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Let him consider that he is always beheld from heaven by God, and that his actions are everywhere seen by the eye of the Divine Majesty, and are every hour reported to Him by His angels. This the prophet telleth us, when he sheweth how God is ever present in our thoughts, saying: “God searcheth the heart and the reins.” And again “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of men.” And he also saith: “Thou hast understood my thoughts afar off”; and “The thought of man shall confess to Thee.” In order, therefore, that he may be on his guard against evil thoughts, let the humble brother say ever in his heart: “Then shall I be unspotted before Him, if I shall have kept me from mine iniquity.”
“Let him consider that he is always beheld from heaven by God, and that his actions are everywhere seen by the eye of the Divine Majesty, and are every hour reported to Him by His angels”. The monk, even when he retires to his cell and closes the door, is not alone. The cell, especially in our form of Benedictine life, is where the monk goes not only to sleep, to read, to study, and even, exceptionally, given our lack of space, to work. The cell is a place of prayer. Live in your cell as in a sanctuary. I insist on this and ask you to remain faithful to the little practices that foster recollection in the cell. Take holy water upon entering and leaving the cell. Greet the Blessed Virgin Mary often in the course of the day by honouring her image in the cell. Do nothing, say nothing, keep nothing in your cell that would risk troubling the peace of the place. Make an effort to keep your cell clean and in good order; if your cell is pleasant and attractive — conditions that I have tried to provide for each one of you — you will be happy to spend time there.
Learn to love the cell, first of all, as a place of prayer. Your prayer in the cell is not the same as your prayer in choir, even if some elements of liturgical prayer may be of great value in solitary prayer as well. In the cell, one is free to kneel or to fall prostrate; to pray lying down or standing up; to murmur quietly the invocations that rise in one’s heart. If you work or study in your cell, never let a quarter of an hour pass without pausing, however briefly, to acknowledge “the eye of the Divine Majesty” and to lift your heart and mind in prayer. I think that Our Lady was among the first disciples of Jesus to put into practice what He taught concerning solitary prayer, even if this was something to which she was long accustomed:
But when thou art praying, go into thy inner room and shut the door upon thyself, and so pray to thy Father in secret; and then thy Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward thee. (Matthew 6:6).
It is altogether possible that when Our Lord uttered these words, he had the living example of His Mother in mind. Would not Jesus, during the years of His hidden life, have observed His Mother praying in secret? The interior life of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a great mystery. I think it was utterly simple: an abiding beneath the gaze of God in humility and in love. When the Angel Gabriel came to Mary at Nazareth, he greeted her with the words, Dominus tecum, “The Lord is with thee”. The Angel found Mary in the presence of God or, if you will, he recognised in Mary the fulfilment of the tabernacle that Moses built:
A cloud covered the tabernacle, and it was filled with the brightness of the Lord’s presence. (Exodus 40:32).
There is a tradition that attributes to Mary, even in the years before the Annunciation, a predilection for silence and solitude. I would be happy if one day, someone of our community could study the depiction of solitude, prayer, and reading in Western iconography of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It could well begin with Blessed Fra Angelico’s many paintings of the Annunciation. Our Lady is often depicted seated in an alcove, or in a kind of cell or little oratory, with the book of the Scriptures open before her. In some paintings Our Lady appears to be reading her Book of Hours! An anachronism? No, it is rather the representation of a mystery: Mary, the Virgo Orans (the praying Virgin) is, at every moment, the perfect image of the Ecclesia Orans (the praying Church).
There is an Annunciation from the early Renaissance by Boccaccio Boccaccino (c. 1467 – c. 1525) that depicts the Angel surprising Our Lady while she is at prayer; her book lies open on her prie–dieu, suggesting that she only just turned from it. The Word written on the page is about to be inscribed, by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the Virgin’s flesh. In the background there is a rounded apse, like that of a small church, and within the apse an altar covered with a fair linen; this points to the Eucharistic Body of Christ, and to His sacrifice. Any one of these paintings of the Annunciation could be titled “Our Lady of Solitude”, or “Our Lady of the Presence of God”, “Our Lady in Prayer”. Taken together, these paintings constitute a precious initiation into the holy solitude, the Marian solitude, that even for cenobites remains indispensable.
The man who flees solitude, or tries to fill his solitude with many things, is afraid of the silence and emptiness that are the ground of Benedictine humility. There is, to be sure, a humility that grows through our life together; every day the cenobitic life affords a monk countless opportunities to put others before himself; to work at tasks that are common, and lowly, and obscure; and to admire in his brethren virtues that are utterly lacking in himself. Benedictine humility grows, when, according to Saint Benedict in Chapter LXXII, we most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of mind; vie with one another in obedience; and follow not what one thinks good for himself, but rather what seems good for another.
Alongside of the humility that grows in our life together, Saint Benedict proposes the humility that grows in the man who abides in hiddenness beneath “the eye of the Divine Majesty”. Saint Gregory recounts that after Saint Benedict’s rejection and attempted poisoning by the monks of Vicovaro, he “returned back to the wilderness which so much he loved, and dwelt alone with himself, in the sight of his Creator, who beholdeth the hearts of all men” (Second Book of the Dialogues, Chapter III). Humility is not far from the monk knows how to be content in solitude; who resolutely rejects the temptation to escape into the avenues of diversion that, even, in his cell, can be close at hand; and who prays, as Saint Benedict himself suggests: Et ero immaculatus cum eo; et observabo me ab iniquitate mea, “And I shall be immaculate with him: and shall keep myself from my iniquity” (Psalm 17:24).
When all is said and done, a monk’s shortest and safest way to humility may be the Immaculata herself, the Virgin of Nazareth who, as we sing in an antiphon, “was pleasing to God in her littleness”. True devotion to the Mother of God is a continuous exorcism of pride. Wheresoever Mary is welcomed, she crushes the head of the ancient serpent, and teaches souls to repeat after her:
He hath shewed might in his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble. (Luke 1:51–52)