We’ve been reading in the refectory a small book by Abbot Francis Acharya of Kurisumala, our monastery in Southern India. Abbot Francis died just a few years ago. By birth and monastic profession he was from Belgium, born Jean Mahieu. Eventually he would found a Catholic monastery in India, adapted to Indian culture and its rich spiritual heritage, integrated with the Cistercian patrimony. After an interesting history, the monastery was accepted into our Order when Dom Bernardo Olivera was the Abbot General, the community continuing to wear the saffron robes of the sannyasis and to celebrate the Eucharist in the Jacobite rite, the Christian rite of India.
The book, Cistercian Spirituality: An Ashram Perspective (Monastic Wisdom Series: 26, Cistercian Publications) is small in size. But I have been strongly attracted to it or its great depth. He doesn’t multiply his words, but leaves it to his readers to reflect on what he says and to make it a true source for lectio divina. I feel he sustains that tone through the entire book.
I find practically every sentence he writes a sermon in itself. In that sense I can compare it to the Rule of Saint Benedict, to the writings of the Church and Monastic Fathers, who could say much in a few words.
I want to draw your attention to what Abbot Francis wrote in the Epilogue. To express our Cistercian spirituality, he quoted frequently from our Twelfth Century authors. He tells his native Indian novices–and us–what St. Bernard of Clairvaux had to say about the liturgical prayer of his own monastery.
By our rule we must put nothing before the work of God. This is the title by which our Father Benedict chose to name the solemn praises offered to God in the church, that so our legislator might more clearly reveal how attentive he wanted us to be at the work.
So dearest brothers, I exhort you to participate always in the divine praises correctly and vigorously, that you may stand before God with as much enjoyment and reverence, not sluggish, not drowsy, not yawning, not sparing your voices, not leaving words half-said or skipping them, not speaking through the nose or stumbling, stammering, in a weak and broken tone, but pronouncing the words of the Holy Spirit with becoming manliness, resonance and affection, and correctly, that while you chant, you ponder nothing but what you chant.
Nor do I mean that only vain and useless thoughts are to be avoided at that time and in that place. Even those necessary thoughts about necessary community matters which frequently importune the minds of those brothers who have official positions, are to be avoided.
Furthermore, even those thoughts have to be left aside which come from listening to the Holy Spirit before psalmody begins. For example, you sit in the cloister reading books or as you listen to my talk, as you do now, these are wholesome thoughts; but it is not at all wholesome to reflect on them during psalmody.
For if at that time you neglect what you owe, the Holy Spirit is not pleased to accept anything offered that is not what you owe. May we always be able to do our will in accord with His holy will, as He inspires, by the grace and mercy of the Church’s Bridegroom, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed for ever and ever. (Sermons on the Song of Songs, 47:8)
This Work of God, the Opus Dei, is work. It is a job, if you will, a responsibility. The community cook is responsible whether he puts out a sloppy meal or nourishing food. The grounds keeper is responsible for the appearance of the property. The laundryman is responsible for whether the cloths are clean and neatly folded–which he does very well and untiringly, as a matter of fact, despite his many years. The sacristan, the house cleaners, those who engage the guests and visitors, all act responsibly to fulfill their tasks of service to others. They act in the holy fear of God to work well and selflessly.
And so, too, with the Work of God. We do not work alone at community prayer, we work together. It is work, good days or bad, morning or night, every day and not just on special occasions. And God is always there–and that’s the rub. God just doesn’t visit now and then; it’s we who visit or fail to visit. It doesn’t end with being in choir, but a question of being present, being attentive to what we do there. So how do we maintain that special effort we’d give a special dignitary? Day in, day out, forty or sixty years?
With much enjoyment and reverence, St. Bernard says. And with classic Bernadine wit, he spells out what he observes all too often in the choir stalls of Clairvaux: sluggish, drowsy, yawning, reticent mumbling monks. Not that we do most of those things–at least not all the time!–but we are all prone to weakness, whether of body or will. What place does willfulness have in the worship of Almighty God? Saint Bernard concludes with a bang: May we always be able to do our will, in accord with the will of the Holy Spirit, as He inspires, by the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For, as Saint Bernard said earlier, we are aware that we are pronouncing the words of the Holy Spirit. When the priest says the words of institution of the Eucharist, at the moment of transubstantiation, he says the words with reverence and attention, the words of Christ, confecting for us the Sacrament of the Risen Lord’s presence. Are the words of the psalms and the prayers we offer any less the words of the Holy Spirit?
But we are weak, in body and spirit, as Jesus told Peter, James and John at Gethsemane: The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
We could shrug our shoulders and say, “that’s life!” Or we can long to do better, be more attentive, long to be more present. I can ask God for this grace and not just shrug my shoulders; as Saint John Chrysostem wrote, Our prayer is in our desire more than in our words. God help the monk who enunciates every word clearly, with meaning, always on pitch, alert and prompt, but without any desire for God, only gratifying his own self-esteem. Pleased with himself, not contrite, grateful and loving God for his love for us, he is merely a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal, as Saint Paul would say.
What is sweet to God is the deep love and desire that makes prayer. So while Saint Bernard is to be heeded in his exhortation to sing psalms wisely (psallita sapienter), all is ultimately measured by the simple love we bring, by the desire we are filled with. With that the Holy Spirit can take care of the rest.
from a Chapter talk of Abbot Robert, Sunday, 18 October, 2015