Thursday, April 19, 2012

It is good to give praise to the Lord

Bonum est confiteri Domino: et psallere nomini tuo, Altissime
Ad annuntiandum mane misericordiam tuam: et veritatem tuam per noctem (Ps 91: 2-3)
It is good to give praise to the Lord: and to sing to Thy name, O most High
To shew forth Thy mercy in the morning, and Thy truth in the night
One of the first things that strike a stay-in visitor or a newly-arrived postulant at our convent is the amount of time dedicated to the recitation of the Divine Office. 
As teaching sisters who have to devote a considerable portion of our time to our apostolate of educating youth; it would appear, at first sight, fairly incongruous to give up to two-and-a-half hours each day in choir to an exercise that seems to be the one distinguishing characteristic of the monastic orders. On a practical level, wouldn’t planning lessons and the never-ending chase after late homework require all of our time?

Indeed, much emphasis in terms of time and attention is given to the recitation of the Breviary in our community. We begin before the crack of dawn appears, and our praise does not cease till after the sun has set, ushering in the night. Our recollection is further enhanced by the bell being rung five minutes before each Office in order to prepare ourselves in choir. But above all, why is it our immense privilege and happiness to be able to do so eight times each day?

Firstly, one might perhaps point out that our joy in assisting at these prayers comes from the sublime beauty of the psalms, canticles, hymns, not forgetting the lessons taken from the Gospels and Church Fathers. The entire range of all possible human sentiment in our worship of God is expressed vividly through the psalms alone; petition, adoration, thanksgiving, desire and contrition in every season of joy, sorrow or desperate need find an adequate medium through the psalter.  

Two brief examples illustrate this clearly. The exuberant joy in the Ouam dilecta tabernacula tua Domine virtutum: concupiscit et deficit anima mea in atria Domini (How lovely are thy tabernacles O Lord of hosts: My soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord) of Psalm 83 speaks of our delight in appearing before the throne of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The same God who is our delight is however also a Man of Sorrows, as seen in Psalm 54 which gives a description of His desolations. The qui simul mecum dulces capiebas cibos: in domo Dei ambulavimus cum consensu (Who didst take sweet meats together with me: in the house of God we walked with consent) of this Psalm poignantly portrays the heart-rending pain of Our Lord when he was betrayed and denied by his friends during His Passion. It is aptly chosen by the Church for Terce on Wednesday, the day when He was sold by Judas.

Furthermore, the various antiphons, hymns and short lessons in the Breviary which change according to the liturgical season also keeps us united to the liturgical life of the Church. Through the Divine Office, further expression is given to the sentiments which animate the Church as the entire life of Our Saviour unfolds each year. These mysteries which include the expectation of His coming during Advent, the sorrow at His approaching death during Passiontide and the triumphant joy at His Resurrection during the Paschal season are then brought closer to our souls. We are thus united more intimately to Jesus who continues to live thus in His Church, and as we progress in the spiritual life, we would also identify more and more with the sentiments of the Church as one of her members. Does this not especially pertain to us religious who have the privilege to be completely consecrated to the love and service of God and His Church?

Yet, the most significant aspect of the Divine Office is its quality as the Church’s official prayer.  Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange O.P notes that it is simply a continuation and extension of the Holy Mass, which is the great prayer of Christ who renews His Sacrifice at Calvary daily until the consummation of the world. Similarly the Church, who is the spouse of Christ, does not cease day and night her own prayer of adoration, thanksgiving, reparation and petition before God: Sempiterna sit beatae Trinitati gloria, aequa Patri, Filioque; par decus Paraclito, unius Trinique Nomen laudet universitas.
The professed religious or cleric thus becomes the ambassador of the Church when praying the Office; he or she does not pray as an individual but enters into the sentiments of the Church as her mouthpiece.
 Its dignity further increases when we consider that the words used are those of the Holy Ghost Himself; given directly through the Sacred Scriptures or else indirectly through the authority of the Church, for it was she who directed the arrangement of the breviary and the composition of the various hymns and lessons.

Who can then doubt the favourable reception given by God to those deputed by the Church to praise Him, if they do so devoutly? St Mary Magdalene de Pazzi mentions that a single petition of the Office, on account of it being the prayer of the entire Church, is worth more than a hundred private prayers. Dom Chautard adds that Church herself supplicates with and through us for her varied and pressing needs, always having her prayers answered and heard in some way as the dearly beloved Spouse of Our Lord.

The Office then becomes a cherished tool in the hands of the Dominican for the accomplishment of her vocation. This powerful weapon (for we are in a spiritual battle, clearly!) draws down the graces which sustain our apostolic thirst for souls and the desire that God be better known and loved, especially by those who are entrusted to our care.
One of the most outstanding features of the Office in the Dominican rite consists of the bodily movements that accompany our prayer. As outlined in our ceremonial, these include processions, the profound and medium inclinations of the body, kneeling, standing in alternate choirs, full prostrations on the ground, turning to the altar and back to a choral position. St. Dominic, who preached against the Albigensian heresy which taught that matter and the body was evil, chose rather to use the body in prayer as something good. These are significant aids to maintaining the reverence due to God during both the public and interior worship of so adorable a Being.

Above all, the most beautiful of these must be the profound inclination or bow made at every Gloria Patri, especially at the end of each psalm or portion thereof. It is truly a compact summary of what the Divine Office is: the continuation of the adoration and praise offered by Our Lord to His Father during His mortal life by the Church, and the beginning of the praise and thanksgiving that will occupy her for all eternity before the Holy Trinity, in saecula saeculorum.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The beauty and value of Truth

Some 600 years ago, Piero della Franseco painted “The Resurrection”, a fresco that for centuries has challenged men to choose between the spiritual and material spheres of life. The style he chose for execution was to enhance his message: “Don’t have any doubt that this event REALLY happened!” It was based on a firm belief in the essential truths of our Faith, in God who is beauty and truth, the One who Is and who cannot deceive nor be deceived!

The result was so engaging that the author of the novel “A Brave New Wold”, Aldous Huxley were to describe it as “The best painting in the world” in a travel book he was writing during the 1920’s. Little could he have imagined that a young British soldier would read this description shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, some twenty years later and as a result, spare the little town of Sansepulchro and its inhabitants from destruction. (The soldier refusing to shell the city out of fear of destroying a work of such magnitude.) A small example of how that which is beautiful and true, can influence individuals that come in contact with it and through those individuals impact positively on a greater sector of society, in ways that the original creator of the work, could never have imagined or anticipated!

The great work of education as is undertaken at St Thomas Aquinas College and the living of Religious life in the newly established Novitiate is somehow similar in that, although small and seemingly insignificant, the impact of their labours can never be fully foreseen or predicted. The degree to which they remain faithful to the guiding principles as set forth by mother Church, will determine the degree to which they can be useful instruments for God to work on individuals and through those individuals have a positive impact on greater society.

What are some of these important principles that we as a parish, school and convent must remember and cling to in order to be useful instruments? In general St Pius X sets the main principle and reminds all men that “even in things of earth, (man) may not overlook the supernatural…” There truly are no aspects of our lives which we can separate from God; all of our actions must be undertaken with our ultimate end in mind. The consequence for education then is clear, in the word of Pope Pius XI in his encyclical DIVINI ILLIUS MAGISTRI, “The proper and immediate end of Christian education is to cooperate with divine grace in forming the true and perfect Christian...” The Pope continues to point out that in order to achieve this; the school must offer more than just a class on religion. To be a truly Catholic school “… it is necessary that all the teaching and the whole organization of the school, and its teachers, syllabus and text-books in every branch, be regulated by the Christian spirit, under the direction and maternal supervision of the Church; so that Religion may be in very truth the foundation and crown of the youth's entire training; and this in every grade of school, not only the elementary, but the intermediate and the higher institutions of learning as well.”
To use the words of Leo XIII: “It is necessary not only that religious instruction be given to the young at certain fixed times, but also that every other subject taught, be permeated with Christian piety. If this is wanting, if this sacred atmosphere does not pervade and warm the hearts of masters and scholars alike, little good can be expected from any kind of learning, and considerable harm will often be the consequence.” This is no small task.

The Sisters in turn must stay faithful to their Rule and Constitutions approved by the Church. The special end for which the Dominican Order has been brought into being, by the Providence of God, within the bosom of the Church is the salvation of souls by the ministry of teaching and preaching. The special means which it employs to achieve this end are:
• the solemn Choral Office, (Prayer: we say the full Divine Office) and
• the maintenance of observances designed at once to support regular life and to render the members of the Order efficient preachers of the Gospel. (Penance: silence, fast, early rise etc.)
This is the significance of its traditional formula: “Contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere.” The particular work of this congregation is the education of youth. When we consider the importance and magnitude of the task of education the benefit of co-operation between the Sisters and the School becomes clear. The Sisters not only help to teach, but keep each and every one of their pupils, past and present, in their prayers, and in this, more so than in class preparation and teaching helps to prepare the students to be able and ready to co-operate with the grace that God offers them through their School environment.

Some may argue that we find ourselves, small and isolated in a World immersed in a slumber as deep as the guards that watch over the tomb of Christ in our painting. A world unaware of the basic truths/principles necessary to restore the problems faced in society and particularly education which stems from the removal and purposeful exclusion of the One who IS TRUTH and by denying Him, and His Church her basic rights as mentioned above. This is true, all around us we see fulfilled the words of Pope Leo XIII that without proper religious and moral instruction "every form of intellectual culture will be injurious; for young people not accustomed to respect God, will be unable to bear the restraint of a virtuous life, and never having learned to deny themselves anything, they will easily be incited to disturb the public order." Religious life too has suffered through deviation from the ancient rule and constitutions, the neglect of prayer and recollection in favour of ceaseless activity, without the protection of habit and community life. We are not too surprised to find new vocations to most orders almost nonexistent. Yet, the blind refusal to admit their errors, the continued search for solutions that excludes God, the mocking of those who hold to the true path, continues. Both Christian Education and Religious Orders as we knew them in the glorious days of old, seems to lay buried dead and deep.

This rejection of truth and beauty is also illustrated in our painting, which was soon forgotten after the artist’s death. Appreciation for the very quality that draws us to reflection, its stillness and quietness, the lack of special effects in order to seduce the viewer, lead to a decline in its appreciation by later generations. In fact it was buried under plaster and whitewash during the 18th Century! ... but in time the plaster started to peel away and the painting returned from the dead, fully resurrected and restored during the 19th Century.

Thus hope remains. Let us never “doubt that this event REALLY happened”, that just as Our Lord suffered on the cross, He rose victorious, and with the promise that with his help, we too can rise victorious. And so both Christian Education and Religious life does have a chance of resurrection, with the help of God we can work for that very purpose! Let us then not slumber, but share that sense of gratitude that we are fortunate (as any viewer of this picture clearly senses) to witness this event, to know the answer to the problem. Let us remain true to the principles, that no education is “neutral”, let us not deny the Church her maternal role to safeguard all aspects of school life and curriculum. Let us not be taken in by Pedagogic naturalism, which weakens the supernatural formation in the teaching of youth, relying on human powers alone, promising a false freedom to the child. Let us become parents/teachers who possess both the intellectual and moral qualifications required, to teach by our good example. Let us never be ashamed to adhere to principles, despised and mocked by the modern world. As Religious let us continue to pray and do penance, accept the vocations God sends us, and train them as best we can to remain true to their fathers’ ideal for their sanctification and the salvation of souls through the apostolate of teaching.

Together let us then continue with great courage and hope in the work of building sanctuaries for the true education of youth, keeping our eyes fixed on the truth of Our Lord’s victory on the Cross. However small we may appear in a larger world, may St Thomas Aquinas College and Rosary Convent, like this painting stand as visible proofs and reminders of the power and beauty of Truth.

The Paschal Candle as a visible reminder of Our Lord's victory over death.
Surrexit Dominus vere ~ Alleluia, alleluia