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.

 
 
 

 

Ash Wednesday 2020

 

Jesus has fasted 40 days and nights, says the Gospel.  He needs food; he experiences through lack of the necessities of life the fragility and limitations of his humanity.  Another man would desire not only food but reassurance, a sense of returning bodily and mental powers.  Satan, seeing his chance to play on natural weakness, introduces his “ifs”.  He questions Jesus’ identity: if you are the son of God, command these stones to become bread; if you are the son of God, throw yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple; if you will fall down and worship me, I will give you the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  The devil thus offers to satisfy Jesus’ corporeal needs and supposed aspirations.  We know how he responded. The devil is unable to satisfy anything, yet every word that comes from God is all sufficient; the angelic protection makes it superfluous to prove that he is a wonder-worker; he finds satisfaction only in the pre-eminence of the Father’s praise.  Later in the Gospels we learn that he regarded the Father’s will as his food and drink; that the Father never leaves him alone, never lets him out of his sight; that his one desire on earth is to glorify and serve the Father.  The extrinsic temptations by the devil, therefore, have no leverage with him: the Father suffices.

          Jesus is driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit.  In contrast, Elijah is propelled into the wilderness by his fear.  “He flees in fear,” comments Adrienne von Speyr, “but he also flees into deeper fear.”  In his flight from Jezebel he forgets momentarily the sufficiency of God.  His own inevitably dries up.  “It is enough.  Now, O Lord, take away my life” (1Kgs 19).  “He beseeches God that it may be enough, because he has had enough” (von Speyr).  God ignores this prayer, or at least the specific request of the prayer.  Instead, he makes Elijah sleep and rest and eat a supernatural bread, which strengthens him for the 40 days’ journey to Horeb.  In this way, he is like us, who need spiritual food during the Lenten journey.  He is unlike Jesus, who is ministered to by angels, only after 40 days in the desert (cf Elijah: Adrienne von Speyr).

          At Horeb, Elijah meets God, but on God’s own terms.  He is commanded to leave the cave for the divine encounter; and he obeys.  Obedience is the sign of trust in the sufficiency of God.  In fitting response, God does not show himself in the storm or earthquake or fire but in the still, small voice.  It is almost nothing, in order to prove to Elijah that God alone truly does suffice; He does not need to announce Himself in a grand show of portents, but in something which can almost be missed, unless one is attuned to it in humility.  Again in humility, Elijah does not seek to see God face to face; the bare knowledge of His presence suffices.  Says Adrienne von Speyr: “The beautiful thing is that this is enough for a whole life.”  We grasp God’s fullness in the way that God wills.  We can grasp it in dry contemplation, without signs and wonders; in the Eucharist we gaze on a veiled Deity and are satisfied.

          In the parable of the Prodigal Son, our Lord describes an entry into a moral wilderness.  The younger son is dissatisfied with life in his father’s house; he lays claim to what he thinks is better, thus qualifying what is already good.  But he misunderstands the nature of the Good; he goes deeper and deeper into the desert, failing test after test.  Far from finding satisfaction, he begins to be in want (Lk 15:14); he finds himself coveting even the pig swill.  Then he realises that, whereas he has abandoned his privileged position next to the father’s heart, even the “hired servants have bread enough and to spare.”  He retraces the painful journey back through the wilderness, hoping to settle for the “enough” of the lowest place.  Even this unremarkable conversion suffices to restore him to the father’s love, which in truth had never changed.  On the son’s return, not only does he receive a mere sufficiency but a superabundance.  The father’s “enough” is extreme riches, which he proceeds to lavish on him beyond all his expectation.  Thus, even the experience of a desert of one’s own making leads to a new strength, a new wisdom and gratitude.  It is the elder son who now has to understand that everything is supplied in his present condition; he too needs a new knowledge of the wealth he already possesses.

          Finally, there is the example of the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:1-42), who, on the face of it, is contented with her life.  She has pitched her tent, so to speak, on the outskirts of the desert; yet there are signs that her life does not entirely satisfy her.  She is on her sixth husband (one of whom had still to earn the title); and, after our Lord’s pedagogy she betrays a yearning for something greater than the water of the well, even though she still conceives of it in material terms: “Sir, give me this water that I may not thirst” (15).  She has begun to think of a water which will always satisfy.  Jesus explains patiently that he is the Provider of a spring of water of spirit and truth, which wells up to eternal life.  Thus, unlike Satan, the desert-dweller who seeks to trap and enslave those who camp in his domain, Jesus guides her away from her comfortable wasteland to seek the inexhaustible source of the Spirit.

          What of us in all of this?  Armed with the weapons of obedience, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and the blessing of the Church, we voluntarily enter the desert, the sacred season of Lent, in company with our Lord.  It can seem an empty landscape (désertique in the French, a term without an English equivalent).  During these 40 days, we aim to live lives of greater purity and of expiation of our faults; we abstain from certain things; we can expect to be tested by the unexpected.  We submit to all of this, because satis est nobis.  Like Elijah, we feed on spiritual food, that is on the Holy Eucharist and scripture and our Lenten book.  Like the Prodigal Son, we retrace steps that may have wandered into negligence, even betrayal and unkindnesses, knowing that the Father expects us joyfully.  Like the Samaritan woman, we shake off the power of habit and sloth, in order to see with new eyes that we have the spring of life within us.  Above all, we accompany Jesus to Calvary, there to die to self by the strength of his all-sufficing grace.

          In the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we hear that we are dust and shall return thither.  We wear it as a badge upon our heads.  We are only clay that would be foolish to contend with its maker (Is 45:9).  Yet we are right not to be satisfied with our condition as dust or clay; we become, by grace, what the potter intends to make of us.  Like the dry bones of Ezekiel 37, the Spirit’s breath makes us stand upon our feet and live.  Isaiah even bids us rejoice: “O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy” (Is 26:19).  St Benedict does likewise; for him Lent, culminating in Easter joy, is the monk’s or nun’s participation in the paschal mystery.  Certain, therefore, that our Lord will supply all we need, since he is all we need, we gird ourselves and set out for Jerusalem.