[The following are the program notes for First Vespers of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, to be celebrated Monday, December 31 at 5:15 p.m. We hope that many of you can join us and ring in the new year with this beautiful celebration!]
Articles under Contemplative Prayer
[The following is from the program notes from our last celebration of Solemn Vespers.]
“Because of her pureness [Wisdom] pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entry into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God [Wisdom 7: 24-26].”
Monks in the modern world are daily confronted with incongruities. We dress in tunics and scapulars that were the workaday clothing of sixth-century peasants. We pray the Psalms, composed some three thousand years ago in a language that does not translate into contemporary idioms very well. Many of our customs date from the early Middle Ages (suddenly a controversial era!), presupposing a worldview that is unfathomable to many of our neighbors in Chicago.
Ten years ago, an old friend, now a committed atheist, invited me to participate in an online discussion between atheists and Christians. As rancorous as some of the “discussions” were, I miss the tough back-and-forth probing of my own positions.
In my previous post, I noted that behind the Rule of Saint Benedict, there lies hidden the influence of the Desert Fathers. Benedict recommends that the monk eager for advanced pursuits in monastic spirituality should read the “Institutes” and the “Conferences.” Universal tradition as well as common sense asserts that he is referring to St. John Cassian, who spent nearly two decades in the Egyptian desert learning the monastic life. You can find indices to Cassian’s two most important works, the Institutes and the Conferences at the Order of Saint Benedict website.
What I wish to emphasize here, and in keeping with my aim to write brief and manageable posts, is one key connection between these two books and the two-fold path to spiritual maturity. I wrote last time that Saint Benedict is primarily concerned with the correction of behavior in his Rule for monks, but that he also acknowledges, in quiet ways, that beyond the cultivation of virtue and the elimination of vice, there is the further contemplative aspect of monastic (and Christian) life, what Benedict calls “wisdom of doctrine.” The Institutes correspond to the “active” life of conversion, and the Conferences are concerned with the “contemplative” life of adepts.
The first stage of spiritual growth, the correction of behavior, is therefore the primary concern of Cassian’s Institutes. Note that Cassian does not give us what we would consider “morality.” Rather, he is interested in teaching the times of prayer, the style of dress for monks, and the organization of communal life. This is exactly parallel to Saint Benedict’s Rule. The connection is not just one of a common culture. The Rule of the Master, an Italian monastic rule from the generation before Benedict, and Benedict’s primary source, cribs from Cassian’s Institutes, so that we can say that St. Benedict’s Rule is a kind of grandchild to the Institutes. Cassian goes somewhat beyond communal organization, and spends the last eight books of the Institutes on the eight vices and how to identify the thought patterns that go with them. So again, we are not so much in the realm of morality as moderns understand it. Cassian is interested in psychology, how our thoughts influence our behavior.
This emphasis on psychology is the link between the active and contemplative stages of Christian spiritual growth. Before we can properly understand doctrine, we must first work against behaviors that are not consonant with Christian doctrine, but then we must also go after the thought patterns that underlie wrongful behavior. This cleansing of the mind of wrongful thinking allows us to receive true “theology,” knowledge of God. This is the focus of Cassian’s Conferences.
In the next several short posts, I hope to walk with you through the two stages with more attention to the particular battles with behaviors and thoughts, along with recommended reading in monastic spirituality.
Saint Benedict composed his Rule for Monks some time around 540 A.D. Egypt, the cradle of Christian monasticism, had been drastically reduced in the previous 150 years from its high point at the end of the fourth century. Saint Benedict makes explicit reference to the “desert” only once, when describing the anchorites in the first chapter, on the kinds of monks. Since his Rule is written, however, not for anchorites but for “cenobites,” monks who live in communities, we might imagine that this off-hand reference to the desert is a mere nod in the direction of Egypt, without any further thread of connection to the ancient tradition.
There are important hints that Benedict knew the Egyptian tradition well and incorporated it seamlessly into his own proto-European style of monasticism. Finding these clues requires a bit of excavation. The place I would like to begin is in a perhaps unlikely spot, in chapter 64, On the Constituting of an Abbot. The abbot, Saint Benedict tells us, should be chosen “vitae…merito et sapientiae doctrina,” for the merit of his life and the wisdom of his doctrine. This sounds common sensible enough, but in fact it encapsulates an entire way of thinking about the spiritual quest in Christian monasticism. It also justifies Fr. Terence Kardong’s contention that the abbot is to be the “perfect” monk.
Merit of life corresponds to the presence of virtue and absence of vice. It is the first step in monastic conversion, a change of outward behavior. One learns to act…as a monk acts. When monks promise “conversion of life” (conversatio morum) according to the formula invented by Saint Benedict in chapter 58, they are promising to change their way of living. This is not a matter of mere “morals” but is implicated in all kinds of habits, preferences, and in personal comportment. This is the minimum observance “for beginners” [RB 73]. For those who are striving for greater advancement, however, as Benedict goes on to show us in chapter 73, there is the inward transformation of doctrine, new habits of thought about the cosmos and insight into God’s ways. It is not enough for the abbot to be worthy by his exterior actions; he must also have the interior virtues that allow him to give spiritual counsel and make wise decisions about the community’s welfare. It is noteworthy that one of the primary sources of doctrine, according to RB 73, is St. John Cassian, the primary link between European and Egyptian monasticism.
In future posts, I hope to demonstrate Saint Benedict’s direct dependence on the Egyptian desert fathers for this two-fold description of monastic spirituality. What the great monastic theologian Evagrius (354-399 A.D.) described as the practical (or “active”) life followed by the theoretical ( or “contemplative”) life is the best way of understanding Benedict’s emphasis on merit of life and wisdom of doctrine.
I had the blessing to spend this past Thursday evening with the Young Adult Ministry of Lake County, which met at St. Mary’s parish in Lake Forest. I had been invited to speak about prayer, and at the end of the event, I offered to post some of my notes here for those who would like to follow up on further reading. I should mention that I found the questions from the participants most helpful and illuminating, and that the entire evening was edifying and encouraging.
Before I list the books that I mentioned there, I should give a short explanation about what I said to the group.
Prayer is natural. Human beings were created by God to know Him and have a relationship with Him. This is the most important fact to know about prayer. We don’t have to scramble to find God or to try to get His attention. If we are moved to pray, the Holy Spirit has already been active in us, and we are doing what our natures are made for.
Therefore, if we wish to pray well, we should set about discovering what it is about our lives that inhibits this natural activity. Walking is also a natural activity of human beings, but it is something that we learn to do (mainly by watching other people and then by trial and error). It is also the case that injuries and disabilities can hamper our capacity for walking. When this happens, we do rehab.
We live in a world where prayer is not highly valued. This means that many of our base-line behaviors are hostile to this capax orationis. This is not something new, however, and this is why my favorite recommendation for learning to pray is Evagrius Ponticus, who died in 399 A.D. He is a master of identifying the ways in which we inhibit our own ability to pray, and a great pedagogue for learning how to be healed of this malady.
The final note for today: prayer is an activity primarily of the mind. Therefore much of what is helpful for prayer involves a kind of hygiene for the mind, a scouring out of harmful patterns of thought, and the introduction of good habits of thinking. That said, our minds are connected to bodies, and so what we do with our bodies has consequences for prayer. The shorthand idea here is this: we will pray well when we uproot the vices from our bodies and minds and plant the virtues. I will have more to say on this at a later time.
Here are my recommendations:
The Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer, translated and with an (excellent) introduction by John Eudes Bamberger
The Ad Monachos, translated by Abbot Jeremy Driscoll–also with fantastic notes
Talking Back (The Antirrhetikos), translated by David Brakke
Evagrius Ponticus by A.M. Casiday (contains several treatises)
by St. John Cassian: The Conferences (especially Conferences nine and ten, which can be found online here.)
by Sister Mary Margaret Funk: Thoughts Matter
Father Thomas Keating: Invitation to Love
God’s blessings to you!
I’m spending the week at my mother’s and stepfather’s farm, working on my book. I do hope to post somewhat regularly during this time, and continue to do so when I return.
I’ve written in the last two posts that our baptisms invite us to become different kinds of persons, not simply better persons, but truly different persons. Reborn persons. I also suggested that this process will keep us out of our comfort zones, that we can’t even be quite sure what kind of persons that God intends us to be, until we have developed the capacity to recognize what this otherness looks like and feels like. I finally suggested that if the liturgy disorients us, we should be cautious of “fixing” it by making it more rational.
This may sound like a recipe for complete nonsense. If we don’t know what kind of persons we are going to be until we get there, but we can only get there by being different kinds of persons, how can we proceed? One temptation in modern times is to understand the virtue of Faith as the engine that gets us where we are going. And faith in this sense is understood as a blind stab in the dark. God, in this model, takes pity on our helplessness and responds by mysteriously enlightening us.
This could happen. And it does. But it also is fraught with potential problems. I don’t find evidence of this dynamic in the early Church (with the possible and notable exception of Tertullian). Persons like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Origen borrowed from themes in the writings of the Apostles John and Paul to stress the objective rationality of the Christian gospel over against the superstition of pagan piety. Pope Benedict XVI dwelt with this profoundly in his much-misunderstood Regensburg Address, titled “Three Stages in the Program of De-Hellenization.”
Furthermore, this is not a model that commends itself either to separated Protestant brethren or to most non-believers. From a Protestant perspective, the notion of blind faith might actually make sense, but then to make such an act of faith within the Catholic Church appears self-defeating. For critical thinkers outside Christianity, we would seem to be asking them to leave reason at the door.
So what am I getting at? The paradox that I am describing was one recognized by Socrates. How can one discover justice when one is not just? The same way one learns to be a pianist without being born a pianist. One makes an act of faith in a teacher who already knows the craft, the kind of person that the student must become, and how to get train the student to become a real pianist.
Thus, if we are called to become eschatological persons, citizens of the Kingdom of God and fellow citizens with the saints, we must apprentice ourselves to those who already are the kinds of persons who know what this feels like. To some extent, this is all of us who attend the liturgy together, since at the liturgy we really are trained by the combined wisdom of a tradition molded by the experience of prayer and the presence of Christ.
Let me take this one step further, at some risk to myself. Even within the Church, there are those who spend more time and focus their lives more intently on living the life of the Kingdom now (or at least should be doing this). These are monks and nuns, especially of the contemplative type. This is why, historically, the liturgical books in the East have been crafted by monks, and in the West, up until around 1300 or so, the Benedictine Rite is almost indistinguishable from the Roman Rite in general. This is also why, after this link in the West was weakened, the liturgy has become shorter, and more ‘rational’ (meaning less mysterious and baffling). The changes that came after the Council were simply a continuation of a trend centuries in the making.
This is a shame because the Council’s teachings are actually quite lovely and traditionally orthodox. We as a Church were simply not prepared to implement them well in 1970. This has been changing. Our last three popes have all been profoundly shaped by the documents of Vatican II and have been finding creative ways to correct some misunderstandings. What I am thinking about here is how central the liturgy ought to be in our lives, for example. On the train up to Wisconsin on Sunday, I prayed the Roman Office from the community cellphone. It’s easy to find. Anyone can pray the Office, and many people are. The notes on the website were excellent. When I arrived, my stepfather shared with me his fondness for the publication This Day, which is Liturgical Press’s answer to the popular Magnificat publication. Both have shortened versions of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, based in the Psalms and the rest of Scripture, the daily readings from Mass, reflections on the saints in the calendar. These are beautiful examples not only of the centrality of the liturgy, but of the way in which the liturgy can connect to the increasingly important role of the laity to evangelize in the world. At the heart of our shared identity as the Body of Christ is our shared work of the liturgy, in which we see clearly how we relate as members of the Body, and we allow ourselves to be incorporated into this Body, lifted up with Christ to the right hand of the Father.
So…to wrap up:
Become a different kind of person, an eschatological person.
Live the Kingdom now, and train for this by praying the Church’s liturgy, even if on your smartphone in your room.
If monks and nuns require you to do strange things at the liturgy, don’t neglect them on the grounds that they are irrelevant rituals except to these strange contemplative types. We might not be able to explain right away why certain precepts need to be observed at the liturgy. You will get it once you’ve done it a bunch of times.
Imitate the lives of the saints. Of every era, not just recent ones or those who fit your definition of sanctity. Learn to be catholic in your tastes.
Never despair of God’s mercy.
“My little children, your hearts are small, but prayer stretches them and makes them capable of loving God. Through prayer we receive a foretaste of heaven and something of paradise comes down upon us.”–St. John Vianney
Our community began life living according to the charism of the Community of Jerusalem. This new religious order began in Paris and spread to many major European cities and to Montreal. We were going to be their foundation in Chicago, and in a filial sense we were. When the brothers arrived in Chicago in 1991, however, there were canonical obstacles in the way of an official affiliation.
This meant that our continued existence depended upon the local Archbishop. Cardinal Bernadin had invited us, and was a strong supporter of our work, but by the mid-90’s, he was experiencing serious health problems, including the cancer that would eventually claim his life in 1997. So we were looking for a way to strengthen our community canonically, perhaps by affiliating with a different monastic community. Another factor in this discernment process was the strain of translating what was then a _very_ French, even Parisian, religious ideal into the blue-collar, multi-ethnic, South Side Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport. These were the days before Bridgeport became the new Bohemia (or for locals, the new Wicker Park/new Pilsen…), but even now, I don’t see the Jerusalem model working here.
We began looking for something more stable and at the same more flexible. The idea of becoming Benedictine had been tossed around, but most of the Benedictine communities we knew were operating schools or involved in other active ministries. Our mission from the Cardinal was to be contemplative. One of the monks went on retreat to Christ in the Desert in New Mexico, and there learned that they had recently entered into a congregation of Benedictines that was more oriented toward contemplation. Formerly known as the Cassinese Congregation of the Primitive Observance, in 1997 the newly-christened “Subiaco Congregation” numbered nearly seventy communities, spread over six continents.
Christ in the Desert has its own very interesting history, which you can read about here. Make no mistake, this is a place of contemplation. Fourteen miles down a gravel road into the Chama canyon, it’s pristinely quiet and just rustic enough to keep you alert (e.g. rattlesnakes). The community there very generously offered to adopt us city boys as a dependent house, if we so chose. After consultation with Cardinal Bernadin, who enthusiastically supported the change, we entered into the Benedictine family.
During one of the abbot’s first visits, he got rid of the community money box and pointed out that we needed to pray the office of Vigils. We began to visit there more frequently, often returning with new ideas. We noted how traditional practices like statio (brothers lining up in ‘battle rank’ and processing into the choir) and penances for latecomers at the liturgy helped to create an atmosphere of recollection and purpose. We also discovered that once we would adopt a new practice from the Rule, we would begin to see how it connected to other practices in the Rule. Many disciplines that seemed silly or outdated when we began, gradually came into focus, and the wisdom of the Rule understood as a whole, and within the larger monastic tradition, began to invigorate us. We became evangelists for Saint Benedict’s monastic vision.
There were two other significant events in this movement toward a stronger, more integral observance of the Rule.
First was another article in Worship magazine, this one by Monsignor Francis Mannion. The article discussed the blessings for brothers leaving and returning to the cloister. These are minor exorcisms. This being the case, use of these blessing generates a certain disposition of the monk toward the world. It is not hostile, mind you. But it is cautious and realistic about the importance of the discipline of silence and withdrawal for the monk or nun. We live in a bustling city with many potential dangers to one’s spiritual health, especially for those who cultivate a contemplative openness to God’s quiet communication through His creatures. So we began to use the blessings.
Secondly, we struck up a friendship with the nuns at St. Walburga’s Abbey in Virginia Dale, Colorado. We used to go there regularly on community retreats as a way to experience a bit of distance from the city. They are another contemplative community, and even have a mitered abbess (meaning, among other things, she has the canonical right to carry a crozier and to preach). It was there that the idea of doing all 150 Psalms in a week took shape in our minds. We had felt that the peculiar circumstance of the city required us to have less Psalmody and more silence, but the sisters’ example worked away at us. There was something about their joyful, matter-of-fact acceptance of the requirements of the Rule that moved us deeply. We began chanting the full Psalter in the year 2001, and once more, the immediate effect was that many other aspects of the liturgical code of the Rule suddenly made sense. They seemed rational.
Now I recount all this because it is parallel to our experience with the larger tradition of the liturgy. Our typical experience tends to narrow of thinking about the liturgy to: 1) the Mass; 2) Tridentine vs. Novus Ordo; and 3) political leanings of those who favor one of the two options. But the liturgy is celebrated by all Christians, and has been for two millennia. It includes the whole panoply of the Mass, Divine Office, Processions and Litanies, blessings of persons and holy items, and all the accoutrements that go with: vestments, buildings, music and so on. Once we began to discover the ancient Benedictine rite of the Divine Office, for example, other aspects of the liturgy seemed less odd, less tied to contemporary political positions, more laden with potential for spiritual growth, more full of joy. This is the broader background of our use of the ad orientem posture at Mass. There is a whole world of thought that created the liturgy under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and working our way back into this stream of life brought insight into theology and prayer that we had not obtained through newer, more locally restricted practices.
The more we discovered, the more we hungered for discovery in the Church’s broad experience of the Kingdom of God, inbreaking in the the Divine Liturgy, to which we will return in the next post.
As many of you know, I am working on a memoir. This was first suggested to me by an editor at Paulist Press after a short interview I gave appeared in the Sun-Times few years ago. From January 1994 until July 1997, I performed in a jazz/rock sort of band called OM. And the transition I made, from playing at the Taste of Chicago, then five months later beginning my novitiate, has generated some interest. This band was not so typical. As I was working on the book on Monday, I noticed the fact that in some way or other, most of the significant persons who went through the band (our line-up had up to six people, including horns and violins) are now educators. I include myself in that group, since I am the prior of what Saint Benedict calls “a school of the Lord’s service.”
One of the interesting points of the memoir has to do with parallel themes in my former work as a musician and my life now as a monk. One such parallel has to do with the marginal status of both monks and artists in the world. Artists are often restless until they can pry open some hidden aspect of reality and show it to others. But then, not everyone has eyes to see what is uncovered, at least right away. Some ‘fusion of horizons’ needs to take place, to introduce others to the language of poetry, art and music, and then the unique perspective of the artist.At some point, my bandmates and I realized that for the average listener to take an interest in what we were doing, we needed to undertake some efforts at teaching. We took our cue from Wynton Marsalis, who was then teaching young people how to listen to jazz. In music, any effort to educate runs into serious problems, since musical interest is usually considered a matter of personal taste. The idea that one might deliberately change one’s taste because of someone else’s expertise smacks of snobbery. Yet any musician worth hearing ought to be passionate about the quality of the music she or he is performing. And this passion depends on the music being more than a personal predilection–somehow the it must be true, and this truth must be urgent. It doesn’t really belong to the performer at all. The performer is at most a conduit, maybe a conjurer. At least the performer is a witness.
Any good teacher is in a similar position. Henri Nouwen suggested many years ago that the model of education today is based in a kind of violence that is competitive (students competing for scarce recognition of achievements), unilateral (the transference of a commodified knowledge from strong teacher to weak student), and alienating (marking the gap between the material to be mastered and the real life that comes once one gets the degree). We’ve all had good teachers, though. What were they like? One of the best classes I took in college involved working through Newton’s Principia.
What was fantastic about the class was that the professor wrote out, and actually worked out, Newton’s proofs on the blackboard, inviting us to work through them with him. I will never forget his enthusiasm, as if he were the one discovering this and not Newton…rather that we were discovering the beauty of nature’s patterns together, with Newton as quirky guide, friends on an amazing journey past the veil of sense to the mathematical harmony of physics.
Sometimes a learning experience of this sort can be so powerful that it requires a reordering of our old way of thinking. Learning to like jazz or to understand calculus takes time and a kind of ‘conversion’ (Newton had to invent calculus to figure out the moon’s orbital math!). The early Christians called this metanoia. Metanoia means literally to change one’s mind. This idea is also expressed as repentance. When Jesus began His ministry, he preached, “Repent [Metanoeite!] and believe the gospel [Mt. 4: 17].” Learn to think differently! We must undergo a kind of education–note that Jesus spends much of His public life teaching. He teaches not so much a series of facts. Nor does He just impart information. Repentance involves learning to think anew about old facts, seeing from a new perspective, noticing things that had always been there, but discovering in them God’s presence and transforming love. It requires something like contemplation.
Monastic formation is perhaps the most radical instance of this Christian conversion, but it is simply what all Christians pledge to do at baptism. The thought patterns of the old Adam must give way to the new Adam, to the mind of Christ [Phil. 2: 5; 1 Cor. 2: 16]. Recognizing how exactly the old Adam thinks is not so easy, for our cultural upbringing lingers in unsuspected ways. What’s more, we live in a peculiarly blind kind of culture, that no longer recognizes its own dependence on tradition. Freud thought that he discovered a universal psychological law in the Oedipal complex, but in fact, he was merely noticing the modern Western tendency to want to do away with one’s fathers. This habitual refusal to recognize our intellectual and cultural debts causes disruptions and discontinuities in our background tradition, and therefore in our thinking.
In our monastery, we are trying to counteract this situation with different approaches to teaching. One test case, upon which I will dwell more at length in a future post, would be the following question. Can a modern Christian learn to read the Scriptures from the profound spiritual sense that guided the formation of theology from St. Paul until Rupert of Deutz? We live in a scientific age, and Catholic Biblical scholars have been celebrating their freedom to engage in historical-critical method for the past sixty years. Should we even bother to go back to allegory?
But what if the historical-critical method and our enthusiasm for it would turn out to be an unhealthy preoccupation with the world that is passing away? What if it locks us into the very worldview that a conversion is meant to leave behind? Given the present struggles of the Catholic Church in her historic lands, this kind of question bears asking and patient and careful response. It also may call for metanoia. Repent and believe!