Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Archangels

In the old calendar, today is the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel. The new calendar calls it the Feast of the Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, Archangels.

This excerpt below is from the lessons for the office of matins in the Divine Office. The archaic translation may cause a little stumbling in your reading of it, but it still makes the point!

The Lesson is taken from the Sermons of Pope St Gregory the Great.
34th on the Gospels.
We say that there are nine Orders of Angels, for, by the witness of the holy Word, we know that there be Angels, Archangels, Mights, Powers, Principalities, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim. Nearly every page of the holy Word witnesseth that there be Angels and Archangels. The books of the Prophets, as is well known, do oftentimes make mention of Cherubim and Seraphim. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, counteth up the names of four Orders, where he saith

The Father of glory.. raised (Christ) from the dead, and set Him at His own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all Principality, and Power, and Might, and Dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come.

And the same, again, writing to the Colossians, saith:

(By (the Son) were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible,) whether they be Thrones, or Dominions, or Principalities, or Powers; (all things were created by Him and for Him.)

If, then, we add the Thrones to the four Orders of which he spake unto the Ephesians, we have five Orders; and when we add unto them the Angels and the Archangels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim, we find that the Orders of Angels are beyond all doubt nine.

But we must know that the word Angel is the designation, not of a nature, but of an office. Those holy spirits in the heavenly fatherland are always spirits, but they may no wise be always called Angels, (which is, being interpreted, messengers,) for they are Angels only when they are sent as Messengers. Hence also it is said by the Psalmist, ciii. 5, Who makest spirits thine Angels! x as if it were, Of them who are always with Him as spirits, He doth somewhiles make use as Messengers. They who go on the lesser messages are called Angels they who go on the greater Archangels.

Hence it is that unto the Virgin Mary was sent no common Angel, but the Archangel Gabriel. For the delivery of this, the highest message, it was meet that there should be sent the highest Angel. Their individual names also are so given as to signify the kind of ministry wherein each is powerful. Michael signifieth Who-is-like-unto-God? Gabriel, the Strength-of-God,and Raphael, the Medicine-of-God.

As often as anything very mighty is to be done, we see that Michael is sent, that by that very thing, and by his name, we may remember that none is able to do as God doeth. Hence that old enemy whose pride hath puffed him up to be fain to be like unto God, even he who said, I will ascend unto heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God… I will be like the Most High, (Isa. xiv. 13, 14,) this old enemy, when at the end of the world he is about to perish in the last death, having no strength but his own, is shown unto us a-fighting with Michael the Archangel, even as saith John, Apoc. xii. 7:  

There was war in heaven Michael and his Angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels.  

Unto Mary is sent Gabriel, whose name is interpreted the Strength of God, for he came to herald the appearing of Him Who was content to appear lowly that He might fight down the powers of the air.  
Raphael, also, as we have said, signifieth the Medicine-of-God, and it is the name of him who touched as a physician the eyes of Tobias, and cleared away his blindness.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Freedom of Chant

Anita at V-For-Victory has another good post on the Mass. Here’s the opening paragraph – be sure to read the rest.

Yesterday, I found myself at a Mass caught in the clutches of a sort of pop music "choir." The guitars, tambourines, mics, and bee-boppy quality of the repertoire destroyed all meditation and recollection.  I couldn't look at the priest through most of the Mass, because he was on the verge of dancing to the beat.  Despite the presence of a perfectly good choir loft, the oversized group and their many accoutrements were parked next to the altar.  The sight of even the best-behaved musicians next to the altar is a major distraction; even more so when they are dancing around and/or dressed outlandishly or immodestly.

Yet, for some reason, this circus is still considered by many to be preferable to sacred chant, in Latin…

Anita goes on to challenge us to experience the freedom of chant. “Try chant,” she says, adding (my emphasis):

Get used to singing it, or at least listening to it, and you find that it quite puts the lie to the idea that it and other aspects of traditional worship represent repression and hide-bound uptightness.  On the contrary, it opens our eyes to the difference between the banal and the transcendent.  
Be sure to read the whole thing here.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Fr. Andersen on Padre Pio

A homily by Fr. Eric M. Andersen, Sacred Heart-St. Louis in Gervais, OR 

Sept 23rd, 2012 Dominica XXV Per Annum, Anno B

“Let us beset the just one, for he is obnoxious to us…let us see whether his words be true; …let us put the just one to the test.”

These words from the book of Wisdom have been repeated by countless numbers of the faithful from the time it was written before Christ and throughout the Christian era. There is something irresistible that draws us toward holy people, but there can also be something that stirs up within us suspicion and envy. How can this man or this woman be so good? Is it a deception? This was the case among the pharisees and scribes as they encountered the very Son of God, Jesus Christ, standing before them in his sacred humanity. His holiness was just too much for them to bear. He was too perfect. There was surely something deceitful going on! Of course, we know the truth about Jesus. He was God and He was the perfection of holiness; the perfection of humanity.

We also know that He came so that we could aspire to that holiness, with His help. When we are in a state of grace, we have the gifts of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us so that we can imitate Him. Each of us is called to be a saint. But aspiring to sainthood, we place ourselves under the scrutiny of others who will question our holiness. And we find ourselves questioning others saying, “Let us put the just one to the test…if he be the son of God, God will defend him.”

Within the living memory of many today, there is a man who drew both suspicion and devotion from the highest tiers of the Church. In the year 2006, Pope Benedict XVI made available to scholars and the faithful the Secret Vatican Archives of the Holy Office for the years 1922-1939 (cf. Castelli. Padre Pio Under Investigation, 4). Among the archives emerged a file begun in 1921 which detailed the inquisition of a Capuchin priest known as Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. Why was this priest being investigated? Because the Holy Office had received reports that he was faking the stigmata. The stigmata refers to the wounds of Christ which Padre Pio had reportedly received, piercing his skin through the hands, feet and side.
Now, let’s go back to the year 1918 when the story begins. World War I is raging. Pope Benedict XV had called this war “the suicide of Europe” urging all Christians to pray for an end to the war (cf. Wikipedia). In response, a young Capuchin priest named Padre Pio offered himself to God as a victim that the war might be ended. Within the span of about a week, Padre Pio had an experience while hearing confessions which he later described: a celestial person appeared and hurled a flaming spear into his soul. In his own words, “Since that day, I am mortally wounded. It feels as if there is a wound in the center of my being that is always open and it causes constant pain” (Preziuso, The Life of Padre Pio, 103).

A month later, in September, Padre Pio celebrated the Mass and afterwards, he was praying in thanksgiving. He later wrote about what happened next:

“I was alone. . . after celebrating Mass, when I was overtaken by a repose similar to a sweet sleep. All my external and internal senses and all the faculties of my soul were in an indescribable quiet. During this time there was absolute silence around me and within me. There then followed a great peace and abandonment to total privation of everything. . . This all happened in an instant.

While all this was happening, I saw in front of me a mysterious person, similar to the one I had seen on August 5, except that now his hands and feet and side were dripping blood. His countenance terrified me. I don’t know how to tell you how I felt at that instant. I felt that I was dying, and I would have died had the Lord not intervened and sustained my heart, which felt as if it would burst forth from my chest. The countenance of the mysterious figure disappeared and I noticed that my hands and feet and side were pierced and oozing blood” (Preziuso 106).

When it was discovered what had happened, the saint was humiliated by the attention that everyone paid to him over this. But he was at peace that he could offer this suffering up to God united to the suffering of Jesus Christ on the Cross. He had been prepared for this by Jesus who had spoken to him in prayer several years before. Jesus had said to him:

Do not be afraid; I will make you suffer, but I will also give you strength. I desire that your soul, by a daily and hidden martyrdom, should be purified and tested. Do not be surprised if I permit the devil to tempt you, the world to disgust you, persons dearest to you to afflict you, because nothing can prevail against those who mourn beneath the cross for love of me and whom I exert myself to protect [(Epistolario, I, 339) Preziuso 139].

Shortly after this happened, word got out and people began flocking to see Padre Pio. Word even reached the Vatican. In response, Fr. Agostino Gemelli, OFM, visited the convent of San Giovanni Rotondo where Padre Pio lived. Gemelli was a disinguished scholar who doubted the authenticity of the stigmata (cf. Castelli 5). He immediately wrote a personal letter to the Holy Office in Rome declaring it “the fruit of suggestion” (5). Thus began the formal inquisition.

In June of 1931, a letter arrived from Rome restricting the priestly faculties of Padre Pio. He was no longer allowed to celebrate Mass publicly nor to preach nor hear confessions. News quickly spread and the people protested outside the convent. Padre Pio accepted this decision and offered it up. After all, it was God’s work, not his. God could accomplish far more, if He chose, by his humiliations and suffering than by his priestly ministry. Pope Pius XI came to his rescue and released him from these restrictions in 1934. From that time crowds began to flock to San Giovanni Rotondo to go to Confession to Padre Pio. He would sit in the confessional for hours upon end. He could read people’s souls, even recognizing sins that they withheld from him. But he did not judge them. He wished them to be set free. He loved them and so he became known for not giving absolution if they were there for the wrong reasons. Those who came to him insincerely, to test him, to mock him, or just to visit a celebrity priest, were sent away.  

But he warned other priests not to copy him in this practice. He said: “You cannot do what I do!” (Preziuso 151). “All those who experienced the bitterness of being sent away without absolution, eventually, through the prayers of Padre Pio, were moved to true remorse. They were not at peace! They lived in a state of constant, unbearable agitation which ended only when, after a radical change of life and a total conversion, they turned to the heavenly Father with sincere repentance. Then their laments of sorrow turned into shouts of joy” (151). And Jesus would sweetly say, “Ego te absolvo” through the ministry of His priest. Meanwhile many people were experiencing miracles of healing and conversion. But the investigation of Padre Pio continued throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. It was even discovered that one of the friars had placed a bug in various places to record the private conversations of Padre Pio.

In 1962, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla wrote a letter to Padre Pio asking him to intercede and pray for a 40 year old woman in Krakow who was suffering greatly from cancer. Wojtyla had met the priest many years before while a seminarian in Rome. Padre Pio read the letter and said: “To this I cannot say no” (206). Ten days later, another letter arrived from the future Pope John Paul II. The letter read that as the woman was about to undergo surgery, her cancer “was suddenly cured” (206). Cardinal Wojtyla thanked Padre Pio for the favor.

September 20th, 1968 marked the fiftieth year of his receiving the stigmata. These wounds had soaked innumerable bandages with his blood for 50 years. The wounds of Christ which he carried had been examined time and again by skeptical doctors and scientists, humiliating him and scoffing at him. Two days later on September 22nd, he celebrated a sung Mass at 5 o’clock in the morning. The church was packed with 740 prayer groups. At the consecration, someone noticed that his hands were smooth and clear. There was no visible stigmata. After the Ite Missa Est was intoned, Padre Pio collapsed. That night, he made his last confession in anticipation of his death. He died very early in the morning on September 23rd, 1968, repeating the words, “Jesus, Mary, Jesus, Mary.”

When they examined his dead body, there were no marks, no scars, no trace that there had ever been a stigmata. His skin was smooth and elastic. Those who examined his body concluded that, among other things, this healing was a sign of the Resurrection, when the body will be restored to its perfection after death. He had suffered for Jesus Christ in life. His wounds were no longer needed after death. His body remains incorrupt to this day. Padre Pio was canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002. Padre Pio did not seek greatness. He sought to be the last and the servant of all. In this, God exalted him and defended him and took him to Himself. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Praying at the Offertory and Communion

The following is from an excellent homily by an FSSP priest, which you may listen to here. This is not an exact transcript – I’ve used many of the priest’s own words, but have done a lot of paraphrasing as well – and it may be a little rough…sorry! But I think the point still comes across, and I encourage you to listen to the recording, more than once, even.

Apart from obeying a precept of the Church, what is the purpose for attending Holy Mass?

Christ lives in Heaven interceding for us principally by His sacrifice on Calvary. Holy Mass is the projection of this continual sacrifice. It is where we are united to Christ, where we receive Heavenly Food that gives life to the soul. The points being made in this homily are these: For Mass and Holy Communion we must fix our intentions at the offertory; we must make our Communion for a specific purpose; and we must make a good and long thanksgiving.

First: the Offertory, which starts right after Creed. Here is where you must fix your intentions. The people offer Chirst’s sacrifice through the priest, so the intention is what you want to offer up your Mass for. You could offer it for a dying family member, or maybe you are struggling to overcome a particular vice by growing in virtue. Whatever your intention is, you should mentally place your intention on the host. When do you do this? The priest removes chalice veil, set chalice aside, and picks up paten with the host on it. That’s when you fix your intentionThen priest offers up the host, saying in part, “Receive O Holy Father, this spotless host, for all here present.” The priest is offering up the host for you.

If you don’t have an intention, come up with one right then! If you haven’t thought of one ahead of time, and can’t think of one at the time, offer it up for a holy death. The most important thing any of us will ever do is die! A holy death should be the “default setting” for your intention.

After the priest puts wine in chalice, he blesses the water, and adds a drop of water in chalice. That drop of water stands for your intentions; he places your intention in the chalice, and then he offers up the chalice.

Now the priest has offered the host and offered chalice. Then, the priest bends over the altar, hands together, symbolically  groveling before the Father;  he has his hands together like a slave at the threshold of the heaven. He’s interceding for everyone. He says, “In a spirit of humility and with a contrite heart, receive us O Lord and grant that the sacrifice we offer this day in thy sight, may be pleasing unto thee O Lord.”

That’s not the imperial “we” – he’s praying for everyone.

We’ve united ourselves to the sacrifice by fixing our intentions at the offertory. We should make a particular point, then, of uniting ourselves with the priest who is asking God on our behalf for a truly humble spirit and a contrite heart.

God has bound Himself to listen to the prayers of his priest. Since the priest has been consecrated precisely to offer this sacrifice, and since he has that role, as long as he’s doing everything right and not getting creative up there, God, the creator of heaven and earth, has bound himself to listen to his prayers. It’s really amazing when you really think about it.

There’s even sort of a last call if you’ve been distracted or daydreaming. The priest iss eht altar turns to the people and says “orate fratres” and he puts his hands together and turns in a circle; he’s mystically gathering intentions as he says “pray brethren that my sacrivice and YOURS may be acceptable..”

God the father looks down and accepts that host and wine, the offering the priest has made, but all he sees is a little piece of bread and a little bit of wine. But God the Father also sees all the intentions attached to them as long as we’ve made them!

Then it all comes together at the consecration. The priest consecrates the host and chalice and holds them up on behalf of everyone to God the Father. Now stop and think of what that means. Suddenly, by this marvel of transubstantiation, the bread and wine are completely gone (only appearances remains). By the power of the priesthood, Jesus Christ is now really present, body, blood, soul, and divinity. And now God the Father is looking down, and what does He see? He sees His Beloved Son, holding up those intentions we’ve fixed at the offertory.

Everyone needs to fix his intentions at the offertory. We have many things we need to pray for; let’s not neglect this.

Second: Holy Communion. Communion is God’s supreme gift to us upon earth.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent tells us: “Our Lord wished that the Most Blessed Sacrament should be received as the spiritual food of souls as an antidote whereby we may be freed from daily faults and preserved from mortal sin.”

It’s a solemn teaching of the church that communion is an antidote for sin.

You may say, “Father, I’ve been receiving Holy Communion for years, and I haven’t made much progress!” But remember: one Communion is sufficient in itself to make us a saint; there’s nothing lacking in Christ. If we’re not saints after our first communion it’s because of our disposition.

We need to make our communions for a specific purpose; for example, it could be for conquering our faults. Suppose you suffer from the temptation of anger against your neighbor – maybe the guy drives you nuts, and you even at times think you’d like to go over there and thrash him! Well, then you have a specific purpose to think about when you go to communion; you want to control our anger (or whatever your purpose might be). 

And we need to talk to God about it. If we’re going to ask our boss for raise, we would spend some time thinking about what we would say. Well, this is God we’re going to be visiting with! So if we’re so careless about his visit that we haven’t been planning exactly what we want to ask for, and how we’re going to say it  - and worse yet, if we don’t talk to him about it at all after we’ve received him – then small wonder if we’ve made little progress over the years! We shouldn’t just shuffle up to communion and shuffle back. That’s not going to help.

St. Teresa of Avila said that after communion, “Jesus remains in the soul as on a throne of grace, and asks ‘What do you want me to do for you?’”

It’s extraordinary! He doesn’t need anything; but we need him, and that’s why he’s coming to us in Holy Communion – to give us what we need. When he asks what we want him to do for us, we want to have a good answer. We want to plan out exactly what we’re going to ask him to do before we go to Communion. (Of course, we must have fasted beforehand, and we have to be in state of grace, etc.)

If, for example, you struggle with anger, then plan out how you want to talk to God about it.  
Then go to Communion.  And afterwards say: “Lord, thank you for coming to me in Holy Communion. I have a problem with anger; sometimes I have bad thoughts, even wanting to thrash my neighbor. I’m trying to remain meek and calm, but I’m doing a terrible job. I’m having a hard time doing it, but I know you can do it. I’m turning it over to you. I’m inviting you into that part of my life. You take charge of that part of my life, and rearrange my interior life in a way that’s pleasing to youYou help me keep a handle on my anger, because obviously I’m not pleasing you. Have mercy on me…”And so on; you get the idea.

We’re sinners; he came to save us. He wants us to be saints, but we have to do our part, so we have to ask.

St. Teresa of Avila said:

After Communion, let us be careful not to lose so good an opportunity of negotiating with God. His Divine Majesty is not accustomed to pay badly for his lodgings if he meets with a good reception.

We’ve got to pray and prepare ourselves for Holy Communion. And then we need to have a good reception and visit with Him.

Put yourself in this imaginary situation: Someone invites you over to visit. You go, and they greet you; but then they ask you to wait in a little broom closet, and they lock you in there while they go around visiting with other people – you can hear them visiting, having coffee, etc. How welcome would you feel? You’d be thinking, “Why did you invite me over? Let me outa here!”

How often do people receive Communion like that? It’s the Lord of Lords and King of Kings; he comes into their heart and they don’t have a thing to say to him. They can’t wait to get out the door, as if there’s a fire in the church. We have to prepare for Communion, prepare for a good reception, and then we have to spend time with Him asking Him to crush our sinful inclinations, and whatever else we need. The saints are unanimous on this.

St. Peter Julian Eymard said:

The most solemn moments of your life are those you spend in thanksgiving. When the king of heaven and earth, your savior and judge, is yours, fully inclined to grant all that you ask of him. Devote a half an hour if possible to this thanksgiving or at the very least 15 minutes. There is no more holy, no more salutary moment for you than when you possess Jesus in your body and in your soul.

The temptation often comes to shorten our thanksgiving. The devil knows its value; and our nature, our self-love, shrinks from its effects. Determine therefore, what the duration of your thanksgiving is to be, and never subtract a moment therefrom without a pressing reason.

 Thanksgiving is absolutely essential if the act of communion, so holy, is not to degenerate into a mere pious habit.”

St. Alphonsus said: “What treasures of grace to they lose who pray but a short time to God after Holy Communion.”

The basic idea is easy to understand: we have all kinds of problems we need to take to the  Divine Physician, who came to make all things new. The basic technique is also easy to understand: We plan out exactly what we’re going to ask Our Lord to do before we go to Communion. Then we spend 15-30 minutes after communion talking to him about our problems and begging him for mercy.

We started by asking, “Why go to Mass? What is the point? What are we to be doing?” There are things that we need from God, that we can only get from Him, and this is precisely set up by God Himself that we might receive them.

Let’s get serious, today, and at every Mass.

Fix your intentions at the offertory; make your communion for a specific purpose; make a good and long thanksgiving. Then you’re really on the path to holiness.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Our Lady of Sorrows: Fr. Andersen Homily

A homily by Fr. Eric M. Andersen, St. Louis Parish in St. Louis, Oregon

Sept 15th, 2012

The Seven Sorrows of Our Lady
A couple of years ago, I met a couple who said that they live in Our Lady of Sorrows Parish, but that the tone of the parish is a downer because of the title of Mary under which it is consecrated: Our Lady of Sorrows. So, they go to another parish where the mood is lighter. I have pondered that conversation. Can one celebrate the Sorrowful Mother in a joyful way? Can one celebrate sorrow? Recently, I found a key to the answer.

In his book, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, the German philosopher Josef Pieper asserts that “underlying all festive joy …there has to be an absolutely universal affirmation extending to the world as a whole, to the reality of things and the existence of man himself” (26). This means an affirmation of sorrow as something good; sorrow as something to celebrate.

Sorrow is not something obvious to celebrate, so let’s look at something more obvious. When we think of bliss, we think of celebrating something with “heartfelt assent, to find that something specific is good, wonderful, glorious, rapturous – a drink of fresh water, the precise functioning of a tool, the colors of a landscape, the charm of a loving gesture, a poem – our praise always reaches beyond the given object, if matters take their natural course” (26-27). In other words, when we are parched for awhile, that drink of fresh water is bliss.  

But our celebration of it reaches beyond the water itself to the One who created it. We affirm the creation as a whole, by celebrating the fresh cold drink of water.

But we cannot affirm the fresh cold drink of water unless we acknowledge that there exists water which is foul. If we were to pretend that such water did not exist, or to shut it out of our consciousness because it is unpleasant to think about, then we would have no reason to celebrate the good water, because we would not be contrasting it with water which is foul.
Pieper writes that shallow optimism is not festivity. Affirmation of something good and worth celebrating “is not won by deliberately shutting one’s eyes to the horrors in this world” (27).  

A martyr, for instance, who is suffering greatly, is still capable of joy. A martyr, “In spite of everything…finds the things that are very good; therefore in spite of everything he remains capable of joy and even, as far as it concerns him, of festivity” (27). I will quote the following from Josef Pieper:

Festivity lives on affirmation. Even celebrations for the dead, All Souls and Good Friday, can never be truly celebrated except on the basis of faith that all is well with the world and life as a whole. If there is no consolation, the idea of a funeral as a solemn act is self-contradictory. But consolation is a form of rejoicing, although the most silent of all – just as catharsis, the purification of the soul in the witnessing of tragedy, is at bottom a joyful experience. …Consolation exists only on the premise that grief, sorrow, death, are accepted, and therefore affirmed, as meaningful in spite of everything. (28)

So by the affirmation of sorrow as something good and meaningful, we can celebrate Our Lady of Sorrows without becoming bogged down. We affirm the importance of sorrow as a contrast to bliss, and so we can experience bliss because we have experienced sorrow. Sorrow does not endure forever. We can give thanks to God for sorrow because by it, we know that bliss is just around the corner.

Our Lady enjoyed sorrow. Can we now understand that? Her inner peace and joy was not disturbed by sorrow. Sorrow was called for, and she allowed her heart to be pierced by seven swords of sorrow. She did not avoid it or shut it out. She embraced that sorrow. She could only do so because her soul magnified the Lord and her heart rejoiced in God her Savior. She knew that her sorrow had great value for the salvation of souls. She knew that Our Lord, her own Son, wished that she would take part in the salvation of mankind, including her own salvation.

But when we celebrate Our Lady of Sorrows in September, we wear white. We wear a Marian Vestment, not violet, nor black. What does that say about Mary’s sorrow? It says that Mary’s sorrow is altogether different from ours. Mary is in the highest heights of heaven. In Dante’s Paradiso, Mary is at the summit of the Mountain. She is surrounded by heavenly light, whiter than any white vestment; more brilliant than any gold thread. Her sorrow is still profound, but it is not a purgatorial sorrow. It is a heavenly sorrow. It is a beautiful, transfigured, heavenly sorrow that we cannot even comprehend in our earthly minds.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Monasticism in the Western Church, Part 3

This is the third of a three-part essay on monasticism by Stephanie Swee, President of the Society of St. Gregory the Great. See Part 1 here. See Part 2 here.

The Legacy of St. Benedict:

Monasticism in the Western Church, Part 3

If we accept that monastic life is merely Christianity in its ultimate form, what then are the major elements that set the monk apart from his fellow believers in the world? The book Monastic Studies concentrates on three things that a monk promises in the Benedictine tradition when he embraces the consecrated life: stability, conversio  (or conversatio) morum and obedience. A long analysis of how the second, conversion, encompasses the third is available. What is key, however, is that all those who seek to live as monastics are characterized by, first, promising to “persevere in the monastic way of life until death in (that particular) monastery (stability); second, promising to “embrace the whole of religious life, which includes the essential elements of poverty and chastity (conversatio), and, finally, vowing  obedience to God’s representatives on earth, which is  the most lofty form of conversion of manners. By his vow of conversio, too, the monk obliges himself to seek after perfection according to the Rule of St. Benedict.”[1]

All of these elements are, according to Van Zeller, primarily a method for the necessary uprooting of self a consecrated person undertakes; not, he cautions, to negatively deny the ego for its own sake, but as a surer way to union with God.[2] These elements also serve as an objective framework of monastic legislation and a method of observance which becomes a path to perfection.[3]

If one stopped, however, with the Rule and the counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience as expressed in the conversio of Benedict, most monks would still be in confusion as to what they are actually to do day-to-day.  Benedict lays out also the routines that move the monk closer to his goal of eternal beatitude. In his book, Monastic Practices, Charles Cummings, a Cistercian, breaks these into 12 activities that the monk engages in every day of his life.
The first three are the threefold bases for religious life. To begin with, there is the practice of Sacred Readings, the Scriptures and writings of the Fathers of the Church primarily.  As one of essentials, “the high value monks have placed on sacred reading comes from the conviction that it is in this practice we meet God through the instrumentality of the divine word.”[4]

The second foundational activity is Liturgical Prayer, which includes both the Mass and the Divine Office. Benedict divides the office in two ways for his monks. First, he set up a system in which all 150 psalms are said every week. In modern times, that has been modified in some cases, stretching the whole of psalmody to cover two, or even four, weeks. The other division involves the idea of “praying always”, so that the monks meet in choir eight times throughout the day and night. These hours of communal prayer are designated as Vigils (or Matins); Lauds;  Prime, Terce, Sext and None (the last four called the Little Hours), Vespers, and Compline (night prayer.) The Mass, of course, is the summit of man’s praise of God, so it has pride of place. The Conventual Mass is usually attended by all the brothers and priests in the monastery, but those in Holy Orders may also say Mass separately from the community. “There, (in the sacrifice of the Mass) more than anywhere else, we meet the Risen Christ in the fullness of His saving power…” [5]
The third mainstay of the monastic life is work. The motto of the followers of Benedict is, in fact, ora et labora, “pray and work.” Often today, as in early times, the work of the abbey is the main support for the necessities of life, involving harvesting of crops, artistry of the monks or manufacture of food.  Beyond support for the monks, though, Benedict was wise enough to know that if the community engaged only in prayer and reading, they became restless and sometimes discontent. “If, however, they (monks and nuns) kept their hands occupied with simple, even monotonous, tasks, they could more easily keep their minds and hearts centered on God for long periods of time.”[6] Work, certainly, is enjoined on any Christian.  As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: “We did not live lives of disorder when we were among you, nor depend on anyone for  food. Rather we worked day and night, laboring to the point of exhaustion, so as not to impose on any of you … we used to lay down a rule that anyone who would not work, could not eat.”[7]

Other important practices that move the monk toward his goal of union with God are such things as customs, monastic decorum (a form of charity toward others), short prayers to keep the mind always on God, self-discipline, silence, watching – a practice of openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit – communication in community, stability, and the monastic cell as a place to encounter God in solitude.

The first of these, customs, highlights a key characteristic of the monastic community - the handing on of traditions from one generation to the next. Those entering religious life must be open to receiving practices designed to help all to live in harmony and peace. Eventually, the seasoned monk bestows his knowledge on novices who come to the community in his wake. “…[O]ur monastic practices enshrine values that have been considered important by those within the tradition … (some) e.g., are designed to protect the values of silence, charity and fraternal support; others to inculcate a spirit of reverence or humility or self-discipline.”[8]

If there are many externals that go beyond practices of Christians in the world, though, it is very important to note the outward actions are always directed to that which is interior. “The search, the true search, in which the whole of one’s being is engaged, is not for some thing, but for Someone: The search for God - that is the beginning and end of monasticism.[9]
There are, according to Van Zeller, specifically monastic virtues which the vows and practices are meant to foster. While charity is enjoined on all Christians, monastic charity has a twofold relationship with others, being directed both at those in community and those who come to the monastery seeking direction. In the latter case, hospitality toward visitors is a solemn duty for every monk. As for the former, “whatever interferes with fraternal charity is the enemy of the monastic spirit.”[10]

Another preeminent virtue monks must cultivate is humility. “In virtue of our monastic life,  we should be easier to live with in the monastery than we were in the world; more tolerant, more considerate, even more courteous…[T]he connection between charity and humility is so close that to describe a monk as a good community man means he does not thrust himself forward … in such a way that all must acknowledge his contribution.”[11]

A third important characteristic a monk must cultivate is a certain equanimity. Van Zeller refers to it as “an imperturbability of mind which rides the tempests of both sorrow and temptation” without losing its grounding in God and its peace of soul. St.  Benedict’s doctrine of compunction is repeated throughout his rule. “The problem for most monks is to balance their joys and sorrows in such a way that joy does not become an end in itself and a dissipation and that sorrow does not become dispiriting.”[12] Finally, a strong and abiding faith is necessary for the monk, who may see little or no effect of his work and prayer in visible results. “What he has to accept in faith is that the work of the choir and contemplation is work for souls.”[13]

 In looking at monastic life, we cannot exclude women who have and do seek perfection as consecrated religious. Even from the time of Benedict, his sister St. Scholastica founded monasteries for nuns who followed the same rule as their brother monks with certain modifications. And, it must be said, there have been other successful types of monastic spirituality in addition to the Benedictine way, such as the Augustinian model followed by many congregations of religious even today.

But it is Benedict who first codified and organized the life of monasticism. If his vision is the Christian life lived fully requires withdrawal from the world, it is partly so it can be an example for those in the world who also strive to follow Christ’s way to the Father.

Every Christian must practice what the monk does, if to a lesser degree:  self-denial, penance, prayer and obedience to God through His Church. Human destiny is the same for all God’s people, as the words of St. Augustine illustrate so famously.  “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in Thee.”

[1] Monastic, pp. 2-8.
[2] Van Zeller, pp. 6-7.
[3] Van Zeller, p. 49.
[4] Cummings, Charles, OCSO, Monastic Practices. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, p. 8.

[5] Cummings, p. 39.
[6] Cummings, p. 44.
[7] Cummings, p. 44.
[8] Cummings, p. 72.
[9] Bouyer, p. 8.
[10] Van Zeller, pp. 130-131.
[11] Van Zeller, p. 132.
[12] Van Zeller, p. 136.
[13] Van Zeller, pp. 135-137.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Keeping Custody of the Senses: Fr. Andersen

A homily by Fr. Eric M. Andersen, Sacred Heart-St. Louis, Gervais, OR

Dominica XXIII Per Annum, Anno B

Our God comes with vindication, with divine recompense to save us. When He saves us, our eyes will be opened so that we will see; our ears will be cleared so that we may hear; our tongues will be untied so that we may speak.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals the deaf man with the speech impediment, opening the man’s ears to hear and freeing him up to speak clearly. St. Bede the Venerable comments on this passage saying that there are men who are deaf because they do not have ears to hear the words of God. They can hear, but they do not listen to anything worthy of the noble sense of hearing. Likewise, St. Bede says that there are men who are dumb because they do not open their mouth to speak the words of God (cf. Catena Aurea). They speak but do not speak anything worth listening to. This is very thought provoking!

Do we appreciate the gifts of the senses that God has given to us? We should consecrate the use of our senses to God’s use. After all, St. Paul tells us that our bodies do not belong to us, but that they were bought at a price. They belong to God. This is the divine recompense of which our first reading speaks! Do we treat our bodies as though they belong to God? Do we treat our five senses as though they belong to God? In other words, when we open our mouths, do we speak the words of God? Do we speak words that edify others; that encourage them to greater holiness? And what about the things that we listen to? How do we use the gift of hearing? We cannot control what we hear in public, but we can control what we listen to.

There is also the ancient practice among Christians of keeping custody of the eyes. This deprivation of the senses aids us in our growing in holiness. The ancient rubrics of the Mass instruct a priest to keep custody of the eyes even with God. So for instance, at the beginning of the Mass, the priest keeps a downward glance, not looking at the people nor at the Crucifix. Even after he approaches the altar, he keeps his eyes cast down through the Confiteor and the Kyrie Eleison. He does not look up at our Lord on the Cross until the singing of the Gloria, having been thus reconciled with God. But why does he avoid looking at the people? He avoids eye contact with the faithful because he is not to draw attention to his own person, but only to his office as priest. His office is that of the Eternal Priest, Jesus Christ. So his actions are those of the Church and not of his own personality. In this way, the man who is the priest becomes invisible and the priest who is a man of the Church, communicates the sacramental actions of Christ and not his own actions.

This is what Christ Himself shows us in the Gospel today. His action is a sacramental action. Looking up to heaven, he touches the man’s ears. He spits on His own finger and touches the man’s tongue, but He looks up to heaven while He does this. He does not look at the man while he heals him. This is so that the man will understand that the healing comes from heaven. It comes from God and not from man. It comes from the divinity of Christ, and it is communicated through his humanity.
The man is deprived of his sense of sight in order to be healed. We can see this in the sacrament of Confession. The modern practice allows for the hearing of confessions face to face, but I would argue that it does not communicate what is actually happening in the sacrament. We do not confess our sins to the man who is the priest facing us. We confess our sins to Jesus Christ, through the priest who is a man. But it is Jesus Christ who is listening to our sins and who absolves our sins through the sacrament. When we are deprived of looking at the face of the priest, whether through a screen or by closing our eyes, then we are more aware that it is God to whom we are speaking. It is God who forgives our sins. There is a man who becomes invisible to us so that we can see God.

Likewise, in the consecration of the Holy Eucharist, there is a reason why this has traditionally been hidden from our eyes. It is hidden so that we may believe. When it is so open, we see the piece of bread now at this moment as the priest picks it up, says some words and lifts it above his head. But all the while we see the piece of bread and it does not appear to change. Our minds need a transition. That is why it has historically always been slightly obscured or hidden altogether so that we do not see it clearly until after the consecration when it is lifted up to God and what we see is Jesus Christ. Through the deprivation of our senses, we see more, we believe more.

When we consecrate, or set apart, the use of our bodies and our senses for God’s use, we allow God to do great things through us. Last week we spoke about how a human being is differentiated from plants and animals because humans are given the gift of sapiens, or reason. Unlike plants and animals who are merely vegetative or sensitive, we have rational, spiritual souls which are immortal. Because we alone among creatures have the gift of reason, the use of our five senses is governed by our free will. We must govern our senses. Animals respond according to instinct but human beings respond according to reason.

We must govern our senses for the sake of holiness. We must govern what we look upon, so that we guard our souls from the dangers of indecency, and immodesty. We must govern what we listen to, so that we guard our souls from profanity. We must govern what we say, so that we guard our souls and the souls of others from sins of blasphemy, calumny, and detraction. We must govern what we eat and drink so that we guard our souls from gluttony or drunkenness. We must govern our use of smell so that we guard our souls from the perils of sensuality. We must govern our use of touch so that we guard our souls from covetousness, avarice, or unchastity.

There is a beautiful prayer that I ran across some years ago in a book called the Manual of Prayers. It is by an anonymous author. It speaks to us today about handing over our senses for God’s use. Here is that prayer:

Lord Jesus, I give you my hands to do your work.
I give you my feet to go your way.
I give you my eyes to see as you see.
I give you my tongue to speak your words.
I give you my mind to think as you think.
I give you my spirit so that you may pray in me.
I give you my self so that you may grow in me.
So that it is you, Lord Jesus, who lives and works and prays in me.


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Fr. Andersen Does Chalk Drawings, Too

Who knew?! Apparently Fr. Eric Andersen, in addition to being a great homilist, also has a knack for chalk drawings!

This is Fr. Andersen's entry at the Gervais Chalk Festival, as posted on Face Book.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Monasticism in the Western Church, Part 2

This is the second of a three-part essay on monasticism by Stephanie Swee, President of the Society of St. Gregory the Great. See Part 1 here.

The Legacy of St. Benedict:
Monasticism in the Western Church

While there was activity in the West to set up monasteries prior to St. Benedict, he is universally regarded as the founder of Western monasticism, partly for the comprehensive and detailed rule he executed. In The Life and Miracles of St. Benedict, St. Gregory the Great chronicles this abbot’s prodigious work of founding community after community.  Gregory received his information directly from disciples of the great saint and, using the form of dialogue with his deacon, Peter, related incidents in Benedict’s life that show even at the beginning of his search how close he was to sanctity.

Born about 540 A.D., Benedict was sent to get a liberal education by his wealthy and distinguished parents. However, once he encountered the dissolute life led by some students, “in his desire to please God alone, he turned his back on further studies, left home and inheritance and resolved to embrace the religious life.[1]  Some authors have noted that, although Benedictine spirituality is often associated with learning, its founder was focused not on formal education, but on a simple life of work and prayer.

One of the first miracles chronicled by Pope Gregory was an incident that involved Benedict’s nurse, who had accompanied him in his search for a place to withdraw from the sinfulness of the world. Having asked to borrow a tray for cleaning wheat at the house where they were lodging, the nurse accidentally allowed he tray to fall and break in two. When Benedict returned and saw her weeping, “he prayed earnestly to God … (and) soon noticed that the two pieces were joined together again.” [2]

Shortly after this, Benedict left his nurse and proceeded to Subiaco, where he spent three years in prayer and solitude. During that time the monk Romanus, who had clothed Benedict in a simple habit, brought him food and drink. It is in this period, too, that Benedict experienced perhaps the most famous of his temptations, in which the devil tried him with lustful images. The young man responded by throwing himself naked into a patch of nettles so that “the pain that was burning his whole body had put out the fires of evil in his heart.”[3] From that day forward, Benedict was free from this kind of temptation and began to instruct others in the way to live for God.

Another event in Benedict’s life shows how God intervened to guide him. He and his twin sister, Scholastica, who had been consecrated to God from an early age, would meet periodically to encourage one another and pray together. One time when they had praised God all day and darkness was falling, Benedict, ever mindful of his vow of stability, wished to return to his monastery. Scholastica entreated him to stay the night, so they could continue talking and praying together. When her brother refused, she prayed earnestly and the sky, which had been clear, clouded over and a great storm arose, making it impossible for Benedict and his brothers to leave. The siblings spent the night talking of the joys of heaven and, when Benedict finally reached his monastery the next day, he had a vision of Scholastica’s soul entering heaven. He then rejoiced at her glorification, gave thanks to God and brought her body to be buried in a plot near his monastery. [4]

An often-told story throws light on the virtue of Benedict and his direction of his brother monks. It seems a certain priest, Florentius, who lived in the neighborhood of Benedict’s monastery, observed that the saint had inspired many to a more fervent piety.  Seized by envy and hatred for Benedict, Florentius sent him a loaf of bread he had poisoned, hoping to kill his rival. Benedict, however, knew what was in the bread and gave it to a raven to take away.  

Foiled in that attempt, Florentius then sent naked dancing girls to compromise the virtue of the younger monks. Fearing that his monks would fall into temptation, Benedict took them and left the monastery. As they journeyed away from their home, God struck Florentius dead when the roof over him collapsed. One of Benedict’s monks, Maurus, caught up with him and gave him the news, rejoicing in Florentius’s demise. Benedict reprimanded Maurus severely and gave him a penance for showing pleasure that another had died unrepentant of his sin.[5] The fact that Gregory calls Benedict, “vir Dei,” indicates in what high regard he was held even shortly after his death.
Eventually Benedict wrote his rule for all the foundations he had created and it has remained the standard for much of monasticism up the present day. Modern historians believe that the Rule of the Master, which is a much longer and more detailed set of prescriptions for the pursuit of perfection, may have influenced Benedict, but there are many differences in style and content between the two.  

Benedict’s rule is uncompromising in what is necessary for the pursuit of perfection, but still gentle in its language. His description of the Abbot is that of a loving father, who adjusts his methods of direction to the temperament of each monk. The Rule covers many topics, but in no very discernible order. One part may talk about the celebration of Lauds on feasts, while shortly thereafter the saint treats of who shall sit at the Abbot’s table or how absent brethren are to be received. Nevertheless, it covers most questions and details practices necessary for a well-ordered community life.

[1] Pope St. Gregory the Great, Life and Miracles of St. Benedict (Book Two of the Dialogues) tr. By Odo J. Zimmerman, O.S.B. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press,
[2] Pope St. Gregory the Great, p.3.
[3] Pope St. Gregory the Great, p. 8
[4] Pope St. Gregory, pp. 69-70.
[5] Pope St. Gregory, pp. 23-25.