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.

 

BEFORE THE LIVING GOD

 

 

            Even in a monastery, it is possible to live in what might be termed a ‘linear’ fashion.  Days succeed days; events follow events.  Certainly, we know where we come from and where we are going in the light of faith; the source and the goal can enthuse us, but sometimes the road between can seem a long and dusty succession of steps.  To counteract this conscientious but somewhat dull approach to life, we may place everything, as St Benedict indeed recommends, in the presence of God, a God who is living and active and who fills all in all.  He is living, a Person, neither an abstraction nor an invention, therefore not a dead idol.  We cannot, even if we wanted to, bend Him to our will.  Instead, we draw our own inward being from Him; and so, to replenish our life when it becomes a little too prosaic or dry, we need to keep turning back to the fountainhead.  Although always in His presence, we may turn towards His Face by an act of our will or desire, knowing in faith that His Face is turned towards us, in mutual encounter; or, lest this seem to make God an object on view, or to posses a face like any other, we know ourselves to be looked at by Him. It is, we note, a life based on faith, that bridge between God and man, sometimes obscured by fog, but regardless of our subjective awareness, truly existent, given to us by God at our baptism and developed through prayer, reflection and good deeds. If our life seems at times more of an absence than a presence, we recall the disciples’ experience on Easter morning. Thirsting for Christ’s presence they find, instead emptiness, absence; yet it is precisely this emptiness which gives them hope and transforms their human expectations into faith.  To put it another way, absence and presence here are two sides of the same diptych: Christ is risen. This talk is concerned, however, more with the presence of God to man and man to God than with absence, though a presence, as we shall see in mystery, with some of the features of an absence. “Repeated references to God’s face, as representing His presence, contrast with references to His back, which tell of His presence and unknowableness. There is the famous passage in Exodus where Moses asks to see God’s glory but is told ‘You will see my back, but my face must not be seen.’”(John Habgood)

 

            Here we are concerned with face-to-face encounters with God in the Bible which reveal certain constants, despite their considerable differences of circumstance and personality.  Moses, in Exodus 3, hides his face because he is afraid to look at God, though sufficiently bold to argue about his adequacy for mission.  Later, after responding to God’s initiative, his connection with God will deepen to the extent that “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”  (Ex 33:11)  Moses’ own face reflects something of God’s splendour, since “the skin of his face shone” after these meetings.  A certain pudeur even makes him veil the brilliance of his countenance, though St Paul ascribes another motive to this action.

 

            Jacob, a very different character, struggles with the Angel of God until the breaking of day, wresting a blessing from him.  Yet he, too, experiences the awe of the encounter: “I have seen God face to face, yet my life is preserved” (Gen 32:31).  God has allowed him to prevail yet not without cost.  “The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his thigh.”  Henceforth, there is a vulnerable part, a human arrogance shaken, a taming, as it were, by God.  Man, after meeting God and striving with Him, is spoiled for the things of the world.  He is forever seeking Him beyond earthly transience.  John of Salisbury comments: “For we also wrestle with the Angel and the man in whom the love of eternity hath kindled will go lame in the things of time.  For not without the anguish of the struggle shall the face of truth be seen, nor shall the day break without a benediction.”      

         The third Old Testament figure I should like to consider in this context is Elijah.  In 1 Kngs 19 God summons him to come out of the cave where he has been hiding and “to stand upon the mount before the Lord.”  He stands obediently at the mouth of the cave, his face wrapped in his mantle, watching and listening to the crashing of the elements.  God is in none of them.  Instead, He reveals Himself in something living and personal, in the “still, small voice” which speaks to Elijah’s sore heart and tells him what to do.  The tranquil God restores tranquillity and order. He speaks to man’s faith in the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit; man’s faith, which is not a thing of sense, responds in spirit and in truth.

 

            The obvious example for encounter with divinity in the New Testament is the scene of the Transfiguration.  Peter, James and John, again on a holy mountain, witness the dazzling brightness of the Godhead in the transfigured Jesus.  Again we see, on one side, the majesty, the mystery, the clarity of the voice, the kindness of God in Jesus; and on the other, the awe and adoration of the disciples.

 

            A less obvious example is that of the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman in John 4.  The meeting, in this case, is with the Incarnate Word in all His humanity, with a man tired and thirsty, thus unlike the other theophanies.  Her response is, in fact, rather pert and sceptical, until His persistent pedagogy opens up her dormant need of God.  His thirst for her calls to her own thirst for the Spirit.  Although the aspect of the majesty of deity is concealed, it nonetheless exerts its influence, until she is brought to the point of being able to hear the great promise of living water, the Spirit of the Father and the Son.  She understands only a little, but it is enough.  The gentleness and penetration of the voice of Jesus, who discusses with her life in God and her confused domestic arrangements almost in the same breath, lead her to self-recognition and to tentative acknowledgement of the Messiah in the Man before whom she is standing.

 

            All these figures exemplify some of the dispositions which characterise the person in the presence of God.  The only possible attitude for sinful man is one of adoration, an attitude even profounder than longing, for it brings him experiential knowledge of the abyss between him and God.  He casts his eyes down, looks away but, comments von Balthasar, this is in itself a form of contemplation.  He becomes ‘silent like a child’, in a phrase of St Ephraim.  His false self, burdened by the many images he has formed of himself, the noisy, clamorous self, dissolves.  A small, quiet ‘I’ remains, hardly anything at all but precious in the sight, literally, of God.  Listen to Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity: “Adoration is love overwhelmed by the beauty, the power, the immense grandeur of the loved object.  Love then falls into … a full and profound silence.  It is also the final effort of a soul that is overflowing and can no longer speak.”

 

            Plunged into interior silence through an awareness of God’s gaze upon it, the soul is impelled to surrender itself in love and obedience.  It can, in time, raise its eyes and learn to look unflinchingly into the eyes of the Saviour; not an easy thing for our weak sight.  But if we allow ourselves to be looked at; if we can bear to look at what is revealed in our own hearts, at all the impurities that abound there, we purify ourselves as he is pure, as St John says (I Jn 3:3).  Transparency means that we are standing in the truth as well as in love.  Like the Samaritan woman, there is nothing hidden or unacknowledged in us.  Like Jacob, we are able to expose the broken part without shame.  We become obedient like a child who desires only to please and this is important, because in obedience lies life: “And I know,” says Jesus “that His commandment is eternal life” (Jn 12:50).  This life is no longer centred on ourselves but on Christ who lives in us (Gal 2:20).

 

            This brings us to an essential difference between the biblical figures and the baptised Christian in their relationship with the living God.  The latter is in a radically new situation, because he is ‘in Christ’, that Pauline phrase which can mean a number of things but, above all, means being included in His life, being an integral part of it.  He shares in Christ’s own relationship with the Father in the Holy Spirit.  Since that relationship is essentially filial, he becomes an adopted child of God.  We know that this new life of sonship depends on sacramental integration into Christ our life; on our baptism, of course, which lays the ontological foundation, but also on the Holy Eucharist.  It is the staff of our life.  Anselm Stolz says that the Christian becomes perfect when “he has succeeded in maintaining in his whole life the connection with the Eucharist, in standing in Christ before the Father, in gaining an experience of this life. … Then, too, he walks in the presence of God.  For walking in the presence of God does no imply in the first instance a mere thinking about God but is to be understood … as being permanently in Christ before the Father.  It can be psychologically helpful to guard the thought of God’s presence.  But what is essential is to preserve inner sacramental union with God and to carry this into effect in every action.”

 

            Is it possible to define further this holy life in which we share, this inwardness of God?  Many have tried throughout the centuries and perhaps their stammerings have done us a service by making us realise the near impossibility of the task.  But Christ Himself has revealed to us all that we need to know.  We know what the Father is like because we know the Son.  “He who has seen me has seen the Father”  (Jn 14:9).  Through Jesus’ revelation, we know what we could not know otherwise: that God is a Trinity of Persons, that their inner life is one of mutual love and knowledge and happiness in the other; a life of self-giving, because each gives all that He has to the Other.  It is a life that overflows onto all creation and every creature.  God is love, says St John, in a definition that has never been surpassed, despite all the ink that has been spilled.  Our conceptual knowledge does not go much further than this.  One has to recognise, indeed, that man’s knowledge of God and life in God hinges on God’s knowledge of man; just as the Samaritan woman in being loved and understood by Jesus comes to know, in a rudimentary way, who He is.  Our knowledge will flower in an unimaginable way, when we shall see Him face to face in heaven.  Paul, who was caught up into the third heaven and ‘heard things that cannot be told, that man cannot utter’, (1 Cor 12) also said that we see in a glass darkly, here below; only in the next life ‘shall we understand fully, even as we have been fully understood.”  (1 Cor 13:12)

 

            Already sharing, nonetheless, in the intimacy of intratrinitarian love, we may lay claim, as adopted children, to a certain resemblance to Jesus Christ.  Even in the natural sphere, we become like what we gaze upon with admiration and love.  That is why it is important to choose well what we look at.  The more we stand before the radiance from His Face, mediated perhaps through His word, His creation or other people; exposed as we are to it in our daily liturgical and personal prayer, the more we are changed into His likeness and the more His life wells up in us.  His image is already imprinted on our souls and sometimes we see it reflected back to us.  It is both our image and His; they have become mysteriously one.  St John of the Cross expresses it thus in a poem:

 

O spring like crystal!

If only on your silvered-over face,

You would suddenly form

the eyes I have desired,

which I bear sketched deep within my heart

 

            The divine resemblance and the divine life grow in us when we stand in love and fidelity before the living God.  We do not catch the growth of life in the act; we do not see sap rising in the tree.  Rather, we see it in its effects: the strengthening of the will to do good, the flowering of peace and joy in the heart.

 



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