April 17, 2015, Friday — Matins in Norcia

“Christ Jesus, high priest of the new and eternal covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven. He joins the entire community of mankind to Himself, associating it with His own singing of this canticle of divine praise… By tradition going back to early Christian times, the divine office is devised so that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praises of God… It is the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His body, addresses to the Father.”
Sacrosanctum Concilium, document of the Second Vatican Council on the Liturgy, Chapter 4, Paragraphs 83 and 84

My leather shoes sounded through the silent streets of Norcia this morning, at 3:56 a.m.

I reached the main square of the town, dominated by the statue of St. Benedict, who lifts his hand high, as the teacher of Europe. He lived 67 years, from 480 to March 21, 547 A.D. — 1500 years ago, in the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West.

The statue’s inscription begins with “Benedicto” — “To Benedict” in the dative case — and speaks of his work in founding Western monasticism, and favoring all sorts of improvements in Western agricultural methods.

I had come here at the request of the Guest Master of the Benedictine monastery located on the site of the birth of St. Benedict, Patron Saint of Europe.

Here is the Guest Master, Brother Ignatius, a Benedictine monk from Indonesia.

I had a Breviarium Monasticum — Monastic Breviary — in my hand, and a thin jacket against the morning chill.

The city was lifeless, silent.

A dark sky and stone streets. Cool, not cold.

The mountains round the city were like walls against the star-marked sky, and a small moon.

When I reached the church door, it was open. I walked in just before 4 a.m.

Twelve monks, six facing six, were seated in front of the altar. I was the only other person present.

My first thought, as I took my seat in the Church of St. Benedict, is that we are still here, we 12 — or 13, counting me.

Still here, in 2015…

And then I thought, in a week’s time, in America, 9 others, judges on the nation’s Supreme Court — including two who, if they had any sense of dignity or decorum in the exercise of their judicial authority, would recuse themselves because they have already by their actions pre-judged the case they are about to hear — will begin to hear arguments on marriages between members of the same gender…

Twelve monks in Norcia, at 4 a.m., associating themselves with the hymn of praise sung by Christ to the maker of all (see my quotation at the outset, from the Second Vatican Council)… and 9 American judges, about to take a decision — if all observers are correct — on the nature of human identity and the meaning of marriage that will be without precedent in the annals of civilized human society…

The chant began, with low tones, without microphones, but the voices filled the church.

I was tired, but glad to be present.

The monks bowed at the end of each Psalm — the essence of the office is the chant of the Psalms — and I bowed with them. I did it even though I felt tired and very stiff, and I was glad I did it.

I thought of the poetry of T.S.Eliot, which my father used to chant to me, ages ago, when I was young (now my father is 88, and still quite well, though his hair is white, just like Emeritus Pope Benedict…)

Here are the lines from Eliot, which echoed in my mind as the monks chanted in the church in Norcia:

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

And so it is, in the end, only Christ.

Our hope is not in Barack Obama, not in Vladimir Putin, not in Francois Hollande, not in Angela Merkel, not in the justices of the US Supreme Court — who have so little sense of the dignity and of the importance of their office, so little sense of the shame they rightly ought to have — no…

Our hope is in Christ, and only in Him.

And so our hymn is joined to His.

It is the hymn of King David.

The Psalms.

As the monks chant, as I listen, and read the Latin words — for these monks chant everything in Latin, not a word of any other language.

And I think, “These monks, half of whom are from America, are the heirs of the Jewish people, who loved the words of the Psalms — the words King David wrote 3,000 years ago, the words Christ himself prayed in Palestine 2,000 years ago…”

Miserere mei, Domine, quoniam ad te clamavi tota die” — “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I have cried to thee all the day…”

Yes, just as Pope Francis has called on the Christian people to avail themselves of God’s mercy, so these 12 monks, following King David, following Christ, are calling out to God for mercy.

Quia misericordia tua magna est super me: et eruisti animam meam ex inferno inferiori” — “For your mercy is great towards me: and thou hast delivered my soul out of the lower hell.”

And I thought, “This is true, true precisely for me, as it was for King David, for when I was young, before I was 20, I experienced, for 70 days, being in a ‘lower hell’; and then, through the grace of God, I experienced a freeing, a healing, a deliverance, which was both inexplicable to me, and marvelous.”

And I thought again of T.S. Eliot, and of the poetry that my father once recited to me, when I was a child:

There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge inposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been…
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God…

Of all fears, the fear of belonging to God must be the most foolish. For who other than God could order our lives, our being, into right paths?

And yet, creatures such as we, such as myself, desire not be be possessed, not to be owned, even by God.

And this, as I have found, is the source of our deepest sorrow.

The monks, in their chant, are teaching me this.

And suddently I realize, once again, in this church in Norcia, in the center of Italy, before dawn, in the middle of April in the year 2015, that there is no way to communicate the things one sees, and feels, and experiences — no way to express what it means to be touched and healed by the Almighty… Holy is His Name.

There is only the endless attempt to express what can only be an approximation, to express an endless sense of gratitude that what is inexpressible can yet be real, even if unable to be communicated.

As Eliot wrote:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years —
Twenty years largely wasted…
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholy new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

And the monks continued their chant:

“Misericordias Domini in aeternum cantabo,
In generationem et generationem, annuntiabo veritatem tuam in ore meo”

(“The mercies of the Lord I will sing forever, To generation and generation I will show forth thy truth with my mouth.”)

And then I notice that there are two words that are often together in the Psalms of David, which Christ also prayed, which these monks now pray: mercy and truth.

Mercy, and also truth.

“Misericordia et veritas praecedent faciem tuam: beatus populus, qui scit jubilationem. Domine, in lumine vultus tui ambulabunt…”

(“Mercy and truth shall go before thy face: blessed is the people that knoweth jubilation. They shall walk, O Lord, in the light of thy countenance…”)

And so, it seems clear, that the Jubilee of Mercy called now by Pope Francis, is also, and equally, a Jubilee of Truth, as David the Psalmist sang, as Christ himself prayed when he walked on this earth, and as these monks also pray, in the dark hours just before the dawn, in Norcia, where St. Benedict was born….

Correction: I wrote yesterday that Pope Benedict celebrated his 88th birthday outside of Rome, in Castel Gandolfo — relying on an Associated Press report — but this was not true. Rather, Emeritus Pope Benedict was at his residence, in the convent Mater Ecclesie inside the Vatican where has has lived for the past two years. My apologies for this error.)

Note: For those who would like to travel with us on pilgrimage:

(1) In mid-July 2015, we will travel with a small group of Inside the Vatican readers on our annual “Urbi et Orbi” pilgrimage to Russia, Turkey and the Vatican, to visit eastern Orthodox leaders, shrines and monasteries, and to talk with Vatican officials about ecumenical relations between Catholics and Orthodox;

(2) On December 8, 2015, and again on November 20, 2016, we will be gathering in Rome to be present when Pope Francis opens the Holy Door to begin his Special Jubilee of Mercy, and when he closes the door to end the Jubilee Year. If you would like to join us on one or more of these pilgrimages, email now for more information…

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What is the glory of God?

“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.” —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, in his great work Against All Heresies, written c. 180 A.D.

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