Advent and the Prologue

Advent has come once more, bringing with it a new liturgical year. In a sense, we start afresh, partaking yet again of the graces given to us by “Christ in His mysteries”, as Bl. Columba Marmion was wont speak of the events in Our Lord’s life. In the parlance of the Desert Fathers, it is time “to make a beginning”.

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Since becoming a novice oblate and reading the Holy Rule regularly I have come to see Advent as the season which best embodies the Prologue. From the first Epistle reading of the season we have St. Paul calling us to arise:

Understand, for it is now the hour for us to rise from sleep, because now our salvation is nearer than when we came to believe.

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Christ the King

Today was the feast of Christ the King for those of us following the vetus ordo calendar. To be honest, it is not a feast I ever really gave any serious consideration to either on the vetus or novus calendars. This year, however, for whatever reason, the feast has merited a bit more of my attention. This post will be a collection of lose thoughts about what we are commemorating today.

I suspect that the annual threefold reading of the Holy Rule might have something to do with the feast’s grabbing my attention as in the Prologue our Holy Patriarch says that those who submit to it take up arms “to battle for Christ the Lord, the true King”; later on in the Rule he mentions the acceptance of good monks from other monasteries because they “all serve one Lord and fight under one King everywhere”; the Kingdom of God is mentioned throughout the Rule, a kingdom that must be fought for.

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I must say that for a long time I understood this feast of Christ the King as just an “eschatological” feast, pointing to Chirst’s Parousia, His Second Coming, when He shall come as Judge to “judge the living and the dead and the age by fire” [this ending of quite a few prayers of exorcism has always stuck in my head]. Yet lately I’ve found myself wondering about the “immediate” implications of Chirst’s kingship, of what that means for us while we’re in the world. The Epistle reading today mentions:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature. For in Him were created all things in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether Thrones, or Dominations, or Principalities, or Powers. All things have been created through and unto Him, and He is before all creatures, and in Him all things hold together. [..]He, Who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the first place. For it has pleased [God the Father] that in Him all fullness should dwell […]

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Lengthening of days

From today’s reading of the Prologue of the Holy Rule, the following was what most caught my attention:

And the days of this life are lengthened and a truce granted us for this very reason, that we may amend our evil ways.

As of late thoughts of this sort have been on my mind. Perhaps because I can see the passing of the years in my children, or the fact that this current year seems to be speeding by so quickly, or because it marks a decade since my return to the Mystical Bride of Christ, but the thought of running sand has been looming in the background of my thoughts and prayers.

Man’s days are as grass, as the flower of the field so shall he flourish. For the spirit shall pass in him, and he shall not be: and he shall know his place no more.

Ps. 102:15-16

How many years were lived in sin, oblivious to it all, squandering the great gift that had been given at my baptism? How many years passed with vices growing unchecked? Have I reached the halfway point of my years? Is there still time?

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While one may find a bit of solace in the idea that perhaps one is halfway through this mortal life and that there is still the same amount of years left to work out one’s salvation, to progress in the spiritual life, that might invite a spirit of sloth. There is no guarantee that it will not end tomorrow, or even today…

Just a few days ago the Prologue mentions the immediacy of the necessity of conversion: “Today if you hear His voice…”, “Run while you have the light of life…” Everyday one is called to convert because everyday one falls. Every day one begins anew. Sanctity is not bought cheaply.

And yet it is not just for myself, for my own salvation that I am worried, but for that of those whom have been entrusted to me as well: my wife and my children. The moment we became a family our salvation became intricately tied to one another: first as husband and wife, then as parents and children.

Is the preoccupation with “spiritual progress” a symptom of worldly thinking where everything needs to be gauged, because one needs to feel some accomplishment, some self-fulfillment? Or is it based on a Pelagian approach, where everything depends on me?

For those who feel like useless servants that cannot even put to use that single talent the Lord has entrusted to them, there is always the last tool of good works enumerated in the Holy Rule: Never to despair of the mercy of God.

“So, brothers and sisters”

So, brothers and sisters, we have asked the Lord who is to dwell in His tent, and we have heard His commands to anyone who would dwell there; it remains for us to fulfill those duties.

Therefore we must prepare our hearts and our bodies to do battle under the holy obedience of His commands; and let us ask God that He be pleased to give us the help of His grace for anything which our nature finds hardly possible. And if we want to escape the pains of hell and attain life everlasting, then, while there is still time,
while we are still in the body and are able to fulfill all these things by the light of this life, we must hasten to do now what will profit us for eternity.

St. Benedict tells us we should prepare our hearts and our bodies for battle. Our heart – the immaterial part of ourselves, from whence come our thoughts, acts of will, affections. It is a lifelong process of purifying one’s will, ordering it to the Lord; of extirpating vices acquired over years; of being vigilant of our thoughts… Our bodies – especially in our current society, we have become all too quick to pamper our body, of giving into the natural appetites indiscriminately (after all, isn’t that the “freedom” we’re sold every day). While the monk may have more rigorous fasting and ascetical practices, we as baptized Christians are also called to this (according to our state in life, obviously). The monk’s fight is not different in kind, but only in degree, so we support one another by our prayers and struggles – we believe in the Communion of the Saints, after all; we are not isolated Christians. And lest we be overwhelmed by the thought of the difficulties we have to overcome, our holy father reminds us that the Lord’s grace will provide for what is lacking; in Him is our strength.

As a father the preparation of my children for spiritual combat is an ever-present concern. I have to teach them about preparing their heart and body; I don’t wish for them the same path I tread, growing up not knowing about this, learning only after coming into adulthood. So many vices that could have been uprooted early on, but now find themselves like weeds entrenched, in need of constant work. Just as St. Benedict speaks to us with authority, I as a father have to speak to my children with authority. But this authority is not about lording it over them, an exercise in power, but an authority that finds its origin and understanding in the Author of Life. I exercise authority over them, not for my sake, but for theirs, to help bring them to the Lord. There are things about being a parent that I’d rather avoid, that may sometimes be unpleasant, but they too are a part of my own preparation.

“Hence the Lord says in the Gospel”

Hence the Lord says in the Gospel, “Whoever listens to these words of Mine and acts upon them, I will liken to a wise person who built a house on rock. The floods came, the winds blew and beat against that house, and it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock”.

Having given us these assurances, the Lord is waiting every day for us to respond by our deeds to His holy admonitions. And the days of this life are lengthened and a truce granted us for this very reason, that we may amend our evil ways. As the Apostle says, “Do you not know that God’s patience is inviting you to repent”? For the merciful Lord tells us, “I desire not the death of the sinner, but that the sinner should be converted and live”.

Christ is the rock of salvation. If previously we were told to dash our temptations upon Him, now we are reminded of the parable of the wise and foolish builders. We are to be wise builders, building upon the foundational stone that is Christ. This is something which each family should take to heart. All families are subject to floods and winds. I strongly believe that if the family is not founded on Christ, then it will with much difficulty get through these storms which visit us from time to time. What are these storms? They can be anything: a death in the family; a betrayal; health issues; financial issues;… And yet, for the family to build on rock, each one of us build our own interior life on that rock as well. As we put our own interior house in order we try to help those around us put theirs as well.

St. Benedict is constantly reminding us that God is a loving Father, calling us, His prodigal children, to return. He calls us every day; He does not want us lost. He is giving us time to repent, to realize that we are in a foreign land feeding swine. Are we using that time wisely?

“For if we wish to dwell”

For if we wish to dwell in the tent of that kingdom, we must run to it by good deeds or we shall never reach it. But let us ask the Lord, with the Prophet, “Lord, who shall dwell in Your tent, or who shall rest upon Your holy mountain”?

After this question, brothers and sisters, let us listen to the Lord as He answers and shows us the way to that tent, saying, “The one Who walks without stain and practices justice; who speaks truth from his heart; who has not used his tongue for deceit; who has done no evil to his neighbor; who has given no place to slander against his neighbor.”

This is the one who, under any temptation from the malicious devil, has brought him to naught by casting him and his temptation from the sight of his heart; and who has laid hold of his thoughts while they were still young and dashed them against Christ.

It is they who, fearing the Lord, do not pride themselves on their good observance; but, convinced that the good which is in them cannot come from themselves and must be from the Lord, glorify the Lord’s work in them, using the words of the Prophet, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give the glory”. Thus also the Apostle Paul attributed nothing of the success of his preaching to himself, but said, “By the grace of God I am what I am”. And again he says, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord”.

The Prologue continues with the laying out of the steps of seeking the Kingdom. Previously St. Benedict told us that we must awaken from slumber. Once awake, we are now told to run. Here we find St. Paul’s comparison of the spiritual life to a race re-echoed. Running brings to mind effort, training, discipline. St. Augustine said that in the spiritual life, if one is not progressing towards God then one is regressing (Non progredi, jam reverti est). There is no place for lukewarmness; there is no middle ground. If one is not running towards the goal then sooner or later one becomes complacent, lukewarm, and eventually gives up.
You can see this even in family life, between husband and wife (I believe the analogy is apt since Holy MAtrimony is an icon of our relationship with God). If the couple is not growing in love the relationship does not stay as it had began; it begins, rather to deteriorate.
How many times has it happened that daily routine gets in the way of prayer, for example? We say to one another “today was too tiring; tomorrow we’ll pray. The Lord will understand.” Today it is this excuse, tomorrow another, and when we realize it we have lost our prayer routine, we have been falling even into those “insignificant” sins which we thought we were above, we have forgone the sacraments… Then we need to start all over again. Or how many times do we ttell ourselves “I’m keeping away from sin; this is enough.”

The race is run by good deeds. Our love of God is shown in our love of neighbor, for, as St. John says, how can we say we love God who we have not seen when we do not love our brother who we do see? This doing good is not “being nice”; it is giving testimony. Aren’t there so many occasions when we’re afraid to give witness, not only to those without our family, but also to those within?
When temptation strikes we are told to dash those thoughts immediately against Christ. The imagery is vivid. There are certain temptations which, the Fathers tell us, if we engage them even the slightest bit then we have already lost the battle. I think this advice is especially pertinent for those.

In a day and age when we are told that we have to prove our worth, that it all depends on us, the Rule reminds us that it is not ultimately up to us. This is not, however, an invitation to laxity or indifference. We must cooperate with the Lord’s grace, trusting that He will bring things to fruition and trusting in His providence. We begin to see here already St. Benedict’s insistence on humility, perhaps the quintessential Benedictine characteristic. To be humble is to know one’s self and one’s dependency on the Lord, to recognize that all that is good comes from Him. The “steps of humility” will be addressed later on in the Rule and at length, so tied are they with Benedictine life.

“And the Lord, seeking his laborer”

And the Lord, seeking his laborer in the multitude to whom He thus cries out, says again, “Who is the one who will have life, and desires to see good days”? And if, hearing Him, you answer, “I am the one,” God says to you, “If you will have true and everlasting life, keep your tongue from evil and your lips that they speak no guile. Turn away from evil and do good; seek after peace and pursue it”.
And when you have done these things, My eyes shall be upon you and My ears open to your prayers; and before you call upon Me, I will say to you, ‘Behold, here I am'”.
What can be sweeter to us, dear ones, than this voice of the Lord inviting us? Behold, in His loving kindness the Lord shows us the way of life.
Having our loins girded, therefore, with faith and the performance of good works, let us walk in His paths by the guidance of the Gospel, that we may deserve to see Him who has called us to His kingdom.

For those that think that the Christian religion is just about “evading Hell” the Scripture verse our holy father St. Benedict choses to show with what the Lord tries to seduce us proves otherwise. “Who is the one who will have life, and desires to see good days”? The Lord puts happiness before us. To call us to Him, He appeals in a way to our self-interest. But this is no mere earthly happiness. While we may have moments of happiness and consolation in the here and now, they are fleeting. No; the happiness He proposes is eternal; it is the promise of once again walking with Him in Eden, of living in the New Jerusalem in His presence.

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If we do answer “I am the one” then there are implications. We are made for praise. We normally praise God with our mouth. Our mouth cannot at the same time be to praise Him and to curse others. Also, there should be no hypocrisy in our words: they should not be of praise while we do evil.
“Turn away from evil and do good; seek after peace and pursue it.” It seems like a vague proposal, but the rest of the Rule will be an elaboration on exactly what it means to turn away from evil and to do good. The spiritual life is not just made up of negatives (dont’s), but moreso of positives (do’s).
Peace – Pax – a quality that has become the motto of the Benedictines. Yet this peace is not the mere absence of conflict – how could it be when we are in a life and death battle? Pax inter spinas. No, it is the peace of having the Lord indwelling within us even when all around is conflict.

Ending today’s passage of the Prologue we are reminded that we aren’t owed Heaven; it is the Lord who calls us back out of his steadfast love. In this day and age, when we speak mostly of rights and things owed to us, this is a sobering reminder that we are not in charge: we are creatures (and rebellious ones at that); God is Creator. If we deserve to be with Him, it is because we have participated in the death and resurrection of Christ, persevering in the completion of His sufferings.

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So far the Rule has been straightforward. All that has been said to the monk easily applies to any Christian, even for us in the world. The Lord will call us to labour in His vineyard at any hour, so we must listen for His call. The salary, independent of the hour at which we began our toil? Eternal happiness. Could we desire anything more?

“Let us arise”

Let us arise, then, at last, for the Scripture stirs us up, saying, “Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep”. Let us open our eyes to the deifying light, let us hear with attentive ears the warning which the divine voice cries daily to us,  “Today if you hear His voice, harden not your hearts”. And again, “Whoever has ears to hear, hear what the Spirit says to the churches”. And what does He say? “Come, My children, listen to Me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord”. “Run while you have the light of life, lest the darkness of death overtake you”.

For St. Benedict going through life without having holiness as the goal is the same as being asleep. The life we live, when it is not the Way, is a dream, a pale shadow of what true life really is. A life mired in sin keeps us from living a truly human life, as the Lord intended when He fashioned our First Parents. To awaken from this sleep we have to open our eyes to the deifying light. We have already received this deifying light at our Baptism. In the Patristic period it was not uncommon even to call it Illumination. At Baptism we are made anew. Having been plunged into Christ’s death, we arise with Him and in Him, in His glorious resurrection, filled with His spirit, He who is the Light of the World. To paraphrase the Church Fathers – “God became man so that man might become god”. This is the outrageous claim of Christianity. Holiness is not some legal fiction which makes God not see our sins while we remain the same; no, we are truly transformed, at the center of our being, into something new. The older prayers of the blessing of the baptismal font during the Paschal Vigil reveal this reality to us:

May He by a secret mixture of His divine virtue render this water fruitful for the regeneration of men, to the end that a heavenly offspring, conceived by sanctification, may emerge from the immaculate womb of this divine font, reborn a new creature: […]

We participate in the life of the Holy Trinity. Most people (and probably the majority of Catholics) think that Christianity is just an ethical system (“after all, wasn’t Jesus just another spiritual teacher?”). There is an ethical dimension to it, to be sure, but to limit one’s understanding of it to the ethical is to miss out on the bigger picture. Yet though we have been baptized, how many times have we not fallen back into our old sins, into old habits? How many times have we not forgotten the great gift that we have been given and let ourselves be lulled back to sleep by sin’s deceitful tongue? Because of this we must awaken again and again, as many times as is necessary.

In this section of the Prologue we are enjoined to take action. Our salvation is something to be worked out. Our eyes have been opened to the truth; now we must act on that truth. And when must we act? Sin tells us tomorrow: “There is time for change tomorrow. Enjoy this just one last time; get it out of your system.” And while we let ourselves be deceived into amending our life tomorrow, we sin again not realising we are only strengthening the bonds of servitude by habit. No, we are to act today; we are to act NOW. Who knows if we will live to see tomorrow? Do we even know if we’ll live to see the end of this day? If we hear His voice (and He is always calling for us to return) we must act on it without delay. Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2). Again the theme of hearing and obeying.

Living in the world there are so many distractions that keep us asleep. Why can I not start working on my salvation now? Is that game I want to watch that much more important? Or perhaps that new car/house/…? Is my job more important? Perhaps the cares in my life are too great to allow me to be bothered? I do not act, and suddenly the darkness of death has set in and it is too late, because I have been taken in my sleep.

“Listen carefully, my child”

Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart. Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father’s advice, that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.

To you, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever you may be, who are renouncing your own will to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King, and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.

And first of all, whatever good work you begin to do, beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it, that He who has now deigned to count us among His children may not at any time be grieved by our evil deeds. For we must always so serve Him with the good things He has given us, that He will never as an angry Father disinherit His children, nor ever as a dread Lord, provoked by our evil actions, deliver us to everlasting punishment as wicked servants who would not follow Him to glory.

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Today marks the beginning of the re-reading of the Rule (I try to follow the custom of reading through it three times a year). We start with the Prologue, whose opening lines provide for the title of this blog.

St. Benedict sets out from the start that the Christian life is a life of discipleship, of master and disciple. The Christian, if he is to walk the straight and narrow, is not to make it up as he goes along, to pick and chose according to his personal whims. It is not a one man show. No; the disciple is to learn from his master; he is to receive what his master has given him, which in turn was given to him. “The disciple is not above his master: but every one shall be perfect, if he be as his master.” (Lk 6:40). We are to respect the master, to respect his experience because he has already walked down the path which we have now before us. Yet lest we think this master is cold and heartless, we are told from the start that he is a loving father – he is to help us return to the Father of Mercies.
As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, it was the realization of this basic principle of the Christian life (which seems to be much neglected) which brought me to the Benedictines: the need for guidance.

Our father among the saints speaks much about obedience. It is not by chance that he tells us to listen, for listening and obeying have a common root in Latin. One who listens well obeys well. But more than the physical ear, St. Benedict would have us attune our spiritual ear, the “ear of the heart”, heart being understood as the embodiment of all that we are, and not in the modern sense of the merely sentimental, the affective. But why this emphasis on obedience? Since we are now the Lord’s children by virtue of our mystical engrafment in Christ, His Only-begotten Son, through Baptism, since we share in His life, we are to be obedient as He was. The New Adam, who was obedient unto death to correct the mistake of Adam, who was disobedient – it is here that we are to properly understand obedience. One is to be obedient to the Lord, to submit one’s will, which was damaged by Original Sin, to Him. In submitting we will find our way back to Him; we will discover who we are really meant to be; persevering in obedience till the end the white stone shall be given to us and we will know our name. We are to hear the Word, the Logos, and to obey Him, to let our will be put in accord with His.
And if we are tempted to despair by the task before us, we are reminded that we are not Pelagians, that it does not depend upon us, but on the Lord, and that we should pray always to Him that He may bring to perfection our endeavours.

Though the Rule was written for monks, monasticism is, as D. Kirby OSB would say, “the Christian vocation writ large”. The Christian life is a battle, no matter your state in life. To tell yourself otherwise is to not want to see the truth. While the monks do battle in the cloister, we still in the world have our own struggles. Life’s vicissitudes may wear us down. We may delude ourselves into thinking that we are in control of our lives and that we know best; we may be tempted to cut corners to get ahead in life; we are full of pride and self-love, and easily feel offended when we are reminded of our littleness;… The list goes on and on.
The Christian life is martyrdom, the via crucis. For the majority of us in the Western world it will perhaps not be a red martyrdom, but a silent one, the silent witness of the Cross brought about in the daily mortifications – of our own chosing and those imposed upon us. The acts of asceticism and discipline that we may engage in in our spiritual life are so that we may listen better, and this is part of the battle as well.
St. Benedict tells us that disobedience is easy (the fruit of “sloth”) and obedience is difficult (it is a “labor”), but we must pray constantly. While the threat of Hell and punishment might seem outmoded to modern sensibilities, we will see later on in the Rule a very obvious truth: that each stage of spiritual development has its own motivation. One is to grow in love, to pass from loving the Lord out of fear of punishment to loving Him because He is. But sometimes the fear of damnation is just the motivation we need on those days that nothing else seems to work, when we feel like giving up.

One thing to keep in mind is that while the Rule never mentions it explicitly (because for St. Benedict it is a given), the Mystical Body of Christ – the Church – is the backdrop for all of this. One may follow the Rule, but one needs a sacramental life. With the constant bombardment of messages of self-sufficiency, the Holy Rule is a good reminder that we do not save ourselves.