JESUS WITHDREW INTO DESERT PLACES TO PRAY

CHAPTER: PRAYER, SOLITUDE AND SILENCE



JESUS WITHDREW INTO DESERT PLACES TO PRAY (Luke 5: 15). That Jesus gave great importance to prayer is made very clear in the New Testament. That his prayer represented a high communion so complete as to be a total union of mind and heart with the Father is prominently set forth in the Gospel of St. John. Yet, though the results of his prayer are evident in his person and actions as well as in his words, only a little is said about how he prayed. We overhear, as it were, his prayer in the garden and on the cross, both directed to the person of the Father and both expressive of great agony of soul. His apostles were deeply impressed when they observed him at prayer on one occasion and, recognizing him as a great master of the art asked him to teach them to pray. From the words of the Our Father which he formulated on that occasion, we can infer that all his prayer was concerned in the first place with the Father's will, His glory, the coming of His kingdom and the realizations of His Providence.

The early monks were markedly sensitive to the fundamental role of prayer for the Christian and gave it primacy of consideration in their teaching as well as in practice. The evidence for the high value placed on prayer is abundant in the earliest literature, such as the Apophtegmata or Sayings of the Fathers, in the Life of Antony, in the writings of Evagrius, and in John Cassian's Conferences. Prayer however, is not treated in isolation in this monastic tradition; rather, it is situated in the whole context of monastic life with its concern for ascetic practice in view of attaining to purity of heart and perfect love. That such is the appropriate and traditional way of approaching prayer for monks appears distinctly in the first of the Conferences. The topic of this essay is Purity of Heart and it is in the course of working out this theme that the condition for attaining to true prayer is introduced by Abba Moses whose teaching forms the substance of this talk. After pointing out that "All things are to be borne with and desired for the sake of obtaining this charity. With a view to this we follow after solitude." However, he explains that perfection is not an automatic result of divesting oneself of all things and living in abjection, but rather consists in charity. He then adds the following comments.

It behooves us to practice all the following things, namely, fasts, vigils, separation from the world, meditation of Scriptures for the sake of the principal scopos (aim) of monastic life, that is, purity of heart which is charity and not disturb this virtue for the sake of these practices.... This should be our chief effort, this the continual pursuit of our heart: that our mind always clings to God and to divine things. (Collatio I. VII and VIII)

He devotes two later conferences to the subject of prayer in the course of which he defines monastic perfection in terms of pure prayer, thus following in the footsteps of his master, Evagrius Ponticus. Cassian has his companion, Germanus, observe to abba Isaac that "you have defined the purpose of the monk and the height of all perfection to consist in the perfect prayer (Collatio IX. VII)." In his manner of conceiving things, then, Cassian equates purity of heart, charity and perfect prayer. That Evagrius Ponticus also had a sublime conception of prayer and gave it a certain primacy in his spirituality, appears in various of his sayings. "If you desire to pray, renounce all in order to obtain all ("Chapters on Prayer,"#36 cited in Garcia Columbas, "El Monacato Primitivo",II, 316)". For, he tells us, ("Chapters on Prayer,"#150, CS4 Kalamazoo, p. 79) "Just as sight is the most worthy of the senses, so also is prayer the most divine of the virtues." Other sayings of his allow us to appreciate that in his mind the purest prayer is marked by a great concentration on God alone and passes beyond all the forms and memories of created things. "Happy is the spirit that becomes free of all matter and is stripped of all at the time of prayer.(ibid., #119)" That this state is also marked by a selfless charity is evident from another saying (#122) "Happy is the monk who views the welfare and progress of all men with as much joy as if it were his own." For Evagrius one can say that progress in charity is marked by progress in the purity of prayer.

This last saying of Evagrius finds support in the practice of Jesus to associate his more intimate followers with his own prayer. Although he there were important times when he went off alone in order to pray more intently, yet there were other occasions, and those of the greatest significance, such as the Transfiguration and the agony in the garden, when he made a point of joining specially selected friends with him in prayer. He made the Last Supper the event when his most extended and most spiritual conversation with his chosen apostles occurred. This was also the scene of his most detailed and heartfelt prayer. Thus his way of praying is not only solitary but is regularly made in the presence of his closest associates. Even on the cross when he prayed in an anguished cry of desolation to the Father, there were present with him Mary his mother, John the beloved disciple, Mary Magdalene and other faithful women.

iPrayer in common at the office, but also prayer in silence and solitude together are the hallmarks, as it were, of monastic life in its traditional realization. Certainly, these practices have been so thoroughly associated with our Trappist manner of living the monastic vocation that our way of life can hardly be said to remain faithful to its character in any community where they are not prominently honored in practice. A short generation ago the Trappist was characterized chiefly by his observance of silence which became the identifying signature of his life of penance and of separation from worldly concerns. These characteristics were manifest indications that the original inspiration of the desert fathers continued to animate some few members of the Church in our own time as it had done through the centuries. They suggested that the same Spirit who had guided and sanctified so many holy men and women through the ages continued to be active in the people of God, raising up followers faithful to the same way of life that the prophet Elijah and St. John the Baptist had lived in the desert.

That there were evident exaggerations in the observance of silence, with the resulting strains on the individual and artificiality in relationships was also true at certain periods of the Order's history. The attempted recovery of a more balanced practice of silence in view of a more healthy personal development and a more fraternally oriented community life has certainly given broader scope for personal adaptation to community and for a more gradual integration of monastic values and teachings. But the greater freedom of speech also requires greater personal responsibility. It certainly should not result in the loss of the benefits of silence ordered to the life of constant prayer in union with the Lord. It is worth recalling that the norm voted on by our community after serious dialogue and reflection is that "brief communication" is permitted. The purpose is not for entertainment or relaxation still less for gossip or criticism of others, but rather to build up community, to encourage a more authentic life of prayer and facilitate collaboration in the various areas of monastic living.

Experience shows that those communities which, for whatever reason, lose the spirit and observance of a communal and individual prayerful silence suffer in other ways, not least of all in that of formation. But also in community coherence and unity. After all, what sense of purpose can remain strong when a community that has been freed from the heavy obligations of the ministry whether in parishes or schools in view of a serious dedication to contemplative prayer, ceases to be animated by a fervent commitment to silence, fasting, solitude and simplicity of life that these, together with manual labor, give rise to? These practices are so basic to Benedictine life that only by an assiduous fidelity to them can a community or an individual monk be formed and live out the life of our tradition to which we are vowed.

I used the expression ‘prayerful silence' quite deliberately, for the soul of silence is prayerful union with God. Its function is to support the constant memory of God, a memory not only of all that He has done for us in the great mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption effected by Christ Jesus, but what he is doing for us in the present. Memory of God is a living communion with him, a communion that greatly stimulates our love and our adherence to his will in all things. Such a memory actively contributes to purity of intention to please God in all we do, say, think and choose. Preserving this memory of God alive and constantly at work in our lives is, according to St. Basil, the very purpose of withdrawing from the world and living with men of like purpose and sharing same beliefs and convictions. It befits us to keep our heart with all watchfulness, so as never to lose the thought of God, or to defile the memory of His wonders with imaginations of vanity; but to bear about the holy thought of God with continual and pure memory imprinted in our souls, as it were an indelible seal. For thus we gain love towards God... In the careful endeavor to do our work as God wills we shall be joined to God in memory (The Longer Rules V, tr. W. Clarke, 159, 160).

"Prayer is the mother of all the virtues", Abba Palamon taught the novice Pachomius. There are a great variety of ways of praying, and the very term, prayer, oratio, has reference to distinctly different kinds. In Cassian oratio is an equivalent expression for contemplatio, that is to say, pure, profound prayer made from the heart. His concept of the kind of prayer monks aim for is a brief summary of the monastic life. In it he indicates the role of all the ascetic practices in terms of preparing the heart for the highest and most fruitful of activities.

This therefore is the destination of the solitary, this should be his whole intention that he might merit to possess in this body the image of future beatitude and in a certain way begin to show forth in this vessel a pledge of that heavenly way of life and glory. This, I say, is the purpose of all perfection that the mind, refined from all carnal filth, should daily be lifted on high to spiritual things until its whole manner of life, every turning of the heart, be a single and constant prayer. (Collatio X.VII PL 49: 828B)

God gives gifts of various kinds to his children, even to those called to monastic life. No one was more aware of this and its implications than St. Bernard, who was one of the most gifted monks ever to follow the monastic way. He not only had natural qualities that made him an outstanding leader of men even from his youth, and a brilliant intellect that was cultivated by familiarity with the outstanding minds of the cultured world, he also enjoyed remarkable charisms of healing among other miraculous powers, and sublime contemplative graces as well. It did not prove easy for him to find the proper balance in the employment of his talents. If he achieved a high degree of sanctity, however, it was because he gave the priority to a charity that was well ordered. He directed his best efforts to remaining united with God in loving contemplative prayer that he pursued even in the midst of his long journeys which kept him away from his monastery as long as several years at a time. He had discerned that the monastic call was not perfectly homogenous; in the same community, there were distinct roles to fulfill with the stress placed on different elements of observance, corresponding to the various needs of the community and on the part of the individual monks, a variety of gifts. This did not trouble Bernard once he thought it through; rather, he integrated this observation into his vision of Cistercian life as lived out in practice, and developed a spirituality adapted to it. He states his teaching in the following sermon among other places. St. Bernard in contemplation

Nor do all of us run with the same speed after the odor of all the perfumes; rather you see some more eagerly burning with the study of wisdom, some animated more by penance in the hope of pardon, others are stimulated by the example of the life of Christ to the exercise of the virtues, still others are attracted to piety by the memory of the passion.(Sermo XX. 9 In Cantica PL 183: 882).

Bernard saw these different ways of living in the monastery prefigured in the three types of holy men who found grace in God's eyes, Noe, Daniel and Job. "For we assign among our own selves", he writes,"these three orders (and this gives us all the greater solicitude)." (Sermones De Diversis IX. 4 (PL 183: 566). He speaks of those who are charged with exterior matters and business affairs, those who are free from such charges and have to leisure for contemplative prayer, and the superiors who have to do with some of both. But, he adds, as far as possible when free one should choose the better part, without depreciating the more active members. As he puts it: " But Mary has chosen the best part, although perhaps the humble life chosen by Martha may be of no less merit in God's sight."

There is no substitute in the concrete for taking full responsibility for our own inner fidelity to the vocation given us by God. But once we have chosen the monastic way in the Cistercian tradition we are committed to the single-minded search for God and that will always entail a full measure of self-giving, possible only to those who deny themselves and daily take up the cross. Our silence and solitude require frequently that we deny our natural desire for the satisfactions of social exchanges with those whom we find congenial, but at the same time the obligations we have to one another and to those whom God sends to us seeking spiritual help requires that we also cultivate in varying measure our capacity for sharing in appropriate ways the good things of the mind and spirit. Thus the need for discernment that is daily applied to our choices in order to assure the proper use of speech as well as preserving a very real and effective silence and solitude. In our community, attention to the norms for assuring these observances is a responsibility we owe to one another if we are to maintain a fervent community, supportive of all in our search for union with God in a life of continual prayer. The same applies to separation from the world: working out with the Abbot the appropriate ways and times for meeting with guests, not multiplying such contacts are responsibilities that are essential. Above all preserving the unity of the Spirit in that fraternal bond of peace which is a sign of God's presence and a great support to each brother as we hasten on our return journey to the Father.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger


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