Rays of the morning sun begin to crack through the weathered peaks of the Cascades, illuminating the white plumes of mist that enshroud the Fraser River. As songbirds begin to raise their hymns to the crisp skies above, and roaring locomotives ply ribbons of steel towards the coast, a different sound rings across the valley, emanating from a solemn arched tower, soaring from its hilly perch above Hatzic Lake. A melody of bells, a metallic reverberation, a carillon calling creation to worship: it is time for Mass at Westminster Abbey.
Beneath the warming glow of stained glass, flanked by robust concrete pillars and guarded by the penetrating gazes of prophets and saints etched in plaster reliefs on the walls, an array of figures clad in simple black robes arise from their choir stalls. A collage of faces, showing both the wrinkles of time and the excitement of youth, turn to face a stark granite altar, upon which a humble disc of unleavened bread will be blessed, broken, and transformed into the food of everlasting life.
This scene, so moving in cosmic grandeur and inviting in its elegant humbleness, is one that has captivated me since my youth, when my family would on occasion drive the hour from Vancouver to attend Mass celebrated by this community of men dedicated to a life of ora et labora, work and prayer, under the monastic Rule of St. Benedict.
A recent visit home allowed me the opportunity to return to Westminster Abbey, and speak with Abbot John Braganza about the foundations of the Benedictine way of life, and the way in which it continues to serve as a visible sign of the presence of God in the world.
The altar upon which bread is broken daily at Westminster Abbey stands at the center of the Abbey church, a symmetrical structure of concrete and glass erected in the shape of a cross. Above the granite table is suspended a striking figure of Christ crucified, hung from a Cross of wire and visible from all sides of the altar, a representation of the real body of Christ made present for all at Mass.
This body of Christ, the visible center of the Abbey church, is the center of the life of all who profess into the monastic way of life at Westminster Abbey, and indeed ought to be for all who make the promises of baptism.
“We are always facing the Cross,” Abbot John said, “whether at the altar, our personal lives, or our community life.”
This orientation towards the presence of Christ, crucified and risen, which so visibly structures the movement of the liturgy, is the form, both visible and invisible, of the monk’s whole life. It is the means by which a person participates in the Paschal Mystery, which Abbot John describes as a movement from the “agony of Jesus, the silence of Jesus,” to a culmination in the “risen presence and joy of Jesus.”
In a world where true joy is so easily simulated by easy hits of dopamine, delivered by everything from a “like” on social media to the quick kiss of a hook-up, where earbuds and talking screens can surround us with a 24/7 echo chamber, many of us may internally shudder at the mention of “agony” and “silence” as prerequisites of joy. We can perhaps take consolation, however, in the knowledge that even in the relative solitude of a monastery, such realities are not to be confronted without effort.
“It is not easy to always imitate and embrace the cross and embrace the Gospel,” Abbot John said. “We often struggle to be who we are called to be.”
How then, do the monks embrace such a Cross and thereby fulfill their calling with joy? While many of us today try to find our true selves through ever more frenetic means, endlessly darting from one place to another in search of the perfect body, the perfect career, the perfect relationship, the Benedictine response is both profound in its simplicity and bold in its challenge to us: Be still. Be silent.
“The Lord not encountered in noise, but in silence,” Abbot John said. “Sometimes God is completely silent, but He is present. The monk doesn’t know how, but he surrenders to the silence.”
In encountering this silent presence of God, the monk finds that reality much sought after by many but far seldom found: true peace.
The peace of the monk, however, is not merely the function of an external, physical silence. If it were, it would not be much different than the kind of peace often promised by various self-help movements of today. It is not an expression of what philosopher Charles Taylor called “expressive individualism,” the summit of an individual quest to achieve a higher level of personal awareness or consciousness, available only to those privileged enough have the leisure to pursue such practices.
“Peace is not just something that we have,” Abbot John said “It is a way of relating and being to God and to other things. Our motto is peace. For the monk it’s living out our relationships in a truthful and loving way towards everything: God, our brothers, creation, ourselves.”
Peace then, is not merely a passive experience that can be chased after, attained, even bought and sold on the same level as so many other experiences. It rather demands something of us, what the Benedictine way identifies as “conversion of heart.” It is this call to conversion that places the monastic way of life at what Abbot John described as “the heart of the world.”
The assertion that monastic life is present at the heart of the world is a jarring paradox. It is a way of life that would strike many as a quaint anachronism, evidenced by the location of many monasteries at the geographical peripheries of regions such as BC’s Fraser Valley.
But herein lies the radical universality at the heart of this paradox: If the peace lived by the monk is found in the structuring of relationships, then it is a reality that is not merely confined within the walls of the monastery, or to assorted secular practices that may try to replicate it: is available wherever true relationships are found, which can be anywhere. As a Benedictine monastery stands simultaneously at the peripheries of geography and at the heart of the world, so too true peace can be found on the chaotic peripheries of everyday existence: of working families, of stressed students, of hurried commuters.
“Nobody goes anywhere without carrying their humanity with them,” Abbot John said.
Because we believe that God has united himself with this same humanity, then the same God who is at the heart of the monastery is at the heart of the world, wherever humanity is present. It is by embracing this presence that God is found.
In Abbot John’s words, “We need to rediscover or reclaim the art of being present to each other, being present to things, being present to the work we’re doing, to enjoy the moment that is given us. God is in the present. Grace is in the present…It’s really there before us. It’s a profoundly simple thought, but the simpler the thoughts are, the more demanding is the discipline to really put it into practice.”
As the last light of evening fades over the groves and fields of Westminster Abbey, and the monks raise their evening prayer, the verses of Mary’s Magnificat reverberate through the Abbey Church, gently harmonizing with the soothing rays of sunset pouring through the window panes.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…
for God has looked upon my lowliness."
One can imagine these words echoing through the ages from the lips of a poor peasant girl in Palestine, and striking a chord in the heart of a resolute man named Benedict, dwelling in a cave in the mountains of Italy. As he listened to the voice of God beckoning him, he resolved to steadfastly follow Christ, in the midst of a changing world in which the mighty had been cast down from their thrones, and a new civilization was yet barely in germ.
While many of his contemporaries were drowsed by the subtle siren calls of sensible pleasure and power, he called out from his rocky abode, rousing his world from its sleep and pouring his voice into the ink of those magnetic words of his Rule: “Harken, O my son, to the precepts of thy Master, and incline the ear of thy heart” (Prologue, Rule of St. Benedict).
In our own present age of flux, in which our ears and hearts are full of a cacophony of different noises and voices, the prophetic call of Benedict and those who follow his Rule beckons us to instead seek God in the silence, to journey to the heart of the world, where we find a man on a cross.
And there, our eyes are lifted to see the divine beauty behind his and every human face, and to harken to His voice softly speaking. And we come to realize, as once did that man in a grotto in Europe, and still do these men on a hill on the western edge of Canada.
“What can be sweeter to us, beloved brethren, than this voice of the Lord inviting us? Behold, in His loving kindness the Lord points out to us the way of life.” (Prologue, Rule of St. Benedict).
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