Thursday, August 28, 2014

CHAPTER 52: The Chapel

Let the chapel be what it is called, and let nothing else be done or stored there. When the Work of God is finished, let all go out with the deepest silence, and let reverence be shown to God; that a brother who perhaps wants to pray alone is not prevented by another's misconduct.  Let him enter, therefore, with simplicity and pray, not with a loud voice, but with tears and with a heart focused exclusively on God.

    I think it’s funny that Saint Benedict has to mention that nothing should be stored in the chapel.  What were his monks trying to keep there?  Tools? Books? Gardening equipment?  It probably doesn’t matter.  The point is that the chapel is for prayer, and prayer doesn’t go anywhere if the monks aren’t paying attention.  Clutter, chaos, ugliness and noise will undermine that focus and kill their prayer before it has even begun.  The problem is that human beings are distractible by nature, so we have to keep working to ensure that when we come to prayer, the distractions are minimized and our thoughts are directed heavenward by the beauty of our surroundings.
    Here again we see an example of Benedict’s “incarnational” spirituality.  If you want internal peace, he says, you have to begin by building a peaceful exterior.  Thus holiness begins in the beauty and order of the physical world: you sit in a holy place and let the holiness seep in.  Some religions claim that the physical world is an illusion or a void or a distraction, but Benedict knows that the created world is good, and anything good can be a path to holiness.
Conventual Mass at Saint Louis Abbey
      Beautiful things, beautiful liturgy, beautiful music are a way of leading the soul to God’s beauty, which is the source of holiness itself.  “Beauty,” said the philosopher, Roger Scruton, “is an essential resource.  Through the pursuit of beauty, we shape the world as a whole; and in doing so, we both amplify our joys and find consolation for our sorrows” (Why Beauty Matters).  So you see, in the ideal church, beauty and silence mix together to create a privileged place for encountering God.
A story is told of a hermit who was visited by three young monks.  All three had gone out into the world to spend a year doing good deeds.  But when they returned to their monastery, they found that they weren’t any holier than before.  “What did we do wrong?” they asked him.
    “Bring me a bowl of water,” he said.  So they brought in a bowl and filled it with water.
“Now throw some dirt in it,” he said.
The monks frowned at one another but did as commanded.
“So?  What do you see?”
    “A bowl of muddy water,” they answer.
    “Keep looking.  Now what do you see?”
    “We still see a bowl of muddy water.”
    “That’s right,” he said.  “But look more closely.  Keep watching.  Don’t say anything.  Just keep watching.”  Then he left the room.
     A day later, he returned.  The three novices were still staring into the bowl.  “What do you see now?” he asked them.
     “The mud has settled.” they answered.  “Now we see our reflections.”
     “Exactly,” said the hermit.  “You’ll never be holy until you know yourselves.  And you’ll never know yourselves if you keep stirring things up.  Be still.  Let the mud settle.  Only then will you have something to offer the world.”