We have received O God Thy mercy in the midst of thy temple. These words of psalm 47 which ring out on the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord celebrated on the 2nd of this month are most appropriate as we offer thanks for the untold graces received over the past few weeks during our retreats. In the midst of the temple, in the midst of the Church, in the midst of the temple which is our heart. In the silence of retreat from the world the voice of the Lord is heard, His mercy is revealed. And so we acknowledge with profound gratitude so much love and mercy.
It sometimes happens on retreat that a soul experiences something similar to what happened to the holy man Simeon. He had been waiting for a very long time for the grace of his life. And one day it came unexpectedly. The spirit moves where and when He wills. The soul that is each day attentive to God, to the only thing that really matters in the end, is one day drawn irresistibly to discover the mystery hidden in God before all ages. The mystery god has been longing to reveal and which comes to the soul as a gift, a pure gift of the divine bounty. When that day comes the soul realises that the wait was worthwhile for it is always worthwhile waiting for god. “Whoever believes, let him be in no hurry”, says a verse of the prophet Isaiah in the Latin vulgate (Is 28:16).
Today, my dear friends, in order to encourage you in your life of prayer, I would like to share with you a few thoughts concerning the complementarity of St Benedict and St Ignatius. The first reason upon which I will insist today is that they are both masters of prayer, albeit in somewhat different ways. Perhaps the best approach to what I’m trying to say is to go back to the source of Christian prayer, our Blessed Lord Himself.
In his Gospel, St Luke tells us that it came to pass that as Jesus was in a certain place praying, when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him: Lord, teach us to pray (11:1). What is so striking in this particular instance is that Jesus must have been spending a good amount of time in prayer; it wasn’t just a brief moment, as the apostles had to wait for him to finish; it was also silent prayer, in other words, He was not reciting some form of vocal prayer, but was giving Himself to prayer of the heart. This is obvious from the fact that the disciples do not tell us what He was saying. Yet, when He answers their plea and teaches them to pray, He gives them a vocal prayer, the Our Father. This is quite significant, for since Our Lord prayed in order to give us an example, His practicing prayer of the heart and vocal prayer shows us that both kinds of prayer are absolutely essential to any form of Christian life.
I think we can safely say that St Benedict had the special grace of giving the ideal structure to vocal community prayer; his organisation of the Divine Office in the Rule centred on the public recitation of the psalter throughout the day, has left an indelible mark on the prayer of the Church, and is still used without change in many monasteries today. Of note also is that, even though the bulk of each hour is the divinely inspired psalms, he takes care that each hour conclude with the Lord’s prayer, sometimes recited aloud by the abbot, sometimes recited silently. In that way, he makes sure that we always obey the Lord’s command: “When you pray, say ‘Our Father…’ ”.
St Ignatius had another grace. It is well known that he wanted his Jesuits not to be bound by the choir office in order to insure maximum apostolic mobility, and so he stresses very much personal prayer of the heart, giving us in the Exercises several ways of achieving such prayer and making it part of our daily supersubstantial bread. These two giants of sanctity give us a different approach to prayer, both of which have enriched the Church and should enrich our personal lives. This is due to the fact that, whatever our vocation, both vocal and personal prayer are of the essence. A monk will spend hours a day chanting the psalms, but he will have his hour of mental prayer in order to give interior vigour to his psalmody and avoid it becoming meaningless parroting, or worse, a performance for the entertainment of the listeners, in which case monks would be no better than those ill-formed clerics who, in recent years, have succumbed to the “liturgical show” mentality. A diocesan priest, a layman or laywoman who take their faith seriously will have a certain amount of vocal prayer on a given day (divine office, rosary, angelus, etc.), but if they do not spend some time each day in heart to heart conversation with the Lord, like Jesus did when He prayed alone with the Father, then they will quickly become spiritually depleted, unable to meet the spiritual challenges of their daily lives, and run the risk of serious falls.
But it would not be appropriate to think that St Ignatius had no concern for the Divine Office or that St Benedict did not practice mental prayer (whatever might have been the failures, eccentricities or false interpretations of some of their disciples throughout the centuries…). Like any good priest of the Church, Ignatius recited his office daily, drawing from the psalms the wisdom which is crystallised in the Exercises, and he also encourages retreatants to attend Mass and Vespers each day during the retreat. His contemplation of the life of Our Lord in the Exercises also has obvious liturgical inspiration, for it is the annual liturgical cycle that presented to the faithful of his day the mysteries he invites us to contemplate. Even though St Benedict provides us with a magnificent structure for the solemn public prayer of the Church, we know, thanks to St Gregory the Great, that his famous vision during which he saw the entire world reduced to a single ray, as it were, compared to the omnipresent light of God, took place while he was praying in his cell during the night (practicing lectio, meditatio and oratio, leading to contemplatio, in other words giving himself over to mental prayer). But the fact remains that it was only after St Benedict that treatises on prayer were written, practical pointers or “methods” if you will, on how best to spend your time in silence with God. Undoubtedly, such methods can be, like any good thing, misunderstood, misused, or even abused, but they can also be veritable soul-savers by teaching people how to really practice prayer of the heart while living in a hostile world, and thus open the path for an authentic prayer life in which the freedom of the children of God (Rm 8:21) can lead them to the summits of union with Christ.
We should never forget, as St Benedict writes, that by observing his “Rule for beginners” we shall attain the loftier heights of wisdom and virtue, and finally reach Heaven (ch. 73), nor can we ignore that the book of the Exercises “has made its mark as the most wise and the most universal code of laws of salvation and of the perfection of souls, as the untarnishable source of the most elevated and solid piety, as an irresistible goad and alert guide for aiding souls to reform themselves and to attain the summits of the spiritual life” (Pope Pius XI). And so following such expert masters in the ways of God, we cannot fail — provided we make assiduous use of their advice — to become the saints of which our world stands in such dire need.