Thursday, December 22, 2016

Dom Benedict Andersen's Lecture on Benedictine Liturgical Ideals and the New Evangelisation

Dom Benedict Andersen, Sub-Prior of Silverstream Monastery in Ireland, gave a lecture at the last Society for Catholic Liturgy conference and has asked NLM to make available a link to the audio recording. I will say this much: the talk is dynamite. It is quite possibly the best statement I have seen of the intimate relationship between a serious commitment to liturgy as central in the Christian life and the success of any attempted evangelization of the modern world. Yes, it is a theme familiar to the pages of NLM, but Dom Benedict brings together a veritable compendium of the best authors and ideas on the topic, and synthesizes them with great skill. Highly recommended.

With his permission, I am attaching a short excerpt of the talk, to whet the appetite.

Dom Benedict Maria Andersen, OSB
The year is 988. Emissaries of Vladimir, the grand prince of Kiev, have been sent out on mission on a vitally important mission. Their orders are to find among the various nations a new religion which will be able to lure their tribes away from servitude to the cruel gods of their fathers, and which can forge them into one people, praising one Creator with one voice, one heart, and one mind. After many months of searching, the emissaries of Vladimir finally find what they had been looking for within the walls of the great imperial church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople. They sent the following report home:
[T]he Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth, there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.
Fast forward about a thousand years, to rural Kentucky, 1941. A young bohemian writer, a recent convert to Catholicism, arrives at the Abbey of Gethsemani to consider his vocation in life. Early in the morning, before the dawn, he witnesses simultaneous celebrations of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass by an army of priest-monks. The experience somehow hits the young man with the full force of a mystical revelation, akin to the lifting of the veil separating heaven from earth. “The overpowering atmosphere of prayers so fervent that they were almost tangible,” he says, “choked [him] with love and reverence” to the point where he “could only get the air in gasps.” “Here,” he writes,
even through only ordinary channels, came to me graces that overwhelmed me like a tidal wave, truths that drowned me with the force of their impact: and all through the plain, normal means of the liturgy — but the liturgy used properly, and with reverence, by souls inured to sacrifice. […] The eloquence of this liturgy was even more tremendous: and what it said was one, simple, cogent, tremendous truth: this church, the court of the Queen of Heaven, is the real capital of the country in which we are living. This is the center of all the vitality that is in America. This is the cause and reason why the nation is holding together. These men, hidden in the anonymity of their choir and their white cowls, are doing for their land what no army, no congress, no president could ever do as such: they are winning for it the grace and the protection and the friendship of God.
Reflecting on this first experience of monastic worship, Father Louis Merton remarks:
Certainly one thing the monk does not, or cannot, realize is the effect which these liturgical functions, performed by a group as such, have upon those who see them. The lessons, the truths, the incidents and values portrayed are simply overwhelming.
I open with these stories — from 10th century Russia and the 20th century American South — to illustrate something which, I believe, is absolutely crucial to the challence of carrying out the New Evangelisation: the leading of souls along the via pulchritudinis, a glimpse of that heavenly splendor that so seduced the Kievan pagans to Christ, and caused a young American man to leave all and take up his Cross in the obscurity of the cloister. And where better to find a school of Catholic spirituality so thoroughly infused a sense of this primacy than in traditional monasticism? If, as history shows us, monasticism was the spiritual engine of the “Old Evangelization” of Europe, then it stands to reason that a healthy, robust, renewed monasticism might once again become for the Church a source of inspiration and new vitality as she labors for the turning of believers and unbelievers alike to Christ, so that they, with St Ambrose, can say: “Face to face, thou hast made thyself known to me, O Christ; I have found thee in thy mysteries.”

Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote: “How we attend to liturgy determines the fate of the faith and the Church.” When we cannot pray aright, we as a Church can’t think aright, we can’t live aright — and we certainly can’t evangelise aright. If there is some kind of malfunction in the Church’s approach to the sacred mysteries, there will always be a corresponding malfunction in the Church’s ability to evangelize. Is this not a serious betrayal of the mandate we have been given by the Church to become true agents of the New Evangelization?

(Listen to the whole talk here.)

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