Run to win

Each year on Septuagesima Sunday, we are are treated to a summary, as it were, of our entire faith. After the joyful celebration of Christmas and Epiphany, we now find ourselves plunged back into, to quote today's Introit: "the wails of death and the sorrows of hell". The psalm De Profundis is also there to give expression to our prayer in the Tractus: “Out of the depths have I cried to Thee, O Lord, hear my prayer".  At Matins this morning we read the account of Creation and we have thus set foot upon a kind of bridge that will take us all the way to the Paschal Vigil at which time we will recover the joyful chant of the Lord’s canticle, the Alleluia, left aside today as we consider the havoc our sins have wrought in God's beautiful world.

St Augustine reminded us this morning that, because of the sin of our first parents, original sin, the entire human race, "massa damnata”, was hurled headlong into pain, death and hell. These thoughts are of a nature to inspire us with the wholesome attitude of one in need. And how can we fail to see how appropriately they apply to the present situation of the world and the Church, as the folly of sin seems to establish its throne even in the Holy Place?

With that background we can understand the choice of today’s Gospel. The landowner who goes out to hire men to work in his vineyard is the Lord who, in every age of humanity, continues to invite those who will avoid eternal damnation and win an everlasting reward, to roll up their sleeves, to leave behind their petty interests and comfortable surroundings in order to labour in the heat of day to produce the good wine of divine love. But we are all disabled by original sin, and that is why we need the energetic appeal of the Lord: “Go into my vineyard, and I will pay you what is just!” 

But, we might ask, what is really at stake? The final words of the Gospel lay it out with great clarity: “ Some of those who are last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen”. It’s a serious struggle we are placed in, and the outcome is not at all certain. Nor was it certain for the Jews whom St Paul mentions in the epistle. All of them came out of Egypt with Moses, all of them were baptised, but God was not pleased with most of them. Actually with a few exceptions, they will all leave their bones in the desert, they will not attain to the promised land. Is it any surprise that the Fathers of the Church have all read the “ Many are called but few are chosen” to mean precisely what it says, namely that of all the mass of souls called to eternal life (all of them), few comparatively will arrive at the goal? St Paul, as a good coach, goads us on even more with the reminder that even though everyone runs in the race, only one is the winner. And he adds: Run so as to win! 

What is this race we are engaged in? It is the race towards eternal life. The stakes are high, very high indeed, and we must not lose sight of the real goal. If one loses an earthly contest it's not the end of the world. There may be other chances, and if not, well, it's not something that is required for happiness. But if we miss eternal happiness, then the only solution is eternal despair and damnation. That is the great reminder of Septuagesima Sunday.

At the same time the Lord and the Apostle both incite us to prepare for the combat. Lent is just around the corner, and with the growing evil in the world and in the Church, so must grow the fervour of our prayers and the seriousness of our sacrifices.

We need also remind ourselves that there are other players, invisible ones, in this race. I mean the wicked enemy himself, Satan and his satellites. They spare no effort to overthrow God’s church and bring souls to hell. Let us ever be mindful of this. In his angelus address of 28 April 1994, Pope John Paul II said:

"May prayer strengthen us for the spiritual battle of which we are told in the Letter to the Ephesians: “Drew strength from the Lord and from His mighty power” (Eph 6:10). It is this same battle to which the Book of Revelation refers, recalling before our eyes the image of Saint Michael the Archangel (cf. Revelation 12:7). Pope Leo XIII certainly had a very vivid vision of this scene when, at the end of the last century, he introduced a special prayer to St Michael throughout the Church. Even if this prayer is no longer recited at the end of every Mass, I ask everyone to remember it and to recite it to obtain help in the battle against forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world”.

And a few years before that, he had pronounced these stern words:

"We must prepare ourselves to suffer great trials before long, such as will demand of us a disposition to give up even life, and a total dedication to Christ and for Christ… With your and my prayer it is possible to mitigate this tribulation, but it is no longer possible to avert it, because only thus can the Church be effectively renewed. How many times has the renewal of the Church sprung from blood! This time too, it will not be otherwise. We must be strong and prepared, and trust in Christ and His Mother, and be very, very assiduous in praying the Rosary” (Pope John Paul II, November 1980).

May the Mother of God hold us all under her immaculate mantle, may she protect us from the wiles of the enemy, and make us win the victory, the unfading crown of glory which is the beatific vision to which we are called. 

Let us run so as to win!

Simeon and the spiritual life

Candlemas 2019


The feast of the Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of Our Lady puts before our eyes the touching figure of the old man Simeon. St Luke tells us that he had received from the Holy Spirit the assurance that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. As a God-fearing Jew who had read and meditated the numerous prophecies concerning the coming of the Anointed One, many of which were startlingly precise in predicting the time of the Messiah's coming (see in particular Daniel, ch 9), Simeon knew that he was living in the age during which He might actually come. He had also meditated at length on the wretched state of his people, handed over to pagan control for too long, direly in need of the Saviour. So he prayed, and he prayed. He apparently had developed a profound degree of union with the Holy Spirit who communicated with him.

When Mary and Joseph bring the Infant Lord to the Temple, Simeon is pushed by the Holy Spirit to go there. And lo and behold, he finds himself in the presence of the longed-for Messiah! For the moment he is just a babe. But Simeon is a man of prayer, and men of prayer are humble. And so Simeon has no difficulty in recognising the Saviour under the humble traits of infancy. He takes Him in his arms, he blesses God, and rejoices in the delightful moments during which he is able to cuddle the Babe whom all nations were longing for.

Simeon, in his longing for God, and in his patience in waiting for Him, is the image of the faithful soul who truly seeks to be united with the Lord. Prayer, and lots of it, had deepened the well in his heart, had increased his capacity for God. With Simeon, God used a tactic He often uses with souls who truly seek Him. He makes him wait, and a very long time, for a treasure it is worth waiting for. 

St Augustine, in his commentary on psalm 83, writes: "Desiderium differtur, ut crescat, crescit, ut capiat. Non enim parvum aliquid daturus est Deus desideranti, aut parum exercendus est ad capacitatem tanti boni. Non aliquid Deus quod fecit daturus est, sed seipsum qui fecit omnia. Ad capiendum Deum exercere, quod semper habiturus es, diu desidera". Which we could translate this way: “The fulfilment of desire is differed so that it might grow; it grows so that it might take hold of what it longs for. God is not to give some small object to those who long for Him; and therefore one is not to be tried only a little in order to become capable of perceiving such a great good. God is not going to give something of what He made, but Himself who made all things. To become capable of God exert yourself; what you are to have forever, desire it for a long time”.

These amazing words have always inspired me. They were a veritable lifeline during some very difficult years of my life. They gave me consolation when there was none. Wait for the Lord, wait for Him a very long time. Wait for Him like holy Simeon, and even as death approaches, never for a moment doubt that He who has promised will come through.

In the lives of individuals, in the lives of communities, in the life of the Church, there are of necessity times of trial. The most valuable secret to have, and which Simeon reveals to us is this: wait for the Lord. And the most important virtue is this: Patience. "Patience obtains all things", says St Teresa, for God alone suffices, and if you are waiting for Him, it is because He is already there, but it is still dark. Soon, the sun will rise, and the light, symbolised by the candles we bless and carry today, will rise in our hearts.

Our Lady of Cana

Homily for the patronal feast of Notre Dame Priory

I am often asked why our community is dedicated to Our Lady of Cana. Cana in fact is usually associated with marriage preparation, and that is indeed very fitting. Who could be a more fitting patroness of married persons than the Immaculate Virgin who asked Our Lord to intervene and help a newly-wed couple who found themselves in an embarrassing situation?

But why do monks look to Cana as an inspiration?  The first reason is that it is to Our Lady of Cana that we prayed for many years to give us monks. We asked her to intervene with her Son and tell her “They have no monks”. She heard our prayer, she asked the Lord, He heard her prayer, and the monastery was finally founded.

But there is another, more profound reason for this choice. St Augustine summarises it in a homily on the event. He says, referring to those who dedicate their virginity or chastity to Christ, “non sunt sine nuptiis”, they are not without nuptials. Indeed, how could they be when consecrated life has no deeper meaning than to anticipate the eternal nuptials of the soul with God in eternal bliss. This is why we were created; this is the vocation of every human being: being taken up into the intimacy of the Triune God. God creates us out of nothing in order to introduce us into His very Life. That, by the way, is the very reason He created marriage in the first place. Human marriage came into existence only in order to mirror the eternal union of God with His creatures. Creation is all about nuptials. That is why first chapters of Genesis reach their climax with the marriage of Adam and Eve. “They will two in one flesh”. The soul is destined to become one with God in an intimacy of much deeper intensity than that of the most successful human couple. This is also why the book of Apocalypse concludes with the marriage feast of the Lamb, when God’s plan will at last be realised, and all the elect will enter into the eternal nuptial chamber in which the torrent of pure and divinely inebriating heavenly wine will be given them to drink forever. Lost in the ocean of love, the elect will swim forever with overflowing joy that they will never be able to express, and that they will never lose.

This is also why Our Lord’s first miracle takes place at a wedding. And that is why the miracle is that of transforming water into wine. For the best images of the eternal life of communion with God that we have in this world are similar to the difference between water and a delicious wine. Those who seek their joy in forbidden pleasures are drinking mud and slime; those who enjoy according to God’s plan the healthy pleasures of this life are drinking water; those who renounce both those kinds of pleasure to anticipate the eternal nuptials are drinking wine, not just any wine, but the most delicious wine there is, that wine which is given to us in the Most Holy Eucharist, and which is the very life of God. But, as St Bernard says, “solus expertus potest credere”, only the one who has experienced it can really know what it means.

As we honour Our Lady of Cana on this day, let us ask Her for the secret. She knew the depth of God’s love; that love was her very life, that is why from a tender age she vowed her virginity to God. Mary never wanted to belong to anyone but God, and her virginal espousals with Joseph were possible only because she, like Joseph no doubt, had achieved such a profound level of loving union with God that the union never ran the risk of being a screen cutting off from God, but was only an incentive to greater love for Him.

Let us ask her, let us ask St Joseph, let us ask St Mary of the Cross and St Regina, for the grace to penetrate deeper into the mystery of that nuptial union to which we are called in monastic life. For years we have been praying: Tell Jesus “they have no monks”. In more recent times, we have prayed, tell Jesus “they have no land or no monastery", etc. but I think we need to continue to ask her to tell Jesus “they have no monks". They have no monks!  It takes time to make a monk. It takes years for the wannabe monk to really become a monk, to embrace his vocation with all due intensity.

The Eternal Bridegroom is here, calling us, goading us on, asking us to progress ever deeper into the ways of mystical love. Let us never disappoint Him, but move forward with great courage and generosity.

If ever in our religious life we get the impression we are drinking only water, let us turn to Mary Immaculate and beg her for the delicious wine of divine love. It’s all there my brothers, my sons, peace and perseverance in monastic life are there for the asking. All you need is to love. Love, and then do as you please, for all you will want to do is to prove your love for the Divine Lover of our souls. To Him be glory forever and to Our Lady of Cana, Queen of our monastery, be honour and praise now and for all eternity. Amen.

Clothing of Br Francisco Maria

Dear Israel,

Some years ago now, like the Magi, you saw a star and you  have come to worship and offer gifts to the Lord. You heard what you perceive to be a call from the Lord Christ, the Infant God, and, after searching in other parts, you set out on this arduous path that led you from Western Australia here to Tasmania. You arrived over nine months ago to test your vocation, and after a number of difficulties, you have asked to be clothed with the habit of St Benedict and begin your formal time as a novice lay brother.

This feast is certainly an auspicious one on which to be clothed with the habit. The star evokes the call to religious life. It is often seen at first from a great distance. A journey is required before one can reach the longed-for goal, and many perils and obstacles lie in the way. Let’s enumerate some of them.

There is first and foremost the difficulty involved in seeing the star. This requires effort, for only those see the stars who are prepared to sacrifice of their sleep to go out into the night and look up. Each night God deploys before the eyes of humanity the marvels of His creation, but most people prefer the comfort of their worldly pleasures, and they never rise to the task of lifting up their minds and hearts to eternity. They do not even see the star.

Second, there is the reading of the sign, for the star is only a sign - it’s meaning is not self-evident. The Magi saw the star, they observed it, they studied the Scriptures to know what it meant, and they came to the conclusion that if God was sending His anointed one to us and showing us the path to get there, then we must go to meet Him right there where He is revealing Himself. They do not calculate the time and expense involved – it probably took a few months and cost them a fortune –, they leave behind families and friends and set out on a journey they know will bring much fatigue. So many refuse the time and effort involved in seeking God like the Magi, and so they never find Him.

Third, the journey itself is long and is sown with dangers: the path has to be discovered, wrong paths avoided, obstacles overcome, precautions must be taken to assure success. Legions of souls, filled with good desires, never follow through with them because of the effort involved.

Fourth, the Magi know that this journey will lead them to a foreign country. Coming to Judea at a time when the local king was not a Jew was not without peril. It demanded courage. How many fail to heed God’s call for fear of what men might say or do to them. 

Fifth, when the Magi arrive in Jerusalem, they are subjected to a terrible trial of faith: the beloved star vanishes, leaving them without a guide, opening for them the temptation to think that it was all an illusion. But in that circumstance, they take the means at their disposal: they go and ask the legitimate authority what to do. And God, who blesses humble obedience, provides them with the exact answer they need. So many accept to follow God and obey as long as they can see and understand. If they find themselves in the dark and cannot read events for themselves, they abandon everything and run away.

Finally, as the Magi leave the trouble of Jerusalem, the star reappears, their hearts overflow with ineffable joy, and this is only the prelude to greater joys to come. For when they adore the Divine Babe, we can be sure that He, from His tiny Divine Heart, poured forth into theirs a bliss that only those can know who have experienced it. It is something like what the psalmist referred to when he said:  Thou hast made known to me the ways of life, thou shalt fill me with joy with thy countenance: at thy right hand are delights even to the end (Ps 15:11). 

Contemplating this mystery a few saints come to mind. There is first of all the Poverello of Assisi, the great St Francis, to whom according to tradition, we owe the tradition of the holy crib in our churches. St Francis’ love for nature and capacity to see God in nature should inspire you in your life as a lay brother. Or again, St Anthony of Padua, a native of Portugal, who was gratified with visions of the Infant Jesus, in reward for his angelic purity. Closer to us, we can consider that God, who became a child, prefers to manifest Himself to children. He did so in particular in Fatima, again Portugal, where Saints Francisco and Jacinta along with their cousin Sr Lucia were privileged to behold the Mother of God in glory. Lucia would write: ”Our Lady opened her hands for the first time, communicating to us a light so intense that, as it streamed from her hands, its rays penetrated our hearts and the innermost depths of our soul, making us see ourselves in God, who was that light, more clearly than we see ourselves in the best of mirrors”. Francisco would later say, referring to the immense joy he experienced in this encounter: "I loved seeing the Angel, but I loved still more seeing Our Lady. What I loved most of all was to see Our Lord in that light from Our Lady which penetrated our hearts. I love God so much! But He is very sad because of so many sins! We must never commit any sins again.” That little boy, at such a tender age, understood the superiority of the contemplative experience, and for the rest of his short life he would be entirely intent on what God wanted him to become. 

Coming back to the Magi, after paying their respects to the newborn king, they disappear from Sacred Writ, no more mention is made of them. They take back with them the sweetness of the experience, but they retain it in their hearts to contemplate and adore. Francisco and Jacinto Marto, after having been gratified with the vision of glory made manifest in Mary Immaculate, disappear from this world, going to contemplate the Light of God in its very source in Heaven. In the same way, a contemplative soul receives God’s grace as a lover’s secret; he bears it in his heart, where the Word of God hollows out in him an abyss of silence, leading evermore to intense communion, prelude to eternal life.

Such is my wish for you on this day, my son, that you may ever seek the countenance of the Living God and come to experience more and more the sweetness of the Divine visit. But remember that, like the Magi, you are on a journey, you have not arrived at the goal. This is just the beginning, and many trials lie before you, up hills, down valleys, over crag and torrent. May the kindly light guide your every step and lead you to the longed for vision of His glory.

Christmas Day Mass Homily

Last night we left off asking the Newborn King for the grace to become the apostles of His Sacred Heart. Christmas has always been the inspiration for follies of love. To see God incarnate in a Babe, a Babe so full of tenderness, a Babe without defense, a Babe to which the human heart can only surrender itself in gratitude, this has been the source of so many efforts at purifying and evangelising the world. And what is the secret to those follies of love? As with any love, it is nourished by presence. 

A pious author remarks that there were three kinds of people in and around Bethlehem at the time of our Saviour’s birth. Most of them were indifferent. They may or may not have heard of the extraordinary event, they may or may not have made an effort to find out more and even go and see, but in the end they could not be shaken out of their lethargy, their attachment to worldly things, and their hearts remained cold. Even so today, such is the lot of the great number of human beings. The birth of Jesus, when it is known, is not appreciated, it is left aside as an odd event that is inexplicable and unworthy of our time.

A second category of people were those who were made aware of it because they truly sought God, their hearts were righteous and God wanted to reward them. Those hard-working shepherds had the visit of an angel and heard the heavenly praise. The Magi, in their longing for the coming Messiah, were given to see His star and make the long journey to worship Him. Both these groups, and perhaps there were others, represent those persons who truly believe in Christ and give Him His due in terms of faith and adoration. They go to Mass, receive the sacraments, and practice the works of mercy. The grace of God is at work in them, and they will save their souls if they persevere.

A third category is very limited in number. It is composed of only two people that we know of: Our Blessed Lady and St Joseph. They are privy to the whole mystery; they serve it directly and unreservedly; their time with the Lord is not limited to occasional visits and Sunday Mass. They are with Him all the time; they have direct and unlimited access to His Person; they can spend as much time with Him as they wish. These are religious souls, those who are blessed to live their lives in the shadow of a cloister, who answer the call of frequent bells to sing His praises, who live in the same house with His Eucharistic Presence, continuation on earth of the mystery of Bethlehem.  They vow their lives to Him and are ever ready to further His interests.

More often than not, it is from this category of persons that God chooses the souls whom He destines to change the world. They are, as it were, at His entire disposal, and having them so close to Him, affords Him the leisure to warm their hearts, to set them ablaze with unending love, a love which manifests itself in fraternal charity for those other souls privileged to share such a life, and apostolic charity for all the souls who are in need of salvation, who are far from God, who are in sin and in danger of eternal loss. 

Lord Jesus, Infant Saviour, through the intercession of Thy Holy Mother and St Joseph, inspire us on this day with an ever more fervent gratitude for the gift of our vocation, and with a burning love for Thee, for all thine interests, and for the souls whom Thou didst come to save. May this little community grow day by day in its love for Thee, and may it draw ever greater numbers of souls to Thy most Sacred Heart. And so that this might be possible, give to each of us a profound love for each other, for that love is the sign, the only sign at which the world will know that we are Thy disciples.

Christmas Midnight Mass Homily

It is one of those marvellous aspects of the mysteries of our faith, the unmistakable mark of God’s presence in our history, that they contain in themselves and at first sight, the remedy for all human ills, the recipe for the restoration of all things. The crib and the cross, without explanation and by the very fact that they happened, speak volumes. Is that not the reason for which we never tire of contemplating the touching scene of Bethlehem? 

At the centre of it all: the Child. The Babe. The Innocent. The Speechless. The Pure. The Omnipotent Word does not speak. Or rather He speaks by not speaking. And what does He say?

The Child lying between Mary and Joseph offer us two essential lessons, lessons we could say designed for our very age, but in reality destined for every age. The very sight of the babe is a remedy for one of the major ills of our time. The babe by his just being there reminds us that the union of the sexes has a finality. God made man and woman to be fruitful, and this reality constitutes a continual, silent, but firm and relentless condemnation of the madness of modern unbridled lust which tears apart hearts, destroys families, and kills bodies. The babe has always been a sign of love, but love that gives and sacrifices. Without the babe, love turns into brutality; it weakens, corrupts and poisons.

As so many powers that be remain intent on promoting so-called reproductive rights (understand the right to lust and to the right to kill the fruit of lust), the new birth of Christ the Lord comes as a salutary condemnation of all forms of lust, and as an unshakable hope that all things can be restored.

Of course, in the Babe of Bethlehem, there is much more, for as the world seeks to drown itself in pleasure without its fruit, we know through faith that this Babe is given as the fruit of life without the the pleasure of conception. The Christ Child, surrounded by Mary the Ever Virgin and Joseph her most Chaste Spouse, radiates purity, chastity. He smiles upon us with our past sins, and our broken lives, and assures us that with His grace all things are possible. Christmas is there to remind us that, yes, purity will prevail in our world, for it prevails today in those who embrace it with the heart of a child.

And that brings us to the second great lesson of this night. The Babe in the manger teaches, without words, the great monastic virtue par excellence: humility. Baffled, the world looks on: the Eternal God stoops to become a helpless babe; the Almighty abandons His might to become weak; the One who commands the choirs of angels obeys a poor human creature. The Infant God in the crib is the ultimate condemnation of human pride, and there is no appeal. God has spoken once, and He will not change: Unless you become as little children, you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven.

This Christmas, let us go to the Crib with great longing. Let us lay down there all our fears, all our impurities, all our pride. Let us beg for the grace to become docile, to abandon all ambition, to turn over control of our life to One who knows better, to the One who looks after the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, and who loves us as his own children.

Jesus, meek and humble of heart, from Thy crib in Bethlehem, let the light of Thy tiny countenance shine upon us, heal us, invigorate us, and having led us through the purifying fires of humiliation and chastity, may it raise us up and make us the apostles Thy divine heart longs to have on this earth.

Judge not before the time

On this last Sunday of Advent, as the nova nativitas of Our Blessed Lord looms mighty before us, Holy Mother Church invites us to prepare for judgment. Indeed, in the mind of the Church, preparation for Christmas is preparation for the Second Coming of the Lord, it is preparation for death. If we are ready to die, we will be ready for the graces God wants to give us this Christmas.

And how do we prepare for death? St John the Baptist has been telling us for weeks now to repent, to perform works worthy of penance, to mortify our passions, to practice charity. Today, we are also given to listen to the apostle St Paul who tells the Corinthians that, as minister of Christ he cares little for the judgment men might pronounce upon him. He was sent by Christ and he answers to Christ, not to men. 

But the apostle goes further and tells us that he cannot judge himself either. What does that signify? St Paul is here trying to get across the amazing capacity the human conscience has of hiding things from itself. The path to hell is paved with good intentions. The Holy Father reminded us of that just a couple days ago. St Paul is clear that it is not because we might consider ourselves just, that we are so. It is so easy to blind ourselves to reality, to adapt reality to our way of seeing things. 

It is perhaps for this very reason that God gave His Church a visible structure. It is easy to point the finger at others, especially when they in visible positions of authority. And God knows superiors can fail in their duties. St Paul reminds us that a minister of Christ must be found faithful, the understanding being that this is not automatic.

But his severe injunction to refrain from judging places us before an unavoidable reality: we do not know what goes on in the hearts of others. We do not even know what goes on in our own heart! How could we be judge of others?

For sure, objective actions and words demand to be assessed. If something is wrong, it is wrong; if something is evil, it is evil. Period. But when it comes to the internal dispositions of souls, that is a domain where we have no entrance. God alone judges consciences and souls. 

In the sermon on the mount, the Lord was clear: “Judge not and you will not be judged”. If we want to have a lenient and merciful judgment, we have at our fingertips a sure way of success: refrain from judging others in this life.

True, it is sometimes very hard not to judge someone’s intentions when there are repeated actions or words that seem to confirm our intuition. And that is where we need to be very attentive: the most gifted and insightful of persons can only go by what he sees and hears: he does not know what goes on in the heart, and therefore cannot pass judgment.

As we prepare now to go to Bethlehem once again to adore the Infant King, let us divest ourselves of all rash judgment on others, whoever they might be and whatever suffering or scandal they might cause. We do not know what they are dealing with, we cannot read their intentions. The Infant God is their judge as He is our judge. May He find us humble, poor and meek. If He does, then we might be among those privileged souls who, like the shepherds, are unexpectedly given to see and hear what so many prophets and kings desired to see and hear, but did not.

God reveals Himself to the humble. Only to the humble.

Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto Thine.

Clothing of Br John Baptist Mary

Father Henry,

How fitting it is that you petition to enter the monastery as a novice during this holy season of Advent, the time of the year during which, more than others, we are focused on the coming of Our Lord, waiting anxiously for His arrival, beseeching Him to return without delay, to save us and bring us into His Kingdom.

What is monastic life if it is not the peaceful, laborious anticipation of the Lord’s coming? The monk leaves the world behind, renouncing all that it has to offer; he hands over His life, in faith, to the Son of God. Henceforth, his only hope is in God, and the rest of his days will be a vigilant exercise in making way for the Saviour when He returns at the end of time to judge the living and dead.

Our supreme model in this expectation is Mary Immaculate, the wise and prudent Virgin who epitomises the entire Old Testament as the type of the just and holy soul who longs for the Messiah and by her prayers in some way hastens the hour of his arrival. 

Today we honour her under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The words of great tenderness she spoke to St Juan Diego in 1531 on the hill of Tepeyac are addressed to you today: “Listen and understand, my little son. There is nothing to frighten and distress you. Do not let your heart be troubled, and let nothing upset you. Is it not I, your Mother, who am here? Are you not under my mantle? Are you not in the fold of my arms?” Today, dear Brother, you don her white habit for the first time, and proclaim by your entrance into this community that you entrust your vocation to her maternal care. 

This time of Advent is also marked by other figures who help us prepare for the coming of the Lord: the prophets, especially Isaiah, are continually referred to by the Church in her liturgy. Isaiah tells us of the special call he received from God even before he was born: From my mother’s womb he hath been mindful of my name. And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword: in the shadow of his hand he hath protected me, and hath made me as a chosen arrow: in his quiver he hath hidden me (Is 49:1-2). He too it is who tells us in such dramatic terms of the renewal that will be brought to the earth in the days of the Messiah: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness the paths of our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough ways plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh together shall see, that the mouth of the Lord hath spoken” (Is 40:3-5).

Centuries later, the voice crying out these words in the desert of Judea would take flesh in the man who bring to an end the long line of prophets, and to whom it would be given to not only announce the Messiah, but also to point him out and show Him to the people. Though born into a priestly family, John, from his tenderest years, retires to the desert. He lives a life of the strictest penance, hidden from the world. He thus proves himself worthy of the vocation he has received from divine providence of being both prophet and martyr, shedding His blood for the truth that was coming into the world.

The Baptist has always been a great inspiration to monks, who have looked to him as the model of the secluded, penitential life. But apostles and preachers have also placed themselves under the patronage of this hero who did not refrain, at the cost of his own life, from reproaching even the king for his vices. His long preparation in the desert is the model for all those whom God calls to share the Word with others: one must first practice silence before preaching; one must first mortify the flesh before teaching others the moral law.

John leads souls to Christ and then steps aside. Once the Lord of all has come into the world, he disappears from the scene, and he does so with joy: He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth Him, rejoiceth with joy because of the bridegroom's voice. This my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase: but I must decrease (Jn 3:29-30).

As you knock at the door of the monastery today, let these pre-eminent figures inspire you. With Our Lady, Isaiah, John the Baptist, without forgetting the touching example of the virgin martyr St Lucy, whose very name evokes the eternal light which enlightens every man who comes into the world, let your only passion be to imitate Christ in the sacrifice of self, in serving the designs of the Eternal Father and putting yourself at His disposal, in asking for the grace of the Holy Spirit to have penetrating insight into the mysteries of Holy Scripture, so that you may always find there the path that opens the way to the Blessed Trinity, for you and for all the souls you might help along the way.b

Homily at Mass of Simple Professions for Brothers Bede, Gregory and Joseph

8 December 2018, Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady

Your Grace, Reverend Fathers, Brothers in St Benedict, Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

“Today, the rod has sprung up out of the root of Jesse; today, Mary is conceived without sin; today, by her, the head of the ancient serpent is crushed”.

Such are the words which the Church sings on this day. In the very act of her conception, from the first moment of her existence, Mary crushes the head of the ancient serpent, that is to say, the devil. In the conception of the Virgin, Almighty God exerts His omnipotent power to ward off, by anticipation of the merits of the Redeemer, all stain of sin in that little babe in the womb of St Anne. Unlike her Son’s, her conception came about in a natural way, but God intervened in such a marvelous way to preserve her from the stain of sin which had tainted all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve from the first ages of humanity and had submerged our race into the mire of sin, violence and death. It is because the Most Holy Trinity took pity on our race that He decided to step in, to put an end to evil, to introduce into the world grace, light and love. And it all begins here. The Conception of the Virgin is the beginning of our salvation, for it is the first step towards the preparation of Mary for the ineffable grace of the Divine Maternity: this tiny baby girl is destined to become the Mother of God, the Mother of the Eternal Creator. She will one day offer to Him the hospitality of her own womb, and she will bring into a dark world the Eternal Light, Jesus Christ Our Lord.

What more appropriate day to celebrate the grace of monastic profession? Indeed, how else can we describe what is about to take place here today than by calling it a Divine intervention. Each one of you, my dear Brothers who are about to pronounce your first vows, has been the object, the direct beneficiary of a very special and unique Divine intervention. Had not God stepped into your life, you would not be here today. Had not the Lord of all things knocked at the door of your heart, you would never have had an inkling as to what monastic life is about. 

God stepped into your lives. He came to you, amazingly, in the midst of a world in which one constantly sees and hears the deafening sound of dissipation and the sad spectacle of greediness, a world in which the attraction of the triple concupiscence, that is the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, becomes day by day more imperative. The world you were born into is a world that has lost touch with God, and having lost touch with God it has lost touch with itself; it is a world that is abandoned to its own devices, or rather, to its own vices, and therefore can only propose recipes for destruction. Only God, the True God, the Triune God, the God who manifested Himself in Jesus Christ, could have made His voice heard in the midst of such cacophony. And he has left his mark upon you.

With a promising career at his finger tips, the young Benedict of Norcia too was about to set foot into the world; he pulled back and went to hide himself in the solitude of Subiaco, there to pray, to weep for the sins of the world and do penance, awaiting the hour of God. Like him, you have decided to set out on a path that seems foolishness to the world. You could have everything in the world; pleasure and freedom, personal satisfaction and gratification of every kind was within your grasp. And yet, you chose to give it all up, to turn your back on the world and walk resolutely in the footsteps of Jesus.

Our world bears much ressemblance to the one Benedict was born into: general corruption of morals, troubled political scene, the menace of the collapse of the existing social order. We find ourselves at a turning point in history. In many ways perhaps, our world is even worse off than Benedict’s. The ills of modern man are such that the most fundamental truths of our nature are denied with impunity and sins against our God-given nature are protected by law. There is no longer any doubt now that the world has turned its back on God. 

But the answer that Benedict found is the same one that you have come to understand through prayer: to save the world, we must renounce the world. We must first descend deep down into the purifying fires of solitude and self-denial; only then can we rise as new men transformed by divine grace and become part of the reconstruction of the future.

In a few moments, you will pronounce what are called the vows of religion. A vow is a sacred promise made to God; it is a privileged way of binding oneself to God. Just as a man and a woman who wish to found a family, vow to each other their lifelong fidelity, so you have chosen to vow yourselves to Jesus Christ. You do so using the very words of St Benedict, by vowing “stability, conversion of ways, and obedience”. 

Stability reminds us that our promise to God is not something abstract, it is concrete, it is here and now in this particular community with these particular brothers and this particular superior. Such a vow is diametrically opposed to the virtual culture in which one is continually passing from one new fad to another, seeking endlessly and never finding, because always seeking the wrong things or the right things in the wrong place. Stability focuses the monk on God, here and now, in these circumstances, for humans are all too good at imagining another place, another person, another career where all will, so we persuade ourselves, be well. By the vow of stability, you reverse the maxim and affirm that the grass is always greenest right there where you are. God, to whom you entrust your life, knows your needs, and He provides for them from day to day, through the father of the monastery who henceforth looks after you as his sons. Never forget that the stability of the monk places you irrevocably in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. There you will always find peace, courage, patience, and every other virtue.

Conversion of ways, in the mind of St Benedict, is a vow which obliges the monk to tend to perfection by living the conventual life which includes poverty and chastity. You are giving up a lot — a wife, children, a career. Is it possible, some might ask? Once again we go back to the Divine intervention. When God took our flesh and walked this earth in the Person of Jesus Christ, having been born of a Virgin, He lived a virginal life, He took no wife, He begot no children. He thus initiated a paradigm shift — the only one possible in Christianity and which therefore excludes all others: henceforth among the children of men God chooses some to manifest to the world the primacy of eternity in which there is no more marrying and begetting, for all the elect are united with God in the eternal nuptials they were created for. By your vow of chastity, you will proclaim to the world the salutary truth it does not want to hear: chastity is possible, it is fulfilling, it is the true sign of Christ and His Church, the seal of God’s presence among us. We are not abandoned to our whims, we can rise above the most powerful attractions of our fallen nature, we can become saints. That is a tremendous act of faith. It affirms the power of the crucified and risen Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, to transform us. God has stepped into your lives, He has intervened, He has called, and you have heeded the summons.

The third Benedictine vow is that terrible one which causes modern man to tremble even more: obedience. How can a man give up his freedom? How can he accept to hand over his life and trust the judgment of another man? How can he allow another to decide for him? By now you know the answer to that question: God has stepped into our history. Jesus lived a life of obedience to Mary and Joseph, to His teachers and guides. His food was to do the will of His Eternal Father. But does not everyone have to obey? We must all live by rules, for otherwise life in common would be impossible. But religious obedience is something else. It is the act by which a man hands over his entire future, his entire life, trusting that God, who has called and who has given authority to those who stand in his stead, will not allow a truly humble soul to be led astray. Religious obedience can be hard. It was hard for Jesus, who, as St Paul tells us, “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”. But the cross, as we know, leads to the glory of the resurrection. God blesses the humble and obedient soul.

And so, my dear sons, as you take these first vows under the vigilance of the Church who has in her wisdom imposed a certain number of years before one can make them definitive, turn your gaze to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. For over a year now, you have worn her livery, the white habit which honours her virginity. You have begun to experience the sweetness of holding her hand in times of temptation and trial, you know that she will not fail you. Remain always under her immaculate mantle, hold tight to her hand, and tell her often to make sure that, even if at certain times you want to let go, she will not let you go. Like the child who foolishly wants to run away to danger, but is held back by the firm grip of its mother, so may she always hold you tight and close to Jesus. There, you will find perseverance and will tread the path that leads, through the cross to the glory of the resurrection. Such is my prayer for you on this day.

Your Grace, Archbishop Julian, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you once again publicly for allowing this monastic adventure in Tasmania to begin. May these young professed Benedictine monks be only the first of many who will serve the Lord in this archdiocese for decades, and even centuries to come.  And may they contribute to making this island an oasis of peace, in which God is praised and souls are saved.

And all of you who are here present, and who perhaps are witnessing for the first time a ceremony of monastic vows, let yourselves be astonished at what is taking place here. God steps into our world today, and proves that He is still God. Yes, in the 21st century, at the ends of the earth, while the world pretends that God is dead, you are witnesses that He is truly alive, He has not forsaken our world, He chooses your own sons, your own brothers and friends, to be the living channels of His grace, that grace which is waiting to touch your own heart. As you go away today, never forget that. God is here, He loves us, He wants to save us. All we have to do is let ourselves be loved. Amen.

Flee to the mountain

Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.

Today’s Gospel, on this last Sunday of the liturgical year, brings before our eyes the revealed spectacle of the end of the world. Even science tells us that there will one day be a disruption of the harmony that now reigns in our solar system: the world as we know it cannot, for natural reasons, go on forever. But Divine Revelation tells us something very different: God will intervene to put an end to the natural cycle that He Himself created. Why will He do this? He will do it because creation will have fulfilled the role He gave it, it will have reached its finality. When? When the number of the elect, the souls to be saved and to spend eternity in Heaven with God face to face, has been completed. Then, there will no longer be any reason for the universe to continue, and so it will be transformed into the new Jerusalem, the eternal city of God with all the elect taking part in the eternal feast of God’s kingdom and all the damned excluded forever, tormented eternally in the purely vindictive flames of hell.

When will all this come to pass? We do not know. The Lord gives us signs: wars, pestilence, intriguing solar incidents unknown in ages past. Although these have never been absent from history, the final days of the world will see an increase in them, such that the world has never seen the like, and which make men shrivel away for fear of what is happening. Our Lord’s words are designed to keep us on our guard, that we might always be ready. Each generation can say in all truth that the end has come, for two very real reasons: the first is that the end of time comes for each of us at our death —which is very close—, for then it is that our time of testing is over and our eternal salvation or damnation is determined; the second is that at each moment, the return of the Lord is indeed possible. At the hour you least expect it, the Son of Man will come, like a thief in the night

But more importantly perhaps, today’s Gospel also gives us, from the very mouth of Our Lord, some specific instructions on what to do, and what not to do, in those last days, in order to prepare for them. Let’s dwell upon two of them.

Many will come in my name, there will be many false Christs and false prophets. Do not be fooled by false Christs and false prophets, people coming in the name of Christ but distorting His doctrine. This recommendation seems written for this very period in history, in which so many, while continuing to bear the name of Catholic, are promoting an understanding of the faith which is nothing short of its total dissolution. Any teaching that contradicts in any way the teaching handed down by Tradition, or that proclaims to be a new path to a new understanding of the faith and moral practices that are at odds with those of Tradition or put them in brackets, must be rejected: it is an attempt of Satan to lead souls away from Christ. This deception reaches its climax when error or depravity comes from those in the Church responsible for teaching the faith in all its purity; it is the abomination of the desolation, the substitution of man for God, it is the worship of man, it is the rotten fruit of the heresy of modernism, the principle tenet of which, as Pope St Pius X pointed out with amazing clarity, is the distorted belief that whatever comes from inside of me is good, the crooked conviction that religion is about what makes me feel good about myself. This is truly the abomination when it continues to hide itself under the name of Catholicism, using its vocabulary but subtly changing its meaning. We must not let ourselves be deceived, but must stand firm with Christ, with the apostles, with the defined dogma and ever relevant moral practices of the Church. 

The second recommendation of Our Lord that we can reflect upon this morning is: Let them flee to the mountains. We know from the oration for the feast of St Catherine of Alexandria which is today, 25 November, that the mountain is none other than Christ Himself. To flee to the mountain means therefore to take refuge in the Life of Christ, living like Him, studying Him, becoming more and more like Him. Like the apostles, we must climb with Him the mount of the Transfiguration where we will see Him radiant with glory, but mysteriously covered with the opprobrium of the Passion, the Lamb of God in glory, and yet, as the Apocalypse tells us, “as it were slain” (Ap 5:6). We must, with St John of the Cross, whom we honoured yesterday, climb the steep ascent of Mt Carmel, the path of which is strewn with rocks and thorns, lined with precipices and deviant paths that lead away from Christ and back down to the valley of death and perdition. 

To climb that mountain means to leave behind the pleasures of the world: the leisures, the food and drink, the flesh, the independence, the proud conviction that we know what is best. Just as for the mountain climber, listening to the guide and obeying him become vital, whereas ignoring him means running the terrible risk of being led astray by the deceptions of the Enemy. This is all the more important when we consider, as St John of the Cross teaches us, that at a certain stage of the spiritual life, the path, which was clear at the start, is no longer evident. Only obedience to a trusted and sure guide can keep us from being lost. As the prophet Isaiah warned:  Thy ears shall hear the word of one admonishing thee behind thy back: This is the way, walk ye in it: and go not aside neither to the right hand, nor to the left (Is 30:21).

And so let us go forward, let us march, let us not heed the pricks of the thorns, the loss of worldly and futile comforts, let us generously give all to Christ Our Lord, holding nothing back, certain that, in the words of St Paul, we will be filled with the knowledge of the will of God, in all wisdom and spiritual understanding: that we may walk worthy of God, in all things pleasing, being fruitful in every good work in Christ Jesus, for even though the universe as we know it will pass away, His words remain forever.

Thoughts of peace

“My thoughts are thoughts of peace”. Holy Mother Church puts these words on our lips and repeats them over and over again as we reach the end of the liturgical year. Salvation begins with the peace which the angels sang over Bethlehem, and it ends with the eternal reign of the Prince of Peace.

The thoughts of the wicked, on the other hand, are ever of trouble and turmoil. “Worried, they toss like the sea which cannot rest” (Jer 49:23). They know not the secret of peace which the prophet Isaiah revealed: “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust your strength lies” (Is 30:15).

The worst thing about the wicked is that not only do they have no rest, but they allow no rest to others. In today’s Gospel, it is in the peace of night, while the just enjoy God’s rest, that the enemy, who knows not sleep or rest, sows his evil seed in the Church of God. Evil is contagious, it seeks to infect all, it cannot tolerate to see souls enjoying the good things of God, it must upset and unsettle all those who seek to serve the Lord.

And so it is in every age. So it is today. False doctrines which corrupt lives and end by precipitating into the roaring waves of a filthy chaos are sown amongst God-fearing Christians. We think we have arrived at a certain level of peace, and lo and behold, we awake to find that what we had worked so hard for is compromised. Like the servants in today’s Gospel, we would instinctively reach to pull out the weeds, to eliminate all the evildoers, to establish a Church of the pure only, of which, of course, we would be part.

But today, as yesterday, the Lord holds us back, for He is merciful. He wants to give the wicked time to repent, and He wants to make use of them to increase the merits of the just. We must wait patiently for the time of the harvest, that is, the end of the world, when all justice will be fulfilled, when good deeds will be rewarded and evil ones punished, when the just will be removed from the midst of the wicked by the Angels and placed in the heavenly granary, in which there is never any want or need, while the evil-doers are sent to burn forever in a fire that is never extinguished. It’s all about letting God do justice, and not seeking to substitute ours for His.

St Paul gives us a rule of conduct which is appropriate in every age: “Put on… heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do”. The evil seek to harm, the just always seek to help, to “help all men” as St Ignatius has Our Lord say in the meditation on the Two Standards. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” (Col 3:12-17). “Man is created to praise”, says St Ignatius. As monks, we are privileged to do just that eight times a day, and by so doing we are working for the salvation of souls, even of those who at the moment are God’s enemies, but who may become His friends.

So let us not give up or grow weary. The grace of God can change everything, and that grace is made manifest in a life surrendered to love of God and love of neighbour. “Above all things put on love, that is, the bond of perfection… And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.”

Why are you fearful?

Why are you fearful, O ye of little faith? There is something astounding in these words. The apostles are with Our Lord in a boat tossed around by waves to the point that they are about to capsize. Their lives are in danger. They turn to the One they know will not fail. They wake Him; He calms the sea, and saves the day.

Perhaps the apostles were expecting to hear some form of congratulation from the Lord: “well done, my friends. In your hour of trial, you did the right thing, you prayed to me with insistence, and I heard you”. Instead, they receive a gentle reproach: Why are you fearful, O ye of little faith?

I suspect that we, like the apostles, are not a little baffled by these words. Did not the apostles actually manifest a great faith when they woke the Lord, knowing full well that He would mend the situation?

Yes, they did, but the implication of the Lord’s words is that there is a way of deeper, greater faith.

There are times in our lives, individually, or collectively, when we feel that our little boat is about to be submerged in the waves of temptation, of conflict, of despair. So much that we had worked for is compromised; we are about to fall, to fail, to give up, to lose all hope. In those moments, we can lose heart and succumb to the Evil One. We then become his prey. 

But in those moments there are two other attitudes, virtuous ones. We can increase our prayers, storm Heaven, make extra sacrifices, cry out with all our might to the Lord, so that He will intervene and change hearts, resolving a situation which seems desperate.

But there is another attitude one can have, and that is to accept in peace what is happening, trusting, in silent prayer and with unshakeable patience that the Lord is in control. He is in our little bark, but He is asleep. Rather, He seems to be asleep, but we know through faith, that He is keeping watch. 

Such is the lesson, I think, of our Lord’s reproach to the apostles. It is as if to say: you, my close friends, you cannot afford to be like everyone else who runs to me, clamouring for help every time there is some trouble on the horizon. You, my close friends, my apostles, you must have absolute confidence in me, for your trials will be great. There will be many times when your little boat will be on the point of capsizing, but never forget, I am there. Even though I sleep, I keep watch, for I love you. “It is good to wait in silence for the salvation of God” (Lam 3:26).

St Therese of the Child Jesus understood this when she wrote the following stanza in her  poem”Living on Love”:

Living on Love, when Jesus is sleeping,
Is rest on stormy seas.
Oh ! Lord, don’t fear that I’ll wake you.
I’m waiting in peace for Heaven’s shore…
Faith will soon tear its veil.
My hope is to see you one day.
Charity swells and pushes my sail :
I live on Love !…

Job, Christ and the Church

“There was a man in the land of Hus, whose name was Job, simple, and upright, and fearing God: whom Satan besought that he might tempt: and power was given him from the Lord over his possessions and his flesh; and he destroyed all his substance and his children; and wounded his flesh also with a grievous ulcer”.

So reads today’s Offertory verse. The great enigma of history: the just man who is pleasing to God is put to the test, he loses all his goods, his family, and even his flesh is so disfigured that he is hardly recognisable.

Beyond the profound lesson this history holds for each of us in our moments of trial, and which affords us great consolation as we mount the steep steps of our own Calvary, Job, we must never forget, is a type, a prefiguration of Christ Himself. Our Lord is indeed the just man par excellence, the beloved of the Father, the holiest and most perfectly loveable of all the just. And yet it is that beloved Son whom the Father hands over to the Passion: condemnation, public outrage, flogging, capital punishment of the worst kind, death on an infamous gibbet, the place of nameless horror. Like Job, Our Lord loses all that He has in this life, He is separated from His loved ones, most of whom abandon Him in the hour of trial, He is so disfigured by His passion that the Prophet Isaiah tells us His countenance was one from which men turn away, so horrible is it to behold. God had forbade Satan from taking Job’s life, but He gives Satan power over the life of His Son. Jesus dies and disappears to the eyes of the world.

The Church is the Body of Christ. As such, she must of necessity be the object of Satanic attacks, from her birth on Calvary to the Second Coming of the Saviour. Satan seeks by every means to destroy her, to wipe her off the face of the earth, to delete from the minds of men every remembrance of her. The Church is no greater than Christ, for the servant is no greater than the Master. Christ died, and so must the Church. She must die before she can rise again. In the eyes of all, it will seem that she is gone. Her fiercest enemies will shout triumph, they will celebrate their victory, drinking up the blood of martyrs. The beast will, to all appearances, have conquered Christ. 

We must keep these truths in mind when we behold the spectacle of the present crisis in the Church. We will be given the choice between martyrdom and apostasy. Already, there is a dry form of martyrdom for many sons of the Church, who are considered out of step with the times. They refuse to bend the knee before Belial, and they must pay the price. But these are just the beginning of the trials. 

 “Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the "mystery of iniquity" in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh. … The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God's victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven. God's triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgement after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 675-677)

In other words, we must brace ourselves for greater trials to come, and for that today’s Epistle is there to remind us of our weapons, which are 1) the belt of truth, 2) the breastplate of justice, 3) the shoes of the Gospel of peace, 4) the shield of faith, 5) the sword of God’s word. If we are armed with God’s eternal truth, if we keep the flame of the true faith alive, if we live according to the example Our Lord has given us in the Gospel and are truly among the just, then we have nothing to fear from the fiery traits, that is the temptations and persecutions of the devil. He will bark and hound, but he cannot bite the true servants of Christ.

And how do we know we are among those? Today’s Gospel gives us a major criteria of judgment: if we are conscious of the infinite debt we have been forgiven by God, and know how to forgive others, then we are among the true servants of Christ. We can then hope in salvation: “My soul is in Thy salvation, and in Thy word have I hoped: when wilt Thou execute judgment on them that persecute me? the wicked have persecuted me: help me, O Lord my God” (Communion verse, ps. 118). 

With utter confidence we can cry out as did Mardocheus in today’s introit: “All things are in Thy will, O Lord; and there is none that can resist Thy will, if Thou decree to save us”.

Let us renew then our prayer to the Lady of the Rosary, who at Fatima promised that Her Immaculate Heart would triumph, and let us gird ourselves with spiritual weapons to wage spiritual warfare. Immortal souls are at stake, our own and those of countless others who depend upon us.

Azariah, the Maccabees, and Lepanto

The introit for today’s Mass puts on our lips the dramatic prayer of Azariah in the burning furnace:

Blessed art thou, O Lord, the God of our fathers, and thy name is worthy of praise, and glorious for ever: For thou art just in all that thou hast done to us, and all thy works are true, and thy ways right, and all thy judgments true. … For we have sinned, and committed iniquity, departing from thee: and we have trespassed in all things: And we have not hearkened to thy commandments, nor have we observed nor done as thou hadst commanded us…. Wherefore, all that thou hast brought upon us, and every thing that thou hast done to us, thou hast done in true judgment: And thou hast delivered us into the hands of our enemies that are unjust, and most wicked, and prevaricators,… . And now we cannot open our mouths: we are become a shame, and a reproach to thy servants, and to them that worship thee. Deliver us not up for ever, we beseech thee, for thy name's sake, and abolish not thy covenant. And take not away thy mercy from us, for the sake of Abraham, thy beloved, and Isaac, thy servant, and Israel, thy holy one: … For we, O Lord, are diminished more than any nation, and are brought low in all the earth this day for our sins. Neither is there at this time prince, or leader, or prophet, or holocaust, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense, or place of first fruits before thee, That we may find thy mercy: nevertheless, in a contrite heart and humble spirit let us be accepted. As in holocausts of rams, and bullocks, and as in thousands of fat lambs: so let our sacrifice be made in thy sight this day, that it may please thee: for there is no confusion to them that trust in thee. And now we follow thee with all our heart, and we fear thee, and seek thy face. Put us not to confusion, but deal with us according to thy meekness, and according to the multitude of thy mercies. And deliver us, according to thy wonderful works, and give glory to thy name, O Lord… (Dan 3:26-45)

Roughly at the same period in history, the Maccabees were mustering their scattered forces to resist the onslaught of pagan practices introduced by the Greeks. For them, the resistance took on a more spectacular mode: they had the means to resist and to fight, and fight they did. What was at stake was nothing less than their faith, their traditions, their identity as a people chosen by the true God and consecrated to Him.

Periodically, the Church, God’s people in the New Testament, finds herself in situations not unlike those presented in the Old Testament. When Jesus our Saviour established His Church on the Rock of Peter’s faith, He guaranteed that the gates of Hell would not prevail, which implies that Hell would try hard, that its onslaught would be unrelenting. “When the Son of Man comes, do you think He will find faith on earth”? Our Lord asked one day (Lk 18:8). In the eschatological discourse of St Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord tells us that the tribulation of those latter days will be so terrible as to nearly cause the loss of faith of the elect themselves, and so God Himself will shorten those days (Mt 24:22).

The fierce battles implied by all this should at once remind us to be cautious and to keep watch in prayer and penance. It’s not because the Church has the guarantee of lasting till the end of time that She has the guarantee of being easily recognisable by all at all times. There are periods in the New Testament when, like those of the Old, all seems lost. Confusion reigns, vice is rampant, the world shouts triumph.

In those days, those “evil days” of which St Paul speaks in today’s epistle, we must pray as did Azariah, that God have mercy on us. We must humble ourselves, do penance, atone for our sins, for our sins have contributed to making the situation what it is.

But we must also have the zeal and fortitude of the Maccabees. We must stand up and fight for the faith, not with swords of steel and weapons of war, but with the sword of the Spirit, that two-edged sword that pierces the mind and heart, revealing to all the inner thoughts of the soul, and unveiling God’s eternal truths, which never change, to a world that has lost its bearings and is about to lose its soul.

Perhaps the most heartening in it all is that in these historical circumstances as in so many others in the New Testament, the odds were against the true servants of God. On this day we commemorate the naval victory of Lepanto. Things did not look good for the Christian forces on that 7th of October 1571; they were massively outnumbered, but many, including the saintly pontiff in Rome, St Pius V, were praying the Rosary and fasting for the victory. When the decisive battle was engaged, the wind turned, favouring the Christian forces, who won the battle and saved Christendom from Muslim invasion.

Let us ever turn our minds and hearts to Our Lady of Victories, who alone in this moment of crisis, can turn the tide of evil that has reached the very heart of the Church. She alone can work the miracle of overturning the forces that seek to destroy the inheritance of her Son. Let us say to her, with today’s communion antiphon: “Remember the words thou didst speak to thy servant and which gave me hope in my humiliation”. And with the alleluia verse, let us ever tell the Beloved in our daily prayer: “My heart is ready, My God, my heart is ready, I will sing and I will fight for the glory of Thy Name”. Amen.

Being different

Today’s Mass readings are all about “being different”. In the epistle, St Paul tells the Ephesians that, now they are converted, they must put on the “new man created in justice and in the holiness of truth"; they must leave behind their former ways which included lying, cheating, dealing harshly and cruelly with others, without care for the needy. This thought, which is a frequent one, not just with St Paul, but with all the New Testament epistles, was clearly a major tenet of the early Church. Christians are different, they have to be. The reason is that Christ was different. He did not live like other people. He taught a moral doctrine that flew in the face of his contemporaries, as it flies in the face of every age. It is of God, it is not of man.

One of the consequences of this is that, as soon as Christians start wanting to be like everybody else, desiring to be accepted and acknowledged as friends of the world, then they have already started down a path that ultimately can only lead away from the paths of the Gospel.

The need for Christians to be different is stressed in another way by the Lord Himself in the Gospel. The parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22 tells us of how the king threw a wedding feast for his son. When those who were invited refused to come, the king was angry, and sent his servants to find others to fill the vacant seats at the marriage banquet. Good and bad people came there. The king went in to see the guests, and he found one who was not wearing the wedding garment, the special attire required for such a momentous occasion. The king was really angry this time, and asked the man how he had gotten in without the wedding garment. The fellow was speechless, as evildoers often are when justly accused. The king lost no time in having this man bound with fetters and thrown into the external darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

What is going on here? Would it not have been nicer to usher him into a vesting room so that he could fix himself up for the feast? The fact is, that wasn’t an option. Why wasn’t it? Because it’s all about being different. The man was fine as long as he was out there in the world. He could have gone on living that way. But the fact is, he was called by God to enter the Church. He did so, BUT — he intended to go on living as he had before. His neglect to put on the wedding garment constitutes a capital offence against the king, because it shows a deep disregard for the dignity of the new life of grace we are called to. If one seeks to live in the Church, to receive the sacraments, to be considered a Catholic (and even a cleric…) but does not change one’s life (one’s “garments”), then one is poking fun at God himself. And as St Paul told us a couple Sundays ago, “God is not mocked”.

The lesson is that if we really want to be disciples of Christ, then we have to be different. As Julien Green wrote: ““Any Catholicism is suspect if it does not disturb the one who practices it, if it does not mark him in the eyes of the world, if it does not overwhelm him, if it does not make of his life a passion renewed every day, if it is not difficult and odious for the flesh, if it is not unbearable”.

With Joshua, let us say: “As for me and my house we will serve the Lord” (Jos 24:15). We refuse to bend the knee before the idols of the day. We are different.

Penance and peace

“Give peace, O Lord, to those who wait for Thee”. So we sing in today’s introit. Waiting for the Lord, hoping in His aid, trusting that He will provide us with all that is needed for our salvation. The Gospel helps us understand what the most important ingredient of peace is: the forgiveness of sins.

The poor paralytic could not move, just as the sinner cannot move spiritually. Stuck in his bad habits, half-dead, unable to go to Jesus, he is totally helpless, he can do nothing for himself. '“Without Thee, we cannot please Thee”, we say in the collect of the Mass. Without God’s grace, the sinner cannot take the first step to conversion. Thank God, some kind soul brings him to Jesus. “Have confidence, son, your sins are forgiven”. Have confidence, for you will find peace when you have found forgiveness. St Paul says as much when he writes to the Ephesians that “Christ is our peace”. Is this not the reason for which on Easter Sunday evening, the first words Our Lord addresses to His apostles is: “Peace be to you”, before giving them the power to forgive sins.

Interestingly today’s Gospel ends with the crowds giving praise to God for having given “such power to men” — not only to Jesus, but to “men” in the plural. The text is alluded to in the section of the Catechism explaining the sacrament of penance. In His amazing kindness, God not only offers the forgiveness of sins through His Son, but He also shares that power with other men who take part in His saving mission through the sacrament of Holy Orders. In this way, all of the faithful can hear the words of forgiveness and healing pronounced over them: “Your sins are forgiven”.

With the forgiveness of sins and the peace that comes with it, the faithful soul also receives all the spiritual treasures of the Church. With sanctifying grace come the virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit: “we are made rich”, St Paul tells us in today’s epistle. And the Secret prayer at the offertory reminds us that through the Eucharistic Sacrifice, we are made — o marvel of marvels! — “partakers of the one most High Divinity”.

Let us pray, then, that more and more souls in the spiritual desert of the modern world, may be brought to Jesus, that they may be healed of their spiritual paralysis and sins, and find peace and joy in all the treasures of our holy faith, especially the treasure of the Love of God and neighbour which makes for a joyful life on this earth and eternal beatitude in the next.

Grace and prayer

Today's oration underlines the need we have of Divine Grace. "May Thy grace, O Lord, always go before us and follow after us, and give us to be intent upon performing good works".

This oration contains in germ all the Church's teaching on actual grace. Actual grace could be defined as that created spiritual gift that God gives to a soul to help it repent, avoid sin, and keep the commandments. This is distinguished from habitual, or sanctifying grace, which is the created spiritual gift God infuses into the soul to make it pleasing to Him. When we refer to "being in a state of grace", we mean that a soul is pleasing to God, has been forgiven its sins, and is therefore capable of having Him dwell within as a Divine Guest and Friend.

Actual grace, to which our oration refers, is something different. We could perhaps make a  comparison and liken it to the food and drink that a human body needs to stay alive. When a baby is born, the body has everything it needs to be alive, but if it is not nourished, it will die. So, a soul in God's sanctifying grace, still needs actual grace on a daily basis in order to persevere and be saved. 

God gives what we call "prevenant graces" to a soul who is ignorant of Him and in a state of sin, in order to help it open up to conversion and salvation. But the soul already in God's sanctifying grace, that is, in God's friendship, also needs actual graces in order to persevere, ward off temptations and perform good works. 

So how is this grace made available to us? Quite simply: it is there for the asking. Our daily prayers are like the daily food we take for our bodies. If on a given day we do not eat, our body will feel weak. If on a given day we do not pray, our soul will be weak and could easily fall prey to temptation.

The most powerful sources of grace are the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, received when in the state of sanctifying grace (you can't feed a dead body, nor can the Eucharist feed a dead soul!). The sacrament of the Lord's Body is the most powerful source of actual grace, because it contains the author of grace Himself, our Lord Jesus Christ. The sacrament of penance too brings with it abundant grace to overcome the future temptations we may have and uproot the evil tendencies within us.

There are also the sacramentals, such as holy water, blessed medals, scapulars, indulgenced prayers. But any prayer, even the shortest, obtains actual grace. That is why St Alphonsus, who is the patron of moral theologians, teaches that in the moment of temptation one is morally obliged to pray: in the heat of battle one must, absolutely MUST make use of the weapons we have at our disposal. Only a fool throws off his weapons and armour in the heat of battle!

So let us open up the arsenal given to us by Holy Mother Church. Let us remember that we always, always and everywhere have the actual grace to pray, and our perseverance and the obtaining of further actual graces is dependent upon our making use of the first grace to pray. If you pray, you will not fall. Sin is never unavoidable. Ever. And one is never obliged to choose between two sins. Prayer opens a path to freedom and to the heroic practice of virtue. With prayer all things are possible.

Learning to hate the sin

Some time ago I ran across a poem composed by Blessed John Henry Newman entitled "Zeal and Love". As I read it, I thought: "Wow, this is just what we need in the present age". I resolved to post it then, but waited. With recent events in the Church, I think today that it will prove useful for a serious examination of conscience.  

In the past half a century at least, we have, in the Catholic Church, made considerable progress in the art of seeing what's good in other people and in other religions. No one is entirely evil. It is therefore a quality to know how to discern the good from the bad. It can also be helpful in many situations to know how to leave aside the bad in order to speak of the good. But when that diplomatic approach (frequently useful in politics) becomes the only approach to reality, and when one has become so accustomed to it that one neglects to see what's wrong and do something about it, one ends up with catastrophic situations like those we have been hearing about of late, with shepherds corrupting their own flocks and nobody doing anything about it. 

Perhaps if those who had authority to act had meditated on this little poem, many crimes would have been prevented and many souls saved. Hear John Henry Newman.

Zeal and love

John Henry Newman, Oxford November 20, 1832

And would'st thou reach, rash scholar mine,
Love's high unruffled state?
Awake! thy easy dreams resign,
First learn thee how to hate:-

Hatred of sin, and Zeal, and Fear,
Lead up the Holy Hill;
Track them, till Charity appear
A self-denial still. 

Dim is the philosophic flame,
By thoughts severe unfed:
Book-lore ne'er served, when trial came, 
Nor gifts, when faith was dead. 

"Learn thee how to hate". The future Cardinal took that line straight from Holy Scripture. It happens to be in one of the psalms that the clergy are supposed to recite in the Divine Office: "The Lord loves those who hate evil" (Psalm 96 [97]: 10). And St Paul would write to the Romans: "Hate what is evil, hold on to what is good".

So let's relearn the art of hatred. Perhaps it's not too late after all, if only we can convince ourselves that evil deserves every fibre of hatred that we can muster. For if "the Lord loves those who hate evil", do we really think he loves those who don't? 

St Benedict and the liturgy as Opus Dei

Talk given at St Benedict’s Parish/Notre Dame University, Sydney, Thursday 30 August 2018

God’s work and ours

Reading the Rule of St Benedict for the first time, one might be surprised to encounter a recurring expression whose meaning is not at first sight obvious. St Benedict refers often to the “work of God”, in Latin, Opus Dei.  The first mention occurs in chapter 22 which explains how the monks are to sleep. We are told that when the bell rings for Matins, the first office of the day which is celebrated when it is still night, the monks should seek to hasten “to be before one another” (praeveniant) at the “work of God”. In chapter 43 of the Rule, which is concerned with those who might come late to the office, St Benedict is clear: “let nothing be put before the Work of God”. Clearly there is something important going on here.

Opus Dei, the work of God. The expression refers to the Sacred Liturgy, the eight-fold celebration of the Divine Office each day. Question: when we say “‘the Work of God”, are we referring to work that is done for God, as when we say, for example, that a man works for his boss or for his company? Or do we mean that the “Work of God” is the work that God does for us? Are we doing work for God, or is God doing work for us?

As is often the case, it’s not one or the other; it’s both.

St Benedict refers in chapter 50 of the Rule to the Divine Office as being a pensum servitutis, literally a “burden of servitude”, or we could also translate it as “the due measure of our bounden service”. The monk, who has bound himself to God by sacred vows, has now become one of those souls privileged to pray to God in the name of the Church. He must therefore acquit himself of this duty at the required times. That is why the patriarch of monks prescribes that even when travelling or doing some job at a distance from the monastery which will not allow him to return to choir for the office, he must, in the place where he is, kneel down before God and pray his psalms. 

If the Sacred Liturgy is the monk’s highest function, for which he must spend his energies, the monk can never have a holiday, if we interpret that word in the modern sense of the term, meaning a time during which one can leave one’s work behind, forget it, and enjoy the leisure of “doing nothing”. For the monk, even though there may be times when he can be dispensed from other aspects of his enclosed life, the Divine Office always remains his duty, his main “opus”, for the fundamental reason that it is the opus Dei, the work of God of whom the monk is the servant.

Young monks experience the reality of this servitude in their early years in monastic life. Even though they might love the office and want to be present for its celebration, they soon discover that it is a challenge to be there all the time, to get up every morning long before dawn while nature is still sound asleep, in order to go and perform God’s work. If he wants to persevere, grow in fidelity and perfect himself in the performance of this duty, he needs to reflect upon the other aspect of the opus Dei: it is the work that God Himself performs. How is this? What does it mean?

To begin to grasp its significance, we need to go back to Genesis. God made the universe in six days. He “laboured”, as it were, for six days to produce the universe, with earth and man at its centre, and then, says Genesis, He rested on the seventh day. That is why the seventh day is sacred. It is the day on which God took rest. Obviously God does not need to rest because He does not get tired. So what is meant by this rest of God?

The great rest of God in which we are called to take part, and which both Psalm 94 and the Epistle to the Hebrews refer to, is eternal beatitude in the unending tranquillity of the divine life. Do we not sing for the deceased: requiem aeternam dona eis Domine - Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord? Take them into the blessedness of your eternal realm where their every desire will be fulfilled and put to rest.

But in St John’s Gospel, Our Lord reveals an astounding truth to the Pharisees after the healing of the man who had been crippled for 38 years: “My Father worketh until now; and I work” (Jn 5:17). These words inform us that God’s work is not over; even though the creation of the universe was complete, there is some other creation that is ongoing. It is the creation of the new man of which St Paul speaks: “And put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth” (Eph 4:24).

The relevance of this thought for our purposes tonight is this: since God is continually at work seeking to bring about our sanctification, and since the sacred liturgy plays a vital role in that divine work, then the liturgy will only be Opus Dei in the full sense of the term when it allows God to act in our world, both in those who are present at the liturgy, and in all souls of good will who are open to the Divine Grace which pours forth from it as from an inexhaustible fountain. But we must add that the human actors in the sacred liturgy, as they seek to integrate the Opus Dei into their daily lives, cannot dream of doing so without a serious effort. If God is at work, so must we be. St Teresa of Calcutta was fond of saying that if you want to pray better, you need to pray more. Is it not one of the great illusions of modern times that, if we want to increase the quality of our celebrations, we have to decrease their quantity and their length? Odd indeed. As if the less practice you get, the better you will perform.

Opus Dei in the recitation of the office

So when we say that the liturgy is the work that God does for us, what we really mean is that it is the outlet of God’s grace in the world. The sacred liturgy quite simply is the channel through which God can continue His work in the world, that ongoing work which was begun in Genesis, pursued throughout the history of the Old Testament with the constant interventions of God to form His people, and brought to a culmination in the New Covenant with the eternal sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is precisely why the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the “source and summit” of the life of the Church, the living heart of the liturgy itself. 

Whenever the Church gathers together to pray the Divine Office, or even when one of its officially deputed members prays it in the name of the Church, what is happening is that God is using the lips and voice of that person in order to make present, here and now, the saving power of the redemption. But let’s take an example and see how this actually plays itself out. 

One of the most prevalent themes in the psalms is the celebration of the event of the exodus from Egypt, wrought by Moses on behalf of God. The exodus has always been seen as the prototype of the redemption which Jesus came to bring us. Just as the angel passed over the houses of the Hebrews (whence the word “passover”) and did not kill their firstborn, so in the New Covenant Jesus Christ passes from death to life through His paschal mystery, thus obtaining for us the grace to pass from the death of sin to the life of grace, and ultimately to eternal life itself. As we sing of the victory of Israel over Egypt, we celebrate the victory of Our Saviour over Satan. The chant of the Church makes that victory present throughout history. At the same time, it draws more abundantly upon the treasury of grace that Christ merited for us, and allows that grace to pour itself out upon souls today. 

The question might be asked: how does this work? How does the grace present in the celebration of the Divine Office find its way to the entire Church? I think we can make a comparison with the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Each Mass obtains a superabundance of grace going far beyond the limits of the edifice in which it is celebrated. The Divine Office is not a sacrament in the strict sense of the term; yet, it is nevertheless permissible to refer to it as sacramental in the broad sense. By virtue of the faith and devotion of those who recite the texts of the liturgy, the saving events become present and achieve in the present what they signified in history. Just as the annual eating of the paschal lamb made present in the minds and hearts of the Hebrews the saving event of the Exodus, so the memory of God’s marvels as they are recorded in the psalms and other sacred texts makes present, in some way, the grace that flows from the sacrifice of Calvary. The difference is that, whereas the Mass operates “ex opere operato”, the Office is going to operate “ex opere operantis”: the level of faith and devotion of those who take part in the celebration is going to determine the amount of grace made available to the world.

The Opus Dei, the Work of God, is ongoing. God did not create the world and leave it to its own devices. He is continually at work as Our Lord says clearly in the passage of St John already quoted. But that work takes place through human agents. God is the primary cause of all things, but He has willed that there be secondary causes, who really and truly exercise causality in the world. When a person sets aside time in their daily schedule to pray, what they are really doing is allowing God, primary cause, to act through them, to continue His saving work today. The Sacred Liturgy is the most potent way of allowing God to act, for it allows His saving grace, the saving events of history to reach us and through us the world.

Opus Dei as the voice of the Church

If the liturgy is the work of God because it is God accomplishing His work in history, it is also the work of the Church. St Basil speaks of the psalms as being the “voice of the Church”. Whenever someone prays the psalms, it is the Church herself who is praying, and it is thus the voice of the Church that is being heard throughout the world. The “totus Christus”, the whole Christ it is who prays the liturgy. With Him the Church sends up her voice, and fulfills God’s plan throughout the world.

Since the earthly liturgy is also the earthly celebration of the divine liturgy of heaven, we can say that it is, as one author wrote, the “daughter of the praise that is sung before the throne of God and the Lamb.” In the psalms God sings His own praise, and He thus gives us the very words by which we are able to sing the praise of God on earth. This praise is the climax of God’s work on earth.

Is it possible to be insensitive to all the passages of the psalms in which the immense majesty of God, His omnipotence, His justice, His goodness, His inexpressible clemency and His other infinite grandeurs are expressed? Is it possible to not respond by similar sentiments, by acts of thanksgiving for the benefits received from God, by humble and confident prayers for what we are in need of, or by cries of a soul who repents of its sins? Is it possible to not be set on fire with love by the image of Christ the redeemer, for as St Augustine wrote, in all the psalms it is the voice of Christ that we hear, whether it be to sing or to moan, to rejoice in hope or sigh in the present misfortune?

And so it becomes easier to understand why St Benedict could instruct his monks to “prefer nothing to the work of God” (Rule ch. 43). Is there any other work on earth that is of greater worth than that of God? and if God allows some of his creatures to associate themselves with that work, then can there be any other more noble use of time and talent?

This being so, it becomes easier to understand why monks spend so much time and energy in making the divine office happen, and why their own little fatigue or ailments fade into the background.

Opus Dei in a secular environment

At last we come to the question that motivated this conference. How can we imitate St Benedict’s example in the secular environment we live in? 

The temptation might be to compromise and imagine that, given changed situations in our world, the need for prayer has evolved: such was the epic error of recent times: to imagine that somehow now the Church could spare herself long prayers in order to go out and challenge the world. This is to forget the most fundamental reality of the spiritual life: if the apostle does not give quality time to God each day in prayer, it becomes impossible for him to radiate the presence of Christ. If he does not stay close to the fire, His heart will grow cold, his spiritual batteries deplete rapidly, and he ends up being sucked into the mentality of the world, with all the dangers and falls we hear of to our profound sorrow. Such things happen to those who think they can fix the world without having continual recourse to prayer.

True, the entire monastic life is structured in such a way as to favour as much as possible the spirit of prayer, and people who are living in the world do not have the advantages of such structures. For sure, they are not called to spend as much time in prayer as monks, but it is nevertheless certain that there is really only one way of allowing St Benedict’s ideal to have a real influence on the lives of those who are not monks. It is to set time aside each day for prayer. We cannot expect to have and nourish the spirit of prayer without our actually setting aside some time each day for it.

Why not inscribe in our daily schedules times of prayer and praise, personal and communal? If we are in the context of family life or professional life where others are like-minded, this can actually take the form of celebrating part of the liturgy of the hours together. 

Here, let me add that I do not think this can happen in a consistent way without adding to it, at least a little, the beauty of well-executed chant. If this is God’s work, it must be beautiful; if I am privileged to take part in it, I must engage my energies in order that those who witness it might be edified and feel themselves inspired to praise God with me. I have never forgotten an anecdote in the life of my baptismal patron, St Robert Bellarmine. It is told that God gifted him with a beautiful voice. Whenever he chanted the office publicly, he never refrained from giving full expression to his talent, in order to both honour God as is fitting, and inspire those who would hear him with a great desire to imitate his example. 

This is somewhat reminiscent of that famous passage from the 9th book of the Confessions where St Augustine tells of how the sweetness of the divine praise contributed to his conversion. When one achieves the Work of God, one is realising on earth the Work that glorifies God, converts and saves man.

So let’s learn how to invest some energy in learning, or relearning the beauty of the chant. And why not even consider doing so in the language of the Church? Leaving aside the continual insistence of the popes that the liturgy be celebrated in Latin, we can see another advantage of using the common language of the Church. In an era of frequent exchanges between continents and countries, having recourse to a common liturgical language makes it easy to celebrate the liturgy with Christians of other nations. The common voice of the one Church thus rises amidst the constant clamour and cacophony of our modern world become a giant metropolis in which conflicting voices frequently contradict each other. Getting together to celebrate with a common voice and language the glories of the one true God and His Son Jesus Christ cannot fail to be an inspiration to a world that is broken and shaken to its foundations.

We also need to insist a little bit on the ways to interiorise this recitation of the public prayer of the Church. The activism and externalism of recent decades has led to undervalue the time spent in preparation for the liturgy and the silent contemplation of its mysteries afterwards. Unless our liturgy is going to turn into a theatrical performance, it must be prepared for and prolonged by personal times of prayer, precisely with the texts celebrated by the liturgy. The ancient monks referred to this as “chewing, or ruminating” the Word of God.

 If it is one’s desire to imitate St Benedict’s example and that of his monks by making present the Work of God in the modern world, then one must also make use of the main tool that the saint gives to his monks in order to raise their minds and hearts to the level of one who is capable of such a task: I’m referring of course to the practice of lectio divina, that is to say, the spiritual reading of divine things.

Let’s be clear: there can be no Opus Dei without lectio divina. For sure, it would be possible to sing the psalms, it would even be possible to do so quite well, as an artistic performance. But it would not be Opus Dei. Opus Dei can only be Work of God if it is animated from the inside by the desire for God, and desire for God can only come through getting to know Him, and getting to know Him can only come through spending time with Him and His word: such is lectio divina.

Model of Our Lady

As in so many other areas of our lives, we need help. We need that help that only a mother can give. I like to see in the first three joyful mysteries of the Rosary a biblical mini-presentation of what happens in the liturgy, God’s work on earth. In the first mystery, that of the Annunciation, we see Mary, the humble virgin, in prayer, probably reading and studying the Scriptures. She is assimilating the Word of God, letting it penetrate deep into her mind and heart. As she does so, she receives the visit of the archangel Gabriel who has come to reveal to her God’s plan of salvation which begins with her Fiat. If she had not already opened her mind and heart to the Word of God, would she have been able to accept the offer presented by the angel? Would she not, on the contrary, have run the risk of missing entirely its momentousness? So many times in our lives we receive visits from God and his angels: are we prepared for them by spending time with God’s Word each day?

Once Mary receives the ambassador angel and gives her consent to the great mystery of God’s love, the Incarnation takes place: that central moment of history in which God takes on our flesh. Verbum caro factum est: the miracle of miracles comes about because that young virgin knew how to spend time with God’s Word, thus opening herself to its realisation in her in a new and completely unexpected way. But it doesn’t end there. The angel’s visit inspires Mary to practice fraternal charity by going to pay a visit to her elderly kinswoman who is also with child. And what happens during that Visitation are events so astounding that we owe to them the two most important canticles of the New Testament: the Magnificat and the Benedictus. Lectio divina leads to liturgy: it is because Mary contemplated God’s Word in the Scriptures that she was able to conceive God’s Word incarnate in her womb, and then the incarnation seeks to manifest itself through praise. My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. … The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him. Mary is able to lend her voice to praise because her heart has become accustomed to its expression.

And then there is the third mystery, the Nativity. After praying with the Word in lectio divina, after singing the praise of the Word with the inspired Word itself, that Word, already incarnate in her womb, manifests itself to the world by being born in Bethlehem. And this is the beautiful image of what happens in our lives. Our personal prayer with the Word leads to communal praise with the Word, and then to the making present of the Word through the practical deeds of our daily lives.

If this is so, then no matter how secularised our world may be, the presence within it of souls who truly believe and are ready to take steps towards allowing God to permeate the world with His grace, no matter how few in number they might be, is a cause for great hope, for, as the history of the Maccabees proves, it is not numbers that God needs, but souls aflame with love and fervour, who pray the psalms and so give historical expression to all the prayers and attitudes of mind and heart that are needed in every human situation. 

In conclusion, let’s go back to the sacred text and see how, even though composed centuries before the coming of Christ, a psalm can apply to the Church today; let’s see how both monks and laity can unite their voices with that of the psalmist as he cries out for help from God for the people who are in danger because their leaders have proven helpless. Psalm 79:

Shepherd of Israel, listen, guide of the flock of Joseph! From your throne upon the cherubim reveal yourself to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh. Stir up your power, come to save us. O LORD of hosts, restore us; Let your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.  LORD of hosts, how long will you burn with anger while your people pray? You have fed them the bread of tears, made them drink tears in abundance. You have left us to be fought over by our neighbors; our enemies deride us. O LORD of hosts, restore us; let your face shine upon us, that we may be saved. You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove away the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground; it took root and filled the land. The mountains were covered by its shadow, the cedars of God by its branches. It sent out boughs as far as the sea, shoots as far as the river. Why have you broken down the walls, so that all who pass by pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest strips the vine; the beast of the field feeds upon it. Turn again, LORD of hosts; look down from heaven and see; Attend to this vine, the shoot your right hand has planted. Those who would burn or cut it down — may they perish at your rebuke. May your help be with the man at your right hand, with the one whom you once made strong.  Then we will not withdraw from you; revive us, and we will call on your name. LORD of hosts, restore us; let your face shine upon us, that we may be saved. 

With these inspired words, let us pray, in, with and for the Church. May we ourselves, whatever our state in life, be converted to a life of profound and constant prayer culminating in the Opus Dei, the Work of God. If so, we may be among those who help achieve the purification and rejuvenation of the Church, that she may be once again the city set on a mountain, enlightening the nations, and leading them into the glory of God’s kingdom.

Let your face shine upon us, O Lord, that we may be saved!

God exalts the humble and the chaste

With the entire Church on earth and in Heaven, with all the angels and saints, today we honour the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, and our Mother. With hearts overflowing with joy we consider the privilege this humble woman has received in being conceived immaculate, chosen to be Mother of God, and now glorified in body and soul in Heaven with her Divine Son. Mary is not aloof from us. She is our mother. Raised to the heights of glory, she continues to look down upon us with maternal concern and sollicitude. 

As she looks at us today, as she considers the world with the waves of sin and violence that continue to cause so much suffering, what might she be thinking and what might she be wanting to get across to us? I suggest the answer is furnished in the Magnificat which the Church today presents as the Gospel reading, and in particular these words: "Exaltavit humiles — He has exalted the lowly". Yes, what makes Mary great is that she is lowly in her own eyes. Far from being lifted up with pride, she humbles herself even more before God, giving Him all praise for the marvels of grace He has wrought in her.

She might also invite us to look to her as an example of purity. Our world is more than ever handed over to all the evils and diseases and violence which are the normal cortege of the unbridled vice of lust. As those filthy waves furl over the world and spare not even the Church and the men who should be models of all virtue, Mary Immaculate is calling us to look to her, to pray to her, to ask her to sustain us in the battle for purity. Staying close to God through prayer and the sacraments, staying close to the Mother of Jesus, is the secret to being pure, and by being pure and humble, we will persevere in the joy and serenity of a Christian life whose ultimate goal is nothing less than glorification with Jesus and Mary, one day, in glory.

And that's perhaps the most consoling lesson of the Assumption: in Mary as in Jesus, the flesh, our human body is resplendent with glory; it is beyond corruption; it will never die nor fade away; even the flesh will take part in the eternal glory of paradise.

Such a thought should inspire us with the greatest respect for our bodies and those of others. It should give us a renewed sense of personal dignity, one that is grounded in humility because it is grounded in the truth that we receive all from God and are utterly dependent upon His mercy.

"His mercy is from age to age, to those who fear Him."