1987, Serial No. 00921, Side A

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Talk 1




The Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, send forth your Spirit, O Lord, and they shall be created, and you will be shortened over the face of the earth. Let us pray. May the outpouring of your Holy Spirit, O Lord, cleanse our hearts and make them fruitful by the ever-springing of His dew, through Christ our Lord. Amen. Forgive me, my dear brothers and fathers, for occurring again in the lives of some of you. I can only console you by saying that I believe I can promise I shall only let it happen once every twelve years. In the meanwhile, God, in His mercy, has been giving us all the comfort of time, a very


necessary thing for monks, as for all human beings who are alive and growing. It is the former Rev. Father's invitation to come that made me think of the question of time, for he mentioned the age range in the community, and my guess would be that especially for the younger of you, the years since 1975 when I was here last, they seem a rather longer time than they do for those of us who have been in religion, as people used to say, for longer than that. In my own case, it was forty years in September of last year, and it doesn't seem to have been so long. Forty years constantly lived in the spirit of the Holy Rule and close to the Liturgy may mean, of course, forty Lent, but it also means, after all, forty Easters to look forward to. Whatever may have happened in all that time, whether winters of quiet and calm or summers


of difficulty, thunders, time in the hands of men of brass, as you all know. That in the end, surely, is really the thing that is the ground base of everything. The business of looking forward was the joy of spiritual longing to Holy Easter, the thing in which we are all particularly reminded on this weekend when the mystery of the Transfiguration of our Lord would have been in all our minds, where we see the promise of God shining forth in the person of our beloved head. On the Resurrection morning, soul and body meet again. No more sorrow, no more weeping, no more pain. Meanwhile, we are in the time that God in his mercy has given us. We never know how long or short it will be, whatever may be the seeming of it. Whenever we sing Psalm 89, we regularly pray,


Teach us so to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom. About that prayer we shall have no difficulty. Though we may have some reserves about the idea of an earlier verse, that most of our days are emptiness and pain, even though we do pass swiftly and we are gone. The opening verse of the little hymn I've just quoted on the Resurrection morning was in fact written by a 19th century English parson after the death of a number of people in a sudden explosion. And scarcely had I reached this far at home, in the preparation of what I'm saying, when the telephone rang in the guest house where I was sitting on duty, and a dying woman in our neighbourhood was asking to become a Catholic. What a mystery all this is, isn't it?


What it is that moves the soul through its various phases in time, whether in the monastery or outside it. Last is a woman who begins by saying she has no religion, finds herself, what I often discover from mutual friends, being the age of 76, asking for some religion in her life and her death. After a few days I baptized her and gave her the sacrament of the altar and the sacrament of the sick. She's still alive and her daughter said to me the other day, I think perhaps she'll be about for some little time. It's very extraordinary to watch the conversion of somebody taking place like this very suddenly. I discover of course, not unexpectedly, that in the background there are some books connected with Christian faith in the house. But at the same time, to bring it all to a point, this is the work of God.


This is the kind of thing that's a reminder that God is often waiting, even when we're not. There may be limits to our expectancy, but not to his. And at this deep level of life, matters are indeed very delicate. The theology of it all, at least from our side, is of course wonderfully expressed in that very old Latin prayer, it must be certainly not more recent than the 5th century, axiom is nostrum. Go before and follow with your help our every action, O Lord, so that everything we do may always begin with you and through you reach its completion. It's in the spirit of that prayer that I suggest we begin our retreat and that we attend a little in the days we spend together,


not so much to the ends of things as to their modest beginnings. For almost all growth, whether in the realm of nature or in the realm of grace, seems to depend so much upon our valuing as we should what may appear to be very small. Beginnings are very delicate. Those of us who are gardeners know all about that. Just the first stage, when the seed begins to germinate, we have to be very careful to hold back sometimes, not to intervene too soon, to give the thing time and space and the right conditions. And so, as in nature, so also in our own lives, beginnings can be very delicate. And that, in a certain sense, includes our whole life in this world,


which, after all, from the moment of our baptism, or the very first movement of grace that leads to our asking for that sacrament, is only the beginning of eternal life. This is doubtless why it's so important that the first of the servant songs for the prophecy of Isaiah should be applied by the Gospel of Matthew and the oldest Christian tradition to none other than our Lord Jesus Christ himself. For it is above all true of him that the broken breed he does not break and the dimly burning wick he does not quench. And it's in the spirit of this conviction that Saint Benedict gives us the last and most basic instrument of good works, never to spare of the mercy of God. It's in this world that it's normally our lot, in some form or another, to share in the sufferings of our Lord.


But it's only through our patience that we can consistently do so and find these things ultimately life-giving and redemptive. Just for the moment, I do not wish to dwell upon the kinds of trials which seem commonly to come to those who feel called to lead our kind of life. But simply to note that like all forms of human life, it tends to move in phases. Not, of course, in the precise sequence and regularity which the reading of textbooks might lead us to suppose. The lives of some beginners can take on spells which almost seem to have the character of the end. And at the end, the most edifying lives can take on something of the character of the lives of beginners. I'm watching this a tiny bit in our dear old Father Bede


who is now at 85, rather infirm. But then... It doesn't matter, you see, it doesn't come in a logical human order going in small spaces, small steps, taking rather a long time to do everything. As one did when one first crawled round the table. It doesn't really matter, does it, which way round it comes, the tottering about or not. But would we really be growing quite as we should be without that often puzzling middle phase of maturation which lies between? And which is often the hardest to live through with patience. I suppose one of the things I'm especially aware of


in our own dear Father Bede is how much his habits of life are there all the time even when he's wondering where he is, what day it is, whether we're at Mass or Vespers, and so on. But there the habits count, the maturity counts, comes in between that early tottering round the table, holding one's mother's hand and now having to hold the hand of an infirmary if he's arrived. In relation to all these phases I often think of a remark of my very good friend Charles Dumont of the Abbey of Chimay in Belgium made to me many, many years ago when he said that he believed that many people refused the graces God would give them because they think they're unworthy of them. And I would perhaps venture to add that they may sometimes turn them down


because they come in forms they do not expect and which do not fit into their program. Either end of a life normally enjoys the advantages of a good deal of unconsciousness and relative consciousness of the middle phase can be absolutely crippling if we get stuck in it and try to carry it alone. As I go on, I believe that we are seldom bruised by others and certainly not by our Lord himself quite so severely as we are bruised and wounded and tormented by ourselves and our own mistaken ideas. If some of you notice the underground influence of students of human beings like Carl Jung and Erich Erikson in the way I'm formulating these thoughts I hope it won't be difficult to convince you that we find much in the course of Holy Scripture


which corroborates their way of looking at things. In fact, as we discover when we really devote ourselves to our Lectio Divina or Holy Reading and God grant that it may be primarily the Scriptures themselves the Bible is a book or rather a library that may be primarily the Scriptures themselves but also something which God not only reveals to us about himself but also something which shows us to ourselves. And woe betide us if we won't listen. But Holy Reading is of course meant to be intimately related to life and it's always in our lives that God is also saying things to which we need to attend. For as the great Francis of Sales says so wisely


God's will is seldom known except by what happens. And now, at your beginning's notice I've already said much too much and here we all are getting older whether we like it or not. Though things some of us may feel are getting urgent I do not think we should waste our time trying to find out whether we've got stuck or not. A worry like that would be a sign that we probably haven't anyway. Only those who really are stuck don't worry about it. It'll be enough for this time that we try to be where we are as best we can having regard to all the circumstances. Simply and humbly renouncing the luxury of judging ourselves. God is giving us time and we must learn how to take it from his hands


with expectant gratitude. How can he do anything with us if we'll insist on doing it all ourselves? It's the happy conviction of Psalm 138 that God has been thinking about us all for a very long time even when we were only in the womb of our mother. And this is so obviously true. How could it be otherwise with one without whom nothing comes into being? Can we believe that he thinks less of us and cares for us less now that we are developing in the womb of time? To me, how mysterious your thoughts for some of them not to be numbered says this same Psalm. If I could count them they're more than the sand. To count them all my lifespan would need to be like yours.


Such thoughts about God ought not to daunt us but give us the peace of not trying to compete with him. Life itself, all the way through involves a risk. Even a spiritual risk. But the background of it all is the thought or the thoughts of God. And not necessarily, I believe, like some carefully plotted and fixed path. For divine providence is not like that. It genuinely includes some of our own foreseeing and some of our own choices. It's part of his intention for us that he sometimes means us to choose for ourselves. And he's brave about that, especially if we're willing to pray as the last verse of this Psalm does. See that I follow not the wrong path and lead me in the path of life eternal.


I'm suddenly reminded that in a retreat that Abbot Armand Weillier gave us a year ago he tells how in one of the decisions he had to make he spent a very long time taking his prayer to the feet of the Lord and saying, you know, what does it really want me to do? And then very slowly it came to him perhaps God wanted him to choose what he wanted to do. And so he did it and found it gave him peace. There's something very true about this, I think. So we shouldn't have it all too straight-laced. At least the petition to be led in the way of life eternal, this is a petition that shouldn't lead us to suppose that there's only one right path. There may be several possibilities which would please him equally well. The only paths that are wrong


are those that are of themselves, of their nature, necessary paths which separate us from God. Some of us, when we are young, are sometimes too timid about this, I think. Provided we are humble enough to pray and take counsel where we obviously need it, the brave path is often the best for our full spiritual growth and therefore for our most complete dedication to the service and praise of God. This is said, I think, a good deal too little in books about the spiritual life. Yet if we look closely at the lives of the saints, we shall often find that a bold and unexpected initiative was a very condition of a special kind of spiritual growth. You're certainly needing me to remind you how characteristic this was of the spirit of early Ceto. It really was inspired


by a fresh reading of the Holy Rule and a new look at some of the early Christian sources and lots of people's thoughts were turning in a similar direction about the same time that someone had to do something about it before anything could happen. It's occasionally thought that people who enter monasteries are running away from life. When it's the right path for those who choose it, it is, of course, a way of running into life. Some of you will notice that even this language is not my own invention. Whatever translators make of it, St. Benedict rather likes the word curere, to run. It occurs not less than four times in the prologue to the Holy Rule and twice in other places where it's a matter of spiritual urgency to respond to the call of God. One of them addressed to the abbot,


who must not delay in his concern for any of his wayward sons, and the other one addressed to every one of us when they hear the bell that summons them to choir. And I suppose we might extend that sense of urgency to every genuine interior call to act in the service of our brethren and to those frequent invitations to give ourselves prayer, which often do not mean precisely that we should leave what we are doing, but rather carry on with it and do it differently, praying in our way that God will be with us and keep us teachable. Verse 46, among the instruments of good work, tells us that we should yearn for everlasting life with holy desire. And it's this thirst for life in its fullness


that is fostered by our responsiveness to God's endless invitations. And it's vital that we shouldn't turn too many of them down, especially by desire for things which, however holy they may seem, are less than a desire for life. Psalm 45 reminds us there's a river whose streams make glad the city of God. And it's certain that round the house of God which the monastery is, the life-giving waters of the Holy Spirit flow. Of a monastery whose monks are really alive, it may be said that God is within, he cannot be shaken. God will help it in the dawning of the day. We shall try to think of that dawning when it comes with the light of the new day. But in the meanwhile, whether we think of the morning, the afternoon or the evening, we know by faith


the life-giving waters of the Holy Spirit are always there waiting to be drawn upon. No ideas for ourselves, for others or for the house we live in, will be truly life-promoting unless they have their source in his overflowing grace. Without your divine influence, nothing is in the light, said the original text from the sequence hymn of Pentecost. Nihil est in luminae, nihil est in noxium, nothing is harmless. But once again, such a phrase should not make us fly to potentially false defenses with mental lists of things that should not be done and terrible dangers caught us in every turn. It's good to form the habit of discovering what we must do rather than what we must avoid. And we should be all the bolder to do that


the more deeply we are convinced that what God intends to do in the realm of grace is normally in harmony with what he does in nature. And that sometimes the two are almost indistinguishable. We must remember that in that lovely old hymn to the Holy Spirit, which I've just been quoting, which was being quoted in what we heard also at the beginning of the reading at lunchtime today, this hymn was written at a time like that of the wonderful first generation of Cistercian writers, before people began to feel so confident they could point to the distinction between the works of nature and those of grace, as some of them later came to feel they could. It's to be hoped that we are slowly, if not always quite surely, moving again into a time when


we are more ready to see the finger of God in all that has about it harmony and peace and the calm absence of what is merely negative. The insistence of St. Benedict in chapter 31 of the Holy Rule upon the importance of regarding the utensils of the monastery and its whole property as the vessels of the altar is a sure touchstone of a much older point of view, especially because it's not peculiar to Benedict, but can be paralleled from other early monastic sources. In this older view there's no uncertainty about the presence or action of God in the world, but some real doubt about our capacity to perceive this action correctly, unless we are often reminded that he may be there when and where we least expect it. This may seem to have been a rather lengthy and elaborate way of insisting on the importance


at this stage in our retreat of keeping our eye on that bitter veil, whether against ourselves or others, of whose dangers we are warned in Benedict's ever-memorable chapter 72, where it seems as though he's expressed some of his profoundest convictions in a few sentences. It may be that some of you are already so convinced of all this that you're beginning to fall asleep. That is excellent. You don't need to listen. You already know the wisdom of the psalmist that in vain is your earlier rising, your going later to rest, you who toil for the bread you eat, when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber. Oh, I'm not laughing at any of you. I resolved many years ago always to say some word of encouragement to those for whom a retreat sometimes needs a little more work to do under more awkward conditions,


while the rest of us peer free to wander in spiritual delights. If there be any such among you, you will need to stick to the few principles which we've been thinking with all the greater force and not to try to be anywhere other than where you are, even perhaps unreasonably tired, and expecting everything from God just there. He is never unmindful of his tired old sheep or forgetful of the spark of longing that burns on somewhere under the ashes. Shall we then wish each other a very good night under the watchful eye of the Lord. Some of us will say, I will bless the Lord who gives me comfort. My heart teaches me night after night. And others Lord, make haste and answer, for my spirit fails within me. There's a verse somewhere for everyone. And we shall certainly


all say together in the morning, let me know your love, for I put my trust in you. God bless you all. May the prayers of his mother protect us all from the illusions of the evil one.