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 Sequence for the Solemnity of St Benedict

 

   The sequence for the Mass of our Holy Father St Benedict provided the starting point for this  talk, in particular the analogies it draws between our Holy Father and the patriarchs of the Old    Testament. If our Holy Father has points of resemblance with these great figures, then we, as his disciples, must share them, too, to some degree.

 

One verse of the Sequence runs, He shines as a sun in the world, he is most like Abraham, for he is the rich seed from which a countless race has sprung (amplum semen magnae prolis). We are Benedict’s descendants, his spiritual daughters sharing the same spiritual physiognomy. We are the bearers of a tradition and of traditions that we have received in the first place from him, then handed down through many generations of monks and nuns. There is nothing arcane about this tradition; it is codified, as far as one can codify a living thing, in the Holy Rule. There we learn the substance of our tradition: withdrawal from the world to a monastery, a little fraternal society under the guidance of an abbot or abbess, where, rooted in silence and solitude, in obedience, humility and conversion of life, we practise the evangelical values for the love of Christ our Head and Centre. Here, praise and prayer and contemplation are given the highest honour, like a precious stone in a fine setting of reading and work. That was a summary, fairly standard, description of the contents of our tradition, but it might equally well have been presented in a more subjective way as the search for God in purity of heart. This is the call, and the message conveyed in the call, which we received, which draws us, and which we strive to pass on. We, too, want to bear progeny. To do this, we need to live our monastic life with clear conviction of its value. We need to be authentic exponents of what we believe, by the witness of our lives. We have to embody its beauty and nobility. Thus new vocations are born. It does not end with recruitment, however. The new generations have to "catch" the monastic call from us, from our example, as I just said, and also by our careful preservation and articulation of the tradition and of traditions or customs, those offshoots from the stem of tradition. One might add: fruit of our serene discernment of what constitutes organic adaptation, what is novelty and what has served its day. If we are truly to resemble Abraham, we shall have his faith in some measure. We may never see the results of our labours and prayers; we left our former existence to follow God's call, not knowing where it was going to lead us. It is a paradox of a life vowed to stability, that we are always being called to leave our spiritual comfort zones and set out into the unknown. The future is always in God's providence.

If St Benedict resembles Abraham, he is also like Elijah. When you see him fed by ravens, you think of Elijah who hid himself in the little cave. The Sequence highlights two similarities: reliance on God's providence and the hidden life. We recall the famous raven in the Dialogues of St Gregory, who carried out Benedict’s orders, and more widely, God's protection of him and his monks in famine, by miraculous interventions, such as the miraculous supply off flour found in front of the abbey and the empty cask overflowing with oil. All that God requires is man’s obedience. Elijah, for his part, had pronounced God's word of warning and prophecy to Ahab (1 Kg 17): the great drought over the land would be ended only by his word, such was the measure of God's confidence in his servant. But Elijah too is subject to God's word. And the word of the Lord came to him: "Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith." Having delivered his public denunciation, he must now go to be alone with God in obedience to a distinct, personal call. Here is another parallel with Benedict who, in his fuga mundi, his dismay at the current mores, relicta domo, rebusque palris, soli Deo placere cupiens, sanctae conversationis habitum quaesivit ("He left the house and the goods of his father and, desiring to please God alone, asked for the monastic habit" or, literally, the habit of a holy way of life). The implication is that God himself takes responsibility for the needs of those who leave everything for him, who are obedient to his call. To Elijah he says, You shall drink from the brook and I have commanded the

 

 

 

 

 

 

ravens to feed you there. We are not told the source of the food which is given at that time, in the proportion decided by God: it is a mysterious nourishment - a figure of the Holy Eucharist. He will "drink: from the brook" each day. We remember that there was a drought, so this is a miraculous water - and Benedict, too, makes water spring up miraculously on a mountain by his prayer -a reminder, whenever his disciples drank: from it, of God's special protection. Yet one day the brook dries up for Elijah. St Benedict, too, shares the common lot; his supplies run out. But they are still under God's providence and there will be other sources of supply. It is an image for us, on the spiritual level, as well. The dried-up brook might symbolise arid prayer. Prayer does not always gush in living streams. It is a reminder that we cannot commandeer God or his grace; that we must sometimes wait in trust for the refreshing rain of the Spirit. When we do rely on providence, whether for our material or spiritual welfare, we live without calculation. And God, seeing this reliance on faith, continues to work the miracle in ways we do not expect or may not understand.

 

The sequence refers also to the hidden life, interior and exterior, symbolised by the cave to which both Elijah and Benedict withdraw. The cave, says St Maximus of Turin, "is the mystery of wisdom hidden from the soul, and its sanctuary; he who enters it will have the profound ... intuition of that knowledge that surpasses all knowledge and in which the presence of God is made manifest." This is the programme for the contemplative life. The cave is an image of man's deep capacity for God, hollowed out by obedience. There may be a long period in the depths of the cave, culminating in a summons by God to come out and stand upon the mountain before God. It is a surprising encounter for Elijah, in stillness and smallness, yet it is supremely holy. It is a prelude to mission, as it will be also for St Benedict. God first questions, What are you doing here, Elijah? and so he must give an account of his life. Contemplatives are always being called to account to answer for their lives. God cares that they never become sterile. They have constantly to renew their love, their intention to penetrate into the sanctuary of the heart in search of God's presence, and to be ready to go out of themselves, to stand at the mouth of the cave, when God is desirous of meeting them. As it was for Elijah and St Benedict, the time in the cave of the heart is a purification, a preparation from which we are called to further exploration and deeper mission.

Benedict is next compared to Elisha: He reminds us of Elisha when he makes the head of the axe return from the bed of the stream. The episode is in 2 Kg 6 and paralleled in the Dialogues, ch 6. It shows the power of intercession of holy men, the almost casual profusion of miracles in the lives of those whose will is totally at one with God's will, and their fundamental humanity: in both episodes, the miracle was done to save embarrassment to another. In true Benedictine style, the Goth who had had the accident was told not to be upset and to continue with his work

This simple episode, significant though it is, might not seem the sole or most important point of comparison between Elisha and Benedict. Elisha's twelve oxen, it has been remarked, point back to the twelve patriarchs and forward to the twelve apostles. Elisha stands at the edge with the last pair of oxen, poised for departure when summoned, for self-sacrifice and service. It is the attitude of Benedict, roots plunged in the past, submissive in the present, eyes toward the future, in the most radical Biblical tradition. Both are caught up in the mystery of God's design and entirely subject to it.

The Sequence continues, He is like Joseph by the purity of his life and like Jacob by the spirit of prophecy. The pure in heart will see God. Benedict in his Rule legislates for purity of life and urges us to it, especially in Lent - omni puritate vitam suam custodire ("To guard one's life in all purity"). It is a matter of vigilance. One must be careful not to fall away, not to introduce alien elements into one's heart, not to water things down or muddy them with compromise or sin. One may by the grace of God, Benedict tells us, wash away the stains, restore the purity, by vigorous action and resolution: neglegentias diluere. In ch 72, we are exhorted to show each other "the pure love of brothers", caritatem fraternitatis caste impendant. Caste: generously, unselfishly, sincerely, words applied without difficulty to Joseph the patriarch in his upright conduct and magnanimous behaviour to the brothers who had treated him like an enemy. 

 

 

The pure in heart will see God. Fittingly Benedict uses the word puritas more than once in ch 20, the chapter on prayer. Cum omni humilitate et puritatis devotione, literally, in a devotion of purity, with pure devotion. We shall be heard non in multiloquio sed in puritate cordis ("for our purity of heart, not our many words"). Prayer shall be short and pure, brevis et pura. It is the untrammelled vision that introduces us into the sphere of God. St Gregory tells us famously that, while Benedict was praying at night by his window, "The whole world was gathered up before his eyes in what appeared to be a single ray of light." The pure eye alone can bear the light of God the Creator of light, and in that light it sees creatures as they are, beautiful reflections of God's light it is true, but reflections all the same, therefore small indeed. We cannot lack anything if we have God, since he is the source of everything. It is permitted to the pure heart to be drawn up, absorbed into the light of God, even beyond itself. Such is the destiny those who guard their lives in all purity."

What, finally, shall we say about the comparison with Jacob, the great patriarch and recipient of God's promises? The Dialogues are full of tales of Benedict's prescience, so the connection with prophecy is immediately clear. But there is a profounder meaning to prophecy. The Biblical prophet is not a soothsayer; he is a man who speaks with God face to face, as to a friend. His knowledge of God permits him to interpret the divine meaning, the thoughts of God's heart, in human events whether past, present or to come. Pope Benedict XVI says this in the first chapter of his book, Jesus of Nazareth:

 

The prophet's task is not to report on events of tomorrow or the next day in order to satisfy human curiosity or the human need for security. He shows us the face of God and in so doing he shows us the path that we have to take ... Among all the paths of history, the path to God is the true direction we must seek and find.

Our Holy Father St Benedict shows us the face of God and the way to him through his Son Jesus Christ. Monks and nuns are often said nowadays to have a prophetic role. How better to understand this than to strive by the purity of our lives, by our fidelity to wholesome tradition, our trust in providence, by our prayer in the cave of the heart, our love of the brethren - to strive, in other words, to reflect the Face of the Lord to the whole people of God.

In conclusion the last verse of the Sequence might be our prayer at all times:

 

May St Benedict be mindful of his children, and lead us safe to the joys of our Lord Jesus Christ, who abides for ever. Amen.