July 11th, 2016
Once upon a time St. Benedict was strolling around the heavenly gardens when he noticed St. Anthony of Padua taking a stroll also. With delight and pride he said to Anthony, “Look down there, Anthony, upon my daughter, Jennifer, about to be clothed in the Cistercian habit.” Anthony beamed with joy and answered, “Yes, Benedict, this is a truly wonderful moment, but she was my daughter long before she was yours.” “How could that be?” asked Benedict. Anthony answered, “With many heartfelt prayers and with a dream that her first granddaughter would be totally consecrated to God, her dear grandmother spoke to me often.” “And where was this, Anthony? “Why in my Greenwich Village Church, New York City, where all the fervent Italianos pray.” “Anthony”, responded Benedict, “thank you so much for sharing this precious piece of information with me. This means we will both be fathers to her in her Cistercian formation. I for my part will guide her in the paths of my Holy Rule, and you for your part, Anthony, will care for her when she gets lost. By you she will be found.”
Dear Jennifer, already you have had a long journey running as far away from the Rule as you could, but my hunch is that through your grandmother’s persistent knocking, it was St. Anthony of Padua who found you and brought you back to St. Benedict’s doorstep at 300 Arnold St.
In his first sermon for the feast of St. Benedict, Gurerric of Igny gives advice which is particularly helpful to novices---not to let a feeling of restlessness (in the monastic vocabulary this would be acedia) impede you or derail you or make you run away from your practice of the monastic disciplines of liturgy, lectio, labor, private prayer and silence. Guerric describes several times what happens if you are willing to see things through to the end despite the feeling that you may be going nowhere.
When it comes to the Divine Office he mentions that it is often at the completion of the Office that we experience its effects more fully, just as God makes the outgoings of the morning and the evening joyful. As for private prayer he says, “You know from daily experience that it too is better at the end than the beginning.” Concerning lectio, manual labor and silence he writes of this same discovery, “Again when you sit down to read and you do not really read, or if before you even begin to read you put the book down again, what good do you think that will do you? If you do not continue with the Scriptures so as to become familiar with them through assiduous study, when do you think they will open themselves to you? Then with regard to manual work, surely you have learned enough about this, have you not, to know that, like the wage given to the workers, consolation is often reserved to the end of the work? And of course when we come to silence a promise is given by the Prophet when he says: ‘In silence and in hope shall your strength be.’ For if you cultivate holiness in silence and, following the advice of Jeremiah, you wait in silence for the salvation of the Lord, then secretly in the midst of the silence the all-powerful word of God will leap down to you from his royal throne. The waters of Siloe which flow silently will inundate the valley of your quiet and peaceful heart like a gently flowing stream. And this you will experience not once but many times, if only your silence is the cultivation of holiness.” Guerric’s message is consistent: “Don’t give up”! See every observance through to the end despite temptations to do otherwise.
The desires for immediate satisfaction and immediate results are two desires you will have to renounce often in order to persevere in the monastic practices that lead you more and more to a monastic heart, to a deep heart. As John of the Cross says, “Deny your desires and you will find your desire.” You have found your desire, Jennifer, the desire to be completely God’s, and now it is a matter of letting it take hold of the depths of your soul in an abiding way. Then you will truly have a taste of what eye has not seen nor ear heard nor heart understood. If you wait for this with patience and perseverance then, as Guerric says, “secretly in the midst of the silence the all-powerful word of God will leap down to you from his royal throne. The waters of Siloe which flow silently will inundate the valley of your quiet and peaceful heart like a gently flowing stream. Sister Mary Jennifer, may you embrace today as a Cistercian novice, the monastic way---as new as it is ancient, as consoling as it is challenging, as deep as it is high.
Sr. Mary Jennifer Illig, OCSO
Clothing Day, Feast of St. Benedict
July 11, 2016