Monastic: September 2009 Archives

Quaerite faciem eius semper

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Seek His Face Evermore

My plan was to write a little commentary on the splendid liturgical texts of this Ember Friday, but, as so often happens, the day was very full and I hadn't a minute to sit at my desk. Just a wee word then, at this late hour, about today's Introit, Laetetur cor.

Let the heart of them rejoice that seek the Lord:
seek ye the Lord and be strengthened:
seek His Face evermore.
V. Give glory to the Lord, and call upon His Name:
declare His deeds among the Gentiles. (Ps 104: 3, 4, 1)

The Joy That Shines on the Face of Christ

One who, as Saint Benedict says, "seeks God truly," will know the joy that never grows old, the joy that never loses its savour, the joy that neither induces ennui nor dulls the spirit. One who seeks God truly -- even, no, especially, if that search begins by weeping over His feet and kissing them -- will be directed by the Holy Spirit to discover the joy that shines upon the Face of Christ. This is the joy of which He said on the before He suffered: "These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be filled." (Jn 15:11).

From Virtue to Virtue

One who "seeks God truly" will grow stronger as the search intensifies. The search for God is not wearisome. It doesn't deplete the energies of the soul; it refreshes them and increases them. As the psalmist says, "they shall go from virtue to virtue" (Ps 83:8).

The last phrase of the Introit is unforgettable, especially when one sings it in its Second Mode chant melody, or hears it sung: quaerite faciem eius semper. This is the great imperative of the monastic journey.

The Monastic Vocation

Commenting on today's liturgy, Blessed Ildefonso Schuster writes:

Saint Benedict, in his Regula Monachorum, makes this searching after God the watchword of his foundation, the one condition by which is to be judged the vocation of aspirants to the religious life. He regards neither the birth nor the age, nor the acquirements of the novice; his is concerned only in discerning his spirit, as to whether he is, in reality, seeking after God, and if in so doing he is following the same road of humility and obedience as was marked out by Christ. There is no other true road but this one.

Postulants on the Horizon

In a fortnight I will be welcoming the first two postulants to the spiritual chantier (construction site) of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle. They will not find anything in the way of majestic buildings with long silent cloisters. They will not find a well-practiced choir of seasoned monks. They will find poverty, littleness, weakness and, undoubtedly, struggles. But if they "seek God truly," they will find joy. That, I can guarantee.


Ember Wednesday in September

There are so many things that I would want to write about! Yesterday, for example, was the first of the September Ember Days: the Proper of the Mass extraordinarily rich with its images of harvest time, great rivers of sweet wine. The note was one of joy: Gaudium etenim Domini est fortitudo nostra, "For the joy of the Lord is our strength." (II Esdr 8:10)

For all of that, the Gospel was sobering: "This kind (of demon) can go out by nothing, but by prayer and fasting." (Mk 9:28) And then, all day long I held the remarkable Collect in mind, repeating it at the Hours:

The Marquess of Bute translates it:

We pray Thee, O Lord,
that the healing power of Thy mercy may give strength to our weakness,
that those things which do pass away by their own frailty,
may be renewed again by Thy clemency.

Monsignor Knox gives:

By Thy healing mercies, we pray thee, Lord,
enable our frail nature to hold its ground.
Let thy pity renew that which of itself is ever wasting away.

The Roman Catholic Daily Missal has:

We beseech Thee, O Lord,
that our weakness may be upheld by Thy healing mercy,
so that what of itself is falling into ruin
may be restored by Thy clemency.

Pope Benedict XVI on Saint Anselm

Also yesterday, our Holy Father presented yet another grand monastic figure: Saint Anselm of Aosta, Bec, and Canterbury. Here is a translation of the discourse of His Holiness:

Dear brothers and sisters,

Prayer, Study, and Government

In Rome, on the Aventine Hill, is found the Benedictine abbey of St. Anselm. As the seat of an Institute of Higher Studies and of the abbot primate of the Confederated Benedictines, it is a place that unites prayer, study and government, precisely the three activities that characterized the life of the saint to which it is dedicated: Anselm of Aosta, the 900th anniversary of whose death we celebrate this year.

Monk, Educator, Theologian

The many initiatives, promoted especially by the Diocese of Aosta for this happy anniversary, have reflected the interest that this Medieval thinker continues to awaken. He is also known as Anselm of Bec and Anselm of Canterbury because of the cities with which he was connected. Who is this personage to which three localities, distant from one another and situated in three different nations -- Italy, France and England -- feel particularly bound? Monk of intense spiritual life, excellent educator of youth, theologian with an extraordinary speculative capacity, wise man of government and intransigent defender of the "libertas Ecclesiae," of the liberty of the Church, Anselm is one of the eminent personalities of the Medieval Age, who was able to harmonize all these qualities thanks to a profound mystical experience that always guided his thought and action.

A Very White Bread

St. Anselm was born in 1033 (or the beginning of 1034) in Aosta, the firstborn of a noble family. His father was a crude man, dedicated to the pleasures of life and a spendthrift of his goods; his mother, on the other hand, was a woman of superior customs and profound religiosity (cf. Eadmero, Vita s. Anselmi, PL 159, col 49). It was his mother who took care of the first human and religious formation of her son, whom she later entrusted to the Benedictines of a priory of Aosta. Anselm, who from his childhood -- as his biographer recounts -- imagined the dwelling of the good God to be among the high and snow clad summits of the Alps, dreamed one night that he was invited to this splendid palace by God himself, who entertained him affably for a good while and at the end offered him to eat "a very white bread" (ibid., col 51).

Saint Symeon the New Theologian

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In this morning's General Audience, our Holy Father presented yet another shining monastic figure as a model of holiness for the whole Church. Those who study attentively Pope Benedict XVI's teachings will notice that he consistently refers to the monastic way as paradigmatic for all Christians, beginning with the clergy. There are not two "spiritualities" -- one monastic and the other secular -- there is but one way to holiness. It is the royal way of the Cross, directed to the knowledge of the glory of God that shines upon the Face of Christ, charted by the Word of God as interpreted by the Fathers, and marked by the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the protecting mantle of the Holy Mother of God.

Dear brothers and sisters,

On the Way to Union With God

Today we pause to reflect on the figure of the Eastern monk Symeon the New Theologian, whose writings exercised a noteworthy influence on the theology and spirituality of the East, in particular, regarding the experience of mystical union with God.

Symeon the New Theologian was born in 949 in Galatia, in Paphlagonia (Asia Minor), of a noble provincial family. While still young, he went to Constantinople to undertake studies and enter the emperor's service. However, he felt little attracted to the civil career before him and, under the influence of the interior illuminations he was experiencing, he looked for a person who would direct him through his moment of doubts and perplexities, and who would help him progress on the way to union with God.

Examination of Conscience

He found this spiritual guide in Symeon the Pious (Eulabes), a simple monk of the Studion monastery in Constantinople, who gave him to read the treatise "The Spiritual Law of Mark the Monk." In this text, Symeon the New Theologian found a teaching that impressed him very much: "If you seek spiritual healing," he read there, "be attentive to your conscience. Do all that it tells you and you will find what is useful to you." From that moment -- he himself says -- he never again lay down without asking if his conscience had something for which to reproach him.

Union With Christ

Symeon entered the Studion monastery, where, however, his mystical experiences and his extraordinary devotion toward the spiritual father caused him difficulty. He transferred to the small convent of St. Mammas, also in Constantinople, where, after three years, he became director -- the higumeno. There he pursued an intense search of spiritual union with Christ, which conferred on him great authority.

It is interesting to note that he was given there the name of "New Theologian," notwithstanding the fact that tradition reserved the title of "Theologian" to two personalities: John the Evangelist and Gregory of Nazianzen. He suffered misunderstandings and exile, but was restored by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Sergius II.

Ask little and get nothing

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Sant Antonio Abate & San Paolo ermita.jpg

The painting (David Teniers?) depicts Saint Anthony of Egypt and Saint Paul the Hermit deep in conversation about monastic observance.

I'm reading the autobiographical memoirs of Father Michael O'Carroll, C.SS.P. during my meals. Today, I came upon this exchange between Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and Father O'Carroll:

Father O'Carroll: Well, Your Grace, if you want my honest opinion, I would prefer to hear some Protestants speaking about our religion than certain Catholic priests. I would certainly prefer Malcolm Muggeridge to some of them.

Archbishop McQuaid: Oh, I would agree with you, Father. Did you read his review in last Sunday's Observor of a new history of monasticism? I learned the last sentence by heart. I shall quote it: "The early monastic founders asked everything of their followers and they got everything; the moderns ask little and they get nothing."

S Pier Damiani.jpg

Pope Benedict XVI on Saint Peter Damian

The Holy Father's audience yesterday (September 2009) on Saint Peter Damian (1007-1072) revealed him, once again, as a Master of the Monastic Life! Pope Benedict XVI is unique in his grasp of the principles of the monastic way and in his application of them to the life of all who seek holiness, even outside the cloister. It is not uncommon to hear him say as he did yesterday, "This is also important for us today, even though we are not monks. . . ." Those of you who missed the Holy Father's teaching in 2008 on his patron, Saint Benedict, will find it here.

Dear brothers and sisters,

Lover of Solitude and Intrepid Man of the Church

During these Wednesday catecheses, I have been discussing some of the great figures of the life of the Church since its origin. Today I would like to reflect on one of the most significant personalities of the 11th century, St. Peter Damian, monk, lover of solitude and, at the same time, intrepid man of the Church, personally involved in the work of reform undertaken by the popes of the time.

Gifted Writer

He was born in Ravenna in 1007 of a noble but poor family. He was orphaned, and lived a childhood of hardships and sufferings. Even though his sister Roselinda was determined to be a mother to him and his older brother, he was adopted as a son by Damian. In fact, because of this, he would later be called Peter of Damiano, Peter Damian. His formation was imparted to him first at Faenza and then at Parma, where, already at the age of 25, we find him dedicated to teaching. In addition to keen competence in the field of law, he acquired a refined expertise in the art of writing -- "ars scribendi" -- and, thanks to his knowledge of the great Latin classics, became "one of the best Latinists of his time, one of the greatest writers of the Latin Medieval Age" (J. Leclercq, Pierre Damien, Ermite et Homme d'Eglise, Rome, 1960, p. 172).

Sensitivity to Beauty

He distinguished himself in the most diverse literary genres: from letters to sermons, from hagiographies to prayers, from poems to epigrams. His sensitivity to beauty led him to a poetic contemplation of the world. Peter Damian conceived the universe as an inexhaustible "parable" and an extension of symbols, from which it is possible to interpret the interior life and the divine and supernatural reality. From this perspective, around the year 1034, the contemplation of God's absoluteness compelled him to distance himself progressively from the world and its ephemeral realities, to withdraw to the monastery of Fonte Avellana, founded a few decades earlier, but already famous for its austerity. He wrote the life of the founder, St. Romuald of Ravenna, for the edification of the monks and, at the same time, dedicated himself to furthering his spirituality, expressing his ideal of eremitical monasticism.

Love of the Cross

A particularity must now be stressed: the hermitage of Fonte Avellana was dedicated to the Holy Cross, and the cross would be the Christian mystery that most fascinated Peter Damian. "He does not love Christ who does not love the cross of Christ," he said (Sermo XVIII, 11, p. 117) and he calls himself: "Petrus crucis Christi servorum famulus" -- Peter servant of the servants of the cross of Christ (Ep, 9, 1). Peter Damian addressed most beautiful prayers to the cross, in which he reveals a vision of this mystery that has cosmic dimensions, because it embraces the whole history of salvation: "O blessed cross," he exclaimed, "you are venerated in the faith of patriarchs, the predictions of prophets, the assembly of the apostles, the victorious army of the martyrs and the multitudes of all the saints" (Sermo XLVIII, 14, p. 304).

Dear brothers and sisters, may the example of Peter Damian lead us also to always look at the cross as the supreme act of love of God for man, which has given us salvation.

The Salon Where God Converses With Men

For the development of the eremitical life, this great monk wrote a Rule which strongly stresses the "rigor of the hermitage": In the silence of the cloister, the monk is called to live a life of daily and nocturnal prayer, with prolonged and austere fasts; he must exercise himself in generous fraternal charity and in an obedience to the prior that is always willing and available. In the study and daily meditation of sacred Scripture, Peter Damian discovered the mystical meaning of the Word of God, finding in it food for his spiritual life. In this connection, he called the cell of the hermitage the "salon where God converses with men." For him, the eremitical life was the summit of Christian life; it was "at the summit of the states of life," because the monk, free from the attachments of the world and from his own self, receives "the pledge of the Holy Spirit and his soul is happily united to the heavenly Spouse" (Ep 18, 17; cf. Ep 28, 43 ff.). This is also important for us today, even though we are not monks: To be able to be silent in ourselves to hear the voice of God, to seek, so to speak, a "salon" where God speaks to us: To learn the Word of God in prayer and meditation is the path for life.

Christ at the Center of the Monk's Life

St. Peter Damian, who basically was a man of prayer, meditation and contemplation, was also a fine theologian: His reflection on several doctrinal subjects led him to important conclusions for life. Thus, for example, he expresses with clarity and vivacity the Trinitarian doctrine. He already used, in keeping with biblical and patristic texts, the three fundamental terms that later became determinant also for the West's philosophy: processio, relatio e persona (cf. Opusc. XXXVIII: PL CXLV, 633-642; and Opusc. II and III: ibid., 41 ff. and 58 ff.). However, as theological analysis led him to contemplate the intimate life of God and the dialogue of ineffable love between the three divine Persons, he draws from it ascetic conclusions for life in community and for the proper relations between Latin and Greek Christians, divided on this topic. Also meditation on the figure of Christ has significant practical reflections, as the whole of Scripture is centered on him. The "Jewish people themselves," notes St. Peter Damian, "through the pages of sacred Scripture, have, one could say, carried Christ on their shoulders" (Sermo XL VI, 15). Therefore Christ, he adds, must be at the center of the monk's life: "Christ must be heard in our language, Christ must be seen in our life, he must be perceived in our heart" (Sermo VIII, 5). Profound union with Christ should involve not only monks but all the baptized. It also implies for us an intense call not to allow ourselves to be totally absorbed by the activities, problems and preoccupations of every day, forgetting that Jesus must truly be at the center of our life.

The Reformer of the Church

Communion with Christ creates unity among Christians. In Letter 28, which is a brilliant treatise of ecclesiology, Peter Damian develops a theology of the Church as communion. "The Church of Christ," he wrote, "is united by the bond of charity to the point that, as she is one in many members, she is also totally gathered mystically in just one of her members; so that the whole universal Church is rightly called the only Bride of Christ in singular, and every chosen soul, because of the sacramental mystery, is fully considered Church." This is important: not only that the whole universal Church is united, but that in each one of us the Church in her totality should be present. Thus the service of the individual becomes "expression of universality" (Ep 28, 9-23). Yet the ideal image of the "holy Church" illustrated by Peter Damian does not correspond -- he knew it well -- to the reality of his time. That is why he was not afraid to denounce the corruption existing in monasteries and among the clergy, above all due to the practice of secular authorities conferring the investiture of ecclesiastical offices: Several bishops and abbots behaved as governors of their own subjects more than as pastors of souls. It is no accident that their moral life left much to be desired. Because of this, with great sorrow and sadness, in 1057 Peter Damian left the monastery and accepted, though with difficulty, the appointment of cardinal bishop of Ostia, thus entering fully in collaboration with the popes in the difficult undertaking of the reform of the Church. He saw that it was not enough to contemplate, and had to give up the beauty of contemplation to assist in the work of renewal of the Church. Thus he renounced the beauty of the hermitage and courageously undertook numerous journeys and missions.

The Peacemaker

Because of his love of monastic life, 10 years later, in 1067, he was given permission to return to Fonte Avellana, resigning from the Diocese of Ostia. However, the desired tranquility did not last long: Two years later he was sent to Frankfurt in an attempt to prevent Henry IV's divorce from his wife, Bertha; and again two years later, in 1071, he went to Montecassino for the consecration of the abbey's church, and, at the beginning of 1072 he went to Ravenna to establish peace with the local archbishop, who had supported the anti-pope, causing the interdict on the city. During his return journey to the hermitage, a sudden illness obliged him to stay in Faenza in the Benedictine monastery of "Santa Maria Vecchia fuori porta," where he died on the night of Feb. 22-23, 1072.

A Monk to the End

Dear brothers and sisters, it is a great grace that in the life of the Church the Lord raised such an exuberant, rich and complex personality as that of St. Peter Damian and it is not common to find such acute and lively works of theology as those of the hermit of Fonte Avellana. He was a monk to the end, with forms of austerity that today might seem to us almost excessive. In this way, however, he made of monastic life an eloquent testimony of the primacy of God and a call to all to walk toward holiness, free from any compromise with evil. He consumed himself, with lucid consistency and great severity, for the reform of the Church of his time. He gave all his spiritual and physical energies to Christ and the Church, always remaining, as he liked to call himself, "Petrus ultimus monachorum servus," Peter, last servant of the monks.

Odo Cluny.jpg

At yesterday's general audience, Pope Benedict XVI presented Saint Odo of Cluny. The Holy Father's predilection for the monastic tradition is a blessing for all of us who strive to follow Saint Benedict's "little rule for beginners." This discourse is best read in the context of the Holy Father's message at Heiligenkreuz in 2007 and again in Paris at the Collège des Bernardins in 2008.

The new Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle is especially blessed in coming to birth during this most "Benedictine" of pontificates. The rich teachings of Pope Benedict XVI on monastic life will be integral to the formation of the young men who will present themselves, "truly seeking God."

Dear brothers and sisters:

What It Means to Be Christians

After a long pause, I would like to take up again the presentation of the great writers of the Eastern and Western Church of the Medieval era because, as though in a mirror, in their lives and writings we see what it means to be Christians.

Rise and Multiplication of Cloisters

Today I propose to you the luminous figure of St. Odo, abbot of Cluny. He is situated in the monastic Middle Ages that saw in Europe the amazing spread of life and spirituality inspired in St. Benedict's Rule. During those centuries there was a prodigious rise and multiplication of cloisters that, branching out over the continent, spread through it the Christian spirit and sensibility. St. Odo takes us, in particular, to a monastery, Cluny, which during the Middle Ages was one of the most illustrious and celebrated. Even today it reveals with its majestic ruins the footprint of a glorious past because of its intense dedication to ascesis, study, and, in a special way, divine worship, enveloped in decorum and beauty.

My Lady, Mother of Mercy

Odo was the second abbot of Cluny. He was born around 880, on the border between Maine and Touraine, in France. He was consecrated by his [spiritual] father, the holy Bishop Martin of Tours, in whose beneficent shadow and memory Odo passed all his life, ending it at last near his tomb. His choice to consecrate himself in the religious life was preceded by an experience of a special moment of joy, which he mentioned to another monk, John the Italian, later his biographer. Odo was still an adolescent, around 16 years old, when one Christmas Eve he sensed how a prayer to the Virgin came spontaneously to his lips: "My Lady, Mother of Mercy, who on this night gave birth to the Savior, pray for me. May your glorious and singular birth be, Oh most merciful, my refuge" (Vita Sancti Odonis, I,9: PL 133, 747).

Blessed Virgin Mary, Only Hope of the World

The name "Mother of Mercy," with which the young Odo then invoked the Virgin, was the one he always wished to use when addressing Mary, also calling her "only hope of the world ... thanks to whom the doors of paradise have been opened to us" (In Veneratione S. Mariae Magdalenae: PL 133, 721).

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

Donations for Silverstream Priory