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 2019

 

Gerard Manley Hopkins has a poem entitled “The Blessed Virgin compared to the air we breathe”.  It contains the lines: “I say that we are wound / With mercy round and round / As if with air: the same / Is Mary, … And men are meant to share / Her life as life does air.”

          St Cyril of Jerusalem, speaking of baptism, says: “If anyone wishes to know why grace is given through water and not through some other element, they will find the answer if they take up the holy Scriptures.  For water is an important thing, the noblest of the four elements we observe in the world (Cat 3).  If Our Lady can be compared to air, therefore, she may also be compared to water, from which mankind derives life.

          At the Annunciation, Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her (Lk 1:35).  At the opening of Genesis, we read: “In the beginning … the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1, 2).  Here is a striking parallel.  Mary is like the primeval waters, fecund with life by the action of the hovering Spirit.  The ideas of both virginity and motherhood are present.  Mary is at the very beginning of the new creation and directly involved in its birth; yet she is greater than pure matter, for, having free will, her consent to the divine motherhood is sought and awaited.  In this perspective, Mary’s heart is indeed a stream of water in the hand of the Most High (Prov 21:1).  Her will coincides perfectly with His; it turns wherever He wills, not from compulsion, but with love and joy.  Fiat, let it be done, the same expression as in Genesis, though with a passive nuance.  God said: “Let there be light and there was light”.  Mary says: “Let it be done to me” and brings forth the Light of the world.  She becomes the source which “Gave God’s infinity / Dwindled to infancy” and thus “mothers each new grace / That does now reach our race — / Mary Immaculate” (Hopkins, op cit).

          Other images of water express the Marian mystery.  Proclus of Constantinople calls her the “light cloud” which carried Him who thrones above the cherubim; the “most pure fleece which received the heavenly dew”, that is, the Messiah.  There is a tradition that the figure of the Virgin appeared in the rain-laden cloud prayed for by Elijah on Mount Carmel.  Again, she is the land which, when watered, brings forth its fruit (Ps 84:13); the daughter of Zion, the city made glad by the streams of a river (Ps 45:4) the sweet water at the root of the tree of life (cf Ps 1).

          St Ephrem in one of his hymns on Mary (7) calls her “the spring that provides the fountain”.  Before the birth of Jesus, it is a secret spring, known only to a few.  It is discerned, first of all, by Elizabeth and John at the Visitation.  Elizabeth, herself a once barren but now watered desert, hails her with words which are immortal: Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.  John, whom Cyril of Jerusalem associates inseparably with the water of baptism, leaps upwards in his mother’s womb.  The spring breaks out for a moment, ecstatically, in Mary’s Magnificat.  It is a moment of great beauty as the Mother of God, the pure stream, is irradiated by the pure Light she carries.

          The Light comes into the world in a cave in Bethlehem.  Angels proclaim that an unfailing fountain has broken through the bounds of space and time; good tidings, they say, of great joy for all who thirst.  The water of life in Mary runs deep and still; shepherds and Magi come to sit and gaze and wonder at its depth and stillness.

          The spring again goes underground in the exile to Egypt, the hostile land of Israel’s history; yet here it gives protection, unknown to itself, to the King of Israel.  “Out of Egypt have I called my Son.”  Even the unresponsive have a part in God’s Providence.

          Simeon and Anna are among the responsive. The old man, caught up in the Spirit, recognises the fountain and also the spring.  Here is the One to redeem Israel through His Cross, and here, too, is the one who will share the water of affliction more than any other.  As the lance will cause water with the Blood to flow from Christ’s pierced Heart, so the sword of sorrow will transfix the heart of Mary, creating a deep well of compassion.  As she ponders these sayings, they become part of her being.

          In her humility, nonetheless, she can suffer anxiety, as when the Child Jesus disappears for three days.  He assures her that the divine source never dries up.  Here is the Father’s House, the temple from whose side living water perpetually flows.

          Mary grows like us.  Although without sin, she is capable of transformation, like the water at Cana.  There is no obstacle in her to the Lord’s word.  She is at the service of God and man like water, that humble commodity, which is taken for granted until needed.  When the Lord speaks over it, however, it becomes rich, inebriating, sparkling.  There is nothing dull about humility.  On the contrary, water lends itself to the Lord’s plans and becomes what He wants it to be: the best of wine.  For Mary’s part, is it fanciful to recall, in this context, that Miryam in Hebrew means Stilla maris, a drop in the sea, changed in time to Stella maris, Star of the Sea?  The humble drop becomes a constellation.  Mary, the humble girl of Nazareth becomes the Queen of Heaven.

          Now follows a time of absence from the Gospel pages, although we see her standing on the fringe of the crowds around Jesus.  He does not look toward her.  The spring of her maternal love, nevertheless, continues to flow, without self-pity.  The mother remains in the background, self-effacing, but always ready to refresh with her quiet spirit.  Surely Jesus was often hurt by the unfairness and indifference of man, or simply weary like other men.  Mary was there to minister to Him, perhaps to give Him water for his feet, above all to restore His human spirit with kindness.

          The hour when she is most needed is at hand.  Now the fountain and the spring appear to be closed off, except when the water and blood issue from Christ’s side, as He dies on the Cross.  He is the new Temple from whose breached wall the divine Spirit, symbolised by water, is given to humanity.  Given to Mary, first and foremost, and given in its fullness; given to all through sacramental grace dispensed by the Church, born from the side of Christ.  If the Church is the fruitful Mother who gives birth to many children through the font of baptism, Mary also bears the title of Mother, both of the Author of life and of all those reborn through water and the spirit.

          As she is now a privileged place of encounter with Christ, we see her next in the midst of the disciples in the upper room at Pentecost.  The Holy Spirit descends once more, this time in fire and wind, those other elements which symbolise the new life of grace.  Water, however, remains the Lord’s chosen image for the Spirit, which He will send after His death, Resurrection and Ascension.  It will, he says, spring up into eternal life and flow from the heart of the believer.  This promise is fulfilled on the day of Pentecost.  It would be not only an individual grace; it would spread throughout the world, a vivifying flood, destroying nothing but sin in its path, while irrigating all that was parched and arid.

          As we discovered at the Annunciation, Mary is God’s channel for the Incarnation of His Son.  She is more than just a channel, however, and has a continuing rôle in our salvation.  As life came into the world through her, it is through her that we receive life.  A similar image for Mary, used by St Bernard in his Nativity Sermons, is that of aqueduct.  Writes Michael Casey: “Mary received the fullness of water from the Father’s Hand and allows it to flow onto us, if not in all its fullness, at least according to our capacity.”

          How is this effected?  At the end of her earthly life, she returns to the embrace of the Blessed Trinity.  The spring of grace, which she became through her fiat at the Annunciation, rejoins the fountainhead of all grace in heaven.  In the eternal Now, she has access to God’s Heart and overflows with His life.  It is her one work now, says Hopkins, to “Let all God’s glory through, / God’s glory which would go / Through her and from her flow”.  We “are meant to share / Her life as life does air”, as life does water.  “If I have understood,” he continues “She holds high motherhood … And plays in grace her part.”  By this grace, by this part, Christ is daily made incarnate in our souls, “New Nazareths … New Bethlehems” (Hopkins op cit).

          Mary still surrounds us like a mother, like air and water.  She is present when we pray, refining, if asked, our desires and petitions, discreetly pointing out our self-regard.  If they pass through her, they will become clean and pure.  She will be present, also, when we leave this life and will lead us by the hand to the throne of grace; this kind hand, which is full of the grace she has received from the Father’s Hand, the Hand in which she is an obedient water stream.

“Be thou then, O my dear / Mother, my atmosphere; / My happier world … Above me, round me lie. / Stir in my ears, speak there / Of God’s love, … / Of patience, penance, prayer: …/ Wound with thee, in thee isled, / Fold home, fast fold thy child.”  (Ibid)