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.

 
 
 

STREAMS OF GRACE

“ The Lord’s sovereign dominion guides not only the heart of kings, it guides the heart of each of us by a secret inclination, as surely as a brook follows its peaceful course : sicut divisiones aquarum, ita cor regis in manu Domini est… (Like streams of water, so is the heart of the king in the Lord’s hand)”  Dom Delatte : Notes on the spiritual life.

     This quotation has a very paschal note.  The Resurrection event was quiet and secret; the appearances to the disciples, although unsettling and strange at first were without clamour; they moved the hearts of Christ’s followers in subtle, barely conscious ways.  We might be speaking here of the workings of grace.  It, too, might be described as a ‘secret inclination’, a flowing stream from its source in God, which guides our hearts to make us encounter the Risen Christ in a personal way.

     This is not, however, a talk on the theology of grace, though based on the Catechism and some of the thoughts of Fr. Peter Fransen in his ‘Divine grace and man’.  It aims to show, rather, how grace inclined the hearts of the apostles and early disciples, making them docile streams in the Lord’s hand.

     We begin with St. Mary Magdalen in the garden.  Weeping, she seeks our Lord’s crucified body.  The stream of grace has softened her heart, broken it open, from grief of loss, certainly, but also, one surmises, at the injustice of what has happened and the hardness of heart of Jesus’ judges and executioners, perhaps, too, at her own woundedness.   In her we see a heart prepared by grace itself to respond to grace.  “His mercy has gone before us,” writes St Augustine.   “It has gone before us that we may be healed and follows us, so that we may be glorified.  It goes before us that we may live devoutly and follows us that we may always live with God; for without him we can do nothing.” (CCC 2001)

     Thus the Magdalen’s tears are grace; her yearning, her waiting and her persistence are grace.  Above all grace is in her innermost response of love to the love of God, which moves and calls her.  Note that we observe grace only in how it manifests itself; in itself it escapes experience.  Note, next, that the Lord, whom she fails to recognise at first (so subtle is the working of grace), addresses a word to her.  This word, his initiative, is her personal name, that which identifies and distinguishes her, makes her a ‘someone’ before God.  Each person is a ‘you’.  As we grow to human and spiritual maturity, the ‘I’ emerges from a kind of sleep or lack of  self-consciousness, in the literal sense.  In the light and warmth of the encounter with Jesus, we become alive, aware of who we are, how we have been created and fashioned by God.  We resemble his Son, because this ‘I’, which seems so new and fragile and yet so firm at its core, is formed in his image.  This ‘I’ is enabled by grace to live in personal contact with him who made her.  Grace is the presence of one person to another, to the divine Other.  (cf Fransen).

     Jesus’ word to Mary, then, establishes his presence in her.  This re-creating word of grace expects and enables a further response from her : “Rabboni”.  It expects her to act in conformity with the new power of loving she has been given.  There is both a prohibition and a command.  “Do not hold me yet” ; the time is coming when you will hold me in such a way that you cannot imagine now.  Faith is thus demanded and given;  hope is enkindled;  love impels her to live in obedience to the word of grace : ‘“Go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”  Mary Magdalen went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”.’

     The element of personal encounter is again very pronounced in the event of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Jesus, source of grace, once more takes the initiative.  He “draws near” and “goes with them”;  he addresses them first.  Like the Magdalen, they are not ready to recognise the presence of grace, of the Lord of grace.  “Their eyes were kept from recognising him.”  (Lk 24,16)  All the same, they had been preoccupied with the events of the Passion ; they were seekers of the truth.  Grace, finding them attentive, guides their hearts “by a secret inclination” to listen to the word of scripture which Jesus addresses to them.  The grace of the word causes their hearts to burn within them.  It unfolds more and more along the way, until the moment when it breaks out into full awareness as they sit at table with the Lord.  If it is not too much of an anticlimax, I recall C S Lewis’ story of his conversion to Christianity.  After much reflecting and reading and discussing, one day he was on a bus journey.  When he began the journey he was not a Christian; by the end of it, he was.  He could not quite explain what happened on the way.  The ‘secret inclination’ of grace.

     In the Gospel, unbelief, doubt and scepticism are around as well. Grace meets with a certain resistance.  Yet God’s love, which is his grace, comes looking for us “in our state of estrangement”.  (cf Fransen).  He is the Father always seeking out his child, persuading, sometimes by revealing himself, as to Thomas; sometimes only by a subtle presence in a hidden manner, illustrated and symbolised in the Gospel by the Risen Lord’s secret comings and goings; always by the influence of love.  The heart which is not entirely frozen is susceptible to this humble soliciting of the Holy Spirit.  The presence of love becomes so unmistakeable that St Thomas and all who have come to faith, yield to the attraction of love and cry at last: “My Lord and my God.”  It remains a mystery like C S Lewis’ bus journey, but we cannot deny the reality of it.  God’s love for us has caused us to love him.  Furthermore, we become loveable through his love for us.   “Quia me amasti”, says St Augustine, “fecisti me amabilem”.  ( “Because you have loved me, you have made me loveable.”)

     Our faith, brought about by love, may remain a poor, little thing.  Indeed, we have to guard the flame with care.  But it always brings peace.  This is the paschal word, along with joy, judging by the Lord’s post- resurrection greetings to his anxious disciples.  The peace of Christ will take root in us through grace, if we welcome it and nurture it by the practice of humility and patience.  The grace of peace and the peace that grace brings is a sign of the divine indwelling, a share in the infinite peace of the trinitarian life, a guarantee of our adoption as God’s beloved children.  It commits us to a life of faith, hope and love, which are the flowering of grace in us.

            In the final chapter of St John’s gospel, another light is shed on the streams of grace won for us by the Resurrection.  Here this light falls squarely on Peter, the impulsive actor in the Passion drama.  Peter does not lack faith; indeed, he was the first to proclaim it, through a signal grace from heaven at Caesarea Philippi.  However, he was not always able at first to act from his faith; he prefers to rely on his own strength.  And so he fails at the first real test.  Nevertheless, Christ has prayed for him expressly that his faith will not fail : “ When you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.”  There is a grace for turning again.  It acts upon the contrite heart, when God’s compassionate gaze meets man’s struggling desire, conferring upon it a new stability, a new depth, because of a new self- knowledge.  What was the content of Christ’s glance at Peter after his denial ? asks Kierkegaard, in his book ‘Works of love’, “Was it the hurt feelings of having been betrayed by the person who had just sworn he would always be with him ? Was it. ‘I told you so’, because he had told him so ? Was it, Et tu, Brute ?, that is, ‘Nobody can be trusted, not even you ?’ Was it the unbearable pain of having had up to now at least one person who was with him in his trials, and now there was nobody ?”  And Kierkegaard says : “No. It isn’t about Jesus’ suffering from the betrayal of Peter.”  He saw that “Peter could be irreparably broken by what he had done, because in betraying the love he had for this man, Jesus, his master, he had also radically betrayed himself.  Peter could go out and do the same thing that Judas did.”  And so Kierkegaard says that the look of Jesus to Peter was a look that said : ‘Listen, we will clear up the details later.  I love you.’  He looked to Peter to console Peter and Kierkegaard says that’s why Peter wept, not only because he had betrayed Christ “but because his betrayal had elicited even more love.”  Peter’s tears are the effect of grace.  His confession is also courteously requested.  “Do you love me ? Yes, Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”  Grace enables us, gives us the chance to make reparation.  Then there is the conferral of further grace, the permission and the honour to do something for the Lord and to live in obedience to faith, as a child of the Father : ‘Feed my sheep.’

     Now comes the time for collaboration with the Spirit “in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Body of Christ”  (CCC 2003).  To this purpose, the stream of grace becomes a torrent at Pentecost.  While the sacraments are channels of the graces proper to them, there are also graces of state and special graces or charisms.  All “are at the service of charity which builds up the Church.” (ibid)  Conversions among Jews and Gentiles follow swiftly on the apostolic preaching : “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the rest of the Apostles : ‘Brethren what shall we do ?’  And Peter said to them : repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ … and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts, 2, 37 f.)  You shall receive the grace of the Holy Spirit.

     Finally, we reflect on the grace of the Mother of Jesus and of John.  It is one of waiting and therefore of contemplation and vision.  One waits for something, someone; and there has to be interior knowledge of what and whom one awaits.  In the life of the Spirit, this is given us by divine grace which, streaming down from God, “lays hold of us in the innermost depth of our being.” (Fransen).  This is the grace of the contemplative for which we pray.  God works in us from inside outwards; the spiral of the Holy Spirit rises from within, sometimes perceptibly, usually in a secret way, guiding our hearts in its peaceful course, always eliciting an answering love.

     This twofold movement is summed up by Bl. John Ruysbroeck.  ‘To him’, remarks Fransen, ‘the work of grace is the mighty ebb and flow of the eternal trinitarian life.  It comes down oceanlike from the Godhead, flooding the world to bring it fertility; it then returns to its source carrying all things in its sweep back to the infinite majestic glory of the Trinity.”  This is Ruysbroeck himself : “This flowing of God demands always a flowing back again; for God is like a sea, ebbing and flowing, ceaselessly flowing into each one of his elect … and in his ebbing, he draws back again all men to whom he has given in heaven and on earth, with all they have and all of which they are capable.  And from such men he demands more than they can achieve.”  Hence the gratuitous, undeserved nature of grace, which gives us the power to love God as He demands, in deeds of holiness, goodness and joy.