CHAPTER XX. Of Reverence at Prayer
25 Feb. 27 June. 27 Oct.
If, when we wish to make any request to men in power, we presume not to do so except with humility and reverence; how much more ought we with all lowliness and purity of devotion to offer our supplications to the Lord God of all things? And let us remember that not for our much speaking, but for our purity of heart and tears of compunction shall we be heard. Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure, except it be perchance prolonged by the inspiration of Divine Grace. But let prayer made in common always be short: and at the signal given by the Superior, let all rise together.
We come today to the last of the twelve chapters in which Saint Benedict treats of the ordering of the Divine Office, the liturgical directory or, as it was called in the Middle Ages, the Cursus Sancti Benedicti. Yesterday, Saint Benedict concluded Chapter XIX with a reference to the holy angels, who are never far from monks united in praising God, and to the profound reverence which at all times ought to characterise our worship. Saint Benedict’s liturgical sensibility is that of the majestic Roman preface of the Mass:
The Angels praise Thy Majesty, the Dominations worship, and the Powers stand in awe. The heavens and the heavenly hosts together with the blessed Seraphim in triumphant chorus unite to celebrate it. Together with them we entreat Thee that Thou mayest bid our voices also to be admitted, while we say with lowly praise: Holy, Holy, Holy.
What the angels do in heaven, ceaselessly singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy”, monks are charged to do on earth. This is the perpetual adoration of the monk: the “Holy, Holy, Holy” of the Opus Dei. And when the chanting of the Hours gives way to silence, that silence also is adoration, but it is a silence inhabited by the reverberations of the liturgy served on earth as it is in heaven. The first and principal expression of our dedication to perpetual adoration is the Opus Dei itself; the silence that fills the intervals between the Hours is not an interruption of the “Holy, Holy, Holy”; it is, rather, its inaudible continuance. The prayer of the monk, be it outward and vocalised, or inward and silent, is marked by a profound reverence in the presence of the Divine Majesty.
Outward reverence in the carrying out of the Opus Dei impresses an inward reverence on the soul. There are some who, under the sway of the Protestant suspicion of the whole economy of the sacraments, would argue that what is inward must come before anything outward. This prejudice, of course, flies in the face of the Incarnation, the mystery of God assuming human flesh and pitching His tent among us.
Our message concerns that Word, who is life; what he was from the first, what we have heard about him, what our own eyes have seen of him; what it was that met our gaze, and the touch of our hands. (1 John 1:1)
Grace seeps into what is inward through what is outward. For this reason Tertullian says Caro salutis est cardo, that is, “the flesh is the hinge of salvation”. Scholastic philosophy frames it this way: Nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu, “Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses”. Outwardly, then, the monk will take great care to do all things with attention and dignity: standing, sitting, walking, bowing, signs of the cross, prostrations, raising one’s eyes heavenward, the way one holds one’s hands, the way one holds one’s book and turns its pages. In the carrying out of the Opus Dei there must be nothing rushed, nothing small or cramped, nothing routine and formalistic. The sign of the cross, for example, must be generous, majestic, and grand; no furtive flapping of the hands about one’s face and shoulders. The profound bow from the waist, holding the torso and head straight, is part of the sacred choreography of the Opus Dei; it signifies a man’s complete submission to the adorable mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. It is more than a mere lowering of chin to chest. Every bodily attitude and every gesture is significant; the smallest details are sacramental. For this very reason, I put Romano Guardini’s classic, Sacred Signs, on the reading list for postulants. Another book, Maurice Zundel’s The Splendour of the Liturgy, complete’s Guardini’s little book.
It is recounted that when Saint Basil served the Divine Liturgy in the presence of the Arian emperor Valens in 372, the recollection and majesty of the saint at the altar, left the emperor as if stricken by terror. Saint Gregory Nazianzen recounts:
He [Valens] entered the Church attended by the whole of his train; it was the festival of the Epiphany, and the Church was crowded, and, by taking his place among the people, he made a profession of unity. The occurrence is not to be lightly passed over. Upon his entrance he was struck by the thundering roll of the Psalms, by the sea of heads of the congregation, and by the angelic rather than human order which pervaded the sanctuary and its precincts: while Basil presided over his people, standing erect, as the Scripture says of Samuel, with body and eyes and mind undisturbed, as if nothing new had happened, but fixed upon God and the sanctuary, as if, so to say, he had been a statue, while his ministers stood around him in fear and reverence. At this sight, and it was indeed a sight unparalleled, overcome by human weakness, his eyes were affected with dimness and giddiness, his mind with dread. (Oration 43)
The same observation was made of Blessed Ildephonsus Schuster. Whenever Blessed Schuster celebrated Holy Mass, his entire being was absorbed in the Divine Mysteries. There are many eyewitness accounts of the impact of his priestly devotion on the faithful. Benedictine to the core, Blessed Schuster was a humble master of the prayer of the Church, manifesting in his body and in all of daily life the spirit drawn from the celebration of the sacred liturgy. Cardinal Giacomo Biffi says: “The simple folk ran to contemplate this slight and frail man who, in his liturgical vestments, became a giant”. Seeing him at the altar people recognized a man in communication with the invisible power of God. For us who would normally spend more or less four hours a day in liturgical prayer, the example of the saints is a mighty stimulus to the profound reverence that ought to be characteristic of the sons of Saint Benedict.
Saint Benedict continues in Chapter XX to describe the prayer of the monk. He does so in a series of descriptive phrases. The son of Saint Benedict prays “with all lowliness and purity of devotion”; the monk’s prayer is that of the publican in the temple, already presented as a model of the twelfth degree of humility in Chapter VII.
And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven; but struck his breast, saying: O God, be merciful to me a sinner. (Luke 18:13).
Purity of devotion is what God sees in a man who seeks Him alone, who is content with Him alone. The psalmist prayed with purity of devotion when he said:
What have I in heaven? and besides thee what do I desire upon earth? For thee my flesh and my heart hath fainted away: thou art the God of my heart, and the God that is my portion for ever. (Psalm 72:25–26)
Purity of devotion is what so pleased Jesus in Mary of Bethany, who “took her place at the Lord’s feet, and listened to his words” (Luke 10:39).
But only one thing is necessary; and Mary has chosen for herself the best part of all, that which shall never be taken away from her. (Luke 10:42)
The Spirit also helpeth our infirmity. For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings. And he that searcheth the hearts, knoweth what the Spirit desireth; because he asketh for the saints according to God. (Romans 8:26–27)
The Opus Dei is the complete and perfect articulation, in the Church, of the unspeakable groanings of the Holy Ghost. For this reason, the prayer of a monk, apart from the Opus Dei, has need of few words. The weekly psalter, and the accompanying antiphons, responsories, hymns, and collects provide a monk, normally, with words to express his every prayer. In the secret prayer that continues the Opus Dei throughout the intervals of the day, and even in the night, the monk will repeat what he has already said in choir, or be content with the blessed monotony of the rosary, and a few invocations, well chosen and repeated over and over again.
A monk prays in purity of heart when he goes before God with empty hands, saying with the psalmist: “Thou art my God, for thou hast no need of my goods” (Psalm 15:2). Such a man knows that he has nothing to give; he holds himself in readiness to receive whatever it pleases God to give him. If he needs to ask for anything, he does do with childlike confidence and, even if he repeats his petition doggedly, as little children are wont to do, he is, in the end, content to cast it into the Heart of Christ.
The son of Saint Benedict prays with tears of compunction. Such tears are the effect of having been pierced by the Word of God. For a monk, this piercing of the heart normally happens in the context of the Opus Dei. A phrase or a word suddenly appears underscored by the Dextrae Dei Digitus—the Holy Ghost, the Finger of God’s Right Hand—and leaps from the page of the antiphonal or the psalter to lodge itself in the heart. Sometimes tears follow. If tears are less frequent today it is because so many in Western (and especially in Northern European) culture have forgotten how to weep. Those who have difficulty weeping do well to repeat for themselves the Collect of the Roman Missal for the gift of tears:
Almighty and most gentle God, who when Thy people thirsted drew living water out of a rock, draw tears of compunction from our stony hearts, giving us grace to lament our sins and fitting us to receive Thy merciful forgiveness. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God forever and ever.
It would seem that in Saint Benedict’s time, the Egyptian practice of interspersing the psalms with prostrations and intense silent prayer or, at least, of praying silently before the Collect and, perhaps again at the end of the Hours, had not entirely fallen into disuse. Saint Benedict prefers that such a prayer be short and pure, “except it be perchance prolonged by the inspiration of Divine Grace”. Saint Benedict, for all his love of good order and liturgical discipline, is not so hidebound as to disallow movements of the Holy Ghost. Of all such things however, the abbot remains the judge, and when he gives the signal, all are to rise together. No individual monk is to prefer his private taste for silent corporate prayer to the abbot’s right to conclude it in a timely manner.