Oblate Articles

The following articles were written to assist oblates, employees, and friends of Mount Angel Abbey to incarnate our Benedictine spirituality in the broader Church and world. Such an incarnation naturally requires a lively engagement with the wellsprings of monastic spirituality, namely, Scripture, liturgy, and the patristic tradition. Accordingly, each of the following articles explores these sources in the context of Mount Angel’s distinctive charisms and apostolates. We pray that this “holy reading” might strengthen your communion with the monks of Mount Angel and shed light on your spiritual path.


 

“One Body, One Spirit in Christ” (Or: Did You Know You’re Speaking in Tongues?)

“The Spirit blows where He wills” (Jn 3:8). That is to say: it is notoriously difficult to identify the Spirit’s nature and activity. Just take, for instance, the famous account from the Acts of the Apostles in which the Spirit first descended, in dramatic fashion, upon Christ’s disciples:

They were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. (Acts 2:1–4)


Such dramatic depictions of the Spirit usually leave us, like the original onlookers, “astounded and bewildered” (Acts 2:12). Although most of us believe that we received the Holy Spirit at our Baptism and Confirmation, very few of us have experienced such supernatural manifestations of the Spirit’s presence as “a strong driving wind,” “tongues as of fire,” or the ability to “speak in different tongues.” “Why,” one might reasonably ask, “aren’t I speaking with the tongues of all nations?” (Augustine, Sermon 267.4)

As the citation for the preceding question suggests, Saint Augustine had long ago wondered the same thing. If the Holy Spirit had manifested himself so dramatically to Christ’s first-century disciples—and with such impressive results (cf. Acts 2:41)—then why did he cease to do so by the time of Augustine’s fourth-century Church (let alone our twenty-first century Church)? In the course of his preaching on the feast of Pentecost, Augustine offered an answer for his assembly:

Among you, after all, is being fulfilled what was being prefigured in those days, when the Holy Spirit came. Because just as then, whoever received the Holy Spirit, even as one person, started speaking all languages; so too now the unity itself is speaking all languages throughout all nations; and it is by being established in this unity that you have the Holy Spirit; you that do not break away in any schism from the Church of Christ which speaks all languages. (Sermon 271)

Augustine’s explanation represents an imaginative re-reading of the Pentecost account in Acts 2. As he interpreted the scene, it was not a multitude of diverse individuals who spoke in different tongues on that day, but “one person was speaking in the tongues of all nations,” namely, “the unity of the Church” (Sermon 268.1). A single corporate entity, composed of individuals “from every nation, race, people, and tongue” (Rev 7:9), is miraculously constituted and sustained in unity by the power of the Holy Spirit. And every believer who is now in communion with this mystical body, the Church of Christ, is continually being filled with the same Holy Spirit.
Such an interpretation of Acts owes just as much to Augustine’s personal lectio divina on the biblical text as it does to the liturgical context of its proclamation. Because his sermon was being preached in the midst of a Eucharistic celebration—as his North-African congregation celebrated the Solemnity of Pentecost—Augustine could not have failed to connect the action of the Holy Spirit in Acts with the action of the Holy Spirit in the course of the Eucharistic Prayer.

Although the words of Augustine’s Eucharistic Prayer likely differed a bit from the Eucharistic Prayers we use today, they certainly contained one crucial element: the epiclesis. This Greek term—translated literally as “calling down upon”—refers to the point in the prayer when the priest petitions God the Father to send the Holy Spirit upon the gifts which have been presented, thus transforming them into the Body and Blood of Christ, the Son.

This moment is most explicit in the Roman Missal’s “Eucharistic Prayer III” (but it is nonetheless present in all of them). Shortly after the Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy”), the priest “joins his hands and, holding them extended over the offerings” prays the following words:

Therefore, O Lord, we humbly implore you: / by the same Spirit graciously make holy / these gifts we have brought to you for consecration, / that they may become the Body and Blood / of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ, / at whose command we celebrate these mysteries.

This, however, is not the only epiclesis in the Eucharistic Prayer. A little later on, following the Memorial Acclamation (“the mystery of faith”), the priest continues: “grant that we, who are nourished / by the Body and Blood of your Son / and filled with his Holy Spirit, / may become one body, one spirit in Christ.”

Thus, in the course of the Eucharistic Prayer, the Spirit is twice invoked to work two related wonders: the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and the transformation of the gathered assembly into that very same Body. Every Mass, then, is like a new Pentecost—a miracle of unity wrought by the Spirit. Whether or not we experience other miraculous manifestations of the Spirit’s presence, we can be confident that He is the means by which we are “all in one place together” (Acts 2:1).

Further reading:

  • Augustine. Sermons (230–272B) on Liturgical Seasons. Translated by Edmund Hill, O.P. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993.
  • Jeremy Driscoll. What Happens at Mass. Revised Edition. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2011.

Article Archive

"The King Has Brought Me Into His Bedchamber"

“The King Has Brought Me Into His Bedchamber”

The climax of the Lenten season—indeed, of the entire liturgical year—is the Sacred Paschal Triduum. This single liturgical event “solemnly celebrates the greatest mysteries of our redemption” through the consecutive commemoration of “three days” (triduum, in Latin): Thursday of the Lord’s Supper, Friday of the Passion of the Lord, and Holy Saturday, which culminates with the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night (Roman Missal, “The Sacred Paschal Triduum,” 1). In the heart of this most holy of liturgies, the Church fittingly celebrates the sacraments of Christian Initiation, administering Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist to the newest members of Christ’s mystical body.

During the first centuries of the Church, the celebration of these sacraments—and the liturgy in which they were administered—was often shrouded in secrecy. Those who underwent the sacred rites of initiation were meant to experience them first—in all their vivid and very memorable details—and only later come to understand the significance of what they had experienced. This generally happened by means of mystagogical catechesis (words of Greek origin meaning “leading into a mystery” and “oral instruction”). This was a form of liturgical preaching in which the priest who had initiated new Christians would explain to them, in the days following the Easter Vigil, the meaning of each ritual element that they had experienced during that holy night.

While many mystagogical preachers (or “mystagogues”) preferred to nourish their “newborn infants” with “pure spiritual milk” (1 Pt 2:2)—that is to say, with “the basic elements of the utterances of God” (Heb 5:12)—Ambrose of Milan was different. In his two surviving sets of mystagogical catecheses, On the Mysteries and On the Sacraments, Ambrose explained the meaning of the Church’s sacred rites of initiation with reference not only to the simplest or most straightforward Scripture passages; he also fed his spiritual infants with the “solid food” (Heb 5:14) of the Song of Songs—arguably the most “mature” book in the biblical canon on account of its overtly erotic imagery.

As shocking as this may sound, however, there was a method to Ambrose’s madness. Beneath the Song’s “R-rated” veneer, the Christian mystical tradition had long discerned a deeper significance in this inspired text. Origen of Alexandria expressed it best in his third-century commentary on the Song:

It seems to me that this little book is an epithalamium, that is to say, a marriage-song, which Solomon wrote in the form of a drama and sang under the figure of the Bride, about to wed and burning with heavenly love towards her Bridegroom, who is the Word of God… But this same Scripture also teaches us what words this august and perfect Bridegroom used in speaking to the soul, or to the Church, who has been joined to Him. (Prologue, 1; emphasis added)

When thus read in a Christian key, the Song’s fleshly eroticism is transposed from a near occasion of sin to a clear communication of the Church’s sublime vocation, namely, spousal union with Christ.

This spousal union—as Ambrose’s mystagogical preaching emphasizes—is not just “for the mature” (Heb 5:14), but for every Christian, and it begins with the sacrament of baptism. When each new believer comes up from the water, Ambrose assigns to him or her the words of Solomon’s swarthy Bride from the Song of Songs: “I am black but beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem”—which means, according to Ambrose, “black through the frailty of human condition, beautiful through grace” (The Mysteries, 7.35; quoting Sg 1:14). Suddenly Christ enters the dialogue, speaking as the Bridegroom of the baptized soul: “Behold, thou art fair, my love, behold thou art fair, thy eyes are as a dove’s”—and the dove, Ambrose reminds us, is a symbol of the Holy Spirit (7.37; quoting Sg 4:1). Christ then invites his Bride to receive the sacrament of Confirmation: “‘Place me as a seal upon thy heart,’ that thy faith may shine with the fulness of the sacrament” (7.41; quoting Sg 8:6). Finally, the Bride consummates her union with Christ through her reception of the Eucharist:

Your soul sees that it is cleansed of all sins, that it is worthy so as to be able to approach the altar of Christ—for what is the altar of Christ but a form of the body of Christ—it sees the marvelous sacraments and says: ‘Let him kiss me with the kiss of His mouth’… ‘The king has brought me into his bedchamber’… (On the Sacraments 5.2.5–11; quoting Sg 1:2–4)

Whether or not a newly-initiated Christian can fully grasp the grandeur of Ambrose’s mystagogical catecheses—or the intimate imagery of the Song of Songs—those of us who have long been baptized can certainly benefit from the deepening reflection they invite on the meaning of our own sacramental initiation. As we witness (or at least pray for) others undergoing these rites during the Sacred Paschal Triduum, may we too be drawn more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s passionate love for his Bride, the Church (cf. Eph 5:22–33).

———–

Further reading:

  • Ambrose of Milan. “The Mysteries” and “The Sacraments.” In Theological and Dogmatic Works. Translated by Roy J. Deferrari. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1963.
  • Jeremy Driscoll. Awesome Glory: Resurrection in Scripture, Liturgy, and Theology. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2019.
  • Origen of Alexandria. The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies. Translated by R.P. Lawson. Mahwah, NJ: The Newman Press, 1957.

“To Love Fasting”

“To Love Fasting”

Almost hidden amidst Saint Benedict’s list of seventy-four “tools for good works” are two of the most striking words in his entire Rule: ieiunium amare, “to love fasting” (RB 4.13). For most of us (monks included!) this maxim sounds more like an oxymoron. As one monastic commentator noted, “If there is one thing we don’t love spontaneously, it is fasting” (Adalbert de Vogüé, To Love Fasting, 103)!

Yet for Saint Benedict and his early monks, fasting was such an essential component of their Christian lives that they practiced it year-round (cf. RB 41). In the summer months they ate two meals (at noon and in the evening), and in the winter months they ate only once (in mid-afternoon). This regimen was even stricter during Lent, when the one meal was taken “towards evening” (RB 41.7) and each monk was expected to “add to the usual measure of [his] service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink,”  in order that he might “have something above the assigned measure to offer God of his own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit (1 Thess 1:6)” (RB 49.5–6).

As Saint Benedict suggests, the joy that the first monks found in their fasting was not something that they mustered up within themselves (if that were even possible). On the contrary, it came to them as a gift from the Holy Spirit—a gift that was virtually guaranteed, in an almost-sacramental sense, by their concrete participation in the mystery of Christ’s own fasting. As “Matthew the Poor”—a modern-day (1919–2006) desert father—explains:

It was not for Himself that Christ was baptized, nor was it for Himself that He was crucified, and, consequently, it was not for Himself that He fasted forty days. The works of Christ—themselves a mighty and omnipotent power—have become sources of our salvation and life. Their power, however, is not imparted to us unless we experience and practice it… Every work of Christ’s, which He loved to do, He shares with us, or rather we share with Him on account of our love, our sacrifice, and our asceticism. (“The Deep Meaning of Fasting,” 112–13)

These insightful words connect the biblical account of Christ’s forty-day fast in the desert (Mt 4:1–11) to the fasting of all his future disciples. Just as Christ’s baptism in the Jordan river sanctified the waters in which we were baptized, conferring on us the “power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12), so too did Christ’s experience of fasting and temptation in the desert “elevate [our fasting] to the level of war with the spirits of evil,” ensuring “[our] flesh victory in its life according to the Spirit, in Christ” (110). Only a loving faith in Christ who is our life (cf. Col 3:4) can possibly empower Christians to “love fasting” (RB 4.13) and practice it “with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6).

Lest, however, the foregoing words remain on the level of abstract theory, one more witness should be summoned in fasting’s defense. Adalbert de Vogüé (1924–2011)—the same monk quoted in the first paragraph of this article—wrote a short book in which he recounted his own humble adoption of a regular fast, beginning when he was forty-nine years old. Despite his self-proclaimed weakness and lack of moral courage, he testifies to the world concerning his surprising discovery:

The Benedictine Lenten regime has gradually become my habitual norm, not only on the days and periods of fasting prescribed by the Rule, but every day of the year and at every season. Indeed—and this was a new step—the advantages of all kinds that I found in fasting made me generalize this practice well beyond the limits posed by St. Benedict. Fasting was no longer a constraint and penance for me, but a joy and need of body and soul. I practiced it spontaneously because I loved it. (To Love Fasting, 8)

If we—like Father Adalbert before his forty-ninth birthday—have left fasting untried because it is unloved (or vice versa)—perhaps we can draw courage from his very relatable witness. “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:7).

———–

Further reading:

  • Adalbert de Vogüé. To Love Fasting: The Monastic Experience. Petersham, MA: Saint Bede’s Publications, 1989.
  • John Cassian. “Fifth Book: The Spirit of Gluttony.” In John Cassian: The Institutes, 113–150. New York: The Newman Press, 2000.
  • Matta El Meskeen (“Matthew the Poor”). “The Deep Meaning of Fasting.” In The Communion of Love, 109–122. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984.

“Wee Sir Gibbie and Saint Antony the Great (Or: Snapshots of Scriptural Spirituality)”

“Wee Sir Gibbie and Saint Antony the Great (Or: Snapshots of Scriptural Spirituality)”

In a memorable scene from George MacDonald’s 1879 novel, Sir Gibbie, the titular protagonist (his full name is “Sir Gilbert Galbraith”) finds himself at a fancy dinner party hosted by Reverend Clement Sclater, the local parish preacher and Gibbie’s legal ward. Gibbie, as it so happens, was an orphan. He had lost his mother shortly after he was born and his father some years later to alcoholism. To make matters worse, he was also mute—unable to speak since the time of his birth. Gibbie’s actions, however, spoke more loudly than any words ever could. While attending the aforementioned dinner party, Gibbie could not bear to sit there and be served by waiters. Instead,

[he] got up, and, much to the amusement of the guests, waited on them as quite a matter of course… To him the whole thing was sacred as an altar-rite to the priest who ministers. Round and round the table, deft and noiseless, he went, altogether aware of the pleasure of the thing, not at all of its oddity. (Chapter 43)

Mrs. Sclater, the preacher’s wife, was considerably less amused than her guests at Gibbie’s behavior. The next morning, she lectured him about the impracticality of his actions and questioned his motives for performing them. In response, Gibbie picked up a copy of the New Testament and pointed out two verses: “But I am among you as he that serveth” (Lk 2:27) and “The disciple is not above his master, but every one that is perfect shall be as his master” (Lk 6:40). Reverend Sclater, getting wind of Gibbie’s amateur biblical exegesis, “did what he could to show Sir Gilbert how mistaken he was in imagining he could fit his actions to the words of our Lord” (Chapter 47). His impromptu sermon to the boy “amounted practically to this: Do not waste your powers in the endeavour to keep the commandments of our Lord, for it cannot be done, and he knew it could not be done, and never meant it should be done.”

Reverend Sclater’s sentiments regarding Scripture probably sound familiar to contemporary Christians because most of us tend to share them (although we don’t much like to admit it). But Gibbie—thanks be to God—models for us a livelier and more radical response to the Bible. In this, he resembles the great heroes of the monastic movement, the Desert Fathers. These first monks of the third and fourth centuries fled to the Egyptian wilderness in obedience, above all else, to the biblical Word. This phenomenon was described most famously by Saint Athanasius, in his biography of Saint Antony the Great, “the Father of All Monks”:

[Antony went] to the Lord’s house as usual… and just then it happened that the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven (Mt 19:21). It was as if… the passage were read on his account. Immediately Antony went out from the Lord’s house and gave to the townspeople the possessions he had from his forebears… (2)

Antony could have responded to the Lord’s words in a less radical way. He might have analyzed them in their historical context, reasoning that they applied only to the rich man with whom Jesus spoke and not at all to Antony. Or perhaps he could have spiritualized them such that Christ was not proposing poverty, per se, but rather a subjective attitude of ‘detachment’ from worldly goods still possessed. Antony, however, heard the passage “as if [it] were read on his account,” and he responded to Jesus in the most radical possible way: he sold his possessions and gave them to the poor. After this, he spent the remainder of his life seeking Christ as a hermit, deep in the Egyptian desert.

Of course, Christ does not call every disciple to do precisely what Antony did. (If every Christian became a monk, after all, where would the world’s Gibbies come from?). Poverty, virginity, martyrdom, and similarly-dramatic responses to the Word are often reserved for a select few disciples. Everyone, however, is called to “hear the word of God and observe it” (Lk 11:28). Different scripture passages will speak to different people in different ways, but “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Even “a single psalm”—said Theodore of Tabennese, a disciple of Saint Pachomius, the founder of communal monasticism—“is enough to save us if we understand it well, act on it, and observe it” (Bohairic Life of Pachomius, 189).

Whether we identify more with “wee Sir Gibbie’s” simple acts of biblical application or Antony the Great’s all-in commitment, the same scriptural spirituality animated them both. What wonders might be worked in our lives if we, too, “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly” (Col 3:16)?

———–

Further reading:

  • “The Christian in the World & Monastic Spirituality”: a four-part lecture series sponsored by the Mount Angel Institute. mountangelabbey.org/citw.
  • George MacDonald. Sir Gibbie. ccel.org/ccel/macdonald/sirgibbie.html.
  • Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. Translated by Robert C. Gregg. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.
  • Douglas Burton-Christie. The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, OSB

“O…! Come…!”

“O…! Come…!”

The entire season of Advent is characterized by a spirit of ardent longing and joyful expectation for the coming of Christ. On December 17, however, the Church’s desire reaches fever pitch. On this day, one week before Christmas Eve, the Church introduces into her liturgical celebrations the first of seven daily “O Antiphons.” These antiphons are so-named because they all begin with the word-that-is-not-quite-a-word, “O.” All of the Church’s breathless anticipation for her savior is concentrated into this monosyllabic exclamation, which is subsequently coupled—toward the end of each antiphon—with another cry: “Come!” Between the “O” and the “Come,” each antiphon addresses Christ himself in a densely woven web of (predominantly) Old Testament titles that mysteriously prefigured his coming in the flesh. All seven antiphons, along with their biblical backgrounds, are reproduced below:

  • December 17: O Wisdom [Sapientia], O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation. (Sirach 24:3; Wisdom 8:1; Proverbs 9:6)
  • December 18: O sacred Lord [Adonai] of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free. (Exodus 6:2–3; Exodus 3:2; Leviticus 27:34; Exodus 6:6)
  • December 19: O Flower of Jesse’s stem [Radix Jesse] you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid. (Isaiah 11:10; 52:15)
  • December 20: O Key of David [Clavis David], O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven: come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom. (Isaiah 22:22; Isaiah 42:7; Luke 1:79)
  • December 21: O Radiant Dawn [Oriens], splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. (Zechariah 6:12–13; Luke 1:78–79; Wisdom 7:26; Malachi 3:20)
  • December 22: O King of all the nations [Rex Gentium], the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust. (Jeremiah 10:7; Haggai 2:7; Isaiah 28:16; Ephesians 2:14; Genesis 2:7)
  • December 23: O Emmanuel [Emmanuel], king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God. (Isaiah 7:14; Isaiah 33:22; Genesis 49:10; 1 Timothy 4:10)

Perhaps as early as the sixth century—during Saint Benedict’s lifetime!—the “O Antiphons” were chanted as part of Evening Prayer (Vespers), immediately before and after the Canticle of Mary (Magnificat). Following the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), the “O Antiphons” were incorporated also into daily Mass as the Verse before the Gospel. Most people, however, know the “O Antiphons” as they appear in the popular Advent/Christmas hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

Whether we encounter the “O Antiphons” in the context of a solemn liturgical celebration at Mount Angel Abbey or merely on the radio during our daily commute, they ceaselessly summon us to deepen our desire for Christ and to “search the Scriptures” (John 5:39) for signs of his coming—not just on Christmas, but each and every day. “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20)!

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.

“The Key of Knowledge” (Or: How to “Unlock” the Bible)

“The Key of Knowledge” (Or: How to “Unlock” the Bible)

If you have ever tried reading the Bible and found yourself bewildered, you stand in a long and venerable tradition. As early as the third century, Origen of Alexandria—the greatest scripture scholar of his day (and perhaps of all time)—acknowledged the tremendous difficulty inherent in biblical interpretation:

It is unanimously agreed by all who even moderately understand the divine discourses that they are filled with riddles, parables, dark sayings, and various other forms of obscurity hard for human nature to comprehend. (“Commentary on Psalms 1–25,” 70)

He went on, however, to share a “beautiful tradition”—taught to him by a convert from Judaism—that helped him to make sense of the Bible’s obscurer bits. According to Origen’s unnamed teacher,

the whole divinely inspired Scripture may be likened, because of its obscurity, to many locked rooms in one house. By each room is placed a key, but not the one that corresponds to it, so that the keys are scattered about beside the rooms, none of them matching the room by which it is placed… We therefore know the Scriptures that are obscure only by taking the points of departure for understanding them from another place because they have their interpretive principle scattered among them. (70–71)

This tradition of intertextual interpretation struck Origen as particularly beautiful because it fleshed out the implications of Christ’s words in Luke 11:52: “Woe to you, scholars of the law! You have taken away the key of knowledge. You yourselves did not enter and you stopped those trying to enter.” As Origen understood this passage, “the key of knowledge” refers to Christ, who enables believers to “enter” the texts of the Old Testament and perceive their deeper meanings in reference to him. And Jesus himself corroborated this understanding when he appeared—after his resurrection from the dead—to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus. In that instance, “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Lk 24:45) and “interpreted to them what referred to him… in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms” (Lk 24:27,44).

The “key of knowledge” which these privileged disciples received en route to Emmaus was subsequently deposited—for us to find—in countless New Testament texts. For example, in 1 Corinthians 10:4, we read that “all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ.” By mentioning this memorable detail, Saint Paul gave us the “key” to a cryptic story in Exodus 17 (which is also recounted in Numbers 20). Not only can we now recognize Christ’s pre-incarnate presence to the Israelites of old, but we can also discern his presence to us in prominent appearances of “rock” elsewhere in the scriptures (cf. Ps 137:9 and Rule of Benedict Pr. 28).

In a similar vein, the author of the letter to the Hebrews brandishes a Christological key before using it to unlock the text of Psalm 40:7–9:

When [Christ] came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight in. Then I said, ‘As is written of me in the scroll, Behold, I come to do your will, O God.’” (Heb 10:5–7; emphasis added)

Moved by the Spirit of Christ, the author of Hebrews reveals to us that Psalm 40 was not merely a historical record of David’s obedience. Rather, it prophetically proclaims the very first prayer of Jesus as he assumed our mortal flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Psalm 40, thus “unlocked,” has also become the prayer of every human being who wishes to share in Christ’s obedience unto death and thus merit a share in his resurrection (cf. Rule of Benedict Pr. 40, 50).

The lesson communicated by these examples—and by Origen’s beautiful tradition of biblical interpretation—is that Scripture itself assists us in making sense of Scripture. More frequent reading of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, equips us with more and more “keys.” These keys, in turn, enable us to unlock more and more sealed “rooms,” particularly in the Old Testament. And the more of these rooms we open, the more we discover Christ himself and our place in his eternal plan of salvation. Marveling at this dynamic, Saint Benedict put it best: “What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life” (Rule of Benedict 73.3)?

Perhaps if we approached the Bible in the manner of Origen and Saint Benedict, our bewilderment would be replaced by the sentiments of those disciples who encountered Christ on the road to Emmaus: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us” (Luke 24:32)?

___________________

Further reading:

  • Origen of Alexandria. “Commentary on Psalms 1–25, Fragment from Preface.” In Origen, translated by Joseph W. Trigg, 69–72. London: Routledge, 1998.
  • Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B. “‘Every Passage of Scripture Which Referred to Him’: The Psalms in Christian Prayer.” American Benedictine Review 67, no. 2 (June 2016): 158–171.

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.

“These Are Our Angels ...”

“These Are Our Angels …”

Although Saint Benedict wrote his Holy Rule for “cenobites, that is to say, those who belong to a monastery, where they serve under a rule and an abbot” (RB 1.2), he also lauds the prototypical “anchorites or hermits” (1.3–5). In monastic parlance, these monikers were inspired by the Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel, according to which Jesus frequently “withdrew [anechōrēsen]… to a deserted [erēmon] place by himself” (Mt 14:13). By joining Jesus in the solitude of the desert, the earliest monks lived like the angels who “ministered to him” (Mt 4:11).

This identification of human monks with otherworldly angels was noted especially by pilgrims to the Egyptian desert. In one fourth-century travelogue, the anonymous author summarized his encounters with monks in the following words:

In Egypt I saw many fathers living the angelic life as they advanced steadily in the imitation of our divine Saviour… They do not busy themselves with any earthly matter or take account of anything that belongs to this transient world. But while dwelling on earth in this manner they live as true citizens of heaven. (The Lives of the Desert Fathers, Prologue 5)

The monks, too, sometimes understood themselves in these terms. Evagrius, for example, taught that “a monk becomes equal to the angels by means of true prayer, yearning to see the face of the father who is in heaven” (On Prayer 113; quoting Lk 20:36, Mt 18:10). Only radical withdrawal—anachoresis—from the world could possibly enable men of flesh and blood to imitate incorporeal spirits in their contemplation of the invisible God (cf. Col 1:15).

In the deserts of Syria, monks took angelic anachoresis to entirely new heights—in some cases, quite literally. One historian, Peter Brown, describes such men as

‘angelic’ persons… dedicated to a ferocious and fully visible asceticism and living a life shorn of all the normal attributes of human beings—perched in the open air on crags near their villages or, a little later, on the top of great columns. (The Body and Society, 327)

And yet, for all their “histrionic feats of self-mortification” (“The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” 91), the Syrian monks were never entirely withdrawn from the world of men. “To go to the [desert] in Syria,” explains Brown, “was to wander into the ever present fringe of the [settled land]; it was not to disappear into another, unimaginable world” (83). Ordinary Christians could thus enjoy frequent and intimate contact with many Syrian monks, about whom Saint John Chrysostom was proud to declare: “these are our angels” (Homilies on Matthew, 55.8).

Such an epithet perfectly encapsulates the relationship between the fourth/fifth-century anchorite Peter (“the Galatian”) and Theodoret, later bishop of Cyrrhus. In one chapter of his History of the Monks in Syria, Theodoret fondly recounts his childhood visits to Peter’s hermitage: “He often sat me on his knees and fed me with grapes and bread; my mother, who had experience of his spiritual grace, ordered me to reap his blessing once each week” (9.4). According to Theodoret, he and his family enjoyed a similarly-blessed familiarity with the monks Aphrahat (8.15) and Macedonius (13.8). Such relationships had a lasting effect on the young Theodoret, who attributed his own ecclesiastical vocation to the prayer and example of these holy monks.

Despite the chasm of cultures and centuries which separate Mount Angel Abbey from the early monks of Syria, we have at least one thing in common: guests. As Saint Benedict says, “monasteries are never without them” (RB 53.16). And many guests of Mount Angel Abbey describe their relationships with the monks who dwell here in stories very similar to Theodoret’s. Whether it be an oblate on retreat in our guesthouse, a regular patron at our brewery, or a family with school-aged children joining us each week for Mass, ordinary Christians (and non-Christians alike!) are drawn to our holy hilltop by something distinctly attractive about our way of life—something that bubbles up over the confines of our cloister, begging to be shared with the Church and the world. Us monks can’t always pinpoint precisely what this “something” is, but most of our guests, oblates, and employees are happy to share their own graced accounts.

Even if we—“lukewarm as we are” (RB 18.25)—don’t deserve to be called “angels” in the same strict sense as the anchorites of old, we pray for the grace to be your angels as our withdrawal from the ways of the world aids us—paradoxically—in welcoming you as Christ (cf. RB 53.1).

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Further reading:

  • The Lives of the Desert Fathers [Historia Monachorum in Aegypto]. Translated by Norman Russell. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1981.
  • Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. See especially ch. 16, “‘These Are Our Angels’: Syria,” pp. 323–338.
  • Brown, Peter. “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity.” The Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971): 80–101.
  • Theodoret of Cyrrhus. A History of the Monks of Syria [Historia Religiosa]. Translated by R. M. Price. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1985.

Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.

33 Icons, a Historic Homecoming, and a Syriac Legend (Can You Guess What They Have in Common?)

33 Icons, a Historic Homecoming, and a Syriac Legend (Can You Guess What They Have in Common?)

For most of our students and staff, the first week of August came and went with little fanfare. The big July festivals—in honor of Saint Benedict and Bach, respectively—were already in the books, and the seminary was quietly observing its summer break. But for those attuned to our rich ways of promoting art and culture, something historic happened between July 31 and August 4: the Saint Benedict Guesthouse & Retreat Center welcomed the Classical Iconography Institute back to our holy Hilltop after a decades-long absence to facilitate an intensive iconography workshop for 33 students, five of whom were Mount Angel monks (namely, Br. Alfredo, Br. Isaiah, Fr. Michael, Br. Novice Sherif, and myself).

The “Iconographic Arts Institute” (as it was formerly called) was first founded in 1989 by Charles Rohrbacher and our own master iconographer, Br. Claude Lane. Together, they taught yearly workshops at the Abbey, passing on the ancient art of iconography to successive generations of students. After six years, Br. Claude drifted away from the Institute, and then, in 1999, the Institute drifted away from Mount Angel Abbey. More than 20 years later, in 2022, the Institute found a new home, new leadership, and a new name, reincorporating as the “Classical Iconography Institute.” By offering this summer’s retreat at Mount Angel and working with a new generation of budding monastic iconographers, the Classical Iconography Institute was returning to its roots.

During this summer’s workshop, the “Beginning” students (including all five monks) produced their own unique renderings of the most iconic icon in the traditional canon: the “Image of Edessa” or the “Holy Mandylion” (Greek for “towel,” designating the cloth upon which the image was painted). This depiction of Christ’s face is, according to ancient tradition, patterned upon the only portrait of Jesus ever painted. As the story goes, King Abgar of Edessa sent envoys to Jesus—including Hannan, his royal painter—requesting a personal visit in Edessa. Although Jesus declined the invitation (being too busy with the salvation of the whole world), he did permit Hannan to paint his portrait and to jot down a message of encouragement for King Abgar and his people. Upon Hannan’s return, both the likeness and the letter became priceless treasures for Syriac Christians, who spread the story far and wide. By the sixth century, so many miracles had been ascribed to the image that authors began describing it as “acheiropoieton” or “not made by [human] hands.” In the tenth century it was transferred to Constantinople, where it was prominently displayed for many years. It remained in the Byzantine capital until 1204, when it ultimately vanished from the historical record in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade.

Whether or not the above tale is entirely true, the traditional Mandylion icon has exercised an undeniable attraction for many centuries of iconographers and iconophiles— including, now, all those who participated in this summer’s workshop at Mount Angel Abbey. As these students gazed upon Christ’s face, slowly emerging during the week of prayer and painting, many small miracles were worked in the hidden recesses of each artist’s heart. How many more miracles might be worked now, as Christ’s likeness is venerated by countless new viewers in the homes, parishes, and monastic cells to which these holy images have been borne?

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Further reading:

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.

”A School of the Lord’s Service” (Barhadbeshabba, Benedict, and Mount Angel Seminary

“A School of the Lord’s Service” (Barhadbeshabba, Benedict, and Mount Angel Seminary)

Sometime in the sixth century, Barhadbeshabba ascended a podium and looked out at a sea of expectant students. He, a Syriac theologian, was delivering that year’s inaugural address at the School of Nisibis (in modern-day Turkey). Beginning his speech with a long and tiresome preamble (some things never change…), Barhadbeshabba eventually arrived at his playful and provocative thesis, namely, that the whole history of the world is nothing more than a long series of schools.

According to Barhadbeshabba, the six days of creation were the primordial school in which the angels learned to read the material world as the “alphabet” of God (119). The second school was established for Adam and Eve, who learned right from wrong by reading God’s inscription—Psalm 1, according to Barhadbeshabba’s imaginative gloss on Genesis 2—below the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (123). In subsequent centuries, all the righteous patriarchs and prophets were educated in the Lord’s school and thus became teachers in schools of their own. When God’s chosen teachers were eventually corrupted or eclipsed by the schools of pagan philosophy, Jesus, “the great teacher,” came and “renewed the first school of his father” (136). After his death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, he established Peter as the steward of his school and entrusted “the diligent student and careful teacher, Paul the Master” with the instruction of the Gentiles (141). In time, the apostles and their successors passed on their teaching authority to a string of schoolmasters revered in the Syriac tradition, such as Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Ephrem of Edessa. This list climaxed with Narsai, the poet-theologian who refounded the former School of Edessa in Nisibis and thus filled “the Persian realm with knowledge of the fear of God” (152). A handful of headmasters later, Barhadbeshabba’s narrative terminates with Henana of Adiabene, “who was adorned with all virtues,” and who appointed Barhadbeshabba to deliver his present address (155).

In the same century as Barhadbeshabba (albeit an empire away), a Latin-speaking ascetic by the name of Benedict delivered what one might call an “inaugural address” of his own. Unlike Barhadbeshabba, Benedict was writing to monks, not speaking to students. But in one respect, their addresses share a remarkable similarity: both broaden the meaning of “school” beyond the confines of a classroom to include holistic human formation. In the Prologue to his Holy Rule, Benedict expresses his intention “to establish a school for the Lord’s service” (Pr.45), in which a consistent curriculum of prayer and work (ora et labora) will bring wayward souls back to God. For Benedict, prayer primarily means holy reading (“lectio divina”), and the real monastic work is done via the seventy-four “tools for good works” enumerated in chapter four of his Rule. The “school” envisioned by Benedict is thus “not merely a matter of ideas”—to quote Terrence Kardong, one of Benedict’s commentators—but it aims at “the salvation of the whole human person” (Benedict’s Rule: A Commentary, 102). Kardong could have said the same thing about each of the “schools” enumerated by Barhadbehsabba.

Nearly fifteen centuries after the “inaugural addresses” of Barhadbeshabba and Benedict, Mount Angel Seminary heard its own inaugural address on August 28, marking the beginning of its 135th academic year. As an accredited academic institution, owned and operated by our Benedictine monastic community, Mount Angel Seminary stands in the tradition of every authentic “school of the Lord’s service,” from the dawn of creation down to the present day. In recognition of this fact, Fr. Stephen Clovis, the seminary’s Director of Human Formation, described our school in words redolent of Benedict’s Rule:

[The seminary] is a supportive environment, forging bonds of communion and community, whose members are being challenged to grow in virtue, to advance on the path of holiness, and to serve one another in charity. As a school of the Lord’s service, those who minister here are keenly aware of the importance of the human formation that is taking place in this Benedictine hilltop community. (Eucharistic Church, Eucharistic Formation, 129; emphasis added)

Consistent with Saint Benedict’s vision of “school,” whatever academic instruction happens at Mount Angel Seminary (and happen it does!) is not an end in itself, but a springboard to greater human, spiritual, and pastoral development—in a word, holiness. Such is the goal of every “school” worthy of the name. And such was the goal of Barhadbeshabba, who concluded his school’s inaugural address with words just as relevant for his listeners as they are for us today:

Let us labor diligently, according to the aim of our learning, while we adjust our way of life to our didactic reading… Crucify yourselves to the world. Strip off the old man with all of his ways. Put on the new man who through knowledge is renewed in the likeness of his creator, to Whom and to his Father and to the Holy Spirit be glory and honor forever and ever. (159–160)

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Further reading:

  • Barhadbeshabba. “The Cause of the Foundation of the Schools.” Translated by Adam Becker. In Sources for the Study of the School of Nisibis, 86–160. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008.
  • Clovis, Stephen et al. “Human, Spiritual, and Pastoral Dimensions of Priestly Formation.” In Eucharistic Church, Eucharistic Formation, edited by Owen F. Cummings and Mark Nussberger, 129–133. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2023.
  • Michelson, David. The Library of Paradise: A History of Contemplative Reading in the Monasteries of the Church of the East. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023.

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.

Let Them Be Obliterated…” (Or: What Do We Do With Difficult Psalms?

“Let Them Be Obliterated…” (Or: What Do We Do With Difficult Psalms?)

On Saturday, July 8, over 1,000 people descended upon (I should rather say ascended to) this holy mountain for our annual Saint Benedict Festival. The day’s festivities began with the ringing of our church bells to summon monks and visitors alike to Midday Prayer. After a brief introduction by the Abbot, everyone joined together in chanting our customary selection of psalms for that Saturday. Incidentally, this selection included the following words from Psalm 83:

Let them be obliterated from the face of the earth;
let them serve to fertilize the ground…
My God, make them like tumbleweeds,
like straw in the wind…
Pursue them with your storm,
torment them with your hurricane.
Cover their faces with chagrin,
and seek vengeance for your name, O Lord.
May they live in endless humiliation and oppression,
to be disgraced and finally to perish… (Psalm 83:11–18)

If these words sound inappropriate to you, then you’re not alone. Richard Dawkins, a distinguished scientist and outspoken atheist, found such bloodthirsty Bible passages to be so irreconcilable with Christian (or any other) morality that he posed a pointed question to all believers: “Do those people who hold up the Bible as an inspiration to moral rectitude have the slightest notion of what is actually written in it?” (The God Delusion). And even the Catholic Church’s Dicastery for Divine Worship exhibited similar sentiments when they explained their excision of certain psalms (including Psalm 83, quoted above) from the universal Church’s Liturgy of the Hours:

Three psalms (58, 83, and 109) have been omitted from the psalter cycle because of their curses; in the same way, some verses have been omitted from certain psalms, as noted at the head of each. The reason for the omission is a certain psychological difficulty… (General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, §131)

Since so many people — including perhaps ourselves — experience “psychological difficulty” with imprecatory (i.e., cursing) psalms, we may find ourselves wondering why the monks of Mount Angel Abbey continue to pray such psalms in public — or at all.

The answer, as it so happens, can be drawn from the text of Saint Benedict’s Holy Rule. While commenting, in the prologue, upon Psalm 15 (“LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy mountain?”), Benedict describes the behavior of a blameless man using biblical imagery: “He has foiled the evil one, the devil, at every turn, flinging both him and his promptings far from the sight of his heart. While these temptations were still young, he caught hold of them and dashed them against Christ” (Pr.28). And Benedict uses the same image again in chapter four, while enumerating the “tools for good works”: “As soon as wrongful thoughts come into your heart, dash them against Christ and disclose them to your spiritual father” (4.50). In both instances, Benedict is quoting Psalm 137, in which the psalmist laments the cruelty of his Babylonian oppressors. The two verses referenced by Benedict, however, are notorious for their violent imagery:

O Babylon, you plunder-loving city,
How blest will be the one who pays you back in full
for the treatment you meted out to us!
How blest the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against a rock! (Psalm 138:8–9)

Saint Benedict, following many of his patristic predecessors, does not interpret this psalm according to the letter — which, in this case, flagrantly contradicts Christ’s command to love one’s enemies and pray for one’s persecutors (Mt 5:44). Rather, he interprets it according to the Spirit, interiorizing the psalmist’s plea for vengeance and directing it against his own evil thoughts and the demons who prompt them. As the Apostle says, “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12).

The same spiritual interpretation which Saint Benedict applied to Psalm 137 can and should be applied to our own prayer of every imprecatory psalm. To facilitate this process, the monks of Mount Angel Abbey have printed the following inscription above the text of Psalm 83: “If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that? (Mt 5:46).” Other imprecatory psalms (58, 109) bear similar inscriptions (1 Pt 4:19, 1 Pt 3:9). When we pray these psalms in light of such New Testament texts — and in light of the patristic tradition in which Saint Benedict stands — they become opportunities for us to both recognize our own disordered desires and to dash those sinful inclinations against Christ.

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Further reading:

  • Anderson, Gary. “King David and the Psalms of Imprecation.” Pro Ecclesia 15, no. 3 (2006): 267–80.
  • Origen of Alexandria. Contra Celsum. Translated by Henry Chadwick. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. (See especially Book VII)
  • Torretta, Gabriel, O.P. “Rediscovering the Imprecatory Psalms: A Thomistic Approach.” The Thomist 80 (2016): 23–48.

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.

Experts Agree that Mountains are Jesus

Experts Agree that Mountains are Jesus

At the end of May, the monastic community was privileged to host Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis—a trappist monk and prominent Catholic theologian—as the preacher of our community retreat. During one of his conferences, Fr. Simeon stressed the necessity of a symbolic or allegorical reading of the Scriptures. To support this point, he quoted an aphorism from the 20th-century Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar (whose works Fr. Simeon translated into English):

All external scenes of Jesus’ life and sufferings are to be understood as a direct revelation of the interior life and intentions of God. This is the fundamental meaning of biblical symbolism and allegory, without which the whole gospel remains nothing but superficial moralism. (The Grain of Wheat, 58)

In other words, every Bible story about Jesus is not merely a moral model for us to imitate. On the contrary, each and every detail in the Scriptures reveals to us something about who God is—namely, an eternal communion of trinitarian love—and how he seeks to draw us into his own divine life. Von Balthasar enumerates a few exemplary details—“Jesus’ silence before Caiphas, the Ecce Homo episode with Pilate, the figure of the Lord covered with the cloak and flogged, his nailing to the Cross, the piercing of his Heart, his words on the Cross”—but his list is far from exhaustive. In fact, Fr. Simeon suggested that “Jesus is the protagonist of every scene, even when he is absent.” When one reads the Scriptures in this light, even the most mundane and seemingly-trivial features of each passage take on divine significance:

From the swaddling clothes of his birth to the vinegar of his Passion and the shroud of his Resurrection, everything in Jesus’ life was a sign of his mystery… What was visible in his earthly life leads to the invisible mystery of his divine sonship and redemptive mission. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 515)

However novel this method of symbolic scriptural interpretation may seem, Fr. Simeon and von Balthasar were not the first ones to propose it. It was originally championed by the Fathers of the Church (themselves imitating the New Testament authors), for whom deep, allegorical reading was virtually second nature. Saint Ambrose, for example, was especially attentive to a scene in Saint Luke’s Gospel in which Christ ascends the Mount of Olives. Weaving the geographical details of the Gospel text together with a tapestry of verses from the Psalms—which, incidentally, he also refers to Christ—Ambrose comments thus:

He came to the Mount of Olivet [cf. Lk 19:29], so that He could plant new olive trees [cf. Psalm 127:4] on the heights of virtue… On this mountain, there is that Heavenly Husbandman, so that all those who are planted in the House of the Lord [Ps 91:12] may say, “But I am as a fruitful olive in the House of the Lord” [Ps 51:8]. And, perchance, that mountain is Christ Himself… He it is by Whom we ascend, and to Whom we ascend [cf. Jn 3:13]. (Exposition of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke, 375)

In a similar vein, Saint Augustine discerns the mysterious presence of Christ whenever mountains are mentioned in the Old Testament. In one famously-puzzling passage, he even identifies Christ with the “curdled mountain” described in older translations of Psalm 68:

But what other mountain than Christ the Lord himself should we regard as the mountain of God, a rich mountain, a mountain full of curds [Ps 68:16]? Of him another prophet says, In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be manifested above all other mountains [Is 2:2]. He is like a mountain curdled into cheese because he tends with the milk of his grace the little ones who need nourishment; he is also a rich mountain because he strengthens and enriches us with his most excellent gifts. (Expositions of the Psalms 67.22)

“Enlightened” readers such as ourselves, who expect the Scriptures to recount only “historical facts,” might be put off by such allegorical readings. But Saints Ambrose and Augustine—along with their later imitators—searched the Scriptures not for historical narratives, but for a personal encounter with the risen Christ, the eternal Word of the Father. And, once they had found him in their own prayerful reading, they were compelled to share their joyful discovery with others.

Saint Benedict, who inherited this patristic tradition of lectio divina, wholeheartedly commends it in the concluding chapter of his Holy Rule. Addressing all those who would follow him “on the path of God’s commandments” (RB PR.49), he offers this advice:

For anyone hastening on to the perfection of monastic life, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which will lead him to the very heights of perfection. What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life? What book of the holy catholic Fathers does not resoundingly summon us along the true way to reach the Creator? (RB 73.2–4)

It is only when one reads the Scriptures as do “the holy catholic Fathers”—like Ambrose and Augustine, or even Hans Urs von Balthasar and Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis—that every page, every passage, and every detail of the inspired books can draw us into communion with our Creator.

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Further reading:

  • Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. The Grain of Wheat: Aphorisms. Translated by Erasmo (Fr. Simeon) Leiva-Merikakis. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995.
  • Ambrose of Milan. Exposition of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke. Translated by Theodosia Tomkinson. Etna: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2003.
  • Stewart, Ambrose, O.S.B. “‘Christ the Lord is a Mountain Curdled Into Cheese’: An Apology for Augustine’s ‘Embarrassing’ Exegesis.” American Benedictine Review 74, no. 2 (June 2023): 141–163.

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.

Theōría Physikē (Or: What Happens When a Monk Looks at Art…)

Theōría Physikē (Or: What Happens When a Monk Looks at Art…)

"Sweet Nostalgia" by Helen BouchardIf you’ve been to the Abbey Bookstore & Coffeehouse recently, you have probably noticed the new piece of art hanging on our windowed wall. It was placed there by Helen Bouchard, who works for us as a part-time barista to support her full-time passion of painting. This particular piece was inspired by a memory Helen had of her aunt—hence its title, “Sweet Nostalgia”—but she expressed a desire that each viewer of her painting would interpret it anew against the backdrop of his or her own life. Paraphrasing a recent presentation given by Abbot Jeremy on the importance of art and architecture, Helen explained that “the meaning of art depends on the active participation of the art and the person experiencing it… Art needs humans and humans need art.” Inspired, then, both by my abbot and the artist of the above painting, I was drawn to interpret “Sweet Nostalgia” through my own monastic lens. The painting thus became for me a visual summary of the whole spectrum of “Christianity” as defined by Evagrius Ponticus, a founding father of the monastic movement in fourth-century Egypt. “Christianity,” says Evagrius, “is the teaching of our Savior Christ consisting of ascetical practice [praktikē], natural contemplation [physikē], and mystical knowledge of God [theologikē]” (Praktikos 1). These three elements form the framework for the interpretation which follows.

Beginning in the center of the painting, the solitary figure around whom the scene revolves represents a monk, whose childlike and androgynous features suggest a resemblance to the angels—especially the cherubim as they are depicted in many classical paintings. In connection with this insight, I recall a saying of Evagrius: “a monk becomes equal to the angels by means of true prayer, yearning to see the face of the father who is in heaven” (On Prayer, 113; cf. Lk 20:36, Mt 18:10). The angelic monk is thus in the process of “true prayer,” facilitated in large part by the book he is reading. And this book is none other than the Bible, or at least the Psalter, the praying of which “calms the passions and puts to rest the body’s disharmony” (Evagrius, On Prayer 83). Sacred Scripture thus serves as something of a mantra for the monk, silencing the tempting thoughts—or, as Evagrius calls them, “logismoi”—which afflict him from within and from without (cf. Praktikos 6).

By using psalmody to combat the passions, this monk is clearly engaged in the first stage of Evagrius’ threefold schema for Christian mysticism. This initial stage, “praktikē” or “ascetical practice,” aims to “purify the intellect and to render it free of passions” (Gnostikos 49). That the monk of this painting has successfully attained a state of “passionlessness” (“apatheia”) is evident from the muted, monochromatic palette which makes up both the background around him and even his own form. No demonic “logismoi” leap out to distract the monk from his contemplation of God. Only the vivid, flame-like orange clamors for his attention.

The orange, however, is not a distraction; rather, it represents the second stage in Evagrius’ schema: “gnostikē” or the acquisition of knowledge. The monk in this stage strives “to reveal the truth hidden in all beings” (Gnostikos 49). When such truth is sought in the created world—in this case, in an orange—Evagrius calls the process “physikē” or “natural contemplation.” Evagrius, like all Christians, was convinced that God created everything by means of his personified Word, the “logos” (Jn 1:1–3). As a result, echoes of the “logos” are discernible in the “principles” or “reasons” (“logoi”) hidden within all created things. Only the purified vision of a passionless mind can perceive things for what and why they truly are. And since the monk of this painting has attained just such a state, the solitary orange upon which he meditates flashes out its secret meaning, making known to him the manifold wisdom of God (cf. Eph 3:10).

But the orange does not have the last word. After the monk has passed through the stages of praktikē and gnostikē/physikē, he finally arrives at the goal of all his labors: “theologikē” or “mystical knowledge of God.” This, for Evagrius, is “true prayer” in its proper sense. Such prayer transcends the sensible world—including even mental images—terminating in an ineffable experience of the invisible God (cf. 1 Tim 1:17; 6:16). Yet imageless as it is, Evagrius describes the evidence of this experience in visual terms:

When the [mind] has stripped off the old man and put on that which comes from grace, (cf. Col 3:9-10) then it will see its own state at the time of prayer, like a sapphire or the color of heaven, which Scripture calls the place of God that was seen by the elders under Mount Sinai (cf. Ex 24:10). (Peri Logismon 39)

This mysterious description of the purified mind’s own sapphire light is subtly suggested by the painting under consideration. Amidst the shades of black and gray which make up much of the backdrop, an underlying sapphire hue can be discerned—a hue which resembles the night sky above and behind the monk, and the day sky below and before him. Only against such a backdrop—when the monk’s mind has become a dwelling place for God—can a single orange serve as a springboard for mystical communion with the divine.

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Further reading:

  • Bouchard, Helen. “From the Studio of H. Bouchard.” https://www.helenbouchard.com
  • Harmless, William. “Mystic as Desert Calligrapher: Evagrius Ponticus.” In Mystics, 135–157. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.

Will the Real Risen Christ Please Stand Up?

Will the Real Risen Christ Please Stand Up?

While preaching during the Paschal Vigil, Abbot Jeremy posed (what he called) an “irreverent question” about Christ’s post-resurrection appearances:

Isn’t it a little strange and even unnecessary that if Jesus is risen from the dead and can appear and disappear as he will that he uses other means to announce his risen state before he appears. Why send an angel to the women? Why not just appear to them? Why send the women to his apostles? Why not just appear to them? …He commissions the eleven to announce to others that he is risen. Why not just appear to everyone, everywhere? Why all these messengers?

These questions all stem from the text of Matthew 28—the Gospel reading proclaimed at this year’s Paschal Vigil—but other post-resurrection Gospel accounts provoke still further questions. Why, for instance, does Jesus appear to Mary Magdalene under the guise of an unnamed gardener (Jn 20:11–18)? Or why does he appear to two of his disciples as an unrecognized traveler on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13–35)? And what are we to make of Jesus’ beachside barbecue breakfast, at which his disciples are torn between their desire to ask this mysterious man who he is and their overwhelming intuition that it is the Lord (Jn 21:1–14)?

In answer to his (and my) irreverent questions, Abbot Jeremy offered a rationale for all Christ’s cloak-and-dagger tactics (minus, in this case, the dagger): “it is because in this way Jesus reveals to us that he wishes to share and live his risen life with us through our relations with one another.” Had not Christ, after all, promised his disciples that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20)? And that “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40)? And did he not confirm the truth of these promises when he appeared to the persecutor, Saul—transforming him into the apostle, Paul—and said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? …I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4–5)? Thus, in each of his post-resurrection appearances—or lack of appearances, as the case may be—Christ was actively training his apostles to recognize him present in the persons of Mary Magdalene and the myrrh-bearing women; of Peter, John, and the other apostles; of an unassuming gardener and a beach bum; and of every member of his body, the Church—including, Saint Benedict would later add, the abbot, guests, pilgrims, and the poor (RB 2.1–2; 53.1,6–7, 15). In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces” (“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”).

Yet Christ was not only training his disciples to recognize his risen presence in other “men’s faces.” He was also training them to “become,” as Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis puts it, “the new visibility of Christ in the world.” He continues:

This is one of the astoundingly revolutionary results of the energy of Christ’s Resurrection. It has the power to transform very ordinary, sinful, and mediocre human beings into Jesus’ ears and mouth, hands and feet, and, above all, his very Heart: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.” (642; quoting Jn 14:12)

Fifty days after rising from the dead—and ten days after ascending to his Father—Christ fulfilled his promise to the apostles, pouring out the power of his Spirit upon them at Pentecost and transforming each of them into an alter christus—another Christ. But this promise and this power were not confined exclusively to the apostles. As Saint Peter said in his speech at Pentecost, “the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39). Year after year, all of us who celebrate the solemnities of the Lord’s resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit are heirs of Christ’s promise and recipients of Christ’s power. May our celebration of these sacred mysteries enable us to recognize his risen life in others and embolden us to be his risen life for the world.

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Further reading:

  • Abbot Jeremy Driscoll. “Homily for the Paschal Vigil.”
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins. The Major Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Erasmo (Fr. Simeon) Leiva-Merikakis. Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Volume IV: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2021.

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.

"It Is Good That We Are Here” (But Just Where Is “Here”?


“It Is Good That We Are Here” (But Just Where Is “Here”?)

Monks of every age and every abbey have long loved the mystery of the Lord’s Transfiguration. The monks of Mount Angel, however, love this mystery in a way that is utterly unique. When we think of the Transfiguration, we experience something like religious awe for a cosmic event. There are two reasons for this. The first has to do with the earth: we live on our own “mountain” – Mount Angel – and there is a poetic resonance between this mountain and the mountain upon which Christ was transfigured – Mount Tabor. But that is not all. Every year on August 6 – the liturgical Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord – all of us monks survey the horizon as the sun rises precisely behind another mountain – Mount Hood – just before we begin “Lauds” (our daily morning prayer). This image is thus burned into our brains (perhaps literally, for those who stared too long at the sun!) by the time we hear the corresponding Gospel passage proclaimed at Mass: “Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light…” (Mt 17:1–2). It is impossible for us not to see ourselves in this scene. We are there, with Peter, James, and John, as we stand atop our own “high mountain,” Mount Angel. And we observe two cosmic symbols for Christ – the “sun of justice” (Mal 3:20) and the “highest mountain” (Is 2:2) – coalescing in a blinding light that bathes the world. We know what the Evangelist is describing; we have just seen it!

In the glow of this glorious light, Peter’s response is perfectly understandable: “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here…” (Mt 17:4). Although Saint Luke’s Gospel tells us that “he did not know what he was saying” (Lk 9:33), Origen of Alexandria – the 3rd-century “father of lectio divina” – discerned in Peter’s shout an inspired summons to the contemplative life:

They wanted to make booths in themselves for the Word of God who was to dwell in them… and because Peter loved the life of contemplation and chose its delight over being among the multitudes with its accompanying annoyance, he said, for the purpose of encouraging those who wished this kind of life, “It is good for us to be here.” (Commentary on Matthew, 12.41)

Heeding Saint Peter’s (and Origen’s) call to contemplation, future Benedictine monks would discern in Saint Peter’s words an echo of their own vows of stability and conversatio (often translated, in this context, as “fidelity to the monastic way of life”). Just as Saint Peter had experienced on Mount Tabor a foretaste of heaven’s glory – what theologians might call “realized eschatology” – so too did monks see their monasteries as microcosms of “the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:2). Saint Bernard, for example, once identified his own Abbey of Clairvaux with the heavenly Jerusalem, and he defined the “monk” as a citizen of that city – literally, a “Jerusalemite” (quoted in Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, 55–56). If such things could be said by a monk of Clairvaux, how much more should the monks of Mount Angel have the words of Saint Peter on their lips: “Lord, it is good that we are here!”

But the luminous glory of Mount Tabor – and Mount Angel – is only half of the mystery of the Transfiguration. The other half is revealed on the second – and only other – liturgical day on which this Gospel pericope is proclaimed, namely, the Second Sunday of Lent. While preaching to the people of Rome on this occasion, Pope Saint Leo the Great (d. 461) first affirmed the contemplative desire present in Peter’s suggestion (“Lord, it is good that we are here! If you wish, I will make three tents here…”), but then proceeded to paint it in an entirely different light:

The Lord did not respond to this suggestion, indicating that what Peter wanted was not only base but disordered, for the world could not be saved except by the Death of Christ. By the Lord’s example, the faith of believers is called to this, that although it behooves us not to doubt the promise of beatitude, we should understand that, in the vicissitudes of this life, perseverance must be requested before glory, because the happiness of reigning cannot come before the times of suffering. (Sermons, 51.5)

Even though Saint Peter’s exclamation expressed an admirable desire for the glories of the contemplative life, Saint Leo described it as “base” and “disordered” because it did not take into account a central component of the Transfiguration scene, namely, Christ’s conversation with Moses and Elijah about “his exodus” (Lk 9:31), i.e., “the death he would endure in Jerusalem” (Second Sunday of Lent, Evening Prayer, Antiphon 3). Saint Peter especially should have picked up on this detail, because six days earlier (in the biblical scene which immediately precedes the Transfiguration narrative) he had heard Jesus plainly predict his passion and death (Mt 16:21). And Jesus followed this prediction with a clear list of conditions for all Christian disciples: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24). In light of Saint Leo’s sermon – and the fuller context of the Transfiguration narrative – perhaps Saint Peter should have expanded upon his exclamation: “Lord, it is good that we are here”… crucified with you (cf. Gal 2:19)! “If you wish, I will make three tents here”… so that dying with you I may also live with you (cf. Rom 6:8)!

Such sentiments would come to be celebrated by Benedictine monks, who saw in the structure of their lives not only a share in Christ’s glorious reign, but also a share in his cross. Saint Benedict, for example, in the Prologue to his Holy Rule, summarizes the life of a cloistered cenobite in such language: “Never swerving from [God’s] instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom” (Prol 50). Later, when outlining the procedure for receiving a new monk, he stipulates that “the novice should be clearly told all the hardships and difficulties [dura et aspera] that will lead him to God” (58.8). And again, when describing the characteristically monastic virtue of humility, he legislates the most difficult law of all: “in this obedience under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions, [a monk’s] heart quietly embraces suffering and endures it without weakening or seeking escape” (7.35–36). Such a degree of humility, explains Benedict in his chapter on obedience, is only possible for the one who “cherish[es] Christ above all” (5.1) – “becoming,” like him, “obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

The mystery of the Transfiguration is thus beloved by monks because it sheds light on those perennial paradoxes which draw our daily lives into the mystery of Christ: contemplation and crucifixion, death and resurrection, suffering and glory. As Saint Benedict says in his chapter on Lent: “the life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent” (49.1), but all the while he should “look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing” (49.7).

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Further reading:

  • Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on Matthew. Translated by Ronald E Heine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Jean Leclerq, O.S.B., The Love of Learning and The Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture. Translated by Catharine Misrahi. New York: Fordham University Press, 1982.
  • St. Leo the Great, Sermons. Translated by Jane Patricia Freeland, C.S.J.B., and Agnes Josephine Conway, S.S.J. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996.

Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.

Monks Are "Idiots," and You Should Be Too

Monks Are “Idiots,” and You Should Be Too

“The soul is healed through contact with children” – so says Prince Myshkin, the eponymous “idiot” of Dostoevsky’s classic novel (71). Myshkin, afflicted from his youth with epilepsy and depression, spoke these words about his own therapeutic contact with children. But readers of the novel are meant to recognize Myshkin himself as a child – indeed, an image of the Christ Child – who confronts their own souls with an ultimatum: will they be healed by contact with his innocence and optimism, or will they, content in the sickness of their souls, condemn his naivete as hopelessly unrealistic?

Dostoevsky’s challenge to his readers is doubtless based on a popular passage from the Gospel according to Matthew:

The disciples approached Jesus and said, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” (Mt 18:1-5)

The same story also appears in the Gospel according to Luke, who – true to his physician’s training (cf. Col 4:14) – prefaces the apostles’ not-so-innocent question with a diagnosis of their spiritual disease: “An argument arose among the disciples about which of them was the greatest” (Lk 9:46). Jesus – the divine physician – “realized the intention of their hearts” (Lk 9:47) and prescribed the best possible remedy for a prideful soul: contact with a child, who thus becomes an icon not of immaturity, but of innocence and humility.

Christ’s command that his disciples “become like children” was received with relish by the earliest monks, who determined that even the clothes they wore should call this teaching to mind. According to John Cassian (c. 360–c. 435), monks should “always wear small hoods that extend to the neck and the shoulders and that only cover the head. In this way they are reminded to hold constantly to the innocence and simplicity of small children even by imitating their dress itself.” (The Institutes 1.3)

But it was not only their clothing that reminded monks of their need to become like children. Their very vocabulary expressed their self-identification as humble sons, learning from their loving “abbas” (i.e., “fathers”) (cf. Gal 4:6). In the very first line of St. Benedict’s Rule for monks, he addresses them thus:

Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.” (Prol 1)

Still earlier than St. Benedict, Evagrius Ponticus (345–399) began his own treatise, To the Monks in Monasteries or Communities, with the following proverb:

Heirs of God, listen to the reasons of God.
Coheirs of Christ, receive the sayings of Christ,
so that you can give them to the hearts of your children,
and teach them the words of the wise. (Ad Monachos 1)

Although Evagrius does not explicitly identify his reader as a “child,” a passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans – to which Evagrius alludes – makes his meaning clear: “We are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:16–17). Evagrius addresses monks first and foremost as children, confident that if they humbly “listen to the reasons of God” and “receive the sayings of Christ,” they will also – paradoxically – be fathers, capable of teaching wisdom to children of their own. By thus associating childlikeness with wisdom, Evagrius demonstrates that to “become like a child” does not mean to renounce knowledge and understanding, but rather to understand things as they truly are.

In a climactic scene of The Idiot, Prince Myshkin exemplifies the childlike wisdom described by Evagrius and the monastic tradition:

“Is it really possible to be unhappy? Ah, what are my grief and misfortune to me, if I have the capacity to be happy? Do you know, I can’t understand how one can pass a tree and not be happy at seeing it! Talk to a man and not be happy at loving him! … So many beautiful things at every step that even the most desperate man finds beautiful! Look at a child, look at God’s dawn, look at the grass growing, look into the eyes that look at you and love you…” (585)

Precisely because Prince Myshkin perceives the world as would a pure and humble child, he is able to discern beauty and goodness and love – “the reasons of God” par excellence – in everything from an affectionate gaze to growing grass. According to the wisdom of the world, Myshkin’s example may seem like infantile foolishness. But to the Christian – and especially to the monk – it is nothing less than a proclamation of the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor 1:18–25).

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Further reading:

  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot. Translated and edited by Alan Myers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • John Cassian, The Institutes. Translated and annotated by Boniface Ramsey, O.P. New York: The Newman Press, 2000.
  • Evagrius Ponticus, Ad Monachos. Translated by Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B. New York: The Newman Press, 2003.

Br. Ambrose Stewart, O.S.B.

Thoughts on the Liturgical Season of Christmas

On the Fortieth Day of Christmas My True Love Sent To Me….

On the Fortieth Day of Christmas My True Love Sent To Me….

Although the secular world was already taking down Christmas decorations on December 26 (or January 1, if the decorators felt especially festive or especially unmotivated), the Christian liturgical tradition has always drawn out the celebration of Christ’s birth for as long as possible. Starting on December 25, the Nativity of the Lord is solemnly celebrated for eight entire days. Within this Octave, pride of place is given to the feast of The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (Sunday within the Octave) and to the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God (January 1, the Octave Day). On the Sunday following the Octave’s conclusion (in the United States) or on January 6 (the traditional date still celebrated in many other countries), the Church commemorates Christ’s manifestation to the magi (Mt. 2:1-12) – and thus to the whole world – with the solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. (The word Epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphainein, meaning “to shine upon.”) “Christmas Time” does not formally conclude until (usually) one week after Epiphany, when the feast of the Baptism of the Lord marks the beginning of Christ’s public ministry and thus the beginning of Ordinary Time in the Church’s liturgical year. (Ordinary here means “numerically ordered,” not “humdrum.”)

Even after the feast of the Lord’s Baptism, however, there is yet one more liturgy that could plausibly be called Christmas: the feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2. Despite its occurrence outside the formal bounds of “Christmas Time,” the date of this feast is all but demanded by Sacred Scripture. St. Luke, after his narrative of Christ’s birth, recounts that “when the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord” (2:22). St. Luke’s mention of “the days… for their purification” is a reference to Leviticus 12:1-8, which legislates that every newborn boy must be circumcised “on the eighth day” after his birth, and then that the mother must wait “thirty-three days more” before presenting her son “to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting.” When we map these events onto the life of Jesus – as St. Luke invites us to do – we wind up with three feasts still celebrated as Christmas liturgies: The Nativity of the Lord on December 25; Mary, the Holy Mother of God (traditionally commemorated as the Circumcision of the Lord) on January 1; and the Presentation of the Lord (traditionally commemorated as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary) on February 2. These feasts, and the others which fall within “Christmas Time” proper, are thus so inextricably intertwined that Dom Prosper Guéranger – often called “the father of the Liturgical Movement” and a forerunner of the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reforms – could consider all of these days together as “Christmas”:

We apply the name of Christmas to the forty days which begin with the Nativity of our Lord, December 25, and end with the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, February 2. It is a period which forms a distinct portion of the Liturgical Year, as distinct, by its own special spirit, from every other, as are Advent, Lent, Easter, or Pentecost. One same Mystery is celebrated and kept in view during the whole forty days. (The Liturgical Year, “The History of Christmas”)

The “one same Mystery” that is celebrated throughout these forty days is, of course, the Incarnation, i.e., the birth as man of the eternal Son of God. The Church’s Evening Prayer for the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (the Octave Day of Christmas) describes this event as a “marvelous exchange” by which “man’s Creator has become man” and “we have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ.” But this astonishing insight is nothing more than a gloss on the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel: “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us… To those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God…” (1:14, 12). The mystery of Christmas is, as St. Paul puts it, the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope for glory” (Col. 1:27).

Regardless, then, of whether we find ourselves in the Octave of Christmas, or “Christmas Time,” or Guéranger’s forty days of Christmas, it is never too late to fix our gaze on the infant Christ and to marvel at the miraculous gift he gives us in himself.

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, OSB

 Natalis Domini, icon written by Br. Ambrose Stewart, OSB,
based on a prototype by Br. Claude Lane, OSB

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Further reading:

  • Dom Prosper Guéranger, The Liturgical Year, “Christmas”
  • Blessed Columba Marmion, Christ In His Mysteries, “VII. O Admirabile Commercium! (Christmastide)”

The 2 ½ Comings of Christ (And a Christmas Story!)

The 2 ½ Comings of Christ (And a Christmas Story!)

In 1882, George MacDonald – Scottish preacher, poet, and progenitor of modern fantasy – published a heartwarming Christmas story entitled “The Gifts of the Child Christ.” The story’s principal protagonist is a little girl named “Sophy” – “or, as she called herself by a transposition of consonant sounds common with children, Phosy” (ch. 1). Although Sophy lives in a loveless home, unrecognized by her father and ill-treated by her maid, this “small Christian” carries in her heart a large measure of faith. Attending church (all alone!) on the Sunday before Christmas, Sophy comes away with a notion which only a child could conceive:

She had got it into her head that Christmas Day was not a birthday like that she had herself last year, but that, in some wonderful way, to her requiring no explanation, the baby Jesus was born every Christmas Day afresh. (ch. 4)

To our “enlightened” ears, grown cynical with age, Sophy’s conviction sounds like little more than infantile foolishness. But as it so happens, Sophy (whose name in Greek means “wisdom” and whose nickname means “light”) is much closer to the mark than one might suspect. In fact, her innocent error illuminates the Church’s perennial preaching of the three comings of Christ. These three comings are most famously described by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in a sermon which the Church reads every year during the first week of Advent:

We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men… In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. (Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings, Wednesday in the First Week of Advent)

No Christian (or any person of good will) can deny that Christ came once, born as a baby in Bethlehem on that first Christmas night. Similarly, no Christian can deny that “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” (Nicene Creed). The third coming – which one might call a half coming, if such a designation did not impugn its reality in comparison with the other two – is intermediate and invisible. True, “the baby Jesus” is not “born every Christmas Day afresh,” but he has been truly born in the hearts of believers in every moment of grace since the “Sun of Justice” first dawned on the earth (“O Antiphon” for December 21; cf. Mal. 3:20).

Before the dubious reader can question the basis for such a claim, St. Bernard continues his explanation: “In case someone should think that what we say about this middle coming is sheer invention, listen to what our Lord himself says: If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him” (quoting Jn. 14:23). In other words, Christ’s third coming is no childish flight of fancy. On the contrary, it is nothing less than Christ himself keeping his promise. And this promise is made to everyone, with just one condition: that we love Christ and keep his word. Whenever, then, we seek Christ as we lovingly ponder the words of Scripture, Christ comes to us. Whenever we celebrate Mass – keeping Christ’s command to “do this in memory of me” (Lk. 22:19) – Christ comes to us. Whenever we minister to the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, or the imprisoned – in fidelity to Christ’s words, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt. 25:40) – Christ comes to us. Or, as last year’s novice monks put it in a poem they wrote for Christmas Eve:

Christ is coming tomorrow, but not in a manger,
Nor as a dread judge, with destruction and danger.
He comes in all those who visit this hill:
Beer-drinkers, book-readers, all men of goodwill,
Retreatants and students, the whole human herd –
When you welcome such people, you welcome the Word.

However it is that Christ may come in all these hidden and humble ways, his coming in them is no less real than his first coming at Christmas and his second coming at the end of time. Would that we might welcome these “gifts of the child Christ” with all the faith and hope and love that filled the heart of little Sophy.

Br. Ambrose Stewart, OSB

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Further reading:

  • George MacDonald, The Gifts of the Child Christ
  • Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons for Advent and the Christmas Season. Translated by Irene Edmonds, Wendy Mary Beckett, and Conrad Greenia. Edited by John Leinenweber. Cistercian Publications, 2007

Thoughts on the Seven Rich Ways of Life at Mount Angel Abbey

What Is a “Monk”? (The Definition May Surprise You…)
Rich Ways of Life Together (#1)

What Is a “Monk”? (The Definition May Surprise You…)
Rich Ways of Life Together (#1)

“Monk” is a weird word to use if you’re describing our way of life. Just consider where it came from: “monk” derives from the Greek word monos, meaning “alone” (as an adjective) or “loner” (as a noun). The earliest monks were solitary figures, withdrawing from the world to engage in single combat with Satan (read: to overcome their passions and grow in love for God). The monks of Mount Angel, on the other hand, number nearly 50 men under one roof, and we minister to the Church and the world via half a dozen “touchpoints”: seminary, guesthouse, library, brewery, bookstore, and St. Mary’s Parish – not to mention the hundreds of oblates we have, embodying the spirituality of St. Benedict in the secular world. Our manner of monastic life is a far cry from dwelling alone in the Egyptian desert!

So why do we keep the moniker of “monk?” Because it also has a different definition, given to it by St. Augustine. Commenting on Psalm 133, he explains that “it is from the words of this psalm that their name [‘monk’] is derived.” The words to which he refers are found in the very first verse: “How good and how pleasant it is, when brothers dwell together as one!” That last “as one” (or “in unity,” according to Abbot Bonaventure’s translation of the Psalms) is something like the proper name of the monk, at least in the mind of St. Augustine. He explains himself as follows:

Monos means “one,” but not any kind of “one.” One person may be present in a crowd; he is “one,” but one with many others. He can be called “one” but not monos, because monos means “one alone.” But where people live together in such unity that they form a single individual, where it is true of them, as scripture says, that they have but one mind and one heart (Acts 4:32) – many bodies but not many minds, many bodies but not many hearts – then they are rightly called monos, “one alone.”

In other words, a “monk” is not just a solitary. He can also be a man of communion, modeling his existence after the example of the early Church: “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). When the world sees “monks” of this sort, they see many men, but only one community – “Christ’s body, and individually parts of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).

By living together in this way – truly challenging, yet also “good and pleasant” – we become what St. Benedict called “the strong kind” of monks, “the cenobites” (Rule of Benedict 1.13). Cenobites (from the Greek koinos [common] + “bios” [life]) “belong,” according to St. Benedict, “to a monastery,” and “serve under a rule and an abbot” (RB 1.2). Implicit in this brief description of our monastic template are the vows which we take: stability, fidelity to the monastic way of life, and obedience. Each of these vows is meant to ensure that we gradually grow in that unanimity of mind and heart whence we derive our name.

Such growth is what St. Benedict calls “the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love.” He describes it thus:

They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life. (RB 72.3-12)

As the last line implies, the good zeal of monks is meant to “bring us all together” – not just monks, but everyone with whom we interact. Whether it be on the Hilltop or in the taphouse, all are invited to everlasting life. And the more this goal brings us together, the more truly we become what we are called: “monks.”

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, OSB

How Does Monastic Prayer Work? (And Whose Work Is It, Anyway?)
Rich Ways of Prayer (#2)

How Does Monastic Prayer Work?
(And Whose Work Is It, Anyway?)
Rich Ways of Prayer (#2)

Anyone who has spent more than a couple hours on our holy hilltop is familiar with the bells. If you work here, you probably hear them tolling every day at noon – and maybe even 6:30 am or 5:15 pm, depending on your schedule. Our seminarians, however, have you beat: they hear the bells every morning at 5:20 am … at least until they train themselves to sleep through them. For most people, the bells are (at worst) a minor annoyance or (more positively) a pleasant reminder that prayer is being offered for them multiple times each day. For the monks, however, the bells represent the voice of God, summoning us to prayer.

Saint Benedict describes the bells – and the prayer to which they summon us – in chapter 43 of his Holy Rule:

On hearing the signal for an hour of the divine office, the monk will immediately set aside what he has in hand and go with utmost speed, yet with gravity and without giving occasion for frivolity. Indeed, nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God. (RB 43.1-3)

As prominent as our bells may be, they aren’t anything more than a “signal”; our real focus is “the divine office,” also known as “the Work of God.” Based on the context of St. Benedict’s words – and on our daily practice here at Mount Angel – the phrase “Work of God” refers specifically to our gathering in church to chant the Psalms and listen to readings from Sacred Scripture. Such a “Work” is evidently so important to St. Benedict that no other work – in fact, nothing at all– is to be preferred to it. If that’s the case, though, we have to ask ourselves: whose “Work” is it? And how does that “Work” work?

At first glance, the “Work of God” might seem like our own work rather than God’s. We, after all, are the ones praying – and praying rather elaborately, I might add. But the fourth-century Fathers of the Egyptian desert (the pioneers of monastic life and precursors to St. Benedict) understood our prayer differently. Abba Evagrius, for example, offers us this teaching: “if you wish to pray, you need God who gives prayer to the one who prays” (On Prayer 59). And St. John Cassian (who transmitted Evagrius’ wisdom to the Roman Church) reminds us that this teaching came from none other than Christ himself:

“I am not able to do anything of myself,” he says, “but my Father who abides in me himself does the works.” In the person of his assumed manhood he says that he can do nothing by himself. How, then, can we who are ashes and earth think that we do not stand in need of the Lord’s help in whatever pertains to our salvation? (Institutes 12.17; quoting Jn. 5:30, 14:10).

In the monastic tradition, then, prayer is only our work to the extent that we fully, consciously, and actively participate in the work of God.

This becomes abundantly clear when we consider how our prayer works. As we assemble for each hour of the “Work of God,” the first thing we do (as soon as the bells stop tolling) is cry to God for help: “O God, come to my assistance! O Lord, make haste to help me” (Ps. 70:2) We then proceed to pray, not with our own words, but with words that were given to us by God: namely, the inspired Psalms. The Psalms are particularly meaningful to us as Christians because we know that they were the prayers of Christ during his earthly life – e.g., “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk. 23:46, quoting Ps. 31:6). And since Jesus is, himself, the eternal Son of God, the Psalms also communicate his heavenly Father’s eternal plan for him – e.g., “The Lord has sworn and will not waver: ‘You are a priest forever in the manner of Melchizedek.’” (Ps. 110:4). When we gather to pray with these inspired words – receiving them from the Father and uttering them back to him through the Son – we recognize that all of them also pertain to us, because we have been baptized into Christ (cf. Rom. 6). By praying these inspired words in and through Jesus, we allow the Father to refashion in us the image of his beloved Son, who is our “righteousness, sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).

In the words of Irénée Hausherr (a French Jesuit from the last century) this prayer of ours “is called ‘work of God,’ ultimately, because it means the deification [literally, transformation into God] of the servant and the sinner by the Holy One.” And only in light of this fact do we dare to affirm St. Benedict’s bold declaration that “nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God” (RB 43.3).

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, OSB

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Further reading (available in the Mount Angel Abbey Library):

  • Abbot Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B., “‘Every Passage of Scripture Which Referred to Him’: The Psalms in Christian Prayer,” American Benedictine Review 67, no. 2 (June 2016)
  • Irénée Hausherr, S.J., “Opus Dei,” Monastic Studies 11 (1975)

All are welcome to join the monks for the following “hours” of prayer each day:

  • Vigils: 5:20–6:00 am
  • Lauds: 6:30–7:00 am
  • Mass: 8:00–8:45 am
  • Midday Prayer: 12:00–12:15 pm
  • Vespers: 5:15–5:45 pm
  • Compline: 7:30–7:50 pm

See the full prayer schedule here for Sundays, Solemnities, and other special occasions.

What Are “Icons”? (And How Can They Save the Liturgy?)
Rich Ways of Promoting Art and Culture (#3)

What Are “Icons”? (And How Can They Save the Liturgy?)
Rich Ways of Promoting Art and Culture (#3)

Last month, Pope Francis published his most recent Apostolic Letter, Desiderio Desideravi (the title comes from Jesus’ words in Luke 22:15: “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”). This letter, addressed to the entire Church, focuses on “the liturgical formation of the people of God” – in other words, to helping all of us understand and more authentically participate in the “wedding feast of the lamb” as we gather for worship every Sunday (Rev. 19:9).

The fact that the pope felt compelled to write such a letter is already proof that too few of us truly grasp what we celebrate in the liturgy. And towards the beginning of his letter, he gives us the reason why: “modern people… have lost the capacity to engage with symbolic action, which is an essential trait of the liturgical act” (27). But this “symbolic action,” the pope explains, is not “some abstract concept”; rather, it represents an authentic engagement with something that “contain[s] and express[es] in its very concreteness what it signifies” (26).

To illustrate what the pope is describing, consider the following example: when a man and a woman get married, the rings they exchange are powerful symbols. They contain and express the self-giving love of the spouses, and their concrete, tangible materiality serves as a constant reminder of the vows they made to one another. Just imagine how a blushing bride might react if her husband were to lose his wedding band! (Something tells me the line “don’t worry, it’s just a symbol” wouldn’t calm her down…)

Pope Francis, wishing to recover this intuitive appreciation for symbolic action in every element of Christian worship, asks an open-ended question: “how can we become once again capable of symbols” (45)? I would like to suggest that deepening our appreciation for icons is a fruitful means of recovering our capacity for symbolic worship in all its forms.

For many of us, however, this begs the question: what is an icon? The word itself is derived from the Greek word eikōn, meaning “image” or “likeness.” Although eikōn has been used to describe everything from the face of an emperor stamped on a coin (cf. Mk. 12:16) to the little images littering our digital desktops or homescreens, the Christian tradition generally uses it for a particular type of painting, usually on a wooden board, depicting saints or scenes from the Bible. Icons come in all shapes, sizes, mediums, and even artistic styles, but they all have one thing in common: they emphasize symbolic representation rather than artistic technique. Put another way, an icon invites the viewer to transcend its physical elements (wood, paint, style, etc.) in order to contemplate the heavenly realities which it depicts.

But precisely because icons are symbolic – creating a concrete bridge between us and the saint or scene they signify – they invite not only our intellectual contemplation but also our physical veneration. If you have ever visited an Orthodox church, then you have doubtless witnessed Christians touching, kissing, or even bowing down before icons. For those who lack the capacity to engage in symbolic action (to borrow again the words of Pope Francis), this behavior may appear blasphemous – a textbook example of idol-worship. The Bible, however, paints a different portrait.

Throughout the Old and New Testaments, two different words are employed to designate two different realities: “idol” (eidolōn) and “image” (eikōn). The first of these words (“idol” / eidolōn) – often used by ancient Greek authors to mean “illusion” or “shadow” – shows up in (the Greek translation of) the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an idol (eidolōn) or a likeness of anything…” (Ex. 20:4). The latter word (“image” / eikōn) appears most tellingly in two passages. In Genesis 1:27, we hear that “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God (kat’ eikona theou) he created them.” And in Colossians 1:15, St. Paul tells us that Jesus Christ is, in a preeminent way, “the image (eikōn) of the invisible God.”

According to Scripture, then, the human being – body and soul – is no idol or illusion; it is an icon, a symbol – mysteriously “containing and expressing in its very concreteness” the invisible and immaterial God (Pope Francis 26, 44). And in the human body of Jesus, St. Paul says, “dwells the whole fullness of the deity bodily” (Col. 2:9). These fundamental truths of the faith prompted St. John of Damascus – “the last of the Greek Fathers” – to pen his celebrated defense of icons:

Of old, God the incorporeal and formless was never depicted, but now that God has been seen in the flesh and has associated with human kind, I depict what I have seen of God. I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked. (Three Treatises on the Divine Images 1.16)

In other words, icons aren’t just pretty pictures, nor are they idols which detract from true worship of our Creator. They are (as the Orthodox are fond of saying) “windows into heaven.” And if we understand how our veneration of wood and paint and symbolic form redounds to Christ in his glorified humanity, then we are much better poised to understand the meaning of bread and wine and the words of Christ, uttered at every eucharistic celebration: “take this, all of you, and eat of it: this is my Body, which will be given up for you… Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the chalice of my blood…”

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, OSB

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Further reading / viewing:

  • Pope Francis, Desiderio Desideravi
  • Saint John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, Popular Patristics Series, vol. 24 (2003)
  • Mount Angel Abbey, Virtual Exhibit: Salve Suite (featuring 22 icons written by Br. Claude Lane, O.S.B.)

When Is Coffee More Than Just Coffee?
Rich Ways of Caring for Land and Environment (#4)

When Is Coffee More Than Just Coffee?
Rich Ways of Caring for Land and Environment (#4)

After a Covid-length closure, the Mount Angel coffeehouse finally celebrated its grand reopening on July 8. Since that time, anyone who has dropped in for a cup of coffee has certainly noticed some changes: the space has been renovated, a new crew of barista-monks has been recruited, and we started serving some really good coffee. Don’t misunderstand me, though: it’s not just our revamped drink lineup that’s good, but the coffee itself.

All of our beans now come from Coava Coffee Roasters in Portland, OR. Taking its name from the 17th-century Turkish word for green – i.e., unroasted – coffee, Coava places a special emphasis on coffee’s natural characteristics. They do this by building relationships with small-scale coffee farmers, importing competition-quality beans from all over the world, and roasting each batch to bring out its innate flavor profile. I like to tell people that Coava is the “Platonic Form” of coffee – in other words, when God created coffee, this is what he had in mind.

Perhaps my playful hyperbole places Coava on an indefensible pedestal, but it also highlights a theological truth: God really did have something in mind when he created coffee, and anyone who grows, roasts, or drinks it should probably do so in a way that corresponds with God’s plan for it and for us.

This way of thinking about coffee (in particular) and the created world (in general) was most recently popularized by Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical letter, Laudato Si’. At one point in the letter, he reminds his readers of a theological principle: “the universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely” (233). Following this fact, he then presents its logical corollary: “there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face…” and – we might add – in a coffee bean.

But Pope Francis isn’t the only one proclaiming the “mystical meaning” of coffee, nor is his emphasis on natural contemplation a contemporary theological innovation. This way of looking at the world is a quintessentially monastic practice, with roots reaching all the way back to its fourth-century beginnings. Writing in the Egyptian desert, Evagrius Ponticus preserved for us the following story about St. Anthony the Great, the ‘Father of All Monks’:

Unto the just Anthony came one of the wise men of that time, saying, ‘How can you endure, O father, without the comfort of books?’ He replied, ‘My book, philosopher, is the nature of beings, and it is there whenever I wish to read the words of God’ (Praktikos 92).

According to St. Anthony, “the nature of beings” is just as much a “word of God” for us as is Holy Scripture! As a result, every created being – even a coffee bean – is infinitely worthy of our contemplative gaze.

In light of this theology of natural contemplation, the monastic tradition has always emphasized the purification of one’s spiritual vision – generally through ascetical practices – in order to better understand the “reasons” of created things. (It’s no coincidence that the Greek word logos can mean both “reason” and “word.”) If we were to apply this principle to our personal coffee consumption, perhaps we might begin to see our daily ‘cup of joe’ less as a bitter, sludgy vehicle for caffeine (to be masked with six pumps of caramel syrup) and more as a word of God, speaking to us through its own created properties and its unique history of human cultivation (to say nothing of the hospitable monks who prepare and serve it!). To aid in this process, we might ask ourselves: What am I drinking? Who cultivated and prepared it? How did it come to me? And why did God orchestrate this present moment?

If you haven’t yet visited our renovated coffeehouse, you are cordially invited to swing by for a shot of espresso – and maybe even a mystical experience. As they say in our brewery, “taste and believe!”

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, OSB

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Further reading:

How To Read a Book (According to Saint Benedict)
Rich Ways of Deep Reading (#5)

How To Read a Book (According to Saint Benedict)
Rich Ways of Deep Reading (#5)

Monks have always had a love-hate relationship with reading. On the one hand, Saint Benedict himself is said to have fled from his “liberal education” in Rome as the first stage in his monastic conversion. His biographer, Pope St. Gregory the Great, paradoxically explains that “he took this step, fully aware of his ignorance; yet he was truly wise, uneducated though he may have been” (Dialogues II). On the other hand, the very same Saint Benedict would go on to write a rule for monks in which he not only expects them to be literate (cf. RB 8.3), but also that they will regularly “devote themselves to reading” (RB 48.4; cf. RB 4.55). This is nowhere more evident than in his prescriptions for the Lenten season:

They should be free in the morning to read until the third hour… During this time of Lent each one is to receive a book from the library, and is to read the whole of it straight through. (RB 48.14-16)

Saint Benedict certainly could not have expected ignorant, uneducated monks to read entire books. And, if we are to believe Pope Gregory’s pithy phrase that “his life could not have differed from his teaching” (Dialogues II.36), Benedict must not have been so ignorant or uneducated himself…

This tension between St. Benedict’s life and his legislation is best resolved by recourse to the kind of reading he recommends for his monks. In chapter 48 of his Holy Rule, he calls it lectio divina, or “divine reading.” As some of Saint Benedict’s translators point out, “the adjective ‘divine’ refers in the first instance to the nature or quality of the text being read,” namely, “the Bible, the Fathers of the Church, or some other spiritual writing” (RB 1980 48.1n; cf. RB 73.2-6). Despite their footnote, however, these same translators chose to render lectio divina not as “divine reading,” but as “prayerful reading.” Such a translation shifts the focus away from the nature of the text one is reading (“reading divine things”) and instead emphasizes the manner in which one reads a text (“reading things in a divine way”). This effectively expands the range of monastic reading material from a small list of “divine” books to almost anything at all – including even those subjects which once caused the youthful Saint Benedict to abandon his “liberal education” in Rome (the very same subjects, we might add, that constitute the undergraduate curriculum at Mount Angel Seminary!).

Regardless of what one chooses to read, lectio divina has traditionally been described as a four- (or five-) step process. Pope Benedict XVI formulated it thus:

  1. Reading: what does the biblical text say in itself?
  2. Meditation: what does the biblical text say to us?
  3. Prayer: what do we say to the Lord in response to his word?
  4. Contemplation: what conversion of mind, heart and life is the Lord asking of us?
  5. Action: how should we act to make our lives a gift for others in charity?
    (Verbum Domini 87)

The essence of this process, however, has been described most elegantly by the 20th-century philosopher and unbaptized Christian mystic (!!!), Simone Weil. “The key to a Christian conception of studies,” she explains, “is the realization that prayer consists of attention” (Waiting for God 105). More than a white-knuckled attempt at concentration, Weil’s definition of “attention” represents a radical receptivity to truth: “our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it” (112).

When we prayerfully or attentively “read” anything – be it a Bible passage, a novel, a work of art, a marvel of nature, or even our neighbor – we preclude all distraction, expectation, and prejudice in order to welcome into our hearts and minds the deepest and truest meaning of that thing upon which our attention is fixed. And we know that this meaning – if we truly believe that “from him and through him and for him are all things” (Rom. 11:36) – must be nothing other than God himself. Our prayerful and attentive reading thus results not in the knowledge that “puffs up,” but the love that “builds up” (cf. 1 Cor. 8:1) – and something tells me that Saint Benedict certainly wouldn’t flee from that.

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, OSB

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Further reading:

  • Pope St. Gregory the Great, The Dialogues (Book Two is popularly published as an independent booklet entitled “Life and Miracles of St. Benedict”)
  • Simone Weil, Waiting for God (esp. pp. 105-116, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”)
  • Jean Leclerq, O.S.B., The Love of Learning and The Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture

Have You Received God Today?
Rich Ways of Hospitality (#6)

Have You Received God Today?
Rich Ways of Hospitality (#6)

Anyone who passes through the lobby of our recently-renovated guesthouse is sure to see a striking artistic fixture. Clean, crisp, capital letters, situated under a spotlight, spell out a line from St. Benedict’s Holy Rule: “All guests who arrive shall be received as Christ” (53.1). This fixture is striking not only for its aesthetic austerity, but also – and principally! – for its theological content. When St. Benedict instructs us to receive guests “as Christ,” he doesn’t mean simply that we ought to receive them in the same way we might receive Christ himself; rather, he makes his meaning crystal clear a few lines later:

All humility should be shown in addressing a guest on arrival or departure. By a bow of the head or by a complete prostration of the body, Christ is to be adored because he is indeed welcomed in them. (RB 53.6-7)

This shocking theological statement was not invented by St. Benedict, but instead finds its basis in two texts from the Bible. The first is quoted by St. Benedict himself in the full version of the verse which begins Chapter 53 of his Holy Rule: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Mt. 25:35).” In this well-loved line from St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus describes his second coming as judge of the world. To those who have ministered to the “least brothers” of his – i.e., the poor, the homeless, the imprisoned, etc. – Jesus will say, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt. 25:40).

The second biblical text which St. Benedict had in mind (even if he did not quite quote it) is the account of Abraham’s hospitality to three mysterious visitors, narrated in Genesis 18:

The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oak of Mamre, as he sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, he said: “Sir, if it please you, do not go on past your servant…” (Gen. 18:1–3)

In the eyes of many Church Fathers – including St. Benedict – the hospitality described in this passage is not directed towards three mere men, but to the Holy Trinity (or possibly to Christ the Lord and two of his angels). This is why Abraham runs to greet them, bows to the ground before them, and addresses them with the honorific, “Sir.” And these behaviors are even more dramatic in the Latin Bible used by St. Benedict, in which Abraham “adored” [adoravit] the men and addressed them as “Lord” [Domine]!

Since Abraham presents such a vivid example for the reception of God in his guests, St. Benedict instructs his monks to mimic Abraham’s dramatic gestures in their own practice of hospitality:

As soon as a guest is announced, the superior or the brothers should hurry to meet him with every mark of love… by an inclination of the head or by a complete prostration on the ground, one must adore Christ in them, for he is in fact the one who is received. (RB 53.3,6; translated by Terrence Kardong, OSB)

Even if contemporary sensibilities render such gestures impractical in daily life, the stirring words of St. Benedict – themselves echoing the words of Christ – summon us to heed the theological truth that every act of hospitality towards our neighbor is really an act of hospitality towards God.

Disassociated from the dramatic gestures of Abraham – and beyond the confines of Benedictine monasticism – the spirit of this truth has been described in the profoundest terms by the 19th-century Scottish preacher, poet, and progenitor of modern fantasy, George MacDonald. In one of his Unspoken Sermons, he tells of “a chamber in God himself, into which none can enter but the one, the individual, the peculiar man – out of which chamber that man has to bring revelation and strength for his brethren.” In other words, the indispensable individuality of each person is not only his or her unique way of relating to God, but also his or her way of manifesting God to others. It is easy enough to recognize this fact in ourselves, but when we come to recognize it in our neighbors, we start to see them in a radically different light:

Each will feel the sacredness and awe of his neighbour’s dark and silent speech with his God. Each will regard the other as a prophet, and look to him for what the Lord hath spoken. Each, as a high priest returning from his Holy of Holies, will bring from his communion some glad tidings, some gospel of truth, which, when spoken, his neighbours shall receive and understand. Each will behold in the other a marvel of revelation, a present son or daughter of the Most High, come forth from him to reveal him afresh. In God each will draw nigh to each. (Unspoken Sermons: Series One, “The White Stone”)

If all of us were to daily receive our neighbor – not with external signs of adoration but with an interior openness to a unique and unexpected revelation of God – we could not help but cry out, in the words of St. Benedict and the inspired Psalmist, “God, we have received your mercy in the midst of your temple” (RB 53:14; Ps. 47:10)!

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, OSB

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Further reading:

  • Br. Claude Lane, OSB, “Abraham’s Hospitality” (an icon within the “Salve Suite” Virtual Exhibit)
  • Anonymous, The Lives of the Desert Fathers, translated by Norman Russell (esp. pp. 70-79, “VIII: On Apollo”)
  • George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons: Series One, “The New Name”

What’s With All the Kissing at Mass?
Rich Ways of Centering on the Eucharist (#7)

What’s With All the Kissing at Mass?
Rich Ways of Centering on the Eucharist (#7)

Every time you attend a mass, you will witness at least three kisses. These don’t include, mind you, those kisses which are spontaneously shared by husbands and wives or parents and children. Rather, the rubrics for a licit liturgical celebration require three kisses from the priest: one kiss for the altar, as he enters the sanctuary; one kiss for the book of the Gospels, after he has proclaimed the Word of God; and one more kiss for the altar, following the final blessing. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (§273), these three priestly kisses represent a “traditional practice” of the early Church, hearkening back to a time when not only ordained ministers, but also all the laity, were expected to offer liturgically-appropriate kisses. St. Augustine preserves for us a snapshot of such a practice in one of his sermons for Easter Sunday:

When the Sacrifice is finished… the ‘Peace be with you’ is said, and the Christians embrace one another with the holy kiss. This is a sign of peace; as the lips indicate, let peace be made in your conscience, that is, when your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his. (Sermon 227)

Although this gesture might sound scandalous to modern, North-American ears, it was commonplace in ancient Mediterranean culture. And, more significantly for Christians, it represented a faithful fulfillment of the Biblical exhortation: “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; and 1 Pt. 5:14, which calls it a “kiss of love”). As a result, St. Benedict had no qualms about commending the “kiss of peace” to his monks whenever they welcomed a guest (RB 53.3–5) or gathered in church “for the kiss of peace and for Communion” (RB 63.4).

Although the sober sensibilities of our contemporary culture have limited the number of liturgically-prescribed kisses at each mass to three, we cannot allow ourselves to forget the timeless truth that undergirds all this ecclesial kissing: Christ himself is venerated in every symbol of his sacred liturgy. Or, in the beautiful words of the Second Vatican Council:

Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister… but especially under the Eucharistic species… He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20). (Sacrosanctum Concilium §7)

The priest thus kisses the book of the Gospels because Christ himself is present in his word. Similarly, the priest venerates the altar with a kiss because, as St. Ambrose once explained, “what is the altar of Christ but a form of the body of Christ?” (The Sacraments 5.2.7). And priests and laity alike unconsciously offer kisses to Christ every time they put their lips to the chalice of his precious blood or close their lips around his sacred body.

This dynamic naturally extends to our contemporary “sign of peace” as well, even if other gestures have come to replace the “holy kiss.” Not only is Christ himself “kissed” when peace is offered to each person in the gathered assembly, but Christ is himself the peace that is offered from one person to the next. Although we may be more familiar with the English words, “let us offer each other the sign of peace,” the authoritative Latin text could more literally be rendered as “offer each other the peace” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, §154). And this is nothing more than an echo of St. Paul’s words – spoken originally to a community of Jews and Gentiles, but just as applicable to our own highly-polarized Church: “He is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh” (Eph. 2:14).

Thus, whenever we come together to celebrate the Eucharist, any “kissing” we might see or share should serve as a sign that Christ is intimately present to us – in his body and blood, in his minister, in the altar, in the words of Scripture, and in every person in the pews – always and everywhere imparting to us that peace which the world cannot give (cf. Jn. 14:26). Let us, then, have on our lips the same sentiment found on the lips of Christ’s bride in the Song of Songs: “Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth” (Sg. 1:2)!

– Br. Ambrose Stewart, OSB

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Further reading:

  • Vatican II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium
  • United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, General Instruction of the Roman Missal
  • St. Ambrose of Milan, The Mysteries and The Sacraments. (Printed in Theological and Dogmatic Works. Translated by Roy J. Deferrari, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America Press, 1963. The Fathers of the Church Series, vol. 44.)