SINCE YOU ARE EAGER FOR SPIRITUAL GIFTS, STRIVE TO EXCEL IN THEM FOR BUILDING UP THE CHURCH (1Cor. 14: 12).  In a rather lengthy passage St. Paul explained in concrete detail just what he considered the more excellent spiritual gifts which he recommends to his readers. The point of his argument is that we are to strive after those graces which are useful to others as well as beneficial for ourselves. For that reason, he explains,  prophecy is by far to be preferred to speaking in tongues, for  ‘Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church’ (14:4). What makes the difference is understanding. The charismatic gift of tongues is a form of exaltation coming from a sense of communion with the Spirit. The subject himself commonly has no idea what the words he utters mean. But he does experience the happening as an inner awakening to a new consciousness of God’s loving presence. Thus it is a form of prayer that is intensely felt and a source of consolation.  

In Paul’s time such graces were common in Corinth. Paul himself states that he too has that gift. But he does not value it above those gifts which build up the community, and specifically the gift of interpreting God’s plan and will for his people. Accordingly, he makes the point that care should be taken that what is said in community prayer should be understandable. He gives his reason for insisting on this point: those who are present at the public prayer of the Christian community, should profit spiritually from the church’s prayer. He includes guests who visit the service, and even unbelievers who may be led to praise God because of the content of the prayer. The fundamental principle on which St. Paul bases his reasoning is that the church’s common prayer should contribute to the spiritual profit of all who respectfully attend it. 

This principle was taken up by St. Benedict in his Rule when he wrote on prayer and urged that the mind be in harmony with the voice. The best way to assist at the divine office, he infers, is to give attention to the meaning of the words and let them direct our thoughts. One reason our legislator is so concerned about this harmony of mind and voice is that the words employed at the office are inspired by the Spirit of God. They are not merely human, even though they give expression to human sentiments as well as reveal the Divine plan for salvation. Even those texts that are not taken directly from Scripture have a special mark of the Spirit for they are the work of saintly men who witnessed to God’s truth by lives of holiness as well as by their teaching. Most of them, such as the hymns written by St. Ambrose, are themselves the fruit of meditation and prayer. St. Bernard realized that at times texts from Scripture are used in an applied sense to suit the feast rather than in their original meaning. Rather than considering such usage to weaken the force of the words, he maintained that they enjoyed a special inspiration from the Church’s approval that gave them a higher value than in their original setting. 

Certainly the Church, through the instrumentality of learned and holy bishops, priests and other faithful, has been creative in her worship. And some of the most creative were men of ability for administration as well as for writing, such as Ambrose and Basil of Caesaria. John Chrysostom too, a great pastor and fervent, if not always diplomatic, leader of opposition to imperial policies, contributed by his life and preaching to the formation of an outstanding liturgical tradition, according to the tradition.  But for the liturgy to be as effective as intended, it is not enough that it be constructed and presented by men who are familiar with the divine writings,and who have attuned their lives to their teaching; those who participate in it are also to call forth their own particular way of prayer it. Each session of the office is an invitation for those of us who pray it to do so from the heart. That entails some measure of personal creativity. 

Only in this way can we fulfill the injunction of St. Benedict to make the mind harmonize with the words. For properly to apply the words of the liturgy to our own actual situation, our needs, our temptations, our weaknesses and our aspirations, we must display some degree of originality. Only if we make the words fit the condition in which we find ourselves can our mind tune itself to the meaning of the texts we are praying. Naturally, this is a highly challenging task and often we feel we fall short in carrying it out. But there are certain measures we can take that enable us to improve our performance and achieve some degree of this kind of pure prayer to which our vocation calls us. 

Certain of these preparatory steps are remote helps, and Benedict expects that all of his monks make use of them. The most obvious one is to study the Psalter.   There are levels of meaning in the psalms that constitute this book, there are also forms used that, rightly understood, reveal meanings that are otherwise lost.  In addition, many references in the psalms are to other books of the bible, both the Torah and the historical books so that we cannot grasp the sense of the psalms unless we have carefully read these other works and are sufficiently familiar with them. In fact, the Psalter has been described as a summary of the Hebrew Scriptures with a certain justice, for it contains a good deal of wisdom literature as well as references to the Torah, and to a lesser extent, to the prophetic writings. A number of the psalms are themselves prophetic as Jesus himself declared. Accordingly, the greater familiarity we have with the Hebrew bible the more readily will we be able to enter into the meaning of the various psalms. 

Another more remote preparation for praying the office is living the monastic life of silence and recollection in the course of which we engage ourselves in the work of the heart. For only some one who has learned to enter into the hidden and deeper levels of his interior will be able to respond appropriately to many of the passages in the psalms.  For these prayers were written by men who had explored the feelings, dispositions, images and other contents that they found within their hearts at times of more intense experience. We must have some degree of similar familiarity with the contents of our interior and have learned to a certain extent to confront these realities in the presence of the Lord. There is a mutual relation between the psalm and our consciousness of our inner world. For the more familiarity we have with our own inner self the more meaning we shall be able to discover in the psalms; and praying the psalms can be a stimulus to consciousness of inner realities that we had not been aware of. 

Still another help in praying the office in a more personal and contemplative manner is to approach them as helps to a fuller and more personal appreciation of our Lord. The more desire we have to draw near to Christ the greater will be our capacity for finding him in the psalms and other texts of the office. For, as I had mentioned last week, the Psalter was the book in which Jesus learned to pray. From the time he was a child he had heard them recited by his parents. When he attended the Synagogue, as he did regularly, he heard them chanted. His concept of the Father, in good part, was fashioned by these prayers; the form his piety took from early times was, no doubt, the fruit of certain of the psalms. Moreover, it would seem very likely that he came to understand his own mission and destiny to a considerable degree, from this reading of the Psalter. He told his apostles, after his resurrection, that the law and the prophets and the psalms speak of him and of the great events of his life. God in his Providence has willed to make himself and the Savior known through these inspired writings so that St. Jerome could declare that ‘Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ’.  

Any number of the Fathers wrote commentaries on the Scriptures, and on the psalms in particular, that give indications of how they speak of Christ for those who have faith. To read and reflect on these works, notably St. Augustine’s numerous explanations is to discover ways of finding Christ in the liturgy. St. Paul had told the Corinthians that “prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers” (1Cor 14:22) and by prophecy what he means is to speak out for the church what God reveals of his saving truth. That includes making clear the meaning of the mystery of the Incarnation and its implications. Even when the explanations given by the Fathers are evidently not the original, conscious intent of the author, they would seem often to be prophetic themselves. For their way of interpreting the inspired text make plain many aspects of Jesus’ work and person and their significance for our conversion and progress in knowledge and love of him. This is precisely the sense that Paul gives to the charism of prophecy which he considers to be such a desirable gift in that it is intended to benefit all members of the church, and others who hear it.   

The immediate preparation for a more profitable participation in the common worship is to be present on time, having our books prepared and being recollected. Such attendance often requires some sacrifice, especially that of leaving tasks in which we are absorbed early enough that we are able to get free of the distractions they cause us.  This practice proves quite challenging at times when we are taken up with matters that engage our mind and attention more fully.  Admittedly, there will be occasions when the work requires to be finished before we leave it. If one is engaged in seeing a guest, hearing confessions, cooking a meal and similar tasks, one cannot abruptly depart without causing some harm or loss. As far as possible we should avoid talking to others on our way to the office unless it be some urgent business. Rather, it is helpful to begin to turn in prayer, perhaps using some familiar, short formula like the prayer of Jesus or some part of the rosary. 

Steadiness in such fidelity to prayer at the office is possible only if we maintain the desire for God in an ardent state in our heart. These regular habits of preparing for prayer themselves strengthen this desire and contribute greatly to keeping it alive and strong. As the years go on we stand in need of fidelity to good habits formed over long periods of time; we also find it necessary to prevent habit from leading to empty routine. That is possible only by daily returning to the heart, entering the depths of our inner life and there encountering the Lord, aware of our actual state of soul. There is no substitute for this work. It is by meeting the Lord in faith as we experience our actual feelings and emotions so that our prayer, private and common, remains personal, and contributes directly to our spiritual growth. Grace gives us the incentive and the power to carry out this work; it does not substitute for it, but rather makes such effort fruitful. The more we know our true state of soul and experience the implications of our weaknesses and temptations, the more appreciation we will have for God’s mercy and assistance. This is the spirituality taught and lived by our Cistercian Fathers who themselves learned it from the saintly doctors of old. By practice may we learn its efficacy and discover the strength and joy that comes to those who live it faithfully day by day persevering in its paths till the end.

 Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

[abbey crest]

Abbey of the Genesee: All Rights Reserved

Home Page Index Page Archive Page