Category Archives: Chapter Talks (Public)

Chapter Talk – 11/11/18 – Fr. Michael – Developing a Contemplative Consciousness


Recently I have been going through a spiritual biography of Henri Nouwen called “ God’s Beloved” by a Michael O’Laughlin that came out back in 2004. Many of us are familiar with Nouwen as a spiritual writer who was especially gifted at articulating what goes on in many of our lives. As Robert Ellsberg recently said in his lecture at Bellarmine:

“By the time of his passing, thirty-two years later [after coming to the States from Holland] in 1996, he had become one of the most popular and influential spiritual writers in the world. His popularity was only enhanced by his willingness to share his own struggles and brokenness. He did not present himself as a ‘spiritual master,’ but—like the title of one of his early books—as a ‘wounded healer.’ Those who knew him were aware of how deep his wounds ran.”

In this Henri Nouwen was a lot like Merton who reached so many people through his Seven Story Mountain.Both had a living faith and a sense of their own vulnerability, weakness and sensitivity. As they shared their own experience, what was going on in the lives of countless readers was able to be articulated and understood perhaps, for the first time. There was a “down-to-earthiness” in both of them which takes on more and more meaning for our own time.

O’Laughlin quotes from Merton the following:

“Contemplation is not vision because it sees ‘without  seeing’ and knows ‘without knowing.’ It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words, or even in clear concepts. It can be suggested by words, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it knows the contemplative mind takes back what it has said, and denies what it has affirmed. For in contemplation we know by ‘unknowing.’ Or better, we know beyond all knowing or ‘unknowing.’

This is an experience that all newcomers to the monastery go through and in fact, what those who are long members of a community may go through again and again, this experience of unknowing. There is always a way in which we want to have some grasp on what is happening in our lives, want, in a way, to make sense of it but this is where real faith can take place. You would think that someone like Henri Nouwen with all his popularity and success as a writer or teacher, would have been satisfied or fulfilled but the opposite was true. We are told that he “was afflicted by an inordinate need for affection and affirmation; he was beset by anxieties about his identity and self-worth; there seemed to be a void within that could not be filled.” This, it is suggested is what led him to make several moves in his life, from one place or project to another. He moved from Holland to America, to Notre Dame and then to Yale, to our monastery of Genesee and then to Latin America, to thinking of becoming an affiliate of Maryknoll, then to Harvard and finally visiting a number of L’Arche communities in France and Canada, he settled down somewhat at one in Canada.

In the midst of all this Nouwen was drawn into a contemplative experience, like that of Merton in many respects but one that was uniquely his own: He writes:

“We are called to be contemplatives, that is see-ers, men and women who are called to see the coming of God.. The Lord’s coming is an ongoing event around us, between us, and within us. To become a contemplative, therefore, means to throw off—or better, to peel off—the blindfolds that prevent us from seeinghis coming in the midst of our own world. Like John the Baptist, Merton constantly points away from himself to the coming One, and invites us to purify our hearts so that we might indeed recognize him as our Lord.. Thomas Merton invites us to an always deeper awareness of the incomprehensibility of God. He continually unmasks the illusions that we know God and so frees us to see the Lord in always new and surprising ways.” (The Road to Peace: Writings on Peace and Justice, pp 196-97)

When Nouwen speaks of Merton inviting us “to an always deeper awareness of the incomprehensibility of God” there is something unsettling about this but also clarifying and freeing. The danger of any of us is the inclination to try to tie God down or to cling to a certain understanding of God that then puts limits on God’s way of acting in our lives and in the lives of others. Again, it is only when we approach God with faith that we are able to allow God to move freely in our lives. This can be a real challenge and it certainly demands of us a deeper faith or trust if God is to act pervasively in our lives. As they yielded to this mysterious divine presence, there continually opened new horizons in both Merton’s and Nouwen’s lives, horizons that allowed them to accomplish all that they were destined to do.

Any one of us becomes open to these new horizons to the extent that we allow faith, hope and love take hold of us. To do so is to come to realize our full potential. We are all invited to participate in God’s very own life and in doing so our lives are transformed. We allow ourselves to accomplish all that we have been destined to do during our brief sojourn on this earth.


Chapter talk by Fr. Michael Casagram 10/14/18 – Our relationship to Christ


When Fr Eugene Hensell was with us this last time and spoke to us about Christ being a Messenger of Divine Wisdom, he mentioned Dom Columba Marmion as also one who communicated this Wisdom within our Benedictine tradition. Having had a respect for Marmion in my own early monastic formation I thought to pick him up again and share some of his reflections with you this morning.

We have most all of Marmion’s writings in our library and I found a small one that was unfamiliar and have spent some time going through it. It is called SPONSA VERBI: The Virgin Consecrated to Christ.  The book was quick to renew my appreciation of Marmion and to provide what I feel to be, worthwhile material to share with you this AM. Most of you are familiar with Marmion from your own reading so no need to give you background other than to say he is an outstanding Benedictine writer from the early part of the last century, dying Jan. 30th in 1923.

His book, SPONSA VERBI or Spouse of the Word draws heavily on the writings of our own St Bernard, especially his conferences on the Canticle of Canticles. It is not easy for us as a male community to speak of ourselves as Spouses of Christ but if one is familiar with the vocabulary of St Bernard, the relationship of the soul to Christ cannot be better expressed if one is going to captivate its true depth. For Dom Marmion:

“The greatest gift made by God to the human creature is that of his supernatural adoption by grace into Jesus Christ the Word incarnate. The sovereign Being, infinite in all perfections who neither depends on or has need of anyone outside Himself, allows His immeasurable love so to flow over and permeate His creatures that they are elevated thereby to a participation of His life and Felicity. This gift exceeds the demands, surpasses the powers of nature, makes man the child of his Heavenly Father, the brother of Christ, the temple of the Holy Ghost.”

What Marmion reminds us from the very start is how this is all about the movement of grace in our lives, its ability to transform our inner selves so that we begin to share intimately in the very life of God. There are levels or participation in this life or stages of growth before one reaches this sort of communion. We may start off as simple servants, following divine commands as well as we know them. Then we can become the friends of God,  experience something that is a mutual caring. From there we can experience ourselves as children of God, “their life is one of honor, obedience and love give to their Father.”

This stage can develop into something more intimate where one’s relationship to God is like that to a Husband where there are no secrets and the soul “shares with him the greatest intimacy of love.” At this point there cannot be a more intimate union. Monks, by reason of their way of life are drawn more and more into this deeper communion with the Divine life. In fact, I believe this is what draws most of us to the monastery, a sense that communion with the Lord is the only thing that will truly satisfy our deepest longing.

Marmion sees this notion of intimacy with the Lord as grounded in the Gospels. He writes:

“It is in the Gospels that the idea is expressed in all its plenitude; there is its real source; there it stands most clearly revealed. The Incarnate Word, unchangeable Truth, does He not give Himself to the spouse in person in front of whom come the virgins destined to form His court? Is it not from His lips that the most prodigious invitation ever fell that could touch the human heart? ‘All things are ready: come ye to the marriage.’”

Then there are those chapters in John’s gospel, namely 13-17 that speak so intimately of the relationship Jesus wants to have with his disciples, an intimacy that He Himself shares with the Father. A little further on Marmion quotes from one of St. Bernard’s sermons on the Canticle of Canticles:

“When you shall see a soul leave all things to adhere to the Word with all her strength, live by Him, all herself to be guided by Him, conceive what she should bring forth by Him; a soul, in short, who can say: for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain, then you can indubitably recognize her for a spouse of the Word.”

Marmion saw clearly that in seeking this communion with the Lord it demands a willingness to leave all things in order to adhere to the Word with all her strength. It is a matter of entering into that unfathomable love of God for us involved in the self-emptying of the eternal Word in taking on our human flesh. It seems to me that this is why the whole mystery of the Incarnation was so dear to the early Cistercians, the way it so effectively manifests the love of God for us. Marmion shows, (and with this I will close) the excellence of our religious state and asks:

“Will not the contemplation of your high dignity inflame your hearts with a generous love for Him, who without your merit has predestined it for you? I shall essay [write], in the first place, to show you how the sacred Humanity of Jesus is espoused to the Word; for it is there that we shall find the best model of the intimate union that the soul contracts with Christ… May the Immaculate Virgin, from whose fruitful virginity was born the King of Kings, aid us in our task.”

Chapter Talk August 12, 2018. Fr. Michael. St. Benedict’s Use of Sacred Scripture

+ST BENEDICT’S USE OF SACRED SCRITPURE Chapter Talk Fr. Michael 12 Aug. 2018

Since Fr Elias has been giving us an ongoing commentary on the Rule of Benedict, I thought to touch on an aspect of the Rule not often addressed but important for our daily lives as monks. This is St Benedict’s use of Sacred Scripture as the basis and foundation for all that he is seeking to convey in his Rule. Benedict is clear from the beginning in his prologue, how he is seeking to arouse the monk from sleep, giving him a lively sense of God’s presence and action in his life. He saw clearly as the commentary RB 1980 puts it “the value for one seeking to live by the Gospel, of a practical compendium, an abridged version, containing those precepts that applied most directly to the organization of monastic life.”(1) The scriptural quotations Benedict uses are not embellishments but are normative for all that he wishes to convey.

The reason for my touching on this aspect of the Rule is a book I have been going through called Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers by a Chistopher Hall. He does a wonderful job at showing the freedom with which early authorities in Church had in going about scriptural interpretation. They developed four levels of meaning a scriptural text may have: the literal or historical sense, the allegorical or Christological sense, the tropological or moral sense and finally the anagogical or eschatological sense. These levels are based on how writers like St Paul and the gospel of John had already approached the text. These various interpretations were then developed by Origen, one of the earliest and most learned of all the early fathers. They were further developed with varied emphasis given by the different schools of thought, especially the Alexandrian or Antiochene schools. These were all familiar to John Cassian who was to be such a formative influence in the life and thinking of Benedict.

St Benedict was not at all confined in his use of scripture as we so often are in our day by the great emphasis in most of our own lives, on the historical critical method or approach to scripture. For Benedict, the Word of God was living and active, sharper than any two edged sword. He experienced first hand the way Scripture speaks directly to the reader or hearer of the Word. As was true of so many of our early Cistercian fathers after him, Benedict thought biblically, the inspired Word shaping the very pattern of their thought. I have found this most striking in the thought of St Bernard, to where it is not easy at times to distinguish between his own thinking and that of the scriptural writers themselves.

Benedict is said to have as many as 124 O.T. citations or references and 168 from the
New. This is partly due, no doubt, because of the fact that in those days they did
not have all the reading material available as we do. And when they read
Scripture back then, they often did so out loud so that the text left a more lasting
mark on their minds and memory.

We too are exposed to the living Word of God all day long whether through the
Divine Office, our participation in the Eucharist or in our private reading. We too,
may find it refreshing when a scriptural text suggests itself while we are dealing
with a difficult aspect of daily life, or when a text comes off the page in our
private lectio. Though there have been some real advantages that have
come through the use of the historical critical method of interpreting the
Scriptures, we have lost to some degree the deep sense of their sacredness.

Origin, as was true of many of the Fathers had a wonderful awareness of how all
of Scripture is inspired by God, every word of the sacred texts. Origin, Christopher
Hall tells us, insisted that” Christ, the Word of God, speaks throughout the biblical
narrative recorded in the Bible. His words are not only those ‘which He spoke
when He became man and tabernacled in the flesh; for before that time, Christ,
the Word of God, was in Moses and the prophets..’ The words of Moses and of
other prophets ‘were filled with the Spirit of Christ.’” All this is to say that the way
we approach the Scriptures makes a huge difference in what we discover there. If
we are caught in an overly rationalistic or scientific method we will miss the full
depth of their meaning and the many messages they may have for us in our
everyday exposure to them.

What Benedict and the early Fathers loved to do was to ruminate or ponder on
the sacred texts, open themselves to the personal and transforming message they
contain. We can constantly discover new meaning and relevance for our lives if
we let the divine Word come off the page and speak to our hearts. This means, of
course, bringing to them an openness for this kind of personal

Chapter Talk Fr. Michael June 10, 2018

+UNLESS YOU LET HIM WARM YOU MORE Chapter Talk 10th of June, 2018
Fr. Michael Casagram
After an email exchange with Fr Elias, I thought to continue with a few reflections on Pope Francis’ recent exhortation Gaudete et Exultate. In it Francis has a section called “In Constant Prayer” where he speaks of how “holiness consists in a habitual openness to the transcendent, expressed in prayer and adoration.” I am reminded of Benedict telling us in his Rule that a monk is: “to guard himself at every moment from sins and vices of thought or tongue, of hand or foot, of self-will or bodily desire.” He is to “recall that he is always seen by God in heaven, that his actions everywhere are in God’s sight and are reported by angels at every hour.”
Pope Francis then quotes from John of the Cross on how we are to “try to be continuous in prayer, and in the midst of bodily exercises do not leave it. Whether you eat, drink, talk with others, or do anything. Always go to God and attach your heart to him.” So much of our life is designed precisely to bring about this continual awareness of the divine presence so that it infiltrates and transforms all that we think, do or say. The danger for any of us all day long, is to take charge of our lives, to take control rather than let grace inform all that we do. Allowing grace to govern our lives does not stand in the way of exercising our freedom which God respects at all times, but enables us to use our freedom in a way that is wonderfully creative, fulfilling our deepest longings.
To develop this openness to grace throughout the day is greatly assisted by having moments alone with God which Pope Francis, quoting Teresa of Avila describes as “nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with him who we know loves us.” We can make prayer a complicated thing and again there is a tendency in us to do this, to develop techniques that work for a time but then, all too easily, becomes routine or habit without inner content and the engagement of our deeper selves. Seeing prayer as friendly intercourse, or heartfelt conversation with God, allows it to become intimate, engaging of the whole of our lives, giving them purpose, full of vitality.
We are daily engaged in the prayer of the Church through the Divine Office but
for these Offices to become fully fruitful in our lives and the whole Body of Christ,
it is so important that we take time for personal and private prayer. In a real way
the one enforces the other, increase the depth of each other. Francis speaks of
how “contemplation of the face of Jesus.. restores our humanity, even when it
has been broken by the troubles of this life or marred by sin.” He then asks us:
“Are there moments when you place yourself quietly in the Lord’s
presence, when you calmly spend time with him, when you bask in his
gaze? Do you let his fire inflame your heart? Unless you let him warm you
more and more with his love and tenderness, you will not catch fire. How
will you then be able to set the hearts of others on fire by your words and
witness? If, gazing on the face of Christ, you feel unable to let yourself be
healed and transformed, then enter into the Lord’s heart, into his wounds,
for that is the abode of divine mercy”
Here Francis is basing himself on a sermon of St Bernard on the Canticle of
Canticles. For Bernard, our hearts come alive and energized is when we immerse
ourselves in the wounds and open side of Christ. “For me,” he writes:
“whatever is lacking in my own resources I appropriate for myself from the
heart of the Lord, which overflows with mercy. And there is no lack of clefts
by which they are poured out. They pierced his hands and his feet, they
gored his side with a lance, and through these fissures I can suck honey
from the rock and oil from the flinty stone—I can taste and see that the
Lord is good.”
A little further on St Bernard goes on to say:
“If the mercies of the Lord are from eternity to eternity, I for my part will
chant the mercies of the Lord forever. But would this be my own
righteousness? ‘Lord, I will be mindful of your righteousness only.’ For that
is also mine, since God has made you my righteousness.”
This is a lot like what Ronald Rolheiser has been telling in the book, Sacred Fire,
recently being read in the refectory, about the value of affective prayer for our
lives. Through it we are able to express our deepest longing and hope from life.
Nothing so much delights the human heart as to love and to be loved. And in the
evening of life as St John of the Cross has so beautifully reminded us, this is all
that will really matters. We have only to take the time, have the nerve to honestly
express what is really going on in our lives given to God

Chapter Talk – Fr. Michael – 3/11/18 – Mary, Pondering in her Heart

+Mary, Pondering in her Heart                                               Chapter Talk 11 March 2018

This morning I would like to touch upon one final aspect of Ronald Rolheiser’s book, Sacred Fire. as a way of entering into these final weeks of Lent. We can find in Mary a paradigm of mature discipleship as one who became a true follower of Jesus through her pondering the mystery of the One to whom she gave birth. Fr Elias spoke last Sunday of “reading that touches the heart, [that] brings us into touch with the history of our heart, that is, all the events, moments, and realizations that have shaped who we are.” Mary, pondering the events in her own life, became not only a hearer of the word but one who kept it, lived it with the whole of her being.

We all too easily think of pondering as simply a matter of thinking something through in all its depth and implications which is something we get from a Greek philosophical point of view. In Hebrew thought, as Rolheiser brings out, to ponder means “to hold, carry, and transform tension so as not to give it back in kind, knowing that whatever energies we do not transform we will transmit.” Taken in this sense, Mary’s standing at the foot of the cross where her Son was dying, is the authentic expression of what real pondering brings about. On the surface she seems to be doing nothing. “She does not speak, does not try to stop the crucifixion, and does not even protest its unfairness or plead Jesus’s innocence. She is mute, seemingly passive, overtly not doing anything. But at a deeper level she is doing all that can be done when one is standing under the weight of the cross, she is holding and carrying the tension, standing in strength, refusing to give back in kind, and resisting in a deep way.”

It seems to me that so much of our own way of life like that of Christians giving authentic witness throughout the world, consists in this kind of pondering. By doing so, we transform the tension in our lives and in the world around us so as not to transmit the negative energy of evil we experience. While there are times to protest, to object to injustice and do all we can to stop it, more often than not in our world today, something far more than shouts and protests is needed. This is when we too are asked, to stand at the foot of the cross where we and so many in our world are suffering, so as to absorb its bitterness by refusing to participate in its energy.

As monks, it seems to me, we do this all day long as we stand in choir and allow the full range human feeling expressed in the psalms, to pass through our hearts and from our lips. Our public prayer is that of the whole human family, often giving expression to some of its deepest anguish as well as its joyful praise. A wide variety of human suffering finds expression through these many hours standing in Choir. At times we can begin to think of it as a relentlessly boring ritual but is it not at these very times that we can let ourselves become one with the cry of the rest of humanity. Thus we come to deal with what’s going on within our own hearts in choir, as well as what is being experienced in the wider human family. And isn’t this the wisdom, the beauty of what takes place there that so inspired St. Benedict to remind us that nothing whatsoever should be preferred to it.

This kind of prayerful pondering is the very thing that Jesus allowed to be acted out in his own life. Jesus as the sacrificial lamb who takes away the sins of the world is a metaphor used by the very first Christians for interpreting his death. It is fully consistent with a long history of the Jewish people and their offerings of sacrifice. This is why, as Rolheiser points out, “his followers would, almost spontaneously, ascribe the image of sacrificial lamb to him, and that is the concept of the scapegoat. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is not just any lamb, he is the scapegoat lamb.” It became a symbolic animal, invested with all the tensions and divisions of a community and then was chased off to die in the desert.

Jesus functions like the sacrificial scapegoat, taking away the tensions and sins of the community not by some type of psychological transference or spiritual magic as did the ancient scapegoat. Rather, Rolheiser tells us:

“he takes away the tensions and sins of the community by absorbing them, carrying them, transforming them, and not by giving them back in kind. [For the first Christians] in their understanding, Jesus did this by functioning like a water purifier, a filter of sorts. In looking at his death, they understood this: he took in hatred, held it, transformed it, and gave back love, he took in bitterness, held it, transformed it, and gave back graciousness, he took in curses, held them, transformed them, and gave back blessings, and he took in murder, held it, transformed it, and gave back forgiveness… He took away the sins of the world by absorbing them, at great cost to himself.”

As we enter into these final days of Lent and allow ourselves to reflect on Christ’s suffering and death and on Mary’s pondering, more than admiration is asked of us. It is a call to imitation. What took place in their lives is to continue to unfold in our own. God’s redeeming work continues through each of our lives as we live in community and allow the love that filled their lives, to fill our own. Each of us as St Paul reminds us, is invited to fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ so that the whole human family may be healed, realizing the image and likeness of God in which it was first formed.


Chapter Talk – 2/4/18 – Fr. Michael – Go Sell Everything…and Come Follow Me

+GO SELL EVERYTHING..AND COME FOLLOW ME          Chapter Talk 35, Feb. 2018

This morning I thought to continue with some reflections that Ronald Rolheiser shares in his book called Sacred Fire. At one point he gets into those words of Jesus to the rich young man, that were so transformative in the life of St Antony the early monk. Jesus tells the young man that he lacks “one thing. If you would receive eternal life, go sell everything that you have, give the money to the poor, and come and follow me.”

Rolheiser then uses one of the great desert father stories as a means of interpreting these words of Jesus:

“Abbot Lot went to see Abbot Joseph and said: ‘Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of bad thoughts: now what more should I do?’ The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like lamps of fire. He said: ‘Why not become all flame?’’

One of the things I think many of us have learned over the years is how those entering a monastic community like ours, are highly motivated. We have looked at what the world has to offer, perhaps even looked closely at what other religious communities have to offer and felt neither one nor the other were for us. God leads each one of us here for reasons that often we do not fully understand, reasons that our friends or family have also had a hard time trying to grasp.

It is not that we are any better than those who have chosen another way of life either as a married person, the single life or as an active religious, it’s just that the hiddenness of this life is what attracted us. The caption over the gate near the entrance to our retreathouse, “God Alone,” captures some of the meaning though I am one of those who have felt that my life here is anything but about God Alone, given over as I want it to be, a life given to God out of love for all my brothers and sisters. We recently listened in the refectory to Rolheiser expounding on prayer, especially the public prayer of monks and religious as being the prayer of the whole human family and not at all a matter of private devotion. At the center of our life is the Divine Office where we give expression to the longing of all of humanity and not only of all humanity but of all of creation.

“For Creation awaits with eager expectation.” St Paul tells us, “the revelation of the children of God… We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Sometimes in choir we may feel, or the cantors feel, there is too much groaning going on but we can never really escape the labor that goes on there. When feeling the weight of it, we might simply remember what St Paul has reminded us so long ago, that we are a part of something far larger than our own lives, bringing about a transformation through the presence and working of the Holy Spirit, of a whole new creation whose life will never end.

Roldheiser tells the story of a group of priests he came to know, the leader of whom had become fed up with the mediocrity in his life. He had worked hard at fulfilling his priestly duties but then would go looking for compensations in order to deal with tensions this work was causing him. Gathering a group of priests around him, they decided to become totally transparent with one another. They began meeting on a weekly basis and told themselves:

“We want to be priests whose lives are fully transparent, so that when people see us, what they see is truly what they get! We call ourselves a group for ‘radical sobriety,’ though none of us has ever had a problem with alcohol; but none of us has ever had full sobriety either. Full sobriety is full transparency, and full transparency is full honesty.”

Transparency is never easy for any of us but isn’t this what we are seeking through community life? And isn’t this what will help us all in the Order to move toward the “refounding” of our communities as is talked about these days?  One of the youngest in the group of priests who gathered for this purpose, admitted of finding what they were doing one of the hardest things he ever did in his life. “Not the confession to others, since I trust them, but being thirty-eight years old and trying to live like Mother Teresa. That’s hard.” And then he added: “But it’s also the best thing I have ever done! I have never been this happy.”

We, as a community, have worked toward this kind of transparency though there is always room to grow. It is this transparency that enables us to recognize who we truly are before God, allows us to lift our hands in prayer in such a way that we too in our own time, “become all flame.”


Chapter Talk – Fr Michael, Sunday, June 18th – Trinity and Our life of Prayer

+The Trinity and Our Life of Prayer Cont.    Chapter Talk  June 18, 2017          

As I suggested last week, I would like to continue to reflect with you about the mystery of the Trinity and our life of prayer. I feel this is related also to the Solemnity of Corpus Christi today and the coming Solemnity of the Sacred Heart this coming Friday.

In the writing of St Augustine the Holy Spirit is perceived primarily as love in the life of the Trinity more as a psychological illustration of the relationship of the persons. In the writing of William of St Thierry there is an emphasis on the Holy Spirit being the source of unity between Father and Son. It is a unity of love but clearly the emphasis is on the mutuality of this love to be experienced by those who share in this love of the Father and Son.

Here I would like to refer again to the treatise of Odo Brooke on William’s doctrine where he says:

“The Holy Spirit is ..conceived primarily as the mutual union between the Father and the Son, which is the foundation for the doctrine [in William’s writings] of the restoration of resemblance, a participation in the life of the Holy Spirit by sharing in the mutual union of the Father and the Son. This is described in terms of daring realism, portraying a unity of spirit, whereby the soul becomes as it were the life of the Holy Spirit himself. At the same time he guards carefully against the danger of pantheism.”

I’m seeing here also a connection with the feast of Corpus Christi that we are celebrating for as St Paul tells us in his 1st letter to the Corinthians “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.” All of us gathered here are from very different backgrounds but by reason of sharing in the one Spirit we form one body, becoming in Christ members of one another.

We realize our oneness in Christ as we allow each of our lives to take on a divine resemblance, to become conformed more each day to the mind of Christ. In William’s Golden Epistle where he speaks of this resemblance to God that comes about as our hearts are purified of sin and evil habits, he writes:

“It is called unity of spirit not only because the Holy Spirit brings it about or inclines a man’s spirit to it, but because it is the Holy Spirit himself, the God who is Charity… The soul in its happiness finds itself standing midway in the Embrace and the Kiss of Father and Son. In a manner which exceeds description and thought, the man of God is found worth to become not God but what God is, that is to say, becomes through grace what God is by nature.”

This movement in the human person towards divine ‘resemblance’ is indeed the dominant theme of William’s spirituality and of his Trinitarian theology.” While this movement takes place over a life time, the goal is clear. The stages we go through are those of being at first governed by the senses, our personal wants and needs. Our senses are fundamentally good but the way in which we use them, makes an enormous difference. Dealing with our senses is closely related in William’s thought to the mystery of the Incarnation. The temporal economy in which we live forms so many stepping stones toward the eternal, our sharing in the dynamic life of the Trinity. All aspects of life around us become sacraments whereby what is eternal, spiritual and everlasting is manifest.

The Blessed Sacrament exposed for adoration on our altar and altars throughout the world today is God’s design to makes us aware of Christ’s presence among us. Christ is continually drawing us into his own love of the Father through the Living Flame of the Holy Spirit. Let me conclude with a quote for St John Vianney that speaks to me deeply of this mystery:

“Let us open the door of the Sacred Heart, and shut ourselves in for a moment amid its Divine flames; we shall then realize what God’s love means…

Chapter talk by Fr Michael

The Trinity and Our Prayer Life                     Chapter Talk  11 June, 2017

This morning I would like to touch on the mystery of the Trinity and our life of prayer. Today is a Solemnity and we can see it as just one more such feasts in the Church year, a great mystery to be celebrated but not having a lot to do with our everyday lives. Our early Cistercian Fathers saw it as having far more significance, a mystery we are living with the whole of our lives, touching them deeply by what is there revealed to us.

What I see William of St Thierry and St Bernard doing as well as the more modern writer Catherine LaCugna in her book, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian life, is turning our celebration of this mystery from being an abstract and hidden doctrine into an expression that is close to home, expressing our own and others’ inner experience of God.

The great danger, as the Benedictine Odo Brooke brings out is:

“that we think of the Trinity too exclusively in terms of the Processions within themselves and of the speculative theological problems arising from the mystery of three persons in  one identical nature. However important this is for theology, if the Trinity is viewed almost entirely from this angle, it will inevitable appear remote from the lives of the faithful. The perspective is changed once it is realized that Revelation presents the Trinity first of all as the intervention of the [three] persons for our salvation, according to the relationship ‘from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit to the Father.’ ..In Scripture and in the Liturgy, the Trinity is presented not only with an emphasis on the intervention in the history of salvation, but also on the persons in their distinct relationship rather than on their unity of nature. ”

Once we begin to focus on the relationship of the three person of the Holy Trinity it is not long before we see the value of this relationship in our own lives and in all of our contacts with others. We come to see as Odo Brooke goes on to say that:

“the spiritual life at its deepest level is seen as an experience of the Trinitatian life of the  Holy Spirit. Mysticism is here shown to us not primarily as an advance in states of prayer to be analyzed and charted. It is shown as the ultimate meaning of the human being, and that meaning is to be found in the Trinity.”

What William of St Thierry and other early Cistercians saw was that the image of God in us is the very basis of our relationship and ascent to God. We have the imprint of the Trinity in our very makeup, in our very nature. As Brooke points out the whole trend of William’s thought “is to portray the image [of  God in us] as a dynamic force, impelling the soul towards its perfection in the likeness [of God]… towards union with the Trinity.”

William goes so far as to say in his work Aenigma Fidei that “those to whom the Father and the Son reveal each other know exactly as the Father and the Son know each other.” About this Odo Brooke adds:

“This knowledge is from the Holy Spirit; more, it is a share in the very life of the Spirit. It comes wholly from within the Spirit; and it is a stage of transition from faith to sight. It is an anticipation, however remote, of the final vision of God.”

Our life as Christians, as monks is to make us ever more attentive and attuned to this life of the Spirit, to the realization that nothing escapes the movement of grace in our daily lives. Wherever we may be, whether in our rooms, in Choir, at our places of work, in the kitchen, we are in God’s presence, in the presence of a God who deeply loves us and is continually inviting us to share in the very life of the Trinity itself.


Chapter Talk by Fr Michael April 23rd

+THE ART OF AFFIRMATION              Chapter Talk-23 April 2017

Some months ago I was sent a copy of a book called The Art of Affirmation by a Dr Robert Furey, the new president of Consultation Center in St Louis where I went some years ago to be with other priests and religious dealing with issues in their personal lives. When I did my final session there this past March, I had a chance to meet and speak with this Robert Furey and found him giving witness to the Art he writes about. So I thought to share some of his ideas and how they have particular relevance for our own lives.

Let me begin with a clarification of what the Robert Furey means by affirmation. “Affirmation,” he writes, “is the sincere expression of appreciation for a person’s remarkable qualities. It is through this recognition and appreciation that these abilities emerge and grow. Affirmation is a universal need. It is essential for human growth and happiness.” We have all heard or read of young people who, having been affirmed early in life, develop into gifted and mature human beings. To affirm someone is not just about telling them you are a wonderful person and are doing great. It is a real and heartfelt appreciation of the person’s gifts and potential for growth.

Reflecting on this and on our own Cistercian spirituality, I became more aware of how much of St Bernard’s theology is based on an affirmation drawn from Scripture where we are told of our being made in God’s image and likeness. Our likeness to God has been lost through sin but the image of God in us is ever present. It continually beckons us to regain our divine likeness by recognizing our pride.  Through the practice of humility, we then allow grace to once again govern our lives.

How this idea of affirmation resides deep in our own tradition again came home to me as I read through the sermon of Bl Guerric of Igny that we heard yesterday morning. He tells us: “Thanks be to God who has given us the victory both over sin and over death, through Our Lord Jesus Christ. Wholly innocent of sin and therefore free from the debt of death, he yet paid it, dying of his own will on our behalf; and rising he has set us free from sin. For as St Paul says, ‘Christ died for our sins and rose for our justification.’ By dying he underwent the punishment due to our sins, and by rising he established for us the form and the cause of everlasting justification.” In so far as we come into a living awareness of what Christ had done for us, we are affirm for our greatest potential.

The demands of our way of life become much easier to embrace as we recognize this divine initiative, realize how much grace is at work in us  as we learn to trust in God’s loving support. And as we see grace at work in our lives, we more easily see it at work in the lives of all those with whom we live.

To quote from Robert Furey again: “As you get better at seeing people’s special gifts, the world becomes more beautiful. You see more and more the valuable qualities that people offer. Your journey in life becomes more scenic when you recognize the beauty in people.” There are times I wonder whether we realize how privileged we are living among brothers who are so highly motivated amid whatever personal failings they may have. Sometimes we have occasion to really get to know one or other of our brethren and see the beauty of their lives and usually because of the recognition of the beauty in our own lives.

There are times then we think so and so has been greatly blessed, he doesn’t need affirmation. Dr Furey admits as much about himself when he writes: “I once believed that successful people didn’t need affirmation. I just thought there were some individuals who already knew how valued they were and thus didn’t need to hear it. I know now this isn’t true. Over the years I’ve met many accomplished people who yearn to know that they are appreciated. The lesson is simple: we all need affirmation.

A bit further on he writes: “..There’s an unfortunate myth about the relationship between affirmation and arrogance. According to this misconception, if I acknowledge your positive traits, I will contribute to your conceit, grandiosity, and naricissim. In other words, the human ego is so prone to extremes that encouragement is likely to make someone feel superior. This myth has killed many kind words.

Here lies an interesting twist [he says]: real affirmation does not typically lead to inflated egos. In fact, it more often produces humility. Affirmation is an expression of gratitude. Where there is gratitude there is humility. Good affirmation guides us to feel grateful for what we have been given.”

So much of our life, it seems to me, is learning to live with gratitude, to learn to give thanks in all circumstances as St Paul tells us, knowing that God’s grace is ever at work in us. Learning to affirm, which is a real art, helps those around us to live humbly as the Rule calls us to do. It enables us to live in an abiding sense of divine grace ever at work at the center of our being.