So, here I am. At the Mount St Benedict’s Centre in West Pennant Hills. It is my first introduction to how non-cloistered people corporately endeavour to interpret monastic practices and traditions.
When approaching this weekend, as with preparing to watch Into Great Silence, I was a little scared. I didn’t know what to expect, but likewise, I don’t want the weekend to disappoint. However, disillusionment will only happen if my perceptions about monastic life and practices are in fact illusions, so disappointment may end up being a gift. We’ll see …
I am intrigued that we have been given permission to not be polite to anyone else attending the weekend. What I mean by that is that we have been released from the social obligations of Western society and can feel free to remain silent; to break eye contact; to not feel like I even need to say "thankyou" for someone’s help.
Compline in the Oratory
The question I am left pondering at the end of our first night of eating together, meeting one another, and praying Compline together is .. how do you form community when you are at liberty to graciously ignore everyone else in order to maintain silence?
I wonder if there will be an answer to that question before the weekend is done …
All lights appear to be out, and I am left fighting the urge to go hunting for a cup of tea to have with a piece of chocolate while I prayerfully read some material I have brought with me.
I decided to have a warm drink quietly and on my own in the dining room after which I went back to my room and sat up in bed reading the first part of Guigo II’s "Ladder of Monks", a letter written to a friend about the stages of spiritual experience with God.
Powerful and insightful.
From 8.30pm until 8.30am .. this is known as "the Great Silence" …..
SATURDAY (6th October – Feast of St Bruno – Father of the Carthusian Monks)
I slept well and woke early, about 5.30am. I showered and then prepared for the day by praying the Dawn Office from Phyllis Tickle’s "The Divine Hours". The more I use this contemporary version of the ancient offices of the church, the more I appreciate them as a basic framework, even a launch-pad of sorts, for personal prayer and strong meditation in the Biblical sense; that is, thinking or pondering deeply on the things read and heard.
Ruminating is another good word for true Biblical meditation; chewing on the things read and heard, like a cow on its cud.
Vigils in the church seated in monastic choir stalls. It was like stepping into a scene from Into Great Silence! It was also a step back in time for me as it was VERY "Anglican Evensong" in its form. All the psalms were chanted with sung antiphons while the prayers were intoned and we had public readings from 2 Kings and Thomas Aquinas.
It took me back to my days as a lay reader in my local Anglican church when I was growing up in Concord; days that I’m not sure I want to revisit. Not because those days had anything ugly in them. Rather, that the power of the words we were praying so often got lost in the form. (More on that later)
During a silent breakfast of cereal, toast, tea and juice, I finished reading "Ladder of Monks" and I have come to some conclusions. Much of what we moderns think is meditation, isn’t. And much of what we assume is contemplation, isn’t. In fact, I would go so far as to say that much meditative practice that is taught in the church today is not even really Biblical. It seems to have its roots in Eastern mysticism employing a kind of mantra as used in Hindu traditions. Likewise, what many believe to be contemplation; that is, as they would define it, a deep thinking or pondering on the things read and heard. But this is, more accurately, genuine Biblical meditation and not contemplation.
Essentially, I’m discovering that the defining lines between some of these practices appear to be extremely blurred in the minds of many. The trouble is, that we’re not searching out the roots of where these practices seem to stem from deeply enough, in my opinion. Many of the current "teachers" of this practice could, in fact, be leading many well-intentioned Christian people up the proverbial garden path.
In this regard, I am reminded of the title of a new sermon Graham Cooke told me about when he and I were sharing a room together at a conference I was hosting a number of years ago. He declared that he had just completed work on a sermon about meditation and his title for it was a play on words. He called it "Meditation .. it’s Much More than You ‘Think’".
Having said all that, what I seem to be discovering is that monks are, in many ways, more Pentecostal than most Pentecostals. That is to say, they are more spiritually aware, they are more spiritually engaged and they are more pragmatic about their spirituality’s outworking than most modern chasimatics or Pentecostals. They are wholly focussed on encountering God in a real, practical and living way every day with that focus rooted in the desire to "pray continually" as the Apostle Paul exhorts us all.
But, more on that later .. it’s time now for Lauds (or Morning Prayer).
During Lauds in the church we sang Psalms 46, 91, and 146 plus we sang (or rather muddled through) a canticle from Jonah 2:3-10.
To read them, or to pray them personally, these psalms are so full of energy, vibrancy, passion, anguish and relief. They are glorious in their richness and power. And yet, somehow this is lost for me in the application of the monastic form of chanting them.
Where Psalm 46 says "All you peoples, clap your hands, cry to God with shouts of joy", here we are solemnly chanting these energized sentences to a rigid tone of only five or six notes, over and over again, stanza after stanza in the same repetitive tune, all of which is dictated "by the book". We’re so worried about getting the tune right because we’re now a part of a monastic choir, that we have no real clue as to the power of what we’re singing!
So this leads me to another conclusion. If I am to take monastic wisdom, values and principles into a modern application, much of the traditional form largely needs to be left behind if we are to find a way to connect this to the hearts of 21st Century hearers and potential practitioners.
Much to ponder in that regard .. time now for a glass of water and then into a short conference-type meeting on the Rule of Benedict.
Following a conference-type meeting on the Rule of Benedict, there was time for a short rest, which I took. I’m not accustomed to waking up at 5.30am so I took advantage of the time for a short nap. My friend Ray McMartin would say that sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is have a sleep. He’s right!
Following the short rest (instead of morning tea), I attended a session on lectio divina, that is, literally translated, divine reading. What it really means is the prayerful or intentional reading of the Scriptures or other sacred Christian texts. Interestingly, one of the key illustrations in this session on lectio was from Guigo II’s "Ladder of Monks". Guigo II was the ninth prior of the Grande Chartreuse, the mother house of the Carthusian Order, as seen in the movie Into Great Silence.
Now I understand why I was so strongly drawn to read this last night and to finish it over breakfast this morning. His "Ladder of Monks" was used as a primary illustration of the stages of lectio divina. Again, this raises a couple of issues for me.
Firstly, it seems there is a school of thought that Guigo II’s "Ladder of Monks", being the four stages of reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation, are simply the various stages of lectio divina. This would suggest then that what some see as "contemplative prayer" is considered a totally separate practice.
However, based on Guigo II’s "Ladder of Monks" as being a typical monastic practice, I think that lectio divina is simply the gateway in a four step process that collectively is known as "contemplative prayer".
That is, where prayerful reading of Scripture or other sacred Christian texts then leads us to meditation; a deep thinking and pondering on the things read and/or heard. This deep pondering, or meditation, in turn leads us to prayer, as we converse with God in order to try to lay hold of these things which we are "chewing on". This prayer then leads (perhaps) to an encounter with the manifest presence of God, or what a monk calls contemplation, where he rests or soaks in the presence of the Beloved. Sound familiar?
For the charistmatic or Pentecostal, this intertwining of prayerful reading, genuine Biblical meditation, heartfelt prayer and perhaps an encounter with the manifest presence of God would be a remarkably accurate description of a "dream" devotional time for most of us. We would think we’d hit the mother-load if we were to experience this daily! This, however, is the regular diet of the monk.
Before moving on, let me add that it seems to me that some "Christian" meditation practices of today are not really what was practiced by the monks of old. Perhaps it was by some, but I’m not sure by most, as some would have us believe. But, that is going to be a question asked of and explored with those more experienced than myself.
The Office of Sext in the church, or, prayer at the sixth hour.
Holy Eucharist in the church in a remarkably Roman Catholic style. The "host", prayers to Mary etc etc. VERY surprising for Anglicans and certainly challenging for me doctrinally!
A hearty and healthy lunch in silence while listening to a reading from a book on monastic history. VERY monastic in practice and experience, but surprisingly beneficial.
A conference-type session with teaching by Sister Mary Emmanual, an Anglican Benedictine Nun. She’s a great lady with a sweet spirit and a really cheeky sense of humour. This session was in the "Chapter Room"; a separate room in which chapters from the Rule of Benedict are read and expounded upon. Every Benedictine institution has one, so I’ve learned. This meeting was on what the Rule of Benedict has to say about silence.
Surprisingly, the Rule has very little to say about silence, but much to say about the restraint of speech. A quote from a commentator from this afternoon’s session on silence as it’s spoken of in the Rule of Benedict .. "Real communication is articulated silence". That is to say, the things worth saying and the things worth hearing only come out of times of being silent. Otherwise, it’s more often than not, just noise.
Afternoon tea and more personal time for lectio divina. I read psalm 85 and was hooked on the relationship between man’s actions and God’s response where it says "Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other". That is heaven meeting earth in the most profound way, but it’s all dependant on our actions first because "Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps." Sounds remarkably like the role of John the Baptist to Jesus, eh?
Vespers or Evening Prayer. This was painful. Muddling our way through the singing of psalms with the repetitive interruption of responses after every line leaving you more concerned about what to sing and where and how to sing it, than in the very words we’re actually supposed to be praying. I’ll have to go back and re-read Psalm 135 to have a clue about what we sang/prayed.
Dinner .. again in silence, and again listening to readings. This time from Joan Chittister’s book "Welcome to the Wisdom of the World". Some very challenging thoughts on true happiness and the individual’s search for their life’s true purpose and meaning.
Add to that, a most interesting thing occurred for me during dinner tonight. You might recall earlier in this journal of the weekend’s events, that I was asking myself the question "how do you form community when you are at liberty to graciously ignore everyone else in order to maintain silence?" I began to realise how much I was enjoying sitting at a table of people I did not know, who’s stories I had not heard, and yet, I was starting to feel very much at home with these people. There was a genuine sense of being accepted at this table.
When Jamie, our reader, finally came and sat down to eat his meal, he was seated next to me. Now here’s something unusual. Within a few minutes, all but Jamie and I had left the table .. and he and I were left sitting right next to each other with no-one else within 25 feet of us. At one point I was making a cup of tea, so I had to get up but then returned to the table. My normal response was to look for another place to sit, but my spirit compelled me to sit back down next to Jamie. I was enjoying "knowing" this man, heart-to-heart, with no words spoken. I began to know him and appreciate him more and yet, I still know hardly any of his story and, while at the table, not a word was exchanged between us.
So, "how do you form community when you are at liberty to graciously ignore everyone else in order to maintain silence?" I don’t know HOW, but I now know it’s possible by the grace of God, and in a much less traumatic way than if we are struggling to get to know one another by the telling our stories.
It’s as though the lack of speech removes our masks and the only form of communication left is being able to sense another person with your spirit. You must be careful not to jump to ridiculous conclusions on the basis of facial expressions, body language and modes of dress, but if you’ll "listen with the ear of your heart" as the Rule of Benedict says in its prologue, it truly does seem possible to begin forming genuine community in no time at all and at the deepest heart level first and foremost.
I must be honest and say that I am left totally but pleasantly surprised by this remarkable discovery.
Personal time with Abbot Michael King. This is a truly lovely man who is deeply committed both to Jesus and to the building of vital Christian community that revolves around praying constantly and the training of disciples in monastic practice according to the Rule of Benedict. His hope is to develop their small monastic community in Victoria into a more open and fluid expression of monasticism in the present day. I say, "more power to him"!
Likewise, for a man given to monastic rhythm and routine, he is a very free man. He’s not at all phased by my use of prophetic language or my desire to adapt what I’m learning to a charismatic/Pentecostal setting. His insights into some of my questions were of great help and, in many ways, confirmatory.
A forum style meeting where we had the opportunity to share thoughts and impressions and to give feedback about the weekend. I shared a few things, and in responding to some comments, Father Michael quoted me numerous times by way of illustration. That was interesting and somewhat humbling, when a newbie’s impressions are able to influence the gathering of somewhat experienced lay Benedictines.
Compline in the Oratory.
Back to the dining room to make a cup of tea to bring to my room. We’re not supposed to take tea and coffee out of the dining room, but I figured it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to gain permission!
The Great Silence has begun and will be in place until 8.30am. So, after tea, a little chocolate and some reading .. it’s time for bed.
I awoke after only a "reasonable" night’s sleep. Lots of dreaming last night. Some very interesting content that needs to be investigated before the Lord.
A shower and shave at a really relaxed pace. Don’t worry, I didn’t waste water with a long shower. I remember we’re in a drought!
Vigils in the church. This was a little better today. I’m starting to get the hang of the chanting (not that it’s something I’ll ever regularly practice, but it helps at events like this weekend’s retreat).
During Vigils we sang and prayed Psalm 89. What a psalm of promise about the coming Christ .. nearly 1000 years before his birth!
Again, a hearty breakfast of cereal, tea, toast and juice, largely in silence. I reread Psalm 89. Phenomenal! Psalm 88 is pretty good too.
After the table and the dining room had almost cleared, I was again left sitting right next to a lady who asked if I was willing to break silence so she could say a couple of things to me. I agreed and she told me how my sharing at the forum-type session last night had really spoken to her and given her answers for where was in her life at this time.
To cut a long story short, she’s going to go home this afternoon to write up and submit her resignation from a Christian group that has become toxic.
Lauds (Morning Prayer) in the church. This time we were joined by the Nuns from the convent here at Mount St Benedict’s. It certainly helped the singing, I can tell you!
A conference-type session on the Prologue and the Conclusion to the Rule of Benedict with Father Michael King, the Abbot of the monastery. The first word of the Rule is "Listen" and the final word is "Arrive". It is understood that everything contained between these words will help us. Essentially, if we begin by listening, we will ultimately arrive.
It is interesting to me, and a little concerning, that the Rule is read in classes even more than the Bible and that it is perhaps venerated as much if not more than the Scriptures. For a Rule that teaches balance, I find that surprisingly imbalanced. But then, that’s more down to its present day followers than it was the intention of its writer, I’m sure. That sadly, is so often the case in almost every Christian institution over time.
Morning Tea in silence .. but with the added joy of banana pikelets (little pancakes) served with passionfruit yoghurt. Yum.
Another session on lectio divina. This one was difficult because it was a second session of nearly 60 minutes duration teaching the exact same things as were shared yesterday. It would have been nice having only 10 minutes of review and 50 minutes of practice. Instead, we got 40 minutes of identical content and only 20 minutes to practice lectio. At the end of the day, hearing about and doing are two very different things.
One of the quotes was from Father Michael Casey’s writing on lectio divina. Michael Casey is a Cistercian monk and was the Abbot of a Trappist monastery here in Australia. He teaches that lectio divina is intended to give us a "deep encounter with the word of God". However, we were being taught that it is acceptable not only to use the Bible and other beneficial sacred Christian texts, but that it is also acceptable and supposedly beneficial to use secular texts and even texts from other faith traditions such as Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism to give us this "deep encounter with the word of God" through lectio divina. What the??
This was a key example of the desperate need for individuals to exercise personal discernment in order to chew the meat and spit out, what were in this case, some pretty big bones.
I have come back to my room both troubled and somewhat angered in my spirit, that these wrong aspects of prayerful reading are being taught as acceptable. Checks and balances are needed to ensure that a "deep encounter with the word of God" remains central to this teaching. Permission cannot afford to given to newbies of this monastic practice to use texts that may mislead them and turn their focus from Jesus.
John’s gospel calls Him "the word of God". If we are to have, as Michael Casey was quoted as saying, a "deep encounter with the word of God", then Christ must remain central in the content of our reading if this is to be possible.
Sext (Prayer at the Sixth Hour) in the church.
Holy Eucharist in the church. This time, I won’t be attending either of these two times of prayer. Firstly because Sext leads almost immediately into the Eucharist, and secondly because I have doctrinal issues with transubstantion/consubstantiation and with the veneration of Mary as the supposed "Mother of God" as opposed to her simply being the Mother of Jesus who became the Christ. It may sound like simple symantics, but our words betray our true meaning.
I think it is more tactful and will be less traumatic to the group for me to not be present at all, than to be seen to refuse to receive the eucharist today, since they saw me receive it yesterday.
Lunch with readings from a book on monastic history called "The Motley Crew". Excellent information.
This was supposed to be rest time, but I was "high-jacked" by Michael, the manager of the Mount St Benedict’s Retreat Centre. Michael is a sweetly spirited man who seems perfectly suited to this role. He wanted to show me the excellent library they have at Mount St Benedict’s. Imagine, loads of material on the Desert Fathers, CDs of Thomas Merton’s teaching, videos of Christian history and loads of regular subscriptions to excellent teaching publications from many Christian monastic orders.
I am very greatful to Michael for his kind "high-jacking", since I joined the library and borrowed a bunch of stuff to take home for a month. Twenty dollars joining fee to support a library of this calibre is nothing to pay to gain access to this amount of resource.
A final conference-type session to wrap up the teaching times. This was the monastery’s Abbot, Father Michael, sharing on the developments of their monastic community in Victoria. Likewise, he shared his conviction that the monastic charism, or grace, has the potential to lead to the church’s renewal or even be the salvation of the church.
This may seem like a sweeping statement, but in the light of the things God has been revealing to the Protestant streams of the church, such as the emerging church dialogue, the increased focus on continual prayer through 24-7 Prayer Houses and the Boiler Rooms, the challenge to reprioritize our lives to a slower pace and the desire for intentional community rather than simply the attendance of church services to name just a few, Father Michael may well be right .. because these things have all been regular parts of monastic life for over 1500 years!
So, if God is revealing these things, in particular to the Protestant church, perhaps what He’s saying to us is indeed .. "the monastic charism, or grace, has the potential to lead to the church’s renewal or even be the salvation of the church."
Hence, my desire to answer a deep call from God to investigate this truth.
Vespers (Evening Prayer) in the church. I am reading one of the "lessons".
Let me just say "Thank God" for Father Michael and Sister Mary Emmanuel. His organ playing and leadership of the Offices along with Sister Mary Emmanual’s excellent singing helped make all the difference across the weekend, as most of us either mumbled or stumbled our way through chanting the Offices. Without them, I reckon even God would have had his fingers in his ears!
Load the car, say goodbye and .. home.