression of an inward reality, the monastery may be said, mutatis mutandis, to present both an exterior and interior way of living.  This entails that there should be an integrity in the sign; namely, that it should not betray the reality it expresses, but honour and bring it into relief.  Hence the need for an authentic observance, which makes visible, in a sense, the invisible presence of Christ, His Face, and our life hidden in him.

            The monastery, like the upper room, is a place apart, blessed by Christ for His own designs.  It is unpretentious, and life within its walls is simple.  A Jewish story is à propos here.  “A Rabbi once entered heaven in a dream.  He was permitted to approach the temple in Paradise, where the great sages of the Talmud were spending their eternal lives.  He saw that they were just sitting round tables studying the Talmud.  The disappointed Rabbi wondered: ‘Is this all there is to Paradise?’  But suddenly he heard a voice: ‘You are mistaken.  They are not in Paradise; Paradise is in them.’”  Monastic practices, even breaking the bread of scripture in lectio divina, are deceptively unassuming, yet holy reading is one of the two principal ways in which the Incarnate Word comes to us; and to read the sacred texts, particularly in their original languages, is to dig for water which is always sweetest at the source.

            In the monastery, as in the upper room, we find Christ in our midst and at the centre of all we do, the object of our love and adoration.  It is His House, dedicated to Him; He lives there, enthroned in laudibus, on our praises (Ps 21).  We understand that He has called each one of us by name in an inimitable, personal manner.  Each one bears the image and secret of the King and enshrines His presence.  We find in the community as a whole purity of intention, good will and loyal perseverance.  If our Lord’s presence seems hidden at times, we need faith to penetrate to the reality beneath the appearance.  God sees the heart; so must we.  This requires the charitable eye, an openness to the depth of the other, which may sometimes go unperceived by the undiscerning.  However, we all have a responsibility to one another.  As Abbot Ambrose Wathen writes: “The community should not be a hindrance to the monk’s experience of God.  Neither is it merely a means for that experience.  Rather, it is the very context and sphere of an experience of God for the cenobite.  It is a sacrament of His presence” (Monastic Studies, Autumn 1972).  The progress of our sisters, in all their humanity, is a visible sign of the presence and power of the Lord.  Abbot Wathen again: “Monks see each other being conformed to Jesus in His death and resurrection” (Ibid).  Our monastic life immerses us in the paschal mystery.  Pope Benedict remarks (in ‘On the Way to Jesus Christ’): “Following Jesus as His disciple is a life lived at the place where Jesus stands and this place is the Passion.  In it is His glory present.”

            Besides the transforming action of the Holy Spirit in the individual members of the community, Christ’s presence pervades our surroundings and our works, so that they, too, become vehicles of His grace.  He is present in the cloister and the cell, both, one might say, little rooms within the monastery, places of quiet and communion.  He is present in our obediences, for in them we are doing His work.  Above all, He is there, in the Opus Dei, moving us to offer God words which are themselves sacramental signs inspired by His divine Breath.  St Benedict is clear: “We believe that God is present everywhere … but let us especially believe this without any doubting when we are performing the Divine Office” (RB 19).  At the centre and culmination of our life, of our day, is the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, as it was in the upper room.  This is the ultimate intimacy with God on earth, surrounded by the prayer of Jesus to His Father, a prayer into which we enter, both communally and personally.

            In this prayer, we are indeed hidden in the secret of His Face.  Here is protection, it is true, from the strife of men, but more profoundly, protection for enjoyment of the inner life of God.  In the thought of Blaise Arminjon (paraphrased from the French of his book on the psalms: ‘On the ten-stringed lyre’), the primary joy of the soul is to be hidden, to disappear completely, unknown to all, in the enveloping tenderness of the Face of God, which is God Himself.  This Face, far from being impenetrable and closed like those of men, opens itself to us in the measure that we contemplate it and, in pondering the “thoughts of His Heart from age to age” (cf Ps 32:11) penetrate into the hidden and still unexplored abyss of love, through the wound in His side.  There we shelter.  As we pray in the Anima Christi: “Hide me in Thy wounds.”

            If the soul is granted entry into the Beauty of this Face, in such a way that its communion with God becomes, in the phrase of St Ignatius, like a continual murmur of living water, then there is a mutual indwelling.  St Augustine follows this thought: “We shall be hidden, then, in the Face of God.  Do you expect to hear from me what shelter there is in God’s Face?    Purify your heart, so that He whom you invoke may enter it.  Be a home for Him and He will be a Home for you: let Him dwell in you and you will dwell in Him” (Ennarr on Ps 30:20).