I don’t know about you, but these past few months I’ve felt quite unsettled and disorientated, as though I were living in a dream. First of all, the resignation of Pope Benedict: could it really be? There was that feeling of confusion, of bereavement without a death. Then the election of Pope Francis and again: is this really happening? At times it was as though I were living through a film or a novel, believing that I would wake up at any moment and realize it was only a dream. If it was like for me, then what must it have been like, perhaps still is like, for the protagonists themselves. I often think of Benedict, of what he must be doing now, at this very moment, and of Francis, of how he must be coping, just when he was planning to retire and take things easy for the first time in his life. But in the Church, Christ has called us to serve and to be faithful to the end, so no retirement and certainly no taking things easy for any of us in the struggle against sin and in the fight to be good.
How should we not be disorientated and confused, when this is the first time that we have ever lived through such an historic transition? What’s more, no one else has lived through this experience and written about it, telling us how it is. Even so, there is one thing that has struck me throughout and it’s this: there is something very powerful and particular that unites these two men, these two Popes and, as it were, fuses their ministries into one: a holy stillness, a divinely inspired calm, a spirit of contemplation, the effusion of peace, that reminds us of the words of Jesus, which we repeat every day at Mass. “Peace I leave you; my own peace I give you, a peace which the world cannot give, this is my gift to you.” (Jn 14:27) Perhaps the most moving moment that exemplified this was when Benedict and Francis met at Castel Gandolfo and prayed together, sharing the silence of God’s presence as they knelt side by side.
What has struck me most, with all that’s been said and written these past few weeks, is that no one has mentioned the centrality of prayer, and of the prayer of silence, contemplative prayer, in the lives of these two extraordinary men. It seems strange particularly after what Pope Benedict said would be his main occupation in retirement: to pray for the Church and to accompany her in prayer. This above all has helped me to make sense of what is taking place in the Church today. It has also helped me calm my own anxieties about the Church, about the modern world, about life and what it’s all about, everything, in fact: living in the presence of God, being centered on Christ, opening one’s whole being to the grace of the Holy Spirit, in other words, the centrality and vital importance of contemplative prayer to the lives of all Christians, and especially of us monks.
What Pope Benedict taught us by his example was that liturgical prayer, the celebration of the sacraments, was more than a concentration on and an understanding of the texts, more even than entering into the mystery being celebrated, it was to be immersed in the profound silence of the heart of God, being taken up into the Godhead, as it were. What you sensed and experienced when he presided over any celebration was that he was in total communion with God, that he had already crossed the threshold and was living that new dimension, that new life of the Risen Lord. He somehow rose above and beyond the splendor and grandeur of the occasion and was in a state of contemplation. That surely is the model to follow, the model of Christ himself, who, though incarnate, was nevertheless in perfect communion and harmony with the Father and the Holy Spirit. As we recall our Baptism this Eastertide and our immersion into the Mystery of Christ, we pray that our own humble offerings at Divine Office and Conventual or Parish Mass may follow the same path forged for us by Pope Benedict.
Now I know that in many ways Pope Francis is very different, but the differences I feel are superficial and of little importance. Of course, they are what the media and his critics within the Church have already latched on to as though a bit of lace had the importance of the dogma of the Holy Trinity or that red Prada shoes were more important than the Incarnation. It’s the substance that matters, and what strikes me is that, in his simple Latin American way, Francis has that same spirit of contemplative prayer which he brings to each celebration and public occasion. Like Benedict, when he stands before the vast crowd of worshippers or the merely curious, he is completely focused on Christ and with him in communion with the Father through the indwelling of the Spirit. As we pray now for his pontificate and for the good of the Church and the salvation of all men, let us also pray that this spirit of silence and peace, of tenderness and respect, will also permeate our own Christian lives and our daily monastic prayer. I know it can be difficult as there are so many distractions, but even our distractions be contemplative and, above all, charitable and good humored. The important thing with distractions is to humbly accept and incorporate them into our prayer, turning them into prayer, and not rejecting them, thereby making them an issue with the devil himself and so asking for trouble.
Thinking of our vocation as Benedictine monks, no matter what work we end up doing or the fact that we are often called upon to change the type of work we do and the place we do it in, we are not and cannot be identified by our work, as these positions are temporary, and, in any case, life moves on and we are soon gone. It is not what we do, no matter how important that may seem, that matters, but who we are and who we are truly called to be. St Therese of the Child Jesus discovered her vocation to be “love in the heart of the Church.” What, then, is our vocation? Going back to what I said about the Holy Fathers Benedict and Francis, I believe our vocation is to be exactly what our motto says, “Pax”, i.e. peace at the heart of the Church, “a peace that world cannot give”, Christ’s peace, which is the fruit of prayer, of inner stillness and of focusing on Christ alone amid a myriad temptations, distractions, good works, duties and everything else that makes up our daily life. People who come into contact with us should sense and enjoy and breathe in the peace of Christ. Our brethren should find in us men of peace and a source of their peace. Each one of us should discover in himself that “peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding”, that peace which will “keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.” (Phil 4:7) Amen.
Conference given by Abbot Paul Stonham on 17th April 2013