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.

 
 
 

ST. CECILIA 

 

          In this talk in preparation for St. Cecilia’s day, I propose to base my reflections on the first reading for Vigils taken from Romans 8: 12-19, 28-39. The opening verse recalls to us that we are celebrating the memory of one of the Church’s great virgin-martyrs, those despisers of the self and its concupiscence in favour of God and His faithful people.  “Brethren, we are not debtors to the flesh to live according to the flesh - for if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.”  The person redeemed by Christ has no longer any obligation, owes nothing, to the tyrannical ‘I’ which inclines us to all kinds of sinful activity.  Only God has a claim on us now. We have, as it were, said goodbye to all that.  Flesh means death; spirit means life.  Nonetheless, St. Cecilia, the model of asceticism, was executed, was put to death.  By this we understand that living by the Spirit does not make us immune to physical death; it makes us candidates for everlasting life.  “It is truly a question of a new existence.  Even death loses its character of irreparability and defeat.  The greatest contradiction that man has ever experienced, that between life and death, has been overcome.  The most radical contradiction is no longer between living and dying, but between living for oneself and living for the Lord.  Now, living for oneself has become the real death.  For those who believe, life and death in the physical sense are only two phases and two different ways of living for and with the Lord.  …Death could even seem to be a gain because it allows us to be more fully with the Lord.”  (Cantalamessa : Life in the Lordship of Christ, p.253).

 

          Living by the Spirit creates also a freedom from fear.  Slavery to sin, to the deeds of darkness is based on fear and compounds it.  It is a clinging to idols, those things with which we fill our lives to compensate for an emptiness which only God can fill.  Cecilia recognises this when she says to Tiburtius: “God’s love has made you reject the worship of idols.”  Luke Johnson in his commentary on Romans remarks justly that “it is the deep fear of contingency, anxiety at the threat of non-existence that, once the gift of God’s creation is rejected, drives the compulsive need to construct one’s own life and works”.

 

          The redeemed soul, on the contrary, has received not this spirit of idolatry and its attendant fears, but the Spirit of sonship; that is, a share in Christ’s own sonship, a new relationship, therefore, to the Father.  You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship.  When we cry, Abba, Father, it is the Spirit Himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”  We know that this term, Abba, is one of familiarity and tenderness.  Becoming a child of God gives us the freedom of the child to speak in this trusting and simple way with its father.  It is not, however, an invitation to irresponsibility.  St. Paul continues: “provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.”  Our freedom as children and heirs conforms us to the Son, as crucified and resurrected Messiah.  We can expect, then, a similarity in the experience of suffering.  “We find here perhaps the deepest paradox of the Christian conviction: that the Spirit of power that gives new life to humans finds its most proper expression not in ecstatic speech or healings but in weakness, sharing the suffering of the Messiah” (Ibid).  This Spirit of Christ transforms the world; it does not guarantee that we shall escape the pain of the world.  Yet the freedom the Spirit gives is also a freedom from the fear of suffering.  It is in this Spirit that Cecilia faces her own torture and death and encourages others to do likewise.  As dawn was breaking Cecilia cried: “Courage soldiers of Christ, cast away the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.”  Paul further explains: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.”  Suffering is tempered with hope.  Even if Christians are subject to the same ills as anyone else they have become a preparation for, an expectation of a future glory which far outweighs momentary affliction.  This is the whole foundation of Cecilia’s steadfastness.  If her sufferings were external arising from persecution, interior trials also hold out the hope of glory, those trials which necessarily accompany any life conformed to the Paschal mystery.  We may also see in the expectation of the whole creation a promise of ultimate harmony.  St. Cecilia, singing in her heart to God in the midst of trial, is a symbol of the harmonious and transforming power of the Spirit, which enables us to surmount all suffering - and indeed to treat it with a certain lightness.  We do not need to act as if we were dragging a ball and chain.  For “we know” continues Paul, “that for those who love God, He works all things together for good.” or “in everything God works for good with those who love Him”.  It has been remarked that this is not meant to be “a pious slogan used to mollify grief or assuage anger in the face of hard experience, having the bromidal effect of, ‘don’t worry, God will make everything turn out all right.’”  Paul does not say its all going to be fine.  In fact he makes it quite clear, as we have noted, that the Christian has to face suffering.  But God works with all things in everything.  We are dealing here with the big picture, not with the minor prayer requests, like good weather on Saturday, though we know He doesn’t despise those either, by any means.  He works for good, toward good, that is the final goal of all things.  We are speaking, then, about God’s overarching purpose for those who are called, which is salvation, a sharing in God’s own life.  From this lofty vantage point, if we may speak thus very inadequately, God sees how all things are going to end - and they are going to end well.  Julian of Norwich’s ‘All shall be well’ has surely something of this wide sweep also.

 

          From final end, Paul casts his glance back to the origin of our call.  Those whom God foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son; the predestined are called, the called made righteous, the righteous glorified.  Here is the working out of God’s whole intention for us.  That intention is to shape a new humanity, a new people, according to the identity of His Son, who is the first-born of this heavenly race.  Whatever is born of God overcomes the world,” says St. John in the short reading from the first Vespers of the feast.  So convinced of this is St. Paul that he launches into a series of 8 rhetorical questions, summed up in the first: “If God is for us, who is against us?”  If God who is the source of all that is takes our part, the part of the lost sheep, can there be any significant opposition left?  (Johnson)  After all He gave His only Son for us, as irrefutable proof.  The real basis for our confidence is the very character of God who has been shown to us in Jesus Christ.  The Christian people is chosen by this all-powerful loving Saviour.  The talk of being God’s elect, of having God on our side, can, as we know, serve dubious human purposes.  We are chosen by God, however, not for our superior merits, or to advance our irreproachable cause but gratuitously, and we deserve the name of elect only if we are striving to follow Christ and His commandment of love.

 

          If we are secure in Christ’s love and faithfulness, are there likely to be any other agents of separation?  St. Paul does not think so: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?”  The answer, of course, is that these exterior trials need have no influence over a person’s soul or destiny.  Johnson cites the philosopher Epictetus in making the point that “external circumstances do not determine a person’s destiny, but it is the person’s free decision as to what such circumstances signify that defines the self; circumstance can be experienced quite differently depending on the perspective.”  St. Cecilia herself was threatened by tribulation, distress, persecution, peril and sword.  These were not vague or hypothetical circumstances.  The sword, it has been noted, for example, was “for early Christians the very real instrument involved in their suffering.”

 

                Not surprising, then, that Paul inserts a verbatim quotation from Ps. 43: “For your sake we are being killed all day long: we are reckoned as sheep for the slaughter.”  The life-threatening experiences of Christians, including those of our Saint, are a result of their allegiance to Christ.  Johnson appositely contrasts the reckoning of the sheep for slaughter with the Pauline reckoning that the suffering of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory to come.

 

          “But in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”  Cecilia’s ultimate destiny was not affected by the apparent disasters.  “The love of Christ is not only incapable of being severed by such circumstances; it is actually the means of triumphing over them” (Ibid).  Anything the human mind can imagine or conjure up is insufficient to break the bond of love between Christ and those He has chosen.  Suffering is real and may cause great damage from a human point of view.  But we can turn the devil’s weapons against himself.  The accepted trial, serenity in the face of evil, the pain offered and the ill-treatment pardoned, all knock the substance out of suffering or rather, render it innocuous.  Thus it becomes a test of love and a proof of love.  It is pressed into the service of love.  Surely St. Cecilia, our exemplar and patron, could have taken these words of Paul on her own lips: “I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”