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.

 

SI   CONTINUUM  DESIDERIUM,  CONTINUA  ORATIO

 

 

 

            There is a prayer that may be said after the lectio divina which runs: ‘Pierce my heart with the love that unites it to the Father and be Yourself continual prayer in me.’   The idea of continual prayer fascinates us.  We know that, if it were to become a reality, we should be living out fully our vocation as a Christian and a religious.  Yet we are human beings, not angels, and the conscious adherence to God in prayer at every moment is not a noticeable constituent of our nature.  We have to think of other things a good deal of the time, in order to live at all.  The adjective ‘conscious’ is of significance.  It does not mean ‘self-conscious’: here I am, praying.  It can, and usually does, mean the undistracted remembrance of God, though even here one may be aware of oneself at prayer and award oneself good marks.  But let us take mindfulness of God at all times as the conventional meaning of oratio continua.  With St. Basil we aim to “cling continually to His memory as children cling to their mother.”  It is an on/off business for most of us, though if we want it badly enough, we can discipline ourselves to come back, at least, to the thought of God, whenever we realise that we have wandered.  Like everything else in the spiritual life, it cannot be forced.  Abbot Sillem, you may remember, used to say that running ahead of our grace in this matter could make us slightly batty.  We can only prepare the soil and ask humbly for rain.  Humbly does not mean indifferently.  If we don’t ask with all the passion of our soul, our petition will not pierce the clouds.  In fact, we know that a very deep desire for this prayer is like an instinct of the heart that loves God; and it is unlikely that God would implant such a longing, which is essentially a longing for union with Him, if He did not mean to fulfil it, even in this life.  In seeking a solution to the conundrum, we return to the prayer at the beginning of this talk: ‘Be Yourself continual prayer in me.’  Not a technique to be mastered, continual prayer can become a reality when the Spirit of Christ lives in the soul and the soul lives in Christ.  This is a description of the baptized Christian, so not beyond our reach.  It requires a refocusing of our centres of living.  Jean Corbon calls these centres ‘perpetual dwellings in which we are only visitors; we are not at home in them; while we live in them, we have not found ourselves.  The heart is the place of authentic encounter with oneself, with others and with the living God.  The heart is not something static… it is alive; a yearning for presence and a creative response to a Presence.’  (Wellspring of Worship).

 

            This Presence has a name, the one word, says Corbon, that expresses everything: JESUS.  “Indeed, not only does Jesus come into us; above all, we enter into Him.  When we call upon Jesus, our hearts open to the only Name that is not a word detached from the person, but rather contains the presence it involves… The mystery kept secret for endless ages (Rom. 16:29) increasingly fills the heart that believes and hopes; it becomes there a silent love.”  Since this prayer of the heart is the breathing in us of another divine Person, we can unite our own prayer peacefully to the deep rhythm of the Holy Spirit’s prayer.  With St. Ignatius of Antioch, there may be times when the person in love with Christ can catch the heart at prayer, can hear the murmur of the living water: ‘Come to the Father.’

 

We must now retrace our steps to chart the growth of this prayer of the heart in our lives, to follow the journey of the baptized soul into God.  There is an awakening of the life of the Spirit, a moment perhaps so quiet that it may be barely perceptible.  One begins to desire to know God and to communicate with Him.  Even if largely unexpressed, there is some change in lifestyle, perhaps inexplicable to oneself and to others.  We want to spend more time in church or in spiritual activities.  One may begin to read and talk about God.  Something has happened.  The Holy Spirit has happened.

 

            The moment of manifestation of the Spirit and our awakening to Him, in whatever form it takes, leads quickly in most cases to a time of testing and work, the work of digging over the earth of the heart to remove all that is hostile to God and the movement of His life in us.  We are enlightened to see that the place of our heart is, if not scandalously unclean, at least disordered.  The lover of Christ cannot bear this sight and sets to work with a will.  It is the only authentic response.  Oddly, the more light shines into our murkiness, the darker it seems to become.  This is no longer, however, the darkness of sin but the God who wraps Himself in darkness, who has a dark cloud under His feet (Ps. 17).  God is in the darkness.  Each person is tested variously but emptiness is not infrequent, or helplessness, even a sense of pointlessness; yet, the Cloud of witnesses, if only we could see them, are urging us on.  Our Lady above all.  In the moving words of Père Marie-Eugène:  “A silent shadow in the night, Mary spreads sweetness without suppressing suffering, creates a soft shadow without dissipating the darkness.  The sweetness and the shadow are produced by the certitude the soul has of her action and by the obscure awareness of her presence.  To know that its Mother is there, watching over it in the night, makes the heart of the child glad, renews the strength, fortifies the hope, gives it light and peace.”  She spreads sweetness without suppressing suffering.  Now is the time for holding fast, of recalling patiently the first awakening of faith, hope and love.  So we feel like charlatans, our motives base.  Good.  We are coming close to the truth now.  If only we can plunge into that truth and look up trustingly from the place to which we have fallen, or in which we have been deposited, since God Himself takes a hand in the affair; if only we know in our hearts that God in Jesus Christ has been here before us and will help us not to be tempted beyond our strength, then we may hasten the end of our confusion.  The light may be always painful to our darkness but we shall be at peace.  Jesus Christ has experienced our darkness, without failing the test and His Spirit in our hearts intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  (Rom. 8:26).  We must let Him labour thus, for this, too, is prayer of the heart.

 

            Although we are now beyond the beginning and are learning to give love for love, we are always on the receiving end of grace.  There is a quiet, unfelt feeding and strengthening of our spirit going on, assisted by our lectio divina and meditation on the truths of faith.  The Spirit may help us by insights that unite to forge a coherence out of all we read and experience.  This, too, creates a prayerful heart.  If we are otherwise in a desert of the senses, there is likely to be a humility and a lack of confidence in self that, in fact, favour that pedagogy.  We are beginning to discover the difference between confusion and mystery.  It is becoming clear, if that is the right word, that we cannot encompass the  incomprehensible, but must sit humbly before it and absorb it patiently.  The Divine Office is a prime teacher here, for by its nature we are drawn into it as into the mystery of God and His economy of salvation in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.  This is not to gainsay the active element in liturgical prayer whereby, as St. Benedict says, our minds should harmonise with our voices.

 

The Mass takes  central place in making us live in Christ and Christ in us and so in the growth of the Spirit’s prayer in our hearts.  Although I have not wanted to base this talk wholly on Corbon’s comparison of the praying heart with the action of the Mass, it is too fundamental an insight not to introduce it at this point.  Prepared by penitence and the reception of the word, the heart, he says, is to prayer as the altar is to the church.  It is the place of sacrifice; and its prayer is the epiclesis which offers everything to be transformed.  The more we surrender everything to His will, the more our will becomes like His, so that the two wills become one.  Then prayer to Jesus becomes the prayer of Jesus.

 

If the heart is an altar and prayer is an epiclesis on all that the heart offers, then it is also the place of trinitarian communion.  “Once we decide to cross the threshold of our own heart, we discover it to be the place where the wellspring sends forth its streams.  Truly God is in this place and I did not know!  (Gen. 28:16).  There presence meets presence and this mysterious hospitality marks the dawning of prayer after our long nights of evasion or drowsiness.” (Ibid.) 

 

            Trinitarian communion is imaged likewise in our relations with other people.  The presence of Christ in us encounters His presence in others and conversely, if our hearts are open to this communion.  In the other I truly meet Christ and the other meets Christ in me.  This is a moment of love, which is at the centre of all true prayer, all communion.  One has difficulty at times in translating faith into praxis - more from inadvertence than ill will.  Continual prayer, when a reality,  will help.

 

Continual prayer, in summary, is the murmur of the Spirit in our hearts cleansed from conscious sin.  Awareness of the presence of prayer is not essential.  What is essential is our life in Christ, His life in us and our continual desire for this life.  We lay ourselves open to it by our immersion in the sacramental life of the Church and our Divine Office, by our lectio, our contemplation of the mysteries of Christ’s life and, importantly, by communion with the other in love and service.  If we are steeped in the presence of Christ, whether we are in darkness or in light, if the Holy Spirit is breathing unceasingly the Name of Jesus in our hearts, we shall become women of prayer.  It will have immense repercussions on our manner of living; on our silence; on our joy in the Holy Spirit and on our mutual love.  The power it will generate will, if God desires, spread far beyond the monastery’s walls and encompass the world.  It is not our prayer, you recall, but the prayer, the life of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.  As we have noted, our desire for this prayer is crucial to its development.  I propose, therefore, as motto for 2008 a phrase from the Commentary of St. Augustine on Ps. 37:14: “Your desire is your prayer, and if your desire is continual, your prayer will be continual”

 

 SI  CONTINUUM  DESIDERIUM,  CONTINUA  ORATIO



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