"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Thursday 14 October 2010



Nunraw Abbey Publications 
According to the Monastic Tradition"
by Columban Heaney, ocso
About the author:
Fr. Columban Heaney is a monk of the Cistercian Abbey of Mount Melleray. He was born in Derry and became a teacher before entering the monastery in 1949. He studied in Dublin, London, Mount Melleray and Rome. His experience has involved him in teaching and in the formation of monks and of the Order. At present he is lecturer in moral theology in the formation programme for the region of the Order known as Region of the Isles.
© Columban Heaney
Presented with permission.
Booklet printed and distributed, Nunraw Abbey, Haddington, EH41 4LW.
It has been reprinted several times. Copies available: £1.00 to cover cost.
In essence the monastic life is a search for God (1), as indeed the Christian life is. Therefore of necessity it has got to be a life of prayer, because prayer is one of the most indispensable means of seeking and finding God, or rather, of allowing oneself to be found by him. But the modern world finds it difficult to understand a way of life totally dedicated to prayer such as the monastic life. To many of our contemporaries a life that does not produce results which are visible and tangible is not worth considering. In our Western civilisation things and people are generally assessed by what they do or what they produce rather than by what they are. Hence the contemplative life appears as useless and irrelevant to many people. But they are using the wrong criterion for assessing the life. Mahatma Gandhi got it right, for he wrote: "The rose transmits its scent without a movement. I have a definite feeling that if you want us to experience the aroma of Christianity you must copy the rose. It irresistibly draws people to itself and the scent remains with them. A rose does not preach ... it simply spreads its fragrance."
It is said of Gandhi that he admired Christ but did not always admire Christians, some of whom do not appreciate the value and importance of simply being. A rose achieves its meaning by being a rose. It does nothing; it does not have to do anything apart from being itself. Gandhi was perceptive enough to realise that the essence of Christianity lies in being. A life of prayer, like the rose, spreads its fragrance in the Church and in the world; it needs no other justification.
Cistercian life is essentially a life of prayer. On reading the Rule in search of St. BenedictS method of prayer newcomers are likely to be surprised and disappointed to discover that he does not have one. Instructions there are in plenty on the Opus Dei, the Liturgy of the Hours, but St. Benedict has little to say about personal prayer. This will appear surprising only to those who are unacquainted with the history and tradition of monasticism. To look in the Rule: of Benedict for a method of prayer similar to those which were elaborated in later centuries is anachronistic. St. Benedict and the early monks certainly understood that prayer was central in the life of a monk but their conception of prayer was quite different from that of later ages when various methods of prayer were developed.
Monastic Tradition
The first monks based their life on Christ's injunction to pray without ceasing (2). In the Acts of the Apostles we read that the Apostles met together in the upper room at Jerusalem and all... joined in continuous prayer, together with several women, including May, the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers""(3). This idea of continuous prayer in the early Church at Jerusalem exerted a profound influence on the first monks whose avowed aim, according to Cassian, was to go apart to practise "those things which they had learned to have been ordered by the Apostles throughout the body of the Church in general" (4) . In the beginning the Egyptian monks took this call to continuous prayer as literally as possible and they spent the whole day and a large part of the night in uninterrupted prayer. They combined this life of prayer with simple manual labour like mat weaving or basket making in their cells.
However, this interpretation of continual prayer by the hermits of Egypt was beyond the capacity of many. Hence there arose the practice of fixing certain times during the day and night for prayer. These definite prayer times were not meant to dispense the monks from the obligation to pray continuously but were seen as an aid to weak human nature to fulfil this obligation. Adalbert de Vogue explains it thus: "The communal office finds its justification only in a clear understanding of its relationship to continual prayer. Those who limit their prayer to the hours must never forget that this is not an end but a means, not an ideal or a law descended from heaven, but a wise and humble human attempt to respond to the call of Christ and guard against human weakness. The only law, for the monk as well as for the Christian of the first centuries, was to pray without ceasing. The office is only a means to achieve this" (5).
The Pachomian monks especially developed this practice of set times for prayer during the day and night and since they lived as cenobites, that is, those who live in community, they met together for this communal prayer at fixed times. Because it was a communal celebration this naturally necessitated a certain ordering and arrangement of psalms and readings. It may be noted that both in the case of the hermits, who prayed alone, and the cenobites, who prayed together, the stress was placed on the quality of the prayer rather than on the quantity. They considered it better to pray with understanding and attention than to recite many psalms with a wandering mind. St. Benedict shared their concern for quality when he gave this instruction in his Rule: "Let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices." (6)
Prayer is Life
It may now appear evident why St. Benedict, who was steeped in the monastic tradition before him, did not establish set times for personal prayer nor gave detailed instructions on how to pray. What he did was to give instructions on how to live. In his Rule he has mapped out a life-style founded on the teaching of the Gospel and he obviously took it for granted that the men and women who lived by such a Rule would lead prayerful lives. The primary aim of monks and nuns is to seek God, to seek that union with him of which prayer is an expression. In this search the set hours of the divine office are meant to turn them afresh periodically to the God whom they seek at all tunes. The Opus Dei, therefore, is not one activity among the many activities of the monastic day: it is a particular mode of the unique activity which dominates the lives of those who live it - their search for God by means of a life of continual prayer. Esther de Waal puts it admirably: "Prayer lies at the heart of Benedictine life; it holds everything together; it sustains every other activity. It is at the same time root and - fruit, foundation and fulfilment" (7). Hence what St. Benedict wishes to promote is the quality of a man or woman's daily life; he does not provide detailed directions on how to spend the time of prayer. Even Chapter 20 of the Rule, On Reverence At Prayer, which at first sight may appear to deal with prayer made in private outside the office, is in fact treating of prayer within the liturgy. This distinction between liturgical prayer and private prayer, which is very familiar to modem spirituality, was unknown to the early monks. Chapter 19 has to be taken in conjunction with Chapter 20 since both are concerned with the Opus Dei. Chapter 19 studies the psalms which make up a considerable portion of the hours and the dispositions with which these should be sung. Apart from one short reference to prayer outside the office, Chapter 20 is concerned with the silent prayer which was made in response to the psalm. In ancient monasticism the psalms were considered, not as prayers addressed to God, but as the word of God addressed to men and women and eliciting from them the response of prayer. Listening to the word of God was the necessary prelude to every prayer, and prayer was the natural response to every psalm.
Prayer is not simply an exercise slotted somewhere into the monastic day; it is a life. Prayer grows out of life and embraces the whole of life. It is the response of the human person to the touch of God in his or her life. So a modern reader who expects to find a method of prayer in the Rule is approaching it with preconceived ideas about prayer, and will not find one for the simple reason that he or she is actually looking for the wrong thing.
Doing God's Will
St. Benedict's approach is refreshingly simple and uncomplicated. For him, the key which opens the door to prayer is the quality of a Christian's life. The whole existence of a Christian has as its goal the imitation of Christ in fulfilling the will of his Father. As the letter to the Hebrews says, Christ came into this world to do this will (8), and he accomplished it so perfectly that he could say, "my food is to do the will of him who sent me" (9). St. Benedict's insistence on obedience in the lives of his followers is not simply to promote the good ordering of community life. The reason for it goes much deeper than that. Obedience assimilates them to Christ in his zeal for the Father's will. "Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the abbot but also to one another as brothers, since we knew that it is by this way of obedience that we go to God", (10). Again, "the first step of humility is unhesitating obedience which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all" (11). Monks and nuns are to "imitate by their actions the saying of the Lord: "I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me" (12), and to "submit to their superior in all obedience for the love of God, imitating the Lord of whom the Apostle says: ÔHe became obedient even to death' (Phil 2:8)" (13). For them obedience is the way to accomplish the Father's will and thus to imitate Christ. By it they share in the kenosis of Christ. This emptying out of self is normally a deeply painful process as St. Benedict was well aware. He designated obedience under difficult, unfavourable or even unjust conditions as the fourth step of humility. He also knew that a monk may be assigned difficult or impossible tasks (14). Whatever the cost, ready obedience to the will of God is a necessary condition for prayer.
One of the most vital ways in which God's will becomes known to a Christian is through the word of God. Hence St. Benedict took great care to expose his followers to this word. Apart from the scripture readings that are listened to in the liturgy, St. Benedict set aside from two to three hours each day for the practice of what he called lectio divine (15). Literally this means "divine reading" and it has a deeper and richer significance than what is expressed in the modern term "spiritual reading". The reading of the word of God as understood in the monastic term lectio divina is not so much an intellectual exercise, like study to provide us with information, as a way of letting this word of God penetrate the heart and indeed the whole person of the reader. It is meant to touch him or her, to stir him or her in the inner core of their heart, to mediate God's invitation to them. God communicates himself to monks and nuns in their lectio divina, and in their turn they must listen, must open their hearts to the God who speaks in his word. Generally speaking, nuns are better fitted for this exercise than monks because their feminine nature makes them more intuitive than analytical.
A listening heart is very important for a life of prayer. It is not without significance that St. Benedict begins his Rule with the word listen: ausculta. "Listen carefully, my son, to the master's instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice" (16). This advice of Benedict is as short and succinct a directive on how to prepare for prayer as you could find. Lectio divina is a blend of listening, reflecting and responding to the word of God. As St. Bernard says in one of his sermons on the Song of Songs, "Prayer is nothing else but the seeking of the word"(17)
In ancient monasticism there existed the practice of memorising texts from scripture. Monks usually knew the psalms and most of the New Testament by heart. At work and at other times they would recite these texts to themselves. This oral repetition of scripture texts was known as meditatio, a kind of rumination on the word of God in a quiet, relaxed way, so that the full flavour and meaning of the text would reveal itself to the heart ever more clearly. Prayer was the response to this constant hearing of the word of God. St. Benedict wanted the minds and the hearts of his monks and nuns to be so filled with the divine word that their prayer would be coloured and conditioned by it. Lectio divina is one of the principal supports of prayer. If we neglect it, the well runs dry.
Listening is one of the basic attitudes of prayer. Closely allied to it is another equally fundamental attitude, that of watching. It is rather like the attitude of a mother who is absorbed by the child she loves. She may have other duties to attend to in the course of the day but the child is never absent from her consciousness; she watches and listens for him or her.
The psalms are full of the idea of watching. Psalm 122 is a particularly beautiful example of this. "Like the eyes of a servant on the hand of her mistress, so our eyes are on the Lord our God till he show us his mercy" (18). The picture this verse conjures up is a true description of the man or woman at prayer. The maid serving at table is watching her distress closely, waiting for a signal from her to indicate what she is to do next. Most of the time the mistress won't be making any signs to the maid or even taking any notice of her at all but the maid continues to watch the hand of her mistress until she does give a signal to clear away the dishes or serve the next course or whatever. Similarly much of the time of prayer will be taken up with watching and waiting waiting to respond to his word and to do whatever the Father asks us to do.
The idea of waiting is found in many of the psalms. For example, Psalm 39: "I waited, I waited for the Lord till he stooped down to me"; and Psalm 41: "Like the deer that yearns for running streams so my soul is yearning for you, my God". Listening, watching, yearning, longing, thirsting this is what prayer consists of. It does not involve complicated mental activities; it is a simple way of communicating with God. This is the way we communicate with people who are close to us; it is also the way we communicate with God who abides in our hearts. Words are totally inadequate when communicating with God. They are incapable of expressing the deep sentiments of the heart. Only simple but profound expressions of the heart like yearning and watching are able to sustain the depth and intensity of our silent, unspoken prayer.
St. Augustine has expressed this beautifully in the following passage from his Commentary on the Psalms: "All my longing is known to you". Not to men, who cannot see into the heart but to you, my God, is all my desire laid bare. Does your longing lie open to him? Then the Father, who sees in secret, will give you your heart's desire. This very longing is your prayer. Not for nothing did the Apostle tell us Ôto pray without ceasing'. Did he mean that we were to be perpetually on our knees, or lying prostrate, or raising our hands? If that is our idea of prayer, I consider that unceasing prayer is beyond our capacity.
There is another kind of prayer, however, interior and continuous: the prayer of desire. Whatever else you are doing, if your desire is for the Sabbath rest, you do not cease to pray. So, then, if you do not wish your prayer to be interrupted, do not let your longing flag. Ceaseless longing will be your ceaseless cry. Let your love fail, and you will fall silent. Who are the people whose cry is silenced? Are they not those of whom it is said: ÔSince iniquity has been at large, love has grown cold in the hearts of the majority of men'? Love grown cold means a heart become silent; burning love is the heart's cry. If your love is abiding, your cry will be continuous; a continuous cry is a sign of abiding desire, and abiding desire means that you are ever mindful of your heart's repose" (l9).
St. John Chrysostom teaches the same: "You should not think of prayer as being a matter of words. It is a desire for God, an indescribable devotion, not of human origin, but the gift of God's grace" (20)
The above passage from St. Augustine signals a warning that is most important, especially for newcomers to the monastic life, who can so easily misinterpret the invitation to continual prayer. It does not mean that they spend every moment saying prayers or making aspirations or trying to keep their mind and attention fixed continuously on some theme for meditation. That would be one of the surest recipes for producing a mental breakdown. No, the state of continuous prayer is arrived at by desire, by a deep longing for God and for his will, which is entirely compatible with every circumstance of daily living. It involves no strain, no tension.
So when we say that Cistercians set before themselves the goal of continual prayer, we mean that they are men and women of desire, men and women who can say with St. Anselm: "Let me seek you in desiring you, Lord, let me desire you in seeking you" (21). They are possessed by the desire to be possessed by God who is the ground of their being and their ultimate fulfilment. The human person is really a metaphysical misfit in this world. He was not made for it and cannot find total fulfilment in it. Hence he is a frustrated creature in this world; this can be taken as a definition of man. Monks and nuns are people who accept this definition of themselves and live accordingly. They know that they have no lasting city here on earth, so they turn to the desert where they hope to meet God and can begin to find part of that ultimate happiness for which they long. It is desire which leads them to the desert and keeps them there in spite of the difficulties they encounter. Desire is an unquenchable longing to taste and see the living God even amid the aridity and shadows of the desert.
Prayer of Incompetence
The desert is a classic symbol of the monastic life and it is particularly apt in reference to monastic prayer. It is easy to be lyrical when speaking of prayer but the reality of praying is anything but lyrical. A realistic appraisal of the experience of prayer must lead one to acknowledge that most people meet with growing dissatisfaction and frustration when they come to spend time in prayer. Normally one begins with a honeymoon period when prayer is easy and even exciting but then it becomes boring, and those who keep on trying to pray feel they are getting nowhere. Distractions abound; the imagination runs riot; they are unable to concentrate for more than two seconds; and, worst of all, there does not seem to be anything to concentrate on. Prayer appears to be impossible. This is what Cardinal Hume calls the "prayer of incompetence". He writes: "... this, I think, is the normal experience of many of us. A method does not help; images or ideas seem to be obstacles, and yet when we abandon these we find we still have no awareness of God. It is at this point that we are tempted to give up" (22).
We have said that prayer consists of watching, waiting, yearning and desiring. These can be, and often are, painful experiences. We are watching for a sign from the Lord, like the serving girl in Psalm 122, and he does not seem to take any notice of us. We are waiting and yearning for him, and he gives no tangible or audible response to our longing. The absence of God is what we are conscious of, not his presence. When we are tempted to give up in discouragement, as we are at this stage, it is desire which will support us and help us to continue waiting and watching and yearning.
For so much of the way we are faced with the desert experience and the desert is not a pleasant or comfortable place to be. It is arid and unexciting; it is full of "hardships and difficulties" but these, according to Benedict, will lead the monk to God (23). Hence the desert calls for patience, endurance, hope and desire. However painful, the desert experience is good because it brings home to us that of ourselves we can do nothing, and are- totally dependent on God. St. Paul explains what is happening in this seemingly impossible situation when we want to pray and yet feel we are quite incapable of doing so. In the Letter to the Romans he says: "The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words" (24). Prayer is really the work of the Holy Spirit within us. It is a gift. The most we can do is to prepare ourselves to receive this gift by leaving ourselves open to the Spirit and allowing him to pray in us. Perseverance at prayer will demand strong faith and unshakeable hope. We may often have to remind ourselves of what G. K. Chesterton is reported to have said: "Whatever is worth doing is worth doing badly", because most people feel that, when it comes to praying, they do it very badly indeed.
This formless, wordless, imageless type of prayer is, in reality, simple contemplative prayer. It is called by a variety of namesthe prayer of faith, prayer of simple regard, centring prayer, prayer of the heart. Ronald Knox called it the prayer of stupidity (25), a title which describes it most aptly. Spending time in this kind of prayer appears to be so stupid. There is nothing to show for it, and it all seems to be a sheer waste of time. But it is not a waste of time. The Holy Spirit is praying within us at this stage but he does not allow us to be conscious of what he is doing. The ancient monks used to say that we pray best when we do not know we are praying.
Presence of God
The sense of God's all-embracing presence permeates the Rule of Benedict who would have his monks and nuns live in this presence at all times and in all places. In Chapter 19 he says: "We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that in every place the eyes of the Lord are watching the good and the wicked. But beyond the least doubt we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine office" (26). This mindfulness of God's presence underlies the Opus Dei in a special way, as Benedict indicates, but it also underpins every other activity of the monastic day. If the divine presence is to be a living reality and influence the lives of monks and nuns it needs to be called to mind on a regular and frequent basis. St. Benedict was well aware of man's proneness to forget God, and therefore he made provision for frequent reminders in the monk's life, so that he might re-focus his mindfulness of God. Thus, apart from the liturgical offices, which are very obvious reminders, Benedict lays down that meals should always begin and end with prayer (27). The kitchen servers are to ask for prayers and a blessing before and after their duties (28); so, too, the reader in the refectory (29). Guests to be welcomed with prayer (30) In general, every time a monk begins a good work, he is to ask God to bring it to perfection (31). Benedict's concern to point his followers frequently to the divine presence reveals his appreciation of man's psychological need for stimuli to help him to re-focus his attention on God. Every moment of the day, every duty to be performed, every person one meets is to be seen as an opportunity of meeting God, the God of one's desire. "Ultimately praying is living, working, loving, accepting, the refusal to take anything or anyone for granted, but rather to try to find Christ in and through them all" (32). In this sense prayer is a kind of undercurrent at every moment of the day, a deep reaching out to the presence of God in all persons and in all things, which does not interfere with a monk's or nun's activities or thoughts.
Christ is at the centre of-Benedict's spirituality. He would have his followers see Christ in the abbot (33), in their brothers and sisters in community, in the sick (34), in the guests and the poor who come to the monastery (35). Those who sincerely try to put this into practice cannot but develop a deep, ongoing relationship with Christ. Life for them does not mean tearing themselves away from other people in order to find Christ, but seeing and loving and serving him in everyone whose life they touch. Every encounter in their lives becomes Christocentric and they enter more and more into the heart of Christ and into his prayer to the Father. In them Christ prays his prayer of praise and love to the glory of his Father and their Father.
Simplification of Prayer
As monks and nuns progress in their monastic commitment their prayer tends to become simpler, more in rhythm with the simple tenor of their life. They use fewer words. The repetition of a few texts of scripture or even a single word is sufficient to put them in contact with God and prayer flows almost unknown to themselves. Some modern methods of prayer make the exercise so complicated that they are inclined to put people off praying. On the contrary, the reality of prayer is extremely simple. At least St. Benedict regarded it as such. In a word, it is being open to God's presence at every moment of the day.
The Rule of Benedict brings a balance and wholeness into the life of those who live by it. Christ is encountered in every action and circumstance of their daily life. They respond to the Christ they meet in so many different ways throughout the day in praise, in wonder, in gratitude, in love, in service. Their response is not merely on the intellectual level but on the level of the whole person. In this way no dichotomy is set up between God and everything that goes to make up the monk's and nun's life. The search for God leads them to find him in all places and at all times, not just at the tunes specifically set aside for formal prayer. They find God, not by abstracting from the people and situations they meet, but m these very people and situations. These can become the very stuff of their prayer. Prayer reflects and expresses life. "Perhaps the best way of describing St. Benedict's way of prayer is to say that it is the natural outcome of a life dedicated to grace. He treats the subject with modesty and with brevity, and yet the whole content of the Benedictine life emanates from prayer, understood in its broadest sense, as relationship with God; a life lived in his presence in a growing, permeating consciousness of what that presence means" .(36) The whole of a monk's or nun's life is wrapped in prayer.
One of the loveliest descriptions of prayer I have come across is relaxing into the realisation that God loves you. This is what prayer is all about. It is relaxing, not straining or making oneself tense by one's mental efforts to say prayers or to be recollected. Once we realise that God loves us with a personal and infinite love and is seeking us in all the circumstances and events of our daily life, then we shall be content to allow God to love us to his heart's content. Prayer for Christians is as simple and as far-reaching as that.
1. Cf. R.B. chapter 58
2. Lk. 18:1
3. Acts 1:14
4. Conference 18
5. The Rule of Saint Benedict, p. l31, CS 54
6. RB 19:7
7. Esther de Waal, Seeking God, p. 145
8. Heb. 10 :7
9. John 4:34
10. RB 71: 1
11. RB 5:1
12. John 6:38
13. RB 7: 32 end 34
14. RB 68
15. RB 48
16. RB prol. 1
17. Sermon 86, Song of Songs
18. Psalm 122: 2-3
19. Commentary on the Psalms, Psalm 37: 13-14
20. Homily 6 on Prayer
21. Proslogion chapter I
22. Searching for God, p. 122
23. RB 58: 8
24. Rom. 8:26
25. The Clergy Review Vol. XVII, 1939, p. 2 ff.
26. RB 19:1-2
27. RB 43
28. RB 35
29. RB 38
30. RB 53
31. RB Prologue 4
32. Esther de Waal, Seeking God, p. 152
33. RB 2:2
34. RB 36: 1
35. RB 53:1 and 1 5
36. Esther de Waal, Seeking God, p. 154
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Haddington, Scotland, EH41 4LW

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