I was still reading in the Abbey guest wing Thomas Merton’s Elected Silence:
“Certainly one thing the Monk does not, or cannot realise is the effect which these liturgical functions have upon those who see them. The lessons, the truths, the incidents, and values portrayed are simply overwhelming. For this effect to be achieved, it is necessary that each monk as an individual performer be absolutely lost, ignored, overlooked.
Excellence here is in proportion to obscurity: the one who was best was the one who was least observed, least distinguished. Only faults and mistakes drew attention to the individual. The logic of Cistercian life was the complete opposite to the logic of the world, in which men put themselves forward so that the most excellent is the one who stands out. But what was the answer to this paradox? Simply that the Monk is hiding from the world becomes not less himself, not less a person, but more of a person, more truly and perfectly himself: for his personality and individuality are perfected in their time order, the spiritual, interior order of union with God, the principle of all perfection. Omnis Gloria ejus filiae legis ab intrus.
The logic of the world by success rests on the strange error that our perfection depends on the applause of other men! A weird life it is indeed to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could be real!
This seems to me, particularly the last paragraph, to be a very powerful point. Strange how it is that in the Abbey, good intentions and thoughts rush forward in the mind.
I realised that what I was putting to you was that you can create a monastery in your mind. That, yes, you can attempt to steady the mind with mindfulness. By all means meditate and concentrate on your breathing and recognise pressing thoughts are not your real self no more than others’ opinions. But then fill it at times every day with attention to God and the spiritual.
As I lay awake in my cell I could not remember today’s Gospel reading, that was for the Saturday after Ash Wednesday. It was 3am and I turned on the light. It all came up painfully slowly on the blackberry, but finally it was there, line by line, from Luke 5:27-32.
“Jesus noticed a tax collector, Levi by name, sitting by the customs house, and said to him ‘Follow me’, and hearing everything, he got up and followed Him.”
As I lay awake those words “Follow Me” kept repeating themselves in my mind. So try every day to create a monastery in your mind. Go to Mass or a service or just read the Mass readings, day by day. For one small part of the day empty the mind. Do not, as Merton would put it, live in other peoples imagination.
On Monday the first week in Lent we are asked the most difficult question (Matthew 25:31-46):
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
What does this mean? Is it not an impossible task to treat everyone, however irritating, as God? But this is the task laid down.
Tuesday’s task is more simple: (Matthew 6:7-15)
“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.
It is easy enough to repeat a prayer. But who is listening? We must assume it is listened to.
On Wednesday we are told that the only sign we will be given is the Sign of Jonah, but where is this sign?
On Thursday I was looking at the parish newsletter in the Cathedral. There was an interesting reference to the Meditations of St Frances de Sales. The one on death arrested me. Imagine that you have just died. Your soul bids farewell to its body. Very soon the body is burned and the person forgotten. As the soul looks back on its life in the body it remembers how it has treated other people.
On Friday funnily enough I was at the funeral of Dom Sebastian Moore at Downside Abbey. A friend, he died at the age of 96. He had been a monk since 1938. His latest thing had been Eckhart Tolle and the Power of Now, but far more than his many books and great, deep – sometimes incomprehensible – intelligence was his great kindliness to everyone, certainly to me.
By Saturday I was back in our little local church and up to Psalm 16 in the Prayer Book. Conserve me Domine – preserve me Lord.