HAVE BEEN READING a beautiful book called The Spirit of Solesmes, a compilation of spiritual writings by Dom Prosper Guéranger, Abbess Cécile Bruyère, and Dom Paul Delatte, with wonderful notes by Sister Mary David Totah. I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who is seriously interested in monastic spirituality. The writings display that uniquely Benedictine synthesis of down-to-earth practical wisdom, a pervasive presence of the rhythms of liturgical prayer, and a vibrant serenity that is always hovering somewhere between the poetry of everyday life and the silence of eternity.
St. Thomas is fond of the axiom: “What is last in execution is first in intention.” Or as the ancients put it still more succinctly: Respice finem. One must begin any major action—such as taking care of one’s children or teaching classes each day!—with the end in view. God, our ultimate end, is known through prayer, in which, by His grace, we enter more deeply into the union of indwelling that He gives us in baptism and all the sacraments.
“Being a Christian does not only mean accepting Christ’s teaching and receiving the graces won by Him; it also means becoming a worshiper in spirit and in truth, reliving His mysteries, ascending to God in the liturgy in the way Christ descended to us and returned to the Father. Here is realized the unity of our human life, the participation of whole persons in their highest act, which is worship.” (Spirit of Solesmes, 24)
The unification of our lives, the orientation to the ultimate goal that gives meaning to every proximate and particular goal we seek, is the work of the sacred liturgy. This is what endows the fragments of each day, colorful and leaden alike, with the unity of a stained glass window.
Many of the Church’s liturgical prayers contain the petition that we should experience in ourselves the mystery we celebrate. Without prayer, we might (for a time at any rate) “have” this union objectively, but it would not be the place we dwell, the determinative content of our thoughts and desires. If we want then to sanctify our actions, whatever they may be, we must enter consciously and lovingly into this union, so as to draw from God, for whom nothing is impossible, the strength to do all the work He asks of us.
When speaking of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Summa Ia-IIae, Question 68), Saint Thomas argues the absolute necessity of special assistance by the Holy Spirit, every day, throughout the day, if we are to attain the glorious end God has in store for us, so greatly does it exceed our natural abilities—even the superadded power of the theological virtues in us. “Let your good spirit lead me into the promised land.” And he makes clear that it is not only for reaching the ultimate end but also for attaining any of the particular ends we aim at as Christians, if we want to do them as God’s children, that is, with wisdom, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, and so on.
So we have to listen to the Spirit in order to be directed in our activity. In this sense, there cannot be a genuine apostolate at all without contemplative prayer behind it, as the Acts of the Apostles so clearly shows. Moreover, prayer of all sorts, but especially quiet prayer in solitude, disposes one to be a good listener and a keen perceiver of reality. You learn how to listen to others and, at times painfully, discover the secret workings of your own heart.
Finally, then, we are left with a question, an examination of conscience: What is at the center of my day? What is the center of my being—what is the still point?