Links of interest & resources…

Recension: The Community and Abbot in the Rule of Saint Benedict

ADALBERT DE VOGÜÉ, La communauté et l’Abbé dans la Règle de saint Benoît; Desclée de Brouwer, 1961.

It would seem anachronistic to present D. de V.’s book, fifty seven years after its publication, in addition to which, we have had the subject dissected and addressed in several prestigious journals in international circulation. Valid as a justification by the fact of having been found virginally intact in some library, or with its pages only half cut and pasted in some other …

D. de V., in his dense introduction, saves us half of the work, when he realises that his purpose is none other than to meditate on the meaning of the relations that mediate between the Abbot and his monks, and of the society that is formed with them (p.11) “Theology of the abbacy and the particular station of the Abbot,” he states sometime later (p.14). The examination of the nucleus aspect, so to speak, of the Rule of Saint Benedict, converged on the axis of evangelical obedience, could not be done without the critical study of the extensive literature that preceded on the same subject. It is here ‘in the first place, where we begin to perceive by what prudent modesty and natural defect of perspective that the author could neither grasp nor manifest. The criticism of the commentators that precede it – and in particular the most modern ones – is of an exceptional objectivity, precisely because the informing criterion of which it consists by filling the hiatus introduced between the Rule and its sources, and it is this aspect, this objectivity in addition to exceptional we would say that it is really “raw”, which places us in front of a brave and faithful book, without ever falling into polemical tone. D. de V . wrote:

St. Benedict

“The spirit with which we approach the RB is by no means the same as our predecessors did … An intense filial piety is the common denominator of all these modern works, mostly the work of Benedictine monks. But the cult that is thus paid to St. Benedict is not without its drawbacks in terms of the exact interpretation of his thought. Often, in fact, veneration leads to magnify its historical role and the scope of its rule. There has been a real inflation here, extremely detrimental to the interpretation of the RB; it is exalted systematically, at the expense of everything that proceeded to it; an innovative intention is lent to its author; it is placed in opposition to all previous legislators or theorists.” (p.15).

Consistent with this severely critical attitude, D. de V. does not hesitate to analyse —  or, more accurately, to question — the notes of the “founder” and the “Roman”, traditionally attributed — and we would almost write “totemically” – to the Patriarch. But, above all, as a methodical patrologist, his review of traditional commentaries — without excepting the most illustrious, some of which inspire him the denomination of “historical novels” — tends to save the disconnection “introduced” between the RB and his sources, which, in his opinion, obeys the desire to “bring the Patriarch closer to us.”  “The Benedictine monasticism of our times,”  D. de V. states, “seeks to justify itself in this way. It is believed that Saint Benedict can be attributed the tendencies that have in fact prevailed. For our part, our preoccupation to edify (in the noblest sense of the term), which could be that of Abbot Paul Delatte OSB, Fr. Alban Butler, Abbot Ildefons Herwegen OSB, must remain alien to the comment we undertake to express. There is no intent on our part, like those great abbots, to extract from the Rule what seems to best suit the possibilities and needs of a contemporary monastery.  And even less, write a “mirror of abbots!” (P.19).

In the same way, driven by the historical rigour of D. de V., we will see other “certainties” disappear.  Thus, for example, that Saint Benedict gave his monastery a “family appearance”  which was missing from the Egyptian monastery, “faithful heir — in this sense —  of Saint Basil.” “This feature, in our opinion, does not characterise the Benedictine community more than that of Pacomio … The ideal of monasticism — continues D. de V. — has not evolved towards a more complete cenobitism, but is still dominated, as in the past, by an eremitical aspiration. It is the misery of men, and care to ensure the minimum of honesty, which have led to the development of common life.” (p. 26)

One could resist the persuasion of D. de V. — a risk, of course, to ignore his erudition, not share their conclusions on these aspects; but no one could fail to recognise, serenely, without obfuscation, that he had seldom heard a language so loyally addicted to the truth without partisanship.

At this point of the question it could be believed that we are in the presence of another iconoclast, and that, following the same method, D. de V. will turn, after the figures, the concepts. None of that. His exegesis of the holy Rule is very far from the spirit of novelty.  Boasting of erudition, it is at the same time boast of fidelity to the “per ducatum Evangelii;”  and if we discover some new approach, it is also situated in the line of fidelity to the “nova et vetera.” Commenting on the two Gospel texts (Luke 10:16 and John 6:38) in which Saint Benedict refers the monastic obedience to Jesus Christ, which sometimes makes the Abbot the  example of the Lord, D. de V. writes this comment evenly and beautiful (which we transcribe by way of example — or indication if you prefer — of that fidelity):

“The first (Luke 10:16) presents Christ as the one who is obeyed. In this perspective, it is the Abbot. His mission is to transmit the divine word, to speak in the name of Christ who sent it. We find here the abbot who was conceived as a ‘vicarious’ authority, as a ‘doctoral’ charisma, as a hierarchical authority … .” 

“The second text (John 6:38) presents Jesus Christ as one who imitates obedience.  In this perspective, Jesus Christ is no longer the one who orders, but the one who obeys: the command word no longer being asked for, but an example of obedience … .” (p. 266)

Was it the critical apparatus or was D. de V.’s stance in front of his predecessors on the subject, so daring in the first approach, which muffled the resonance that this book deserved? Or perhaps it is one of those books written before their time, and intended for future generations? Perhaps his mission consisted in destroying the prisms through which we had habitually become accustomed to “think,” in prefabricated terms, the holy Rule, paving the way for its rediscovery. Opposing the “inflation” which he denounces and highlighting the dependence upon the RB with respect to the RM and its predecessors, far from undermining the merit of the Patriarch and the value of the holy Rule, it is restored in all its authenticity. “Fructus enim lucis est in omni bonitote, et justitia, et veritate  .”

Sollemnitas Sancti Tomás de Villanueva MMXVIII September.
Eremitarum Santa Maria,
Ordo Eremitae Sancti Brunónis

People who should inspire our youth today – Lela Karagianni (Bouboulina) 1898-1944 murdered by Nazi’s in Greece.

To often in this day and age our youth seem to idolise people who frankly should not be considered role models at all. My 15 year old nephew absolutely worships and idolises a football player and his girlfriend has the same feelings toward a female singer. Both the singer and footballer have lead lives that in the public view seems “acceptable” because of who they are yet fall very far from the tree when you compare their antics, frivolities and sexual exploits in the newspapers and television to the people who gave their lives for their faith or their country unreservedly yet barely made their local obituary column.

Yet more and more often this is becoming the norm. Which is, to be honest, somewhat disquieting. My nephew would rather spend an hour in front of the television watching his idol and 21 other spoilt millionaires kicking a ball for £ 50,817 per week than going to church for an hour edifying his soul.

Allow me to tell you about Bouboulina – Lela Karagianni, [she inspires me to be selfless] who until World War II, was a housewife who lived with her seven children in Athens.  She had no involvement in politics. In April 1941, the German Army invaded Yugoslavia and moved Southeast to Greece. The country was divided into Italian and German zones with Athens coming under the control of the Italians. During the same year, Karagianni joined an underground cell of the Greek resistance movement EDES. The cell was code- named Bouboulina and cooperated with British intelligence. Karagianni and her fellow resistance fighters falsified papers and helped smuggle people into the areas under the control of the partisans.

A number of Jews were included among the people that Karagianni rescued. In 1947, in a letter written in 1947 to Lela’s husband, Solomon Cohen described her altruism: “In the most dangerous of times, when we thought all was lost and that there was no more hope for us, we turned to Mrs. Karagianni. We were in deep despair, and this was our last resort. I will never forget the moment when she opened her door to us. This was at a time when even our closest friends avoided us. She sheltered us in her home, although she knew that she was already under heavy suspicion”.

Solomon Cohen, his wife Regina and his daughter Shelly (Cohen) Kounio, born 1932, had fled to Athens from their native Salonika at a time when Athens was still relatively safe. However, when the Germans invaded the southern part of Greece in September 1943, the Cohen family decided to disobey the orders and not to register. Instead, they went into hiding. In April 1944, they were desperately looking for a safe-house and arrived at Karagianni’s home. Karagianni hid them for some time, and then helped them find a better location.

In July 1944, Lela Karagianni was arrested by the Germans. She was executed two months later, in September 1944.

On September 13, 2011 Yad Vashem recognized Lela Karagianni as Righteous among the Nations.

Honouring this exceptional story of courage and self-sacrifice, do you not think she would be a far better role model for your children as they grow up?

My prayers and blessings are with you all, in Jesus and Mary.


In the communities in which this wisdom and this practice occur, a bond is knotted between young and old, making possible the holy paradosis [παράδοσις], that is, the living tradition, the transmission of the spiritual experience, which is the reason for the continuity of the monasteries.  Conversely, where young people, follow their seemingly characteristic tendencies, despising, dismissing and agitating the spiritual inheritance, and the elderly, in turn, shutting themselves up in petty harshness and stagnant repetition, the life-giving tradition is broken or not even formed. Therefore, the encounter or conflict of generations can occur – something that was already experienced in ancient monasticism – and depending on what happens, either one or the other will be the cause of life or death for the entire community.  The problem, which seems so characteristic of our time, however had already been captured and lived by the early monks.  Neither the so-called “youth of today” nor the “old” lack a very elucidating background of the monastic centres of the past.  Looking into the past corroborates and relativises that which worries us today.

CuadMon 30 (1974) 447-480 – By Dom Mauro Matthei, OSB and Dom Enrique Contreras, OSB – Paraphrased Translation by: Dom Ugo-Maria Ginex ESB

Meeting in the Temple

When the infant Jesus was presented in the Temple and raised in the arms of old Simeon, who moved stammered his Nunc dimittis, the nature and the role of youth and mature age in God’s plan were revealed in the fullness of light. Hypapante (Ὑπαπάντη), that is to say, “Encounter” which the Eastern’s call the salvific encounter contained in and reproduced by the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, popularly known as Candelaria.  In fact, not only does the he encounter takes place between the Old and the New Covenant, between the expectation and the fulfilment, between the divinity offered and the humanity received, but also – by antonomasia – between the young and the old, between the vigor and wisdom. In the early light of that Candelaria that mutual exchange took place, that sacred trade between the generations that will be and is the secret of the vitality of families and Christian communities throughout the centuries: the silent delivery of the child answered the jubilant hymn and prophecy of the elderly; the poor and youthful offering of the Virgin echoed the praise of the widow. Jesus and Simeon, Mary and Anna the daughter of Phanuel, represent in advance, between admiration and joy, all driven by the Spirit which makes the encounter between men possible, that sacred reciprocity secular wisdom of the monks, condensed in the Rule of St. Benedict (RB), summed up in the sentence: “venerate the elders, love the younger.”[1]

The two passages of the RB in which these recommendation appears are those of Benedict, in contrast to the Rule of the Master (RM), his model, which does not contain them, as noted by Adalbert de Vogüé o.s.b., (1924-2011†).  It gives the impression that this issue is particularly dear to the editor of the RB, and also the passages which emphasise the importance of the opinion of the young before the elderly,[2] are characteristic and peculiar to them. If you innovate with respect toward young people, Benedict follows the oldest tradition in the description of the role of the elders: these are the model that young people should imitate (7:55); to them they must submit in obedience (71:4); they must be treated with deference (63: 10-17); they are the comforters par excellence (27:2-3) and the guardians of the chastity of the young (22:7), and as gatekeepers (66:1) and master of novices (58:6) their mission being the welcoming of guests and postulants.

In respecting and cultivating these values monasticism finds its human balance and at the same time builds a guarantee for its continuity throughout time. This generational harmony depends mainly on two factors: the knowledge of the role that falls within the family or the community at each age and the implementation of the peculiar virtues of both the young and old, which nullify or soften the defects, equally characteristic and destructive of the relationship between both.

In the communities in which this wisdom and this practice occur, a bond is knotted between young and old, making possible the holy paradosis [παράδοσις], that is, the living tradition, the transmission of the spiritual experience, which is the reason for the continuity of the monasteries.  Conversely, where young people, follow their seemingly characteristic tendencies, despising, dismissing and agitating the spiritual inheritance, and the elderly, in turn, shutting themselves up in petty harshness and stagnant repetition, the life-giving tradition is broken or not even formed. Therefore, the encounter or conflict of generations can occur – something that was already experienced in ancient monasticism – and depending on what happens, either one or the other will be the cause of life or death for the entire community.  The problem, which seems so characteristic of our time, however had already been captured and lived by the early monks.  Neither the so-called “youth of today” nor the “old” lack a very elucidating background of the monastic centres of the past.  Looking into the past corroborates and relativises that which worries us today.

How the aged monks viewed the young

In an ingenious parable Isaiah of Gaza draws the parallel between the process of winemaking and youthful age, which reveals the tone of common opinion held by the desert fathers of this period: 

“In the beginning, the wine ferments; It is the image of youth. This is agitated until it reaches the age when it stabilises. It does not become wine if a fermenting substance is not added in a prudent measure; it is also impossible for youth to progress with their own will if they do not receive from their parents the ferment that drives them on their way toward God, until God gives them the grace and they see for themselves.  The wine is kept in the cellar until it is decanted; equally without recollection, mortification and all kinds of work, it is impossible for youth to reach their stability. If the wine is left with residues, it becomes vinegar; likewise youth, if it does not share with others the same holy way of life and the same asceticism, loses the form received from its spiritual Fathers. The wine jars are covered with earth to avoid losing their flavour; equally if youth do not learn humility in everything, their efforts will be in vain.”[3]

In the same line abbot Matoes prompts when he says: “When I was young I used to say to myself: ‘Someday I will do great things’; but now that I’m old I do not see anything good in me.’[4]  Therefore there is often an excessive impulse in the young. On that account the characteristic most defective in the young monk seems to be pride, or, if you prefer, a great confidence in their own strength.  There is a lively effervescence in him with an illusion that often dominates his healthy realism.

Very typical in this sense is an episode that happened to a monk from a monastery near Pachomius. It is not expressly stated that he was young, but all circumstances make him assume.  The fact is that the monk in question came to claim the post of economist, which his superior however, did not think he was competent.  As he could not persuade the young man of the inconvenience of the appointment, being weak he lied, claiming that it was Pachomius who had advised against it.   It was like pouring fuel onto the fire, because the scorned monk grabbed his arm, exclaiming his full of anger: “Well, we go to Pachomius and he will have to tell us why he has said these things against me.”  We can already imagine what feelings the poor superior presented himself with the inflamed junior to Pachomius.  He was on scaffolding, with the brothers building a wall for the monastery, and naturally he was surprised when the young man, in a fury, snapped at him: “Come down, liar and tell me of what my faults consist.”  Pachomius was unable to say a word, so the candidate for economist said:  “Your mouth is closed and there is no apology. Who forces you to lie, above all you, who pretends to be clear-sighted, when in reality your mind is obscured?” Thus rebuked, he responded at last, without understanding anything of what the other had purported: “Forgive me, I have sinned against you, and perhaps you have never committed a fault?”  At this answer the brother finally calmed down.  Pachomius descended from the scaffolding, approached the saddened superior of the brother and intrigued asked him: “What’s up?”. The superior, “in tears and with a broken heart,” confessed that he had abused his name to defend himself against the young man’s pretensions and, embarrassed, he asked a thousand apologies.  Pachomius, who did not lack a sense of humor, said: “Listen to me, give him that position.  If you help a man who is going through a bad time, you allow him to return to the true path, because the love of God consists of suffering for one another.” Returned home the rebellious brother was invested by the superior with the desired position.  A few days later the new economist broke down in tears and, returning to Pachomius, embraced him and said haltingly: “Truly, man of God, you are greater than what is said, because I have seen how you conquered evil through good (Romans 12:21). The Lord knows that if that day you had insulted me instead of being patient and merciful, I would have apostatised from the monastic life and would have distanced myself from God.  You are blessed, man of God, because thanks to you I live.”[5]

In other circumstances living in excess which is pride, is manifested in the initiative to seek a spiritual father to one’s own measure, as that young man who told a famous old man: “Father, I would like to find an old man who conforms to my will and die with him.”  The old man replied thoughtfully: “That is a good idea, Monsignor.  And if you find an old man in accordance to your taste, are you going to live with him?”  The young man, very sure of himself, said: “Yes, of course, as long as it is one according to my will.”  The old man then said: “It will not be for him to follow your will and not you his and thereby be happy?”[6]

At other times the impulsive young man, as soon as he has taken the habit, already believed himself to living in a state of solitude, like one who, enclosing himself in his recent seclusion and wearing his hood, said: “I am an anchorite.” The elders, having heard this new proclamation, threw him out of the compound and forced him to go from cell to cell humiliating himself and saying: “Forgive me, Fathers, because I am not an anchorite, but a debutante.”[7]  Faced with these attempts to be a soldier in monastic life under their own banners, the Fathers were quite categorical: “If you see a young man who by his own will ascends to heaven, grab him by the foot and throw him down, this will do him good.”[8]  This was true even if the young man was miracle worker: “The abbot Anthony heard of a young monk who had performed a miracle.  Some elder reported the incident to Anthony.  He only replied: ‘In my opinion this young man looks like a ship loaded with goods, but I do not know if he will reach the port.’[9]  In fact, later we learn that the young monk sinned and died without being able to give satisfaction.

That excessive youthful self-consciousness, coupled with false modesty, also manifests itself with a difficulty which is often experienced by the novice in opening up to his spiritual elders, when this is precisely the most effective remedy against pride.  “The devil, subtle enemy – says Cassian – will not be able to deceive the young man with his devices, unless he manages to hide his thoughts, either out of arrogance or due to shame.  Because they say that it is a clear and evident sign that a thought comes from the devil when we blush when we reveal it to the elder.”[10]

There are two other features that seem typical of young monks of all ages: a certain disdain for the “old” and a strong desire to change everything.  A young monk named Hiero, a native of Alexandria, “a boy with outstanding garments, cultured ways, endowed with a clear mind and also pure mores,” relates the Lausiac History that even the famous Evagrius Ponticus thought mattered little, going so far as to say that those who followed his teachings “were unbelievers,” because according to him “you should have no other teacher but Christ.”  Palladius adds that arrogance led this scion of monasticism to even misconstrue words of the Scriptures.[11]

As for the revolutionary impulses, there is the funny story in the Apophthegmata about a certain novice who wanted to renounce the world and pestered the elder so much to directed him with successive projects of spare parts for doors, ceilings and protections against hypothetical lions, that in the end the elder desperate, said: “Oh, I want the whole monastery to collapse on me and for the lion to eat me, to be free of this.”[12]  Against these tendencies, at the same time disdainful and disturbing, the Pachomian Rules clearly warn young people: “Those who disregard the precepts of the elders and the rules of the monastery, which have been established according to God’s command, and who pay little heed to the warnings of the elders, will be punished according to the established ways until corrected.”[13]

The novice monk also maintains, along with the idealism of his early years, a certain attachment to the mundane that is manifested, for example, having a taste for eye-catching clothes;[14] a certain pretentious style;[15] the desire to chat and laugh endlessly;[16] in his gluttony;[17] in a lack of control over life or the body,[18] especially in regard to one’s self-restraint.[19]

Other manifestations of youthful imperfections are restlessness and instability, evil against which the most seasoned teachers in the wilderness were forced to fight continuously. Proof of this is the observation by abbot Isaiah: “A novice who goes from monastery to monastery looks like an animal that jumps from one place to another for fear of being reined in.”[20]

Finally, there is also a tendency among young people to be prone to disorder and indiscipline in liturgical matters.  The Rule of Paul and Stephen mentions the case of presumptuous youths who overtake the elders during psalmody, inmatura festinatione, spoiling the divine office by inordinatam audaciam, which should be recited cum timore, wisely and not insipienter.  The same Rule observes that such youthful antics cause magnas commotiones in the oratory.[21]

The defects consigned among the young monks are not lacking among the nuns of the same age either. In the anonymous “Exhortation to a Virgin,” which was published conjointly with the “Life of Saint Syncletica of Alexandria,” it is necessary to insist that “it is not good for a young woman to live with another young woman, because they do nothing in earnest; one will disobey the other and the other will despise the other. On the other hand, it is healthy for a young woman to be under the authority of an older woman. The old woman, in fact, will not give in to the whims of the young woman. Damn the virgin that is not under the direction of a Mother, as it would be like a ship without a pilot.”[22]

Weighing-up this sufficiently realistic picture of the defects of youth, the ancient monastic sources are far from ignoring the virtues that are most often found in young age. Standing out as an exemplar of radiant youthful sanctity, the famous “Life of Dositheus,” young man, ex-military “delicate and pleasant-looking,”  stands out after only five years, for his filial and complete obedience and “for surrendering his own free will.”  Exceeded the virtues of the most venerable elders.[23]  In the West the role of Dositheus is also played by a young man in the military, Martin of Tours: “He was ten years old when, in spite of his relatives, he sought refuge in a church and asked to become a catechumen … At the age of twelve he wanted to live in the desert.”[24]

Dositheus and Martín embody that lack of self-interest and unrestricted commitment to others that is so often found among young people. This self-surrender is manifested in the helpfulness and obedience that led both to total self-forgetfulness.  For example, in the case of the young Theodore of Ennaton, who, by baking bread for all the brothers who came, towards the end relegated the work to himself.[25]  This spirit of diakonia is manifested above all in the service of the sick, an eminently youthful virtue, sometimes carried to the extremes by the young man who drank the water with which he had washed the wounds of his old man.[26]  But it is also put to the test in the event where the service has to be surrender to difficult elders: this happened to a certain young man who lived with an old drunkard. Every day the product of both their work was invested in drink for the old man, while the young man only received a bread at sunset. “He worked like this for three years, without the boy saying anything.” In the end the patience of the young man turns the old man from his bad habit.[27]  Another young man showing equal perseverance in the service of an old man who lived in concubinage: the three ended up saving themselves, the woman to the status of nun.[28]

As for the surrender that is manifested by obedience, there are many emulators of Dositheus, especially in Pachomius’s monastery.[29] Contiguous to obedience is the ability, also praised among young people, to leave everything suddenly, even violently to pursue an ideal, like that young man who, to escape temptations which prevented him from becoming a monk, stripped literally of everything, running naked to the monastery.  Later when it came to the topic regarding “renunciation” the elders pointed to this young man saying: “Ask that brother.”[30]

Curiously enough, there are also observations regarding a special ability to pray, a certain enthusiasm for prayer among young people: “Abbot Isidore said: When I was young and sat in my cell, I did not measure my prayer; night as well as day for me was prayer time.”[31]

It is Saint John Chrysostom who finds a most eloquent expressions to describe the advantages of youth over old age in the race toward sanctification: “He who embraces the monastic state at the end of his life spends all his time washing the sins committed in the previous age and in that work consumes all his energy, and even then the many times are not enough for him, but he comes out of this world with many  old wounds as relics.  On the other hand, the one who from an early age went down to the arena, does not have to spend all his time healing his wounds, on the contrary from the beginning he receives the prizes of victory.  One has to content himself with repairing past defeats; the other, however, raises trophies since he embarks on the race and adds victories to victories and, like an Olympic champion who walks from an early age to old age in proclamation after proclamation, that is how one arrives at eternity, his head crowned without exaggeration.”[32]

Mature age as reflected in ancient monastic literature

The congenital defect of old age, according to our sources, appear to be the harsh, a spiritual stagnation, which usually manifests itself in a certain incomprehension by the concerns and problems of the youngest. The experience of young Palladius in this sense is very illustrative: “One day when I addressed Abbot Isidore when I was still in my youth, I asked him for advice on the monastic life. Believing him to be in full effervescence of his age, there was no need for  discussion, but of combats and fatigue of the flesh, in the way of a horse trainer, he led me outside the city walls to a place called the “Solitudes,”  about five miles distant, and there he left me without further ado.”[33] Within the curtness of desert manners, cases like these, of abrupt farewells are not very strange at all.  The difficulty experienced by many elders to adjust, within certain limits, to the temperaments and problems of the young brothers, made Abbot Poemen exclaim: “Many of our Fathers have become very valiant in asceticism, but in finesse, very few.”[34]

This leads us to the problem of lack of discretion and discernment: a very serious defect in certain elderly people, because it makes them incapable of exercising spiritual direction. Furthermore: sometimes that spiritual sclerosis can be the cause of a young person being lost permanently. “Just as not all young people are equally fervent, wise or of good mores,” Cassian observes in his second Conference, “neither are all the elders of the same degree of perfection or of the same exemplary virtue. For this reason what constitutes his true wealth are not precisely his white hair, but the zeal that they have displayed in his youth and the merit of his virtues and works throughout his youth.”  Next, he illustrates with an example the evils that a young man can cause the lack of tact of an old man calloused by life. Having confessed to the one who believed a venerable old man the suffering caused by the sting of the flesh, the old man broke into insults, telling him that he was miserable, unworthy to bear the name of monk. The extreme despair of the young man would have resulted in a real tragedy, had not abbot Apolo, who consoled him and through prayer succeeded in transferring the temptations of the boy to the old man, thus punished with terrible carnal delusions.[35]  In the same place Cassian does not save expressions to condemn “deceptive greyness” and “deceitful longevity.” Furthermore the abbot Sisoes dictates that the fact of being an elder does not exempt one from vices or temptations: “A brother asked him: ‘Does Satan persecute the elders in the same way?’ The old man replied: ‘He pursues them more now, because their time is approaching and he is therefore alarmed.”[36]

Anger, a trouble of the elderly who suffer with arteriosclerosis, seems not to have been lacking among the venerable men of the desert. Notable is the case, reported among the apophthegms of Abbot Gelasius, of an economist who in a fit of rage kicked a young man who had eaten a fish prepared for others.  This case gave cause to many complications among the elders.[37]

The third endemic evil in old age is unfortunately the sadness of the good of others, that is, envy. The spiritual successes of the youngest, the confidence placed in them by the superior or the positions that they reach at a young age can provoke in the ranks of the seniors certain malignant exasperations, which are manifested by significant shrugs, disgusted murmurs and steely observations.

When the blessed Roman for the sanctity of his life began to attract many vocations to his Abbey at Condat, “the Enemy of the Christian name, under the pretext of giving him advice, threw the dart of his old envy. He persuaded one of the elders, who was burning with misgivings, to say: ‘Long time ago, holy abbot, I am meditating to suggest to your charity certain healthy things that have to do with your salvation and with your way of governing and now that the occasion allows us a particular interview, please allow me to open my healthy thoughts that I have been locked in my heart for a long time. As he was an old man-less than the sanctity of life that simply because of his advanced age, which inspired vain pretensions-the abbot gave him permission to advise him. ‘I feel sorry, dear father, said the senior, to see how you rejoice every day without reason of the enormous number of conversions and that you admit en masse to the cenobitic life to young and old, honest and dishonest, instead of selecting and intelligently separate an elite of proven monks and eliminate from the flock, as degenerate and unworthy beings, all the rest. Then the tormented old man suggested to his abbot a tour of the entire monastery to carry out this discriminatory examination.’ Abbot Roman answers him with a speech that occupies four pages in the edition of Sources chrétiennes “Life of the Fathers of the Jura.”  The old man happily converted.[38]

Additionally, at Pachomius’s monastery there had been a similar vexation of the Elders on the occasion of a spiritual conference entrusted by the holy abbot to young Theodore (the elders left the meeting hall), and following the appointment of Paulus Orosius as abbot of Chenoboskion (the Elders thought he was a beardless novice for such a position).[39]

When the young Dositeo died, his abbot dismissed him saying: “Take your place close to the Holy Trinity and pray for us,” there were also very similar reactions to those at the Carmel of Lisieux a few days before the death of St. Theresa: “Some brethren began to get angry and said: ‘What has she done? What has been your practice to merit hearing those words?’ …  They were outraged by the response sent by the old man to the young man who had only been in the monastery for five years, because they did not know his deeds.”[40]

For all these reasons there are texts denoting a marked skepticism toward late vocations, for example, the so-called “Common Rule” of Visigothic Spain: “Many elderly novices often come to the monastery and we recognise that many of them promise the most for their forced weakness that for religious purposes …  They have these in themselves the habit of not leaving their old habits and as before they know many things, often entertain themselves in vain parishes; and if they are ever corrected by some spiritual monk, they immediately explode in anger and for long periods of time had attacks of saddened morbidity; and they do not totally discard the evil grudge.  Falling frequently and without moderation in such a vice.”[41]  The same reservation in such cases are found in Chrysostom.[42]

Just as an old man who yields to the characteristic defects of his age can be a test for any family, those men who have devoted a lifetime to the service of God and his brothers, real elders, are the most precious gift a community can long for.

Among the virtues that stand out among the elders of the desert there is first of all one that constitutes the fullness of the old age within the plan of God: it is the capacity, or rather, the gift of spiritual fatherhood. “I have a Father of monks in my diocese,” says the bishop of Tentyris, speaking to St. Athanasius of Pachomius, and since he is a man of God, I wish you to establish him over all the monks of my territory as superior and priest.”[43]  This fatherhood of Pachomius was derived from his acute awareness of being a servant of God: “I am the servant of your Father,”  explains the founder of the cenobitic life to young Theodore.[44]  The long years of Pachomius’s life prior to the reception of his first novices are a continuous preparation for this fatherhood. It reveals itself in many ways, first of all because of the capacity to console, to communicate to the afflicted brother the joy of the Holy Spirit:[45] “The man of God (Pachomius) was careful to go through the monasteries, strengthening those who were afflicted by various temptations.  And he taught them to overcome them by remembering God and gave them all kinds of useful prescriptions for the soul.”[46]  The same thing is verified by Theodore: “The abbot Theodore was established in his office and in all the monasteries the brothers were happy about this news, especially those who knew him from the beginning as a true son of Abbot Pachomius and knew that his word had grace and power to heal a troubled soul.”[47]

The dignity of spiritual doctors who conferred the capacity to console to the Fathers of the desert, however, does not, in their opinion, exempt them from service, a virtue that is especially moving in the elderly. For this reason the sacrament of fraternal diaconia, which is the washing of the feet, occupied an important place in monastic spirituality. According to an anonymous apothegm “washing the feet is a job that according to the custom is fulfilled by the elders of the monastery.”[48]  However, the elders were not satisfied with the repeated fulfilment of this rite of the Last Supper, but they translated it into their daily lives in a thousand ways: “The abbot Isaac once said: When I was young I lived with the abbot Cronios. He never ordered me to do a job, to think that he was old and shaky; but he himself got up and served me and everyone.”[49] “An old man said: Our Fathers used to go to the cells of younger brothers who wanted to live as loners …  And if by chance they found someone sick or tempted, they would take him to church; they poured water (blessed) upon him and prayed for the sick; in that way he healed.”[50] In the First Greek Life of Pachomius there is an impressive passage in which we see Pachomius as servant of the novices even in to their material needs.[51] He himself recommends this practice to Theodore the Alexandrine in an admirable didascalia of the spirit of service that culminates with the words: “Take care of the sick as of yourself. Practice continence and carry the cross more than them, because you have the rank of Father.  Be the first to respect the rules imposed on the brothers, so that they also respect them.”[52]

Finally, among the virtuous elders, a quality that makes them particularly kind to men and similar to God, is healthy indulgence, compassion and comprehension. “It is good to be indulgent with the novices at the beginning,” observes Pachomius, “just as with a newly planted tree with which care is taken and watered until the novice takes root by faith.”[53]

This quality of affectionate patience also shines in the old man who proposed to another who was younger: “Let us live together, brother.” But the boy replied: “Father, I am a sinner, I cannot live with you.”  “Yes, we can,” insisted the old man. This was a very chaste man, who did not tolerate being told that a monk had impure thoughts. The young man then said: “Leave me a week and we will talk again.”  After a week, the old man went to where the brother lived. But he, wishing to know his character, said to him: “Father, I sinned with a woman.”  The old man asked without flinching: “Do you want to repent?” And as the other promised, saying: “Well, then I will carry half of your sin.” The young man replied: “Now I know we can live together.” And they did until death.[54]

Physical age and spiritual age

We must take into account that the texts we have studied make a distinction between a physical and a spiritual age, so that not every old man is aged by virtue, nor is every young man immature. What is without doubt, decisive is, the spiritual age.  By this verification we derives the so-called “law of the oldest,” so emphasised in the RB. In other words, as the entrance to the monastery means the beginning of one’s spiritual age, this entrance is the one that decides your order in the community.[55]  One who entered earlier has precedence over one who entered later, because it is assumed that having lived longer in the monastery the will also have more spiritual experience.  Therefore, one younger physically, but one that entered earlier, precedes someone who is older, to the one that entered after him. “To someone who asks to enter the monastery and wants to live there, Cassian says, …  henceforth he should not care about his age or the number of his years, … he should not be disparaged to submit even to the youngest, convinced of his condition as … an apprentice in Christ’s militia.”[56]

A similar situation was also faced by Basil in his Rules when he made the following warnings to a younger brother in charge of an older one: “A brother in charge of instructing an older one should behave as if he were fulfilling an assignment received from his Master, in fear of incurring the condemnation of the one who said: ‘Cursed is he who negligently executes the work of the Lord,’ and keeps himself from falling, by pride, under the law of the devil.”[57]

In embracing monastic life one is born again, one starts from scratch; so what causes a monk to be called and considered as an elder is the time he has spent in the “school of the service of the Lord,”  that is, his spiritual wealth and not his white hair, even if both things usually come conjointly. Speaking of young Silvano, Abbot Pachomius said: “By age, by asceticism and by science, you are his parents, but because of his deep humility and his purity of conscience he is great.”[58] According to Cassian that which constitutes true wealth is not white hair, but the zeal that has been displayed by the youth and the work that he has done.”[59] A young man capable of speaking wisely is an old man, because spiritual wisdom reveals spiritual age: “Abbot Joseph once said that one day they were sitting with Abbot Poemen, he spoke of Agathon calling him Abbot. Then we told him: ‘If he is so young, why do you call him abbot?’[60] And Poemen answered: ‘Because his mouth causes us to call him abbot.’  These examples teach us to reciprocate the terms “young” and “old” and to value the time a man has spent in the monastery as a possible indication of his spiritual age.

Conflict between the generations and the rupture of tradition

The monastic texts, as we see, do not grant any privilege or preference to any age; but they are unanimous about the disastrous result that occurs when young and old are locked in themselves, stop cultivating their values and peculiar virtues and allow their typical faults to prevail instead, scandalous of course to the opposing party.

Sometimes it seems as though the responsibility of the generational conflict is attributed to the elderly, particularly because of their considered predisposition toward jealousy and envy. One of the most representative cases of this type of confrontation occurred in the Pachomian Thebaïd: “In those days Pachomius called Theodore and said: ‘When the brothers leave the refectory this afternoon, entrust your service to someone else, and come to the where we are gathered for the Sunday catechesis.’  Later, when Theodore came to the catechism, Pachomius said to him: ‘Stand in the midst of the brothers and tell them the word of the Lord.’  It was the place where Pachomius himself used to speak to the community.  Obeying this order Theodore, against his desire, stood up and began to teach according to what the Lord inspired him. Everyone was seated, including Abbot Pachomius, who listened as if he were one of the brothers. However, some of the older monks were irritated by their pride and went to their rooms so as not to hear him; because in terms of human age, the speaker was younger.  “Pachomius did not notice during the conference, but once finished, he spoke and referred to the case with severe reflections, saying that those who had left the room in those circumstances “they made themselves strangers” to the mercies of God. “If they do not regret their outburst of pride, it will be difficult for them to achieve Life.”[61]

The elderly are equally culpable in the case of other defects, “An old man had a proven virtuous disciple.  One day when he was in a bad mood, he placed her at the door.”[62] Another elder had a bad time bringing his novice because of his own fondness for wine.[63]  One who lived near Alexandria, in the so-called “eremitic”  cells, literally guided his young woman to martyrdom, because “he was extremely arbitrary and devoid of patience. He insulted her like a dog every day …, he spat in her face and almost every day he placed her at the door.”[64]  In all these dramas in the wilderness, the conflict did not reach its ultimate consequences thanks to the angelic patience of the young.

But young people were not always so angelic. Our sources do not ignore many cases in which the contest was born in the youth sector: “An old man had a boy as a companion. Seeing him doing a bad deed the old man told him once: ‘Do not do that.’ But the young man did not obey him. The old man did not worry about the thing and did not become judge of the fault.  However, the boy locked the door of the pantry and left the old man without food for three days. Not even then did he say, ‘Where are you? What are you doing outside?’ A neighbour noticed the silent conflict and asked: “What about your young brother who takes so long?” To which the old man responded with a gesture that we can imagine somewhat between magnanimity and resignation: “He will return when he feels like it.”[65] Abbot Poemen, on the other hand, had a younger brother who, with his impertinences, “afflicted and paralysed” him, a very graphic expression to indicate the impediment that the existence of restless and brazen young people can have in a community.[66]

Equally among the consecrated virgins there are usually certain clashes, although not always in circumstances as aggressive as the one narrated in the Lausiac History, in which a novice unjustly defamed was thrown into the river and drowned; for which the informer, took a rope, and hanged herself.[67] Fortunately such melodramas were not common among ancient nuns.

The disappointments suffered by the elders on the part of the younger generation gave rise to more than a pessimistic reflection on the future of monasticism, like that of the old man who observed with a sigh: “The prophets wrote books; our Fathers who came after them studied these writings a lot; Then the successors learned them by heart. At last came this generation that currently exists; she has written all the wisdom on papers and parchments and has left it unused in libraries.”[68] Abbot Poemen, for his part, notes with disenchantment: “After the third generation of Skete and Abba Moses, the brothers do not make more progress.”[69] No less fatalistic is the sentence of an anonymous monk: “The present generation does not care about today, but about tomorrow,”[70] which highlights the absence of evangelical spirit in young people. In the group of elders who one day was meeting with Abbot Ischirion, “making predictions about future generations,” the balance naturally proved favorable to veterans of asceticism: “We have fulfilled the commandments of God.” The question arose about how those who came after them.  The sentence had been unanimous: “Well, they will try to reach half of our works.” As regards the grandchildren and monastic great-grandchildren, Ischirion said: “The men of that generation will not make an effort at all and will be tempted, but those who are approved at that (calamitous) time will be considered greater than us and our Fathers.”[71]

The humour contained in so many of the conflicts that we have narrated should not deceive us about the scope of these clashes. For the one who looks from afar, as happened to the editors of the apothegms and happens to us, every war can seem a story of Lilliput, not to mention that compared to the majesty of God all sin has something small and ridiculous . But finally we end up in an even more serious fact: that the disengagement within a monastery between elders and youngsters can produce the interruption of that flow of life that is the spiritual tradition. The treasure acquired by some through a long life of adoration and service, because of this conflict remains sterile and irretrievably lost for others. The elderly begin to feel complex of bachelors and young people feel orphaned. Pachomius is the most alive conscience he had of this tragedy. In a prayer rapture, as it used to happen while working, he glimpsed the future destructions and sufferings of future generations because of that spiritual discontinuity that we already pointed out. The impact of this vision must have been very great, because when the abbot revealed it to the community “everyone was crying, in great fear. ‘I have conscience’ – said Pachomius finally – ‘that after my death the fate of the brothers will be terrible, if they do not find someone who can console them in the Lord as is necessary, and pluck them from their troubles.’[72] According to this the evil of the conflict and the fraternal rupture could only be corrected by the active presence of spiritual fathers.

Also the disciple of Pachomius, Theodore, was distressed by the fact that “many monks (of the new generations) began to move away from the elder brothers in their way of life.”  This desolation made him fasting, watching, praying and visiting silently at night the graves of the brothers.  He also went to the tomb of Pachomius, praying that the abyss between yesterday and tomorrow would not open even more.[73]

Of the same tenor is the consideration of an anonymous elder: “When I remember the brothers of that time who followed the Lord, I see that they had a fervent spirit and that the word of the Lord was in their mouths. But today, when I think about the warmth of the brothers and the strange words (to their state) that they proffer, I feel like a man exiled in a foreign country, where he does not recognise himself.”[74]

This suffering of the most lucid Fathers of the Thebaid reveals the magnitude of the intergenerational problem hidden behind small quarrels – or that seem to us such -, and the extreme difficulty of maintaining the complementarity of young and old, which is the conditio sine qua non of a living tradition.

The holy koinonìa of young and old

If the generational conflict occurs first of all when the typical defects of each age prevail, the pleasant and constant fraternity between old and young is built on the contrary when both manage to develop their own virtues, in other words, when each one is faithful to the age that the Spirit assigns to him in God’s plan. Hence the fundamental importance that the doctrine of vices and virtues[75] has always had for monasticism. The testimonies of a cordial coexistence between the brothers of very different ages and the practice of reconciliation to overcome the inevitable tensions, are numerous in the ancient monastic literature and show an irresistible charm.

Cassian, after having criticised in a long passage those elders “whose grey hairs serve the enemy to deceive the young,” and the damage they can cause in youth, hastens to exalt in what follows the advantages of the coexistence of the two ages, even when certain faults occur and to illustrate it resorts to nothing less than the example of Samuel and the priest Helí: God wanted the young prophet, “whom he had called to live in his intimacy, was formed by a man who he had offended, for the sole reason that he was an old man … Samuel’s vocation God had reserved for himself; his formation, however, He wanted to entrust to the priest Helí.”[76]

But he is the Father of the anchorites, Saint Anthony the abbot, so happy in his way of dealing with young people, the first to recognise the value of this generational exchange when in his mature age he confesses to his disciples: “It is good to exhort each other in faith and encourage us through exchanges. You as children bring to your Father what you know and I, your elder brother, give you what experience has taught me.”[77] We can say that with this declaration dialogue was instituted in the monasteries.

This dialogue is not made only by words and meetings – amply witnessed both in the Life of Saint Anthony and in that of Saint Pachomius – but, first of all, by mutual patience. We have already met that old man in a bad mood who had thrown his disciple out of the cell, but now we are interested in the continuation of the story: «The disciple sat outside and when later the old man opened the door he found it right there. Then the vice prostrated before him and said: “You are my Father, because your humility and your patience have disarmed my bad character.  Come in, for now you are the elder and the Father and I, the young man and the disciple. By your way of acting you have overcome my old age.”»[78]

It could also happen the other way around: that the old man had to deal with a vicious young man. It is the case of that “great old man,” from whom a young man stole “everything he possessed.” Instead of getting upset, the teacher made the magnanimous reflection: “I think that brother needs those things” and he began to work twice as much to feed the thief. When he was about to die, he called him, kissed his hands and said: “Brother, I thank those hands, since because of them I will now enter the kingdom of heaven.” Also in this case the patience worked the total conversion of the other.[79]

A beautiful example of mutual love, beyond human conflicts, is provided by Abbot Poemen “who lived in Skete with his two brothers; the youngest bothered them until the affliction. Therefore he said to his other brother: ‘This young man paralyses us; get up and leave here.’  And they left. When the young man saw that they were late in coming back, he realised that they had gone far away and began to run quickly behind them shouting. Abbot Poemen said: ‘Let us wait for the brother because he is afflicted.’  When the young man had reached them he prostrated himself before them saying: ‘Where are you going? Are you going to leave me alone?’  The old man said: ‘We’re leaving because you bother us too much.’  The young man said: ‘Yes, yes, let’s go all together where you want.’  The old man, recognising the absence of evil in him, said to his brother: ‘Let’s go back because he did not do those things with full conscience, but the devil made a bad move.’ And the three returned and lived together in the same place.”[80]

As the last example of this mutual patience built not on idyllic daydreams, but on sufferings redeemed by virtue, let us return to the case of that arbitrary and patient old man who lived in the eremitical cells, on the outskirts of Alexandria. “A young brother heard about him and made the following pact with God: ‘Lord, for all the evil I did I will live and persevere with that old man in order to serve him and seek his rest.’ God, seeing the patience and humility of the brother, mistreated daily by the elder, after six years had spent with him, showed him in dreams a fearsome personage carrying a large parchment; half of it was covered in writing, the other was erased. And he said: ‘See that the Master has already reduced your debt by half; fight for the rest. There was another spiritual elder who lived in the neighbourhood and who noticed how the old man got out of control and tormented the young man at all times and how the young man prostrated himself before him and the old man denied reconciliation. Every time the spiritual elder met the young brother he asked him: ‘What’s new, my son? How was your day? Have we made any progress? Have we erased something from the scroll?’  The brother, knowing that the old man was a spiritual man, did not hide anything from him, but responded by saying: ‘Yes, Father, I have suffered a little.’  If, from time to time, a day went by without the old man having insulted him, spit on him or thrown out of the cell, the young man would go to the dusk where the neighbour would tell him, moaning: ‘Woe to me, Father, the day has I’ve been bad, I have not won anything, but I spent it in tranquility. ‘After another ten years the young brother died; and the spiritual elder said: ‘I have seen him, he was with the martyrs, praying with great confidence to God for his old man and saying: Lord, just as you took pity on me through him, also take pity on him in consideration of your mercy and me, your server.’  Forty days later God took the old man to the place of peace.”[81]

As we see in these and other examples, if the monastic life is not free of tensions, peace and reconciliation always have the last word. And not only the last … In this world of wars and painful human conflicts the peace and strength of the Gospel can lead to situations like the following: “Young John of Thebes, disciple of Abbot Amoes, spent twelve years serving that Elder while he was sick. I stayed next to him, sitting on the mat.” Amoes was a dry character and did not pay much attention to the young man’s diligence.  Nevertheless, “when it was time to die and being surrounded by the other elders, he took the young man’s hand and said:”  May God save you, may God save you, may God save you.”  And he entrusted him to the elders saying: “He is an angel, not a man.”[82]

Mutual consideration produces a circuit of life whose benefit is felt not only by those directly affected, but also by neighbours. This is particularly noticeable in the service of the sick, since reciprocity was established more vigorously there: the benevolence and blessing of the elder was answered by the young man’s service. This happened in the case of an old man from Skete who fell ill and suddenly felt a craving for fresh bread. A young brother, “who was a good runner,” decided to make the patient happy by fulfilling his wishes. Running he went to look for the longed for bread in the city. “The elders of the neighbourhood were amazed at the sight of the fresh bread and the young man’s thoughtfulness,” but the patient felt delicate scruples and, dramatising the situation a bit, refused to eat the bread with the argument that “it was the blood of his brother.” But the elderly neighbours insisted that for God’s sake he should eat that bread, which he finally did, to the happiness of the people around and the young man’s reward …[83]

The supernatural camaraderie is also established when both the elder and the young man interpret the signs of God. After Pachomius received in Tabenna the vocation to build and organise a great monastery, he returned to his Father Palamon and told him about the event. “He was sad (at the prospect of separation), because he looked at him as his true son; Pachomius, for his part, tried to persuade him. At last the two went to the place (of the revelation). Having built a hut, that is to say a small hermitage, the old saint said to him: ‘I think that order comes from God. Let’s agree, then, not to live apart from each other in the future, to visit each other, you once and I again.’ And this is how they did it while the true athlete of Christ lived, Palamon.”[84]

Related or similar, based on a common spiritual sensitivity, we find with Abbot Moses and his young brother Zechariah. Among them, the following dialogue took place: «The abbot Moses said to Brother Zechariah: “Tell me what I should do.” Upon hearing those words the other threw himself at his feet saying: “Father, are you the one who is questioning me?” The old man replied: “Believe me, my son, Zachariah, I have seen the Holy Spirit descend upon you; that’s what forces me to ask you that question.” Then Zachariah took off his cap and trampled on it saying: “If one is not trampled like that, he can not be a monk.”»[85]

Also in the nuns of Egypt we have a testimony of the “likeable” relationship, in the true sense of the word, between an abbess (Amma) named Talis and her disciples. It is in the city of Antinopoli where that spiritual mother “had eighty years of asceticism.” But Palladio admires even more is the record fact of the sixty nuns who lived under his motherly direction “loved her in such a way that the monastery was never locked by key, as it happened with other monasteries, as they were kept there by their love for Talis.”[86]

The lived experience of this harmony produced in the ancient monastic literature true directories on the mutual relations between elders and young people, as is chapter 63 of the RB, which has inspired us in the present work. The Rule of Paul and Stephen presents the following didascalía on the subject, which is not only a theoretical statement, but also reflects a certain picture of life: “That the elderly treat the youngest with paternal affection and when there is need of order something do not do it with excited animosity and clamorous shouts, but rather order the necessary things for the common usefulness confidently, with the calm simplicity and the authority that confers a virtuous life, that the younger ones obey the most elderly with sincere subjection and do not respond with anger to anything, or deny with disdainful spirit and negligent ear to the one who commands, but unanimously agree to rush into the realisation of both the spiritual work and the work of the earth.”[87]

To produce this vivifying exchange, the initiative must start with the elders; that’s what all our sources agree on. It is not primarily the veneration of the elders by the young that causes the benevolence and charity of the elders, but the other way around: to the extent that the elders give an example of holy life and doctrine, young people they will feel stimulated to respond with their devotion and devotion. If John the Baptist, according to Luke 1:17, as the new Elijah will convert the heart of the parents to their children, in the prophet Malachi it can be read that the hearts of the children will also turn to their fathers (Malachi 4:6). Veneration (of the young) is a reflection of charity (of the parents), not the other way around.  This is how ancient monastic literature is not so full of complaints about the failures of the youth of its time, as about the absence of holiness, example and doctrine among the elders.  The iuniores diligere must precede so that the seniores venerare can be given.  It is in that ideal order that we are going to deal with the respective themes.

“Iuniores diligere”

The root of all appreciation for young people is in fatherhood. To the extent that the seniors are mature men (and not large children, as Cassian says), that is, true fathers, they can also pour pure affection on the younger ones.  Significantly, it is the Vita Pachomii that insists more on the idea of this paternity together with the capacity for friendship. Pachomius was the “father of the monks” by antonomasia, but at the same time the great and unforgettable friend of his disciples.[88]  According to the great Theban abbot, one became the father of others “by age, asceticism and knowledge (of God),”[89] but all this is a gift and prolongation of the fatherhood of God: “I never thought that I was the father of the brothers, because only God is Father,” he said on the same occasion.

From the reading of our sources it seemed to us that this love for young people that springs from the fatherhood of the mature man is expressed mainly in four points: the dedication to the formation of young people, the attitude of service, the appreciation of values and the fact of giving confidence and responsibility.

The first natural channel of paternity is, then, in the tasks of spiritual direction or initiation to the monastic life of young people. “The first request of the elder and the main subject of his teachings-since he is trying to introduce the novice along the path that leads to the highest peaks of perfection-will be that he learns to overcome his will,” observes Cassian book IV (8-9) of the Institutes, where he describes the novitiate.[90] The senior responsible for the novice must not only love him by teaching him, but also by sharing with him his life and his ascetic endeavours. When Pachomius surrenders young Silvano to the  care of the venerable Psenamon, he tells him: “For the love of God, take care of this young man and bare a part in all of the tests with him until he is safe..”[91]

Such love does not exclude the trials and severe reprimands: “The abbot Isaiah said: ‘Nothing more useful to the one who begins the monastic life than insults. The young man who bears the insults is like a tree that is watered every day’.”[92]  The  Rule of St. Augustine, the same, with such a broad and kind spirit, he does not ignore the rigour of this point: “If the reprimands to be directed to the youngest brothers by the demands of the discipline, sometimes you are forced to speak loudly to them, even when you are conscientious of having exceeded the measure, you are not required to ask for forgiveness, unless those who are bound to submit an excess of humility unnerve the authority of (spiritual) direction. But, nevertheless, ask forgiveness from the Master of all, who knows with what benevolent affection you surround even those whom you reject perhaps excessively. It is not among you carnal affections, but of spiritual affection.”[93] The doctor of Hippo could not have spoken more clearly or precisely. So to reprimand is as essential the exercise of fraternal love that Pachomius does not hesitate to let himself be corrected by more young people, thereby giving them a living example. [94] The austere teaching of the spiritual Father thus pervades the soul of the young disciple forever, preparing him so that in his time he will in turn become a spiritual father: “As in the case of purple, the first tincture never passes,” abbot Isaiah declared on the teachings and experiences of the novitiate.[95]

Nothing had to do, then, with sentimentality or the practice of an outpouring of charity in the tasks of spiritual formation of the youngest, as it is noted in a famous sentence by Isidore, priest of the desert: “It is necessary that the young disciples love them as parents who are truly their teachers and fear them as their superiors and do not lose their fear because of love, nor obscure their love out of fear.”[96]

The second channel through which the charity of the elderly flows towards the youngest are fraternal services, which the superiors do not evade, as the evangelical nobleness also obligates. As always, it is Pachomius in whom we most notice this spirit of deferential diakonia towards the brothers, even minors. Having been blessed by his obedience to the commission of God with the arrival of many novices, “it was he who prepared the table at lunchtime, he sowed the vegetables and watered them, he responded when someone knocked on the door and if any of the brothers were sick he personally cared for him and assisted him at night.”  The biographer of Pachomius observes that this somewhat unusual situation occurred because “the novice brothers had not yet reached a willingness to become servants of one another.” From this we can deduce that Pachomius saw no other way of instilling that evangelical disposition than by giving an example himself. But, moreover, the Father of the coenobites gives another reason, revealing his fatherly love towards young people: “The object of your vocation, brothers – he tells them – must be the end of your work: to memorise the psalms, to meditate on your heart the other parts of the Bible, first of all the gospel.  I, on the other hand, by becoming a slave of God and yours, according to the order of God, I find my rest.”[97] Fraternal charity was so embodied within the spirit of service of Pachomius’ being, his usual language being Coptic, he came to study Greek “with ardour,” as his Life says, “in order to be able to animate often” the young Alexandrine Theodore.[98] It is not difficult to find many other examples of this type among the leaders of ancient monasticism.

There is no true charity without appreciation of the brother’s values. Also in this sense the ancient abbots knew how to demonstrate that they possessed it. So the old man to whom Abbot Pastor had come in his youth to consult about three problems – I had forgotten one, but then, remembering him in his house, he had remade the long way to the old man’s cell to reconsider everything – he said full of affection, seeing the zeal of the young shepherd to sort out matters in the rule: “Yes, you are a true shepherd of the flock and your name will be pronounced in all the land of Egypt.”[99]

This mentality to recognise the values of the youngest, thus promoting his desire for holiness, was also demonstrated by the elderly Serapion (while the text in PG 65 has Carion [100]), when he verified that he had indeed done more corporal asceticism than his disciple Zacarias, but had not achieved the measure of his humility and his silence.[101] Macarius of Egypt also had a similar experience with two young men who had looked over his shoulder at first, because they seemed “delicate and formed among riches” and of which only one had a beard, while the other “wanted to have it.” In a long story Macarius narrates his conversion, caused by the luminous example of sanctity that these young people gave him.  Later, both of them died, he used to take his visitors to the cell of the disappeared to declare: “Come and see the sanctuary (martyrion) of these young foreigners.”[102]

Elsewhere we see that Pachomius “cared about the life of the novices in every way and that he was happy when young people progressed in virtue and grew in faith.” The warmth of that fatherly appreciation made them “emulate each other in doing good.”[103] Faced with the excessive hardness of Theodore with his carnal brother Paphnutius, Pachomius gives him a piece of advice typical of his jovial heart: The novice must be respected and appreciated in the same manner as a newly planted tree.[104]

As the fourth aspect of Iuniores diligere we have pointed out the paternal magnanimity that impels us to give confidence to the son, to share responsibilities with him. Pachomius was not unaware that this disposition, at the same time that he expressed his appreciation for the young man, fostered in him a sense of responsibility. When his disciple Theodore was only thirty years old he appointed him superior of none other than Tabennas, his first foundation, retiring himself to Pabau (Faou [105]), a secondary monastery. The biographer of Pachomius expressly observes that he had taken such a step “having recognised (in Theodore) the required spiritual qualities.”  The new abbot reacts with equal magnanimity, since the trust placed in him made him more involved with his father: “Promoted to that rank, he behaved as if not promoted. The word of God had made him pass through the fire and strengthened in view of the meditation of the heavenly things. He put all his zeal in loving God with all his heart, according to his commandment. And progressing himself, edified the brothers, because his word was also full of grace.”[106]

Pachomius had equal generosity with Orsisio, whom he established as his superior in the monastery of Chenoboskion (Schenisit), his second foundation, even though the murmur had immediately risen that he was still a “novice” to receive such dignity. It is not necessary to make explicit that such criticisms came from the ranks of the seniores.  Pachomius, in any case, responds with fine irony: “We must not believe that the kingdom of heaven belongs only to the elders,” and continues seriously: “A brother, no matter how old he may be, if he murmurs against another brother is not old, even more: he has not even laid the foundations of monastic life. God asks nothing of man other than adoration and charity; Now, charity does not harm our neighbour.  I tell you: with the progress that Orsisio has made, he is a golden lamp in the house of the Lord and the word of Scripture will be applied by him: ‘I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.’” (2 Corinthians 11:2) This deep trust, deposited by the eldest in the youngest, made “the abbot Orsysius in the midst of the brothers try to imitate the life of Abbot Pachomius.”[107]

All this wealth of interpersonal relationships naturally presupposes mature personalities, of balanced affectivity. Knowing this, the ancient monks were very sensitive to the danger of a possible emotional imbalance, even more so of unhealthy affections in the relations between seniores and juniores. There was a rule on which much emphasis was placed: the inconvenience of the presence of children of immature age in the monastery. Against the beardless the Desert Fathers had a real precautionary measure. Known is the inability of adolescents to endure long-term reality such as silence, meditation and monastic discipline in general, because this is a discipline for adults.  Their presence, especially when there are several, can spoil the atmosphere and life of a whole monastery.  The damage rises to a point when one of the “elders,” by an influence that is not necessarily abnormal, but that in any case was going to be delirious, stands guard over some of these unsettling youngsters.  The warnings of our texts in this sense are repeated with insistence: “the appearance of women” are not suitable for a serious monastic life.[108] The precise motive of such disgust is almost never indicated, but we could risk some explanations:

  1. The children create a climate of hustle and bustle: “If any of the brothers are caught laughing or playing too much with the children – says a rule of Pachomius – if he has friendships with the younger ones, he will be warned three times to break those ties and remember the monastic discipline and the fear of God.  If he does not amended, he will be corrected as he deserves, with the most severe punishment.”[109]
  1. Children, by demanding attention, care and vigilance, distract the monk from his specific tasks and in this way can become an obstacle to his spiritual progression.[110] That is why the sentence is very absolute: “The Fathers said that it was not God who led children to the desert, but Satan, to ruin those who want to live piously..”[111]
  1. Children can cause disturbances in communities by becoming, without realising it, the cause of many community disasters. Abbot Isaac opined that “four communities of Skete had been deserted by fault of the children.”[112]
  1. The frequent mention of children and adolescents in relation to the theme of the devil suggests perhaps more serious dangers (pederasty). This is stated in an apothegm: “The elders said: ‘More than women, children among monks are the weapons of the devil.”[113]  Another saying states: “Where there is wine and children there is no need for Satan.”[114]  In a more graphic and scathing way, another apothegm is expressed: “The elders said that one day the devil went to knock at the door of a monastery.  A child came out to take care of him.  Seeing him the devil said: ‘Since you are here, I am the other.”[115]

Faced with these texts, at first glance so negative and shocking for our mentality, three clarifications would have to be made: 1. The word paidíon (παιδῐ́ον) with which the Greek original designates young children, also includes adolescents. Their presence could attract to them and their problems the exaggerated affectivity of the elderly, incapacitating them to establish a fruitful connection with the mature disciples who are the iuniores. This is what Abbot Abraham calls a “superfluous struggle.”[116]  2. The prevention of the Desert Fathers against children does not mean that they ignore the evangelical doctrine of spiritual childhood, quite the contrary.[117] 3. So much Pachomius, like the Master, like Benedict and other authors of monastic rules accept the presence of children in the monastery; but they create for them a special regime and discipline that serve to alleviate the inconveniences that the anchorites saw in the cloistered children.[118]

“Seniores venerare”

What immediately comes to mind when listening to the precept of “venerating the elders,” are certain signs of deference, which in all cultures the younger ones pay tribute to older men and women.  In the RB it is chapter 63:10-17 that embodies this attitude under the general motto of Romans 12:10: “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”[119] But also Isaiah of Gaza, so similar to Saint Benedict in matters of monastic courtesy, has numerous precepts about the specific way of honouring the elders.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to impose limits on the scope of the precept to venerate the elderly at the mere level of courtesy. Like the precept of love for the young, that of veneration for the elderly has different channels of expression.

The ancient monks included in their veneration the desire to imitate the virtues seen in the elderly.  Taking someone as a living example is a very deep way of respecting them. When the young Anthony begins his ascetic career, he is inspired above all by the living model of the elders: “An old man lived in the neighbouring village and from his youth he led a solitary life. Anthony saw him and rivalled him in good.”[120] The same source tells us that Anthony, like a bee which searches for nectar in different flowers, was inspired by the different virtues that he saw shine in his models.

So important is this imitation of venerated elders that their virtues become a rule that is not suitable to be exceeded: “The means of easily reaching true discretion,” Cassian teaches, it consists in marching in the footprints of the elders. We do not have the pretentiousness neither to innovate, nor to trust, for whatever, to our own senses; but let us always walk the path that his teachings which his holy life have taught us.”[121] On the contrary, there is nothing that can make the monk fall more easily than contempt of his advice and confidence in his own judgment. This is the wisdom that the Rule of the Master and that of Benedict, following Cassian, summed up in the so-called eighth degree of humilities, for a monk to: “do nothing except what is authorised by the common rule of the monastery, or the example of his seniors.”[122]

There is another degree of humility closely linked to the veneration of the seniores and is the fifth:[123] the opening of the young man to the old man, especially to his spiritual father.  Perhaps there is no recommendation more repeated than this in the primitive monastic literature. Spiritual introversion is always considered a real danger, as well as a lack of love and respect for the greater.[124] In the Life of Pachomius it is related that “none of the brothers stopped confessing to the abbot Theodore in particular his state of soul and each one told him how he was fighting against the enemy.”[125] The solitary and problematic young man, who prefers to devour himself inwardly rather than confide in an older one, and who, due to his internal tension, is difficult to coexist with, generally also lacks a respect for the elderly.

The step that follows the opening of the heart is obedience to the advice of the elders, another form of the seniores venerare. Also this obedience must be understood as wrapped in a reverential feeling. Isaiah of Gaza advises that once the opening to the elders is done “do not listen to other opinions,” but that what the elders say will be done with faith, “and God will give peace.”[126]  In the same line is the anonymous statement: “In the young man who begins to convert, God does not seek anything other than the work of obedience.”[127]

Another very specific aspect of the expression of veneration is the service of the elderly, especially when they are sick, as the RB masterfully expresses in chapter 37:  “Since their lack of strength must always be taken into account, they should certainly not be required to follow the strictness of the rule with regard to food, but should be treated with kindly consideration and allowed to eat before the regular hours.”  Fructuosus of Braga sums up this attitude of reverential service in chapter 23 of his Rule: “Monks who have aged in the monastery with a righteous and godly life should be placed apart in a more spacious cell, with servants chosen by the abbot; and there, when they are weak and decrepit, they have to prepare the food at the time of sext.”[128]  From Pachomius it is said that “in the presence of the elderly and the sick … he was overwhelmed with compassion and cared for their lives in every way.”[129]

The concrete practice of all these forms of veneration is creating in the monasteries an atmosphere of great human gentleness. This is illustrated by the story of that old man from Thebaid who had a very virtuous young disciple. The old man used to instruct his disciple in the evening, teaching him what was useful for his soul. After having made the exhortation, they prayed their prayer together and then sent him to sleep. One day the old man, being tired, fell asleep while talking to his brother.  The young man waited patiently for the old man to wake up to pray together, as was his custom; but the old man slept soundly.  After having waited a long time, the disciple was assaulted by the tempting thought of going to sleep without having received permission; but he controlled himself, resisted the thought and did not retreat. After another hour, he again felt like sleeping, but this time he also remained firm. This happened to him seven times and he was always able to master his thinking. A good part of the night had passed when the old man woke up and found the young disciple sitting next to him. “You’ve stayed here until now without leaving!” He said surprised. “Well, Father, I stayed because you had not given me permission to leave.”  “But why did not you wake me up?” “I did not dare to touch you, for fear of causing you an upset.”  They got up, then, and began to recite the prayers of the Vigil. And when the prayer was over, the old man gave the signal for rest.[130]

When veneration, through a long practice of charity, has reached its fullness, words and even gestures cease, to leave room for an entirely contemplative and mysterious silence, equivalent in the horizontal plane to what happens in the vertical when reaches the prayer of stillness: “Three brothers went to Abbot Anthony.  The first two asked him about his thoughts and the salvation of the soul; but the third was completely silent, without raising any question. After a long time Abbot Anthony told him: “So many times you have come here and you have never asked me any questions!”  The other replied: “One thing is enough for me, Father: SEEING.”»[131]

The transmission of spiritual experience in the communities

The gospel is not only a good news to be announced, a doctrine that must be spread, but also a truth that must be lived (“to do,” as Saint John says). This truth, lived through years, constitutes the spiritual experience and when this experience of God in prayer and in the service of the brothers is lived communally, a wealth accumulates this term can be referred to as the Pauline term depositum. Normally this deposit does not remain inactive, but when it is transmitted to the next generation, it grows and, as it were, it yields interest. The younger generation, having the disposition to receive the spiritual inheritance of the elders, in turn enriches it with their own experience; although in the transmission one can attribute a certain loss in the flow (because there are unique and non-transmissible experiences), that which is lost is recovered from the new contributions of the youngest. This delicate process of life, repeated throughout the ages, is the tradition, the holy paradosis.  It supposes, then, the existence of two poles, one the transmitter and the other a receiver; the latter in turn, to the extent that it currently only receives, will gradually become a transmitter.  If one of the two poles fails and, as it were, short-circuits, the transmission stops. We have already witnessed this in Antiquity through numerous examples with the reasons that cause and the circumstances which can produce such an interruption in this life-giving spiritual current. Now we have to look at what the Fathers teach us regarding the process of keeping the transmission of this heritage alive.

1. The first precaution is the permanent cultivation in monasteries of the constituent values of the monastic life, or, to put it in words of Cassian: “Monasteries are not governed according to the opinion of each of those who renounce the world, but in accordance to the inheritances (successions) and traditions of the elders. (Only) so (the monasteries) remain or are founded to remain.”[132] This basic thought, in our opinion, is formulated by Cassian with regard to the recent founding of a monastery in southern France and precisely because he wants this new foundation to remain, that is, to be stable and serious, he says that “the reason why he believes it necessary exposing what was formerly established by the Fathers and still kept by the servants of God throughout Egypt, is that this new monastery, novice in Christ, be educated from their earliest childhood in the oldest institutions of the first Fathers.”[133]

Very close to the appreciation for these constituent traditions of the elders, we find, at least in Pacomian monasticism, the veneration for the memory of the founder, which, as is known, is considered by the decree Perfectae caritatis as one of the fundamental principles for an appropriate renewal.[134] Of abbot Petronius, the immediate successor of Pachomius, it is said that during his brief term “he governed the brothers with the word of God and in memory of his Father.”[135]

2. To set in motion the process of transmitting the patrimony, because the mere contemplation of these values is not enough, men are needed “instructed in all disciplines of the virtues,”[136] spiritual elders capable of transmitting beneficial precepts.[137] This condition applies especially to the superior of a community: “Nobody is chosen to govern a community, declares Cassian, if before presiding over a community he has not first learnt to obey, what he has to transmit his people and which he has practiced himself the rules of the elderly which he should teach to the youngest (iunioribus tradere).”[138] The same requirement is established with respect to all those who must help the novice towards letting go of his own will:[139] they must have lived in their youth what they later teach in their mature years. With this we have pointed out, then, the poles of transmission: the spiritual elders, the superior and the master of novices.

These two poles keep the process of paradosis alive by two means: the first, always, is that of example; in other words, in their lives they must have embodied the values that are presented to the community as supreme. Where there are elders who have “fatigued for a long time in the exercises of common life (ascesis),” there will also be young people willing to become “men who live true Life.”[140]  With this example, the aforementioned agents of the tradition are not exempt, even in their most advanced age, because when their forces begin to fail, their mere attitude must bear witness. Regarding the most invalid of a community, St. Basil the Great observes the following: “As long as they have strength, showing the activity of their zeal and give an example of all the observance. When their strengths are lacking, they live in such a state of mind that on their faces and in their attitude it appears as though they are convinced to be under the gaze of God and in the presence of the Lord, manifesting in their conduct those properties that the Apostle considers characteristics of charity: ‘Charity is patient and benevolent, it is not envious, it does not act at the wrong time, it does not inflate, it is not scornful, it does not seek its own interests, it is not irritated, it does not think badly, it is not happy about injustice, but rejoices in truth. It supports everything, believes everything, expects everything, suffers everything. Charity will never end’ (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). All this can be realised even with a weak body.”[141]

Second in place only we mentioned as a catalyst the transmission of spiritual doctrine of the elders, superiors and formators of novices. Cassian graphically describes this process through teaching in his Institutions: “The elders who have during their lives witnessed so many falls and so many mistakes in the souls of monks, often talk about these things in their conferences, especially in order so as to instruct the young people. And often, while I listened to them speak and tell of their experiences, I had occasion to recognise in me more than once some feature of what they said in their conversations …  I learned from them, without leaving my silence or giving to anyone news of my affairs, the cause of the vices which tormented me, as well as their effective remedy.”[142]

There is a last point that stands out in this analysis of the transmission poles of tradition, and it is the need to take into account the spiritual age of the receiving agent. Pachomius expressly refers that “is not revealed to the brothers but contributes to faith and to their edification.”[143]

3. As for the conditions of the receiving pole, that is, of the younger generation, our sources emphasise the first and unavoidable disposition of openness: the new converts who come to the monastery to seek God must not impose their way of life, their criteria or their ideas. Ancient monasticism does not admit that community life is built on the impulse of the “youth of today,” nor does it allow that, in view of each new candidate, the entire regime of coexistence and service to God is questioned again. In other words, the receiving pole must practice the 8th grade of humility in the RB, concerning which we have already spoken. The young person must understand that the authentic Gospel does not necessarily identify with the “new” and in contrast with the old on many occasions. “These words are hard.” Is it that old monasticism leaves no initiative to the young man? Do you not value the contribution of youth? Faced with the first question, it can be affirmed that in the perspective of the sources that we consulted, openness and docility were not identified with passivity.[144] The young people we find in ancient monastic literature do not in any way give the impression  of being timid, inhibited or lacking in spontaneity, quite the opposite in fact. Faced with the second question, it would have to be said precisely to make the contribution of youth fruitful and useful, it was considered necessary to purify it of its previous ambiguities and detritus. A spiritual father does not improvise: hence the long preparation in which young people were subjected in view of their future tasks. Those who are the receiving pole today will  have to be tomorrow’s transmitters, as the principle of tradition demands.

4. The process of transmitting the patrimony is not made between isolated individuals, but requires a favorable vital medium, which is the community. Hence the cultivation of community values (doctrine of vices and virtues) in Pachomius, Basil and Benedict, to mention only the main. But neither the Father of the anchorites, abbot Anthony, is unaware of its priceless value to the community. When the disciples of Pachomius went to visit the great solitary one day, whom they greeted as “light of this world,” he answered them: “I am going to convince you by my reply.  At the beginning, when I became a monk, there was no cenobium to educate the souls of others: each of the monks practiced asceticism individually and in isolation.  It was your Father, who with the inspiration of the Lord, created this beautiful institution.”[145] What Anthony calls “education of souls” is precisely the process of tradition that we are talking about.  The better and more deeply the community lives, the more intense the flow of holy paradosis will be between the generations.


The starting point of our investigation has been the desire to investigate the deep reason of the vitality of certain communities and the spiritual anemia of others, whether they never came to flower or, after fortunate years, have experienced painful ruptures. Such a problem can be addressed from several angles; we have preferred to consult the sources. That is why above all we wanted them to speak for themselves, even if sacrificing the systematisation of thought a bit. More than an elaborated thesis we wished to present themes for reflection. Although many conclusions could be drawn from the revised material, we would like to highlight the following: 

1. The non-intellectual nature of conflicts between young and old is striking. If there are clashes, it is not about doctrinal matters, nor about the general orientation of the monastic or particular life of the different tasks within it. There is no discussion about how to conduct a monastery or to fulfil certain offices within it. In other words: there are no objective divergences; With rare unanimity the sources place the origin of conflicts always from the depths of the human soul, attributing them to the lack of some virtue, to the emergence of some vice. In contrast to the modern tendency of objectifying and externalising all human conflicts, neglecting the psychological subjective aspect of the issue, the ancients emphasise precisely the psychoanalysis, with little interest in the objective “topic” that is discussed in the conflict. His descriptions of interpersonal relationships are radiographs, not photographs; being interested in the “intentions” and not so much the “reasons” and on this basis their judgment falls on the interior of man and not on his external realisations.

2. The monastic sources do not give rise to privilege in any of the ages. Both have their greatness and misery. The word “young” has neither a laudatory or praiseworthy sense, nor does the term “old” which is pejorative and, above all, neither of them has an absolute meaning, since there are old young and young old. The ideal is for the community to be composed of both, because they need each other. So a gerontocracy like a dictatorship in the noviciate can lead to a rapture  of tradition, which usually means the death of the community.

3. It is necessary that the two generations know their typical defects and fight against them in the light of the traditional doctrine and that they know how to take advantage, on the other hand, of the virtues that the tradition discovers in them or that they wish to see developed in them. This in turn requires knowledge and acceptance of the old monastic psychology, later expanded and explored in greater depth by St. Thomas.

4. Above all failures and disappointments we must always bear in mind that the sources confirm that the healthy coexistence of different ages is not only possible, but has also produced the most beautiful fruits in the history of the monks. If with healthy realism they do not disguise the existence of conflicts within a community of consecrated persons, on the other hand they do not stop emphasising the mystery of reconciliation as an always renewing factor of human stagnation. Above all tensions should always prevail the optimism that exudes from the testimonies of the origins.

5. The principle Seniores venerare et iuniores diligere, more than a precept of fraternal courtesy is for us the gateway to a great mystery, that of a mutual appreciation and a mutual distribution that make possible the transmission of the spiritual patrimony, and this, in turn, constitutes the life of the communities and their chance of survival: “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another.  No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.  To their fellow monks they show the pure love as brothers;  to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may He bring us all together to everlasting life.” (RB 72, 4-12).

Las Condes – Los Toldos


The Royal Monastery of Santa María de El Paular

Back here in Madrid they tell me that when the French refugees came into Spain, those who distil the famous nectar which bears the name of the Order, they examined El Paular with a view to establishing their industry there, but pronounced the buildings irreclaimable, and went instead to Tarragona on the Mediterranean. The Alpinistas who loved the old place were in despair; and in still deeper despair when the State, having purchased it, lay supine before the task of restoration.  In bitterness, they proposed that a subscription should be raised for its mortuary stone. On this was to be written “These are the last remains of the ancient Cartuja de Santa Maria del Paular which the Spanish Government took out of private hands in order to have the glory of letting it collapse under State neglect.” 

Ultima Cena
The Last Supper

N.B:  The Monasterio de Santa María de El Paular is a former Carthusian monastery located just northwest of Madrid, in the town of Rascafría, located in the Valley of Lozoya below the Sierra de Guadarrama.

Edited from Chapter IV of:

Byne, Mildred Stapley. Forgotten Shrines of Spain, pp. 117-147. Lippincott, 1926.

Best visited from Madrid, by the Guadarrama service of auto-buses leaving No. 5 calle de García Paredes for Rascafría at eight o’clock every morning [N.B.: Now its ALSA Bus No. 194a Buitrago-Lozoya-Rascafría]. Sociedad Castellana de Automóviles is written large above the door.  The ride takes from five to six hours, and the traveller should provide himself with lunch to eat en route.  From Rascafría to the monastery there is a walk of about a mile, a pleasant mile, with a boy from the garage to carry the valise. Another route, but only for good walkers, would be the steam tram from Cuatro Caminos to Colmenar el Viejo, whence they continue up the beautiful granite-walled Lozoya Valley; and Still another, but it means stiff climbing, Starts out from either Segovia or La Granja (guide necessary) over the Reventón Pass and descends the southern slopes of the Guadarrama Straight into El Paular. This, as said, is for practised mountaineers. The snow-clad Peñalara rises some five thousand feet above both Segovia and Paular, and the Pass is only some twelve hundred feet lower than the peak.

Monasterio de Santa Maria de El Paular
Monasterio de Santa María de El Paular, 28741 Rascafría, Madrid, Spagna.

For motoring there are several good roads out from Madrid as indicated in the Michelin Guide. Returning, one should pass through Manzanares el Real to see the fine old ruin of the Mendoza Castle. All the Guadarrama excursions offer glorious Alpine scenery. 

Knowing my delight in old cloisters certain Madrid friends who spend week-ends tramping or skiing over the Guadarrama Mountains had long been proposing that I walk with them from Colmenar up the valley to the monastery of El Paular.  Lilac time, they said, would be the best for showing off this pride of the Sierra. But pedestrianism appealed more down valley than up, so I decided to go by motor and leave the tramp for the return trip. Nor did the others protest when their projected walking feat dwindled into an ingloriously short Stroll along the level highway that led from Rascafría to the gateway of the Royal Carthusian Monastery of Santa Maria del Paular.


But the trip had taken long enough at that, for we started late; and no halt for lunch, balancing this on our knees as we joStled over the road.  When at last we stopped before the massive arch that marks the official entrance to the monastery the clock was striking four. Delaying a moment to splash dusty faces at the fountain in the outer court we passed under the arch and handed ourselves over to Justa.

Justa, be it known, is the quaint little body who presides over the gate, locking it at nightfall with a very large ancient key and opening it again at dawn to let out the shepherds and flocks that dwell within the farther court. For performing this service she receives gratis the cells and the big dark kitchen that once belonged to the fraile portero. By renting out the former to summer visitors and by cooking in the latter some very savoury dishes for them, she makes enough to support herself and daughter as well as to help four sons weighted down by the too abundant fruits of early matrimony. When it came to settling our bill Justa proved that she merited her pretty name. 

As to events en route to the monastery, never have I taken a trip so devoid of them—of cosas de España. Partly, no doubt, because our own party made up a good proportion of the passengers, and partly because we were too near the capital completely to escape the urban type. Nevertheless, there was unceasing talk, what Alphonse Daudet would have called the “note du Midi;” but in the matter of garrulity Spaniards far outstrip the Provençals. Everyone laughed and was gay; the amusement being provided mostly by two miserably underpaid school-mistresses who were taking a half-dozen urchins to a working-men’s camp in the mountains. “There’s the Madrileña for you!” exclaimed an old man admiringly. “Donde no hay dinero hay alegria.”[Where there is no money there is joy.]

As to the pueblos through which we passed, only La Cabrera, at the foot of a long spiny crest, offered entertainment. 

This was in the form of a wedding.  Bride and groom, arm in arm, were going the rounds from house to house, followed by youths with beribboned guitars and by all the girls and children of the village.  The bride’s artificial wreath of orange blossoms seemed to our modish eyes somewhat incongruous with her black cotton shirtwaist and skirt; but certainly no satin-trained, kid-gloved bride could have looked more radiant.  The thin-nosed priest with whom we chatted for a spell was full of admiration for the groom.  “A true caballero!” he pronounced him.  “The best guitarist of them all, and the best dancer, he himself leading off and calling all the changes in the figures.  That was the way they did it in Aragon!” From which it was not difficult to deduce that the priest was Aragonese. 

All along we were catching glimpses of the pretty Lozoya whose delicious water is brought to Madrid for a distance of about forty-five miles. Its source, La Laguna, lies nearly at the snowy top of Peñalara, eight thousand feet above the sea. The Marques de Santillana, who is not really of that distinguished Mendoza family whose title is rehabilitated in his person, but who is nevertheless an aristocrat and very public-spirited, built a large reservoir out at the Mendoza castle of Manzanares, and wanted to connect it with the Lozoya canal; but as the Manzanares water was declared by chemists to be inferior to the Lozoya, the engineer of the latter protested before the government to such effect that the Marqués had to build his own conduit all the way to the city, thus reducing somewhat the profits of his enterprise; but he really has no reason to complain; the Madrileños, though they say his water is fit only for washing, patronise most generously two other beverages which he has on the market — wine from his vast vineyards and milk from his model dairy. Both are sold from one and the same shop on the stately Castellana, and the sign over the door reads “Santillana’s wine and Cow’s milk.” 

The Lozoya, besides its gift of delicious water to the capital and toothsome trout to the up-lying pueblos, has created a verdant valley that gladdens the eye accustomed to travel through arid Castile — a valley that could support a far more numerous population than that gathered in the few red-roofed villages through which we passed. As far back as 1302 the Segovians discovered its charms and came over the lofty natural wall that separates Old from New Castile and founded five pueblos; since then the number appears to have remained stationary.  Being thus destitute of important towns and their correspondingly important possessions, the valley offered but poor pickings to the French hosts whom Napoleon led in person over the Somosierra Pass.  As the Somosierra road joins the Madrid highway at lead ten miles above the monastery, and as Napoleon was too eager to reach his goal that same day to allow any side-stepping, the rich Cartuja of Paular was left for the moment in peace. 

Battle of Somosierra Pass
Battle of Somosierra Pass, by January Suchodolski, 1860

“A secret nook in a pleasant land” is what nature destined the head of this valley to be, and any such nook was sure to fall to the monks sooner or later.  In this case neither cow, as at Gaudalupe, nor bull, as at Sigena, magnetised by a hidden image, scented it out for them. Royal invitation brought the Carthusians direct, but it must be admitted that one of their number had to keep nagging the royal personage in question in order to bring him to the point of giving the invitation due legal form.  The story is a first edition, as it were, of the Escorial legend.  Enrique II, making war against the French, burned a monastery of that austere and silent order which had been founded by San Bruno in the late eleventh century.  The royal conscience appears to have been more tender over this piece of military destruction than the imperial German conscience of our own time, for it bothered the offender all his life. We who look back on that life might consider the misdeed venial by comparison with others of the same authorship, for those were the days when this same bloodthirsty Enrique II de Castilla (el Bastardo) and his brother Pedro I de Castilla (el Cruel) were filling the land with internecine feuds. Be that as it may, it is the only sin for which the king tried to make reparation; dying, he enjoined upon his son to invite French Carthusians to come and settle in his hunting park at El Paular.  As the deathbed promise was promptly forgotten by Juan I de Castilla, the monks, who somehow got wind of it, sent one of their number from Scala Dei in Gascony to the court of Castile to nag the royal defaulter until the installation of Les Chartreux in Spain should become an accomplished fact. And just in time, too, for death had already marked King John. His successor, Henry the Ailing (El Doliente) was inclined to treat the new-comers handsomely, presenting them with his own hunting lodge and far-reaching pasture lands; while John II, he who held brilliant court in the Alcazar of Segovia, made them masters of the whole of the River Lozoya with exclusive rights to its coveted trout, and certain other benefits besides.  It was in his reign that the building of the monastery church began, and he himself, it is said, chose the architect and ordered the Retablo Mayor.  The royal privilege, dated May 15, 1432 opens as follows: 

The King, Don Enrique my great-grandfather, to whom may God give Holy Paradise, because of the memory of a monastery of the said Order of the Chartreuse which he had to bum during his campaigns in France, commanded, for the acquittal of his conscience, that the King Don Juan, my grandfather, to whom may God give Holy Paradise, should build a monastery in his kingdoms of Castile, complete according to the Order of the Chartreuse. 

This same monarch, it will be recalled, left his hunting lodge of Miraflores near Burgos to the same Carthusian order, but this establishment was quite independent of the group at El Paular. 

From Enrique IV de Castilla (el Impotente), the Guadarrama community received hard cash — eight hundred golden florins for the promise of burial within its walls.  What his successors the Catholic Sovereigns did for it I have not discovered, but their Gran Capitán, Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, gave the monks lands in Granada which he had recently received from the Crown; and as their grandson Charles V retired frequently to El Paular, submitting to all the rigours of the rule, we may presume that he too gave substantial recognition of his esteem.  Certain it is that long before, in 1460, the Carthusians in the Sierra had amassed such vast wealth that they talked of establishing a daughter house, and this project materialised as soon as El Gran Capitán presented the Granada land. There, in the Moorish city that was fast vanishing under Christian hands, the daughter house of Paular was begun in 1516. 

Richer and richer waxed the Order; at a time when the un-cloistered of the kingdom were sunk in abject poverty the cloistered ones were literally lining their homes with gold, as we shall presently see. “But their power was not due to their wealth,” Quadrado artlessly reminds us, “but to their superior virtues and the force of their prayers. To one of the Carthusians of El Paular who prayed unremittingly that the sins of Peter the Cruel” (sins which history shows to have been deep and black as hell) “might be graciously overlooked, that monarch appeared in a vision to express his thanks and to assure the intercessor that his term in purgatory had been made extremely short” (just a mere matter of form, as it were) “and that he was at that very minute enjoying the full delights of Paradise.” On another occasion it was Charles V, Still in the flesh, who benefited. While crossing the Mediterranean to make war on the African Moors a fearful tempest beset him. “They must all perish,” his captain announced. “Perish we shall not,” replied the monarch unperturbed. “At this very minute they are praying for me in La Cartuja del Paular, and their prayers are always answered.” 

What meanwhile were the monks in the silver poplar grove — the pobolar or paular— doing architecturally? Unlike the French orders that had entered Spain long before, they did not bring their own architects.  They accepted a Moor of Segovia, who built them a church of that typical “Catholic Kings Gothic” with which the cities of Avila and Segovia familiarise the traveller — the local granite style with coarsely carved portals and many escutcheons.  To the north of the church they laid out their cloister, which, by the precedent of Saint Gall, should have been to the south; nor does anyone know why they chose the less sheltered side. Around cloister and cells are grouped the usual dependencies — chapter-room, library, refectory, kitchens, pantries, wine vaults, infirmary; back of the convent group, an immense huerta, cattle sheds and mills and other isolated structures.  Between church and road they laid out a commodious guests’ cloister or patio with a fountain in the centre and double-storied apartments overlooking it. This outer patio is approached by a shady road that turns in from the highway, on one side a monumental fountain, on the other a chapel where royal visitors used to stop and pray before entering the monastery proper; now the Gothic chapel is a sheep-pen, and one passes it by without that formality, going straight on through the great Baroque arch to consult Justa on the very practical matter of food and lodgings. 

I have said that we arrived at the end of the afternoon, but in Castile a May afternoon ends in a long greenish twilight. The very moment for the cloister! declared those who had been to Paular before; and to the cloister they led me after but scant inspection of anything else.  Across the guests’ enclosure, through a vaulted passage from which, I believe, opened what was the prior’s residence, and across another court into the narthex of the church; here I wanted to stop and examine a crude but touching Mater Dolorosa above the door, but they said that could wait till tomorrow, soon I followed them through another and longer vaulted passage; suddenly we stepped into the delicious fragrance and almost unearthly quiet of the cloister. 

Well, indeed did it merit their affectionate memory. As we first saw it in the pale green Castilian twilight, with no sound but the whirr of homing sparrows that nest in the gargoyles or of storks flapping up in the belfry, the large lilac-laden quadrangle made an irresistible appeal. To add to its sweet melancholy it is called El Cementerio.  In it each monk dug his own nameless grave, wherefore it is quite fitting that it should contain not one but a whole grove of tall cypresses.  Of what was laid away below ground there is now only one outward and visible sign — the grave of a bishop of Segovia who in 1629 came over the mountain to consecrate the long-building church.  At his feet stands a lofty cross, half Gothic, half Plateresque, under a bright red tiled roof that makes a vivid spot against the sombre cypresses. Still another roofed structure is the central lavatory — that six-sided type that one associates with the Cistercian Order.  All the flower beds are outlined with aged box, and behind the box rise the lilacs that add so much to the May enchantment.  When I say that the cloister covers a fifth of an acre it means many lilacs. Indeed, Paular and the Cartuja at Jerez are the largest cloisters I have ever seen, and large perforce Paular must be not to seem crowded with its central well-house, its canopied cross, its episcopal tomb, and its many cypresses and lilacs.  For its perfume, its colour, its agreeably filled-out composition, it is an exquisite spot.

Closer examination proved the appeal of the cloister to be apart from and greater than its architectural deserts. The Moor of Segovia who planned it must have been a Christian, and his ancestors must have been living some five hundred years under Christian rule; he and they had forgotten the ivory boxes and miniatures and woven silks of Arab Spain.  He designed no Oriental capitals with hidden messages; merely good leaf ornament, good rib vaulting, good traceried openings to the gallery bays — all good though perfunctory late Gothic, Europe as distinct from Asia. 

The ensemble of the Cartuja as it revealed itself next day excelled, like the cloister, in the picturesque rather than the architectonic quality. It was not semi-military like Guadalupe with mediaeval towers standing sentinel to a whole village; nor elegant of line like Poblet; but what it does possess and in this it is unique, is a most domestic air; many chimneys, broken roof lines, many windows, even curtains at some.  One does not have to be told that Paular receives summer visitors.  Indeed some of the tenants in the guest-patio where Justa presides remain summer and winter, (and none of them observe the Carthusian vow of silence). Paular underwent much doing over in the Baroque period but on the outside at least this did not disfigure.  In the outer patio it is pleasant and playful.  Even before the painter gave it the finishing touch it must have looked naïve.  The cloister walk is divided into bays by absurdly massive granite columns, and its beamed ceiling supports a very low second story with very tiny windows. Scale, it will be seen, was happily discarded and the painter emphasised the fact by simulating classic pilasters over the fat columns, painting the walls orange and the casement frame bright green within a blue cartouche. In combination with the red of the sloping roof his colour scheme would make any twentieth-century painter of primitives envious.  The pavement of the gallery is in the same spirit, though I am sure it was never meant to be amusing. It is in fad the characteristic pavement of all Cartujas — grey and brownish river pebbles laid in thick cement, and enlivened by a large cinquefoil pattern in sheeps’ knuckles, blanched very white.  Like the child who prints the title to his drawing, the hermano who laid it spelled out, in knuckle-bones, the word Portería in front of Justa’s door, Hospedería (but he dropped his H) in front of the Stairs leading to the upper chambers, Botico at the pharmacy entrance, and a word that might have been Priorato but is now obliterated at the entrance to the vaulted passage I have mentioned.  In this corner his task appears to have finished, for here, with the knuckles left over, he outlined the date ano de mil 696. 

From this friendly outer patio the silence of Carthusian days has forever departed.  It is in fad a mildly noisy place throughout the day.  Through it pass all the herds of the present owner of Paular on their way to pasture, with their collar-bells tinkling and the shepherd’s dog barking at their heels.  Old Justa has to rise at four to let the first of them out, and, as she loves a clean doorway, she always has to ply her broom after they have passed.  This operation, necessary several times a day, is performed with many a sigh and many a Jesus or Madre de Dios or Ave Purísima.  Then there are the children of the administrador who lives in the rooms under the belfry, and the numerous offspring of the pareja (the two Guardias Civiles) who live in the farther court where the stables are, but who prefer to come and play around Justa’s lodgings; and the occasional automobile parties that come from Madrid to lunch in the patio, and leave papers and fruit-skins strewn about, to her great distress.  Taking it all in all, Justa pays for her rent-free cells and kitchen.  Never lived a more conscientious keeper of the gates, and no cleaner cloister ever presented itself to us moderns who have the curious fancy for invading such antiquated spots. 


According to an old history of El Paular written in Latin, and which José Maria Quadrado consulted when preparing his chapter for Recuerdos y Bellezas de España, the first architect employed by the Carthusians to build their Gothic church was a Moor of Segovia named Abderrhaman; or more accurately speaking, a Mudéjar, seeing that he was a Moor living under Christian rule; and in spite of retaining his Arab name, it would be safe to presume that he had embraced Christianity, in which case (we are still trying to be accurate) he would have been not a Mudéjar but a Morisco. Be that as it may, Abderrhaman Stood high in Christian favour.  He had worked on the royal Alcazar of Segovia, and came thence royally recommended to the monks.  That Moorish workmen in plenty were on the spot is borne out by many little devices peculiar to them; in the cornice running around the cloister, for instance, the granite has been tediously carved into the pointed pattern which Moors obtained in their own buildings by laying bricks with a corner out instead of the end, and projecting course beyond course.  Travellers familiar with Toledo or Zaragoza, to mention only two of the Mudéjar cities of Spain, will recognise the device.  Also, in church, in sacristy, everywhere in fact, there is a profusion of painted and glazed tiles; and until the middle of the eighteenth century there was a typical Mudéjar wooden ceiling over the single nave of the church.  This had been painted, probably, by the same Moors who decorated the celebrated series that perished when the Alcazar was gutted by fire in 1862. 

San Bruno di Colonia

This lamentable fire was caused, they say, by one of the guardians throwing his unextinguished cigarette into a pile of papers; in the case of the Paular church, it was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 which gave the Baroque-obsessed monks the longed-for pretext for ripping out their wooden artesonado, raising the height of the church walls, and ceiling them in with a thin brick and plaster vault — from the outside a wretched botch. No doubt other wooden ceilings originally covered the various dependencies but they met the same fate. If any other feature besides the wooden covering proclaimed that Moors worked on the church it is now lost to sight.  The honest granite walls were smeared inside with plaster and painted with counterfeit Corinthian pilasters; the thin plaster vault serves as a field for gorgeous sun-bursts, garlands, cupids, and what not.  The architectural impression is that of a profane setting — something to be hastily removed after the act is over and the curtain drops.  The air of sanctity is forever gone. 

In the matter of flaring gold altars, however, the church escaped lightly as compared with the sacristies and added chapels.  Only two were set up, these separating the coro of the lay brothers from that of the professed, or sacerdotes, and the two connected by an airy gilt arch on which rests, tip-toe, an equally airy Virgin brilliantly painted and gilt — Una Purísima, as they call these fairy-like creatures, carved or painted.  Is it not of a Carthusian painter of this very convent that they tell the irreverent joke about the naming of his picture? He turned out religious paintings in a flood; the abbot, dropping into his cell, saw a haloed head blocked out on the canvas and asked who was the subject. “Que sé yo?” shrugged the frocked artist (who, we suppose, had special permission to speak). “If it comes out with a beard, San Antón; if not, La Purísima Concepción.”  Looking over the great number of canvases falling to shreds on the humid church wall, and the dull ugliness of most of the saints depicted, one regrets that so many of them grew a beard in the course of the work. The Virgins are often insipid, but the male heads are more often repulsive. 

The stalls, both of the lay brothers’ coro and the priests’, long ago disappeared; they were taken to Madrid about 1887, shortly after the state purchased the monastery, and placed in San Francisco el Grande, and it goes without saying that the immense silver brasero which used to stand before the prior’s seat has followed them.  This, we are told, was a gift to the monastery from one William Godofin (Godolphin), English ambassador to the court of Castile, who lost his title to nobility in England for having turned Catholic, but who received a far grander title from the Spanish monarch, Philip IV; the crime of one land being the virtue of the other.  The two works of art the church still possesses it owes to the defiant qualities of stone and iron—the alabaster retablo mayor and the iron reja which separates the space reserved for the villagers from that of the lay brothers.  The reja, or grille, recalls that made by the same great iron-smith, Fray Francisco de Salamanca, for the church at Guadalupe. 

Of the retablo Baedecker tells us, quoting no doubt some authority who had consulted the convent archives, that “The earliest and largest work of sculpture imported from Italy into Castile (about 1490) is the marble retablo of the Cartuja of El Paular.  This work, executed in Genoa to the order of John II, includes fifty-six groups and thirty-three statuettes.”  Other writers repeat the story, adding that it cost the king eighty-thousand ducats to bring his kingly gift from Genoa to the foot of the Peñalara. 

The eye however does not instantly second the documents.  One is disturbed by suggestions not of some other atelier in Italy than Genoa, but of one in Spain itself. The Paular retable in fad bears very close kinship to the great gilded retable in the Cartuja de Miraflores, near Burgos.  This Carthusian monastery was also a pet of this same John II.  Now the Burgos piece was begun in 1486, presumably in Burgos, by the native son Gil de Siloe, who learnt his art in the vigorous Gothic school created right there in Burgos by the numerous Flemings and Germans who had flocked into Castile as a result of close political and trade relations between Spain and the Lowlands.  This school flourished all through the fifteenth century and even later; it kept a tinge of Gothic long after Genoa and all Italy had passed the climax of the Renaissance.  Now the so-called Ligurian product in Paular has even more than a tinge of the old Gothic style, and it is high time some competent critic thrashed out the matter.  We are bound to suppose that the archives were rightly kept; yet there is something mysterious about this port of Genoa.  At this very moment I am impatiently awaiting a suit ordered long ago, which the Madrid tailor assures me will be of the very best English cloth; but every time I clamour for a fitting he explains that the cloth has not yet left Genoa! 

Numerous chapels, a sacristy and ante-sacristy were added to Abderrhaman’s simple Gothic church; its single apse was swamped under Baroque hexagons and octagons. The sacristies are full of gilded baubles; brocade altar cloths and thick Spanish carpets lie rotting in the damp and dust, a sorry ending for what had aimed to be so fine.  The Baroque purse was bursting; the monks had to erect a tabernaculo behind the High Altar.  This the good Quadrado indignantly labels as a veritable scandal in art.  It consists of two polygonal chambers, barbaric, overloaded, coarse. It seems as if it was reserved for the Carthusians, who had taken the vow of silence, to scream loudest in their art.  How to describe the tortuous forms of heavily gilded carvings and the mosaics of coloured marbles which these two small chambers of the tabernacle contain!  Against each of the eight sides of the larger is set a bumpy gold altar, and in the small space left in the centre rises a lofty baldachin on twisted columns running up into the cupola.  Under the baldachin stands a Grecian tempietto, and this once held an enormous silver custodia which Pons says was as bad as the worst the place contained; further, to provide the precious metal for it a magnificent Gothic custodia was melted down.  What bits of wall were left visible in the octagon and cupola were painted by Palomino, another Baroque painter who like Carducho stood in high favour with monks and monarchs.  Less choked up is the adjacent polygon, but its ornament is even coarser — highly coloured colossal saints and angels of Barclay Street style, poised above shiny altars, all restless, all theatrical, all dripping gold, all giving a portentous idea of the kind and quantity of rubbish that these servants of the lowly Nazarene had accumulated on the eve of their disbandment.  Nor did the seventeenth-century coenobites who so lavishly patronised the gaudy Baroque school have the excuse of the newly rich with whom nowadays we associate unbridled ostentation.  The friars (we forbear referring to their vow of poverty) had been handling wealth, and great wealth, for centuries. 


After the tabernacle, the homely honest kitchens of the monastery are a grateful sight.  Presses, grinding-stones, chopping-blocks, oil-jars, are still in place; the long-handled scoops still protrudes from the baker’s oven.  Maybe even a petrified loaf like the Pompeian is waiting to be drawn out.  This big outer kitchen where all the more menial culinary work was done is separated from the refectory by another with a capacious fire-place to one side and a lofty ventilator in the centre, like that of the canons’ kitchen at Pamplona.  Ventilator and vault offer a neat piece of brickwork to a knowing eye, but the average organ is more interested in focusing the tiny patch of blue visible through the high-up aperture. Stripped bare of every accessory, the pantries opening from it fallen into heaps of debris, this spot brings a pang to a domestic soul.  How much less sacrilegious it would have been to dismantle the vulgar tabernaculo and leave the honest kitchens intact — rows of bright copper pots and pans against the whitewashed walls, glazed earthen jars of savoury herbs on the shelves, blue and white Segovian plates in the tile-lined cupboards, and a thousand and one obsolete culinary devices in their appointed places.  But obviously this could not be!  The looters, it is to be presumed, were the villagers, and these had too much sound sense to take a gilded simpering saint instead of a decent self-respecting saucepan.  To see the old kitchen restored would be a joy to us from whose cramped homes this unit has almost disappeared; but no archaeology saturated restorer would deign to dedicate his lofty talents to such a mean and commonplace rehabilitation. 

The caretaker, who lives in the guests’ patio under the belfry (and who spurned us until we claimed friendship with Don Enrique de Mesa, the poet of El Paular), gave us an insight into the restoring architect’s modus operandi.  It was not until rain was pouring into the gaping church roof, and vaults were falling everywhere that the State could be prevailed upon to reclaim El Paular.  But the architect sent to arrest the imminent disintegration decided that the prime necessity was to hie himself to pleasant Alicante on the Mediterranean and procure a certain stone peculiar to that region, have it carved there for a cornice for the church, and then laboriously hauled on ox-carts to Paular; by which time he had used up the slender appropriation accorded him.  There the work of reclaiming stopped short, and his carved blocks lay for years on the ground. 

Don Enrique de Mesa
Don Enrique de Mesa Rosale

Another government architect now has the matter in hand; some of the blocks are lifted into place; the church has a new shiny lead roof; the belfry steeple, which long ago was struck by lightning and had toppled over into the sacristy, has been dug out of the mess, and the sacristy roof has been ceiled in.  Less necessary we should say was the painting of the cloister vaulting — a bright yellow.  As for the rest, kitchens, refectory, library, and cells, the State does not own them.  From the private purchaser of 1840, after the Disestablishment Act, it acquired only the church and the four vaulted walks of the cloister; and as the descendants of that purchaser have no use for cells or kitchens, these must be left to fall although they are in fact an integral part of the monastic fabric.  “But what can we do?” the Spaniard asks desperately. “So many beautiful architectural monuments to care for would embarrass even a richer state than Spain.”  He is right, no doubt; yet Paular is a case of spoiling the ship for a halfpennyworth of tar.  A very little more money would have bought the cells and kitchens as well, and a little good will would have invited the Carthusians back.  Not to restore them their once vast tracts of land and their feudal lordship, but to concede to them the privilege of going on voiceless if they wished, and manufacturing meanwhile the excellent paper for which they were famous, or the delicious Chartreuse liqueur whose secret they alone possess.  This would have been one way of prolonging the life of a historic monument, and without expense to the state. 

One of our party, Don Manuel, had first come to Paular in 1883 while it was still private property with administrator and farm hands on the premises.  After the church and cloister were bought as a Monumento Nacional, years elapsed before the government appointed a guardian.  When tardily he assumed office all was disorder and litter.  The monks had walked out, leaving their altars spread, lamps trimmed, books on shelves, correspondence and expense-accounts in neatly tied little packets, and but little had been disturbed by the first purchaser.  But during the subsequent period of neglect the wind that came in through gaping roofs sent letters and leaves of old books scurrying through the corridors.  Don Manuel still treasures a yellowed cramped bit of writing he picked out of the lilac branches one spring day — a letter from a monk who had gone to the branch house in Granada to his old companion in Paular, giving him a remedy for colic.  The date is 1690.  “We who have not the good fortune to pass the long summer among the cool healthy pines of El Paular,”  writes the Carthusian from Andalusia, “frequently suffer from dolores cólicos.  We apply the following remedy which, with God’s help, never fails to bring relief — And here begin the boiling of herbs and grinding of coral and other beneficent substances which made up the antique pharmacopoeia. 

Today not a book nor paper can be found.  The farthest corner is denuded and bare. In the monks’ cells the flooring has been torn up and the staircase torn down. Staircase? Yes, for every Carthusian cell was a miniature duplex apartment.  So small indeed that its cubic content could hardly bring more than three thousand dollars a year in New York to-day!  The general living room was walled off so as to form a spacious inglenook around the large open fire, and here the white-robed fraile could read (or doze?) free from draughts, his book shelves handy at each side of the hooded chimney, and a bracket worked in the plaster to hold his candle.  In fact his abode was literally a combination of the cloister and the hearth.  From this same nook a window opened into the lilac cloister, and on its broad blue-tiled ledge the silent occupant could lean and gaze into his future grave.  Over the nook and looking down into the general room through three arched openings was the chamber, its staircase supported on a fine brick arch.  The fraile’s garden was high-walled, thus sparing him the unholy human temptation to bid his neighbour the time o’ day; and each garden had its own water supply brought in stout earthen tubes laid clumsily against the wall.  Those who have visited the so-called cell of Chopin and Georges Sand at Valldemosa will recall this characteristic Carthusian arrangement of maisonette with its own plot of ground.  Not precisely the rigours of the earlier coenobites; we suppose that such amenities as fireplaces and board flooring did not come till the period of relaxation, and we find that precisely because the cell represents relaxation, the weakness of our common flesh, it touches our human sympathies deeper.  Though we are “not by nature of monk’s kin,” our hearts go out to the white-garbed silent individual who was so ruthlessly evicted in 1835 from his comfortable little bachelor home. 

In the early seventeenth century Vicente Carducho, the fashionable classic painter, was employed by the monks of El Paular to paint fifty-six large frescos in the cloister. The subject was the life of Saint Bruno, founder of the Order.  Our friends tell us these were removed by the government to Madrid (and later to Coruña) but that until recently the rich gold frames that held them were still in place.  Though we have not seen the paintings in question, we mention them because of the paragraph Don Antonio Pons dedicates to the matter in his Viaje de España.  Pons had good taste and good sense.  In an age still addicted to a hollow imitation of classic he was old-fashioned enough to announce his preference for earlier and sincerer periods.  In Christian art at lead he wanted what was begotten of Christianity.  Unable to admire the cold academic perfections of Carducho, he flattered the abbot by finding a pretty raison d’être for them.  “A great sacrifice does a man make,” he wrote, “when he gives up his liberty and submits to another’s will; but even a greater sacrifice, one almost beyond human power, when he deprives himself of the society of his kin and determines to live apart and guard a silence little short of perpetual, for he opens his mouth only to sing the praise of the Lord. Such privation appears insupportable and incompatible with human nature.  The Padres Cartuxos of El Paular have found a mitigation of this hard life and one dill within the rigour of their rule, in the sight of pretended human beings; they get recreation for their souls in the lively action of painted scenes.”  Thus was the good Pons kindly to his hods who had strayed into the abhorred realms of modern fresco painting, and non-committal to the painter he could not honestly admire.  Carducho was by no means the word painter of his perfunctory age; and we hope his scenes of the life of Saint Bruno were not repulsive like his Carthusian martyrs which make the cloisters of the Granada monastery unpleasant to pass through; but good or bad, we are glad his decorations are gone from El Paular.  It needs no other colouring than the pale tints of the lilac blossoms, and the rich sad green of cypress and boxwood. 

As further compliment to our friend the previously mentioned poet of Paular, the custodian threw open the gates of the frailes’ huerta or orchard for us.  I fancy that those who do not know the poet might accomplish the same result by transfer of some “coin of the realm.”  Nor would they regret the price.  The huerta is vast — “twice five miles of fertile ground with walls and towers girded round,” but the sheer wall is softened in aspect by a heavy mantle of ivy and bittersweet and clematis.  Its cardinal avenues cross in a rond pont featured with inviting benches in the lee of magnificent elms and oaks; but this is not the best of the huerta; off to the right, beyond fruit orchards and plots bursting with succulent vegetables are the trout-breeding ponds, and across them is the best view to be had of the church, apse-end, but with the ugly bulge of the tabernacle lost; all magnificent against the undulating snow line of the Peñalara, and the picture, with stately storks sailing above to their home on the belfry, is perfectly reflected in the still water.  If the custodian be favourably impressed with his visitors he will let them linger here, which is far more satisfactory than strolling through at his heels; whatever espionage is necessary being done by the blue-smocked peasants who now cultivate the land for other consumers than the white-garbed disciples of Saint Bruno. 

Across the road is another finca—the abbot’s casa de recreo, more delightful in that it is more sylvan, with the little Lozoya scampering musically through it.  This too is private property.  The owner, a Madrid doctor, has not returned to it since the death of his wife and only son some years ago; but Señorita A, who knew them well and had spent many a trout-fishing season there in the master’s happier days, took us over and introduced us to Juana, his housekeeper.  Juana and her husband, kindly and courteous like all their class, invited us to enter at will, and showed us the old mill where the monks made their paper, with the big presses still in place. Paper for the firát edition of “Don Quixote,” they say, was made right there by the monks in the house beyond the stone bridge. 

With another of the party I outstayed the rest at El Paular.  One dawn, a week after they had left on their tramp to Cercedilla, Justa rose and unlocked the gate for us in the bright crisp moonlight of three A.M. and we walked out to Rascafría to catch the four-o’clock mail-cart.  Our adieus were the merest whisper, for the sanctity of the hour and the place forbade speech.  Once out on the road I cast many a glance back at the moon-bathed old pile rising above the long wall of the huerta.  Buried away there in the Guadarramas it had given me generously of that mystic calm which we rightly associate with such retreats.  A thousand pities it could not have been saved out of the wholesale monastic wreckage! 

Back here in Madrid they tell me that when the French refugees came into Spain, those who distil the famous nectar which bears the name of the Order, they examined El Paular with a view to establishing their industry there, but pronounced the buildings irreclaimable, and went instead to Tarragona on the Mediterranean. The Alpinistas who loved the old place were in despair; and in still deeper despair when the State, having purchased it, lay supine before the task of restoration.  In bitterness, they proposed that a subscription should be raised for its mortuary stone. On this was to be written “These are the last remains of the ancient Cartuja de Santa Maria del Paular which the Spanish Government took out of private hands in order to have the glory of letting it collapse under State neglect.” 

As we have seen, the State acted before the moment of utter ruin and has saved, if not a whole monastery, at least a mountain cloister rich in lilac perfume, and cypresses, and immortal green twilight, and peace.  

Restoration and conservation of the monastery

The monastery of Santa María de El Paular has been in the State’s possession since 1876.  In 2014, the convention for the concession of the USUFRUCT which was signed in 1954 for 30 years and renewed in 1984 in favour of the Benedictine Order concluded. The Ministry of Culture is working on a proposal for the definitive integral management that will be presented soon.

Since 1978, its conservation was assumed by the Ministry of Culture, through the IPCE. One of the objectives of the Master Plan developed in 1996 was the restoration and adaptation of the cloister, which was directed by the architect Eduardo Barceló.

Other activities in the monastery within the master plan consisted of the conservation of library, cells, mill and archaeological remains, and restoration of roofs, sacristy, choir stalls, main altarpiece and cover.

The Ministry of Culture is considering the possible involvement of the Community of Madrid for public and museum management of the monastery, since this community has also performed in the same different performances between 1998 and 2007, both in the architectural work and movable heritage, worth around 3 million euros, which have complemented those made by the Ministry.

Discovering Aquinas. An Introduction to His Life, Work and Influence.[1] by Aidan Nichols, O.P.

The chapters of Fr. Nichols’ book can be seen as keys inviting one to enter the many gardens of Thomistic thought. In Chapter One, “Thomas in his Time,” after a brief summary of his life and a presentation of his Sacra Doctrina as an orderly reflection on the Bible in the light of faith, there follows an overview of his most famous work, the Summa Theologiae: the exitus of creatures going forth from God by his Word, and the reditus — their returning back to God in the grace of the Holy Spirit.

This book is vailable for purchase from the Online Shop of St. Mary’s Hermitage.

In the early years of my noviciate and Holy Orders St. Thomas Aquinas was an unfathomable depth in the Marianas Trench of the Pacific ocean. I knew him to be the paragon of Catholic theology but any attempt to enter into his thought left me numb and benighted.  St. Thomas Aquinas’, Summa Theologiae was required formational reading in the seminary, something we delved into for 5 years. It was the Theological Formation Program for priests that enabled me to “dip my toes into the water” and now I am contentedly “saturated” in the clear waters of his profound sagacity.  So it is with elation that I received the new book with a title that captured my pedagogy: Discovering Aquinas by the Dominican theologian, John Christopher “Aidan” Nichols O. P., whom I had met at Blackfriars Oxford during my Baccalaureate in Sacred Theology.

Cognisant of the “universal call to holiness” based on the Gospel according to Matthew 5:48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” and promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II in his Apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte,[2]  This universal call to holiness has always been a teaching of the Church and is rooted in Her mission to take sinners and raise them from their sinful nature into saints by the glory and perfection of Jesus Christ. For God does not choose us by our virtue or goodness, but by His infinite mercy and desire for all men’s salvation.[3] St. Thomas, a consummate spiritual master, was able in his lifetime to maintain the intimate connection between theology and spirituality, faith and reason, by an adherence to Truth which surpasses and unites them in the Being of God. His metaphysics enables one to think through and probe the doctrines and mysteries of faith. Through the application of philosophical principles one is reinforced in the truth that one already believes. This is a source of dynamism and conversion in Christ.

The chapters of Fr. Nichols’ book can be seen as keys inviting one to enter the many gardens of Thomistic thought. In Chapter One, “Thomas in his Time,” after a brief summary of his life and a presentation of his Sacra Doctrina as an orderly reflection on the Bible in the light of faith, there follows an overview of his most famous work, the Summa Theologiae: the exitus of creatures going forth from God by his Word, and the reditus — their returning back to God in the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Chapter Two on “Revelation” may come as a refreshing surprise to many. Thomas takes us beyond the current exegetical climate of historical-biblical criticism and ushers the reader straight to the heart of the matter: God, as First Truth, speaking to us. For St. Thomas, Revelation is a gift coming down from the Father of lights, so that by faith, we might pass through the words to the divine reality from which they spring. In Scripture, “God utters himself as he really is” and the light of faith “is a share in God’s own knowledge of himself” (38). By putting faith in first place, the soul adheres to the revealed mystery given us by God with Jesus taking his rightful place as Master and Lord. The chapter concludes with a magnificent invitation to take the gift of God’s Word “as the very measure of our own minds” and to do so “with absolute certitude” (35). Such faith, actualised in the soul by the Holy Spirit’s gift of knowledge, can only be a loving faith by which we possess our whole life. The theological virtue of faith is a fragrant garden in which the sincere seeker will want to linger long.

Chapter Three, “God and Creation,” focuses on St. Thomas’ three-fold teaching of how the creature can know the Creator: first, through the descending gift of Revelation coming down from above from the Father of lights (James 1:17); secondly, in the ascending gift of reason and the analogy of being; thirdly, through the gift of mystical experience, touched on but developed further in Chapter Eleven. In his creation theology, we can know as creatures that God exists, albeit in a real distinction from the world—God is completely distinguished from the world and outside any world-view as totally Other, and we can know how God exists—by means of his attributes, a study which is, in fact, an explanation of the ways in which God does not exist, a saying of what God is not and finally, we can represent how God acts — by means of his knowledge, will and power by which all things come to be.  St. Thomas sees creation as the analogical comprehension of created being participating in the Divine Being of God himself. In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Creaturely beings are not their own being but are beings by participation in the very being of God.[4] Indeed the creature exists “only in its relation to God” (58). The reader is introduced to the divine simplicity, goodness, immutability, and perfection of God, as well as the metaphysical topics of causality, act and potency, and participation. Attention is given to the chief contribution of Aquinas in the advancement of philosophy: esse—the first perfection and the ultimate act of all reality, the act in which we as creatures participate. The ardent seeker will gradually want to explore all these paths in this intricate but rewarding garden of Thomistic thought.

Chapter Four, “The Trinity,” begins with a summary account of the historical development of Trinitarian theology. I found this chapter particularly tightly packed until I came to its final section, “The Trinity in relation to ourselves.” Here the reader is drawn into the Trinitarian “life of grace and glory” (72) which is ours as adopted sons and daughters of the Father and the ultimate purpose of our creaturely existence. The glory that you have given me I have given them (John 17:22). A tip for the reader: whenever a chapter seems particularly dense it might be helpful to turn to the last few enlightening pages.

Chapter Five, “The Trinity in Man,” discusses the Trinitarian processions and their missions – the indwelling of the Son and the Holy Spirit in the human spirit. How human beings share in this Trinitarian Life was for St. Thomas an important question. The answer he gives is grace (in Chapter Seven) by which we are conjoined to the divine being itself.

The following is a personal reflection on how the Trinitarian ‘conjoining,’ in a synthesis of faith and reason, might be both spiritually and theologically understood—an invitation to the reader for further in-depth study and penetration in prayer of this sublime mystery. St. Thomas, following St. Augustine on whom he builds his Trinitarian theology, speaks of the verbum cordis (word of the heart) as an adequate analogical concept to represent divine life. The procession of the Son (verbum) from the Father, which may be compared to the procession of a mental word in our interior action of knowing according to Thomistic epistemology, might also be compared to a word of wisdom spoken in the soul by a gratuitous gift of the Holy Spirit. “… abide in my love” (John 15:9).  When one hears the word of God spoken in one’s being and understands that word in one’s mind, it could be called the term and perfection of the faith-filled soul. Like the procession of the Eternal Word revealing the perfection of the Father, the soul in its act of understanding of the  word spoken within, produces in the intellect a conception of what it is called to be. This is the procession of the interior word.  In that word spoken within the soul, the Father, so to speak, offers His gift of salvation.  The intellect, in its reception of that word through the Spirit’s gift of understanding, is made one with the word which has been impressed in its being.  And as the Father’s act of understanding is the generation (conception) of the Son in his own likeness, so the intellect’s reception of the Spirit’s gift of understanding in its “womb” of faith is a conception of the word in the likeness of the Son.

St. Augustine says something similar regarding the soul who has received this perfect knowledge and conceives a mental word in the likeness of the Son of God.

With the eye of the mind, therefore, we perceive in that eternal truth, from which all temporal things have been made, the form according to which we are, and by which we effect something either in ourselves or in bodies with a true and right reason. The true knowledge of things, thence conceived, we bear with us as a word, and beget by inner speech; nor does it depart from us by being born.[5]

So it was with the Virgin Mary who, as St. Augustine teaches, conceived Christ first in her mind before she conceived him in her womb.

When the angel had said this, she full of faith and conceiving Christ first in her mind and then in her body, ‘Behold,’ she said, ‘the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word’ . . . Mary believed and what she believed was done in her (Serm. CCXV).

Are we not all called to the same? The soul will not conceive the word in its life unless it has first, through faith and prayer, conceived the word in the conception of its intellect. When through grace, the soul identifies itself with that word and seeks to express that word in the thoughts, words, and deeds of his or her life, the soul gives birth to Christ again and again: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:21).

Adrienne von Speyr has a similar message:

The Word can stick in our memory and at any moment take on life through our will. It can become the measure of our activity, the mantle of our existence, and it can put forth such vital energy that it is, in a certain sense, more alive than our life. It can constantly receive and shelter us within itself. It can do so even insofar as it is a demand; but it does so above all insofar as it is love.[6]

Chapter Six, “Angelology,” introduces the reader to the tract on the angels which won the title by which St. Thomas is most familiarly known—the Angelic Doctor.  Thomas was keenly interested in the reality of angels, those pure spirits, indestructible mental realities of knowing and willing, independent of all but God. Angels do not share our human limitations and can be our best friends in our efforts to live the supernatural life of grace. They have been assigned to help us on the way to salvation if we but ask for their powerful assistance.

Chapter Seven, considers “Grace and the Virtues.” Here is revealed the special “spiritual love” of the Holy Spirit, “made interior to the soul’s essence.”  God gives his creature the Holy Spirit, “a new inward principle or power” — a “pneumatic existence” which “has its energising centre within.”  This is God’s most glorious gift, a sharing in his own divine nature, the “grace of glory [which] will bring us finally before God” (105-106).[7]

Chapter Seven includes a section, “Grace and freedom,” which is a profound study in itself. God brings about his will in the creatures’s regard through grace, while at the same time leaving our personal freedom intact. Fr. Nichols uses the example of a person emerging from sinfulness who does so “by a decision which is really his own yet at the same time is made possible by the ground-preparing grace of God” (106). “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

Grace places the intelligent creature in that condition where the achievement of its being is possible. And it likewise places her in a condition of liberty where the choice of this possibility can be made (96).

Fortified with the reality of grace , “the divine energeia,” the mind and will is then prepared to live the life of virtue which begins with the moral order both in ourselves and in society (105). The life of virtue is St. Thomas’ way to reclaim a Christian cultural environment wherein supernatural values are, once again, household realities. “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). The supernatural world of grace is a luminous and spacious Thomistic garden for study and contemplation.

Fr. Nichols points out in Chapter Eight, “Christ, Church, Sacraments,” that although Thomas does not provide a sustained study of the Church, “all the elements necessary for ecclesiology can be found in his work” (120).  It seems that here would be an opportune place to compare and synthesise those “ecclesial elements”  found in St. Thomas with the highly developed understanding of the Church found in the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Such a study could facilitate seeing the depth of meaning present in Thomistic thought. Nichols gives a hint of this depth where he explains, for example, that Thomas’ “key term for the Church is congregatio fidelium, ‘congregation of the faithful,’ but owing to his high view of faith [has] exalted consequences” (121).  On the one hand, von Balthasar spells out some of these “exalted consequences” — for example, the Church as bride of Christ— while on the other, St. Thomas undergirds and exalts their reality.[8]

In Chapter Eight, Fr. Nichols does an outstanding task in explaining divinity and humanity united in the one Divine Person that is Christ.  Aquinas speaks in a way that can be absorbed by modern ears yet faithful to Chalcedon and the Greek Fathers. To his interpretation of the Chalcedonian Formula there is added his own rich metaphysics of being (113).

In the section, “The grace of union,” the author unveils the splendours of the Christian call to deification which can be found in St. Thomas and is another example of his high view of faith. Here we are told that Christ became incarnate to redeem us for this life of intimate union with himself and that following Thomas’ thought:

our humanity can also attain through grace that further perfection that lies far beyond our capacities. All this came about ‘for us men and for our salvation.’ The life of Christ can be our salvation history because God has filled and super-filled the being of Christ with graces, graces meant not least to overflow from the Church’s Head to the Church’s members (116).

We are meant to live the life of Christ, that is, to be transformed into Christ in his mysteries, which is the next section of this chapter.  A quotation from the renowned Thomist, Yves Marie-Joseph Cardinal Congar, O. P., speaks of the abiding impact of the grace of these mysteries as: 

mysteries lived out by the Saviour [and] [remaining] in his glorified humanity as a disposition of eternal value, properly equipped to produce in us the saving effects which correspond to each of these mysteries (119).[9]

Meditation on the Mysteries of the Rosary might be suggested here and the parenthetical reference to Mariology made in this chapter (118) might be another opportune place for further development of Thomistic thought.[10]

Chapter Nine gives a thumbnail sketch of “Thomas in History.” St. Thomas (c. 1225-1274) worked in an age when the lectio of the monastery was giving birth to the quaestio which evolved into the disputatio of the university.  The lofty coalescence of faith and reason, contemplation and argumentation, which St. Thomas was capable of holding together, began after his lifetime to split apart opening a rift between philosophy and theology.   This chapter recounts the turbulent waters which resulted in a “Second Scholasticism,” and then a “Third Scholasticism.”  There was another “decline” at the Second Vatican Council and now it seems, as Jesuit Thomist Gerald A. McCool S.J.,  predicted, St. Thomas is rising again and a “Fourth Scholasticism” is in the making.[11] Notwithstanding the numerous challenges to Thomistic teaching, particularly Scotism and nominalism. Pope John XXII, on July 18, 1323, canonised Thomas with great solemnity; Pius V, in 1567, elevated him to the status of a doctor of the Church, Doctor Communis; and in 1880 Pope Leo XIII declared Thomas to be the patron saint of all Catholic schools and universities.  In 1974, the seventh centenary of the Angelic Doctor’s death, Pope Paul VI proclaimed at a Dominican Congress in Rome that we were witnessing a “formidable return of Thomistic influence.”  Karol Wojtyla taught Thomism at the University of Lublin for twenty-four years before becoming John-Paul II with world wide influence.  In 1997, an international survey of the most important personalities of the second millennium in religious, political and artistic spheres revealed St. Thomas to be in first place.

Part Four concludes the book with a look at some necessary philosophical and theological tools. In Chapter Ten, “Thomas and the Practice of Philosophy,” the reader is introduced to Thomistic metaphysics as the science of being as being together with its properties, of first causes or principles, act and potency, the analogy of being, essence and existence, and the transcendentals.  The most exciting of these, yet the most difficult to get a hold of, is St. Thomas’ central innovative concept of esse: existence as “dynamic, energising act” (151).  Esse for St. Thomas is so basic and important that it is not captured in “existence” considered as “a fact” or “out there.”  Esse is best thought of as actus essendi, the act of the essence, the root actuality of being, the perfection of all perfections, of all acts. Esse is the fundamental dimension of reality at the heart of everything else; it is the root of everything else that is.  

The metaphysics of esse can be applied to the spiritual life. Man is composed of two essential principles, soul and body, his essence and existence, but he has only one act of existing (esse)—his spiritual existence—given as a gift from the Creator God. The act of existence belongs to the soul which the soul communicates to the body, making one complete composite person. Each particular person’s act of existence belongs to himself alone, while his specific essence, the ens commune, or common being of man, considered in distinction from its act of existence, is the same for all members of the same species. According to Étienne Gilson “a human soul is an act that stands in need of further actualisation … ‘Become what thou art’ is for such a form [the human soul] an imperative order, because it is inscribed as a law in its very nature.”[12]

The author of a Thomistically flavoured study of St. Teresa’s Interior Castle,[13] proposes that the act for which the human soul was created is “to identify itself with the act by which God desires himself,” to become one Spirit with him (1 Corinthians 6:17).  This act, the author continues, is “a kind of participation in the aspiration of love which is in God, associating the creature not with his Being but with the divine act. Union is in the act; St. Teresa compares it to two candles which mingle their flames without being merged together.” Within the Trinity, God gives himself completely to the Son; and the Son returns himself completely to the Father in an endless exchange of love that is the Holy Spirit. We are called to mingle our human love with the totally Other divine love that God is, “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4). This objective act of pure love is a spontaneous interior choice of God at all times in the depth of the soul.[14]  It is a becoming that is entirely interior, an ordering of the potency of our spiritual being toward a precise goal: our true actualisation by grace in a progressive becoming of who we really are in God.  Like esse, it is the root actuality of our ‘to be’ in Christ, the root act of all spiritual life and growth, the perfection of all perfections, the fundamental of union in reality with the Heart of Christ “love united to love”: “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:20). “An act of this kind is mystical, being the essential reality of the mystical life.” It is mystical because it is supernatural; it can only be accomplished with the help of grace. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5).[15]

The concluding Chapter Eleven, “Thomas and the Idea of Theology,” brings the reader full circle.  In Chapter Two on Revelation, we saw that Sacred Scripture was “central to Thomas’ picture of Christian theology” (29).  In Chapter Eleven, we are brought back to the same idea — a theology “soaked in Scripture” (169), and a glance at his writings prove this to be true. St. Thomas was first of all a lecturer on the “sacred page.”  Like all Masters of Sacred Theology, or Sacra Doctrina, he was fully conversant with the sacred text and had mastered all the Patristic commentaries.

St. Thomas was open to truth wherever he found it. In his study of theology as a science, he adapted a theory of Aristotle and called it the sub-alteration of the sciences, a method by which one can make use of other sciences as subordinates and handmaids.[16]  This is possible because in all fields of knowledge there are sub-fields that can contribute to the main subject of investigation.  Frequently, distinct fields of their own become sub-fields to something else.  Depending on the objective purpose of the study, the sciences, without losing their own integrity as a science, sometimes are subjected to other sciences.  An example of this subjection would be the relation of musical theory to mathematics.  Consequently, if one is using the historical-critical method in the exegesis of Sacred Scripture, it is necessary to apply the sub-alteration of sciences principle because theology and exegesis are distinct, logically speaking, in the way that theology is distinct from philosophy, astronomy, biology, music, mathematics, etc. The application of the historical-critical method to Sacred Scripture must always be subservient to faith and the Tradition of the Church, the Tradition that St. Thomas considered a fount of revealed understanding not distinct from the Scriptures, since “Scripture itself [is] transmitted by Tradition and the two together are the norm of Christian faith” (30-31).  Christians study the Bible in the light of faith and in the Tradition of commentary and doctrine, liturgy and lectionary, approved by the magisterium of the Church. Historical-critical exegesis can be an illuminating tool but it must be shaped to theological purposes, that is, to the fundamental vision of the Scriptural world which all Christians share.

The book’s conclusion offers high praise for “the apostolic value of St. Thomas’  thought and writing” (181), and (this writer would add) for the solid grounding and mystical heights his theology offers.  In the opening question of the Summa theologiae, St. Thomas taught “the purpose and meaning of human existence is ultimately to be found only in God who is invincible and incomprehensible.” (24) Because St. Thomas focused his whole life on knowing and loving God, he knew that:

it was necessary for the salvation of man that he should have, beyond the philosophical disciplines investigated by human reason, a teaching that proceeds from divine revelation.[17]

The Doctor Communis dedicated himself to this kind of holy teaching or sacra doctrina. He wrote in the Summa contra Gentiles, “the ultimate salvation of man is that he may be perfected in his intellectual aspect by the contemplation of the First Truth.”[18] But for Thomas, the intellect is more than logic and abstract conceptualisations; his intellectus includes an understanding by “kinship, propter connaturalitatem, rather than by the application of reasoning, secundum perfectum usum rationis,” and the intuitive grasp of truth enlightened by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  The Summa theologiae is meant to engage the whole person in his psychological, physical, spiritual unity, in a living communion with God. “Christian theology moves in the world of grace and depends on a loving intercourse with divine things.”[19] On January 28th, the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, the following passage is read in the liturgy:

Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.  I preferred her to sceptres and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her.  Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem, because all gold is but a little sand in her sight, and silver will be accounted as clay before her.  I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light, because her radiance never ceases.  All good things came to me along with her, and in her hands uncounted wealth.  I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them; but I did not know that she was their mother.  I learned without guile and I impart without grudging; I do not hide her wealth, for it is an unfailing treasure for mortals; those who get it obtain friendship with God, commended for the gifts that come from instruction.  (Wisdom 7: 7-14)[20]

St. Thomas, one of the great mystics of the Church, desired above all to enter the wine cellar of divine love. During the last three years of his life he experienced ecstatic union with God more and more often.  After the feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th, 1273, he put away his quill and wrote no more.  He never completed his famous Summa theologiae.  From an image of the Crucified, Thomas heard these words, “Bene scripsist de me, Thoma. Quam ergo mercedem accipies,” “Thou hast written well of me, Thomas. What wouldst thou claim as a reward.”  Thomas replied, “Nil nisi te, Domine,” “Only Thyself, O Lord.”[21]

As Fr. Nichols tells us in the beginning of his book (18) and again at its conclusion, the theology of St. Thomas “no matter how speculative its flights, had never had an ultimate goal different from that of Benedict or Bernard in the heavenly city of God.”  (178).

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!“For who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been his counselor?”  “Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?”  For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever.  Amen.  (Romans 11:33-36)

[1] Aidan Nichols, O.P., Discovering Aquinas, (London: Darton, Longman, Todd, 2002).
[2] At the beginning of the new millennium. 6 January 2001.
[3] Wagner, Francis de Sales O.S.B., “The universal call to holiness,” St. Meinrad Archabbey.
[4] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, la., q. 44, a. 1.
[5] St. Augustine, The Trinity, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 45, trans. Stephen McKenna, CSSR (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1963), Bk. IX, Ch. 7, p. 281.
[6] Adrienne von Speyr, “Holiness in the Everyday,” Communio, 29, 4, 2002, p. 758.
[7] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, la. Ilae., q. 110, a. 1.
[8] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology II: Spouse of the Word, Who is the Church?, trans. A. V. Littledale with Alexander Dru (San Francisco CA: Ignatius Press, 1991), p. 161, and St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologicae, Ilia. Q. 30, a. 1.
[9] Yves Congar, O.P., “Le sens de I’Economie salutaire dans la ‘theologie’ de saint Thomas d’Aquin,” Festgabe J Lortz. II. Glaube und Geschichte (Baden-Baden,1958),pp.73-122.
[10] St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa theologiae, vol. 51, ed. and trans, with appendices by T. R. Heath, O.P. (NY: Mc Graw Hill, 1969); The Three Greatest Prayers: Commentaries on the Our Father, the Angelic Salutation, Namely the Hail Mary, and the Apostles’ Creed, trans. Laurence Shapcote, O.P. with intro. by Thomas Gilby, OP (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1956); Commentary on Gospel of St. John, trans. James Weisheipl, O.P. and Fabian Larcher, OP, Part I: Chapters 1-7 (Albany, NY; Magi Books, 1980) and Part II: Chapters 8-21 (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications).
[11] “Why St. Thomas Stays Alive.” International Philosophical Quarterly, vol. XXX, No. 3, Issue No. 119 (Sept. 1990) pp. 285-287.
[12] Etienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, (Toronto; Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1952), pp. 171, 181.
[13] Sr. Madeline of St. Joseph, OCD, Within the Castle with St. Teresa of Avila, trans, and abridged, Carmel of Pittsford , N.Y., with intro by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD (Chicago: Franciscan Press, 1982).
[14] Summa theologiae, IIa. IIae., q. 27, a. 1, 3, 4, 5; Ia., q. 8, a. 3.
[15] Sr. Madeline of St. Joseph, Within the Castle with St. Teresa of Avila, pp. 38, 80; see also Summa theologiae, lla. Ilae., q. 24, a. 2.
[16] Joseph Augustine Di Noia, O.P., Theological Formation Program, Dominican House of Studies, Washington, DC, 1998, Lecture no. 10. See also St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia., q. 1, a. 5 ad 2.
[17] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, la., q. 1, a. 1.
[18] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles, IV, 42.
[19] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, vol. 1, ed. and trans, with appendices by Thomas Gilby, O.P. (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1963), Appendix 10, p. 124.
[20] Solomon’s Respect for Wisdom.
[21] Reginald M. Coffey, O.P., The Man from Rocca Sicca (Milwawukee; Bruce Publishing Co., 1942), p. 123.


In the living tradition of prayer, each Church proposes to its faithful, according to its historic, social, and cultural context, a language for prayer: words, melodies, gestures, iconography. The Magisterium of the Church15 has the task of discerning the fidelity of these ways of praying to the tradition of apostolic faith; it is for pastors and catechists to explain their meaning, always in relation to Jesus Christ.

Prayer to the Father

There is no other way of Christian prayer than Christ. Whether our prayer is communal or personal, vocal or interior, it has access to the Father only if we pray “in the name” of Jesus. The sacred humanity of Jesus is therefore the way by which the Holy Spirit teaches us to pray to God our Father.

Prayer to Jesus

The prayer of the Church, nourished by the Word of God and the celebration of the liturgy, teaches us to pray to the Lord Jesus. Even though her prayer is addressed above all to the Father, it includes in all the liturgical traditions forms of prayer addressed to Christ. Certain psalms, given their use in the Prayer of the Church, and the New Testament place on our lips and engrave in our hearts prayer to Christ in the form of invocations: Son of God, Word of God, Lord, Savior, Lamb of God, King, Beloved Son, Son of the Virgin, Good Shepherd, our Life, our Light, our Hope, our Resurrection, Friend of mankind. . . .

But the one name that contains everything is the one that the Son of God received in his incarnation: JESUS. The divine name may not be spoken by human lips, but by assuming our humanity The Word of God hands it over to us and we can invoke it: “Jesus,” “YHWH saves.”16 The name “Jesus” contains all: God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray “Jesus” is to invoke him and to call him within us. His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies. Jesus is the Risen One, and whoever invokes the name of Jesus is welcoming the Son of God who loved him and who gave himself up for him.17

This simple invocation of faith developed in the tradition of prayer under many forms in East and West. The most usual formulation, transmitted by the spiritual writers of the Sinai, Syria, and Mt. Athos, is the invocation, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners.” It combines the Christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 with the cry of the publican and the blind men begging for light.18 By it the heart is opened to human wretchedness and the Savior’s mercy.

The invocation of the holy name of Jesus is the simplest way of praying always. When the holy name is repeated often by a humbly attentive heart, the prayer is not lost by heaping up empty phrases,19 but holds fast to the word and “brings forth fruit with patience.”20 This prayer is possible “at all times” because it is not one occupation among others but the only occupation: that of loving God, which animates and transfigures every action in Christ Jesus.

The prayer of the Church venerates and honors the Heart of Jesus just as it invokes his most holy name. It adores the incarnate Word and his Heart which, out of love for men, he allowed to be pierced by our sins. Christian prayer loves to follow the way of the cross in the Savior’s steps. The stations from the Praetorium to Golgotha and the tomb trace the way of Jesus, who by his holy Cross has redeemed the world.

“Come, Holy Spirit”

“No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”21 Every time we begin to pray to Jesus it is the Holy Spirit who draws us on the way of prayer by his prevenient grace. Since he teaches us to pray by recalling Christ, how could we not pray to the Spirit too? That is why the Church invites us to call upon the Holy Spirit every day, especially at the beginning and the end of every important action.

If the Spirit should not be worshiped, how can he divinize me through Baptism? If he should be worshiped, should he not be the object of adoration?22

The traditional form of petition to the Holy Spirit is to invoke the Father through Christ our Lord to give us the Consoler Spirit.23 Jesus insists on this petition to be made in his name at the very moment when he promises the gift of the Spirit of Truth.24 But the simplest and most direct prayer is also traditional, “Come, Holy Spirit,” and every liturgical tradition has developed it in antiphons and hymns.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love.25

Heavenly King, Consoler Spirit, Spirit of Truth, present everywhere and filling all things, treasure of all good and source of all life, come dwell in us, cleanse and save us, you who are All Good.26

The Holy Spirit, whose anointing permeates our whole being, is the interior Master of Christian prayer. He is the artisan of the living tradition of prayer. To be sure, there are as many paths of prayer as there are persons who pray, but it is the same Spirit acting in all and with all. It is in the communion of the Holy Spirit that Christian prayer is prayer in the Church.

In communion with the holy Mother of God

In prayer the Holy Spirit unites us to the person of the only Son, in his glorified humanity, through which and in which our filial prayer unites us in the Church with the Mother of Jesus.27

Mary gave her consent in faith at the Annunciation and maintained it without hesitation at the foot of the Cross. Ever since, her motherhood has extended to the brothers and sisters of her Son “who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties.”28 Jesus, the only mediator, is the way of our prayer; Mary, his mother and ours, is wholly transparent to him: she “shows the way” (hodigitria), and is herself “the Sign” of the way, according to the traditional iconography of East and West.

Beginning with Mary’s unique cooperation with the working of the Holy Spirit, the Churches developed their prayer to the holy Mother of God, centering it on the person of Christ manifested in his mysteries. In countless hymns and antiphons expressing this prayer, two movements usually alternate with one another: the first “magnifies” the Lord for the “great things” he did for his lowly servant and through her for all human beings29 the second entrusts the supplications and praises of the children of God to the Mother of Jesus, because she now knows the humanity which, in her, the Son of God espoused.

This twofold movement of prayer to Mary has found a privileged expression in the Ave Maria:

Hail Mary [or Rejoice, Mary]: the greeting of the angel Gabriel opens this prayer. It is God himself who, through his angel as intermediary, greets Mary. Our prayer dares to take up this greeting to Mary with the regard God had for the lowliness of his humble servant and to exult in the joy he finds in her.30

Full of grace, the Lord is with thee: These two phrases of the angel’s greeting shed light on one another. Mary is full of grace because the Lord is with her. The grace with which she is filled is the presence of him who is the source of all grace. “Rejoice . . . O Daughter of Jerusalem . . . the Lord your God is in your midst.”31 Mary, in whom the Lord himself has just made his dwelling, is the daughter of Zion in person, the ark of the covenant, the place where the glory of the Lord dwells. She is “the dwelling of God . . . with men.”32 Full of grace, Mary is wholly given over to him who has come to dwell in her and whom she is about to give to the world.

Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. After the angel’s greeting, we make Elizabeth’s greeting our own. “Filled with the Holy Spirit,” Elizabeth is the first in the long succession of generations who have called Mary “blessed.”33 “Blessed is she who believed. . . . “34 Mary is “blessed among women” because she believed in the fulfillment of the Lord’s word. Abraham. because of his faith, became a blessing for all the nations of the earth.35 Mary, because of her faith, became the mother of believers, through whom all nations of the earth receive him who is God’s own blessing: Jesus, the “fruit of thy womb.”

Holy Mary, Mother of God: With Elizabeth we marvel, “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”36 Because she gives us Jesus, her son, Mary is Mother of God and our mother; we can entrust all our cares and petitions to her: she prays for us as she prayed for herself: “Let it be to me according to your word.”37 By entrusting ourselves to her prayer, we abandon ourselves to the will of God together with her: “Thy will be done.”

Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death: By asking Mary to pray for us, we acknowledge ourselves to be poor sinners and we address ourselves to the “Mother of Mercy,” the All-Holy One. We give ourselves over to her now, in the Today of our lives. And our trust broadens further, already at the present moment, to surrender “the hour of our death” wholly to her care. May she be there as she was at her son’s death on the cross. May she welcome us as our mother at the hour of our passing38 to lead us to her son, Jesus, in paradise.

Medieval piety in the West developed the prayer of the rosary as a popular substitute for the Liturgy of the Hours. In the East, the litany called the Akathistos and the Paraclesis remained closer to the choral office in the Byzantine churches, while the Armenian, Coptic, and Syriac traditions preferred popular hymns and songs to the Mother of God. But in the Ave Maria, the theotokia, the hymns of St. Ephrem or St. Gregory of Narek, the tradition of prayer is basically the same.

Mary is the perfect Orans (pray-er), a figure of the Church. When we pray to her, we are adhering with her to the plan of the Father, who sends his Son to save all men. Like the beloved disciple we welcome Jesus’ mother into our homes,39 for she has become the mother of all the living. We can pray with and to her. The prayer of the Church is sustained by the prayer of Mary and united with it in hope.40


Prayer is primarily addressed to the Father; it can also be directed toward Jesus, particularly by the invocation of his holy name: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners.”

“No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’, except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). The Church invites us to invoke the Holy Spirit as the interior Teacher of Christian prayer.

Because of Mary’s singular cooperation with the action of the Holy Spirit, the Church loves to pray in communion with the Virgin Mary, to magnify with her the great things the Lord has done for her, and to entrust supplications and praises to her.

15 Cf. DV 10.
16 Cf. Ex 3:14; 33:19-23; Mt 1:21.
17 Rom 10:13; Acts 2:21; 3:15-16; Gal 2:20.
18 Cf. Mk 10:46-52; Lk 18:13.
19 Cf. Mt 6:7.
20 Cf. Lk 8:15.
21 1 Cor 12:3.
22 St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio, 31,28:PG 36,165.
23 Cf. Lk 11:13.
24 Cf. Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:13.
25 Roman Missal, Pentecost Sequence.
26 Byzantine Liturgy, Pentecost Vespers, Troparion.
27 Cf. Acts 1:14.
28 LG 62.
29 Cf. Lk 1:46-55.
30 Cf. Lk 1:48; Zeph 3:17b.
31 Zeph 3:14,17a.
32 Rev 21:3.
33 Lk 1:41, 48.
34 Lk 1:45.
35 Cf. Gen 12:3.
36 Lk 1:43.
37 Lk 1:38.
38 Cf. Jn 19:27.
39 Cf. Jn 19:27.
40 Cf. LG 68-69.

Feastival of Santa Rosalia of Palermo 15-July 2018… to all the Sicilians from Palermo who have emigrated…

We must all make an effort and enter into and adopt a more authentic Gospel process of reasoning.  It teaches us that the place in which we have been placed by God’s will is primarily a service to be carried out for the common good of all, for a better, more humane world and for peaceful coexistence. The concept of service to the common good must be able to precede everything else and prevail over a mentality of profit and gain, for which we often selfishly work toward. This impoverishes us, it makes us petty and detaches us from the reality in which we are engulfed thus preventing us from seeing the face of Christ in our brother who is right next to us.

Homily by the Rev. Fr. Dom. Ugo-Maria  of St. Mary’s Hermitage.

My dear Bishops, brothers in the priesthood, Deacons, Religious, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord and always dear to me!

Perched 1,970 feet above the Tyrrhenian Sea and the city of Palermo, the Grotto Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia on Monte Pellegrino is one of Sicily’s two primary Catholic shrines.  I grew up in the shadows of Monte Pellegrino in Palermo, it was visible from my grandmothers balcony window. Our patron Saint (La Santuzza – The Little Saint) Santa Rosalia († 1166), is known by all who originate from Sicily.  Many years ago on the celebration, called the festino, which is still held each year on July 15, and continues into the next day, I made my first and only pilgrimage to the top of the Mount, bare footed, frankly exhausted yet exhilarated by the achievement and the view was stunning.  As a hermit I had a slight tinge of admiration in Santa Rosalia finding a perfect spot for her desert.  On the cave wall she wrote “I, Rosalia, daughter of Sinibald, Lord of Roses, and Quisquina, have taken the resolution to live in this cave for the love of my Lord, Jesus Christ.”


l'Acchianata a Santa Rosalia.png
Arial View of the Sanctuary

In the churchyard of the Sanctuary of Mount Pellegrino in Palermo, crowded on that day that I made my pilgrimage there were so many people, the sun was glaring, you could hear the people whispering their prayers or singing during the ascent, these are the faithful who never cease to pray to her and who annually bring her their pure and heartfelt devotions, Santa Rosalia welcomes them with her inner story even today, her life and her fervent and passionate witness is palpable to all.

At the front of the Grotto of Mount Pellegrino, in which Santuzza lived in her hermitage in the last years of her earthly life – as evidenced by the discovery of her relics – she passed away on a morning whilst the celestial light that she had always enjoy so much began to enter her cell: “O God, my God, to thee do I watch at break of day. For thee my soul hath thirsted.” (Psalm 62:2)

Il Santuario della Santuzza
Sanctuary Church of Santa Rosalia.

These days, and especially tonight, the Sanctuary, which is a highly significant place not only for worship but also in the history of the city of Palermo, becomes a destination for the usual pilgrimage that the faithful offer as a sign of their devotion to the Santuzza.  The traditional “acchianata” (climbing up) sees thousands of people who dissolve their promises or implore a grace through the intercession of the saintly virgin hermit.

As a priest and hermit of this beloved portion of God’s people who grew up in Palermo, I too could not but resist to find myself among you in the past, a pilgrim among pilgrims, to share in the joy of this celebration, to raise perfect praises to God and bless Him in the figure of Saint Rosalia, which her infinite goodness wanted to donate to the Church.

Climbing this mountain, and even more arriving at the churchyard which is always so crowded with the faithful, I was impressed by the number of faithful, which bears witness to the affection and devotion that the people of Palermo and from around the world nurture towards this Patron Saint of the city.

Of course all this is positive. It is a devotion that we have a duty to transmit to the next generation, to discover evermore the message that Santa Rosalia communicates to her faithful.

When I ascended, my examination of Jesus turning provocatively toward the crowds flowed from the depths of my heart – and I have heard the repeated echoes – when recalling the prophetic and steadfast figure of St. John the Baptist: “What went you out into the desert to see?” (Cf. Matthew 11:7).  It is a question that i address to you today, gathered together to celebrate Santa Rosalia.  What did you come to see? What moved you to come? Why are you here? What are you asked to contemplate during your ascent on Monte Pellegrino?

Teenage drink drivers
Teenage drink driver.

La Santuzza, my grandmother Concettina used to tell me, freed Palermo from the Peste (Plague).  Today luckily through science this disease is under control with antibiotics and can be cured if diagnosed in time; yet today there is another form of plague, one that is within us, which destroys our dignity; yet she can heal us, if we make a true commitment.  It is an inner pestilence, imposed by a dominant secular culture, where there is no respect for oneself – drug and alcohol abuse to which many young and older people look for an quick fix and false happiness – there is no respect for each other, a lack of loving your neighbour, vandalism, theft much of it brought about by these consumeristic and secular attitudes.   It is as if modern society has become the new Sodom and Gomorrah, yet no one is doing anything to stop it dead in its tracks.


I remember that when I was serving the UN as a young officer and had chance to drive to  Hebron in Palestine a city located in the southern West Bank, 19 miles south of

Palestinian Boy
A boy in Palestine having lost his family, his home.  He has nothing left but his dignity.

Jerusalem and nestled in the Judaean Mountains and when returning to Sicily, I was struck by the enormous waste done everywhere.  It often happened that I’d see a lot of food or bread thrown away in streets, whilst still carrying and remembering the faces of thousands of undernourished and homeless children and people who died of hunger and hardship deep within my heart.  It is something that still haunts me and is forever unforgettable.


We know very well that a pilgrimage is not done out of sheer curiosity, nor a habit that is repeated annually by pure impulse of vague religious sentiments. People go on a pilgrimage because they are attracted to Santa Rosalia who chose the Lord as the only Spouse in her life, making Him become the entire reason of her love, full of His joy, the reason for her freedom and from personal and social conditionings. A full freedom with which Santa Rosalia, like the young girl in Solomon’s Song of Songs, runs to meet His love, and embraces Him for the rest of her life.

This is who we came to see! The virgin who gave everything of herself and for this she made her life a shining example of the sanctity of our Creator who from the beginning chose her as a witness by her goodness. The pilgrims have come to see Christ in love, to the point of wanting to be totally his. We have come to see a lionhearted young woman, who defied her time bringing into fulfilment of how much intimacy the Holy Spirit had placed in her heart, this path is traced through listening to the Word and to its deepest desires.

This fundamental choice of God, the place that God occupies in our lives commits us all, according to the duty of our own state.  To us priests, called by the Lord and representing his ministry, and who are called to centralise of our prayers, our faithfulness to our priestly commitments, our unconditional dedication in administering the sacraments, listening to confession and serving our communities loyally.  To you, wives, husbands, a commitment to remain faithful to the love you have promised to each other and the gift of the sacrament you exchanged.  Just as grace sustained Santa Rosalia’s gift of life with fidelity to her husband, we all have to rely on grace as the force which helps us conquer our difficulties and moments of crisis.

But we did not simply come to “catch a glimpse of” the testimony of eight hundred and fifty-two years ago.  Pilgrims do not make a pilgrimage just to be spectators at a feast.  One cannot call themselves an authentic devotees of Santa Rosalia if we allow this experience to pass by without it leaving an indelible mark on our lives, without the Santuzza having pierced a clear message in our way of life and in our times.

Santa Rosalia had lived in the Grotto the idyll of divine love, her own Garden of Eden whilst choosing a hard, rigorous, stringent and unyielding life, comprised of prayer and self-abnegation.  The act of denying her own wishes, of refusing to satisfy her desires, especially from a moral, religious and altruistic motive, bares witness to us of her total surrender to the will of God.  With her we celebrate, not so much the rejection of a comfortable and carefree life that she as a noble woman could have lived, but rather a love so strong, so unique and so boundless for her Lord that she had not been seduce by material things or anyone.  Her life was entirely Christocentric, not in a manner that surrounded her with riches but in absolute poverty, which she lived as a hermit.  This is concomitant of the fact that when loving the One who created everything, and making Him the centre of your life, she would not need anything else at all.  We have been taught this in the Gospel of Matthew when the apostle Peter said to Jesus “Behold we have left all things, and have followed thee: what therefore shall we have?” (Matthew 19:27-28)  Jesus knowing that with God all things are possible replied “Amen, I say to you, that you, who have followed me, in the regeneration, when the Son of man shall sit on the seat of his majesty, you also shall sit on twelve seats judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”  Too often today we expect rewards there and then, being disappointed when our efforts seem to have been ignored by our peers or employers.  I once overheard a young student I was teaching at Oxford say “I’m only doing this charity trip thing because it will look good on my resume for the firm I want to join”.  This disheartened me greatly, it was for her a purely self-seeking motive and not as she had written on her application to help others less fortunate than her and be of use to the community.  Too many of us these days seek rewards for the small things that we do and this is purely egocentric, unchristian and soul destroying.

This is why the example of Santa Rosalia’s austere and unwavering life still calls to us today, because we can all be encouraged to experience more and more the cruciality in which we discover and rediscover, every day, the absolute primacy of God and the beauty of the authentic values ​​of life that He has given us and that He has committed himself to in redeeming us from evil and darkness of this world.

The socio-economic crisis that the world is facing these days are visible to all of us.  How many of us waver with the effort just to get to the end of the month, coping with the various commitments and finding the means to be able to provide.  How many of us look to the future with desolation over the many social instabilities that look like dark clouds on every skyline.  We are told as children that every cloud has a silver lining, then we grow up and realise that the silver lining  do not exist.  But the promise of our Lord’s future gifts do exist and our deposited in our heavenly bank account awaiting our withdrawal once we have joined him.       

surprisingWhen I looked on the internet for “Global Crisis effecting humanity” the only images that came up in my search were matters concerning the financial industry, corporations, economy, investments.  Have we really sunk so low that we cannot recognise the human global crisis beyond the financial.  Surely human life is more valuable than a bank?  We live in times when the crisis for mankind has become present at many levels, as evidence of a social context in which possessions and merriment seem to prevail over every logic rather than dedicating and donating ones life to service and helping our neighbour. Yes there are many risks. particularly for the next generation and those to follow. They are all connected to the serious possibility of corroding all beauty and the full and authentic sense of life for those things that are non-essential, trite, worthless, even purposeless and fraught with danger.

We see it in the inability to serve the common good, to do one’s duty seriously, determined only by one’s selfishness, self-interests and egocentrism. We all have responsibilities, because each of us has a duty to our neighbour, even the ones we do not like.

I think of those who work in public services or offices. The politicians that have been elected, chosen by the people to serve the common good. You have this responsibility toward everyone and not just yourself.  Just think what a better place we would live in if a politician actually really genuinely cared, was honest to a fault, truthful at all times.  Your responsibility is and always will be to God, the state and those who elected you.  At the same time everyone must also do their duty.  Think of the mothers who provide nurturing care for the family, teach us how to pray, encourage and nurture spiritual growth and development, and are living examples of the meaning of sacrificial, self-giving love which is the genesis and source of an authentic spirituality.  Through the lens of the Blessed Virgin Mary, “we see [in all motherhood] the reflection of a beauty which mirrors the loftiest sentiments of which the human heart is capable: the self-sacrificing totality of love; the strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows; limitless fidelity and tireless devotion to work; the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words of support and encouragement” (Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, 46).

A father should strive to be to his family everything that is revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God, a man is called upon to ensure stability and harmony within the family.  He does this by exercising generous and selfless responsibility for the life conceived in the womb of the mother; by taking a more active role in, and making a more serious commitment to his children’s education and prayer life, a task that he shares equally with his wife; by working in a job that is never the cause of division within the family but promotes and provides for its security and unity; and, most importantly, by being a living witness and example to his children of what it means to live and act as a man of God, showing his children first-hand what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and how that relationship is lived-out daily by loving the truth, goodness, and beauty of our Catholic faith.

I think of you the educators, who recognises that the human heart is created with an

Jesus our Teacher
Jesus our Eternal Teacher

innate yearning to seek, find and rest in God in this world and the next and will therefore develop the whole person intellectually, physically emotionally and spiritually.  The educator does this by respecting each child of God, preparing their students as much as possible to attain their immutable destiny.  An exceptional educator at whatever level of schooling they teach at encompasses and frames for other a Catholic perspective of the world structure by reflection, prayer, action, service, teaching and sacramentality.  This is expressed and developed through the physical space, choice of activities, allocation of time, and the kind of relationships that are fostered.  The educator’s tools are the rich moral, artistic, scientific, spiritual and intellectual treasury of the Catholic church (see The Excellent Catholic Teacher).

The Gospel page of the parable of the ten virgins “The Kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.  Five of them were foolish and five were wise.  The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps.”  Jesus is talking about our spiritual preparation and conditioning.  The parable gives us some strong indications of what needs to be in place here and now.  We must not wait to be sure our lamp is lit and that we have plenty of oil.  It almost seems that the lethargy that affects young people today also concerns our civilisation, which has forgotten to live in waiting for our encounter with God.  More and more people lean towards secularism, stopped believing that the Lord is ever present in every moment of our lives and in which we must be watchful to recognise HIs signs, vigilantly listening for His call and be ready for action.

The numbness of our society manifests itself in forgetting the essentials of life and many idolise and to turn to new false god, innumerably propagated by commercial entities who are advocate and sell that false happiness that leaves only a bitter taste and disappointment.  In our youth today there seems to be an increasingly weak sense of personal responsibility, an extremely potent example is the increasing number of traffic accidents due to speeding, the use of drugs and alcohol where alcohol is cheeper than food and encouraged by the “buy one get one free” culture, without the slightest responsibility being taken by those who drive a vehicle carelessly and irresponsibly.

For this very reason today, I would like you all to look at Santa Rosalia’s austerity, her strong and decisive choices, to always remain conscious and wait to welcome her Lord in her daily and mystical meetings with him. I would like Santuzza to be the stimulus for all to become more responsible from now on, for all the occasions in our lives and situations in which the Lord has by his will placed us, to be prepared, to be aware, to be responsive and responsible.  A time, which in Christ has become kairos (right, critical, or opportune moment), an occasion for personal sanctification, which is one of the instruments that God’s mercy gives to us to enable us to reach him. It is a benefaction given to us, so much so that none of us can waste a single minute to our lives.  Therefore let us not waste it in that which does not lead us to the truth.

The occasions, the circumstances by which we always judge the positive or negative, depending on whether they correspond to our schemes or not, are in fact opportunities that the Lord offers us so that we can appreciate and love Him in everything.  From this stems or responsibility toward duty, to respond to the task to which we are called for the common good.  I wholeheartedly endorse it because it is worth it!  Doing your duty well is a requisite on account that through it one arrives at the realisation of one’s self, being fully content, which gives a credible witness to one’s encounter with God in the workplace, among our co-workers, often non-believers or like many just indifferent.  Santa Rosalia, adhering to the will of the Lord fulfilled her duty in such an exemplary manner as to be a model for us even today after so many centuries.

We must all make an effort and enter into and adopt a more authentic Gospel process of reasoning.  It teaches us that the place in which we have been placed by God’s will is primarily a service to be carried out for the common good of all, for a better, more humane world and for peaceful coexistence. The concept of service to the common good must be able to precede everything else and prevail over a mentality of profit and gain, for which we often selfishly work toward. This impoverishes us, it makes us petty and detaches us from the reality in which we are engulfed thus preventing us from seeing the face of Christ in our brother who is right next to us.

Everyone is invited to do his part.  However small or large, it is the part that belongs to each member of the Mystical Body of Christ which is the Church.  The essentiality of Santa Rosalia’s austere life shows us the responsibility with which we are called to bring our faith to life, to transfer the beauty of our encounter with Christ into our daily lives whilst walking among men.

And it will be one of the most beautiful pilgrimages ever undertaken. It will be the most significant one you have ever done, because it will enable you to reach the full significance of our existence and to prepare us for our heavenly goal which is the eternal Kingdom in which Santa Rosalia, together with the angels and saints, enjoys the face of God for eternity.  Surely that is what we all seek and desire?

I leave you all with my humble prayers and blessings, and ask for the intercession of Santa Rosalia to help you in your daily service for the common good.  In Jesus and Mary.  Amen

Translation of the Prayer to Santa Rosalia:

Oh admirable Santa Rosalia, who resolved to imitate within herself the most perfect image of Your only good, the Crucified Redeemer, you applied yourself to all the rigors of the most bitter penance in the solitude of a cavern, where you always delighted ‘to extol with vigils and fasts, the scourges which macerated your innocent flesh, a grace to us all the grace to always tame by the exercise of evangelical mortification all our rebellious appetites, and to always pasture our spiritual meditations the most devoted of those Christian truths, which alone can bring us true well-being in this life and eternal bliss in the other.  Pater, Ave and Gloria


Again, the claim of the apologetic that the Orthodox have always been unchanging — reproducing entire and purely the life of the primitive Church — does not stand up well to close examination. The Orthodox Liturgies do retain the early Church’s insistence on one altar only in each Church.  But otherwise, in general and in a host of details, their Liturgy and Office have undergone at least as many changes as the Western liturgy.

Approximately 50 years ago a rapid series of events has concentrated the attention of many Catholics on the Orthodox Church.  This widespread interest is something new.  After 1917 there grew up in most Western countries a diaspora of Russian Orthodox exiles.  This had several small-scale consequences.  It led to the rise of a few small Catholic groups dedicated to the study of the problem of reunion with the Orthodox — the Amay community, now at Monastère de l’Exaltation de la Sainte Croix in Chevetogne, Belgium, and, in England, Fr Bede Winslow and the other promoters of the Eastern Churches Quarterly.[1] There also appeared a small society of Anglicans and Orthodox, the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius.  There were a variety of reasons why numbers of High Anglican clergy should have become interested in the Orthodox. For one thing, intermittently, High Anglicans and Orthodox had had relations since the mid-seventeenth century. Behind these relations lay—at any rate, on the side of the Anglicans—a very genuine theological interest in a Church which seemed, from afar, to be a real remnant of that ‘Undivided Church’ of the first centuries which was the ideal of the Patristic scholars of the learned wing of High Anglicanism. There were also—on the side of the Orthodox—often political reasons for seeking relations. Both sides detested Rome. Subconsciously, High Anglicans felt that any measure of acceptance of them by the Orthodox would increase their ‘Catholic standing’. Hence, in the years between the wars, the Orthodox Liturgy was quite often celebrated in English in Anglican churches, a few Anglican ordinands stayed in Orthodox seminaries, and a large number of Orthodox national Churches (though not the Churches of Greece and Russia) pronounced rather ambiguously on the validity of Anglican Orders. 

The Orthodox exiles in contact with this Anglican movement soon developed a fruitful line of apologetic—especially Dr Zernov.[2] Put simply, this maintained that Orthodoxy represented alone the integral Catholicism of the early Church, a Church constituted by the sacraments and ‘right worship’ in the Eucharist. Through these the Holy Ghost creates and sustains ‘sobornost’,[3] a supernatural, interior unity of life and faith, out of which automatically flows true Christian living as a spontaneous love. In such a mystical view of the Church, there is little place for hierarchies, primacies, canon law, organised good works or missions. So, the apologetic ran, Western Christianity — Rome included — has all fallen away from ‘sobornost’ into a Pharisaical legalism, activism, materialism; all are alike ‘Protestants’ in this.  To High Anglican readers this apologetic offered multiple attractions.  Its extreme supernaturalism appealed at a time when the anti-Liberal reaction was strong.  It seemed to show that as Anglicans came more and more to share such an outlook, by the Orthodox theory of ‘economy’, their Orders would become progressively more and more valid — indeed, it by-passed the whole sterile problem of validity.  So also it by-passed the mass of problems about Scriptural exegesis — for, if Zernov were right, all that would be needed would be the living interior Tradition of the Church’s life.  Finally, it by-passed all problems about a primacy in the Church — for there could, on Zernov’s theory, be no such thing. Every Orthodox worshipping community at the Eucharist was mystically the whole Church; the Holy Ghost Himself and ‘sobornost’ could do without primacies or even Councils. 

The war brought into this country increased numbers of Orthodox and Eastern Catholics. But it also brought the first Anglican criticisms of the Zernov apologetic.  Closer acquaintance with Orthodoxy in the national Churches proved somewhat disconcerting.  In the first place, although it was true that Orthodoxy was through and through permeated with an otherworldly spirit remote from the normal atmosphere of Western Christian life, alongside that were very different features — an extreme complexity of rubrics and Canon Law, a positive pullulation of autocratic primacies, often locked in battle. From very early indeed in Eastern Church history, there existed very autocratic local patriarchal primacies claiming Divine and apostolic succession. Alongside them were the sweeping claims to Oecumenical or Universal Apostolic Primacy of the Patriarchs of Constantinople — the Second Rome —and Moscow — the Third Rome.  Alongside that were the claims of Caesar, first at Byzantium, then in Moscow, to be Head of the Church. Then there were the theories which gave practically complete ecclesiastical autonomy to national hierarchies — of the ‘autocephalous Churches’.[4]  It seemed that the Zernov theory of ‘sobornost’ and a mystical unity apart from all law and primacies had long roots back in Pan-Slavism,[5] and represented only one — an Opposition — strand in Orthodox ecclesiological thought, common amongst Orthodox exiles in history. 

Again, a closer study of early medieval history made the sweeping simplicity of the apologetic idea of a Papal, Western aggression on a peaceful and loving Orthodoxy seem dangerously misleading.  Western barbarous treatment of Orthodox in the earlier middle ages is undeniable, but there was also a far older Greek tradition of contempt for the West.  When the Eastern Emperors were strong they — like the Russian When the Eastern Emperors were strong they — like the Russian Emperors later — had no hesitations in imposing Eastern rites by force; when in control of Italy, the Byzantine Emperors imposed Greek Popes on Rome.  Greek polemic against the West never halted at a demand that each side should live and let live; on the contrary, the Greeks regarded Western rites and canons and beliefs as all suspect of heresy.  

Again, the claim of the apologetic that the Orthodox have always been unchanging — reproducing entire and purely the life of the primitive Church — does not stand up well to close examination. The Orthodox Liturgies do retain the early Church’s insistence on one altar only in each Church.  But otherwise, in general and in a host of details, their Liturgy and Office have undergone at least as many changes as the Western liturgy. The eikonostasis and the dialogue character of the Eastern Liturgy are no older than the distant altar and silent Canon of the West, and neither are primitive. In theology and in Church government, the Orthodox have undergone a long series of outside influences — of the Byzantine Imperial government, of Peter the Great’s establishment of the Synod, of influences from German Hegelian philosophy, Catholic theology and canon law, Lutheran and Calvinist theology.  We get an external impression of immense conservatism and antiquity when we look at Orthodoxy.  After all, it lives in ancient sites — although most often in late medieval or modern buildings.  Its clergy and people are obviously fanatically conservative — but what they conserve in detail is more often Byzantine or early modern fashion than ancient, and their conservatism is to a large degree bred out of the conditions of life under Turkish rule.  It is a commonplace of the Zernov apologetic that the East has not had — or needed — a Hildebrandine Reform, a Counter-Reformation. But this is misleading — since the Orthodox have known many crises, many mass-schisms and apostasies, many black periods of collapse and many spiritual revivals. 

Lastly, there is the undoubted fact that theological and Patristic and Biblical studies are at low ebb amongst the Orthodox; that the religious life is passing through a very severe crisis indeed amongst them, and is at its lowest point so far in history … and this at a time when the challenge of the Oecumenical Movement and the challenge of the coming of Western technology and all its social and religious consequences to the Near East are both confronting the Orthodox inexorably.  As traditional patterns of life change, as Communism and modern materialism sweep over the Near East, there is grave danger that the Orthodox clergy will have no resources to meet the threat but a retreat into mysticism, the liturgical life and obscurantism.  This will not hold the masses and — infinitely more important — is a sub-Christian response to the challenge.  In all this the Orthodox have an immense amount to learn from a West which they still basically regard as barbarous and inferior.  The belated and still adolescent movements in the Greek Church to revitalise catechetics, to adapt the monastic life, to establish a living theology, Patristics and Biblical theology have not got very far. What is badly needed is that Orthodoxy should produce real philosophers — instead of accepting on ecclesiastical authority a stale amalgam of Neo-Platonism and German Hegelianism; that they should produce real exegesis, instead of catenae [6] of the exegetical opinions of Byzantine theologians; that they should produce a living Patristics, instead of treating the Greek Fathers — seen exclusively through the spectacles of Byzantine, or even nineteenth-century Russian, theological comment — as mines of proof texts; that they should appreciate that the great Greek Fathers were themselves far more rationally-minded than they imagine, far less sure that they themselves were the last word in wisdom, conscious that they were caught up in many local controversies of their day. 

Unfortunately these frank criticisms of Greek Orthodoxy were voiced by few, and the Zernov line in apologetics remained very influential. But now, in rapid succession, have come the joining of the World Council of Churches by the Orthodox (and who shall say how far political and national motives influenced this move, and how far the urgings of the European and American Orthodox exiles?), the appearance of Orthodox observers at the Vatican Council, the imminence of Catholic-Orthodox theological conversations, the meeting of the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople.  Simultaneously the great movement for theological, liturgical and ‘governmental’ self-criticism and renewal has been fairly launched in the Catholic Church.  This, in its turn, has brought an immensely strong and realistic desire for reunion.  On our side many barriers between us and the Orthodox have fallen.  But what sign is there of any similar movement on the other side? 

Two old books by Orthodox in the West give us someindication of a change of heart — operating very slowly.  The first, The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware, an English convert to Orthodoxy, obviously owes very much to Zernov apologetic.[7]  Its view of the history of Catholic-Orthodox relations is still controversial and superficial. But these defects pale into insignificance before the positive virtues of the book.  It is frank about the present realities of Orthodox life (except perhaps in Russia).  In the sections on reunion with Rome, it recognises plainly how unprepared the national autocephalous Churches are for theological dialogue and how much they have to learn from the West.  The second book, The Primacy of Peter: essays in Ecclesiology and the Early Church, by four Orthodox theologians, reveals clearly how impoverished their exegesis of Scripture, Patristics and theology are. When dealing with Scripture, the authors have no body of modern Orthodox scientific exegesis to depend on, but are forced to improvise or quote Byzantine authors, late nineteenth-century Russian manuals or modern Western works by Catholics and Protestants.  Much the same is true in Patristics and theology.  In general they fail to come to grips with the problem of primacy in the Church.  They admit that Orthodox theological tradition knows, de facto, of a multiplicity of conflicting views on the Roman Primacy and on primacy in the Church in general — but that Byzantine and Greek and Russian theological writers have almost never risen beyond blank statement or polemics when treating of this.  Most of the authors of the book take refuge in ‘sobornost’ — the self-sufficient local worshipping community — and condemn outright any search for a ‘universal ecclesiology’ as materialism, Western Protestant activism and legalism; indeed, as exiles, they would equally condemn the theory of the autonomous authority of patriarchs, heads of autocephalous Churches, Synods.  But in two of the essays— by Fr. Nikolay N. Afanasiev († 4 Dec. 1966) and Fr. Alexander D. Schemann († 13 Dec. 1983) — there is a partial admission that perhaps a Roman primacy, exercised as a general superintendence in love without any fixed theological definition or canonical status, has a genuine place in ‘Orthodox tradition’.[8]

Complementing these books in many ways is The Eastern Churches and Catholic Unity, a series of papers by Catholic Melkite Eastern bishops.[9]. Three subjects—closely related ones — are dealt with; the whole problem of reunion with the Orthodox as seen by Eastern Catholics, the Vatican Council and Melkite objections to Western Catholic ignorance of Eastern ways and theology.  The book begins rather curiously with a very trenchant survey of the problem of adjusting the West to union with the East — a survey simply headed ‘Publisher’s Note’.  Two things are particularly impressive in this remarkable book.  The first is the vigour and clarity with which it pleads that the renewal of life in the Western Church is integrally bound up with reunion with the Orthodox.  In effect it extracts from the Zernov thesis its truth and leaves aside its errors.  The West has much to learn from the East — a sense of proportion about Church government, about the liturgy, about the position of the laity.  The existence of the Catholic Eastern Churches and of the Orthodox diaspora in the West (of which Patriarch Athenagoras († 7 Jul. 1972) of Constantinople was a member) had been Providential.  The second remarkable feature of the book consists not so much in what it says as in how the book is written.  In its vigour, theological and historical clarity it contrasts strikingly with the formalism and hesitancy of the Orthodox essays in The Primacy of Peter.  In this, it is a clear example of the benefits for an Eastern Church of being in living communion with the Catholic Church of the West. 

Continue reading “‘THE ORTHODOX CHURCH’”

The Trinity and Worship

Trinity 3

IT is proverbial that we are sometimes blindest of all to the most familiar things: the old house, the cherished walk, the parks and gardens where we are accustomed to while away the hours.  Like good friends they do not need the reassurance of a long and searching scrutiny. We are at home with them and can find our way about them. Anything more is for the visitor, the dilettante, the tourist. 

This is especially so regarding religious matters.  We have staked our claim here, and have wandered in and out since childhood. Here most of all we have our home. It is almost inevitable as a consequence that here we can be blindest of all. 

Let us take the most sacred moment in our daily worship and describe it as though to a stranger. 

‘The bell rings for the consecration’, as we say. The priest bows down upon the altar as though he were trying to seclude himself from the people and their concerns.  The congregation stops its coughing, and feet-scrapings and bead-rattlings, and each member of it gradually becomes a little pool of silence.  For each of them is waiting, waiting alone and solitary, so it seems.  But for what?  For something to adore.  After the first bell all the eyes are raised, eyes like those of children about to look upon their parents’ gift until now hidden from them.  This is what they were waiting for, the Host, the white Wafer under which their God lies hid. The priest has done his work unfailingly as he always does, and the object of adoration is presented to those reverent eyes.  So many lips murmur softly to themselves the words that confess the Lord’s divinity and his real presence, ‘My Lord and my God’. For many the main part is over.  They have seen their Lord.  They have gained their indulgence.  The chalice contains and yet hides the Precious Blood.  They look at it when raised, for that is what some missals direct them to do. ‘Look at the chalice’, they are told, ‘and then bow down to adore the Blood of Christ.’  But the Blood moves the people less for the simple reason that they cannot see It. 

The coughing checked in masterly fashion for the few moments of the adoration returns harsher than ever for a little while, but then gentler, more reverent. So it is with the shuffling feet and the dangling beads. The congregation is now in the presence of God. What better sign of his presence could the Lord have given to his elect than this Host, white and pure and radiant, even its shape — circular, and so without beginning and end—betokening divinity? 

No reader, I suppose, would either query the general accuracy of this description or fail to be somewhat saddened at the deficiencies in the appreciation of the Mystery that it betrays. 

Our people, in the main, give little more than notional assent to the Eucharist as a sacrifice.  The Mass is thought of sometimes as Benediction with rather different rubrics. We must admit that our laity often do not know what it means when they are told that they should be offering with the priest. 

I want to suggest that the real reason for this lack of comprehension is that there is no practical understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity.  Because many people’s whole spirituality is directed to Christ as God it is seriously lacking in many respects. Christian prayer is not only prayer in which our Lord figures but in which he figures as Mediator.  Our people are praying with great piety and zeal, so much so that we are inclined to forget that it is not always according to knowledge.  For they do not know practically that ‘through him (Christ) we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father’. 

They do not offer, then, with the priest because the priest is offering to the Father and they are unaccustomed to thinking of prayer as directed to the Father.  When the priest raises his hands at the altar they take it for granted that he is just giving them a view of the Host so they can adore It.  After all, the priest used to have his back to them and had to raise the Host high for them to see.  They cannot—and perhaps with every justification cannot — recognise this elevation as a sacrificial attitude because the priest does not raise his hands in any case until the words of consecration are completed.  No wonder they think the priest’s task is wholly separate from, and antecedent to, their own. The habit they have acquired of bowing down accentuates their seeming exclusion from the sacrifice.  For no outside observer would think this ostrich-like behaviour symbolic of an attitude of sacrifice. Hands raised high to heaven, yes, that would be fitting, hands outstretched, eyes held aloft, that would indeed be a sign of an oblation to the heavenly Father.  This general collapse over the benches certainly is not. 

As for the Host Itself on which they concentrate in affection almost entirely, it would be something if they could recognise It as bread.  As it is, It may satisfy their aesthetic sense but It is scarcely calculated to remind them that they are hungry.  They feel the proper attitude is, as before, adoration, so that Communion as a habit appears to some to be rather overdoing the familiarity.  We should emphasise to them that the Eucharistic bread is not a symbol of Christ’s divinity but of his flesh and we were meant to hunger after it: the very condition of salvation is feeding on that flesh in faith and in the Eucharist. When our people do not know this effectively, they are quite content with their adoration. The Family’s bread remains undistributed, and nobody seems to be hungry . . . 

To offer the doctrine of the Trinity as a remedy to much of this is not like offering any kind of cheap panacea.  We were baptised into the Trinity.  The Trinity lives in each of us.  Each Person is personally united to each of us.  It is the Trinity that is the home of all our wanderings.  It must be obvious that our life of worship should be centred on the Trinity as Trinity. 

We cannot go on with the pastoral neglect of this doctrine without, unconsciously at least, erecting many barriers to true devotion. To be able to pray to the Father in the name of Jesus is the very meaning of the Incarnation. For Christ is our Mediator with the Father. It is through him that we have access to the Father in the Spirit. 

The ordinary Catholic, if asked, might fail to see what all the commotion is about.  He only knows that there are three Persons in God and that God the Son became man and suffered and died for us. In worshipping Christ we are worshipping God.  Isn’t that enough? 

Naturally, we know it isn’t.  Not only is it not enough but it is a dangerous dilution of the revealed word of God.  But the mistake is easily made, for their priests and teachers do not, for the most part, present them with any richer Trinitarian doctrine. 

The objection of the layman comes down to asking this fundamental question: ‘Does it really mean very much to say that the Father is God, the Son is God, and yet the Father is not the Son?’  If it means nothing at all we would be justified in addressing our prayer, as many do, uniquely to the Son.  It is because that question is meaningful — in fact, is in the deepest sense of all meaningful — that it is not sufficient to pray to ‘Jesus because he is God’.  And it is not sufficient simply because he is not the Father.  Christianity is not the creed in which God is seen to be our Father, but in which God the Father is seen to be our Father.  We are not just sons of God, therefore, but sons in the Son.  The whole of our Christian life is a share in the Sonship of the Son, a participation, on our own level, of that eternal relationship of Son to Father. 

To say, ‘Isn’t it enough to pray to Christ as God?’ turns out to be as curious a question as asking, ‘Wasn’t Christ praying to himself since he was praying to God his Father and he himself was God?’  We might ask with equal impropriety, ‘Didn’t God the Father become man, since the Son did so and he was God?’ 

Too often our people pray as if it were not the Son who came in our flesh, as if he had never revealed the Father to us or sent us his Spirit. 

The divinity of our Lord is central to Christian belief; and yet its over-emphasis, that is, the emphasis on it to the distortion of the context in which we were meant to see it in God’s plan, has obstructed our insight into the divine economy.  It has made us forget that the temporal economy of salvation mirrors forth the eternal relations, that through the Incarnation, Passion and Glorification of the Son we, too, were meant to be caught up with him, parcelled up in him, share his Sonship, and so pass with him into the full condition of being God’s sons. 

The strange thing is that praying to Christ almost exclusively has made us even forget the role of Incarnation.  For the Word was made flesh to be our Mediator with the Father — not just an intermediary between God and men.  For ‘he is the Mediator of the New Testament: that by means of his death … they that are called may receive the promise of eternal inheritance, in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Hebrews 9:14-15). 

To pray to the Father is necessarily to keep Christ ever in our minds for it is only in him that we can approach the Father at all.  The Word was made flesh that suffering and dying for us he might bring us in himself to the Father.  He accomplished this in his Spirit.  The Spirit who is the mutual Love of Father and Son is given to us as a Gift.  The Spirit is not a substitute or a replacement for Christ since Christ’s gift of the Spirit is also his own return.  ‘And I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Paraclete, that he may abide with you for ever. …  I will not leave you orphans, I will come to you.’ (John 14: 16,18).  So the Spirit’s task is to make Christ’s spiritual presence and power — for Christ by his Resurrection has become a living spirit — effectual in the world.  The Spirit’s task is to make effective Christ’s mediation, so that through Christ we may be reconciled to the Father, and in Christ glorify the Father. 

In our almost exclusive approach to Christ as God, then, we tend to lose the whole force of Incarnation for we are treating the Son as though he were the Father. We let slip from view the role of Christ’s humanity and move away automatically from a sacramental conception of our faith which is the correct one.  Moreover, there is scarcely room for the Spirit at all.  If the Father is dimly there in the background of our prayer (as one to whom Christ is to lead us after our deaths!), the Spirit simply does not seem to fit in comfortably anywhere.  In our odd moments when the thought strikes us we realise very forcibly that the Spirit is also God, and address a few unintegrated invocations to him, hoping that this will make up for our long bouts of unaccountable neglect. 

The remedy for all these difficulties is simple.  It is to obey the injunction of Christ: ‘When you pray, say, our Father’.  To address the Father is to know in an experimental way that we can only approach through the merits of the Son, and in the Spirit who makes Christ’s redemptive work operative in us.  All our prayers become summaries of our Christian faith. They become ‘homely’ for Father, Son and Spirit come to us and make their abode with us.  The very word ‘Father’ has about it all those proper resonances that should belong to it. 

The attitude at Mass which was outlined above is only the symptom of a deep disquietude, and of a far – reaching maladjustment, in our worship, to Trinitarian doctrine.  The effects are there in our secret prayer to God as well. 

Praying to the Father does not mean that we must never pray directly to the Spirit or to Jesus.  This would be contrary to the teaching of the Church and to her experience of God as expressed in many parts of the liturgy.  We have been talking about an emphasis. Prayer to the Father which Pius XII called the ‘normal’ procedure helps to remind us that we do not and cannot pray alone.  It is always through Christ and with Christ that we speak to God.  Jesus is our Mediator, so that prayer is a chorus, an ensemble, a community affair. And the habit of speaking exclusively to Christ as God makes us feel unbearably the lack of a Mediator.  We experience a kind of loneliness of approach that should be quite alien to the Christian spirit. 

Jesus becoming the end of our supplications, we find ourselves alone, without merits, and we look around for mediators to help us. We choose our Lady above all for this role.  Now I do not deny that in a most genuine and special sense our Lady is our intercessor.  But she is not the ‘Mediator of the New Testament’.  In practice the neglect of Trinitarian doctrine and the almost unique direction of prayer to Christ as God has tended to make us put our Lady in place of Christ in our approach to God.  This should not be so.  Protestants are very wrong in thinking that for Catholics it must be so.  Let us just admit in all honesty that for too many Catholics it simply is so. 

No Catholic would dream of attributing divinity to our Lady. Newman was clearly correct in thinking that anybody who makes such an accusation betrays his own Arianism.  It means that he does not know what divinity is, if he thinks that the honours paid to Mary are divine honours which ought to be reserved for Christ. 

Might it not be, however, that often what Protestants are really getting at and yet expressing so badly is that the practice of many Catholics in fact is opposed, by reason of the role given to Mary, to the apostolic injunction, namely, to pray to the Father through Christ. Devotion to our Lady must fit into the latter scheme and not supplant it.  When a true harmony is achieved there is a resultant warmth about traditionally Catholic worship which is lacking in Protestantism as such.  But it does no harm and will perhaps do much good to admit that sometimes Protestants have a much deeper sensitivity to the structural aspects of Christian doctrine than have many Catholics. 

Lastly, on the subject of our secret prayer to God, we see that we can only become humble when our prayer is Trinitarian, for it is in Christ that we are led to the Father.  If God were to take our present mode of prayer seriously one wonders if we should be heard at all, for we are speaking to Christ as God unaided.  We are praying, that is, as if failure or success were uniquely dependent on us.  But to pray through the merits of Christ is always to be heard because it becomes the prayer of the well-beloved Son who is always heard for his reverence.  ‘Hitherto you have not asked any thing in my name. Ask, and you shall receive; that your joy may be full.’ (John 16:24). When we experience darkness and desolation in prayer, therefore, it is not as if our voices cannot pierce the heavens.  For our supplications are simultaneously on the lips of Christ in whom we are incorporated, and who has already passed beyond the heavens. Not only is all liturgy heavenly liturgy, but all prayer is heavenly prayer. All this is a source of consolation. 

The central action of the Mass, that most familiar of familiar things, has revealed to us by our description of it a crucial neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity.  This neglect has led insensibly to mistaken emphases in many other areas of faith. And it is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise. 

“Father, help us to pray as your Son taught us to pray and grant us even now to live in humble and loving obedience to your will. Through the merits of the same Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Spirit for ever and ever.  Amen.”