by Sister Cecilia Maria
MORNING PRAYER (LAUDS) REFLECTION:
Psalm 5 (Wk 1, Mon MP)
If this psalm were reduced to one sentence, it would be, “To my words give ear, O Lord; lead me in your justice and make clear your way before me.” It is, in its essence, a psalm of petition, begging the Lord for guidance according to His Will. But how impoverished is this petition when stripped of the verses which frame it! On a deeper level and, indeed, in the very act of petitioning God, this psalm joyfully proclaims God’s loving mercy for us.
The psalmist begins with the action of prayer:
to my words give ear…
give heed to my groaning,
attend to the sound of my cries…
I offer you my prayer.
Then he describes the God he invokes: one who hates evil, who does not abide by sinners of any stripe. He recognizes that he himself is utterly unworthy to address himself to the Lord, and then magnificently proclaims why he still dares to pray:
But I through the greatness of your love
have access to your house.
I bow down before your holy temple,
filled with awe.
In the Latin, the first line of that stanza is Ego autem in multitudine misericordiae tuae, literally, “I, however, in the multitude of your mercy.” Only through the mercy of our God are we able to worship Him! Only in his infinite love for us do we dare to pray! Indeed, “It is you who bless the just man, Lord: you surround him with favor as with a shiled.” And the psalmist rightly tells forth his gratitude in joy for such a blessing:
All those you protect shall be glad
and ring out their joy.l
You shelter them; in you they rejoice,
those who love your name.
Psalm 29 (Wk 1, Mon MP)
(with apologies to the real poets among us…including King David)
Who can withstand the voice of the Lord?
Who can withstand the power of the voice of the Lord,
the splendorous power of the Lord of hosts?
His unheard thundering in the heart of man – can it go unheeded?
Can a soul, once touched by the whisper of the Majesty, remain silent, unmoved?
Can the devastating thunder of His Love be contained,
or the flames of His fire quelled?
A cedar shattered, I stand!
A wilderness shaken, I dance!
With Lebanon and Kadesh I dance,
and stripped of my glory, I don His own and sing,
yes, I sing out His glory in His holy temple!
For the voice of the Lord, full of power,
calls me in resounding silence,
and I come.
And the voice of the Lord, full of splendor,
blesses me with peace,
and I adore.
MIDDAY PRAYER (SEXT) REFLECTION:
Psalm 71B (Wk 3, Mon MD)
A song of praise, of joy, and of hope springs from our lips at the end of this Midday hour, but what is perhaps most striking is the fidelity with which this psalm is laced. Though the psalmist endures tribulationes multas et malas, “many and bitter troubles,” and feels as though she has fallen to the very depths of the earth, yet she sings with rejoicing lips of the Lord’s goodness and love. What is more, she declares that she will continue to praise Him and sing joyfully to Him always.
This is a tale of a lifetime of fidelity: past, present, and future. Taught by the Lord from her youth, the psalmist now tells of His justice and help and wonders “day by day…though I can never tell it all.” In a single beautiful stanza she anticipates her old age and beseeches the Lord to allow her to continue praising and proclaiming His strength and justice:
Et usque in senectam et senium, And even unto old age and senility,
Deus, ne derelinquas me, O God, do not forsake me,
donec annuntiem brachium tuum while I shall tell of your right arm
generationi omni, quae ventura est. to every generation that is to come.
She rests securely in the Lord’s fidelity, and there she finds a fidelity of her own which endures through every stage of life, no matter how bitter or how sweet.
As we sing this psalm, we too are invited to respond with joyful hope and faithful love to whatever our days bring us. In our work, in our trials, in our disappointments, in everything we receive can be found the justice of our loving God who shall never forsake the beloved children He has redeemed.
EVENING PRAYER (VESPERS) REFLECTION:
Psalm 27 B (Wk 1, Wed EP)
This is the song of a soul on a journey, indeed, on a quest fraught with darkness, uncertainty, and fear. In the first stanza, she declares the object of her quest: “Of you my heart has spoken: ‘Seek his face.’” She has traveled many miles through wilderness, seeking him who always seems to be just ahead, just around the next bend, and finally cries out for mercy and guidance: “hear my voice when I call…answer me…hide not your face!” Acknowledging her inability to persevere on her own, she calls upon God who has been her help every step of the journey, beseeching him to continue drawing and sustaining her along the road toward union with him. “Instruct me, Lord, in your way; on an even path lead me.”
In her heart she knows that her quest is not in vain, though its end remains veiled from her sight, and though even those closest to her have forsaken her as crazy and deluded. She places all her hope, all her trust in the Lord and in his love. He will not abandon her, he will protect her along the journey from every enemy that seeks to ambush and destroy her, he will defend her against those who bear false witness in their furious desire to block her progress. He, the least visible reality in this quest, is also her surest help along the way.
She ends her journeying song by addressing herself with words of great encouragement: “I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living. Hope in him, hold firm and take heart. Hope in the Lord!” The quest is not over yet, but with his saving grace, she will find him whom she seeks with all her heart.
LITURGY OF THE HEART
Jesus Christ is the Great High Priest of the heavenly liturgy, and indeed, of the whole of Christian liturgy. Risen and glorified, He lives forever in heaven, presiding as Priest over the eternal sacrifice of His Body. All Christian liturgy has as its source and reaches its fullness in His Mass. Ordained priests share in the sacrificial priesthood of Christ as they celebrate the visible Eucharistic liturgy, and those who celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours share in His priesthood of praise and intercession. In the interior liturgy of the heart, each baptized believer presides as priest over her own liturgy of prayer; by her baptism into Christ, she is given the privilege and responsibility of living the priesthood of Christ within her own life. Her heart becomes her holy of holies, where she sets up her altar of atonement and there offers the sacrifices of prayer, fasting, humility, and praise as St. Ephraim the Syrian sings so beautifully. Ideally, this interior liturgy is one that never ceases, just as the celestial liturgy never ceases, for as St. Isaac the Syrian writes, “these two are one and the same bridal chamber, and it is through one and the same door that you can see into both.”
The more that we enter into and remain in the holy of holies that is our own heart, the more we will find that we dwell in the Heart of Christ and of His Body the Church. The more perfectly we exercise this priesthood of prayer, the more we will find that the whole people of God are gathered in attendance at our own heart’s liturgy. As contemplative nuns, this priesthood is the great grace of our solitude, and the reason why we must guard it so carefully. If we allow Him, our Great High Priest will transform the wilderness of our solitude into “a garden enclosed” where He will draw us into union with His own sacrifice, His own Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Such is the very heart of the invisible, interior liturgy, even as it is the heart of consecrated life. Everything in our daily lives is meant to be a part of our heart’s sacrifice of praise; everything is to be gathered up in a continuous and loving holocaust of self, offered with Christ for the sake of His Body.
An understanding of the nature of Christian liturgy, especially of the place given to the liturgy of the heart, recalls me to the great dignity and responsibility given to me at baptism, and at the same time, it convicts me of how poorly I celebrate the interior liturgy of my own heart. As I have pondered these things over the last few days, many times I have had to turn to the Lord in sorrow; for in my heart I find a ruined sanctuary, blemished sacrifices, an inattentive and halfhearted priest. But even as I lament over the destruction of my heart’s temple, the same understanding of the liturgy of the heart brings me great hope. It has opened my eyes to see the work which must be done and which I fail to do, and so now I can pray all the more fervently for the Lord to enter into, cleanse, rebuild, and sanctify my heart. I can beseech Him to send His Holy Spirit to transform me into a true member of Christ, Priest and Victim, and thus enable me to celebrate worthily His mysteries throughout each day. At every moment, in every task, and especially every time I catch myself wandering out of my interior sanctuary, I can abandon myself anew to the love and grace of God, whose work alone is the whole of Christian liturgy.
The Essence of True Femininity
The last in the order of creation, woman is in a sense its crown. Only after her creation out of the side of man, to be his perfect compliment and companion, did God cease from His work and call all things “very good.” It was “not good for man to be alone,” but the gift of womanhood as helper and partner to manhood renders humanity perfect – that is, complete – and when this relationship is properly ordered, all creation is ordered as well. Such is the great tragedy of original sin: that because disorder intruded between our first parents, to whom authority over earthly creation had been given, the whole order of creation under them was upset. Woman from the first was given unique dignity and responsibility; by fostering this true femininity in ourselves, we can help to reclaim and restore the true beauty and order of our world.
What is a woman? What does it mean to be a partner, a helper, a companion for man? First of all, we are created for love, and specifically for being loving and receptive to love. Uniquely among all created things, woman was created to fill a specific need which is felt and expressed in the scripture narrative. Man, the first half of humanity created, is allowed to experience the loneliness of his partner’s absence, and when God finally brings forth woman from his side, he exclaims with joy and relief, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!” Woman is created for man – even as man was created to need woman – so that together they might live as the image and likeness of God who is Love.
Because woman is created for building up mankind in love, one of her primary strengths is the nurture of those around her. Her natural instincts are often inclined toward building up that which is broken, tending that which needs healing or growth, and protecting that which is small or helpless. In a word, a woman is naturally a mother, not only toward her own children, but toward all around her who are in need of a mother’s care. Indeed, every woman, regardless of whether she is married or has borne her own children, is by her very nature a mother.
In her mothering, nurturing role, woman draws on a set of innate virtues which distinguish her way of functioning in the world. She excels in relating to persons individually and on all levels of their humanity, body, mind, and spirit. She tends to approach situations and experiences holistically, rather than compartmentalizing or specializing. She is adept at enabling others, working as their support, mentor, teacher, or inspiration. She tends to apply even abstract concepts or problems on a personal level, and she therefore has great capacity for compassion and insight. Qualities such as this distinguish women from men even when, otherwise, they are performing the same task or serving in the same ministry.
Perhaps even more predominant than any of these characteristics, however, is the fruitful receptivity of woman. This is most obviously manifested physically in her reproductive system, but it pervades her whole being. A woman receives an idea – or a task, or a fellow human being – and takes it unto herself, providing it as best she can with whatever it requires to bear fruit. In Scripture, we see this exemplified in the Virgin Mary’s “pondering these things in her heart.”
In her comportment and behavior, a true woman ought not to draw attention to herself except insofar as doing so builds up those who are around her. Her nature and gifts are ordered toward selfless and nurturing love, and therefore her own beauty and dignity shine most clearly when she orders her speech (and listening!), actions, movements, and influence toward fostering the beauty and dignity of others.
Passionist Mother of Priests
The hours of Jesus’ Passion are the climax of His earthly mission of redemption, the consummation of the perfect outpouring of love which He began at the Incarnation. At no other moment in the thirty-three years that He walked among us is His heavenly priesthood so clearly manifested. Even as he hangs helpless on those beams of pain, he presides unchallenged over a most solemn sacrifice. The crimson vestments which He donned even as the scourges fashioned them from His flesh, with terrible beauty show forth the nature of this High Priest. He not only offers sacrifice; He is the victim offered. His hour having come, in power and love He lays down His life for His friends.
Mary’s vocation as the mother of this High Priest also reaches its climax on Calvary, but to understand it fully, we must trace its beginnings. She keeps her vigil on Calvary with the full awareness that by her fiat (“amen” in Hebrew) she prepared this Lamb for the sacrifice. At the angel’s Annunciation, the humble handmaid of the Lord became mother of the Messiah; because of her co-operation, “when He came into the world, He said: Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me” (Heb 10:5). Without Mary’s “yes,” there would have been no Body for the Christ to offer upon the Cross. We can easily understand, too, that this fiat was lived daily in the life of this mother as it is for all mothers. Her loving “yes” at His conception became a loving yes as He took nourishment from her breasts, as He toddled His first shaky steps clinging to her hands, as He learned to speak, to pray, to sing by imitating the sounds from His mother’s mouth. As the Messiah “advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man” (Lk 2:52), the fiat of His mother was a constant, often hidden support, silently aiding and accompanying Him toward His goal.
In his Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson illustrates beautifully how Mary lives out her motherhood of the High Priest during the Passion itself. One line from the movie perfectly encapsulates her role: in the courtyard of the high priest, Mary glimpses the abuse following the condemnation of Jesus, and she murmurs, “So it begins. Amen, Adonai. Amen.” Truly, it will be her participation at Calvary that will sound the Great Amen to this Mass. By her presence, prayer, and union of mind and will with His own, the mother of the Victim-Priest gives support, strength, and endurance to her Son. She accompanies Him with a compassionate fiat-amen as He suffers the scourgings, as He stumbles under the weight of the Cross, as He is stripped, as He is nailed to the wood. A true mother, she feels keenly in her heart every wound, every blow, every insult which fills her Son’s chalice of suffering; indeed, though she did not hear aloud the familiar offertory words, “Pray that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father” (Order of Mass), she embodies the perfect response. As surely as her dying Son offers His own life in sacrifice to the Father, He offers hers who stands below in loving sorrow, whose fiat-amen once gave Him life in order that He might lay it down for the sake of all mankind.
Perhaps the most striking depiction of Mary’s motherhood of the High Priest is in the Pietá, that scene in which she reverently cradles the crucified Christ in her arms. Even after He has spent all, after His offering is completed, she continues the offering in her soul and body as she with her whole being cries out the eternal Amen which completes His sacrifice. Jesus Christ having offered Himself “once for all,” His mother is the first to extend through time her participation in it. If she can be seen as a monstrance at the beginning of His priestly oblation, when He first became incarnate in her womb, she can just as surely be seen as a monstrance at the end of His oblation, as she lifts up with her own hands and heart what the High Priest can no longer physically lift up Himself.
From the Gospel narrative itself, we know that Mary is not the mother of the High Priest only, but mother of all priests. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” With these words, Jesus gives His mother to the Apostle John. Alone of the Twelve to approach this altar, perhaps John is the first to understand that he has been given a share in his Master’s priesthood, that he and his brothers are to continue through time the sacrifice that Christ has offered once for all eternity. Perhaps as he witnessed Jesus being lifted up between heaven and earth, he began to understand the significance of the Supper they had shared the night before in the upper room. We do not know. But we do know that John, representing all ordained priests, on Calvary received the High Priest’s mother as his own. For him, for the other apostles, and for every priest of Jesus Christ through the ages, Mary is a mother precisely as she was for her Son. She prepares them for their own shares in the Passion and comforts them as they suffer. She strengthens them as they encounter their own weakness, and is the hidden support of prayer behind their every action. She is eternally the Sorrowful Mother on Calvary, eternally embodying the fiat-amen at the Mass celebrated “once for all” and extended through time at the hands of her priestly sons.
It is into this fiat-amen of the Mother of Priests that we are called as Passionist Nuns. As we become ever more united with her at the foot of the Cross, we are drawn into her motherhood; we too are given “St. Johns” to nurture, comfort, strengthen, support. Our lives become fruitful, and though we may never meet our children “in the flesh,” by our daily fidelity to our monastic life we raise up priests to God and proclaim the Great Amen to their Mass. As the Year for Priests draws to a close, I give thanks and praise for the privilege of being called to such a vocation, and I pray that the Lord will continue to raise up priestly souls – sons and mothers! – who will extend His Sacrifice of Love throughout the world.