Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Uselessness of Divine Contemplation: Monasticism, liturgy and apostolic engagement

The following excerpt comes the The New Springtime, a journal of Australian Catholic student association, and is taken from the article, The Uselessness of Divine Contemplation: Monasticism, liturgy and apostolic engagement by Thomas Kwok.

The sense of God is readily perceptible in a small Benedictine monastery set in the hills of Provence in France some 40 kilometres from Avignon (a captivating city). The monastery is dedicated to St Mary Magdalene and colloquially referred to as ‘Le Barroux’ after the town in which it is located. I first visited Le Barroux in the midst of the juice and joy of a Provencal Spring in 2005. The night before, I had stayed at a small hotel outside the walls of Avignon, close to the suburb of Monclar which saw some of the worst racial rioting in France. A rattling lampshade from the passing trains and the incessant train announcements over a nearby P.A. system made me question the prudence of choosing a hotel located directly above the train station. I made my way to Le Barroux by bus the next morning, first from Avignon to the town of Carpentras where, having run frantically from bay to bay asking all and sundry of the whereabouts of the bus to Le Barroux using my Frankenstein of French and English, I took a punt on a bus full of raucous high school kids which dropped me by the side of a dirt road with a full backpack and a mere hunch that the right way to walk was uphill.

The monastery sat, indeed, at the top of the hill. It was silent. In the distance on one side stands Mount Ventoux, its imposing form gently sweeping from earth to heaven. To the other side, the sawback ridge of the Dentelles de Montmirail provides a contrasting beauty. The guestmaster received me. Heaving my backpack over his shoulder, he took me to my ‘cell’ with a desk, sink and bed and quickly withdrew to the cloister, into which nobody outside the community may ordinarily enter. The monks live in silence, except for necessary communication. They are cloistered from the world for most of their day because they have consecrated their entire life primarily to carrying out the Opus Dei, the ‘Work of God’, a term most commonly used nowadays to refer to the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei, but which is actually a much more ancient term classically used to denote the liturgical celebration of the Divine Office.

The monastic foundation at Le Barroux can be said to have begun in 1970 when a young man knocked on the door of Fr Gerard Calvet, a Benedictine monk and priest who, with the blessing of his superior, had left his original monastery after a misguided ‘renewal’ made it impossible for him to live the Benedictine life according to the mind of the Church and his solemn vows. As numbers grew, a small foundation was erected in the town of Bedoin. Construction of the monastery at nearby Le Barroux only began in 1980, although its traditional architecture and fittings – simple and solemn – give the abbey a much more ancient character. After a period of canonical ambiguity, the monastery was erected formally as an Abbey in 1988. From two men with no fixed home in 1970, the Abbey is now home to some 80 men with an average age most probably in the late 30s. These are hearty men who in conformity with the Benedictine motto Ora et Labora – Pray and Work – till the soil, bake bread, build furniture, bind books and cook during the day and also dedicate themselves to the arduous task of keeping the divine rhythm of the Opus Dei with liturgical perfection. It is a life of complete commitment.

The solemn offices of Lauds and Vespers in the morning and evening form ‘bookends’ to the rest of the monastic day, with Prime, Terce, Sext and None punctuating the work of the monks. Before the Grand Silence at night, the office of Compline – my favourite office – is chanted in darkness. Hooded monks glide silently into the Church and take their place in their choir stalls, singing from memory the traditional psalms of the night before taking their rest only to rise again at 3:30am for the long celebration of Matins. The Divine Office is ordered towards the great liturgy of the Mass. Each priest in the community says a private Mass after Lauds according to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The sight of priests lined up at side altars around the Church offering the Sacrifice simultaneously in divine choreography is deeply moving and for me, unforgettable. The conventual Mass – with bells, incense and Gregorian chant – is sung using what can be said to be a monastic adaptation of the Extraordinary Form between the offices of Terce and Sext. The standard of the liturgy at Le Barroux accords closely with the vision of the liturgy held by Pope Benedict. As Cardinal Ratzinger, the Holy Father wrote a preface to a book published by Le Barroux in which he commented that “[i]n its practical materialization, liturgical reform has moved further away from this origin. The result was not re-animation but devastation.” At Le Barroux, we have an icon of true liturgical restoration called for by the man who is now Pope Benedict XVI and who, in his momentous document Summorum Pontificum granted freedom to and extolling the liturgical treasure which is of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, praised Pope Gregory the Great in particular for his “concern to ensure the dissemination of monks and nuns who, following the Rule of St. Benedict, together with the announcement of the Gospel illustrated with their lives the wise provision of their Rule that ‘nothing should be placed before the work of God.”

To the world, the life of silence and dedication to the Work of God make no sense. The baking of bread, the building of chairs, the tilling of soil, the binding of books, the cooking of food: these things produce something tangible. The liturgy, on the other hand, does not. Further, in the eyes of the world, so much more could be done and achieved by the monks if they did not keep cloister. As Paul Byrnes, film reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald, said of the Carthusian monks in his review of Into Great Silence: “I ended up wondering why they still live behind high walls, in pursuit of individual enlightenment. Would God think less of them if they went into the nearest village and helped the poor?”

Since the secular world sees the worth of man according to his utility and economic output, the unborn and elderly, lacking this utility and output, become devalued in secular eyes. Like them, divine worship – the very Liturgy of the Church of God Himself – is similarly useless because it is burdensome and a drain on resources. Dom Gerard commented bluntly about this attitude of the world in an address in 1977, in which he stated that “modern living is marked by the sign of the useful, the profitable faced with a manufactured object, the first question posed is ‘What is it for?’ or ‘How much does it cost?’’’. Concluding by way of analogy, Dom Gerard stated that the monastic life of divine contemplation is, like the Louvre – “full of things which are not used for anything” but which finds glory precisely in its ‘uselessness’.

In this respect, the ‘uselessness’ of monastic life at Le Barroux stands as a perfect antithesis of secular society: where society emphasises radical individualism, Le Barroux exemplifies the individual in a community; where society emphasises economic output as the measure of human worth, Le Barroux combines the value of labour with the solemn celebration of the liturgical rites of the Church; where secular society sees religion as a commodity, Le Barroux shows that religion is the Tradition of the Communion of Saints. As a liturgical organism, Le Barroux – and any religious community living according to the mind of the Church – is a rebuff to secularisation, shedding light on the sense of God where it is eclipsed by materialism, individualism and atheism.

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