I have been thinking and writing about silence a lot because I have been reading "Saint John Cassian on Prayer" and because I have had some times away from home in complete silence. I highly recommend both activities. (As an aside, I feel more rested than I have in over four years. It’s bad for the spiritual life to be bone weary and drained of energy for long periods of time. Note to self — don’t let this happen again. It really is true that many problems are solved just by getting enough rest.)
OK, back on track in this blog.... I understand better why preparation for prayer is essential and why it is an important monastic principle.
Saint John Cassian wrote:
"... [W]e need to prepare ourselves before the time for prayer to be as we would wish to be found when we pray, since the mind is shaped in its petitions by its previous state. As we bend ourselves to pray, images of the same deeds or words or thoughts in keeping with our previous condition will dance before our eyes to anger us, or sadden us, or recall former projects and lusts, or shake us with stupid laughter...." "Saint John Cassian on Prayer," translated by A.M. Casiday, pages 12 and 13.
Cassian’s insight into WHY we should prepare for prayer is a good reason for me to spend time in the church before the times for the Divine Office and in silence in my home. I hope to soon return to the abbey for a visit. I will let you know.
Monday, July 28, 2008
Saturday, July 26, 2008
After reading some recommended first books on becoming an oblate, and after I had read several other books, and the RB 1980: Rule of St. Benedict, and began using Benedictine Daily Prayer to pray the Divine Office each day, I was ready to head out into the wilderness and read some classic ancient works — those that are more foundational to monastic practices. I wondered where did all this come from? I started with Cassian.
For those of you who do not know him — St. John Cassian (360-435 AD) was perhaps born in either what is now France or Romania and spent time with the early desert monks in Egypt.
If you only know one thing about St. Cassian — it should be that John Cassian’s accounts and interpretations were important in the “transmission of the culture of Egyptian monasticism into the early medieval west.”
This means that Cassian is a principal figure in the development of monastic principles and practices that are seen later in the Rule of St. Benedict (480-543 AD) which has been described as the most important book to western civilization other than the Bible.
For those who may think St. Benedict is one of the Pope's 16 brothers, and for an initial look at Benedictine spirituality and the life of St. Benedict, here is a summary of it all.
If you are or become interested in monasticism or the desert fathers, you will being walking in the footsteps of St. John Cassian — what a guy!
And when I heard from many mature oblates and monks that oblates should read Cassian. I started with "Saint John Cassian on Prayer," translated by A.M. Casiday ISBN 9780728301665
So, as I sit here today and pray the Divine Office, I can trace what I pray and why I pray to the Rule of St. Benedict, then to St. John Cassian, and then back to the first desert fathers in Egypt about 300 AD — and then into the Bible.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
The art, designs, forms, and symbols in the interior of a church are a language that speaks to those who enter. See the blog The Silent Sanctuary Speaks I wrote a few days ago.
This language of art and designs — which is mostly unknown to me — spoke of four functions. At least that is what I thought I could hear murmuring as I sat on the pew and looked around at the cool church before the monks came in for the Divine Office.
CARRYING ME SAFELY TO THE MASS.
The interior of the church contained pictures of angels and I recalled Psalm 91 which is part of Compline Divine Office and that wonderful verse, “For God commands the angels to guard you in all your ways. With their hands they shall support you, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”
I knew that these visual stories were intended to help strengthen me and carry me in safety.
RECALLING GOD’S WORKS.
I sometimes look at a stained-glass window and the book or an animal or container it depicts along side the saint.
If I have a general idea of what the scene is about, I will do some study to learn about the major themes in that saint’s life and I can sometimes learn more about what work of God is being shown and that I should have readily in my mind.
It is exciting to try to solve the mystery of what’s being shown in the stained-glass window.
If this interests you and you want to help my current mystery, I think the stained-glass window at the top of this post is St. Benedict at the cave of Subiaco, the bread on the rope is from monk Romanus who supplied Benedict out of Romanus’ own allowance. The bell is so that St. Benedict will know the bread is there. I think the bird and the cross tell the story of when Benedict was assailed by temptation.
But what is the blue jar or vase? And I think there is an hour glass? Is the hour glass for knowing when to pray the liturgy of the hours?
I think the stained glass window’s scene is from Chapters 1 and 2 of “The Life of Our Most Holy Father Saint Benedict,” by Pope Saint Gregory the Great.
Here are some beautiful pictures of the Subiaco cave.
CLEANSING THE MIND.
The cloud of witnesses and acts of God spoken of by the church’s interior help me shed the anxieties of the world, the interior of the church holds my heart and mind on God. I have found no place better than the interior of a silent yet speaking church for this important part of prayer.
SUPPORTING THE LITURGY.
Liturgy — public acts of worship — are aided by the language of the art, forms, and designs in the church — like a choir singing.
I miss going to the abbey church. Maybe I can go next week.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
I grew up in a secular family. I am a former atheist, former Protestant evangelical in the Reformed tradition, and now a oblate at a Catholic Benedictine monastery.
But all that is just background. Even before I became a Christian, I had been inside and seen pictures of the interiors of older Catholic churches.
I thought that Catholic church interiors look the way they do (especially the older ones) because of the design tastes of the people who served as the church’s interior decorator when it was built.
Because I did not know any better, I thought that Catholic churches had interior decorating that served the same purpose as the decorations in any commercial building or private house. Do the decorations look good together and set the right atmosphere for the events taking place in the building? I had this sense about the interiors of Catholic churches.
My notion that Catholic church interiors were just another decorating style changed completely after spending time alone in the abbey church.
After seeing the pictures in the stained-glass windows, the designs, statues, and the various words and letters (IHS, on the cross, for example), I realized that I didn’t have a clue about what these elements meant.
I knew that, if properly understood, these “decorations” took on a far larger role than the color of the tile in a pretty office building. There are many items in the church and many people are represented in some form or another. Invariably, these people are holding something or standing next to something. I know these must be key parts of the grammar and the story being told. A great cloud of witnesses, but what are they saying?
The interior of a Catholic church is an important language, used for significant communication, and it is in this language that the sanctuary speaks to all who enter.
I want to know what the sanctuary is saying, but I do not understand the language. Or, I understand only part of it, little by little. For example, I recently learned that the letters “IHS” on the cross are a monogram for the name of Jesus, IHESUS according to the New Advent 1917 Catholic encyclopedia, which goes on to state, “[IHS] is first found on a gold coin of the eight century: DN IHS CHS REX REGNANTIUM (The Lord Jesus Christ, King of Kings).”
Without knowing every detail of what the sanctuary is saying, I feel the same as if I was prevented from reading every word of a good book cover to cover — I want to know the whole account, not just a brief outline or the“Church Interiors for Dummies” version.
On my list of things I would like to do is to visit a Catholic church with someone who speaks “Catholic Church Interior” and who could start at the entrance of the church and translate into English every tiny detail and word the sanctuary is telling me in its forms and designs.
I know when I enter the sanctuary that it is speaking and I want to hear with understanding.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
After returning from a two-week vacation in a North Carolina Smoky Mountains cabin, I have a better understanding of why it is important to have a special location in the home for prayer. It helps create the visual, sounds, and pace of praying in a remote solitude.
The prayer-related objects in my home move me out of sight of the world, favorite music or outdoor sounds help me hear a special type of silence — more like the silence God creates, and the window through which I can see the clouds and trees, give a better sense of God’s pace carrying me through time.
Lighting a candle incorporates and provides all these elements and I have a better understanding of what it can represent in creating the solitude for prayer.
Monday, July 14, 2008
I am back from two weeks in a North Carolina cabin — thanks to the generosity of my wife’s parents.
The cabin was up a steep, winding, gravel road so just driving to and from the cabin from the main highway gave us all the sense of getting away.
While at the cabin I read “Saint John Cassian on Prayer,” translated by A.M. Casiday ISBN 9780728301665. The silence of the mountains helped me see why remote living was sought out by the earliest desert monks.
I wrote before about such remote silence not being silent at all and that such places are not inactive, but move at God’s pace. Both the God-created sounds in such silence and the pace of day are easy to see.
The songs of three or four different birds could usually be heard, there were butterflies and large moths everywhere, flowers added color where the sun hit the ground, trees towered above and all around the cabin except for the view into the valley in Haywood County, NC, USA, and the local people were especially kind to us — without exception. Mountain people deserve their reputation for neighborliness, and we hung hummingbird feeders after we saw a hummer fly up and look into our kitchen window the second day we were there.
Wishing you and I were both there!
Thursday, July 10, 2008
This blog is responding to Dave’s comment in which he asked for resources on silence.
My wife (who knows more about silence than I do) said that she recommends the Basil Pennington books on centering prayer, and you might also like "Finding Sanctuary" by Abbot Jamison (which she also read and liked very much). Also check out the books others bought that are linked on the Amazon.com page of the Finding Sanctuary book.
For me, I like to know the history of a monastic topic (like silence) and want to follow a practice back through the early church fathers and then back into the life of Jesus and the books of the Bible, and often back into the practices of the Jews in the Old Testament. There are probably many books written by the early Saints that would be good for my type of interest in silence, but I have not begun to look for them. However, “Saint John Cassian on Prayer,” translated by A.M. Casiday ISBN 9780728301665 helped me because it has a couple of pages, 13 and 41, that let me see how silence fits within the monastic practice of praying without ceasing.
In fact, it was reading the John Cassian on Prayer book through the filter of modern life that caused me to believe that if Cassian had been writing for monks today, the topic of silence would have taken on a far greater portion of his teaching.
As I always write, everyone’s monastic practice as an oblate is very different — even within the same household. When my wife and I talked about Dave’s comment, my wife said that it was important for the silence to be taken inside oneself. But for me, as we were talking, I had the opposite sense — to me, the silence is something I enter. So, you might see silence as coming within yourself as you seek stillness or you may see yourself moving into the silence.
We saw Into Great Silence at the historic Tampa Theatre and I thought the movie was just as much about light as silence. I have been seeing silence from an entirely different aspect and think that — like many Biblical/Church/monastic topics — there is a worldly counterfeit that is only a misleading deception. Silence in the worldly notion of “the absence of all sound” is one of them.
After thinking about silence and remembering my sense after seeing Into Great Silence, for me silence is the window to light. But, Dave said it better and more fully when he quoted from Into Great Silence, "silence is the first language of God." Thank you Dave!
I am leaving this wonderful cabin in the North Carolina Smokey Mountains just north of Maggie Valley with a better sense of how silence and being away should fill my life as an oblate — I should do more of it!
Silence has been a part of this vacation and I have been reading “Saint John Cassian on Prayer,” translated by A.M. Casiday ISBN 9780728301665. Although the book is not about silence, Cassian’s advice about prayer has helped confirm in my mind that as an oblate in today’s world, I need to devote more time to free my soul from the “cares and anxieties of the world” (p. 13) and “withdraw from all the disturbance and chaos of the crowds so that, while still living in this body, [I] may fit [myself] in some degree to a likeness of that bliss which is promised hereafter to the saints and for us, “God may be all in all.” I Cor. 15:28.” (p. 41)
When I am in God’s silence and I bring to it a silent heart, I can understand what Saint Cassian is writing about.
This evening about 6:30 pm, as I sat on the cabin’s wrap-around porch and watched the clouds/fog move slowly through the trees which are at eye level around the cabin, I understood that the slow pace of the moving clouds, the wind, a light rain, a little white bug flying from one leaf to another, is God’s model of the pace at which my own heart and mind should be moving.
God builds this pace into the silence when we are out in his creation.
Monday, July 7, 2008
After being in a mountain cabin for a week, I have had some rare times of complete silence, and I could sense that this type of silence comes in two halves. One half is quieting my own heart and mind. A prayer or the Glory Be, sheds the inner noise. I know this comes from God.
The second half is also created by God. The second part of silence I experienced became clear to me while sitting here in the evening and hearing only birds and wind in the trees that surround the cabin.
To me, I imagined that God may not want us to seek silence in a soundproof booth.
He himself has provided the second part of a complete silence for the human heart and mind. This is a silence that God intends to wrap us in. It is not a complete absence of sound, it is not sensory deprivation. It is the absence of manmade sounds, but as music is a movement through time, this second half of a full silence is almost soundless, but not completely.
God carries us through time with His sounds, a bird song, a falling twig, and the wind in the trees — a quiet sky.
With both halves of silence in place, I experienced the full silence offered by God — at least at this place along the narrow mountain road.
Friday, July 4, 2008
Silence has been on my mind recently because I am away from home in a cabin that is quiet when the rest of our family group is away on an outing.
While it is good to be with them for many reasons, when the rest of our group is away, the total absence of any manmade noise coupled with my wife and I being quiet makes those times very special while we are here.
We moved some more comfortable wooden chairs to the front porch were the view is better and treasure the whole feeling. We are about 3,500 feet above sea level here.(Remember to read the tiny, hard-to-spot high-altitude instructions if you bake a cake at this altitude!)
It is very rare that I am in a place that has no manmade sound — no car, air conditioning, or airplane noise and no sound of people talking.
A natural quiet is difficult to find.
With a cup of tea and a very tasty piece of cake that has been trimmed of all its burnt crust, it is quiet enough that this silence becomes part of a prayer.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
In praying the Divine Office, I have experimented with different places in the house, procedures (lighting a candle was a huge help as was having a dedicated place), and fine tuning what works best for me. Everyone is so different. My advice is to learn about what everyone else does and then try everything to see what works best for you.
There is always room for what works for you in the Benedictine garden.
Click on the picture at the first of this blog to see all the individuals in this garden.