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.

 

 

Our Lady and St Benedict

July 2018

The feasts of Our Lady of Providence (9 July) and Our Holy Father St Benedict occur within two days of each other and I like to think there is a strong connection between the two.  In spite of the famous omission of Mary’s name from the Holy Rule, monks and nuns have little difficulty in feeling that her influence permeates St Benedict’s monastic wisdom.  In attempting to make her influence more explicit, I have confined myself mainly to the Prologue and a few other chapters.

            Mary, Mother of Divine Providence, is an essential player in God’s plan for mankind, that plan whereby He knows all things and by which He sustains, governs and guides all things in love towards a goal He has foreseen from all eternity.  Mary was elected to be at the heart of this dispensation, that is to say, at the heart of the Redemption.  She is the beneficiary of God’s Providence in her own life, predestined as she was to motherhood of God’s son, and co-worker par excellence in His providential plan for the whole race.

            What has this to do with the Holy Rule?  In the Prologue, St Benedict traces the idea of providence in the monk’s vocation: “And before you call upon me, I shall say to you, ‘Lo, here I am’.  What can be sweeter to us, dearest brethren, than this voice of Our Lord inviting us?  Behold in His loving mercy, the Lord showeth us the way of life”  Each of our lives is a mystery of election and a working out of a divine providence that does not fail, (cuius dispositione non fallitur); a walking with Christ (and for Christ) towards the Father along the way of life.

            Our vocation viewed in this way, follows the pattern of Mary’s vocation.  It is eternally in the hand of God; it is offered to us in time for our free response, a response that is prompted by love – “freely accept and faithfully fulfil”; it follows a course in which we engage by a perpetually renewed fiat and which is attended at every step by divine care.

            Each vocation follows its own particular course or dynamic, for we cannot fulfil anyone else’s purpose on this earth but our own.  God has a work, a place in His plan for each one that cannot be done or filled by anyone else.  But all alike aim at perfection, perfection of charity and holiness of life, which is none other than conformity to the image of a person, to Christ, until at length, as St Benedict encourages, “we shall, under God’s protection, attain those loftier heights of wisdom and virtue (RB 73).  Mary, it is true, did not need to attain them, in the sense that we do; she was already in possession of them by virtue of her Immaculate Conception, yet her life too was a progression, a revealing and a flowering of her perfection, from the humility of Nazareth and Bethlehem to the glory of the Assumption.  We find, then, the essential features of our own journey in Mary’s life – in its origin, its call, its course and its final end.

            If, in general, Mary’s vocation is the model for monks and nuns, we should expect to find parallels with her life in the pages of the Rule, without having to do mental gymnastics.  Before tracing some of these parallels, (in a necessarily short space of time,) we might first notice a few verbal echoes or resonances.  For example, Mary is, as we know, the Immaculate, the one without blemish; St Benedict, quoting Ps 14, says that the dweller on God’s holy mountain (understand the monastery) is the person who “walks without blemish (sine macula) and does that which is right.”  Then, is it to stretch the imagination to draw a comparison between Mary’s Visitation of Elizabeth, with haste cum festinatione, and the haste of St Benedict’s disciple in via to his heavenly country?  The same verb festinare occurs twice in Ch 73 in connection with this holy haste or promptness (Quisquis ad patriam cœlestem festinas).  Returning to the Prologue, those who fear God magnify the Lord’s work in them (operantem in se Dominum magnificant) and proclaim: “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy name give the glory.”  The Magnificat is Mary’s signature as it were, and very close to St Benedict’s thought not only in the use of the verb magnificare, to make great, to glorify, but also in the whole thrust of the Canticle.  To this we must return.  To end this short survey of allusions or resonances, we might also mention the hint of the miraculous in any vocation, underlined in the Angel Gabriel’s reassurance to Mary: “Nothing is impossible with God”; and echoed by St Benedict’s encouragement to “ask God to supply by the help of his grace what is not possible to us by nature” (Prologue).

            This brings us to the consideration of faith as the basis of all religious life.  Already in the Prologue, St Benedict urges us to gird our loins with it, to make progress in it – while Mary has been recognised by all generations as blessed on account of it.  She is the woman of faith.

            It is faith that caused Mary to obey the invitation of the Lord and to remain faithful.  It is also what makes us obey.  It is why we want to obey, in the first place; and it dictates the manner in which we shall obey.

            St Benedict likes to see obedience in terms of spiritual combat.  “To thee are my words now addressed … that, renouncing your own will to fight for the true king Christ, do take up the strong and glorious weapons of obedience.”  The aura of docility that surrounds the virtue of obedience should not be misconstrued.  It is a strong virtue; and disobedience, in St Benedict’s eyes, is simply sloth, the result of an untrained will, even its atrophy.  The battlefield in question is largely oneself, along with principalities and powers which, however, have as much real power over us as a chained, if ill-tempered dog, as St Cæsarius of Arles points out.  Self-conquest, then, is our main arena and anyone who has ever tried to master the self knows what reserves of planning, perspicacity, courage and perseverance such a combat demands.

            In Mary, too, there is an aspect of valiance in warfare.  Dominus omnipotens præcinxit me virtute.  The Lord, the almighty, has girded me round with strength, as we sing on the feast of the Immaculate Conception.  If, in the pages of the Gospel, her gentleness and patience are to the fore, the Church’s liturgy has a whole Marian perspective which underlines her power.  She is virgo prudens, the woman who crushes the serpent’s head.  Although the humble maid of Nazareth, she is also the figure clothed with the sun, no doubt shining in full strength, with the moon under her feet.  The Benedictus antiphon of the Assumption does not hesitate to describe her as “pulchra ut luna, electa ut sol, terribilis ut castrorum acies ordinata.  Beautiful as the moon, elect as the sun, terrible as an army drawn up for battle.”  We might say that in Mary there is a natural flowering of the virtue of obedience.  In our own life, in Mary’s earthly life, too, it is a hidden thing of the heart, seen only by God and perhaps, the shrewd observer.  In our glorified Mother, obedience is seen as it really is: the strong and bright weapon, the glittering sword of St Benedict’s Prologue.

            Humility, inseparable from obedience, is another hallmark of both Mary and the disciple of St Benedict.  While Mary’s Magnificat furnishes proof of her personal humility, the fact that she feels under a necessity to give praise to God reveals praise as the proper, the inevitable activity of the humble.  To quote St Ephrem: “The mouth of the creature can never be barren of praise.”  In St Benedict’s eyes, too, nothing is to be preferred to it (RB 43).

            The humble person is a poor person.  In her song of unconscious self-revelation, Mary aligns herself clearly with the poor in spirit, as in Bethlehem, she will place herself forever on the side of the poor in this world’s goods.  She places herself among the servants, the hungry, those who fear God, who alone may be glorified.  In the more didactic language of the Rule, she gives credit to God and not to self whatever good she sees in herself (RB 4:42).

            The humble know how to listen.  At the Annunciation we see her in a listening rôle, inclining her ear to the words of Gabriel, two themes resumed in the opening words of the Rule, ausculte, O fili, Listen, my son.  If the second degree of humility is that a monk love not his own will, his model is Mary who desired that all should be done according to the will of the Father.  Again, like the disciple of St Benedict who is required to practise the third and eighth degrees of humility, that is concurrence in the common will of the brethren, she submits to earthly authority, like anyone else, notably at the Presentation in the Temple, neither needing nor wishing to appear better than others.  In the seventh degree, where the monk knows himself to be last of all – and each one of us is that, in spiritual mathematics – we hear an echo once again of the Magnificat, sung by her of “low estate”.  Her exaltation, her freedom from sin, her purity, are all gift, all gratuitous.  Nothing comes from her, the least of all creatures.  Hence, she and the humble monk or nun, regards all people with the greatest respect and admiration.  There is no self-regarding in Mary; she is not aware of her own grandeur.  But Elizabeth, herself humble, is aware of it.  Unde hoc mihi?  How is it that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?  Because Mary is the humblest of all.

            The humble know how to be silent and “if there is anything to be asked” to seek it “humbly and respectfully, for fear of presumption” (RB 20).  This is entirely Our Lady’s stance at Cana; her quiet acceptance of Our Lord’s initial remark; her ability to bide her time, shown in her words: “Do whatever He tells you.”  She says very little at all.  She is silent at the edge of the crowd, while her son speaks; she is silent at Calvary.  Did she too speak in tongues at Pentecost?  We are not told.  There is a solitude about Our Lady, though she is also at the heart of the ecclesial community, as we know from her presence among the disciples at Pentecost.  These two marks of solitude and communion belong also to St Benedict’s monk.  He chooses them as his mode of life and service and the background for his lectio and private and public prayer.  Here he resembles Mary who laid up the sayings of the Lord in her heart in solitude, yet takes part also in the communion of praise.

            Whether alone or in community, St Benedict’s disciple, like Mary, is centred on Christ; he or she is a Christ-bearer to others in the monastery and beyond.  This is normally at some cost.  At the close of the Prologue, the disciple expects to “share by patience in the sufferings of Christ” that he may “deserve also to be a partaker in His Kingdom.”  Mary, at the foot of the Cross, is our exemplar in this as in all else.  There she gave Him birth, into the life of eternity; and there she joins Him at her Assumption.  There we, too, hope “to be brought alike to life everlasting”, with Mary, St Benedict and all the saints.



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