Dr. Esther de Waal, Companion OHC
St Luke in the fields, New York, NY
Sunday 08 November 2009
James Otis Sargent Huntington, OHC
Founder of the Order of the Holy Cross
Founder of the Order of the Holy Cross
Today, on a day of exquisite autumnal beauty, we have a gathering of friends, who have come together to celebrate the story of the Order of the Holy Cross and its origins with Fr Huntington, and to pray for its future at this pivotal moment, 125 years since its foundation, and to commit ourselves in ways appropriate to each one of us to follow and to strengthen all the Order stands for in the life of the church, in this country, in the world - and not least to each one of us in our own vocation and calling.
‘Our Fathers and Friends’ - that small phrase of Thomas Merton catches something of the gratitude for those who have gone before us in the monastic tradition, and the ease of the relationship with which we turn to them - and that is really what this gathering here today is calling us to celebrate.
It is for me a great joy and an honour to be part of it, for it has been a source of enjoyment, and learning and friendship to have been a member of your community ever since you invited me to become a Companion of the Order in 1996.
Monastic celebrations, whatever the anniversary, whatever the measure of the anniversary might be - are always a source of pleasure, the occasion of sharing in praying and in partying. Each brings its own particular flavour and it gives me the very greatest pleasure to be with you here today for the celebration of a monastic milestone : 125 years since the foundation of the Order of the Holy Cross.
But since, my dear brothers and sisters, we are today here because we want to rejoice with this community whose membership is that of a monastic family whose roots go back so much longer than this actual anniversary, I want to start with an experience in Canterbury. The Dean and chapter invited the Benedictines of Bec Hellouin in Normandy to come for just one of those monastic celebrations which we all enjoy so much - the occasion for liturgy and feasting.
The response was rather chilling: ‘Le pere abbé s’intéresse seulement aux anniversaries millennaires.’ But it was taken as a challenge, and since a thousand year anniversary is never too far away in England they found one - and indeed it became a historic moment when abbots and abbesses from Europe and Britain came and sung Vespers in the cathedral for the first time since the Reformation and a joint blessing was given by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Basil Hume, himself a Benedictine and former abbot of Ampleforth.
I intend to follow that piece of advice and since in the Benedictine life it is never too difficult, I want to make my starting point the birth of St.Dunstan in 909. Here we have a man who in 942 re-established the Benedictine monastery at Glastonbury, and in 960, when he became abbot and archbishop of Canterbury, presided over far-reaching reforms in both the church and society of his day. He is the man above all responsible for establishing for the first time well organised, stable Benedictine life in Britain.
And, not least, he is traditionally held to be the first to have introduced the building of the monastic complex around a cloister, thereby bringing into Benedictine life that symbol of the centre of its life: empty, uncluttered and open space, the place of stillness which lies at the heart of all our Benedictine commitment to the love and service of Christ and of others.
“Shepherd and Servant”, as his biographer calls Dunstan, a practical man, and an able administrator, yet also an artist who was a skilled designer and metalworker and a musician, and not least a man of prayer formed in that contemplative tradition which was strong at Glastonbury, owing much it was said, to Irish influence there.
Thus we find in him someone who combined so many aspects of the ‘fullness of our humanity’, a phrase which I treasure, summarising as it does what Benedict would wish for all of us; and which was so central a theme in the way in which Thomas Merton introduced the young men at Gethsemani to the monastic life by insisting that we come to God not with the truncation of our humanity, but with the fullness of our humanity.
But we can actually come to know Dunstan - surely this is unique - because of a drawing that he made of himself. It is a delicate line drawing, lightly coloured and he shows himself as a small figure, his monastic cowl half thrown back, kneeling in prayer before a Christ who is portrayed as the Wisdom of God, a monumental and majestic figure, with a halo and a sceptre which is a budding rod, and holding a tablet on which is inscribed those words from Psalm 34: ‘Come my children and listen to me, and I will teach you the fear of the Lord’ - familiar to us from the Prologue to the Rule. It is a scene which is comparable to the depiction of the Transfiguration, in which the disciples, like Dunstan, are seen lying prostrate on the ground before the majesty of Christ.
And then, in what would be the bubble in a modern cartoon, he has added a little prayer in his own handwriting:
‘I beg you, O merciful Christ, to watch over me, Dunstan, and that you do not let the storms swallow me up.’
His life was indeed beset by storms, human and spiritual; his achievements not won without great conflict and cost. But he was above all a life-giver, and his contemporaries recognised this and called him ‘an unshakeable pillar of God’.
A role model!
* * *
Move on 200 years, and we remember 1109 - and the death of another of the great Benedictine saints for us today. We meet St Anselm who died on April 21st on the Wednesday of Holy Week surrounded at the moment of death by ‘the whole congregation of his sons’ exclaiming: ‘My lord and father we cannot help knowing that you are going to leave the world to be at the Easter court of your Lord’.
For this man, who was above all the learned philosopher, the man who was aware of a towering God, a God of unimaginable height of Being, was also the gentlest of men, sensitive, loving, with a great gift of friendship, as we see in his correspondence, those many letters both to lay and monastic, women as much as men.
He shows us in his own prayers how prayer to Christ is loving talk to a friend expressed with such gentleness:
Vaca aliquantulum Deo;
Et requiesce aliquantulum in eo
I read it in Latin since there we see the play with words that brings him such delight:
‘Go apart to be with God for a time and rest for a while in him’.
He shows us the monastic commitment to rigorous intellectual discipline combined with the underlying monastic tradition of meditation. He shows us that holding-together, that unity, which is the mark of the true Benedictine life. And, like Dunstan, we listen to him in a prayer — or to be precise, words from
the Proslogion which we say as a prayer: Lord my God, you who formed and reformed me - reformed me...
That commitment to transformation, transfiguration, which lies at the heart of the vow of conversatio morum is the commitment to continual, ongoing change which will make us over from the old into the new person . . .
Again we see what a role model we have in St Anselm. These are just two of those ‘Fathers and Friends’, as Thomas Merton liked to call his predecessors in the monastic life and whom we recall with gratitude as links in that chain which has brought us here today.
* * * * *
We have looked back to two great Benedictine figures of the past. And we know that Anselm turned back to Dunstan for encouragement, as Dunstan in turn looked back to St.Gregory the Great and found inspiration there, and that they each, as we do, turned back to the figure of St.Benedict himself.
How well I remember that precious time at Mariya u Mama we Themba, with the community in Grahamstown, when I was allowed to teach Emmanuel for a few short weeks. I decided to show him something of the Benedictine tradition by introducing him to the figure of Benedict himself, to a man whom he was soon to call ‘my friend - who will walk my journey with me’. The medium of my teaching was story telling, which comes so naturally to the African mind where the oral tradition is so strong. But then that is also how Gregory himself would have known of Benedict’s life through the stories told of him in the monastery. And I realised once again that it does make a very good story!
So together Emmanuel and I watched him as he spent time studying in Rome, and then that flight from academia, escaping with his Old Nurse . . . . How often we have read that in the Dialogues and found something slightly amusing in that phrase. But here, in the context of traditional story-telling, I suddenly saw in the old nurse, the old wise woman, the figure of Wisdom - Benedict leaves because he recognises the role of wisdom, the knowledge that lies beyond words, in the wisdom of the heart.
So we follow Benedict to the cave at Subiaco, where he holds himself still before the gaze of God - that small phrase which sums it all up so wonderfully, expressed so simply and so beautifully. This is the time that lays the significant foundation of all that is to follow in Benedict’s life. For that gaze is turned onto others, firstly on to the priest who greets him on Easter Day, and in whom he sees the
resurrected, Easter self, the true self in Christ. So that when I try to follow him in seeing Christ in all who come (such an amazing request, so simple and so demanding) I try to have this scene in mind and remind myself that, as always, Benedict is writing out of his own personal experience.. And then finally at the very end of his life, that gaze is turned on to the whole word, as he sees it gathered up, as it were, in one ray of light.
The gaze - so different from the glance or the stare. For to gaze turns merely glancing or looking into an act of seeing (whether it is seeing the other, or seeing the situation). To see is to be focussed on the other, seeing into the heart, the true interior self, without wanting to control or manipulate. I once heard Jean Vanier say ‘The very way you look at somebody has the power to transform them.’ From Benedict we learn to look with love, compassion, wonder, at the mystery of the other, and not least with gratitude. When we see the other as Christ, we do not see the exterior but the true interior self, the Christ self, the person who is ‘shining like the sun’ as Merton put it in that often quoted moment when he sees, as though for the first time, the people streaming along the pavement in Louisville.
It was also the way in which Helen Levitt, the New York photographer who died in March of this year, at the age of 95, had seen the streets of New York, with, as James Agee put it in the foreword to her book “A Way of Seeing”, a preoccupation with innocence, not as that word is misunderstood and debased, but in seeing potential - in the person, the situation . . .
And the other side, the failure to look in the way that Benedict would have us do...? In the words of Rowan Williams, speaking on the radio on Wednesday September 11th 2002, reflecting on what it had been like to be in New York as the twin towers dissolved into flame and rubble, as he was himself trapped in a neighbouring building: “The terrorist is someone who has got to the point where they can see only from a distance: the distance from which you can’t see a face, meet the eyes of someone, imagine who and what they love.” . . . . God never sees at a distance
* * *
We are called to many things, those of us who have encountered Benedict, and who like those men and women who encountered Christ in his earthly ministry cannot be the same because they are energised by this encounter. He does not dictate: he helps to form our attitude, our approach, our disposition. So, as I reflect on what this encounter with Benedict has meant to me I think immediately of how it has brought balance, structure, rhythm into my life, and how it has helped me to look at the world with reverence and respect, to handle the tools of daily life as through they were the sacred vessels of the altar - about paradox and so about holding things together - about the role of stability, an inner steadfastness allied to moving forward into continual transformation . . . . . and much more!
Every one of us can make their own list, but I guess that we would all agree that above all we have been helped to put prayer into its proper place at the heart of our lives, and that means continual praise and thanksgiving. So I am taking this opportunity to make my own personal act of gratitude - gratitude for everything that Benedict has brought me since I first stumbled on the Rule by chance and wrote the small book that was published 25 years ago this year, which is of course another anniversary, and one that makes me particularly happy to be here with you today, and to make an anniversary the occasion of my own looking back and looking forward. So I ask myself: What has changed for me over that time?
What is the new emphasis brought about by my own changing life and by the changes in the world around me? What has reading and thinking and praying and living into the Rule brought to me?
The response comes immediately: the mystical side of Benedict. As I watch the widespread and growing popularity of the Rule while I rejoice in it, I feel that it also carries its dangers. For while he must remain the most down to earth, practical and moderate of men, and it is natural to turn to him for help in becoming better disciples of Christ, quite naturally we begin asking how to deal with our lives better, and how to solve the problem of daily Christian living. Then there comes the danger - I am almost tempted to say that he is made to play the role of a spiritual therapist, and the Rule is approached as though it was a practical manual in how to improve our lives. This is not the whole picture. Indeed it is worse for it is a distortion. We follow a man who was mystical, urgent, passionate.
We must never forget the final words of the Prologue, when in speaking there of the paschal mystery everything else is brought into focus.
To recognise this, and to emphasise this, means that I have increasingly found that I am reading a man who delights in using those images and symbols which are so essential an aspect of the scriptures which shaped him. We cannot appreciate the fullness and depths of his message until we pick up the resonances and the allusions that lie just below the surface I am now beginning to appreciate how much the light of that vision at the end of his life casts its glow over the person that he himself was, and that he wants us to become. Deificum lumen. Mostly we read that simply as ‘the divine light’. But in Patrick Barry’s translation we read:
The light that makes us like God
The light that shapes us into the likeness of God
And then, as we pick up the Biblical reference which he probably had in mind, we find an echo of St Paul writing in 2 Corinthians:
We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord,
Are being changed into his likeness
From one degree of glory to another.
And then, a further insight into this verse - verse 9, of the Prologue, for apertis oculis nostris, ‘let us open our eyes’, carries the possible allusion, and one suggested by Terrence Kardong, to the Transfiguration where the disciples are startled by the shining forth of Christ and are instructed by the voice from Heaven, and they hear with ‘astonished ears’ so much more strong than translating attentis
auribus simply as alert, for now the words carry the suggestion of the element of awe and wonder.
If then, as I hope you agree, we find that the Transfiguration is the background here to these words of the Prologue, that leads me quite naturally into my final point. We are here for an anniversary celebration, one which brings the opportunity to pause for a moment, to think of it as a pivotal moment, a milestone, a staging post on the journey. And the pivotal moment in the Gospels, that staging post, par excellence, is of course, the scene of the Transfiguration.
If we return to that scene, and in particular, as it is portrayed in the representation in the ikon by Theophane the Greek, we see the dominant figure of Christ, whose gaze draws us towards him, his right hand held up in blessing, with Moses and Elijah on either side. Below them the disciples are climbing the mountain on the left hand side and then, on the right, they are descending - men with their faces now set towards Jerusalem and all that that will demand. Here everything centres on the figure of Christ, enclosed in a mandorla, representing the Trinitarian Godhead, and it is from this that the voice of the Father is heard, the voice echoing the words heard at Baptism.
And that of course is how the Rule opens: Listen, my son, the Biblical image. Each of us addressed as the Prodigal son. Each of us addressed as the Beloved Benedict has set the scene, and we live the rest of our lives (with his help) growing into the fullness of those gifts and blessings held out to us - and that includes the gift of continual, ongoing and never ending transformation, transfiguration.
The monastic life wants us to become fully alive, not half asleep, not half hearted. That means the astonished ears, and the alert eyes - people astonished and alert with awe and wonder. But not only the eyes and the ears, for we must add - since we know the whole of our selves to be God-given and worthy of respect - the hands which are open, the open heart, and not least the open mind . . . What an amazing agenda for all of us, and one that I believe was never needed more.
Two phrases have always haunted me over the years since I have been thinking about the role of the monastic tradition in the history of the church:
• ‘The religious life has always guarded the life of the church’
• ‘Monasticism has always been a movement on the cutting edge of Christianity’
But I would add, not only the church, but the whole of society, and above all, a challenge and a witness to all of us individually, whatever our vocation and calling may be.
Open our eyes - Merton’ s impassioned plea, read out as a prayer to Congress in Holy Week, 1962: ‘Open our eyes . . . save us from our obsessions! Dissipate confusions,’ and then finally ‘Grant us to see your face in the lightning of this cosmic storm’. Can we make this our prayer too, now more than ever?
Open our ears - ‘So much of our suffering comes from our failure to listen’ - Bishop Pike returning to his dioceses after a Benedictine Experience week in Grahamstown said this in a letter to his diocese telling them what was the essential message of the Rule, so much needed in that hurting world of South Africa, and now more than ever in an increasingly torn apart world.
Open our hands - the clenched fist is not ready to receive. But instead let us be gentle, learning to handle with reverence and respect not only material things, and the tools by which we earn our daily living, but matter itself, our earth, the environment.
Open our minds - Benedict told us to read from different sources, for he knew that truth can be expressed in a diversity of ways. If we learn from him he will help us to build a barrier against fundamentalism and polarisation.
Open our hearts - the gifts of hospitality asks of us not only the open door but a heart open to receive all who come as Christ.
That is the Christ to whom we now commit ourselves, and above all the brothers of the community of Holy Cross at this moment of their lives, together with their oblates, associates, friends, and not least the many who receive the hospitality of their monastic houses.
And may this same Christ bring us all together into his Kingdom. Amen
• What I say here about St Dunstan is largely taken from Douglas Dales, Shepherd and Servant, The Spiritual Legacy of Saint Dunstan, SLG Press, Oxford.
• The best short introduction to St Anselm is to be found in Benedicta Ward, Anselm of Canterbury, A Monastic Scholar, also SLG Press, 3rd edition, 2003. (Copies of these are available from the West Park bookstore)
• I make reference to Saint Benedict’s Rule, translation and introduction by Patrick Barry OSB, Mahwah, New Jersey, Hidden Spring 2004, and to Terrence Kardong, Benedict’s Rule, A Translation and Commentary, Colleegville, MN, Litugical Press, 1996.
• The full text of Thomas Merton’s Prayer for Peace, April 12 1962 can be found as the appendix of Passion for Peace, The Social Essays, edited and with an introduction by William H. Shannon, New York, Crossroad, 1995.