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)
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
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)
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
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)
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
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:
- Reading: what does the biblical text say in itself?
- Meditation: what does the biblical text say to us?
- Prayer: what do we say to the Lord in response to his word?
- Contemplation: what conversion of mind, heart and life is the Lord asking of us?
- 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
- 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)
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
- 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)
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
- 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.)