As mentioned in the previous post, I will now try to describe a bit of my experience of the Liturgy at Silverstream.
Retreats at a monastery are quite different than what most Catholics would be used to. There is no “structure” to the retreat as there is in ones based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola; there are no conferences given by a priest/religious; no general confession; etc. The only structure is that of the Opus Dei, the Divine Office. The monks simply invite you to take part, as much as possible, in their liturgical life; you may also speak with a monk seasoned in the spiritual life if you wish; silence also plays a large role. The exterior silence, in my case, helped to notice that the interior was not silent at all. There are all these thoughts floating around, distracting, dissipating one’s attention from the one thing necessary which we in the world don’t notice most of the time due to all the exterior noise. Silence is not a commodity the world seems to appreciate; in fact, it seems to abhor it. Silence, many times, puts you face to face with yourself, with your weaknesses and brokenness. It’s the realization of our own littleness that allows us to open up and hear the voice of God. The fight against dissipation – our forgetfulness of God – is a lifelong one, and silence is a necessary part of it.
At the moment retreatants/visitors are allowed to participate in all the Hours except Matins. I was able to make it daily to Laudes (it’s quite beautiful to hear in the Benedictus the verse in quibus visitabit nos oriens ex alto as the sun is rising just over the horizon), Terce (followed by conventual Mass), Sext, None, Vespers and finally Compline. I would follow along in my diurnal the Hours, chanting (in a low voice) the parts I knew as well as the Psalms I could; at other times I would just sit silently, listening to the chant, letting it sink in. The Lord speaks to us through the Liturgy; we have but to apply our ear to His Word spoken through it, which is inspired, if you will, by the Holy Spirit. The Liturgy is not just the Mass, though the latter is part of the former; rather, the Mass is the great jewel in the diadem of the Liturgy, in which other precious gems (the Hours) are set. The Liturgy has something to say to our particular circumstances every single day. Father Prior is quite keen on speaking about the “liturgical providence of God”; this past Sunday’s homily is a prime example of that:
Benedictine life, with its emphasis on the Divine Office, has made me aware of how poorly one prays if one ignores the Psalms. The Psalms are where the Church finds her voice to praise God continually. It is because of the Psalms that the Church can say “Benedicam Dominum in omni tempore; semper laus eius in ore meo.” [“I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall be always in my mouth.”] I would venture to say that it is in the daily singing of the Psalms that the monk finds the hidden Christ, as well as the words to address Him.
Seeing and hearing the monks in choir reminded me of what a necessary service they render to the Church. They are, in a sense, the beating heart of the Church. It is their constant prayer and praise that, like incense, rises up to God when we in the world are unable to do so. Their presence is a reminder that the Church is a body of which we are all members; although I myself may be unable to, for whatever reason, pray constantly, their prayers will be complementing what is lacking on my part. While St. Augustine never said that he who sings prays twice, he did say that singing is proper to one who loves (cantare amantis est). Monks are men enamoured with God, spending themselves in the love song of the Church for their and our sakes.
During my stay there were two votive Masses: that of Jesus Christ, Eternal High Priest (Thrusday) and of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Saturday); I hope to say a few words on the former in a later post. I would comment at the moment only on my experience of the Mass on the feast day of St. Bartholomew.
Mass, at the monastery, is celebrated slowly. I do not say slowly in a pejorative sense; quite the opposite. There is no rush; the heiromonk (if I can borrow an expression from our Eastern brethren) has nowhere else to be; he has nothing else to do. His whole life is an oblation to God and so his time belongs to Him as well. All care is taken when celebrating. Everything has to be just right. It is, after all, a labour of love. It’s participating at Mass in a monastery that you become aware, as a layman, that Mass-time is not a courtesy you pay to God, of which He should be grateful that you’ve deigned to give him half an hour of your attention (if that even). I believe it is in the monastery, more than in any other place, that you get a serious wake-up call as to whom the Mass is for. But back to the feast of St. Bartholomew…
During the Canon there was silence. “OK,” you might say, “I already know the Canon in the vetus ordo is silent. Was this the first time you’ve been paying attention???” What I mean to say is I think I “experienced” silence. At some particular moment in the Canon (I forget which) it seemed as though time were starting to stand still. I could hear Father Prior’s hushed voice praying, and see his movements, but it seemed as though that moment was being stretched out into infinity. The silence of it all almost felt palpable, thick; it seemed to ooze from the centre of the altar, inundating everything, penetrating everything, stretching time along with it. As I experienced this, I could only recall the words of the Byzantine hymn “Let all mortal flesh keep silent”. If the explanation sounds strange, it’s because I’m at a loss for words to adequately explain it.
After Mass there would always be an Act of Reparation. Here are Father Prior’s own words (which I have edited to be in accord with current praxis) on what the Act is:
The version of the prayer that we use at Silverstream Priory divides the various motives for reparation over the days of the week, in such a way that the central portion of the text changes each day, while the beginning and end remain the same. One of us, designated the reparator of the day, reads out the prayer, kneeling in the middle of the choir before a lighted candle and having, about his neck, the rope that signifies a humble and penitent solidarity with all poor sinners.
Those wishing to know more about it can easily search the archives of the blog Vultus Christi. There was Solemn Exposition on three of the days I was there, one of them being added to make reparation for the scandalous news this past weekend.
I was allowed, being an oblate, to be present for Chapter, where Father Prior reads from the Holy Rule and gives a brief explanation of the passage read. It is one thing to read his reflections online; it is quite another to be there in person, among the monks, hearing it with your own ears. Before the monks left Chapter to go about their business, there would be a Chapter of Faults, in which they would publicly confess their faults. While this might sound strange, it is not that different from what might already go on in our own homes (I am thinking here of when I apologize to my wife, or vice versa, of something that I might have broken or some inattention, harsh word, etc.). To confess one’s faults before another does much to foster humility; “owning up” is an opportunity of doing violence to ourselves, of taking a stab at the negative philautia (self-love) we tend to cultivate.
At the/a monastery, almost every action seems to have the potential for becoming a sacramental. The best examples I can think of would be the ante and post prandium (prayers before and after meals). Before one sits down to eat there are a series of responsories, followed by Kyrie, Pater, and then a prayer! After the meal, there are some responses and a prayer as well. I believe I have heard Father Prior mention before that there’s an almost liturgical approach to meals in a monastery, and that the reverence at mealtime tends to mirror (if in a lesser degree) that of the Heavenly Banquet of the Mass. Even the change of weekly readers and servers in the kitchen merits its own moment of prayer in the oratory. It was wonderful to finally see these moments, of which I’d only read about in the Holy Rule, finally unfolding right before my very eyes (and to which I could add my prayers).
I think I will end of this round of reflections here. Hopefully over the upcoming weeks I can write a bit more about other things that came to me while on retreat.