A Grace Recalled

A Grace Recalled:
Reflections on my Vestition and the Liturgical Providence of God
Brother Thomas Aquinas M. Borders

I received the habit of our Holy Father Saint Benedict and became a novice on the Feast of Saint Blaise, Saturday February 3rd, 2018.  What I experienced then was an immense grace to which I probably can’t do justice in writing (I’m not nearly as eloquent as my new patron), but I will do my best.

The Great ‘Moveable Feast’
The original day of my clothing was going to be either February 2nd or February 11th.  But then, when the date was set, it was suddenly moved up to January 30th.  And then, due to the bishop coming to the sod turning it was moved up even more to January 25th.  Then, two days before that, it was moved all the way back to February 11th. Then we realised the 11th was a Sunday, so we moved it to the 10th. Father Prior was going to give a retreat that week, so it was moved once again up a week to February 3rd. By the end of this time we joked that my vestition date should be added to the calendar of movable feasts.

The Retreat Before
I entered retreat on Wednesday night.  When monks go on ‘retreat’, they don’t necessarily go anywhere; we just have to be silent and we don’t get to come to recreation, which means more time in Adoration. I was hoping that Father Prior would give me a Mass homily or two going into or during that time, but I was mainly grateful just to have much quiet time with the Blessed Sacrament.  Fr Prior, however, often encourages us to listen to the liturgical Providence of God, so I knew what I had to do was listen to the texts of Sacred Scripture in the chant and readings.

The Mass of that Wednesday morning just so happened to be a votive Mass of Saint Joseph which we celebrate any Wednesday we don’t have another feast.  In assisting at this Mass, I was reminded of the graces of Saint Joseph for monks.  Saint Joseph, while being the first Christian father, also was the first monk.  After Mary, Saint Joseph exemplifies best the three vows of a Benedictine monk: obedience, stability and the conversatio morum.  In this Mass, I asked Saint Joseph to essentially be my retreat master for the next few days and to open up my heart to the graces I was about to receive.

The next day, Thursday, was the feast of Saint Brigid, the co-patroness of Ireland, where I am now living.  The Gospel reading was of the ten virgins in waiting for the wedding party: “Behold the bridegroom cometh. go out to meet him.”  This verse was my meditation all throughout the day when we had Exposition.  It occurred to me how succinctly this summarises my new vocation.  The Bridegroom cometh in the Blessed Sacrament: I go out to meet Him day after day.

Friday was the feast of the Presentation of our Lord. We had a wonderful Candlemas procession just before the conventual Mass. (the only problem was that it was at 11 AM so it wasn’t nearly as cool to march around with candles in the middle of the day as at night.) My retreat master, St. Joseph, was definitely with me this day.  The whole time I tried to image the event from Saint Joseph’s point of view; Joseph who is always unnoticed at the peripheries of each scene. What must it have been like to bring his Son to the temple to have Simeon hold him up and say, ‘Behold my eyes have seen the Salvation.’  Saint Joseph must have been in awe of adoration at his own adopted son lifted up.  He did not remain alive on earth long enough to see our Lord lifted up on the Cross, but he saw a sort of preview in witnessing Simeon’s prophecy.  He was brought forward to Calvary in a way analogous to how we are brought back whenever we adore our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.  Behold, the Bridegroom cometh. Our eyes have seen Him: the Light revealed to the nations.

Saturday, the day of my vestition, was the feast of Saint Blaise. (Actually, in the monastery we celebrated the feast of Saint Ansgar with only a commemoration of Blaise, but providentially, I didn’t know that until after Lectio.)  In Saint Blaise’s Mass, the Gospel was a reminder that the life of the monk is a martyrdom: “If any man will come after me, let him pick up his cross and follow me… he that shall lose his life for My sake shall find it.”  In seeming counter-point to this, we hear in the Epistle of the Same Mass: “The sufferings of Christ overflow into our lives, but there is great comfort too, which Christ brings to us.”  This is the life of a monk: to die to owns own will and to receive the merit of Jesus Christ Himself.  This, leading to the Communion chant: “Thou hast set on his head a crown of precious stones.” Quite literally what happens when I receive Our Lord in the Eucharist.

Then there was also the daily chapter talks on Friday and Saturday during this time.  During the time, we were reading chapter 7 of the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict, “Of Humility”.  On both those days, I felt the Chapter talks was so good that I was ready to kneel down and ask to be clothed in the habit right there.

Receiving the Habit
On Saturday, then, just before Holy Mass, the ceremony finally happened.  The community and guests gathered in the Chapter room, and then I was brought in.  I prostrated myself before the Prior and asked “for the mercy of God, and a place in this school of the Lord’s service”.  Then there was a reading from Sirach 2 which I have always loved, and now took on a new significance in beginning the battle within the cloister.  And then, Father Prior gave a wonderful exhortation homily. I remember being nearly in tears as Father delivered the homily.

Fr Prior talked about the votive Mass of St Benedict that we had earlier that week (which we do every Tuesday when we don’t have another feast that day). The significance was not lost on me.  Fr Prior may or may not remember that the very first Mass of my Inquiry period back in June 2017 was also the votive Mass of St Benedict.  I felt that as I was preparing to receive the Habit earlier in the week, that the circle was enclosing my journey to this day.  The Gospel words from Matthew did indeed have a new significance.  Just as they did on that day back in June, as I continue to take the next step and once again another.  What is that hundredfold I will receive?  It is Christ Himself.

Fr Prior then talked about the Eucharistic nature of my vocation. I thought of my brothers also listening to the homily. Did the brothers realise that I did not come here to be a Benedictine?  What I mean is, I had no prior experience of Benedictine Spirituality, nor was i especially interested in it.  All I knew when I arrived here the first time, was that I wanted to be a monk monk of some sort and that i thought the Lord was calling me to devote myself to His Eucharistic Presence in Adoration.  Back in 2015, to make a long story short,  I began to have in my heart some desire to give myself to God and had realised I had never really taken the question of vocation seriously. ‘I want to be a monk!’, I wrote in my journal. ‘Like, some monastic order devoted to praying in front of the blessed sacrament all day? I could do that!’ I eventually figured, if I have to be a Benedictine, then “okay”.  What I discovered finally was that everything about Benedictine life is adoration! The life of a monk is to adore the Lord in every single thing he does, whether it is staying with Him in the tabernacle, or chanting the office, or obediently cleaning the toilets.

At the end of his homily, Fr Prior ended with these words: “Finally, dear Son, give yourself to the Blessed Virgin Mary…” I am reminded of what St Louis de Montfort (actually he may have been quoting Augustine) says about Mary being the mould of Jesus.  When we give ourselves to Mary, we are formed by the same Immaculate heart which formed her Son. We don’t have to be beat into shape like on an anvil or try to cut ourselves into the shape of Jesus.  The correct Shape of Christ already exists in Mary.  We simply have to be melted in the fire of her Love and through humble obedience allow ourselves to be poured into her mould.  In this way we become what a monk, indeed any Christian, ought to be: the image of Christ Jesus, the Spotless Host.

After the moving exhortation, the ceremony continued with the washing of the feet. Every person in the community, starting with Fr Prior, knelt down, and washed my feet and kissed them.  It was very moving, especially with the chant being sung during it: the dialog between Jesus and Peter when He washed his feet. Then, finally, came the actual clothing and I was stripped of my outer layers (just the shirt and belt, I didn’t have to be naked in front of everyone, don’t worry) and given the tunic and scapular and cincture.

Then finally came time for the actual vesting.  Kneeling in front of Fr, I was dressed in the tunic, scapular, and cincture.  Then, the litany of Kyries started.  These were the most profound utterance of ‘Kyrie eleison’ of my life so far.  Suddenly this just got very real.  What did I just get myself into! Did I really just take the habit?  what am I thinking? I can’t do this!  It was a real moment of clarity that I really need the mercy of God right now.  Every moment from now on, I must trust in the Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  But this is what monastic life is, summed up in the words I had just spoken a few minutes earlier: “Not on my own strength, but trusting in the Mercy of God and the Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Receiving the Name

At the end of the ceremony was the great reveal.  What would my name be? We don’t get to pick; Father just assigns it.  He said: ‘I give you as a special patron in the monastic life…the Angelic Doctor’. St Thomas! My first reaction was: What?? At that point I was certain that Fr. Prior had another name in mind.  And then I broke into a big smile. Wow! St Thomas was one of the saints I would have picked even before coming here.  I had once ‘daydreamed’ about taking the name of Thomas Aquinas, since I knew he was a Benedictine oblate even though the Dominicans have claim over him as their brother. Bt then I thought “Nah, that would never happen.” And then third: “please, please make it ‘Brother Thomas’ and not ‘Brother Aquinas’.”  I knew there was no way I would be named just ‘THomas’; that would be too normal. But ‘Aquinas’ by itself is kind of an awkward name.  And then he gave me the name: “Brother Thomas Aquinas Maria”. Beautiful!

Everyone knows and loves St Thomas mainly for his theological and philosophical work, and so do I.  But what is really inspiring about him is his Eucharistic devotion.  St Thomas, who not only wrote the Summa Theologica, also wrote the office of the feast of Corpus Christ including all those wonderful Eucharistic Hymns like Pange Lingua, Panis Angelicus, and Adoro Te.  St Thomas would even go to pray by putting his head on the tabernacle, and near the end of his life, Our Lord spoke to him from a crucifix saying: “You have written well of me, Thomas, What do you desire?” To which, Thomas replied, “Non nisi te, Domine.”

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