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!