Monasteries exemplify importance of silent time with God
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
In his series of instructions on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass given during his Wednesday papal audiences, Pope Francis made an observation on Nov. 15, 2017, that many found both interesting and indicative of the Holy Father’s awareness of practical situations in the life of the church. Pope Francis commented:
Praying, as every true dialogue, is also knowing how to be in silence — in dialogues there are moments of silence — in silence together with Jesus. When we go to Mass, perhaps we arrive five minutes early and begin to chat with the person next to us. But this is not the moment for small talk; it is the moment of silence to prepare ourselves for the dialogue. It is the moment for recollection within the heart, to prepare ourselves for the encounter with Jesus. Silence is so important! Remember what I said last week: we are not going to a spectacle, we are going to the encounter with the Lord, and silence prepares us and accompanies us. Pausing in silence with Jesus. From this mysterious silence of God springs his Word which resonates in our heart. Jesus himself teaches us how it is truly possible to “be” with the Father and he shows us this with his prayer. The Gospels show us Jesus who withdraws to secluded places to pray; seeing his intimate relationship with God, the disciples feel the desire to be able to take part in it, and they ask him: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).
It sometimes seems that in our present-day culture we are afraid to be alone with our thoughts. Texts, tweets, e-mails and social media occupy so much of a person’s time. I sadly wonder if texts and messages are being reviewed even during Mass, posing a real challenge for homilists to be well prepared, enthusiastic about their message and interesting!
But as Pope Francis says so well, silence, contemplation and meditation are truly necessary in cultivating our relationship with God, which was so beautifully described by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s motto gleaned from the writings of St. Francis de Sales: Cor ad cor loquitur (“Heart speaks to heart”).
Incorporating this motto into our own lives causes us to ask the difficult question: “Where is my heart?” Is it in my vocation, in my family, in my marriage, in my work, in the Church, in Christ Jesus? Only each person can answer this question for herself or himself. It will not appear on a screen but will emerge from the very depths of our being in silence, in prayer, and in conversation with God.
The crisis now confronting the Church and very sadly affecting the faithful, you my brothers and sisters, calls us to a serious moment of prayerful and honest contemplation. Those responsible for guiding the Church must recognize how dependent we are upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit to seek solutions that are just, charitable and embrace the sufferings of victims of sexual abuse. It is a time of thoughtful self-evaluation made in the presence of the Lord, in that solitude that connects us to Jesus. “Heart speaks to heart.”
Among my pastoral visits over the last several months, I happily have accepted invitations to visit three monastic communities, two in our diocese and one in my former Diocese of Burlington. Here one sees contemplation and silence lived in communion with God. These monastic communities are not isolated from the concerns, difficulties and tragedies that daily surface in the world; rather, so aware of the human condition they bring these concerns to the Father in prayer throughout the entire day.
Set high on Mount Equinox in Arlington, Vt., is the Carthusian monastery the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration, completed in 1970, and the only Carthusian foundation in North America. The Carthusian motto, “The Cross is steady while the world is turning,” beautifully describes the lives of these monks. In the midst of the world’s turbulence, they remain firm in faith, as did Mary, the Mother of God, who remained firm in the midst of the cacophony on Golgotha. Founded by St. Bruno in 1084 as a monastic community of monks, later including a monastic community of nuns, the Carthusians have consecrated their lives entirely to seeking God so as to unite their hearts to His in prayer and in the solitude that surrounds their lives.
But again, they live their vowed lives with a very real consciousness of the world as their statutes so beautifully state: “Apart from all, to all we are united, so that it is in the name of all that we stand before the living God” (34:2). I have visited the Carthusians on many occasions and I am deeply impressed with their spiritual insights, understanding of the world and intense life of prayer. During my visits I meet with the monks in the Chapter Room and they ask many questions and make many comments, all of which reflect that they have not escaped from the world, but rather seek to transform the world through the mind of God, which Mystery forms their daily contemplation.
In our own diocese, I visit quite frequently our Carmelite Monastery of nuns on West Jefferson Road in Pittsford. Mother Beatrix of the Holy Spirit, who had entered the Baltimore Carmel in 1868, founded the Rochester Carmel in 1930 when Bishop John F. O’Hern requested the presence of a Carmelite Monastery in Rochester. So at the age of 84, Mother Beatrix arrived from the Philadelphia Carmel with four sisters to begin the Rochester foundation on Saratoga Avenue in downtown Rochester. As the community grew, they moved to their present location in 1956.
Like other monastic communities, these wonderful sisters pray throughout the day for the needs of our diocese, its bishop and all God’s people. They maintain a life dedicated to contemplation, silence, community and prayer, culminating in the Holy Sacrifice the Mass. At daily Mass, members of the faithful participate in the chapel proper, distinct from the cloister. There is a reverence and solitude that is so conducive to communion with the Lord. So many of our people seek the prayers of the sisters, ask their counsel and are comforted by their compassion. When I arrived in the Diocese of Rochester in preparation for and prior to the Mass of Installation on January 3, 2014, I celebrated Holy Mass at the Carmelite Monastery on January 1, 2014, and asked the sisters to pray for me as I began my ministry in Rochester. They have never ceased to pray for me, and these prayers have been and continue to be a great source of consolation.
As with the Carthusians, following Mass I meet with the sisters, and our discussions about monastic life are most enlightening and inspiring; Their concern for increasing vocations to the priesthood and religious life is very encouraging, as is their concern for the pastoral life of the diocese at this difficult time.
In a conference given to Carmelite Nuns, Archbishop José Rodriguez Carballo, OFM, Secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of the Apostolic Life, stated: “You, my dear Sisters, even from the cloister have to be daughters of heaven and daughters of earth. Lead us by the hand to the Lord. As torches, do not deny us of your light; be the heralds of the dawn when we are going through the dark night” (Conference on the Instruction Cor Orans, p. 15).
In August, I also celebrated Holy Mass at the Abbey of the Genesee, a contemplative order of monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (O.C.S.O), more commonly known as Trappists. Located in Piffard, the Abbey of the Genesee, was founded from the Abbey of Gethsemani, in Trappist, Kentucky, came to our diocese in the spring of 1951. The monks follow the Rule of St. Benedict and are, therefore, also a part of the larger Benedictine monastic family.
An environment of silence surrounds the monastery in accord with their constitutions, describing a “monastic institute wholly ordered to contemplation. The monks dedicate themselves to the worship of God in a hidden life within the monastery under the Rule of St. Benedict. They lead a monastic way of life in solitude and silence, in assiduous prayer and joyful penitence.” (No. 2). Once again, the faithful may attend the Liturgy of the Hours and Holy Mass at the monastery chapel, as well as seeking the Lord’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and receiving spiritual guidance. Our priests and seminarians are among those who make spiritual retreats at the monastery, creating wonderful opportunities for spiritual direction. At each year’s Solemn Mass of Chrism and Solemn Mass of Ordination to the Priesthood, the Abbey of the Genesee is always represented by the Father Abbot and another member of the community. Their presence manifests their close bond with our diocese and their union with us in prayer, seeking the Lord’s assistance in ministering to the spiritual needs of the faithful.
In all these places, we are given a powerful example of what it means to pray in silence and in contemplation. Communion with the Lord, “Heart speaking to heart,” causes us to go beyond ourselves, to touch the transcendent, to reach out to the Divine, to leave a limited world to enter that world that is eternal. How long does it take to learn to pray? A lifetime. And what do we bring to prayer? Ourselves, with all our weaknesses but with a will never to give up. When Jesus rose from the dead, His glorified body bore the marks of the cross He carried. So, too, when we return to our true home, we also shall bear the marks of the crosses we carried in our lives. But no matter how deeply they pressed upon us, we continued in meditative communion with the Lord, often saying nothing, but letting our mind and heart commune with God. Is this not life’s constant prayer — pressing on because we know, we believe and we yearn for that world without end, when at last we behold the face of God!
Begging the intercession of Our Mother Mary and our patron, St. John Fisher, I remain,
Devotedly yours in Christ,
The Most Reverend
Salvatore R. Matano
Bishop of Rochester