I gave the following conference on Friday, 12th August 2016 to the Benedictine Nuns of Perpetual Adoration at their monastery in Warsaw. Oblate Filip Lajszczak simultaneously translated the conference into Polish.
The Mystery of Divine Providence
Five years ago, in July 2011, I translated an extraordinary page, «On the Spirit of Saint Benedict», from the writings of Catherine Mectilde de Bar. Mother Mectilde offers her readers a sublime piece of writing and, at the same time, certain passages are hard to understand without entering into the 17th centuary Benedictine’s mind, and into her vast spiritual culture, shaped principally by the liturgy, by Sacred Scripture, by the Rule of Saint Benedict, and by her many exchanges with other God–seeking souls of le grand siècle.
I cannot help but admire ceaselessly the adorable Providence of a God who is infinitely wise and ineffable in His conduct, for having chosen religious of the great Patriarch Saint Benedict to make of them daughters of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, and for having destined them not only to render Him continual homages, but also to be the guardians of this sacred deposit that He has entrusted to His Church.
Mother Mectilde ponders and admires the adorable Providence of God in choosing children of Saint Benedict to become in the Church perpetual adorers and guardians of the adorable mystery of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Mother Mectilde’s reference to Divine Providence is characteristic of her approach to all of life. For Mother Mectilde, the Providence of God is the mystery sung in the great O Antiphon of December 17th: O Sapientia . . . attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia — «O Wisdom, stretching from end to end, mightily and sweetly ordering all things». Mother Mectilde read all of history in the light of Divine Providence; in this same light she read the twists and turns of her own personal history.
One of the most encouraging things about the lifelong journey of Catherine Mectilde de Bar is that she was often obliged to leave one place for another, to begin afresh, and to adapt to new circumstances. Again and again she experienced change, keeping always her heart fixed where true joys are found: in the adorable Sacrament of the Altar. For me, Mother Mectilde is the model of what the Church asks in the Collect of the Fourth Sunday after Easter:
Deus, qui fidelium mentes unius efficis voluntatis, da populis tuis id amare quod praecipis, id desiderare quod promittis: ut inter mundanas varietates ibi nostra fixa sint corda, ubi vera sunt gaudia.
O God, who makest the minds of the faithful to be of one will, grant to Thy people to love that which Thou commandest and desire that which Thou dost promise; that so, among the changing things of this world, our hearts may be set where true joys are to be found.
Trust and Perseverance
In times of social upheaval and unrest, as in times of upheaval and unrest in the Church, such as I lived through in the 1960s and 70s, the ideal of monastic stability is often shattered against the jagged rocks of reality. Happily, God calls a man, not to an ideal, but to utter trust in Him and to humble perseverance in the face of things as they are — imperfect, gritty, and disappointing — even if this means beginning afresh over and over again. For me, Catherine Mectilde de Bar is a model of just this. God can and does, in fact, use such paradoxical and disconcerting circumstances as a crucible in which he hammers out something something new, something purified, something conceived in the infinite love and wisdom of His Heart.
The Humble and Costly Yes
There are those, who judging the twists and turns of another’s life, through the lens of their own limited experience and prejudices, see only discontinuity where God sees, rather, the continuity of a humble and costly “yes,” repeated again and again, to the unfolding of His plan. For the one engaged in such a circuitous and unconventional journey, there will be the subtle but cruel humiliations of the raised eyebrow, the sceptical glance, and the whispered (or not so whispered) critical inference. Religious types can be pitiless when it comes to such things. By God’s providence, Mother Mectilde was surrounded, not only by critics and naysayers, but also by supportive and faithful friends who believed in her vocation and made sacrifices in order for her work, Our Lord’s work, to prosper.
The Victimhood of Christ
Behind Mother Mectilde’s text there shines the luminous word of Saint Paul: «For as often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come» (1 Corinthians 11:26). The Most Holy Eucharist proclaims the death of the Lord — the mystery of the Christus passus, Christ as victim — and makes present His Sacrifice from age to age, and this until the consummation of the world. Mother Mectilde could not, I think, speak of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar without hearing deep in the memory of her heart the words uttered daily at the altar in the Canon of the Mass: hostiam puram, hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam, «a pure victim, a holy victim, a spotless victim». Mother Mectilde’s understanding of the victimal character of the Christian life derives from the liturgy; it is articulated in the liturgy; it is lived through the liturgy. Mother Mectilde’s approach to the monastic life is, I think a classic example of the theological axiom: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.
But I glimpse the reason of the mystery of this choice and of the election that God has made of the children of this great Patriarch, and for this I am not at all astonished; because, although there is something incomprehensible, hidden, and profound in the state [of life] that this glorious Patriarch brought to the earth, and that he inspired in his sons, we see that it has so great a relation to the Divine Eucharist, that I cannot but say that it is the portion and heritage of the religious of Saint Benedict. I should, rather, be astonished that it took the passage of so many centuries before the children of this Blessed Father quickened themselves to enter into possession of the inestimable treasure that the infinite bounty of God held in reserve for them.
A Mystical Affinity with the Most Holy Sacrament
Why did God choose Benedictines to enter deeply into the adorable Mystery of Faith and to become, in these latter centuries of the Church, souls entirely dedicated and configured to Christ in the Sacrament of His Love? Mother Mectilde, quoting Psalm 15, identifies the Most Holy Eucharist as the portion and heritage of the children of Saint Benedict: «The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and of my cup» (Psalm 15:5). She attributes this divine election of the children of Saint Benedict to a mystical affinity with the Most Holy Sacrament that pertains to their very state of life.
If you ask me . . . where I get that which I have just said, I dare assure you that it is a secret which was shown me in the death of our most illustrious Patriarch, who, wanting to witness to to the love he had for the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, could do it no better than by expiring in His Holy Presence, thereby rendering the last breaths of his heart to this adorable Host, and enclosing his sentiments in the sacred ciborium, so as to produce, in time, children of His Order who would, until the end of the world, offer the adorable Host adoration, respect, and the bounden duties of continual love and reparation.
Mother Mectilde alludes to the death of Saint Benedict as recounted by Saint Gregory the Great in the Second Book of The Dialogues:
Six days before he died, he gave orders for his tomb to be opened. Almost immediately he was seized with a violent fever that rapidly wasted his remaining energy. Each day his condition grew worse until finally, on the sixth day, he had his disciples carry him into the chapel where he received the Body and Blood of our Lord to gain strength for his approaching end. Then, supporting his weakened body on the arms of his brethren, he stood with his hands raised to heaven and, as he prayed, breathed his last.
Configured to Jesus in His Death
There is in this passage something at once subtle and profound. In writing of the death of Saint Benedict, Mother Mectilde evokes the death of the Crucified Jesus. Both Our Lord and His servant, Saint Benedict, die with uplifted arms. Both die in an exhalation of love that will bring forth fruit, fruit that will remain (cf. John 15:16). Is not the “inclined head” of Jesus, noted in John 19:30, the key to understanding the summit of the Twelve Steps of Humility in Chapter Seven of the Holy Rule?
Cum ergo accepisset Jesus acetum, dixit: Consummatum est. Et inclinato capite tradidit spiritum. (John 19:30)
«That is to say that whether he is at the Work of God, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on the road, in the fields or anywhere else, and whether sitting, walking or standing, he should always have his head bowed» (Rule of Saint Benedict 7:65). Does this not signify the complete configuration of the monk to Jesus in the mystery of His death on the Cross?
A New but Organic Development of Benedictine Life
Enlightened by a particular grace, Mother Mectilde perceives a secret: it is that Saint Benedict, in his last breath, exhaled a new but organic development in life according to his Rule: an expression of Benedictine life that would surround the august Sacrament of the Altar with adorers, vowed to repair by love the offenses, outrages, coldness, irreverence, and indifference suffered by Love living in the Most Holy Eucharist. This is, I think a prophetic episode, akin to the prophetic actions of the Old Testament by which God announced, in figures and in types, mysteries that the prophets themselves could not yet see in their fulfilment. Again, this «secret» or «mystery» cannot be dissociated from the words that Mother Mectilde heard daily at the end of Holy Mass in the Prologue of Saint John:
In mundo erat, et mundus per ipsum factus est, et mundus eum non cognovit. In propria venit, et sui eum non receperunt.
He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. He came unto his own, and His own received Him not. (John 1:10-11)
Mother Mectilde goes on to say:
Whereas some adore Jesus Christ in the various states of His holy life, the religious of Saint Benedict bear the title of those who are dead: this is what the blessed Monsieur de Condren, general of the Oratory, says. And so, cannot I say that their state and condition of being dead honours, by reference and relation, Jesus dead in the Eucharist? The Fathers teach us that He is there as one in the state of death. A child of Saint Benedict, living a life that is death, has he not a bond and a reference to Jesus in the Host?
Hid with Christ in God
Here Mother Mectilde alludes, I think, to the impressive rites of Monastic Profession and Consecration with the prostration of the newly professed during the Holy Mysteries, and the use of the black funeral pall. This is another example of the principle of lex orandi that we find throughout the writings of Mother Mectilde. The Mother alludes also to Monsieur de Condren’s characterization of the Benedictine grace as being one of death in the Pauline sense of the term:
Therefore, if you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above; where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God: Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you are dead; and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ shall appear, who is your life, then you also shall appear with Him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)
Abandonment to the Father
In what sense exactly does Mother Mectilde speak here of Jesus being «dead in the Eucharist»? And in what way is the Benedictine, like Jesus in the Host, in a state of death? The death to which Mother Mectilde refers is that of the Christus Passus in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and in the adorable Sacrament of the Altar.
In the Most Holy Eucharist, sacrament and sacrifice, Jesus Christ is present in the very act of His self-offering to the Father. The moment of death recorded by Saint John — «Jesus therefore, when he had taken the vinegar, said: It is consummated. And bowing his head, he gave up the ghost» (John 19:30) — remains eternally present to the Father in the sanctuary of heaven, even as it is present sacramentally in the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist. Jesus is on the altar, in the soul of the communicant, and in the tabernacle as He is heaven: the hostia perpetua.
The Benedictine enters into the death and victimhood of Jesus by allowing Him to renew at every moment in the sanctuary of his soul the grace of His head bowed in death that signifies complete abandonment to the Father. For Mother Mectilde this goes to the very heart of the Benedictine vocation: obedience (RSB Chapter 5), silence (RSB Chapter 6), humility, and the love of God, which being made perfect, casts out fear (RSB Chapter 7). It is precisely in these chapters of the Holy Rule, Mother Mectilde found what she calls “the true spirit” of her Institute:
If it were permitted me to relate in detail the spirit and dispositions that a Benedictine ought to have, you would see that by the faithful practice of the Holy Rule, she would be altogether like a Host, and would enter into wonderful relations with Jesus in the adorable Eucharist.
Altogether like a Host
Mother Mectilde compares the Benedictine monk to the Eucharistic Host at two levels. The first level pertains to the qualities of the Host and the Benedictine virtues: the Host is hidden in the tabernacle, and the monk is hidden in the enclosure of the monastery; the Host is silent, and the monk is silent; the Host has no movement in and of itself, the monk has no movement that is not made by obedience; the Host is abandoned to the will of another, the monk is abandoned to the will of God mediated by his abbot. The Host is, to all appearances, powerless, fragile, and perishable; the monk, too, is powerless, fragile, and perishable. The hiddenness of the Host veils the glory of the Godhead. The silence of the Host befits the ineffability of the Word. The apparent inertia of the Host conceals the love that moves the stars: Dante’s amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle. The abandonment of the Host into the hands of the one who picks it up — be he saint or sinner — reveals the vulnerability of the Word made flesh, obedient unto death. It is in owning his powerlessness, his fragility, and his perishable flesh, that the monk experiences the power, the strength, and the imperishable life of the risen and ascended Christ.
The Monk: A Victim with Christ
The second level of comparison the Host pertains to the victimhood of Jesus. The monk offers himself, by the grace of the Holy Ghost, to immolation on the altar in the Holy Sacrifice. There, Christ the Priest offers the monk, together with Himself, to the Father: a single victim (the very meaning of the word hostia) of adoration, thanksgiving, reparation, and supplication. Mother Mectilde would have been thoroughly familiar with the Preface of the Most Blessed Sacrament that was in use in Paris in the 17th century, which says: Et nos, unam secum hostiam effectos . . .
In this mystery of unsearchable wisdom and boundless love, being Himself the One Who offers and the Victim, He ever wondrously effects what he accomplished once on the Cross. Making us one victim with Himself, He invites us to the sacred banquet in which He, our Food, is eaten, the memory of His Passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace and a pledge of future glory is given. (Gallican Preface of the Most Blessed Sacrament)
In the altar, the Host, the Chalice, and the Cross, the monk reads the terms of his own immolation.
But, leaving aside a multitude of proofs that would confirm you in the truth that I am proposing to you, judge . . . if it was not by a choice all divine that we, religious of Saint Benedict, have become daughters of the Sacrament? And do we not owe this grace to the great Saint Benedict, who merited it for us by his precious death, as we have said? Was not his death the pledge of the love which he bore towards this sacred Mystery . . . the promise that, in the latter centuries, his Order would produce in the Church victims immolated to this august Sacrament, who would not only adore by day and by night, but who would be, insofar as possible, the reparators of His glory profaned by the wicked in the Sacrament of Love?
Saint Benedict’s Eucharistic Grace
For Mother Mectilde de Bar, it is fitting that, of all the Orders that adorn the Church with their varied charisms, that of adoration and reparation belongs preeminently to the children of Saint Benedict. Mother Mectilde sees in Saint Benedict’s wholly Eucharistic death — which, according to tradition, and in the learned opinion of Blessed Ildephonsus Cardinal Schuster, took place on Maundy Thursday — an unmistakable sign that his Order was destined, by divine election, to generate adorers and reparators of the Most Blessed Sacrament, and this until the end of time.
Do you not see, my daughters, that Saint Benedict dies standing up, so that we might understand that he exhales, with the effort of love, the sacred Institute that we profess? He conceives it in the Eucharist to be produced more than twelve hundred years later!
The Principle of a Wholly Eucharistic Life
Saint Benedict dies standing up. He dies before the altar. His last breath is an exhalation of fruitful love given in exchange for the Holy Viaticum for the final journey. He receives the Bread of Life from the Father and from the Church, and surrenders the breath of life into the hands of the Father that it might become, in future generations, the principle of a wholly Eucharistic life among his sons and daughters in the Church.
Oh, my sisters, how divine is our Institute? For how many centuries was it hidden and buried with Jesus in the Host? For how long was it in the sacred entrails of a God-made-sacrament? He was sanctifying . . . both the Institute and the souls that He wished to call to it. Oh, what admirable things do I see and what consolation they give me!
No, no, my sisters, this was not at all the plan of a human spirit, it was not a human creature that ordered, instituted, and chose this: it is Jesus in the Host who received it from the heart of Saint Benedict; and I can say, my sisters, that it was taken from no other place than the Tabernacle wherein this great saint deposited it at the last instant of his life.
A Quickening of Eucharistic Devotion
Mother Mectilde sees a quickening of Eucharistic devotion among the children of Saint Benedict as a treasure held in trust until, after the passage of many centuries, it emerged from its obscurity, like a Host brought forth from the tabernacle, to warm and vivify a Benedictine Order grown old and sterile, and cold, and dry.
Oh, what a marvel that God should have entrusted this work to the most unworthy, not of Saint Benedict’s children, but to one born out of time! To a soul who had neither the spirit nor the grace to do it! To a poor creature who had nothing remarkable except that she was of all creatures on earth the most criminal, and the one who had most profaned this august Mystery! God chose this sinner to serve as the most common and abject of instruments for so excellent a task, and to confound thereby the human spirit that loses itself when it sees accomplishments of this sort! This was done by a God. Nothing can be said except that one must prostrate oneself very low, and fear that, after having made use of this wicked instrument, He should cast it without recourse into hell.
A Benedictine Not of the Classic Stamp
Mother Mectilde is conscious that her status as a properly professed Benedictine was called into question by certain hair-splitting canonists of her own time. She was, after all a member of the Order of the Annonciade before making profession as a Benedictine at the monastery of Rambervillers on 2 July, 1639. Even as a Benedictine, her life was characterized more by uncertainty and wandering from place to place, than by the security and stability enjoyed by Benedictines of a more classic stamp.
Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. For which cause I please myself in my infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ. For when I am weak, then am I powerful. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Mother Mectilde admits to being, like Saint Paul the Apostle, a child born out of time. She is, nonetheless, a true daughter of Saint Benedict, entrusted with a holy mission that transcended, by far, her natural capacities. She confesses to being the most common and abject of instruments, but cannot deny that she was the object of a divine election. Admitting this, she prostrates herself before the Divine Majesty and, following the counsel of her father Saint Benedict in Chapter IV of the Holy Rule, fears hell. The Mectildian–Benedictine charism is, I would suggest, even more necessary today than in seventeenth century France when it rose up like a torch lifted high to illumine what Saint John Paul II called «the Eucharistic Face of Christ».