Holy Saturday: Christ in the tomb and on a mission

Holy Saturday is the most muted day in the Church’s year. No Mass; no sacraments save Confession and those of the last rites; no Holy Communion. The Church is in the tomb with Christ, watching and waiting for the first cry of the Resurrection that will come tomorrow (in liturgical time, tomorrow begins after sunset).

In the Roman Divine Office (though not our monastic Office), at Matins (or as it is now known in the Roman Office, the Office of Readings) is read An ancient homily for Holy Saturday. At least one reader here is captivated by it, and I am sure he is not the only one. Do read it first before reading on here.

It is somewhat shrouded in mystery, or at least the cloak of time; so far I can find little on this homily. It dates from the fourth century, and its author is unknown. It was written in Greek, though this might not help us too much as possibly in the West there were places which worshipped still in Greek, though Latin would soon become the universal norm in the West.

The homily deals with what is traditionally called the Harrowing of Hell: that interregnum when, as the homily says, “the King sleeps”; when Christ’s body lay in death in the tomb, while his human soul, united to his divine person, descended to the realm of the dead.

This descent should not be seen as just the natural result of his human death. It is more. Christ willingly died for a purpose; and his descent to the dead is part of that purpose. Christ goes to Hades on a mission. He goes, tradition has it, to the limbo of the Fathers, where the souls of the just slept in death, waiting for the gates of heaven to be re-opened on the day of salvation. “Hell” in this sense refers not to the realm of the damned, but the underworld, the lowest places, Sheol in Old Testament terms. In other words Christ goes to the realm of the dead to announce to them that their salvation has come and that heaven has opened to them at last, and lead them forth. Christ’s mission is one of liberation, from the jaws of death; and the dead heard the good news before the living.

So the ancient homily for Holy Saturday celebrates this in vivid terms. While on earth there is silence, under the earth (as it were) Christ is emptying Hades with solemnity. The new Adam goes to rescue the first Adam, his father in the flesh, with the command, “awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead”. Adam and his progeny can now rise from the dead because Christ’s human death transforms death for all the children of Adam. For just as what happened in Adam (sin) happened for us all, so too what happened in Christ’s human flesh happened for us all: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Or as the ancient homilist has Christ put it, “Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person”.

Death had, as it were, led humanity into a walled-off, dead-end street; Christ now breaks through that barrier so that death might now launch humankind onto the highway to heaven. For it was for heaven, not for Hades, that God through Christ made us: “I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld”.

The homily continues as an elaboration on the Incarnation, which produced this unity between God and humankind in Christ, and on the Redemption by the Cross, both addressed to Adam by Christ. “I, your God, became your Son… I, the Master, took on your form, that of a slave”. It is almost a litany of paradoxes: the torments and humiliations that Christ endured healed their very causes in sinful human nature. So, says Christ to Adam,

(s)ee the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image… See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one. I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

Christ addresses Adam, the constant “you” in his speech; but Adam stands for all humanity, for us. Adam is the true Everyman. What Christ says he did for Adam he did “for us and for our salvation”, as the Creed teaches us.

Lastly the ancient homilist has Christ remind Adam, and us, that the state of salvation is far better than the state of our original, lost innocence. Original paradise is nothing on heaven:

The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

That is why tonight, in the Exultet, we hear affirmed in solemn and joyful tones, “O truly necessary sin of Adam … O happy fault”. While the guilt and horror of our sin cannot be understated, nevertheless God, in his omniscience, has made of our sin a blessing. What was lost was but a pale image of what is gained. God, in a mystery we will not fathom this side of the grave, made us not for paradise, but for heaven. The ancient homilist’s Christ says as much:

the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.

Let us watch and pray, that we might be awake to hear the clarion call of salvation, both at tonight’s Vigil and on our own, individual passing from this life into death, and we pray, on into eternal life.

Some thoughts on prayer

One of the phenomena in the modern Church is the explosion in the variety of prayer techniques and methods, some of more value than others. Many of these seem to rely on their own books, seminars, workshops, and courses, all of which seem to come at a (sometimes hefty!) price. Indeed it might not be unreasonable to speak of a spirituality “industry”. We have had creation spirituality, centring prayer, workplace spirituality, wymmyn’s spirituality… you could probably fill in more. They come, and many fade away. The authentic and sound endure.

Perhaps one motivation underlying this industry has been the noble desire to bring more Christians to experience the power and the consolation of prayer. However, in so doing the industry has sometimes made the life of prayer an almost frightening prospect for many. No one needs to do a course to pray! With prayer, as with so many things, essentially there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

So maybe we need to re-familiarize ourselves with some fundamentals. St Paul urged the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing (I Thess 5:17). To most people this is a pretty tall order. We have to work for a living, spend time with and care for families and communities, relax a little, clean, eat, sleep… perhaps St Paul was getting carried away with himself. Even cloistered nuns have to do chores at some stage of the day.

First off, we must remember that St Paul was writing to a Church, not to individuals. The Church, as the Body of Christ, is united to Jesus Christ, its Head, who is now at the right hand of the Father, pleading for his people, his Body (see I John 2:1 and Hebrews 7:25). In Christ, as His Body, the Church is thus always before the Father in prayer and intercession. United to Christ, the Church is thus always praying.

If this so, why then would St Paul exhort the Church to constant prayer? Christians, and the Church in general, are not merely passive receptors of God’s grace. We cooperate with God, we act so that through our actions God may act in us – and act not against our grain, but with it. The Church is God’s dearest instrument on earth: while God has spoken and still speaks his Word, it is the Church that proclaims this Word to the nations. God loves the world, and the Church spreads that love abroad throughout the world. Christ our High Priest is constantly praying to the Father for his people and the world, and it is the Church that articulates and anchors this prayer in the world, and distributes its fruit.

The highest activity of the Church in this regard is its offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice in obedience to Christ’s command. But that is something more than prayer; it is worship, and of the highest form. For now let our focus be more on the role of individuals in the Church’s mission to pray without ceasing.

The Church already has in place the means by which individuals can unite themselves to the unceasing prayer of Christ’s Body. It is the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours. While clerics and religious are obliged to pray it, it is not restricted to them by any means. It is pre-eminently the prayer of the Church, and is available to all members of the Church to pray. Truly when one prays the Divine Office, one is not praying alone even if physically alone. Those who pray the Office are united with the Church’s great global enterprise of prayer, making the Church-at-prayer locally present and active. It is broken into various “hours”, from the early morning to the night-time. One need not pray it all, just those hours that are practical. It is eminently sound prayer, being mainly a mix of psalms, scripture readings and songs, and intercessions. In it the Word of God sounds with the voice of the Church, and it is a communal voice, all the louder for each new person who joins in with it. There are handy reduced versions of the full Office, such as a volume of Morning and Evening Prayer. But no money need be spent. Websites such as Universalis will allow you to pray the Divine Office at no expense at all.

All round the world someone is praying the Hour of morning prayer, or evening prayer, or prayer before noon, or night prayer. Every hour of every day is being sanctified by prayer somewhere in the world. Each person who prays the Office embodies, both as symbol and reality, the Church always at prayer.

However, God relates to each of us also in a more direct and personal way. Our relationship to Him in the Church must find expression in and be bolstered by our personal relationship with Him. So the Church constantly at prayer will be found also in the personal relationship of the multitude of individual Christians to God, and in particular in an individual’s personal prayer. This personal prayer requires no courses nor skills. There is no one way of doing it, but there are certainly wrong ways of doing it. So what then did Christ teach us about personal prayer:

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.Pray then like this:

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
[Matthew 6:5(b)-15]

This is our Lord’s own recommendation for prayer. Truly, if we can say this prayer sincerely and with recollection and attention just once a day, we have prayed well. Of course there is a catch. The proof of our prayer is in our living, as our Lord hints at the end of the passage above. Our prayer to be forgiven will be only as effective as our own forgiveness of others. It is a tough challenge. This is no childish prayer.

It reminds us that prayer is not something divorced from the rest of our lives, nor a discreet compartment within our lives. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2745) quotes the Church father Origen on precisely this point:

He “prays without ceasing” who unites prayer to works and good works to prayer. Only in this way can we consider as realizable the principle of praying without ceasing.

When we let our prayer bear fruit in our actions and our lives, then our actions and our lives themselves become one abiding prayer.

Lastly, one way that really does help anchor prayer in our lives and our living, is to keep God as much in mind as possible. It is hard to sin when you are thinking about God, and talking to him. This is the principle behind the spiritual practice of recollection, or mindfulness of God. It is not the only principle of course: for when we love someone, we constantly think of the beloved and long to be with the beloved. So being “in love” with God is another important principle behind recollection. It does not matter that one does not feel “in love”, for prayer is not about feelings (though positive feelings are often a by-product of prayer). Indeed, the more time we spend with God, the more we recognise his constant presence with us, the more we find that we do, in fact, fall in love with God.

So if I were to recommend one book on prayer, it would be The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. Editions of this classic abound, and it can be found for free at the link just above, or here, though the online editions do not include his maxims. Br Lawrence, born Nicholas Herman, was a Carmelite lay-brother who lived at a friary of his order in Paris in the 17th century. His work for most of that time was firstly in the kitchen, and then later as a repairman of the friars’ sandals. The book we have today under his name he did not write; rather it is a collection of the recorded spiritual maxims and conversations of Br Lawrence, as well as some of his letters, compiled in a short volume by a priest shortly after his death.

Br Lawrence was no scholar, no expert, not even a priest. His work was menial. Yet his spiritual understanding is as profound as you can find, and as authentic. He expresses something fundamental in Christian spirituality, so much so that the book is considered a classic by Protestants as well as Catholics: no less than John Wesley recommended it. His basic principle is that whatever we do in life, at whatever time, we should do for God and with God himself, consciously and deliberately. By becoming aware that God is indeed present to us (or better, that we are in His presence) we find our work, and every moment of our lives, suffused with new meaning and new purpose. We find help and strength in time of need or temptation, and we find a partner in our joys. By recognising that we are constantly in God’s presence we find that the power of temptation diminishes, that the smallest things have value, and that nothing is unbearable. This is to be in communion with God, a living out of our Holy Communion in the Eucharist.

If heaven is being in the eternal and immediate presence of God, in fullest communion with Him, then Br Lawrence’s way of beginning to be ever more aware of His veiled presence with us now is a superb preparation for heaven. To finish, a quote from his maxims (not found in the online editions) will give you the gist of his way:

The holiest, most ordinary, and most necessary practice of the spiritual life is that of the presence of God. It is to take delight in and become accustomed to his divine company, speaking humbly and conversing lovingly with him all the time, at every moment, without rule or measure, especially in times of temptation, suffering, aridity, weariness, even infidelity and sin.

We must continually apply ourselves so that all our actions, without exception, become a kind of brief conversation with God, not in a contrived manner but coming from the purity and simplicity of our hearts.
[Maxims 6 & 7]

No preparation, course or skill is needed – you can begin right now to pray without ceasing.


Pope Benedict’s manifesto for Benedictines

When the present Holy Father adopted Benedict as his pontifical name it was quickly recognised as an homage to St Benedict, the Father of western monastic life and patron of Europe (though, in part, it was also a tip of the mitre in the direction of Benedict XV ‘the peacemaker’, who reigned throughout the First World War).

Given his fondness for our holy founder it strikes me as worthwhile taking note of what Benedict XVI says or writes about the saint and those who follow his Rule. It seems a particularly Advent thing to do. Of interest is his address to the monks of Heiligenkreuz Abbey in Austria, a Cistercian monastery and so following a stricter interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict. He visited this abbey in 2007 during his papal visit to Austria. In his address he expresses what he sees, through the eyes both of a scholar and a pastor, as essential to the Benedictine charism. It is fruitful reading for any monastery following the Rule of St Benedict. In effect, it is the papal manifesto for Benedictine life today. It should also be seen in the light of his ongoing programme to reform and reinvigorate the liturgy of the Church.

That St Benedict and Benedictine monasticism figure large in the Pope’s thinking on the Church is clear from his stated purpose in coming to the ancient monastery of Heiligenkreuz:

I wished to come to this place so rich in history in order to draw attention to the fundamental directive of Saint Benedict, according to whose Rule Cistercians also live. Quite simply, Benedict insisted that “nothing be put before the divine office”.

“For this reason” he continues, “in a monastery of Benedictine spirit, the praise of God, which the monks sing as a solemn choral prayer, always has priority.” It is for this reason, he notes, that the early Fathers likened monastic life to that of the angels, whose “very life is worship”. The Holy Father elaborates:

This should hold true also for monks. Monks pray first and foremost not for any specific intention, but simply because God is worthy of being praised… Such prayer for its own sake, intended as pure divine service, is rightly called officium*. It is “service” par excellence, the “sacred service” of monks.

* Officium, translated liturgically as “office”, is Latin for duty, obligation, service, office.

For Pope Benedict the worship of God for his own sake is definitive, a sine qua non of Benedictine life. Monks offer divine service in choir not, fundamentally, for any pragmatic goal but because God deserves our praise. In fact it is our duty to praise him, and in large measure the monastic choirs praise God on behalf of and in the name of all the Church.

As a result, the monastic commitment to worship in the divine office above all other things is truly a gift to the Church, since it is “also a sacred service to men and women, a testimony offered to them”. Since it is a universal truth that all people have “a yearning for definitive fulfilment, for supreme happiness, and thus, ultimately, for God”, the fact that monks gather together to worship God at the set times throughout the day “testifies to the fact that this primordial human longing does not go unfulfilled”. Indeed our basic human longing has already been fulfilled because “God has shone forth in our darkness with his light, with his Son Jesus Christ”. Christ, in whom God has come to us so intimately that he is one of us, is the one thing necessary which will complete us as human beings: a person, not a doctrine, who is “(o)ur light, our truth, our goal, our fulfilment, our life”.

In speaking of the centrality of Christ for every human being, Benedict seems to be echoing St Paul in his letter to the Romans when he says that “(o)ver and above any ability of our own to seek and to desire God, we ourselves were already sought and desired, and indeed, found and redeemed by him!”. Even before we come to the point when we can start our tentative search for God, he has already found us in Christ, and in him offers us a way to a happiness that will endure beyond this passing world.

It is to this truth that the monastic community witnesses, especially when it is gathered for worship, for the “sacred service” it renders to God for the benefit of the Church, and all the world. Moreover, the Holy Father reminds us, the monastic office has enriched the whole Church also in that all clerics and consecrated religious now likewise pray the divine office. This “official” prayer is also a school of prayer, revealing prayer’s rich structure by means of its “hymns and psalms, with thanksgiving and pure petition”. It is this dutiful yet joyful God-centred worship that enables the Church to receive more fully and fruitfully the wonders of God’s love:

When God is faithfully praised and worshipped, his blessings are unfailing.

In light of all this, the importance of the divine office and the Church’s worship of God, Pope Benedict reaches the logical conclusion, one that echoes St Benedict, or rather confirms his teaching to Benedictines today:

Your primary service to this world must therefore be your prayer and the celebration of the divine office.The interior disposition of each priest, and of each consecrated person, must be that of “putting nothing before the divine office”.

Such a spirit of devotion to the liturgical worship of God will have two clear results according to the Pope. First, the beauty of such commitment will itself beautify the liturgy infinitely more than any technique or method we can devise:

The beauty of this inner attitude will find expression in the beauty of the liturgy, so that wherever we join in singing, praising, exalting and worshipping God, a little bit of heaven will become present on earth. Truly it would not be presumptuous to say that, in a liturgy completely centred on God, we can see, in its rituals and chant, an image of eternity.

Benedict’s tip for achieving this foreshadows the description he gives to Peter Seewald of his own prayer life that was noted a few days back:

I ask you to celebrate the sacred liturgy with your gaze fixed on God within the communion of saints, the living Church of every time and place.

Our worship, as too our personal prayer, is always focused on God yet conscious of the Church universal, both living in this world and living in the next. Worship and prayer take us out of the narrow confines of our own little personal worlds, enlarge our perspective on life and so rescue us from a crippling self-centredness.

The second result of such a commitment to God-centred worship concerns the monastery itself. If it is truly a place where “God ‘is put first’ “, a monastery becomes a “spiritual oasis” and “reminds today’s world of the most important, and indeed, in the end, the only decisive thing: that there is an ultimate reason why life is worth living: God and his unfathomable love”. It is as if the Pope is saying that if a monastery wishes to be relevant to the world of today it must continue to reveal the answer to the deepest needs of humanity by drawing its gaze to God. Then monasteries are truly being what they are called to be,

… not mere strongholds of culture and tradition, or even simple business enterprises. Structure, organization and finances are necessary in the Church too, but they are not what is essential. A monastery is above all this: a place of spiritual power.

In this address to the Cistercians of Heiligenkreuz Pope Benedict tells all followers of the Rule of St Benedict what he expects of them today, and indeed what the Church and the world need from them today. We might reasonably suspect that there is more than one monastery that is more focused on its own agenda rather than the one St Benedict, confirmed by Pope and Church, proposes for it. If it is unfaithful to its essential purpose it will eventually die, perhaps not physically, but certainly spiritually, a whitened sepulchre.

The Pope has also posed a question for each individual Benedictine: to what extent does he (or she) embody this principle of preferring nothing to the worship of God? It is more than a question of how regular a monk is in attending the office, of physical presence in the church or oratory. It is also a matter of the attitude with which a monk attends office. Is his heart in tune with his lips? Is he attentive to what he is doing, both in mind and in body? Does he seek in worship the glory of God and so hope to merit the vision of God’s glory?

Needless to say, the Pope’s words raise fundamental questions for every Christian about commitment to prayer and to worship. How often do I pray? How often do I go to Mass? And when I pray or attend Mass, is it from a grudging sense of duty, or because I desire to find in prayer and worship what they truly offer: the pearl of great price, the one thing necessary?