Personal Musings: July 2012 Archives

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This is the view tonight from my window at the Monastère Sainte-Anne-de-Montmahoux in France. Although I planned to remain until Friday, I received news this morning of the death in County Leitrim of my dear old Cousin John McKeon. I last saw John on the occasion of his 89th birthday only a few weeks ago. I am John's next-of-kin in Ireland, and so must return there tomorrow to make arrangements for his funeral and burial. I would ask the readers of Vultus Christi to say a prayer for the happy repose of his soul.

Meeting the Saints

How and when did Saint Benedict come into my life? He was not among the saints whom I came to know as a small boy in my parish church. Little children readily engage with images. The statues that graced my parish church -- I can still see them in my mind's eye from left to right -- were of Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Patrick, Our Blessed Lady, the Sacred Heart, Saint Joseph, Saint Thérèse, and Saint Anne. There were five stained glass windows: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Stigmatization of Saint Francis. These were the images that, at a very early age, drew me into the mysteries of the faith, bringing heaven very close to earth, and making it possible for me to hold conversation with the saints in glory.

Enter Abbot Marmion

Saint Benedict came into my life when I was about fifteen years old. The monastic ideal had already laid hold of my soul, and my search was well underway. Visiting Saint Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, U.S.A., I was introduced to Christ, the Ideal of the Monk, by Blessed Abbot Columba Marmion. Heavy reading for a fifteen year old in the torment of the 1960s! I remain grateful to Father Marius Granato for putting Dom Marmion's classic into my hands, It was in Christ, the Ideal of the Monk that I came to know Saint Benedict in the best way possible: by coming to know his Holy Rule.

Saint Benedict and the Holy Rule

Blessed Abbot Marmion and Saint Benedict joined me on my journey, then, at the same time. I still remember the fire that burned in my heart as I turned the pages of Christ, the Ideal of the Monk, and received the impression of its teaching, like letters engraved on a clean wax tablet. In reading Saint Benedict, as transmitted by Blessed Abbot Marmion, I could almost hear the sound of the Master's voice. The Rule began to fascinate me and to fashion me. For me, as for Bossuet, it was un mystérieux abrégé de l'Évangile, "a mysterious abridgment of the Gospel".

Stormy Years

By the time I had turned eighteen -- a mere three years later -- I had resolved to become a monk, a son of Saint Benedict. These were, of course, frightfully stormy years in the Church: not at all a good time for a young man desirous of engaging with an ideal in all its shining purity. The very things that I thrilled to discover in my reading were, at the same time, being contested and rejected by those to whom they had been given in heritage.

The storms unleashed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and by the tumultuous events of 1968, tore through the cloisters of nearly every monastery in North America and, in so doing, tore through the very hearts of those who dwelt in them. One had the impression that nothing was absolute, nothing immutable, nothing sacred. The tyranny of relativism replaced the tyrannies of legalism and rubricism that the reformers decried so bitterly. Things happened and attitudes prevailed that were in no way compatible with the vocation that Thomas Merton had described so eloquently in The Silent Life.

Stranger in Babylon

These years corresponded, as well, with the emergence of the charismatic renewal among Catholics. It was, as I remember it, rather Protestant in ethos and in sensibility. While I saw many souls opened to a deeper experience of prayer, I saw just as many distance themselves from the sacraments, from the liturgy in all its richness, and from devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to Our Lady. (Some of these elements later came back into focus in charismatic circles.) Having found my soul's true voice in Gregorian Chant as a small boy, and having been nourished from my adolescence on the Divine Office in English, and on Pius Parsch's The Church's Year of Grace, the experience of the charismatic renewal left me feeling like a stranger in Babylon. I was far more interested in the grace that, for me, seeped out of the antiphons at First Vespers of a particular feast than in what I experienced at prayer meetings. It was all very disconcerting.

The Threshold Once Crossed

At nineteen I had my first experience of Benedictine life, completing a novitiate of two years, wrestling, like Jacob, with angels in the night, and humbled by recurrent health problems. During that time my love for Saint Benedict and the Holy Rule grew exponentially. It was clear, in spite of all the halts and detours, that Saint Benedict had taken me into his family, that he recognized me as his son, and that he would not abandon me.

Gratitude

All these many years later, I can say that Saint Benedict has been a patient companion and loving father through my life. Amidst the choices, changes, and challenges that have marked my route, one phrase from the Holy Rule, the last of the Instruments of Good Works in Chapter IV has kept me on course: Never to despair of the mercy of God. For this alone I am grateful to Saint Benedict this evening, and for this I hope to thank him one day in paradise.

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The Grace of the Liturgic Word

In offering Holy Mass and in preaching here at the Monastère-Sainte-Anne de Montmahoux, I am profoundly moved at the gracious condescension of God who deigns to speak to us though the texts and chants of the Sacred Liturgy. How important it is to go to the Holy Sacrifice fully expecting to hear the Word of God and to experience an inbreaking of His merciful love. Yesterday in my homily I reminded the Sisters of that life-changing episode in the life of Saint Antony of Egypt, the Father of Monks: entering church at the moment of the Holy Gospel, he heard the word of Jesus addressed to him personally and was compelled, by the grace that always accompanies the liturgic Word, to leave church straightway and conform his life to what he heard.

A Long and Crucifying Fidelity

The Sisters here at Montmahoux are embarking on a new phase of their monastic development. The story of a vocation unfolds over a lifetime; it is a story written by the hand of God in a series of chapters, each one of which is rich in surprises, in sorrows, and in joys. More often than not the development of a vocation over a lifetime involves setbacks, contradictions, and apparent -- I say apparent -- instability. Happily, God does not judge the changes and chances in one's life as men do. Good people, and even members of the monastic establishment, can be harsh in judging as instability what God may well see as a long and crucifying fidelity to the underlying values of Benedictine life: the search for God in humility and obedience, perseverance in His praise, and the resolve never to despair of His mercy.

The Germination of New Life

Each of the Sisters here began her monastic journey in a different monastery. Each one was led, after a number of years, to embrace another expression of the same fundamental Benedictine vocation. And each one found herself again, after a number of years, called to collaborate in giving life to a new monastery, a mature expression of the seed of life that, silently and imperceptibly, has been germinating for so long in her heart. I am sympathetic to the monastic journey of these women because it so closely resembles my own. As I discern the provident Hand of God in their life, I am able to see more clearly that same provident Hand in my own.

Stability

Just as an apparent stability can veil an underlying instability, so too can an apparent instability veil an underlying stability. Many years ago, when I was very young, foolish, and immature, I encountered, at Subiaco in Italy, a wise old monk of the French Abbey of La-Pierre-Qui-Vire. I opened my soul to him, and told him of my search for place and a community in which and with whom I could, as the Holy Rule says, "truly seek God." The wise old monk comforted me, explaining that, at the end of the day, the only stability that matters is stability in the Heart of Jesus.

Risk-Takers

There are those who look upon new monasteries with suspicion, forgetting that, in every generation, the age-old and deeply rooted Benedictine trunk puts forth new shoots and branches. Some of these will thrive and become strong; others will flourish for a time and then be pruned away. Some of the grand abbeys that are today renowned for their solidity and prestige began as little nuclei of risk-takers advancing step by step in obscurity, in poverty, and in uncertainty.

Spiritual Contraception

Far more dangerous to the Church than the burgeoning of new monastic communities is the systematic practise of spiritual contraception by which every fragile manifestation of new life is either thwarted or aborted. While prudence, discernment, and a healthy scrutiny are always necessary, it is equally necessary to reject the mentality of spiritual contraception by which new endeavours of life for God alone are snuffed out while still in their embryonic stage, thereby depriving the Church of signs of vitality that are, at the same time, signs of an irrepressible hope.

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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