Lost in the woods

YOU ARE ANXIOUS AND TROUBLED ABOUT MANY MATTERS; ONLY ONE IS NECESSARY. There are many instances that arise in our lives as individuals that confront us with choices that must be made without assurance they will lead to the result we so earnestly desire. Some of these are more important than others, in that they touch on affairs of larger import for our material or spiritual well-being. But even matters of lesser significance can, because of some particular meaning they have for us, may cause us to get over anxious and so take on a greater urgency than they deserve. For Martha, receiving her distinguished and honored guest for whom she had a special affection, serving just the right dishes in the very best style became the most important thing in the world. We all fall into such over concern at times: some because of a family visit, others because of some health problem, real or imaginary, still others because of the possible loss of a favorite job. While certain temperaments are more subject to such anxieties than others, all of us are liable to misplaced anxieties. Our Lord warns his friend, Martha, against such preoccupations.

He in fact goes further; he praises a single-minded dedication to the one thing that is truly necessary: union with God. . We are so made that if we should gain the whole world but fail to enter the kingdom of God, we lose all. Truly, one thing is necessary and whoever chooses it has chosen the better part. Time and again he returns to this theme and in various ways, as he strives to inculcate in his followers a keen awareness that God's will alone should be the guide and motive of our life. There was an urgency in his preaching that the kingdom of God is near and when he comes in glory only those who have prepared themselves for that encounter will be found worthy to be taken with him into the kingdom.

Monks have from earliest times been sensitive to this feature of our Lord's message. So strongly were they impressed by the primacy of this concern to please God in all things and so to become worthy to enter the kingdom where God is all in all that they separated themselves from the concerns of this world, even from their families, in order to devote themselves to this one purpose. Among the various meanings given for the word monk there is one that sees it as short for monotropos, which in Greek means "of a single turn; simple; single-minded." Monks have but one direction they move in; they are turned toward God. His will, his nature determines their way of life and the goal they set themselves.

The monastic way of prayer in the Benedictine tradition continues faithful to the approach to contemplative prayer that is already described by Cassian. It is not based on some specific physical technique for arriving at an experience of enlightenment or sense of unity with the All, analogous to the traditions of Eastern religions such as yoga and Za-zen. But it does recommend as a practice the frequent, even constant repetition of short and intense prayer made with sharp attention. The particular formula that Cassian employs is one we use at the beginning of every office: "O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me." This is considered an excellent formula, all the more to be honored because it is from inspired Scripture; but it is not urged as an essential one. Any wording that is made with attention, from the heart, and utilized with frequency so as to maintain the individual in constant attentiveness to God in humble supplication for his grace is equally effective. Monks seem to have favored prayers that express the need for God's mercy and his pardon and evoke humble awareness of one's need. In the Eastern Churches, the prayer that monks favored above others was of this same nature. Its classic formulation is: "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner." This prayer too, though not occurring as such in the Bible, is inspired by texts found in the Gospels.

Benedict, Patriarch of the West

St. Benedict himself accepted the principle enunciated by Cassian that the most useful private prayer is that which is brief, ardent and attentive to the meaning. He urges his monks to begin every undertaking with "a most insistent prayer" (Prologue); the monk is "to prostrate himself in prayer frequently". At the office we are to realize we stand in the presence of the God himself and so should "sing wisely" ("psallite sapienter!", as is said in Psalm 46.8), so that our mind and heart are in accord. All prayer, he states in the chapter devoted to that topic, should be humble and devout, that is to say, attentive to God's dignity; it must also be pure, marked by compunction and come from the heart. To assure it is free from distraction it ought not to be taken up with wordy formulas, but rather to be brief, unless divine grace inspires its prolongation. The first thing a monk does after pronouncing his vows in the presence of the community is to prostrate himself before each brother and ask the support of his prayer.

In practice, the monk is to make every effort to remain constantly in the presence of God, and so to live a life of constant prayer. Benedict gives his thought on this point at the first degree of humility.

The first degree of humility is if one places before his eyes always the fear of the Lord, fleeing all forgetfulness and keeps in mind at all times what God has commanded.... A man should consider that he is looked upon from heaven at every moment by God and that his deeds are seen by the Divine sight in every place....Let the observant brother be solicitous concerning perverse thoughts so that he says in his heart: "Then shall I be immaculate if I keep myself from my iniquity."(Psalm 17: 24)

It is not just at the office in community prayer, not only in the oratory when in private prayer, but everyplace and at all times that we are to be conscious of the presence of God, and watch over the thoughts that arise in our minds and hearts under all circumstances. This is the general temper of Benedictine prayer. It is not confined to some particular formula of words, it does not prescribe certain postures of the body, nor does it so much as mention the issue of wordless prayer, or detail the characteristics of the consciousness at times of prayer as Evagrius does; such questions are left to the individual to work out. Like St. Basil, the Patriarch of the West stresses the memory of God as a way of assuring a constant communion with him. This memory is perhaps distinguished from the activity of prayer but itself represents a desire for God and a consciousness of his presence that amounts to a very real union with God and is, at least implicitly, a true prayer.

The ideal of monastic life as a continuous prayer, as a walking always in the presence of God was embedded in the tradition from the beginning and influenced the structure of monastic living. Even before the young Antony moved out to the desert to live in solitude, his spiritual master told him to practice constant prayer. He in turn passed on this doctrine to his disciples; this emphasis on remaining in a state of prayer and devising practices that favored its realization characterized the spirituality of the desert fathers in Egypt already at the period of its early formulation. (Cf. Garcia Columbas, "El Monacato Primitivo"II, 318).

In his way of treating this ideal St. Benedict provides a whole way of life that supports and sustains conscious union with God that is as constant as human frailty allows when fortified by God's grace. The observance of silence, and the solitude of the cloister have as their purpose the facilitation of such prayerful attention to God. It is in the climate created by fidelity to the hours of the office, to reading, meditation, to silence and observance of solitude that prayer is to be cultivated and to become increasingly pure and profound. Within this prayerful ambience each monk has the task of coming to know his own heart and character so that he works out various methods of assuring that his own prayer is suited to his personal capacities and needs. For prayer is a true art; the monk undertakes by his profession to learn the art of prayer and to practice it with application and fervor all his life long.

We learn to pray above all by practice, and by evaluating our experience so as to learn from it how better to employ our self at prayer. Studying carefully the holy men and women who have mastered the art of prayer in their lives and described it in their writings contributes greatly to the learning of more effective and fruitful ways of prayer. Monastic reading and study are undertaken primarily with a view to attaining to a more true concept of God, of the mysteries of faith and of the ways of grace. As we conceive of God more fittingly we go on to pray to him more effectively. To know God as Father, for example, admits of any number of conceptions influenced by our own experience, imagination, expectations and hopes. To grasp more precisely what Jesus reveals about the Father in the Gospels opens up vast horizons within which we can gain unendingly fresh insights into his ways of dealing with us. Evagrius had already spoken of continual prayer arising quite naturally in the heart of one who relates to God as Father. "The man who loves God constantly lives and speaks with him as a Father ( Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer, 54, Cistercian Studies 4, p. 63)." But the character of that interior conversation will depend on the conception one has of the Father. Is he viewed as lovingly merciful, full of concern for the welfare and happiness of his creaturely son? Or is he viewed primarily as all-powerful, a just judge and exacting. All these attributes characterize the Father and mark his treatment of us, but in what proportion and under what circumstances varies with our way of conceiving and relating to him. We are to expend our best energies in working out this and related issues so fundamental to our life of prayer.

St. Macarius taught that in proportion as one grows in holiness of life, practices virtue more assiduously and increasingly purifies the heart, prayer too becomes increasingly more perfect, uniting one more intimately with God. Evagrius analyzed the relation between the quality of prayer and the life of virtue. He taught that progress in virtue is accompanied by proportionate progress in the quality of prayer. As the virtues take deeper root in a man his manner of praying becomes increasingly free of distracting thoughts and images. One who possesses consummate virtue in his life, and is free from passionate disturbances, develops a capacity for the pure prayer of image-free concentration on the presence of God. Prayer of this quality is not one activity among many; rather, it is a form of higher existence; such a person lives on a superior plane. Prayer of this kind takes place in the hidden recesses of the spirit where grace alone can introduce us; it is an entering the place of God in the silent cavern of the heart (cf. the discussion in op. cit., xcii f.). Each of us, Evagrius maintains correctly, has such a place within where God dwells and actively invites us to enter. Our task is to prepare ourselves for it by employing generously and with constancy the various means that monastic life places at our disposal.

These days the community is engaged in considering the future of the abbey. We are invited to formulate the view of life we would like to guide us as we move into a new stage of our history. Sharing our actual concerns, fears and hopes in view of choosing the person we believe most suited to implement the many practical requirements involved in realizing the vision we form of our vocation is surely an important undertaking at this time. In the course of such exchanges, it is essential to consider also the role of the individual monks in their relation to the community as a whole as well as their dealings with the abbot. For any one who fulfills the role of the superior will be enabled to fulfill his task only in proportion as he receives the cooperation and support of men who not only share his vision but practice its requirements with reasonable consistency. If, for example, we agree that prayer should set the tone of our observance and be the dominant atmosphere in the cloister and in choir, then we must maintain the recollection, silence and solitude that alone preserve such a climate. If we fear that we might become too labor oriented, giving too much time and importance to work, we must ourselves work efficiently and responsibly, cooperating with others or there will not be peace. Also we must use well the leisure that is available for prayer, lectio and study, not engage in long and frequent talking even during work time. St. Benedict himself tells the abbot to give such monks as associate inappropriately with one another extra work, even on Sunday, so they do not disturb the good order and peace of the cloister.

No superior who is to prove effective can implement a healthy vision of monastic life that is based on a spirit of generous cooperation, unless he is supported by the members of his community who actually carry out the provisions he decides are necessary to implement that program. Thus it would seem very useful at this time not only to consider what qualities we hope for in the new abbot, but also for each of us to examine his own manner of carrying out or obstructing the decisions already in force and see what we ourselves need to change in order to contribute constructively to the advancement of the community vision. Unless we do this, whoever serves in this function will be limited in what he can achieve. We already have much that is very positive in our way of life here as most of us realize; if we confront our concerns and fears in this spirit of seeking to examine where we ourselves fall short or even create problems for the community, we can not only preserve but enhance the quality of community living here.

Each generation of monks has had to confront these same issues in a practical way so that the values and spirit of the contemplative, cenobitic life are maintained in a healthy state. Our strengths as well as the difficulties facing us at this time are a challenge to make full use of the opportunity to pass on the numerous blessings we now have in such a way as to preserve, and as far as possible, to enhance our community life. In this way those who have newly come to this monastery and those who will enter it in the future will receive the same helps we have enjoyed for our spiritual and human development. May the Lord in his mercy guide and strength us in our efforts to respond fully to his Providence and to the call he gives each of us to follow in the steps of our holy monastic Fathers as we truly seek union with God. /font>

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

[abbey crest]

Abbey of the Genesee

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