HIS PAST JUNE, it was my great and humbling privilege to participate in the Sacra Liturgia 2013 conference in Rome, on behalf of the Cardinal Newman Society and Wyoming Catholic College. The talks were outstanding and the fellowship was heartening, but most impressive of all, and most nourishing, were the resplendent liturgies: two solemn pontifical Masses and two solemn Offices of Vespers, celebrated in both forms of the Roman Rite.
Never before had I experienced so fully the meaning of our Lord’s expression that a time is coming and is already here, when men will worship the Father in spirit and in truth (cf. Jn 4:23). Truly was the Eternal Father adored for His great glory, in a manner itself glorious and full of reverence; upwards and outwards from the sanctuary drifted the fragrance of the truth of the Faith in all its purity and power. There was no wordiness and no need for explanation: the signs and symbols, singing and silence, spoke fluently of sacred mysteries veiled and manifest, given to us and yet ever beyond us.
The tranquility of order permeated the densely filled silence, the stately orisons, the chanted antiphons, the gestures and motions of all ministers. One could well believe earth was opening to heaven, the veil between time and eternity lifted, while a shaft of divine light fell upon us in our poverty. It is just such moments that carry a nourishing force far disproportionate to their human dimensions. I felt I could be sustained by such an experience through many months of desert dryness, much as I imagine Moses was carried through the trials of his trek in the wilderness by the glory revealed to him on Mount Sinai. I found myself, in spite of the leisurely length of the ceremonies, not wanting to leave the church at all when they were finished; one had to tear oneself away from that prayer-saturated space.
AFTER THE CONFERENCE WAS OVER, I made my way to Norcia for a short retreat at the Monastero di San Benedetto. And what awaited me there, on the Lord’s Day, was Solemn Vespers followed by Adoration and Benediction. The service was not merely beautiful, it was sublime; it had a kind of fearful intensity to it, a severe purity of intention. At one point, while the Blessed Sacrament was exposed in a golden monstrance on the altar, chant was floating through the air, and the air was so thick with incense that you could barely see the altar and the candles flickering through the smoke as it rose up to heaven. “Let my prayer be directed as incense in thy sight, the lifting up of my hands, as an evening sacrifice” (Ps 140:2)—for me, this verse has never been so vividly portrayed and prayed as it was in that church, especially when the Divine Praises were offered up in peaceful chant, a pure homage of blessing for the simple reality of God and His angels and saints. These monks, and with them, a sizeable number of locals and visitors, were making a genuine sacrifice of praise: our life, our being was being drawn towards the Lord of all, the hidden King enthroned in His monstrance, and our time, our energy, was burned up for him like incense, simply because He is all worthy of our praise.
Not long ago a Cistercian monk of Heiligenkreuz quoted a striking passage from Abbot John of Ford’s Commentary on the Song of Songs:
Without any doubt, praise awakens love and preserves it. Hence it is that the citizens of Jerusalem feed the flame of eternal love by eternal praises. They cease not to cry aloud so as to be steadfast in love. Their cry has no rest, because love knows no intermission. So praise is the food of love. And you, too, if deep within you there is a little spark of sacred love, do all you can to apply to this spark the oil of your praise, so that your tiny fire may live and grow.
This feeding of the flame of love with the oil of praise is exactly what I witnessed at the monastery in Norcia, at their daily Divine Office, community Mass, and other devotions. The monk’s entire life is ordered to providing a continuous supply of that oil so that the flame will never die out but burn steadily through day and night.
This flame of faith may flicker and fade in the world outside, where men and women consume themselves in pursuit of wealth, pleasure, and power, headstrong and heedless of their souls, quickly filled up and just as quickly emptied out; it may even flicker and fade in the halls of the Vatican as the old guard recedes and the new guard advances; but never will it be extinguished in the souls of Saint Benedict’s faithful sons. Unnoticed by most, they go about their work, their prayer, their daily round, with an inconquerable patience, a quiet fortitude and massive stability, that outlasts the rise and fall of kings and bishops. Kill them, root them up, drive them far away, corrupt them—they come alive again and again, perhaps in a different place or a different century, but chant they still the divine praises, sweet echo of the heavenly song, sung by souls in love with heaven crying out to heaven, and preserving earth from faith’s famine’s dark despair.
What a barren, hostile wilderness this world would surely be, were it not for those enclosed gardens, the convents, those flowering deserts, the monasteries!