Monastic: February 2012 Archives

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I preached this homily before Summorum Pontificum, hence the references are to the reformed Benedictine lectionary, which readings are, it must be noted, quite splendid.

Hosea 2:16bc, 17cd, 21-22
Psalm 15
Revelation 19:1, 5-9a
Luke 10:38-42

How Little We Know

In a hymn composed some years ago for today's feast, a Benedictine friend of mine addressed Saint Scholastica, saying:

How little do we know
revealing who you are:
this silence, born of peace,
perhaps speaks even more.

Into The Treasury of the Liturgy

Apart from a few precious pages in the Dialogues of Saint Gregory, we know nothing of Saint Scholastica. The little revealed by Saint Gregory has, nonetheless, inspired an astonishing richness of liturgical texts: antiphons, responsories, hymns, and prayers. Like miners in search of a vein of pure gold, anonymous poets through the ages have extracted from Saint Gregory's few pages the raw material of chants and prayers that, even today, delight us and draw us into the heavenward flight of Scholastica, the pure dove.

There is so much to see, to hear, to taste, to smell:
-- psalms of praise sung around a table, men's and women's voices in antiphony;
-- the breaking of bread and the fragrance of wine poured out;
-- the impassioned sound of Mediterranean conversation;
-- two saints locked in a holy difference of opinion;
-- Scholastica's hands folded upon the table;
-- her head bowed and resting upon her hands;
-- her tears flowing freely;
-- the pentecostal wind, the crash of thunder and blaze of lightning;
-- the torrential downpour, heaven's answer to a woman's tears.

The Upward Flight of the Dove

In the end, Saint Gregory leaves us with the image of the dove, dazzling white in flight, disappearing into the light, and with the sound of Saint Benedict's voice raised in praise. That perhaps is more than enough for us, but in the readings of today's Mass we are given still more.

Bethany

The liturgy, wildly lavish -- precisely because it is the gift of a God lavish in love, offers us today a kind of triptych, three icons hinged together. At the center is the icon painted by Saint Luke. See Jesus seated in the holy house of Bethany. At his feet, see Mary, fixed in the stability of love, listening intently, the words of the Word falling into the open vessel of her heart. In the background, see Martha, bustling with anxious energy, fragmented and mobilized by a multitude of cares and, for all of that, conscious enough of the presence of Jesus to address her complaints to him and to no other.

In the School of Christ

The scene is both strangely the same and yet different from the one described by Saint Gregory. In the Dialogues, the meal has already taken place, the bread has been broken and the darkness has fallen. In the Gospel the meal has yet to take place but Jesus, anticipating the breaking of bread, is feeding Mary with his Word, causing the brightness of his glory to shine like the daystar in her heart. Christ is the Benedictus, the Blessed of the Father, speaking blessings, -- bene dicere -- uttering the good things that proceed from the goodness of his heart. Mary is the Scholastica, having placed herself in the schola Christi, the school of Christ. Martha, caught betwixt fear and freedom, is the tension between life's regular demands -- those of the Regula, the Rule -- and the surpassing primacy of a love set free from fear.

A Door of Hope in the Desert

To the left of the central panel is an icon having, at first glance, none of the comforting warmth of Saint Luke's domestic scene. It depicts the desert, the archetypical monastic setting. We see the bride wooed by Love into the desert only to discover there a gift of vineyards and, in the valley of Achor (meaning "trouble") a door of hope. Scholastica, having inclined the ear of her heart to the Word becomes, in the desert, the sponsa Verbi, the bride of the Word. She passes through the door of hope opened by the Bridegroom and invites us to follow in her steps.

What God Has Prepared for Those Who Love Him

The third panel could not be more different from the first. It reveals what lies beyond the desert, mysteries prepared on the other side of the door of hope: "what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him" (1 Cor 2:9). An icon speaks to the eyes, shimmering with the light of heaven, and yet, if you put your ear to it in lectio divina, you will hear "the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals" (Ap 19:6). Waters and thunderpeals again! Images borrowed by Saint Gregory!

The Time of Singing Has Come

Listen closely: you will hear the sound of voices rejoicing at the marriage supper of the Lamb. There is the voice of a man; it is that of Benedict celebrating the triumph of Love. There is the voice of a woman; it is Scholastica singing a song never to be interrupted. "Lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone . . . the time of singing has come" (Ct 2:11-12). Today, Scholastica and Benedict together invite us to the Supper of the Lamb.

A Remarkable Discovery

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I don't know how many Benedictine readers Vultus Christi has. It occurred to me nonetheless that I should share this text -- apocryphal though it may be -- for the feast of Saint Scholastica.

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A Letter Attributed to Saint Scholastica, Virgin and Abbess

A certain researcher in Rome recently uncovered the manuscript of a late medieval copy of an earlier copy of a letter attributed to Scholastica, abbess of Plombariola. The original letter appears to have been written to another abbess, named Flavia, in about the year 535. It treats of the observance of Lent.

Salutation

To my beloved sister in Christ, the Lady Flavia, abbess of the handmaids of the Lord near Benevento. Grace and peace from Scholastica, abbess in the school of the Lord's service that is at Plombariola.

The School of the Lord's Service

Your letter brought me much joy and, bound by the sweetness of affection that unites us in holy friendship, I hasten to respond to your questions “with sincere and humble charity” (RB 72:10). Know that I have no teaching of my own; from the time of my veiling (velatio) the commands and teaching of my brother, blessed by grace and by name, “have mingled like the leaven of divine justice in my mind” (RB 25). In truth, dear sister, he who is my brother according to the flesh, has become my father in the Spirit. It was he who named me Scholastica, saying that, like him, I was destined to remain in the “school of the Lord’s service” (RB Pro:45). In this school I have found “nothing that is harsh or hard to bear” (RB Pro:46). On the contrary, through the continual practice of monastic observance and the life of faith” (RB Pro:49), my heart is opened wide, and even now I am running in the way of God’s commandments in a sweetness of love that is beyond words (cf. RB Pro: 49).

The Yearly Visit

I see my venerable brother but once a year, and even then he refuses to come to me, not wanting to leave the enclosure of his monastery. I am obliged to go to him at Monte Cassino, inspired by the example of the Queen of the South who traveled far to sit at the feet of Solomon and listen to his wisdom. My brother himself says that “we must hurry to do now what will profit us forever” (RB Pro 44). I will continue to go to him as long as I am able to make the journey, trusting that he who formed us together in our mother’s womb will one day bring us “together to life everlasting” (cf. RB 73:12).

Holy Lent

You ask me to tell you how we observe Lent here at Plombariola. My venerable brother, in his “little Rule written for beginners” (RB 73:8), says that “a monk’s life ought at all seasons to bear a Lenten character” (RB 49:1). He is also the first to admit that “such strength is found only in the few” (RB 49:2). Following his teaching, I urge my sisters to “keep the holy days of Lent with a special purity of life, and also at this holy season to make reparation for the failings of other times” (RB 49:3). I try to order Lent in my monastery with “discretion, the mother of virtues” (RB 54:19) in such a way that “the strong may desire to carry more, and the weak are not afraid” (RB 54:19). The task of ruling souls and serving women of different characters is, as you know well, arduous and difficult (cf. RB 2:31). I must adapt and fit myself to all. Dear old Nonna Fabiola needs to be encouraged. Sister Petronilla, thick-skinned as she is, responds only to sharp rebuke, whereas Sister Anastasia has to be persuaded. With some, I have to be tough, and with others lovingly affectionate. This is my brother’s way, and by following it, I have “not lost any of the flock entrusted to me, and rejoice as my good flock increases” (RB 2:32).

But I digress, dear Mother Flavia. Your question was about Lent. My venerable brother says that we are to “guard ourselves from faults” during this holy time. To do this, one must “always remember all God’s commandments, and constantly turn over in one’s heart how hell will burn those who despise him by their sins and how eternal life has been prepared for those who fear him” (RB 7:11). My brother calls this the first step of humility. As for me, my faults appear daily in the bright mirror of the Scriptures. I have no excuse for putting off the labour of my conversion. As the psalmist says: “Thou hast set our evil-doings before Thee, our secret sins in the light of Thy countenance” (Ps 89:8).

Psalmody

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The Grace of Psalmody

There is a particular grace attached to psalmody. Psalmody softens the heart, making it penetrable to Divine Love. It opens the eyes of the soul to the deifying light, by which one begins to see and judge things as God sees them. It establishes the soul in communion with the prayer of Christ to the Father. It is a bulwark against the assaults of demonic powers; a sweetness to the palate of the soul when all else is bitter; a substantial daily bread to sustain the soul when she has lost the taste for all else.

Vatican II and the Loss of Psalmody

I cannot help but wonder, however, if today, this particular grace is less common than it once might have been. The "daily debt" of psalmody, the pensum once paid to God by all monks, has, in many places, become markedly reduced. Saint Benedict's injunction, that monks are bound to say in one week the 150 psalms that our first fathers were accustomed to say in a single day, was in many places swept away in the confusion following the Second Vatican Council, and this in direct violation of the Conciliar mandate that monks and religious were to return to their original charism.

Semper in Ore Psalmus

Here in the Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle we do, insofar as human weakness allows, pray the entire Psalter over one week. I would not renounce this privilege, this gift, this inestimable grace for anything in the world. The old monastic aphorism is true: Semper in ore psalmus; semper in corde Christus. With a psalm always in one's mouth, Christ is always in one's heart.

The Liturgy of the Hours, a Success?

The drastic reduction of psalmody in the Roman Liturgy of the Hours has not had the effect that certain of the reformers of the 60s (and earlier) thought it would. Psalmody, as such, has become a form of prayer that, increasingly, is foreign even to the clergy. It is perhaps time for a return to the ideal of the 150 psalms prayed over a single week. Even if all clergy cannot fulfill the ideal, it should not, for that reason alone, be abrogated. One cannot say that the reformed Liturgia Horarum has been a success. I propose that it be critically revisited in the light of the historical ideal (and sometimes, practice) of the Psalter distributed over one week.

Return to the Weekly Psalter

The weekly Psalter might better be envisaged as a work of the whole Church. What one cannot say, another will take up, and this without any legalistic attempt at orchestration of the whole. Even if, for example, a busy parish priest can say no more than Lauds, Vespers, and Compline, he would find comfort in knowing that others are completing the weekly Psalter on his behalf. Thus would the parish priest begin to look to monastic communities, not as entities distant and detached from his personal experience, but as the organic completion of his own prayer, and the assurance that what he cannot do will, in effect, be brought to completion elsewhere.

Saint Romuald

This morning at Matins, the lesson of the Second Nocturn was taken from Saint Peter Damian's life of Saint Romuald. It was, Saint Peter Damian relates, while psalmodizing in his cell that Saint Romuald received the grace of compunction that he had long desired.

He ardently desired to pour forth tears, but no effort of his succeeded in bringing him to the compunction of a contrite heart. It happened however one day whilst he was psalmodizing in his cell that he came upon this verse of the psalm: "I shall give thee understanding and instruct in the way that thou shalt go; I shall set my eyes upon thee." All of a sudden, so great an abundance of tears began to pour forth from his eyes, and his spirit was so illumined to understand the Scriptures, that from this day forward and for as long as he lived and whensoever he wished, he easily shed copious tears, and many mysteries of the Scriptures were uncovered to him. Frequently, the contemplation of the Divinity ravished him.

The Treasure Buried in the Field

Seek the intercession of Saint Romuald today for the grace of perseverance in psalmody. Not everyone has the grace of prolonged silent prayer, but there are very few who cannot open the Psalter, and read it, plodding, as it were, from verse to verse, and waiting upon the visitation of Divine Grace. When it comes, it comes swiftly and unexpectedly. It uncovers the treasure that lay hidden in the vast field of the Psalter -- Jesus Christ -- and in that moment, one knows that not a word of the psalms pronounced in dryness and obscurity was uttered in vain or lost to God.

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.

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