Ampleforth Abbey

24 February 2018

Sacred Triduum Retreat 2017: Fr Gabriel Everitt
'Prayer in the Rule of St Benedict'


Talk 4: Easter in the Rule: ‘let us look forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing’ (chapter 49)

Famously, or rather infamously, St Benedict takes a dim view of laughter, as I mentioned briefly at the beginning of the first talk. In chapter 6 of the Rule on restraint of speech, for example, he says: ‘We absolutely condemn in all places any vulgarity and gossip and talk leading to laughter, and we do not permit a disciple to engage in words of that kind’ and in chapter 7 on humility, the 10th and 11th steps of humility say that a monk is not given to ready laughter because quoting the book of Eccesiasticus ‘only a fool raises his voice in laughter’, rather a monk should speak gently and without laughter. A popular image of St Benedict has him putting his finger to his mouth in a ‘shhshing’ gesture of silence.

If these references, however, are allowed to give the impression that St Benedict is a killjoy then that I think would be a mistake. I guess that in his day, as also sadly sometimes in ours, laughter can be mockery and it can also openly or behind someone’s back be cruel. However, Benedict is an advocate of holy delight and of holy joy. He writes in the Prologue to the Rule that a newcomer to the monastic life may inevitably find it narrow at the outset, but he has a confidence that as we progress in this way of life and in faith we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts expanding with the inexpressible delight of love: a delight of love.

At the end of the chapter on the steps of humility, he writes that ‘after ascending all these steps of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at that perfect love of God, which casts out fear. Through this love, all that he once performed with dread, he will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue’: a delight in virtue.

Sr Aquinata Boeckmann, in lectures from which I have already quoted in a previous talk, says that St Benedict twice mentions ‘joy’ in the Rule: in the 4th step of humility on obedience even in difficult, unfavourable or even unjust conditions, he writes that the faithful are so confident in their expectation of reward from God that they continue joyfully and say ‘But in all this we overcome because of him who so greatly loved us’ and then in chapter 49 on the observance of Lent, Lenten penances – the denial of some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting – are so that the Christian may look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing: look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing. The purpose of Lent for St Benedict is look forward to Easter with joy and longing.

So we travel through Lent to come to Easter. And of course it is on the verge of this celebration that we now stand. I owe it, also, to Sr Aquinata for pointing out that in the Rule there is an Easter of the year, there is an Easter of the week and there is an Easter of the day.

Firstly, the Easter of the year: the annual celebration is the hinge upon which the liturgical and practical life of the monastery turns: all leads up to it and flows from it, as for example the arrangement of the timetable and meals. In apparently the very practical chapter 41 on the times for the brothers’ meals Easter is the starting point of celebration ‘from holy Easter to Pentecost the brothers eat at noon and take supper in the evening’. There are then other phases of the year from Pentecost and throughout the summer when there is usually one meal in mid afternoon, for the long period from the 13th of September to the beginning of Lent, the meal is always in mid afternoon, during the Lenten fast the meal is towards evening and so back to Easter. So used are we to our three meals and our snacks at all times, that probably we miss this cycle centring on an annual Easter season, which is a real celebration with two meals a day. Thus helps his monks to see that Eastertide and its joy is the source and summit of the Christian year.

Moreover, for St Benedict as for the Church as a whole the Easter song is ‘Alleluia’, the jubilus, the song of joy. It is important enough that St Benedict has a whole chapter for it, chapter 15 in the liturgical code section of the Rule. From the holy feast of Easter, he writes, until Pentecost this jubilant cry is always sung with both the psalms and the responsories. Thus in church he marks the Easter of the year.

There is also an Easter of the week. This is, as of course for the Church as a whole, Sunday the day of the resurrection. Again this is to be marked practically and liturgically. Sunday is the hinge for the recitation of the psalter, when all begins again – so in chapter 18 it is ‘provided that the full complement of one hundred and fifty psalms is by all means carefully maintained every week and that the series begins anew each Sunday at Vigils’. Always we begin again and it is on Sunday. On Sundays too at Vigils there is a gospel reading: St Caesarius of Arles said that, whatever was the Gospel of the day, this should be a reading of the Gospel of the Resurrection. As well as liturgical, Sunday was the hinge too practically, so for example kitchen service and reading were renewed on Sundays, with new teams. So too in chapter 48 on the daily manual labour, Sunday is a special day in which for most there is to be no manual labour: ‘On Sunday all are to be engaged in reading except those who have been assigned various duties. If anyone is so remiss and indolent that he is unwilling or unable to study or to read, he is to be given some work in order that he may not be idle’. Sunday is a whole day for lectio in the Rule. Sunday is different.

There is also an Easter of the day. Even if technologically possible, it would have been a challenge to have listened in by live streaming to St Benedict’s monks singing the office in their choir in Monte Cassino, because before clocks and electric lights and so on, the times varied throughout the year depending on sunrise and sunset. We value regularity and predictability. St Benedict liked the dawn. Lauds, for St Benedict, always began at dawn: so in chapter 8 ‘Then at daybreak, Lauds should follow immediately’. To return to the chapter on the Easter jubilus from Pentecost until the beginning of Lent, ‘alleluia’ is added ‘only with the last six psalms of Vigils’. Why did only the last psalms at Vigils, apart from Lent when it was not said at all and apart from Eastertide, when it was said with everything, suddenly acquire an ‘alleluia’. The reason of course is that Vigils was ending, the dawn, was coming, Lauds was about to begin. It was the Resurrection, the Easter of the day.

The high point of Lauds is then the singing of the Benedictus, Zechariah’s song as recorded by St Luke, which ends: ‘In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet on the road of peace’. We sing this every day, a daily prayer to enter into the light of resurrection, we who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.’ As part of the Matins of Holy Saturday we sang this morning, from Psalm 29 ‘At night there are tears, but joy comes with the dawn’.

I would like to think now how we experience this light of the Resurrection and how within the frame of our earthly lives, we enter into this Easter of the day, of the week, of the year. And with reflections on these points, these Triduum talks will conclude, bringing us as it were to the verge of Easter. And at heart my point is going to be that we can touch the risen Jesus, we can see this light of Easter, but it is as yet for us who are mortal poor frail flesh and blood, a touching and a seeing in anticipation, not yet a possession and we experience this as an alternation in our lives and prayer of light and darkness. We look into and catch a glimpse of the 8th day of creation, the new heaven and the new earth, but it is only a glimpse. As St Paul has it in 1 Corinthians 13 now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face; now we know only in part, then we shall know as fully as we ourselves are known. We wait humbly and quietly for what is yet to be, we are an emptiness waiting in expectation of being filled. We will be filled, but in the world to come.

St Augustine in his Commentary on the Psalms, writing on Psalms 5 and 6 says this: ‘The Psalmist wished perhaps to depict a person of good will who perceives a certain amount of the light of truth, but sometimes sinks back into worldly pleasures through the weakness of his flesh. As a result, he is compelled to undergo in mind an alternation of light and darkness … This will continue until at length night of every kind passes away and that unique day dawns of which it is said “In the morning I will stand before you and will see”.’ Our sins weigh us down. We know that. At times it depresses us hugely and indeed tragically it can lead some to give up. That is indeed a tragedy. We must not give up. We must keep going. We must keep going in hope of that unique day of which it is said ‘In the morning I will stand before you and will see’.

I want to make some points about our entry into this anticipation which in this world is only ever that, an anticipation, not yet the fulfilment, at yet only puzzling reflections in a mirror, as yet enduring the alternation of light and dark, to which St Augustine referred. I want to refer to St Bernard of Clairvaux, great Cistercian abbot of the early 12th century, whose work represents a sort of fulfilment of the medieval monastic centuries. The Everest in his Himalayas, or as it might be the Acongagua in the Andes range, is his collection of Sermons on the Song of Songs, which he took as a pointer to the union of the bridegroom Christ with the human soul (anima) the bride. I will give some references directly to the Sermons and also to a modern work of a present day Cistercian, Michael Casey in his book called A Thirst for God: spiritual desire in Bernard of Clairvaux's Sermons on the Song of Songs.

Early on in his sermons on the Song of Songs, St Bernard lets us know or at least he implies that some of his monks came to him to say that his fine sounding words were all very well but sadly they were not really for them, they were a bit too high powered and above them. In sermon 9, St Bernard addresses such monks as these: ‘Many of you, as I remember, in the manifestations of conscience which you make to me privately, are wont to complain of this aridity and languor of soul, this heaviness and dulness of mind, whereby you are rendered incapable of penetrating the profound and hidden things of God, and can experience little or none of the sweetness of the Spirit. What is that, my brethren, but a longing to be kissed? Plainly, such persons are sighing and yearning after the Spirit of wisdom and understanding.’ Casey helps us to understand what this means by suggesting that for St Bernard, in line with St Augustine ‘Authentic desire for God is not exempt from the vicissitudo or alternatio typical of all human endeavours in this life. Desire is alternately delighted love and fearful emptiness. Neither one pole nor the other can be dispensed with if there is to be genuine growth’. The really important point, it seems to me in what Casey writes, is that God wills both the love and the emptiness, and their alternation – an experience of love is the anticipation, the emptiness a reminder that is not yet a possession. God is with us in both, albeit painfully unseen and unsensed in the emptiness. We must bear that.

In his sermon 32 St Bernard says ‘ In this way, therefore, even in our exile here below, we may often experience the joy of the Bridegroom's presence, yet not unto fulness. For although the visitation brings us gladness the withdrawal causes pain in proportion. And so long must the beloved Bride endure this vicissitude of consolation and abandonment until, having once laid aside the burden of corporeal flesh, she, too, learns how to fly, lifted up on the wings of holy desires, and to make her way unimpeded through the far-spreading aerial plains of divine contemplation, with liberty of spirit following her Beloved ‘whithersoever He goeth.’ Again I think Casey helps us to understand this and many other such passages in the Sermons, with an allusion to I Corinthians 13: ‘In contemplation, God appears as in a dream; not directly but obscurely, as in a mirror. This is because God is not seen face to face during this life. He is glimpsed rather than observed and that very briefly, like a quickly passing spark of light’. Casey continues with words I have been trying to convey several times in these talks: ‘The nuptuals about which Bernard speaks are not rarefied mystical phenomena, but universal possibilities’.

We stand waiting and hoping for the dawn, at times graced to experience it in anticipation; I hope our celebration of Easter which begins tonight will be an experience of this anticipation and a hint of its fulfilment. I think there is a remarkable echo of this long line of Christian thought in the encyclical, which was drafted by Pope Benedict and completed by Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, where in section 57 it is said of the light of faith: ‘Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey’. A lamp which suffices for the journey. This is down to earth, realistic given our humiliating lack of achievement and besetting sin, but there is a light which suffices for our journey towards the dawn.

It seems the dawn touches us, yet it is also beyond our reach, beyond our days and weeks and years. It is the 8th day. I give the last word to a local boy. St Bede, who lived in the late 7th, early 8th centuries in the monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow in the north east of England, a doctor of the Church, wrote a work on Christian chronology, that is on the Christian understanding of time (I know it through the excellent work on Bede by Sr Benedicta Ward). Bede’s is not a literal description of time and calendars but it is a spiritual understanding of time. We are in the sixth day of creation: this is the day on which mankind is created and it is the day of the crucifixion, thus also of our re-creation. We look forward to the seventh day, this St Bede suggests stands for the saints who rest in heaven and we journey, in hope, towards this rest. As it says in the letter to the Hebrews, and as we heard in the Matins reading this morning, there remains a Sabbath day rest for the people of God (Hebrews 4:9)

There is, however, yet to come, in St Bede’s scheme, an eighth day, the day of the resurrection and for this indeed the whole creation, the saints in heaven included, waits with most eager longing and groaning. This day is beyond time and space, it is the new heaven and the new earth. It was the day for which St Benedict waited in his vigils of the night, for which the monks descended by the night stairs and which they muttered into their memory. It is the day for which we too wait. It is tomorrow, Easter day, always tomorrow so long as this today lasts.