Monastic: January 2013 Archives

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Several years ago, on a visit to the Irish College in Rome where the ever gracious Father Bernard Healy, then a student there, I was able to take a picture of this original photograph of Dom Columba Marmion. The Abbot of Maredsous disguised himself as a cattle trader in order to cross the Channel during World War I. It was on this occasion that, when asked for his passport, Dom Marmion replied with a smile, "I'm Irish, and the Irish need no passport, except to get into hell, and it's not to hell that I'm going!" He was allowed to cross the border.

Death is not improvised. We die as we have lived. Life fully lived, with one's eyes fixed on the Face of Jesus, even in this valley of tears where faith alone pierces the night, is an apprenticeship in the art of dying well, l'art de bien mourir. For many years, on the anniversary of the death of Dom Marmion, I would open his biography by Dom Raymond Thibaut, and turning to the last chapter, I would re-read the account of his holy death on January 30, 1923. Today I am sharing these moving pages with all of you, dear readers.

I Will Love Thee, O Lord
Tuesday the 30th was to be the last day of his earthly life. As on other days, he was able to receive the Bread of Life. On this feria in Septuagesima week the Mass was that of the preceding Sunday, Circumdederunt me gemitus mortis. "The sorrows of death," thus begins the Introit, "encompassed me; in my affliction I called upon the Lord, and He heard my voice from His holy temple . . . I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength: the Lord is my firmament, my refuge, and my deliverer."
Trust
For him it was that all his sons repeated the liturgical words of the Gradual, so applicable to that hour: "Thou art, O Lord, a helper in due time of tribulation: let them trust in Thee who know Thee: for Thou hast not forsaken them that seek Thee."
Evening Was Come
Dom Columba had "sought" the Lord; he had made that "sincere seeking after God" required by Saint Benedict the law of his whole life. Had he not been of those who, according to the words of Saint Paul in the Epistle of the Mass, had run in the race that he might receive the prize? Or again, according to Our Saviour's own parable, repeated in the Gospel of the day, was he not among those labourers whom the Father of the household sent to his vineyard, there to work unremittingly for the glory of their Master? Now "evening was come," and the faithful servant, after having borne "the burden of the day and their heats," was about to receive his wages.
His strength continued to ebb, and it was clear that the end was near. In the afternoon Dom Marmion's confessor came to comfort him with these words:
"Mon Révérendissime Père, you are soon going to appear before Our Lord Jesus Christ; show Him now that unshaken confidence that you have preached so often."
Mercy
The dying monk was no longer able to articulate a distinct reply. But no words could have been more fitting at that moment than those just spoken to that soul ready to vibrate at every word of faith. His prayer, moreover, responded to this suggestion; he was many times heard to repeat that verse of the Magnificat: "He hath received Israel His servant, being mindful of His mercy." Recordatus misericordiae suae.
Into Peace With Thee
In the evening, about five o'clock, the community assembled for the Recommendation of the Departing Soul, while the dying abbot held the blessed candle in his hand. Dom Robert de Kerchove, the Father Abbot President of the Congregation, recited the prayers to which the community responded. A touching sight was this crown of sons encircling a venerated father with their prayers, and inviting all the heavenly court to come to aid and meet a soul on its passing to eternity. And how striking were certain of the invocations, considering the circumstances:
"O God most merciful, O God most loving and kind, look favourably upon Thy servant Columba, and deign to hear him. Lord, have pity on his sighs, have pity on his tears, and since his only hope is in Thy mercy, grant him the grace to enter into peace with Thee. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. . . ."
Cast Me Not Away From Thy Face
The prayers, being ended, the community withdrew; only a few privileged ones remained. Supplications for the dying man were continuous and grew ever more earnest; in low tones those near him repeated the Litany of Our Lady, the Psalms most appropriate for the occasion: Qui habitat in adjutorio Altissimi; the Benedictus. From time to time those texts on which his soul had been nourished were suggested to him: "O Jesus, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. . . . No man cometh to the Father but by Me. . . . Gladly will I glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may dwell in me. . . . Lord, cast me not away from Thy face!"
Heart of Jesus
The last prayer proved to be the Litany of the Sacred Heart, where are summed up all the acts of confidence of a believing, loving soul: "Heart of Jesus, salvation of them that hope in Thee. . . . Hope of them that die in Thee. . . ." And then: "Jesus, Mary, Joseph"; and finally, the supreme invocation, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus . . . !"
The Moment of Eternity
About half-past nine his breathing became sensibly fainter, his face grew pallid, the moment of eternity had come. The dying abbot's brow was asperged with holy water, the crucifix was held for him to kiss. Shortly before ten o'clock one last effort, a contraction of the lips: the soul had escaped from its mortal frame.
The prior at once recited the Subvenite: "Come, ye saints of God . . . come forth to meet him, ye angels of the Lord! . . . May Christ Who hath called thee, receive thee forever into His kingdom. . . ."

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In 1979, while visiting the Abbey of Chambarand in France, the chaplain, Dom Irénée, was kind enough to drive Father Jacob and me to the magnificent Abbey of Saint-Antoine, a holy place hidden in the heart of the Isère. Yes, the relics of Saint Antony of Egypt are in France!

The abbey, with its church in flamboyant gothic, was built in 1297 to receive the relics of the Father of Monks. In 1777 the abbey was made over to the Order of the Knights of Malta, and in 1896 it was entrusted to Dom Adrien Gréa and his fledgling Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception. What I remember best of that visit thirty-two years ago was stopping to pray before the altar containing the relics of Saint Antony. Never would I have imagined the possibility of such a grace!

Here are some of the Proper Texts for the Mass of Saint Antony, Abbot:

Collect

O God, who bestowed on the blessed abbot Antony
the grace of serving you in the desert by a strange and wonderful way of life,
grant that, through his intercession, we may renounce ourselves
and love you always above all things.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God forever and ever.

General Intercessions

That the Church in East and West may be blessed
with a new generation of God-seeking men and women,
hungry for the living Word of God
and courageous in spiritual combat,
to the Lord we pray, Christ hear us. R. Christ, graciously hear us.

That the leaders of nations
may be assisted in their efforts to secure a just and lasting peace
by the prayer and penance
of those called to a life hidden with Christ in God,
to the Lord we pray, Christ hear us. R. Christ, graciously hear us.

That, by the intercession of Saint Antony,
the grieving may go away rejoicing,
the angry turned to kindness,
those grown slack strengthened,
and those troubled by doubts pacified,
to the Lord we pray, Christ hear us. R. Christ, graciously hear us.

That we who have assembled to listen to the Word
may, like Saint Antony, rejoice to confess the presence of Christ
and be transformed by His all-powerful and life-giving Spirit,
to the Lord we pray, Christ hear us. R. Christ, graciously hear us.

Collect at the General Intercessions

O God, who by Your Holy Spirit,
so opened the ears of your servant Antony
to the Gospel proclaimed in midst of Your Church,
that nothing of its saving message escaped him,
mercifully grant that we, like him,
may listen attentively to Your Word,
treasure it in quiet hearts,
and pray without ceasing
to withstand the temptations of the evil one
and to give You glory
in the solitude of hearts made pure by Your grace.
Through Christ our Lord.


Our Father Saint Antony

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Saint Antony and Signor Siciliano

Isn't this a wonderful painting of Saint Antony? Flemish Jan Gossaert painted it in Rome in 1508 as the right panel of a diptych. The left panel (not shown) depicts the Mother of God. What interests me is the relationship between Saint Antony and the donor, one Antonio Siciliano.

The Ear of the Heart

Notice the holy abbot's right hand gently touching Signor Siciliano's shoulder. In his left hand Saint Antony holds the book of the Scriptures and his prayer beads. Antony's face is sweet and gentle. His ear is exposed: that ear through which the Word of God entered his mind and descended into his heart.

The donor, in contrast, appears sincere, but stiff; he is looking toward the Madonna on the other panel. His rigid piety lacks the seasoned humanity of the old abbot, tried by temptation and marked by compassion.

Signor Siciliano's dog is wearing a stylish red collar. He is gazing at his master, fascinated by what is going on. Picture yourself in the place of Signor Siciliano. Let the hand of Saint Antony bless and guide you today.

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A Certain Primacy Among the Saints

The liturgy today makes it clear that Saint Antony of the Desert holds a certain primacy among the saints. The 1970 Missal gives a complete set of proper texts; the reformed Lectionary gives proper readings. (Is there a possibility of mutual enrichment here?) Antony is a primary reference, a model of how we are to hear the Word of God, an inspiration in spiritual combat, a radiant icon of holiness for the ages.

No Rest From Spiritual Combat

The feast of Saint Antony, falling between the Christmas festivities and Septuagesima, is an invitation to shake off the sluggishness that comes with winter, a bracing reminder that there is no rest from spiritual combat, and that "the monk's life ought at all seasons to bear a Lenten character" (RB 49:1). It is the custom in some monasteries on the feast of Saint Antony to go out to the barn to bless the animals. He is the patron of horses, pigs, cattle, and other domestic animals. Icons of Saint Antony often show his little pet pig nestled in the folds of his tunic. Our dog Hilda received her Saint Antony Day blessing very meekly.

Ice on the Holy Water

Making a trip to the barn in the mid-January cold may be as much of a blessing for the monks as for the animals. It is a wake-up call. One has to use the aspergillum to break the ice that forms on the Holy Water. One sees the animals shudder when the cold water hits them. These are very physical reminders of a spiritual truth. We cannot afford to become cozy and comfortable in a spirituality of feather comforters for the soul. From time to time we, like the barn animals, need the salutary shock of cold Holy Water splashed in our face!

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The Life of Antony

More than forty years ago Trappist Father Marius Granato (+ 10 November 2003) of Spencer introduced me to the Life of Antony by Saint Athanasius. Heady reading for a fifteen year old boy! Shortly thereafter a wise Father told me that one should read the Life of Antony once a year. These seasoned monks knew exactly what they were doing: they were proposing a model of holiness perfectly adapted to the ideals of a youth starting out on the spiritual journey. After all, the Life of Antony begins with an account of his boyhood. He was about "eighteen, or even twenty" when, going into church one day, he heard the Gospel being chanted, and understood that it was Christ speaking to him. "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me" (Mt 19:21).

A Book For All Ages

Why counsel an annual reading of the Life of Antony? Because it is a text that, in some way, grows with us. If it is suitable for the eager young seeker, it is just as suitable to the Christian wrestling with the oppressive noon-day devil or with the cunning demons of midlife. For the Christian faced with the onset of old age, it is a comforting book.

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He Never Looked Gloomy

The portrait of Saint Antony at the end of his life shows a man transfigured: "His face," says Saint Athanasius, "had a great and marvelous grace. . . . His soul being free of confusion, he held his outer senses also undisturbed, so that from the soul's joy his face was cheerful as well, and from the movements of the body it was possible to sense and perceive the stable condition of the soul, as it is written, 'When the heart rejoices, the countenance is cheerful." Antony . . . was never troubled, his soul being calm, and he never looked gloomy, his mind being joyous" (Life of Antony, 67).

The Lectionary

The Proper Readings given today in the reformed lectionary provide us with a rich lectio divina:

Spiritual combat (Eph 6:10-11).
Struggle with the powers of darkness (Eph 6:12-13).
Constant prayer in the Spirit (Eph 6:18).
Watchfulness (Eph 6:18).
God as chosen portion and cup (Ps 15:5).
God present and giving counsel, even in the night (Ps 15:7-8).
The voice of Christ calling to disappropriation (Mt 19:21).
The perfect life that leads to treasure in heaven (Mt 19:21).
The camel and the eye of the needle (Mt 19:24).

But With God All Things Are Possible

And finally, there is the very last line of the Gospel, the one line that fills us with an irrepressible hope: "With men this is impossible: but with God all things are possible"; (Mt 19:26)." It is this line that sends us to the altar today for the Thanksgiving Sacrifice.

Become Like a Consuming Fire

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The First Benedictine Oblates

In the Benedictine tradition, January 15th is the feast of the young disciples of Our Father Saint Benedict, Maur and Placid. Who are Maur and Placid and how do we know them? Saint Gregory the Great introduces them in his Life of Saint Benedict. He explains that after the holy Benedict had established his twelve monasteries at Subiaco, noble Christians came from Rome, presenting their sons to be raised and educated among the monks. These boys, offered by their parents to God, were the first "Oblates." Among them were Maur, an adolescent, the son of Euthicus, and Placid -- practically a toddler -- son of the patrician Tertullus. Maur quickly became Abbot Benedict's helper whereas Saint Gregory specifies that Placid was in "early childhood."

A Little Hand Wrapped in the Corporal

Picture for a moment the rite of their Oblation. It is intimately tied into the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We know exactly what was done from Chapter 59 of the Rule.

If it happens that a nobleman offers his son to God as a monk, and the child is still of tender age, the parents should make out the petition. . . . They should wrap this petition and the boy's hand together with the Mass offering in the altar cloth (the corporal) and offer him in that way" (RB 59:1).

I see Maur, a serious lad, conscious of what is happening when his hand is wrapped together with the offerings of bread and wine in the altar cloth. And I see, little Placid; his father probably had to lift him up in his arms to reach the altar. The poor little fellow must have been in awe of the solemn fuss being made of him.

A Eucharistic Vocation

The vocation of the Benedictine Oblate is essentially Eucharistic. The very word "oblate" is used to refer to the bread and wine placed upon the altar, the oblata, as well as to those who are ritually identified with the offering, the Oblates themselves. The Benedictine Oblate lives from the altar, and returns to the altar. Like the bread and wine destined to become the Body and Blood of Christ, the Oblate is offered at the altar and then given from the altar to live out his mystical identification with Christ, the hostia perpetua, by a life of conversion and obedience.

When Saint Benedict Prayed By Night

Saint Benedict obviously recognized the potential in Placid and Maur. Saint Gregory tells us that he chose the boy Placid to accompany him in a long nocturnal prayer on the mountain. "Accompanied by the little Placid," he says, "Benedict climbed the mountain. Once at the summit, he prayed for a long time." The solitary prayer of Saint Benedict imitates that of Jesus. "Jesus, rising early before dawn, went off to a deserted place where he prayed" (Mk 1:35). It is worth pondering how Placid's experience of seeing Saint Benedict pray by night must have marked him for life. Little boys are sensitive to such things.

Placid Rescued From the Water

The most famous story of Maur and Placid has to do with the little fellow going to fetch water in the lake. He falls into the water. Saint Benedict is made aware of the situation by a kind of charismatic clairvoyance. He sends Brother Maur to rescue the child Placid. Maur, having received his abbot's blessing, runs over the surface of the water, grabs Placid by the hair, pulls him out, and then runs back over the water to dry land, carrying the little one in his arms. Saint Benedict attributes the miracle to Maur's obedience. Maur says it was due to the virtue of Saint Benedict. Then the little Placid pipes up and settles the debate. "When you pulled me out of the water, he says, I saw over my head Father Abbot's hood, and I saw that it was he who pulled me from the water."

They Persevered

What is most significant, I think, in the story of Maur and Placid is that these two lads persevered in seeking God. If Maur and Placid persevered over a lifetime in seeking God, they surely suffered temptation and darkness, never despairing of the mercy of God. Maur and Placid, tested by suffering, became able to help those who are being tested. Perhaps this is why they became patrons of Benedictine novitiates everywhere.

Two Wise Old Nonni

The sign of the mature monk -- the nonnus, to use Saint Benedict's word for a senior in the monastery -- or of the mature nun -- the nonna -- is in their capacity for compassion, in their ability to identify with weakness, to sympathize with suffering, and above all in their refusal to judge.

We know nothing of the old age of Saints Maur and Placid but I see them as two wise old nonni. I see their youthful faces grown wrinkled and their beards white but in their eyes dances the flame of their first love, the interior fire kindled from the altar, set ablaze by the mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist on the day of their Oblation. It is the fire of the Eucharist that, burning in us, will consume all that is harsh, unbending, and ready to judge, leaving only the pure flame of a mercy that gives warmth and light. The Eucharistic vocation of Saints Placid and Maur bears witness to what Abba Joseph said to Abba Lot: "You cannot be a monk unless you become like a consuming fire."

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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