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.

 

‘Set your mind on things above’: Mary and the Ascension 


The Feast of the Ascension falls in Mary’s month. This is fitting in more than one way. For example a major theme of the Ascension is the setting of the mind on things above, that is, prayer in spirit and truth; Mary is essentially a woman of prayer, as attested by the biblical texts concerning her. The twentieth century monk, Matthew the Poor, writes: “The true monk lives the Feast of the Ascension, content with the things above…all his life. He fears nothing on earth for he mystically feeds on the truth and love from above.” Mary lives this truth but she lives it in a unique way. In the narrative of the Annunciation she is presented to us as devoted to prayer. True, we are not told if she is in an attitude of prayer; nor does she utter words immediately recognisable as prayer. Instead, it becomes clear that she is prayer. Pope Benedict in ‘Mary, the Church at the source’, writes: “…The Fathers of the Church say that prayer, properly understood, is nothing other than knowing a longing for God. In Mary this petition has been granted; she is, at it were, the open vessel of longing, in whom life becomes prayer and prayer becomes life. Mary’s life and her prayer cannot be divided, since desire for God is the essence of both. Her life and prayer is one of union and communion with the Blessed Trinity.” In the light of these claims, let us look again at the dialogue between Gabriel and Mary.

Like every Jewish girl of the time, she longed for the advent of the Messiah. But longing is not enough to bring God to earth. Since He is supremely free, He must take the initiative, coming from without into the receptive heart. In His messenger, He approaches Mary and shows her to herself, shows her that she is pleasing in His eyes: Hail full of grace ... You have found favour with God (Lk.1:28-30). It is possible to praise her in such a singular way without detriment to her humility, because she takes nothing to herself but gives it back immediately to God.

We note, next, that the presence of the numinous, the direct experience of the divine, always inspires a certain fear; not a craven fear but the deep awe of the creature before the Creator. The experiential awareness of the abyss between God and man casts an initial 'trouble' into the finite mind, however pure. Mary must also try to grasp the import of the words addressed to her. They can only mean that a high demand is going to be set before her. Gabriel, the intermediary, sheds light, albeit still mysterious, on her perplexity: You will conceive and bear a Son ... He will be great and will be called the Son of God (Lk 1:31-32)

In all tranquillity now, Mary seeks understanding: How can this be.. ? (v.34). The question is a measure of her simplicity and an implicit acknowledgment of the place of reason in the spiritual life. It is an instrument of knowledge which is connatural with the superior knowledge of faith. Mary's self-surrender will thus be made in all awareness, with her whole mind as well as heart. The angel's explanation, in effect, touches a region beyond the reach of the human intellect: The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the Child to be born will be called Holy, the Son of God (v.35). Mary is being drawn here into the depths of God, a process which is one of the most mysterious aspects of prayer. It does not entail a loss of personality in the ocean of being but a communion with the three-personed God. Indeed, we see all three Persons at work in the Annunciation: the Holy Spirit overshadows, takes Mary up under His wings and forms not only the image of the Son in her but the Son in all His reality. Thus she is led to the Father, to the source of the life in which she now shares in such an extraordinary way ..Von Balthasar remarks, however, that "she does not indulge in speculative thought (about the Trinity) but adores and obeys; she opens her heart to the Spirit and bears the Son". (Prayer) With the mention of Mary's obedience, we come to a consideration of her free consent. She is not a passive but a fully co-operative instrument in God's plan. We have touched on this already, in connection with her longing, which is her prayer. To long is to surrender the self in advance. Mary gives expression to her self-surrender in clear, calm words: Ecce ancilla Domini. Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. It has been said of this 'fiat', that: in her "simple, absolute and grateful self-entrustment to God... we can participate in Christ's human and divine Yes to the Father. Mary, God's most beautiful child, helps men to become, as she is, a gratuitous longing for God". (A Lopez, Communio, 35, 2, 2008). She helps us to become prayer.

 

Drawn up into God and in wordless communion with Him Mary receives Him in her soul and in her womb. She becomes a Christ-bearer, the Christ-bearer. Nowhere is this more subtly conveyed than in her journey into the hill country to visit Elizabeth, bearing the Child within her, a paradigm of the prayer of habitual recollection. And she goes, precisely, to pass on the fruits of recollection, of deep quiet in God to Elizabeth and the yet unborn John, who recognise the presence she brings. After Elizabeth's ecstatic utterance, it is Mary's turn, in the Magnificat, to express in prayer her gratitude, praise and wonder to God.

With the introduction of others into the picture, ·it is not without importance to grasp the difference between Mary and us. We are aware of the similarities: she is a creature as we are; she presents to us the way of prayer in its purest form, which we may, nonetheless, imitate; from her life of communion with God, we understand that the highest form of prayer does not consist in superadded psychological states but in the perfecting of the supernatural life of faith, hope and love by the Holy Spirit. All this is open to us as well. Yet Mary's case remains without parallel. Our union with God in prayer is founded above all on our baptism, which restores the defaced image of God in us. It is, in the words of Anselm Stolz, O.S.B., a "determination of being", which yet admits of further development: (The Doctrine of Spiritual perfection). The reception of initia1 grace, the seed of divine life, and its development is analogous to the divine birth of Jesus from Mary and His growth to manhood, that is, there is both a similarity and a dissimilarity. "New Nazareths" (G.M. Hopkins) are created in us, certainly, by the washing of the water and the word; we then grow up into Christ, especially through the Holy Eucharist, which unites us to Him in His reality in that ‘mystic feeding’. The difference between us and Mary is that her grace, her prayer and her holiness obtain for her in actuality what is ours in mystery and sacrament. While the Word is always being born anew in the hearts of believers, she conceives the Son physically and gives birth to Him, God and man. Jesus is the fruit of Mary's union with God. She is thus the prototype of every mystic. Says Stolz again: The Christian “emulates Mary, the physical Mother of our Lord; in so far as the divine nativity is accomplished in his soul, he acquires a spiritual share in her motherhood.”

We need not, however, become too elevated in our contemplation of the crib. What is most evident is the nearness of God lying in the manger, to the wonder of all creation. It has been even suggested that the contented proximity of ox and ass show that the paradisiac state of Adam, and thus man's dominion over the animal world, has been restored. No one speaks; there is the silence of contemplation. What mother never gazed for prolonged periods upon her baby?

The most intense moment of communion passes into daily life. Mary, we are told twice (after the Shepherds' visit and the Finding in the Temple) stored all these things up and pondered them in her heart, another model for the contemplative life. There are other moment of intensity, as there are sometimes in our own spiritual life. These are not moment of ecstasy and rapture, which are relatively unimportant, but a deeper entry into the purpose of God, moments which give substance and direction to life in the Spirit. Such a moment for Mary is the Presentation in the Temple, where she formally, so to speak, makes an offering of all that is most dear to her and, instead of consolation, receives the promise of the sword. Her prayer becomes co-redemptive which means that it flows freely from her pure sensitivity, united with a unique foresight and strength, above all in her longing to share in the being and working of her Son.

 Another moment is the loss and finding of the Child Jesus in Jerusalem and the incomprehensibility of His answer. Darkness of knowledge, even in the most perfect human being; darkness of the way of faith and prayer to be undertaken in hope and courage. Yet we are permitted to question God, as Mary did. Why do You treat us so? Moments may come, too, when we have to wait outside like her without losing or doubting the communion between ourselves and the Lord; when we are reminded that, for love to be genuine, it cannot prefer the needs of the self to others, even in spiritual matters; if we truly seek God's will, we seek for it wherever He seeks for it. Darkness, above all, on Calvary, when the Word falls silent apart from the great cry on the Cross to the Father and the words of forgiveness to men. This same Word came forth from her as a crying new ­born baby; it is uttered again in her now. Yet even here she is not permitted to cherish a private grief. She is given John, given us, made responsible for our rebirth.  

We know that Mary's prayer is heard. At Cana we see the efficacity of her intercession, the complicity, as it were, between Mother and Son, the King and Queen side by side at the Feast, like a rehearsal for the Coronation of our Lady. She has grasped, according to the Fathers of the Church, the link between Cana and the crucifixion, the marriage between heaven and earth through her Son’s sacrificial death renewed at every Mass. Mary's supernatural life has gained such depth that she is now able to direct others in an interpretation of Jesus' words. We see her again in this mature role at Pentecost when she, as Church, prays in and for the Church. This is her place henceforth. Not for her the ecstasies of the Apostles at the Ascension and descent of the Holy Spirit, but a quiet interior acceptance of her new role as Mother of the Church. Now indelibly marked in her soul by the Passion and death of her Son, she watches Him go at the Ascension, lets Him go with a new impetus of faith, that faith which had remained constant through the events of the Sacred Triduum. Though suffering in her soul indescribably, her communion with Him remains unbroken, as she waits to leave this world. In receiving His Body and Blood which she had prepared for Him, their mystical communion is complete. And in the mystery of the Assumption, we have the pledge of our future glory in the patria where adoration never ends. If, by the birth of Christ in our own souls, we have indeed acquired a spiritual share in her Motherhood, we, too, become an image of the Church, the ecclesia orans, in her unceasing prayer on earth and in heaven. This end has its beginning, as it had with Mary at the Annunciation, with our simple Fiat, the word at the heart of every authentic prayer.

If we live the Feast of the Ascension, content with things above, while still on earth, we make this prayer our own.



Previous Chapter Talks