Monday of the Twenty-Third Week of the Year I
Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Good Counsel
Psalm 61:5-6, (R. 7a)
Warning and Teaching
After listening to the teachings of the Holy Father over the past three days, it occurred to me that what Saint Paul says concerning himself in today’s First Reading applies also, by the grace of God, to Pope Benedict XVI:
“We proclaim Christ in you, the hope of glory,
warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom,
that we may present every man mature in Christ.
For this I toil,
striving with all the energy
which he mightily inspires within me” (Col 1:28-29).
To Present Every Man Mature in Christ
For the past three days the Holy Father has given himself tirelessly to an intense proclamation of Christ, the Hope of Glory. He called upon all Catholics, and not just those of Austria, to fix their gaze upon the Face of Christ and upon His open Heart. He warned every man. He taught every man in all wisdom. His teaching addressed all the members of the Church: bishops, priests, deacons, religious, monks, nuns, and lay faithful. His desire was none other than that of the Apostle: to present every man mature in Christ.
The Thoughts of God’s Spirit
Like those who watched Jesus teaching in the synagogue, there were those who watched the Holy Father “so that they might find an accusation against him” (Lk 6:7). The secular media, largely hostile to all things Catholic, cannot be trusted to provide objective coverage of the Holy Father. In First Corinthians Saint Paul says: “Mere man with his natural gifts cannot take in the thoughts of God’s Spirit; they seem mere folly to him, and he cannot grasp them, because they demand a scrutiny which is spiritual. Whereas the man who has spiritual gifts can scrutinize everything, without being subject himself, to any other man’s scrutiny” (1 Cor:15-16).
Yesterday evening, the Holy Father closed his apostolic journey with a visit to the Cistercian Abbey of Heiligenkreuz. There he pronounced a discourse that was nothing less than his Charter for Monastic Life in the Third Millennium. Pope Benedict XVI addresses point by point the substance of Benedictine life for this generation and for all generations to come. It is a text that one needs to read on bended knee with profound humility and docility.
Here are just a few highlights of his discourse:
I wished to come to this place so rich in history in order to draw attention to the fundamental directive of Saint Benedict…. Quite simply, Benedict insisted that “nothing be put before the Divine Office.”
For this reason, in a monastery of Benedictine spirit, the praise of God, which the monks sing as a solemn choral prayer, always has priority. Monks are certainly not the only people who pray; others also pray: children, the young and the old, men and women, the married and the single – all Christians pray. Or at least, they should!
In the life of monks, however, prayer takes on a particular importance: it is the heart of their calling. Their vocation is to be men of prayer. In the patristic period the monastic life was likened to the life of the angels. It was considered the essential mark of the angels that they are adorers. Their very life is adoration. This should hold true also for monks. Monks pray first and foremost not for any specific intention, but simply because God is worthy of being praised.
Our light, our truth, our goal, our fulfilment, our life – all this is not a religious doctrine but a person: Jesus Christ. Over and above any ability of our own to seek and to desire God, we ourselves have already been sought and desired, and indeed, found and redeemed by him! The roving gaze of people of every time and nation, of all the philosophies, religions and cultures, encounters the wide open eyes of the crucified and risen Son of God; his open heart is the fullness of love.
The core of monasticism is adoration – living like the angels. But since monks are people of flesh and blood on this earth, Saint Benedict and Saint Bernard added to the central command: “pray,” a second command: “work.” In the mind of Saint Benedict, part of monastic life, along with prayer, is work: the cultivation of the land in accordance with the Creator’s will. Thus in every age monks, setting out from their gaze upon God, have made the earth live-giving and lovely.
Your primary service to this world must therefore be your prayer and the celebration of the Divine Office. The interior disposition of each priest, and of each consecrated person, must be that of “putting nothing before the Divine Office.” The beauty of this inner attitude will find expression in the beauty of the liturgy, so that wherever we join in singing, praising, exalting and worshipping God, a little bit of heaven will become present on earth. Truly it would not be presumptuous to say that, in a liturgy completely centred on God, we can see, in its rituals and chant, an image of eternity.
In all our efforts on behalf of the liturgy, the determining factor must always be our looking to God. We stand before God – he speaks to us and we speak to him. Whenever in our thinking we are only concerned about making the liturgy attractive, interesting and beautiful, the battle is already lost. Either it is Opus Dei, with God as its specific subject, or it is not. In the light of this, I ask you to celebrate the sacred liturgy with your gaze fixed on God within the communion of saints, the living Church of every time and place, so that it will truly be an expression of the sublime beauty of the God who has called men and women to be his friends.
The soul of prayer, ultimately, is the Holy Spirit. Whenever we pray, it is he who “helps us in our weakness, interceding for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26).
As a spiritual oasis, a monastery reminds today’s world of the most important, and indeed, the only decisive thing: that there is an ultimate reason why life is worth living: God and his unfathomable love.
But just as a liturgy which no longer looks to God is already in its death throes, so too a theology which no longer draws its life-breath from faith ceases to be theology; it ends up as a array of more or less loosely connected disciplines. But where theology is practised “on bended knee,” as Hans Urs von Balthasar urged, it will prove fruitful for the Church.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard, who entered the monastery along with thirty of his companions, is a kind of patron saint of vocations. Perhaps it was because of his particular devotion to Our Lady that he exercised such a compelling and infectious influence on his many young contemporaries called by God. Where Mary is, there is the archetype of total self-giving and Christian discipleship. Where Mary is, there is the pentecostal breath of the Holy Spirit; there is new beginning and authentic renewal.
In the words of Saint Bernard, I invite everyone to become a trusting child before Mary, even as the Son of God did: “Look to the star of the sea, call upon Mary … in danger, in distress, in doubt, think of Mary, call upon Mary. May her name never be far from your lips, or far from your heart … If you follow her, you will not stray; if you pray to her, you will not despair; if you turn your thoughts to her, you will not err. If she holds you, you will not fall; if she protects you, you need not fear; if she is your guide, you will not tire; if she is gracious to you, you will surely reach your destination.”
When I read the Holy Father’s discourse last evening I was immediately moved to share it. Shortly after I e-mailed it to some priests and others, I received a reply from a friend of mine, a monk belonging to a great Benedictine abbey in the Midwest. This is what he wrote: “Many, many thanks, Father. Indeed, a comfort. For some situations, alas, too late.” Perhaps. But where the power of God and the mercy of God are operative, is it ever too late? It is only too late where hearts have grown hard and lukewarmness has set in, causing souls to resist anything that would stir them from their deadly slumber.
When Jesus called the man with the withered hand to stand before him in the synagogue, the man obeyed. “‘Arise, and stand forth in the midst.’ And rising, he stood forth” says Saint Luke (6:8). “And looking round about on them all, he said to the man: ‘Stretch forth thy hand.’ And he stretched it forth: and his hand was restored” (Lk 6:10).
I would want to say to my discouraged Benedictine friend that even a withered monasticism can be restored to vigour, to freshness, and to strength. It is a question of prompt obedience to the word of the Lord. It is a question, too, of taking to heart the Charter of Monastic Life given us yesterday by Pope Benedict XVI. “I call heaven and earth to witness this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Choose therefore life, that both thou and thy seed may live” (Dt 30:19).