+ “Inclinabit Iesus et scribeat in terra: Si quis sine peccato est, mittat in eam lapidem,” we sing at the Benedictus in Lauds tomorrow morning—”Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground: If anyone is without sin, let him cast a stone at her.”
This is, of course, the conflation of two verses from tomorrow’s Gospel reading, the moving passage from the eighth chapter of St John (vv. 1-8) recounting Our Lord’s meeting with the woman brought to Him by the Scribes and the Pharisees who had been caught in the very act of committing adultery.
In the act of committing adultery. There was no doubt at all that this woman was guilty of transgressing one of God’s commandments. The Scribes and the Pharisees knew that. So did she. Our Lord did not dispute it. According to the Law she ought to be stoned to death.
Sin that is grave—and the Church’s constant teaching is that any use of the God-given gift of sexuality outside of married love is grave matter—which is knowingly and freely engaged in results in death: spiritual death. It is mortal, literally.
We know the subsequent events that the Gospel recounts: faced with Jesus’ words no one dared to cast a stone. No one of her accusers was without sin. They departed one by one until the woman was left with only the Lord Himself.
In passing, let us not fail to note the humility in which Jesus rather rapidly tutored her accusers: they did put down their stones and walk away. They were, after all, as Scribes and Pharisees, devout people, even if they were overzealous in their interpretation of the Law. Nevertheless, formed in the Good News by the Christ Himself, they walked away in humility.
Our world is, sadly, not lacking in those who are my no means without sin and who would not walk away in humility. Unfortunately the Church herself is not exempt from this phenomenon. Indeed, we see only to often, particularly in the media, those who would cast veritable boulders at sinners of one sort or another whilst themselves being guilty of sins equally, if not more, grave. These, the hypocrites of the twenty-first century, merit far greater condemnation than the Scribes and Pharisees of this Gospel passage.
Tomorrow the Sacred Liturgy will sing not once, but twice—in the Communion and Magnificat antiphons—of the conclusion of this encounter between the Lord and the adulterous woman: “Nemo te condemnávit, mulier? Nemo, Dómine. Nec ego te condemnábo: iam ámplius noli peccáre.” “Woman, has no one condemned you?” “No one, Lord.” “Neither do I; go, and do not sin again.”
The compassion of Christ here is palpable. This, I believe, is one of the most truly beautiful encounters recorded in the Gospel.
“Neither do I condemn you.” Can we, who know only too well what it is to sin, comprehend this? Can we believe it of ourselves, of our past sins? Of others, including those who may have sinned against us?
As we know from Sacred Scripture and the Teaching of the Church, repentance and a resolve to avoid sin and occasions of sin is required on the part of the sinner: our hearts, minds and souls must be open to Our Lord’s compassion for it to reach us. But if I am humble enough to repent, if I am willing to take the real steps necessary truly to try to avoid future sin, it His compassion and not His condemnation that awaits me. This is the Good News of the Gospel!
Some might object that this no less than weakness, that it is “cheap grace”, that to forgive sinners so easily is a mockery of the moral teaching of the Church.
Not so! For the Lord’s command “Go, and do not sin again” remains. Yes, He is compassionate, but as St Augustine points out in his homily at Matins tomorrow morning, this passage also shows the Lord’s justice, which cannot be separated from His mercy. Sin is sin and the Lord does not obfuscate on this point. The woman is commanded by the Lord, as are we, not to sin again.
That command requires our conversion of life. We seek that conversion in the discipline of the monastic life. Hopefully, here, our days of committing adultery or similarly grave sins are over and we are increasingly faithful to the Lord’s command. Please God we are making at least some progress in the conversion of our life, no matter how much more remains necessary. Indeed, by simply asking to enrol in the “school of the Lord’s service,” (Rule, Prologue) we have taken a decisive step towards that conversion.
Howsoever slowly we progress along this path, and in spite of whatever setbacks we encounter, let us be confident of the beautiful compassion of Christ. He will sustain us, He will recreate us, if only we our open our hearts, minds and souls to Him today, and anew every day. Indeed—and we may not believe this possible—if we give ourselves to Him, He will gradually transform us into icons of His compassion—Icons which our current and future monastic brethren, our guests, and our world so desperately need.
As we approach the Fourth Sunday of Lent, let us take up our prayer and penance with renewed resolution and vigour, and with joy, that we may become more open to His transforming grace, that those who do not know the Compassion of Christ may encounter it in and through us, and that those who stand ready to cast their stones may learn humility, put them down and walk away. +
+ At Lauds tomorrow morning we shall sing in the Benedictus Antiphon: “Vadam ad patrem meum, et dicam ei: fac me sicut unum ex mercenariis tuis.” (I will go to my father and I will say unto him: Father make me as one of Thy servants.) This antiphon serves, of course, our contemplation of the Holy Gospel of the Saturday of the Second Week of Lent, the Gospel parable of the prodigal (or two) sons. (cf. Luke 15:11-32)
Let us consider something of this parable – perhaps one of the best known of all the Gospel parables, and certainly one of the most beautiful – so as to prepare the prayer and contemplation of the morrow.
We know the plot: a younger son is foolish and leaves his father’s house only to squander his inheritance in a life that is gravely sinful to the extent that he is reduced to feeding – of all things for a Jew! – pigs. Eventually he comes to his senses and, knowing full well the evil he has done, begs (as in the Benedictus antiphon) simply to be allowed to be a servant in his father’s household. And yet – to the chagrin of his somewhat self-righteous ever-faithful older brother – his father, with unprecedented compassion and utterly festal joy, restores him to unimpeded sonship, chiding his eldest son for his lack of understanding, mercy, love and joy at the return of one “who was dead and who has come to life, who was lost and is now found.”
This parable provides so much for our contemplation!
At Matins in the morning St Ambrose will himself ponder the younger son’s going off to a far land: “What is a more distant journey than to go out of one’s self, to be separated not by vast regions, but by morals; to be cut off not by earthly distance, but by the pursuits of the soul; and to be, as it were, divorced from the society of the saints by the burning chasm of earthly lust? He who has separated himself from Christ is indeed an exile from his fatherland; he is a citizen of this world.”
My brothers: it may be that we ourselves have wandered in these regions. We may have known the shame and self-loathing of being unworthy sons of the Father, of being barely able to hope for a welcome home, even as a hired servant. And it is most probably the case that we count amongst our friends and loved ones some of the household of faith who currently find themselves thus, in a self-imposed exile.
Yet, by God’s grace, by the prayers and sacrifices of others and through the merits of the saints, we have been freely and graciously given the Father’s understanding, mercy and love and have entered once again into the joy of the Communion of Saints. How often have we been welcomed home thus!
This unmerited grace should produce in us at least two dispositions. Firstly, profound humility and a disposition of gratitude in the depths of our souls. There should be no room in us for the pride and lack of compassion displayed by the older son, no matter who the sinner or what the sin.
Pride can certainly be a danger for us. Living the coenobitical life should and does protect us from at least some of the sinful regions in which we might otherwise wander.
Nevertheless, whilst thanking Almighty God for this particular grace of our monastic vocation, and whilst abiding in the humility which our past sins demand, we must never, ever forget the doctrine that Our Lord teaches in this parable: that the reality of the forgiveness of sins and of the restoration to sonship in the Household of God is of the essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Full stop.
In our times some in the Church, and often perversely many “citizens of the world” far beyond it for whom the Church’s moral teachings are utterly repugnant, cannot abide this doctrine. Evangelical forgiveness seems to involve too much of a risk. Or it threatens their position as ‘elder sons.’ To those of the world it is incomprehensible.
Through fear or even through narcissism, rather than rejoicing at a lost or dead brother being found or coming back to life, the stances of some – even Church authorities at times – would deny this fundamental Gospel teaching by almost rewriting the parable so as to have the prodigal son sent back to the pigs! Too many sinners have been scandalised – literally, in the sense of the original Greek skandalon (a stumbling block) – when they have encountered this and have been prevented thereby from returning to the Father’s house, only to be driven further away into greater sin.
We must resist this evisceration of the Gospel with all our might and with all the spiritual and other means at our disposal. If sinners may not be restored to unimpeded sonship in the Father’s house, our preaching and teaching is, to borrow St Paul’s phrase, nothing less than “in vain.” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:14)
Secondly, this parable should give rise to a spiritual – indeed an apostolic – zeal for sinners in our lives; particularly, as monks, in our lives of prayer and penance. For whose return have I offered my Lenten penances in these past days? What straying soul can I help to win back to the Father’s house in the remaining days of Lent? When I rise ridiculously early on a cold day to go to my choir stall, for whom does my fidelity to the Work of God plead before the Father of all grace?
Yes, tomorrow’s Holy Gospel gives us all of this, and more, to ponder and digest.
Saint Benedict opens the Holy Rule with the call:
“Hearken, my son, to the precepts of the Master and incline the ear of thy heart; freely accept and faithfully fulfil the instructions of a loving father, that by the labour of obedience thou mayest return to him from whom thou hast strayed by the sloth of disobedience.” (Rule, Prologue)
In responding to this call, in entering the “school of the Lord’s service,” (Rule, Prologue) we enter into the loving, forgiving, restorative embrace of the Father. My brothers, let our lives be nothing less than witnesses to and apostles of this fundamental evangelical reality so that others too may come to be enfolded in the loving embrace of the Father. +
Once again this year the monastery will organise and host the Sacra Liturgia Summer School from 27 July - 8 August. Lay men and women and clergy and religious desiring to learn more about Gregorian chant and liturgical ceremonies will join us from different countries for just under two weeks of practical tuition, formation and pilgrimages including the daily solemn celebration of the Mass and of the Monastic Office.
This year we have the singular privilege of welcoming His Eminence, Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. His Eminence will celebrate Pontifical first Vespers and Solemn Pontifical Mass at the Throne for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (28/29 July). Bishop Dominique Rey, Bishop of Fréjus-Toulon, be present at II Vespers of the Sunday together with the Cardinal, after which His Eminence will give a conference on the Sacred Liturgy.
Further details and registrations are available here.
+ Tribulationes cordis mei dilatatae sunt: de necessitatibus meis eripe me, Domine. Vide humilitatem meam, et laborem meum: et dimitte omnia peccata mea. (The troubles of my heart are multiplied: deliver me from my distress, O Lord. See my abjection and my hardships; and forgive me all my sins.)
Thus we shall sing in this Sunday’s Gradual. Appositely, perhaps, coming as it does after St Paul’s rather ‘direct’ Epistle (1 Thess. 4:1-7) in which he tells us very bluntly how we are to live:
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from fornication, that every one of you should know how to possess his body in sanctification and honour; not in the passion of lust, like the Gentiles that know not God: and that no man overreach nor circumvent his brother in business: because the Lord is the Avenger of all these things, as we have told you before and have all testified. For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto sanctification.”
Set against the very high benchmark of Christian teaching, who amongst us does not need to pray: Vide humilitatem meam, et laborem meum: et dimitte omnia peccata mea. It is certainly a prayer that rightly takes its place in our hearts and on our lips in Lent.
And yet the Church’s Sacred Liturgy follows this Gradual with a Tract which immediately sings: Confitemini Domino, quoniam bonus: quoniam in saeculum misericordia eius (Praise the Lord for he is good: for His mercy endureth forever), and which continues in what can only be described as a confident if not upbeat assertion of God’s blessing and mercy.
A good tonic, certainly, in the wake of St Paul’s sober medicine and straight talking. For whilst St Paul is right, and whilst our failures to live according to the benchmark of Christian doctrine do weigh us down, it is good—indeed it is necessary, and it is just—that we sing of God’s mercy which endures and that we praise Him for this.
But this Tract also serves as the prelude for this Sunday’s Gospel passage, which is, of course, that of the Transfiguration of the Lord. (Mt 17:1-9)
It is perhaps somewhat odd that the Church gives us this Gospel passage on the Second Sunday of Lent. It has little to do with prayer, fasting and penance for sin as have the vast majority of the Lenten liturgical texts (at least in the usus antiquior). And yet on Sunday, our Holy Mother, the Church, will take us, with all our troubles and distress and abjection and hardships, up a high mountain to behold His Transfigured Presence. We shall hear the voice out of the cloud, saying: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: listen to Him.” And perhaps, in the light of our own sins and of our continual struggle or seeming inability to rise above them, we too shall fall to the ground, overcome with fear in the face of a radiant goodness that is totally other, that is utterly beyond us.
But the Church has not taken us up this mountain to confound our misery or to drive us to despair. Rather, as ever, she has led us to a mountain top so as to hear the voice of the Lord. “Arise,” He says, “Do not be afraid.”
My brothers, in the personal conversion which the Gospel demands of each of us, and upon which we rightly focus with greater intensity in this beautiful season of Lent, there is no room for fear. There is no place for despair. Yes, our sins, past and present, burden us and weigh us down. They distress us. And yes, sometimes even our best efforts to confront them seemingly come to nothing. I say “seemingly” because every effort, howsoever small or apparently futile, to avoid sin or occasions of sin is an act of love and worship of Almighty God which shall not go unrewarded. The Lord is good: His mercy endures forever. It is He who says to us “Arise. Do not be afraid.”
And so, ten days into Lent, we must not be afraid. Even if our Lenten resolutions have already suffered damage or our application of them seems to have amounted to nothing, we must arise without fear and, with the Lord at our side, come down from the high mountain and continue to walk with Him knowing that the radiant power and goodness we have been shown is our strength and our victory even amidst the burdens we bear, provided we remain with Him and with His Church and persevere faithfully in her teaching.
If we do this we can sing in Sunday’s Offertory antiphon: Meditabor in mandatis tuis, quae dilexi valde: et levabo manus meas ad mandata tua, quae dilexi. (I will meditate on Thy commandments, which I have loved exceedingly: and I will lift up my hands to Thy commandments which I have loved.) And in so doing we shall both render that worship to Almighty God which is His due and open our hearts and souls to receive the graces we need faithfully to persevere in His love. +
We are profoundly grateful to the anonymous benefactors who have sent us books from our Amazon wish list. Saint Benedict would have his monks spend much time in reading, particularly in Lent, and with a young and growing community with some beginning their philosophical and theological studies, our need for more books is constant. God bless and reward you if you are able to help us in this way. Our wish list, which is updated as there is need, may be consulted here.
+ It is our great privilege to be called to the vocation of praying and pondering the Sacred Liturgy each day. In the wealth of the Church’s liturgical tradition, of which important elements stretch back to the time of Our Lord himself, and beyond, there is more than enough matter for a lifetime of prayer and contemplation.
Dom Guéranger is said to have allowed his postulants and novices no other material for lectio divina than the texts of the Sacred Liturgy. With good reason: for who needs passing ‘paperback spirituality’ when the Church herself has given us so much from which to draw? Indeed, who can rightly evaluate modern spiritualities and their proponents without first having drunk deeply from the source of the Church’s very life and mission? (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 10).
This evening I wish to consider briefly the Magnificat antiphon we shall sing at II Vespers of this coming Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent:
“Ecce nunc tempus acceptabile, ecce nunc dies salutis. In his ergo diebus exhibeamus nos sicut Dei ministros, in multa patientia, in vigiliis, in ieiuniis et in caritate non ficta.”
“Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation! Let us conduct ourselves in all circumstances as God’s ministers, in much patience, in vigils, in fasts, in unfeigned love.”
There is enough in this Magnificat antiphon alone to sustain our thought, prayer and contemplation for many hours and days of Lent, and beyond.
Now is indeed the acceptable time. This is indeed the day of salvation. What we do today, large or small, is that upon which we shall be judged. The state of our heart and soul today are what God sees: it is they that determine our salvation—not what we might plan to do in the future. Now is the time to address our attachment to sin, to work with the spiritual weapons at our disposal, most particularly our Lenten practices, on rooting out vice and on growing in virtue.
The Church’s antiphon directs our efforts with the following exhortation: “Let us conduct ourselves in all circumstances as God’s ministers, in much patience, in vigils, in fasts, in unfeigned love.”
Patience. Vigils. Fasts. Unfeigned love. There is enough here for each of us to be getting on with, without doubt. A brief word about the latter, however: Unfeigned love: cartitate non ficta—true love.
Our world is replete with false love, from the pursuit and worship of lust in its manifold forms, the false compassion propagated by the proponents the culture of death, the reduction of the human person to a mere economic unit and worse still, the growing exploitation of persons in human trafficking and slavery to name but some examples.
Amidst this seemingly overwhelming darkness our vocation is to be beacons of caritate non ficta. In the first place this requires us to receive love: the real love of God and of our brethren. And to that end we must continually seek purify ourselves and our motives, particularly in Lent. Our Lord wishes to do this for each of us in the Sacrament of Penance. He accepts our humble confession of our sins and re-creates us in His abiding love. Our Lenten penances and practices will serve to ensure that this seed of God’s love finds us to be good soil in which to grow and to bear abundant fruit. (cf. Mt 13:1-23)
I believe that caritate non ficta is alive in our monastery and is experienced amongst us. That is a wonderful grace. But it is a grace of which we must continually strive to be worthy through the examination of our consciences, through a willingness continually to be of service to each other and through a vigilant—but not neurotic—sensitivity to the needs of our brethren, particularly to new brothers whom Almighty God entrusts to our care and to guests who come seeking something of God with which to sustain them in their vocations in the world.
May this Lent afford us the opportunity further to build up the Kingdom of Love in our hearts and souls, in our monastery, and in our world which so desperately needs, and which rightly requires of us, our faithful, daily witness to caritate non ficta. +
+ “In these days of Lent the brethren should lead lives of great purity and should in this sacred season expiate the negligence’s of other times.” Thus our Holy Father Saint Benedict enjoins us in Chapter 49 of his Rule this evening.
Ever the realist, the author of this “little Rule for beginners” (ch. 73) prefaces his exhortation with the observation: “The life of a monk ought at all times to be lenten in its character,” and then observes in the light of his experience and wisdom that “few have the strength for that.”
St Benedict knows us, his twenty-first century sons, only too well!
And so, spurred on by his paternal chastisement, we begin this sacred season with the resolution to take up our monastic observance anew with great purity of heart and mind and body. If we can’t mount a concerted effort to do this in Lent, when can we? Let us therefore be more careful in our observance of silence and in avoiding idle chatter throughout the monastery. Let us not allow anything to come before our fruitful participation in the Work of God or to eat away at the time consecrated to its digestion and contemplation. We must ensure never forget to carry with us into choir the intentions of those who ask for and so need our prayers and to thank God and implore His abundant blessings on our kind and faithful benefactors. Let consideration of the needs of our brethren be uppermost in our thoughts and deeds. May the quality of our manual work, howsoever trivial it may seem, bespeak true penitence and bear witness to our love of God in all things.
St Benedict also enjoins us that “In these days, therefore, let us add something beyond the wonted measure of our service…” We receive a Lent book to nourish us in these forty days. We have prepared our Lenten resolutions—communal and personal—and ask the blessing of Almighty God for them, begging His grace in persevering in them.
Let not the experience of past Lents when, perhaps, we hoped to do much, but achieved far less, discourage us. Do not allow unconquered vices and the wounds inflicted by past sins to cripple us before we even begin this Lenten pilgrimage. For as St Paul teaches us in the Epistle for the first Sunday of Lent: “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Cor 6:2) The graces offered to us in these days are particular and they are privileged. Even though we are weak we must have faith in the power of Almighty God to transform us, as the Church taught us through the words the Lord addressed to St Paul in the Epistle for Sexagesima: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)
When St Paul himself needed such a reassurance, how can we be discouraged?
For an increase in faith in the power of Almighty God to transform and heal us in the very roots of our weakness, let us pray and fast and give the alms of our time, of our goodwill and of our love this Lent. If we but make the effort, the grace of Almighty God will do the rest.
Lent 2018 finds our little monastery is growing in number. This is a particularly important time for us, for those who have come to us already and for those who, please God, will also do so in the course of this year and beyond. I ask in a particular way that we offer prayer and fasting for our monastery, that we may ever be worthy stewards of the vocations whom the Lord sends. And I ask that in these privileged days of grace we accompany those whom Almighty God may be calling to seek the habit of Saint Benedict amongst us through our penitential practices and in our prayer.
Each new brother is nothing less than a precious gift to our monastic family enabling us to add more to our measure of service throughout the year. In this most holy season we must purify ourselves so that the Lord will find us more worthy of the gifts he is giving in abundance. And, through our Lenten observance we must also win for our new brothers, and for those whom the Lord is calling to take their place amongst us, the graces they need so as to hearken without delay to the precepts of the Master and not become dismayed and run away from the way of salvation, the entrance of which, St Benedict insists “must needs be narrow.” (cf. Rule, Prologue).
This morning at Conventual Mass we were reminded with the ashes imposed on us that we are dust. Most often we ponder this reality in respect of our mortality. This year I propose that we contemplate this reality in exactly the opposite way. For we read in the Book of Genesis that “The LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Gen 2:7)
Yes, we are truly dust. But through the power of Almighty God dust can have life breathed into it. Mere dust can become the apex of God’s creation—it can become a new creature that is the very “image” of God Himself. (Gen 1:27) My brothers, during this Lent Almighty God wishes to recreate us, to breathe life anew into the dust we are, into the sin-stained dust we have become.
In these privileged and holy days let us attend His re-creative breath with all our energy, so that we may be able to celebrate the venerable and ancient rites of Holy Week with even greater fervour this year. When the light of Easter morning shines upon us may it illumine all that, though our humble penance and prayer, God’s grace has been able to do in us throughout this Lent. +