From Meeting Christ in his Mysteries (Introduction)
Christ’s whole Earthly life – his words and deeds, his silences and sufferings, indeed his manner of being and speaking – is revelation of the Father. Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption. Redemption comes to us above all through the blood of his cross, but this mystery is at work throughout Christ’s entire life. (Catechism of the Catholic Church)
What was visible in our Redeemer has passed over into the sacramental mysteries. (Pope Saint Leo the Great)
The mysteries of Christ are our mysteries. (Blessed Columba Marmion)
These quotations introduce the guiding idea of this book: the mystery of Christ through which we are called into union with God and its presence in the sacramental mysteries of the church’s worship, thanks to which that union becomes effective. Revealed in Christ and the Holy Spirit, God’s call enters our lives through the celebration of the mysteries of the liturgy. In the spiritual traditions of Benedictine monasticism, monks have always tried to contemplate the mystery of Christ as a whole, as it unfolds itself in the celebration of the liturgy throughout the year, in meditation on the word of God and in personal prayer.
In the nineteen-fifties the great Benedictine scholar Jean Leclercq developed the idea of “monastic theology” to describe the attempt to put this experience into words and order it in a more systematic say. This book aims to be an exercise in such “monastic theology” as that has traditionally been undertaken in the Benedictine world. It is written for non-specialists who do not always have easy access to the riches of the monastic tradition.
The goal of such theology is the vision of the living God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ and disclosed to us in the light of the Holy Spirit. Monastic theology aims not just at theological or abstract knowledge but at the knowledge born of love as it emerges in spiritual experience. In the early monastic tradition this was known as vision or contemplation (theoria and speculatio). The “method” put forward for attaining this kind of vision was firmly rooted in the Bible and the Jewish origins of Christianity. It entailed a ruminative reading of holy scripture and the texts of the context of the regular and solemn celebration of the liturgy, the church’s public, communal prayer.
Such a liturgically inspired, contemplative vision informs this book. In speaking of the liturgy I shall be referring primarily to that of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, excellently restored, reformed, and renewed before and after the Second Vatican Council. The renewed liturgy’s emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in worship, its Biblical richness, formal simplicity, variety of ancient and modern texts and traditional dignified ritual, as it is carried out in its monastic form here in Glenstal day after day, is the context in which my spiritual life has been nurtured for the last twenty years. Liturgical prayer, as I shall constantly reiterate through this book, is a privileged disclosure-zone through which God, revealed historically in Christ, manifests his presence in the Holy Spirit and comes to meet us here and now.
Hearing God’s word proclaimed, chanting the Psalms throughout the church’s year – the year of the mysteries of Christ – and meditating on them in the silence before and after celebration (meditatio) gives birth to heartfelt prayer (oratorio), the cry of a soul overwhelmed by the excess of God’s love poured out for us in Christ and the Holy Spirit. Liturgical celebration, meditation, and prayer, together generate a theology grounded in the opening of the heart to the light of God’s glory (doxa) as it has appeared to us in revelation and is celebrated still in the church’s liturgy. That liturgy consists primarily in doxology: praise and glorification of the Father, through the Son in the Holy Spirit.
In the monastic world such theology, being essentially a matter of the vision of the heart, is unimaginable apart from spirituality. Benedictines – but also Orthodox Christians – love the story recounted by Pope Saint Gregory (called Gregorios Dialogos by the Orthodox) in the Dialogues attributed to him of how our Holy Father Saint Benedict, rapt in prayer, saw the whole world gathered into one by the light of Christ.
In Orthodox monastic spirituality, Benedict’s luminous vision is considered one of the most important testimonies to the transfiguration of the human person by the uncreated light of grace, given in baptism, intensified in the Eucharist and contemplated in prayer. Monastic spirituality in both east and west has always aimed to see everyone and everything in and through the light of the resurrection, imagining a world penetrated and permeated by the transforming energies of God’s Spirit. It aims to develop the spiritual senses of the heart which lie dormant in the depths of the soul until they are awakened by the warm and fragrant breath of the kiss of the Holy Spirit.
In the Benedictine tradition in the twentieth century, the two writers who most exemplified this approach to theology and liturgical prayer were Blessed Columba Marmion, the Irish Abbot of Maredsous in Belgium and inspiration for the foundation of Glenstal Abbey, and Dom Odo Casel, monk of Maria Laach, theologian of the mysteries, and one of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time. They were very different people. Marmion was a pastor and popular preacher whose reintegration of spirituality and theology, reconnected through a living vision of the liturgy, influenced a whole generation of clergy in the Catholic church. In addition to being a holy man and lover of the liturgy, he was deeply and warmly human, with an ample girth and a jovial sense of humor. The title of this book evokes the memory of his most inspiring work although its form and content are obviously very different.
Casel, a solitary scholar, liturgical mystic, and chaplain to Benedictine nuns, almost single-handedly changed the direction of the theology of the liturgy (though not without controversy) and considerably influenced the reforming work of the Second Vatican Council. His fundamental intuition was based on a mystical illumination received during Solemn Mass at his abbey. It was that the founding event and core of Christian faith – Christ’s passing over in the holy night of Easter from death to life – is rendered present and operative through the church’s sacramental worship.
That intuition restored to the liturgy its primacy in the Christian life after centuries of displacement and put the paschal mystery of death and resurrection right at the heart of the faith. It also had a major influence beyond the frontiers of Casel’s own church. The nuns for whom he served as chaplain for most of his life testified to his gentle simplicity and humility, notwithstanding his outstanding intellectual gifts and embroilment in the polemics generated by his theology. Both men were typical Benedictines in believing that the Bible read, meditated, and prayed in the context of the church’s liturgy provides the most nourishing spiritual food and opens the door to contemplation.
Marmion was a liturgist through and through in the sense that he loved the solemn celebration of the mysteries of Christ in his great abbey at Maredsous; Casel was a mystic in the sense recognized in the early church, i.e., one who reflected deeply on the meaning of the mysteries set forth in worship. He was, appropriately enough, called home to God on Easter Sunday 1948, having intoned the threefold Lumen Christi (“The light of Christ”) on the morning of Holy Saturday, in the (as yet unreformed) paschal vigil. I hope their influence will be evident, however modestly, throughout this book.
Evident also I hope will be the influence of the Rule of Saint Benedict itself.
Although I may not cite or quote it frequently, its basic structures and fundamental ethos – the following of Christ in humility through obedience, stability, and conversion of life, constant recourse to scripture in lectio divina as the source of wisdom, the need for prayer of the heart, and the centrality of liturgical prayer – are the fundamental ideals which inform Benedictine life and I hope, this book as well. The Rule is a like a base camp for trekking in the mountains – it is a place from which one starts and to which one returns, a secure reference point for whatever adventures lie on the way in one’s spiritual journey.
At the end of his Rule, Benedict advised his readers to journey east if they wished to find the original, authentic sources of monastic spirituality. In this book I will heed his advice, for in the Christian East, in the traditions of the Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and East Syrian and Indian churches, the contemplation of God’s uncreated beauty in prayer and worship remains the central activity of Christians and the unfailing source of the church’s life. I will draw liberally on those traditions, especially that of the Orthodox which has been my main source of theological and spiritual inspiration for years.
Yet, at the same time, this book contains many influences from the Anglican and Protestant traditions as well, especially those of the Lutheran and Reformed churches. With the Second Vatical Council and the late Pope John Paul II, I believe that one cannot be authentically Catholic today without also being a committed ecumenist.
The primary theme of this book is that through the celebration of the mysteries of Christ in the liturgy and their experience in prayer, the one great paschal mystery of his transforming death and resurrection is made present for us so that we can participate in it. Of Christ’s living presence in the worship and sacramental mysteries of the church, and of how that marks the whole of life with a “paschal” character I have never had any serious doubt. There are three reasons why the paschal Christ of the liturgy has always been central for me.
The first goes back to my childhood in Belfast, to my own Confirmation at the age of 11 in 1971. Two or three minutes after the bishop had applied the oil of chrism and I had returned to my seat, without any trumpet fanfares or loud announcements, I was literally wakened up. A presence moved gently into my life and has resolutely refused to go away ever since, notwithstanding my many infidelities, frequent wrong turnings, and the numerous obstacles with which I have too often blocked its light. Paul reminds us that we always hold the treasures of grace in clay jars, but the Psalms also observe that God knows of what we are made: God remembers we are but dust. Indeed Paul comforts himself that his own weakness serves only to indicate to others that everything comes from God. Confirmation gave me the fundamental assurance that in the church’s sacramental liturgy God really does communicate himself.
As a youth I would drop into dark churches in West Belfast, then caught up in its terrible sectarian convulsions, and become aware once more of that presence, this time radiating from the tabernacle or hovering around a statue or an icon. Years later, while pursuing research in Orthodox theology, I discovered Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s account of his own spiritual experience which he described as a kind of inner sensation of a presence. I could not have described it that way myself, of course, as a youngster. I knew only that a hole had been punched in the wall of the world and from the other side, a light gentle and benevolent was shining through. At the age of sixteen, no doubt rather precociously, I began to read voraciously in theology – the Bible (especially Saint John’s Gospel), Saint Augustine, Newman, Luther – in an attempt to understand who or what had punctured the veil between my tiny self and the vast expanse of mystery I knew was lying beyond it. Newman made me aware of an unknown spiritual continent waiting to be explored that he called, “the Fathers.”
The second reason for believing in the Christ of the liturgy was an experience of two different kinds of worship, both of which came to me at the end of the seventies by courtesy of the BBC. The first was a documentary showing the Paschal Vigil at the Russian Orthodox cathedral in London. So far my experience of worship had been limited to uninspiring celebrations in various parishes in Belfast where much was constrained by the difficult social and political situation. The first Easter Vigil I had experienced, far from being an explosion of paschal joy, was something of a damp squib.
The Russian liturgy broke upon me like a spiritual tidal wave. The emotional harmonized chanting, the vigorous and prolonged incensing, the icons and gold vestments, and above all the repeated shouts of “Christ is Risen!” had an effect on my soul that in retrospect I have come to recognize as pure grace. Orthodoxy taught me that God is the source of all that is beautiful. The paschal mystery and its celebration moved into center stage in my spiritual life and has occupied that position ever since. I fell in love with the Christian East. Although the idealism of that initial youthful attraction has since been considerably tempered through contact with its not always so inspiring reality, I have never fallen out of love with it.
Around the same time the BBC also televised Mass from Downside Abbey near Bath in England. It was the first time I had ever heard the word, “Benedictine.” The style was gentler than the Russian service, but I was just as captivated by the dignified ceremonial, musical accomplishment, and sense of the numinous surrounding it. I registered to myself that the way of Benedictine prayer, like that of Orthodoxy, was centered on the liturgy.
The third reason is Glenstal. In 1980, the fifteen-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Saint Benedict, no less than three monks from that abbey came to speak at Lenten retreats in the Catholic Chaplaincy at Queen’s University, Belfast. I am not aware of anyone ever having gone before for that purpose and apart from going back to do the same myself a few years ago, no one else from here has ever repeated the performance. As a result I journeyed down to Glenstal for Easter and experienced three things.
- First was the magnificence of the Paschal Vigil with its Gregorian music, bonfire, and solemn chanting of the Easter proclamation (the Exsultet). I realized that if one couldn’t be Byzantine then becoming a Benedictine monk might not be so bad an alternative.
- Second was a conversation with one of the monks, Brother Patrick Hederman. For the first time in twenty years I met someone who understood what I was saying about my relationship with God – or more accurately the relationship I realized God had begun with me. In the intervening years he has been to me guide, friend, brother, and, most recently as Abbot, Father in Christ.
- Third was Patrick’s showing me an icon then in his care. It is a Russian icon of Christ, so beautiful and spiritually penetrating that it can only have been painted from a vision based on prayer. It is the Christ of Chapter 2 of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, the non-grasping God who emptied himself and assumed the form of a slave, becoming obedient unto death – even death on a cross, for which God exalted him and enthroned him as the Lord. I recognized in the eyes of that icon the same gentle, benevolent light that had begun to shine on me as a child. It is the light of the Holy Spirit who rests eternally on the Son of God, overshadowed Mary at his incarnation, filled his humanity at his baptism in the Jordan, and was finally given to him in fullness at his resurrection and poured out on us through him as God’s present, or rather presence – grace.
That presence cannot be earned but only acknowledged, proclaimed, loved, praised, and continuously returned to in prayers of gratitude and repentance. It is pure gift. This book is my way of acknowledging and celebrating the presence of that gift, in the firm belief that in liturgical prayer and sacramental worship God does indeed open a door, step into our world, and manifest his real presence.
My purpose in this book is to show how contemplation of the revealed mysteries, recorded in scripture and celebrated in worship, is capable of generating a mystical spirituality rooted in the church’s liturgy, experienced in the depths of the soul, and flowing out into everyday life. In an authentic vision of Christian mysticism there ought to be no dichotomy between a supposedly “institutional church” (as if the community born of Pentecost could ever be just an institution) and an esoteric “mysticism” (in danger of degenerating into spiritual luxury and self-indulgence) practiced by atomized individuals; nor between communal liturgical celebration and so-called “private” solitary contemplation.
We need to recover in our era what was understood so well in the early centuries of the church’s life and is today still generally the case in the Christian East: that the celebration of the liturgy, grounded in Christ’s historical acts, manifesting his gracious presence and filled with the Holy Spirit’s power, is the objective point of entry into a genuine Christian mysticism.
Yet nowadays, at least in a post-modern Europe becoming ever more post-Christian as well, it is not sufficient simply to present Christ’s mysteries as “objective” truths or external realities set up over against us. Something more is needed, something which the monastic tradition has always stressed if the gospel is to be proclaimed authentically: spiritual experience of what has been revealed. Today more than ever Christ’s mysteries need not only to be proclaimed by the church and “actualized” in liturgical celebration, but also “realized” in a personal, spiritually fruitful way in the inner temple of the heart.
An integrated understanding of the liturgy and of sacramental experience as the source of the truly mystical, is the greatest gift the ancient (but still vibrant) traditions of Eastern Christianity can offer the worldwide Christian family today. That is certainly the lesson I have learnt after many years of contact with them. Liturgy and the mystical life are – or at least ought to be – always one. In the Orthodox Church, after having received Holy Communion in the Divine Liturgy, Byzantine Christians sing this chant:
We have seen the true light,
we have received the Heavenly Spirit,
we have found the true faith,
worshiping the Undivided Trinity:
this has been our salvation.
Unlike its modern meaning, which generally involves ecstasies and esoteric illuminations, “mystical experience” as the early church understood it was a secret and hidden thing, an illumination of the heart by grace through communion with God in prayer. It is the goal toward which liturgical celebration ought to lead us. But that becomes actual only if in the light of the Holy Spirit we contemplate the mysteries we celebrate. Then our consciousness, focused on the mysteries of Christ, expands and is led through them into the one great mystery of salvation, into the depths of God’s infinite inner life.
By sharing some of the riches of monastic tradition east and west, I hope that this book might help in a small way to foster a Christian vision of reality irradiated by the light of Christ who reveals God’s universal love in his death and resurrection. It is God’s desire to communicate that love to us through the Holy Spirit who has been poured into our hearts. The Holy Trinity has disclosed itself; it has drawn aside the veil and manifested itself to us; but its purpose will not be fulfilled until the Spirit becomes the breath that animates our every breath, the heart hidden deep within our hearts, beating with love for God and for creation.
God’s love for us is a dizzying mystery of divine descent, a voluntarily accepted self-limitation (kenosis or emptying) so that he could create us, relate to us, and raise us up when we had fallen. The Son of God through whom the world was made descended to our side, embraced the cross and, descending even further, went down into the realm of the dead. Exalted by the Father in his resurrection he ascended on high, lifted us up and enthroned us with him in glory at his father’s side. Although we do not yet see it openly, the whole Earth is vibrant with the presence of the Lord whose glory fills all Heaven and Earth.
That glory is given to us in a personal way in the church’s sacramental mysteries through the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, too, carries out his/her own kenosis, descending at Pentecost, and again and again in every liturgy. The Spirit awakens us to who God is and makes us understand God’s all-encompassing love. Yet in addition to the kenosis of the Spirit and of Christ, there is also the kenosis of God the Father who gives himself away in love to the Son and Spirit in the Trinity and to us in creation. At one stage after meditating in a Good-Friday-mood on Philippians, Chapter 2, I considered calling this book, “Down and out with God in Christ”; but in the light of Easter it might equally well be called, “Up and in with Christ in the Holy Spirit.” All God’s descents are aimed as our ascent. They are pro nobis, for us, they have as their goal that we might be raised up and transformed forever: “The mysteries of Christ are our mysteries.”
Our liturgical celebrations are the symbolic media through which this one great mystery, the love of the Holy Trinity for humankind and all creation, manifests itself. They are privileged, grace-filled disclosure zones of divine love that offers itself there, in a special way, to us. There the light of the Father’s creative mercy, the Son’s redemptive love and the Spirit’s transforming grace filters down to us; there the mystery breaks through; there we draw life and light to proclaim to the world the gospel of God’s saving grace. There we meet Christ in his mysteries.