Thursday, July 11, 2013

Obsculta, O Fili

Happy St Benedict's day

Obsculta, o fili, præcepta magistri, et inclina aurem cordis tui.

'Listen, O Son to the teaching of the Master and bend the ear of your heart'. Thus begins the Holy Rule of our father St Benedict whose feast day it is today.
"Listening" and "bending the ear of the heart" is at the centre of Benedict's Rule, 'what has been lost by disobedience let us regain by obedience", the word "obedience" here can be understood in terms of to 'listen intently to' 'oboedire' .
The whole of the rule is to create an environment where someone can listen to God and gradually learn to stop listening to himself. We can understand Jesus' summary of the Law and the Prophets in Matthew 22:37, 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.' as being about handing over one's very soul in obedience to God, it is about interior submission of heart and soul and mind to God. Everything about a monks life, his stability, conversion of life and his obedience, the monks three vows, is about this submission of his heart to God.

Today in this country most of our monastic communities are hanging on a knife edge, there are exceptions but several are unlikely to be in place in twenty years time. Like canaries in a mine monastic life reflects the health of the life the Church in general. The busy-ness of modern life both secular and religious does not bode well for monastic life. Most of all our liturgical life does not lead to a life of contemplation, it is worth reflecting that the more of Traditional worship a monastery takes on the more it seems to flourish. New monastic communities at least in the Europe and America are invariably 'old rite', think of Fontgombault and its daughter Clear Creek or the young Canons of Lagrasse or the Franciscan's of the Immaculate. It could simply be that the 'old rite' demands more time spent in Church or that those attracted to such communities are prepared for the contemplative life by attendance at the Traditional Rites.

I remember a trad guest at an English monastery saying the monks now spent more time preparing for one of the 'hours' than they did in actually singing it. It is not necessarily just the time spent in prayer that is problematic but the actual nature of prayer that has changed, the unreformed monastic Offiice ended with a few brief Kyries, the Pater and the Collect, now to its culmination is added a series of Intercessions. Possibly I am over stressing this but the unreformed Office, and therefore monastic prayer was entirely about praise, adding specific intercessions, for the sick, artists and craftsmen, the bishop, vocations etc. changes it. Rather than its end being contemplation it becomes about intercession, a subtle movement from 'being' to 'doing', it brings about a change in the anthropology of a monks.

Monastic life used to be centred on the hortus conclusus of the cloister and the liturgy, now the cloister no longer seems to satisfy. At one time a monk, even more so a nun, would enter the cloister knowing they would never leave it, not even to attend a parent's funeral, things seem to have changed. I am not criticising merely suggesting things have changed, I think it is rather good to have email contact with monastic friends but there was a time when even postage stamps were limited in a monastery, none at all in Lent, one or two a month at other times. The change is interesting.

One of the reason the Pope Emeritus chose the name Benedict would seem to be to recapture the contemplative nature Catholicism and the priesthood, and most importantly the contemplative nature of Christian prayer, it was his life's work.

Speaking on the charism of the Carthusians, he said a precious gift for the Church and for the world, a gift that contains a deep message for our life and for the whole of humanity. I shall sum it up like this: by withdrawing into silence and solitude, human beings, so to speak, "expose" themselves to reality in their nakedness, to that apparent "void," which I mentioned at the outset, in order to experience instead Fullness, the presence of God, of the most royal Reality that exists and that lies beyond the tangible dimension. He is a perceptible presence in every created thing: in the air that we breathe, in the light that we see and that warms us, in the grass, in stones.... God, Creator omnium, [the Creator of all], passes through all things but is beyond them and for this very reason is the foundation of them all.
The monk, in leaving all, "takes a risk," as it were: he exposes himself to solitude and silence in order to live on nothing but the essential, and precisely in living the essential he also finds a deep communion with his brethren, with every human being.


Savonarola said...

Those most associated with the revival of the contemplative way over the last 50 years or so see being contemplative not as pottering around in church all day being pious and reverential, but rather as being in touch with and aware of the life of God within one - not something particularly "religious" at all. So Thomas Merton said to the monks of his abbey, "You think you're contemplative, you're really just introverts." Pretty scathing, but maybe he was right. Retreating into the cloister and reviving archaic rituals clearly appeals to some, but the renewal of the Church requires something rather different - the way of prayer which such as John Main and Thomas Keating teach - under the inspiration of Vatican II. This way is continually growing all over the world wherever people want simply to know God, far beyond the revival of so-called "contemplative" religious communities.

John Nolan said...

Savonarola, the 'something rather different' was tried after Vatican II and religious life more or less collapsed. The rule of St Benedict is not an 'archaic ritual'.

Aloysius Gonzaga said...

You have expressed exactly what I have thought on this issue ("Like canaries in a mine monastic life reflects the health of the life the Church in general.")

I would go even further, and I would say, it is not the fault of a secular society that monasteries have collapsed. As we all know there is something very dysfunctional with the Church in the past fifty years. Monastic vocations do not fall from outer space, so to speak, and I'm sure most monastic vocation directors know this, but are powerless to do anything.

If liturgical prayer, eucharistic adoration, virginity and chastity are not valued, promoted, and defended in our Church, why would any young Catholic consider the monastic vocation as a way of life? It's a rhetorical question of course.

Saint Benedict, pray for us.

Physiocrat said...

Liturgical reform is at the root of all our troubles, I would suggest. A sound scientific explanation for this can be built on recent research into neuroscience and cognitive psychology.

The biggest mistake is the abandonment of Latin and the associated loss of the music that goes with it. The next biggest mistake is celebration of Mass facing the people. Both of these can be remedied within the Novus Ordo by the use of the Missa Normativa and Graduale Romanum.

Once that is done the differences between the Novus Ordo and the Usus Antiquior mostly affect the priest. Priests who celebrate the old form of the Mass tend to report that it has improved their spiritual life and understanding.

The real solution is to reclaim the Usus Antiquior for the mainstream. Unfortunately it seems to have attracted the interests of a weird fringe. Until the UA is back in the mainstream, it would probably be best if it was celebrated discretely, in private, on weekdays or perhaps even at random, whenever the celebrant felt like it.

Savonarola said...

Mr. Nolan, the "something rather different" I referred to is the growth of contemplative prayer outside religious communities, which is ever expanding and which is very much in line with the vision of Vatican II for the renewal of the whole Church. It has come through the work of Benedictines like John Main and Thomas Keating, who have seen their religious vocation in a new way as to make available to the wider Church the riches of their monastic tradition. Religious life I would suggest collapses when it loses its contemplative centre, as does religion in general, but this is not the result of Vatican II. It has been going on for very much longer. The Council called, among other things, for a revival of the contemplative way.

John Nolan said...

From what I have read of the Main/Keating approach it does not much resemble St Benedict's ideal. A bit new age-y, to tell the truth, and prone to syncretism. It might appeal to ex-hippies, but it doesn't turn me on. Give me Western objective consciousness any day.

Savonarola said...

Mr. Nolan, you cannot have read very much of the Main/Keating approach and I imagine have never practised it yourself. It is nothing to do New Age or syncretism. The roots in both cases lie in the earliest monastic ways of prayer in the Desert Fathers and the underlying theology is solidly Catholic. As for "Western objective consciousness" you would have to define what you mean by that and how the M/K approach departs from it - as I assume you think it does. If you are willing to understand these matters correctly I would recommend Laurence Freeman's book 'Jesus the Teacher Within.'

John Nolan said...

It is my understanding that St Benedict's monasticism was an antidote to the mysticism and asceticism of the desert hermits and 'pillar saints'. The Temple of Understanding with which Keating was closely associated is interreligious and at least implicitly syncretist. Furthermore, the meditation techniques he recommends owe a lot to eastern non-Christian mysticism.

A prayer life centred round the Divine Office, Mass, lectio divina and everyday work, all activities requiring objective consciousness, is a far cry from the navel-gazing implicit in the M/K philosophy. It also requires a lot more effort.

Savonarola said...

St. Benedict in fact draws on the desert tradition, its mysticism and asceticism (though admittedly not the wackier manifestations of that). His Rule stipulates readings from Cassian's Institutes and Conferences, the latter of which is a major source of contemplative prayer today. Keating also drew very much on 'The Cloud of Unknowing' (English 14th century) - I doubt if its author could have had any knowledge of eastern non-Christian mysticism.

I don't know of any particular association of Keating with the Temple of Understanding and indeed know hardly anything about the latter, but gather that it was supported by Pope John XXIII and Mother Teresa - were they interreligious and syncretistic?

"Navel-gazing" is a very typical misunderstanding of contemplation. It is in fact the exact opposite - not being obsessed with oneself, but letting go of the self (what we think is our self) in order to know the true self - something Christ said we need to do. This also requires much effort, because our attachment to the self-conscious self is so strong. It is indeed the most demanding form of prayer, which is perhaps why so many content themselves with discursive forms that involve a great flood of words (Christ said not to indulge this, but his advice is ignored by most Christians).

The last chapter 73 of St. Benedict's Rule says that all his provisions so far - "a prayer life centred round the Divine Office, Mass, lectio divina and everyday work" - are only a beginning. The way to the greater heights of monastic teaching and virtue are found, he says, in the works he has referred to, including Cassian's Conferences which contains the teaching on contemplative prayer he received from his monastic masters. The Rule is only a framework, not an end in itself. Its purpose is to enable the monk to make his whole life one of contemplation, being fully open to the presence of God - not thinking about God, not even worshipping him, but being present to him - this is the aim of contemplative prayer as taught by Main and Keating in line with the Western Christian monastic tradition.

There is a very good pastoral letter of the Catholic bishops of New Zealand, 'Prayer in the Busyness of Life,' which says that they want particularly to recommend the M/K ways of contemplative prayer, as they are so apposite to contemporary needs.