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Godzdogz

The blog of the Dominican student brothers at Blackfriars, Oxford.

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In God alone be at rest, my soul (Ps 61:6)

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Br Daniel Benedict Rowlands, O.PHeaven is, in a certain sense, individual for each and every one. Every time we pray, we embrace something of the irreducible uniqueness of our relation to God, the relation that circumscribes the entirety of our being. Prayer cannot be substituted for another task, nor can another undertake the prayer that could only ever be mine. Delegation is simply impossible in the contemplative life.

In his recent post for All Saints' Day, Br Bede drew attention to the doctrine of the mystical body of Christ: the splendid multiplicity of the saints supernaturally and mysteriously constitutes the body of Christ and so manifests a prolongation of the incarnation through space and time. As the sanctoral cycle of the church's liturgical year unfolds, with each passing feast day we attend in orderly succession to individual holy men and women, the living stones composing the temple, the temple that, as St John the Evangelist tells us, is the body of Christ. How fitting it is on the feast of All Saints to, for a moment, stand back from the succession of individuals and glimpse something of the architecture of God's mysterious plan to "unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth" (cf. Ephesians 1:10). Such meditations go some way to inoculating us against that sickness of secular culture featuring so frequently in the teaching of the Holy Father: individualism. Yet, to turn to the agere contra of the communal (i.e. to seek out the opposite of individualism) in this fashion is not the sole approach to this particular disease. It is by recognising the transcendence of the individual, and not its negation, that we can penetrate further into the mystery of Christ's mystical body.

It is certainly true that the Christian tradition aligns interpersonal communion with blessedness and salvation, and isolation and self-centredness with sin and damnation. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI has reminded us that "the redeemed are not simply adjacent to each other in heaven. Rather, in their being together in the one Christ, they are heaven". Standing athwart this is St Augustine's description of the Fall as man becoming "turned towards himself", or in Luther's evocative rephrasing, "curved in on oneself". Not only has Tradition adopted the motif of sin as inflicting self-isolation -- an attempt to hide even from the Lord's presence in the language of Genesis (cf. Genesis 3:8) -- but the Church has also assimilated it into her understanding of damnation: the catechism offers a definition of Hell as the "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed". Dante's depiction of hell in the Inferno is but a graphical transposition of the same idea: Satan is frozen in ice -- isolated, immobilised -- and so self-absorbed that he stands out as the least interactive, least voluble of all the characters Dante encounters on his journey.  Indeed, he has precisely nothing to say.

Of course, it would be a travesty to pass from these observations to the claim that whatever pertains to individuality, interiority, or privacy must somehow connote iniquity. Individual devotion is integral to our practice of the Faith. We need only look to the example our Lord who would often "withdraw to deserted places and pray" (Luke 5:16), or to his teaching -- "whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door" (Matthew 6:6), to be reminded of that. Let me again call upon Benedict XVI who elegantly frames the apparent paradox before us. Heaven is a "stranger to isolation" (in so far as the self-centredness of sin is repudiated), but the integration of the 'I' into the body of Christ is in fact the "self's highest actualisation: heaven is individual for each and every one". Looking to the eremitical life provides some helpful insight. By trying to grasp the meaning of such radically "individual" holiness, we can come to recognise the place of genuine individuality in the life of every Christian. Despite the individualistic tendency of contemporary society, Christian hermits are as baffling today as they were in the first centuries. And they're meant to be. All modes of consecrated life are eschatological signs, but to live a solitary life of prayer, often in rather harsh conditions, is very obviously a life that makes no sense unless God exists. The great reformer of Benedictine eremitical life, St Peter Damian, ties this in directly to the theology of the body of Christ. The Church is so "united by the bond of charity... [that] she, is mystically, entirely contained in a single member".  On one level, we could read this in terms of the ministry of universal intercession, a very particular ministry entrusted to the few called to a life wholly given to contemplation. A life in communion with God, is certainly a life open to embracing the whole Church and indeed the whole universe. But there is a second level that concerns the individual hermit's life directly. We must reflect on it not only in the third person, as a distinct part of the body of Christ, but also try to consider it from the perspective of a unique, first-person relation to God, a relation that every Christian is called to cultivate. The beatific vision is shared by the community of the redeemed, but each individual's participation does not merely benefit the collective in a utilitarian fashion, but is something of intrinsic beauty and value, communicating a part of the infinity of God's glory.

Every time we pray, we embrace something of the irreducible uniqueness of our relation to God, the relation that circumscribes the entirety of our being. In so far as we eschew that relationship and turn in on ourselves, our very being contracts and comes nearer to nonbeing. Contemplation is the substance of that relationship. The word "contemplation" has the same root (*tem) as temple; it has the sense of a place reserved, cut out, or measured out (in front of an altar). The contemplative is thus one always "vacare Deo",  open to God. Contemplation must then be founded on a point of pure solitude.  "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 19:26). As much as we should affirm that real immersion in God indeed entails a deepened communion with all creation, this must be secondary and consequent upon love of the Creator.  "[T]he glory of God is a living man; and the life of man is the vision of God" (St Irenaeus).

Blessed Paul Giustiniani, another great reformer of the eremitical life (the Camaldolese order, specifically) cashes this out for us in starkly practical terms: delegation is simply impossible in the contemplative life. Prayer cannot be substituted for another task, nor can another undertake the prayer that could only ever be mine. If, one day, I am to see God "face to face", I must turn to Him and look upon Him "darkly, as in a mirror" (1 Corinthians 13:12). As the author of the Cloud of Unknowing puts it, "with a devout and delightful stirring of love... struggle to pierce that darkness... beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up whatever happens".

It is no wonder that watchfulness is emphasised so much by the early monks: how easy it is to forget the immense grandeur of this responsibility, and to expect others to take up the slack. Fraternal charity goes a long way, and the divine mercy infinitely further, but neither can stand in the way of the individual's capacity to resist grace, and refuse the offer of friendship with God. To admit this real freedom is not to become a Pelagian, to think that we must work out our salvation alone, but it is to admit the dignity of working out our salvation (cf.  Philippians 2:12) as co-workers with God (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:9). If we respond in love to the One who loved us first, applying ourselves to personal prayer with generosity and fidelity, constantly seeking the Lord's face (cf. Psalm 105:4), our lives will radiate something of the joy of heaven, and perhaps we will even lead others there too.


Br Daniel Benedict Rowlands O.P.

Born in Berkshire, Br Daniel was raised in the Faith in a Benedictine parish. Before entering the novitiate in 2018, he read Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge where he remained to complete a doctorate in Theoretical Physics. His years of study confirmed a love for the contemplative life, but also theological debate with those of different world views. C. S. Lewis, St Augustine, and Pope Benedict XVI were formative influences as an undergraduate, whilst more recently he has enjoyed exploring Dante, the twelfth-century Cistercians, and Eastern spiritual theology. | daniel.rowlands@english.op.org

MORE ON: PRAYER, SAINTS, CHRISTIAN LIFE

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