Increasing numbers of people are avoiding so-called “organized religion” and labeling themselves “spiritual” rather than “religious.” In doing so, they seriously challenge traditional approaches to the divine, in general, and Christ, in particular. In times past this has sometimes been integral to mystical movements within the church in which God’s grace reaching the mystic in prayer, seemed to minimize or obviate the need for the sacraments—otherwise believed to be powerful instruments and channels of saving and sanctifying grace.
In our modern context, it is less a mystical phenomenon and more a disaffection with the church and its clergy. Even Catholics wonder why attendance at Sunday mass is so important when, perhaps, a time of quiet reflection and prayer at home can sometimes seem to be an equally rich source of grace and blessing. This kind of thinking is symptomatic of our western individualism, according to which our relationship to the divine is pursued individually or with only limited connection and involvement with others.
This, however, is to misunderstand the very heart of Christianity and its essentially communitarian character—reflecting, as it does, the “communal life” of our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For just as we come into full possession of our true selves only in relationship to God and others, so too our spiritual development and maturing occurs only in deepening connection and union with our fellow human beings.
It is because of this deep and mysterious spiritual connection that we have with one another that coming together to physically express and experience this reality in our communal worship is so beneficial and mutually supportive. As monks, we gather seven times a day and can vouch for the support that our communal prayer provides for each of our individual spiritual journeys. This is true for both the seasoned monk and the novice—something meaningfully and touchingly symbolized in the prayer Moses offered in support of Joshua in his battle against the Amalekites.
While Moses’ hands were raised in prayer, Joshua maintained the upper hand, but when, because of tiredness, Moses lowered his hands, the Amalekites prevailed. This spiritual veteran and intimate friend of God thus had to rely on Aaron and Hur to hold up his arms so that with sustained prayer Joshua could overcome the enemy bent on their destruction. In this, we see a series of interconnections: Joshua and his men depending on the support of Moses’ prayer in their battle; at the same time, Moses relies on Joshua to overcome their common enemy; and, finally, Aaron and Hur, rely on the power of Moses’ intercession, while simultaneously offering him their support in doing so.
Within the Church (the Mystical Body of Christ) each one of us is called to play our unique role through the gifts we have been given and the graces we have received. As cloistered Cistercian Monks, we have been given a similar task to that of Moses, interceding on behalf of the world—not only in the petitions we make daily, but also through the intercessory nature of our entire monastic life. Much of the spiritual support we either receive or give to one another occurs without our being aware of it, and this leads us to underestimate the crucial spiritual influence we exert on one another. Admittedly, this is something of a faith statement and not one that can we can verify empirically.
It is thus faith that we need to cultivate, so that we can continue to assist one another as we journey together on this our earthly pilgrimage en route to our Eternal Home. Therefore, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, we must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works. We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, always recalling the Lord’s assurance that where two or three gather in my name, there am I among them.