Call and Response
Not a week goes by when I do not meet or correspond with young men who are considering monastic life at Silverstream Priory. Today I find myself thinking of all of them, because the Annunciation is the great feast of vocation. Every vocation is a mystery of call and response. With the call comes the grace to respond. The greeting of the Angel Gabriel communicates what it signifies: Χαῖρε κεχαριτωμένη! One could exhaust oneself in attempting to express all that the angelic salutation contains: Grace upon thee whom God hath filled full of grace! Joy upon thee who art become the joy of Him who has filled thee with joy! Loveliness upon thee who art lovely in the eyes of Him who has made thee so lovely!
And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’ s name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.
The Monk’s Starting Point
To open one’s ear to the greeting of an Angel, to one who comes bearing the Word of God, is to open oneself to a life–changing grace. In Psalm 44 the royal prophet addresses the Daughter of Sion, the Virgin of Nazareth: ” Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thy ear: and forget thy people and thy father’ s house” (Psalm 44:11). Our Lady of the Annunciation is the Virgo audiens (the listening Virgin) whose portrait, I have always thought, shines through the text of the Prologue of the Holy Rule: “Hearken, O my son, to the precepts of thy Master, and incline the ear of thine heart” (Prologue 1). Every monastic vocation begins with listening to the Word of God. A certain silence and separation from the world are required of a man even before he crosses the threshold of the cloister. Saint John Paul II calls the Word of God the monk’s starting point.
The starting point for the monk is the Word of God, a Word who calls, who invites, who personally summons, as happened to the Apostles. When a person is touched by the Word obedience is born, that is, the listening which changes life. Every day the monk is nourished by the bread of the Word. Deprived of it, he is as though dead and has nothing left to communicate to his brothers and sisters because the Word is Christ, to whom the monk is called to be conformed. (Orientale Lumen, art. 10)
Our Lady listened, and her life was forever changed. She listened, and the life of her people was forever changed. She listened, and all creation was forever changed. The Virgin listened and, in the word addressed to her, she was offered all that would be necessary to respond to that word. In every vocation and, in particular, in every monastic vocation, there is an element of risk. A monastic vocation engages a man not only in a life marked by conversion of manners and obedience, but also in a life defined by stability and circumscribed by a real enclosure. One who enters a monastery risks living until death in one specific place and in the company of men who have already committed themselves to that one specific place. The risk is daunting, but the rewards of monastic life are well worth the risk.
There is, over the portal of the abbey of Boquen in Brittany, a charming old statue of the Virgin Mary called Notre–Dame–du–Risque, Our Lady of the Risk. This title of the Mother of God has always fascinated me. The man who desires to risk his life listening to the Word of God must do so close to the Virgin Mary. One who lives with Mary will quickly come to understand the immense import of prophecy entrusted to Isaias:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts. And as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return no more thither, but soak the earth, and water it, and make it to spring, and give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be, which shall go forth from my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall do whatsoever I please, and shall prosper in the things for which I sent it. (Isaias 55:8–11)
In praying for the men who are considering monastic life at Silverstream Priory, I can only ask that they hearken to the Word of God and, with Our Lady of the Risk, incline the ear of their hearts to the call that is addressed to them. By the prayers of the Virgin Mary, the Word of God shall not return to Him void; it shall prosper in the things for which God sent it forth.