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.

 
 
 

 

The Church and the Soul


With the reading of the Book of Acts in Eastertide and the approach of Pentecost our thoughts turn to the nature of the Church.  With hindsight, there were three strands which were most prominent at the time of my own decision to be received into the Church 56 years ago.  The first was the example of a practising Catholic in an otherwise exclusively Protestant Student Hall of Residence.  Here was a clarity and a practical charity which did not seem to stem merely from a fortunate temperament but from another mysterious source.  It led me to examine her beliefs, in order to understand what, or rather who, had shaped her life and the witness she gave.  Somehow she represented to me – and to us all – the Church itself.

            The second strand was my fascination with the Holy Eucharist, particularly under its aspect of transubstantiation.  Could one really be united substantially with the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, Body, Blood Soul and divinity?  If the answer was yes, it was evident that nothing higher or more desirable could be had.  It was also, I saw, the foundation for the organic unity of the Church, since each member received not only the same food, but an identical Food.

            The third was a more intellectual, but also very satisfying strand: the beauty and simplicity of the concept of the Apostolic Succession, which ensured the unchanging yet ever dynamic nature of truth.  As St John Henry Newman has written: the Church is “like a standing, Apostolic Committee, ready to answer questions, which the apostles are not here to answer, concerning what they have received and preached.”  Cardinal Journet wrote: “Holier than each of her members, the Church is Jesus continuing in his members a life that began in himself and that will never end.  The Church is the Gospel which continues.”

            In these strands, which underwent much development (since at the time I was not the most intellectually mature person in the world) the Church presented herself to me as a “who” as distinct from a “what” – firstly, a holy member of the Church; secondly the Eucharistic Lord whose Body is the Church; thirdly, the Apostles, teaching and guiding the barque of Peter through time.

            Much later, I tried to explain this rich, ecclesial vein in a Chapter talk, part of which I shall reproduce here, trying to show that the relationship between Christ and his Church is mirrored in the spiritual life and prayer of the individual soul and visa versa.  The idea has an honourable antecedent, for example, in the work of St Peter Damian in the 11th century: “The whole Church can rightly be designated by the single member and each individual soul can be regarded as the whole Church.”  Nearer our own century, Mère Cécile Bruyère in her classic, Spiritual Life and Prayer has a chapter entitled “The Church a type of the soul”.  “The soul that has attained …union  with Christ is an exact miniature of the Church … the more the soul identifies with her Mother, the more surely does she reach the Heart of Him who has done everything in this world for his collective bride.”  I wanted to make this idea work in practice; in other words, to make it fruitful for the spiritual life, especially the life of prayer.  Can one live one’s prayer life from this idea?  Fundamental to our understanding of our theme is to keep in mind that what can be predicated of the Church, our Mother, may be predicated also of the individual soul in her prayer.  The Church furnishes the matter for the soul’s prolonged dialogue and meditation, whether directly in her liturgy and prayers, her doctrine, in the patristic writings of Fathers which she has endorsed, or through the inspiration of the life of her saints.  The Church is the great keeper and dispenser of the word of God.  She and the soul are receptive vessels for this word which they ponder down the years, reiterate and put into practice.  There is a strong, affective note as well.  The Church knows how to speak tenderly to the Sacred Heart, the Mother of God and the saints in her devotions.  She is enamoured of the beauty of Christ, witness her chant and her art in which she expresses this love in beautiful language and images.

            The Church, however, it is often said, is in perpetual need of purification.  Sometimes this is passive, as in the case of persecutions, hostility and indifference, or scandals within her gates which arouse contempt and anger.  Sometimes she engages actively in her own renewal.  The Sacrament of Reconciliation offers and guarantees the restoration of baptismal innocence to those of her members who fall short of the glory.  Her Lenten liturgy and her penitential practices ensure that the Church, the Bride, expects and seeks purgation as a preparation for the meeting with her Risen Lord.  When the soul encounters the Lord personally through his word, she, too, becomes vividly conscious that she was bought with a price, that she was loved and saved while still unworthy: “God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses made us alive together in Christ” (Eph 2:4-5).  The soul’s prayer, her response, is, therefore, always a prayer of compunction, of the joy of forgiveness, of the gratitude and loyalty of the repentant and pardoned sinner.  She senses also the need for an inner remaking before the possibility of union.  She knows instinctively that she must strip herself of her accretions, must become empty and poor.  The centrality of the ego must be displaced.  There are some things she can do for herself and, in the measure of her zeal, she will set about it.  Sometimes God gives her a desire for purification which, when its authenticity is tested, can be a keen instrument of holiness and progress in prayer.  One thing is certain; she is bound to suffer some difficulties – whether she desires it or not.  The initiative is taken out of her hands and she will have to submit to a purification she has not chosen and would never have chosen.  This is precious.  She may not refuse.  The Church was born from the wound in Christ’s side.  The soul bears the mark of this wound.  She shelters in it, it is true, and draws her life from it, but she opens her heart also to the lance.

            We might mention here the passive purification of prayer.  It may range from distraction and aridity through temptations and scruples, sense of loss of God, or a vicarious endurance of evil for the sake of the kingdom.  All this may constitute a mark of progress and even favour, a permission from the Lord to bear with him the weight of the cross.  It is an authentic sign that the relationship between him and the soul has matured and deepened.  She has become more supple, more intent on his will.  It is true to say that now she prefers His will to her own and can take genuine pleasure in allowing her own wishes to disappear in the Face of God (cf Dom Delatte).  This surrender may be the occasion for deep quiet in the soul and an obscure but peaceful resting in God.  In imitation of her Mother, the Church, she seeks to contemplate the Face, allowing silence into her prayer and worship and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  She may tend to simplify acts and thoughts, uniting them in a single, loving movement or gaze towards God.  Silebat in dilectione sua.  The sanctuary lamp in every church building invites the believer to kneel with stilled heart and mind before the tabernacle.  The long, monastic offices, such as Vigils, often austere in their simplicity, are another form of contemplative looking.  It should be said, nonetheless, that the ecclesia, institutional or personal, does not outgrow stages of prayer; they co-exist in her simultaneously and in harmony.  Any relationship which is profound will operate on several levels at once, quite naturally.

            The movements in the life of prayer are the work of the Holy Spirit who inhabits the Church, making it the temple of the living God and the presence of Christ in the world.  Only in the Church does God receive true glory.  Writes de Lubac: “Did not the Lord appear to Moses in a burning bush to teach us that, as a general rule, He does not reveal himself elsewhere, save in the midst of that Assembly (ecclesia) where burns the fire of the Holy Spirit.”  It is through the “assembly”, or Church, that the individual soul comes into sacramental union with Christ and hence with the Blessed Trinity.  It is within the Church that she is enabled to give them fitting glory.  By the mutual indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the soul through the sacraments, the soul also becomes temple and tabernacle of the presence of Christ among men.  She receives the glory and returns it in her adoration and worship.

            The Church never ceases to offer worship in the Mass and the Divine Office, the Opus Dei.  “The power of the Church” write Mère Cécile Bruyère, “consists here below in echoing back the marvellous mysteries of heaven, imitating and reproducing them as far as she can with the means which her Divine Spouse has given her.”  All the doxologies in her worship focus directly and solely on the glory of God.  “They do not express a wish, but rather they declare the reality of God” (Gilles Emery OP).  The soul, particularly the consecrated nun, adopts her Mother’s method of prayer, the one given her by the Holy Spirit.  Thus, we become immersed in the “reality of God”.

By imitating the continuous prayer of the Church the flame of the Spirit burns more steadily in the soul and effects imperceptibly for the most part, her transformation into the Lord.  The Holy Spirit begins to unfold and take over, to teach and illumine, to grace and permeate her whole being.  Here we may speak of a new union of the soul with God, mirroring the marriage of God with his Church, with humanity itself.  As Maximus the Confessor puts it: “[Here] is accomplished this awesome mystery of the union transcending mind and reason by which God becomes one flesh and one Spirit with the Church and thus with the soul and the soul with God.”  The soul now knows by faith that she is one with the Lord, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

            In the Holy Eucharist, this union is sacramentally effected.  The Eucharist is Christ and in receiving it, we receive Him.  The mean elements of unitive prayer, self-offering and transformation in God, have their model in the Catholic Mass.  In the first place, as St Augustine writes: “In the sacrifice she offers, the Church herself is offered”: the soul is likewise offered.  Secondly, in transubstantiation the elements of bread and wine are taken up, changed into the substance of Christ.  Although it seems a bold idea, something analogous happens to the soul in prayer, provided we understand that, while becoming one with God, we do not lose our person or identity.  It is a great mystery that, while God fills all in all, our personality is not absorbed but transformed and fulfilled.  In losing ourselves, we become truly ourselves in God.

            By means of the Holy Eucharist, we enter into communion with one another, by passing into the One we receive (O’Connor: The Hidden Manna).  We are drawn out of individual separateness.  Here, then, is a suitable point to pass from our consideration of the individual at her meditative and contemplative prayer to her prayer of intercession.

            We have said that the soul as type of the Church is a subject in relation to God in Christ.  But she is not narrowed to the limits of her own consciousness.  This subject, this “I”, may be expanded to the dimensions of the whole church, in a phrase of von Balthasar.  This single consciousness has not only a vertical but also a horizontal dimension, one which opens out to all men and women, draws them in and offers them, along with the self, to Christ.  She can do this, first of all, for the other members of the Church, who are, like her, types of the Church.  But she can do it also for non-members, who are potentially ecclesia and who may not have appropriated personally the redemption won for them by the Blood of the Saviour, but for whom she is, in some way, answerable; whom she, as true type of the ecclesia, must carry in herself to the Heart of God.  In this way, she is representative of all souls on earth and in purgatory; she stands before God in this privileged place, interceding for them.  More than that, when God looks at her, He sees in her His whole Church.  It is of the utmost significance, then, that she must, at least in intention, have undergone expansion of her individual self.  She is unlikely yet to be holy, although growth in holiness is incumbent on her.  Other persons in the Church are frequently holier than she; we have Our Lady to fulfil the rôle of ecclesia immaculata.  Thus the individual soul cannot make reparation for sin and suffering on grounds of personal goodness, but solely in her capacity as representative, in her relation to Christ as type of the Church.  Even the imperfect soul, then, who has identified herself with the Church, stands for all and all are represented, by this fact, in her.  When God comes to her, He comes to all.  When He unites himself to the soul, He unites himself to the whole Church.

            I adopted this model for the spiritual life and prayer, first and foremost because it is based on the nature of the relationship to Christ.  The more we are identified with the Church, the more we relate to Him in the manner he has planned and desires, and we enable Him, so to speak, to relate to us as He desires.  Furthermore, a spirituality with this form is deeply unifying, first for our personal life, and also because it encompasses the whole of the Church and humanity.  Even in her contemplative prayer, the soul is not simply an individual.  If she is in God and God in her, then she is not in Him without everyone else.  Thus, in each one of us God may be glorified by all.