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.

 

THIS IS THE CONFERENCE GIVEN BY MOTHER ABBESS IN THE FINAL DAYS OF HER PRIORESS AND THE COMMUNITY’S NOVICE MISTRESS 

VIGILANTI STUDIO 

“My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning” (Ps 129:6).  We have in this psalm verse an image of the soul’s desire for God, the soul on the threshold of eternity.  The watchman knows that the dawn will come; his hope is not in question.  He looks out intently for the first lightening of the sky which will announce the end of weariness and obligatory vigilance, perhaps fear of ambush and enemy attack.  It is with this same intensity that the soul desirous of God looks for a sign of His presence. 

            Intensity but patience, too.  The person who watches during the night can expect long periods of silence and tedium when nothing apparently happens, even though the night is passing inexorably into day and midnight is the prelude to the lifting of the darkness.  Intensity and patience: the two must be held in a fruitful tension and an ever wakeful desire.

            The diptych illustrates our monastic life and prayer.  Faithful and devout minds, says St Leo, will “conceive a passionate desire for heavenly things and lift themselves up, with eagerness for the divine promises, to love of the incorruptible good and to hope for the true light” (Serm 3).  God, says St Ephrem, is only “a night’s length away.  Now light dawns and he is coming.  Weary not, my brethren, nor suppose that your struggle will last long, or that your resurrection is far off, for our death is already behind us and our resurrection before us” (Hymns on Paradise 7).  Both in our life and in our prayer, which is only a summary of our life, we have need of this sharp but sustained longing for God.  It is a witness to others that there is a dawn and that it will break. 

            We are conscious, nonetheless, of a multiplicity of desires which, even if not wrong or obviously harmful, need to be brought into harmony with this overarching desire for God.  For us, there is a hierarchy of desires; not a rigid system where everything has its unalterable place, but a well-ordered kingdom whose subjects live at peace with one another. 

            Tranquillity of order demands a constant wakefulness, which takes the form of listening, not only to words but to the subtlest movement of the heart.  We are to have the ears of our heart alert for whatever the Holy Spirit might be saying.  He is the One who discerns between desire and desire, who interprets to God and the soul our deepest desire. The most profound desire of the human heart is for heaven, the vision and enjoyment of God.  We may have wondered in an honest moment whether this desire really does drive us, above all other, all the time.  The good news is that it does, even if it is not always wholly conscious. It may be overlaid or, even in conjunction with other desires; yet in the baptised Christian who has exercised and does exercise his grace, his faith, hope and love, the ultimate or root longing is for the flowering of grace, which is to look on the glory of God. Put more personally, it is for the meeting with the One who is the source and goal of our desire.  It is to be ready for the call of the One who loves us. This deepest desire, however, is not always evident. Sometimes the noisiest desires are the most superficial.  This does not mean that they do not exist; their clamour proves that they do; but without the guidance of the Spirit, too much attention to them can take us away from the reality of goodness and truth, if they are wrongful desires; or simply prove unproductive, if they are mere human wishes.  If we are inveigled into giving them a lot of importance, or if we cave into them, because it is the easiest thing to do, we could block the deepest desire, which is, paradoxically enough, always God’s desire too, in other words, His will.  Before we dismiss this as wishful think, we remember that God’s will for us is the form which His love takes.  It is not some nasty medicine that we feel we ought to take to please the doctor.  Listening out for God’s will in our lives (our lives as a whole and our lives in the concrete, small detail) listening for the final call, is to do ourselves a favour.  It is to know God’s loving plan for us; His Providence; what is going to make us most happy in the end.  And this always means that He will give Himself to us, in and through His will.  Nothing else can really satisfy us. 

            The watchful desire, then, is for God’s will and is a way of exercising obedience, the root of which is, as you know, audire, to hear or listen.  It requires a detachment from the self and the other voices in the heart, a going out from the self to listen to Someone other than the self.  This sensitivity to the Holy Spirit also comes into play with regard to our neighbour.  In other words, we try to be obedient to each other and to the other’s needs, which may sometimes be at odds with our own.  There is a particular difficulty here, because the Holy Spirit comes to us through the other in multiple disguises.  It may not even be the disguise of hostility or opposition to our wishes, but the sheer ordinariness of the situation, or the banality of language.  We have to listen very closely, with a large dose of self-renunciation, in order to hear at all.  Interior silence is de rigueur. 

            One way of imposing order and silence on the mind and heart is to invoke the presence of God, not intermittently or when we are in a fix or only when our conscience smites us for our lack of piety, but as a staple of our existence.  This is not impossible, when we remember that we are inhabited by the Holy Spirit, that we have been anointed by Him and that He prays within us and for us at all times.  It is not beyond our graced capacity then, to insert ourselves into this Godward movement of the Spirit.  Then we shall stand before God with the mind in the heart. 

            At this point, I should like to look more closely at the idea of guard or custody of the heart.  Keeping constant watch over the heart is a time-honoured monastic practice.  It is a complex activity but certain common and overlapping characteristics recur.  To guard the heart is, in the first place, to interrogate the thoughts and images which present themselves.  Evagrius counsels us to be the gatekeeper of our hearts,  Is the thought which is knocking at the door a friend or a foe, that is, will it give glory to God and peace to our soul or will it disrupt and disturb?  If the latter, the gatekeeper will wisely refuse admission.  Even vain and distracting thoughts are to be given short shrift, for they will divert us from the sole desire for God, which englobes the rest.  One of the best contemporary writers on monastic subjects, Fr Michael Casey, does not depart from this tradition, when he writes: “Vigilance is an important element of strategy …  In some situations it is prudent to engage in border protection, deliberately and pre-emptively refusing admittance to whatever uselessly upsets us.  This may mean, for example, … letting provocation pass unanswered, refusing to feed our suspicions, choosing not to act indignantly when our judgement is questioned. …  In this way, we are using our sense of inward peace as a guide to behaviour.  We continually monitor the state of our soul.  Unless there is a proportionate benefit to be obtained, we opt for that course of action that allows us to concentrate on the main game, rather than letting ourselves be drawn into useless diversions”  (Fully human, fully divine). 

            Guard of the heart, then, refers secondly, not only to vigilant discernment but also to action taken against the disordered movements of the heart.  Gatekeeping implies that there will be attacks from without; but there is also the enemy within.  Our writers on the theme tell us that the foe must be subdued before damage is wreaked. 

            You will have realised by now that the notion of ‘heart’ is being employed to mean the seat or principle of knowledge and feelings, imagination, intellect and will.  From what has been said, we know that while thoughts and imaginings of a dubious nature do not depend on the will deliberately, it is always in our power, with the help of grace, not to parley with them.  We need to be able to intercept them as they surface and offer the necessary resistance, even if that consists most effectively in letting them drop away.  Says John Climacus in Step 20 of the ‘Ladder’: “The vigilant monk is a fisher of thoughts and, in the quiet of the night, he can easily observe and catch them.”  He then goes on, rather inconsequentially, to say: “The bell rings for prayer.  The monk who loves God says: ‘Bravo! Bravo!’  The lazy monk says: ‘Alas! Alas!’”  Good fisher, bad fisher. 

            Our imagination, especially, is well furnished with useless or harmful things but also, and more importantly, with good and beautiful images.  We should not discount its beneficial influence on our lives, simply because it may be misused.  Anointed by the Holy Spirit at Baptism and Confirmation, it is a powerful means of sanctification.  We can pray to the Spirit to cleanse our imagination ever more deeply by His action within us, so that images corresponding to His Beauty are readily at hand.  “Alertness keeps the mind clean,” says John Climacus again.  By our vigilance and our eager love for truth and beauty, we need not fall prey to idle or ugly imaginings, but replace them by “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8). 

            The goal of guard of the heart - and this is the third main characteristic after discernment of thoughts and spiritual combat - is, initially, to avoid falling into sin or imperfection, that is, into a dysfunctional spiritual life.  The final goal is purity of heart, the state of the well-ordered soul surrendered to God’s will, which is, you recall, nothing other than His love for us.  Then the soul will enjoy interior peace and recollection of mind, a tranquillity founded on an intense and patient activity, like the dispositions of the watcher for the dawn, of the soul awaiting the final Veni, its interior senses on the alert for the murmur of the living water: ‘Come to the Father’. 

            We have spoken a lot about our vigilance and our desire for God.  In one of the Sunday Collects (22nd Week) however, loving vigilance is ascribed to God in relation to us.  He waits for us with eager longing.  “Father of might and power, every good and perfect gift comes down to us from you.  Implant in our hearts the love of your Name, increase our zeal for your service, nourish what is good in us and tend it with “vigilanti studio”, which might be translated: “with an ever wakeful desire,” a desire which translates into diligence and zealous action.  The Collect assures us that it is divine grace, that is, God’s love which takes the initiative in planting, nurturing and watching over our own vigilant desire for God.  It is because of His preoccupation with us that we are able to be preoccupied with Him, with the vigilance that is a sign of our desire and the desire that feeds our vigilance. 

 

             If we are faithful to our grace and vigilant in preserving it, if we nourish for our part the desire God plants in us, letting lesser desires find their proper level, then we shall be left at the close of our lives with a single purified desire for heaven. In the words of Jean Leclercq this is a desire for “a repose which consists in knowing God as He is, in looking at Him with a glance which is absolutely pure.”  Let us press on to acquire this single eye even now, so that at the hour of our death we shall pass peacefully through the door into eternal life in Christ.

 


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