PRESCRIPT: As a theology student and ministry candidate, I and a group of other students had the very great privilege of spending a week at the Benedictine monastery located at the little town of New Norcia, Western Australia, sharing their lives as they sang the seven Offices of the day, as well as working on assignments and projects for our theological studies. This was a deeply privileged and grace-filled time, enabling us to tap into the rich and ancient traditions of Benedictine spirituality, undergirt as they are by the Rule of Benedict, which provides a shape and a purpose for the monks’ daily lives. Part of the students’ assessment criteria was the compilation of a journal; not a blow-by-blow account of the week spent at the Abbey, but a reflection upon the experience itself, its impact and meaning. For my journal, I composed a series of short poems (with introductions) as a kind of impressionistic survey of my thoughts and feelings. As with my short play “The Victim”, it was one of the few assessment tasks I could approach as a creative project.
A Fat Man’s Reaction To New Norcia – Introduction
This was the first poem I wrote in reaction to New Norcia, and reflects one of my first impressions: the narrowness of the doorways into the guest house and common room area, which were usually half closed, and required me to step sideways through them (while breathing in at the same time!). So the tone of this poem is intended to be deliberately comic.
But there is a more serious undertone in that the monastic life is often referred to as the “narrow path”, or as entering the Kingdom of God through the “narrow doorway”. And so the comic metaphor of the narrow doors at New Norcia also comes to represent the difficulties and challenges of the monastic life, as well as the struggles of faith and wrestling with questions of vocation. But it also attempts to capture, through the overabundance-poverty dichotomy, the theme that we deliberately place hurdles and obstacles between ourselves and God, for all that we may hunger for a spiritually fulfilled life. Hence the narrowness of the doorway is often of our own making.
A Fat Man’s Reaction to New Norcia
Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset.
(Rule of Benedict, Prologue: 48)
They must be taking the piss!
All these narrow doors
at that. It’s not as if
we’re in the cloister here;
no monk’s domain this
these narrow doors!
these narrow ways!
Patience, the Saint said. Do not fear or fret
if at first the way is thin.
All well and good
if you want to be a monk;
just passing through.
are these Benedictines, that their God
told them to build houses
just the starved and poor can break into?
I’m too well off
of stolen fruit
of this place.
Perhaps Friar Tuck
was a lousy Benedictine, too;
or maybe just another balding slob,
holding captive a starved and
pining for God.
Vigils – Introduction
From my own perspective, the two Offices that had the greatest impact on me were Vigils and Lauds, the first two Offices of the day. The fact that both were conducted early in the morning – Vigils while it was still dark, Lauds as dawn was rising – seemed to me to especially tap into the sense of “mysterious presence” that contemplative spirituality has always invoked: the presence of God in absence, in stillness, in silence. So these were the two Offices that touched me the deepest, left me with the greatest sense of the power of the contemplative life.
However, there was also an element of difficulty, in which making the effort to attend these Offices was hard work. This was also bound up with the hour of the morning in which they were held; and Vigils was especially onerous in this respect. This was brought home to me during a conversation with Brother Bernard in which he said: “I hate getting up early in the morning, and I’ve hated it for fifty years!”. This illustrated a powerful reality: the life of the monastic community is by no means an easy or comfortable life; that it requires dedication, persistence, and commitment. In short, a true vocation to the hardships and inconveniences involved. It is why this poem is dedicated to Brother Bernard.
But it was this very fact of hardship, and of the profound commitment of the monks to this hardship, that ultimately made this Office one of my personal highlights of the visit to New Norcia. That the monks of the community – every day – arise, as it were, before the rest of the world to pray for the world I found deeply moving. It seems to me that there is an incarnational, embodied ministry occurring in this Office; a ministry of taking up a burden, a hardship, on behalf of, and for the sake of, the rest of humanity.
I have tried to capture these sentiments in this poem.
for Father Bernard
Stumbling from our beds
catching breath in shock at cold
we curse the bell that calls us
from our rest
and thus to prayer.
to be awake when the world –
at least, the world in this hemisphere –
is still asleep!
And yet we rest assured,
knowing that we sleep while monks
absurd in their absurd ritual
bless the night
and consecrate the dawn;
setting up the day
on struts we cannot see
hold us in their love.
Lauds – Introduction
In the Introduction to the poem for Vigils, I have indicated why the Vigils and Lauds Offices were, for me, the most powerful and engaging of all the daily Offices we shared during the New Norcia trip. However, the Office of Lauds had its own grace, which came about quite by accident.
From the outset, I had decided that with each Office, I would sit on the opposite side of the chapel on which I had sat during the previous Office. I did so in order to experience being on “different sides” of the various responsive prayers and psalmodies that made up each of the Offices. And it so happened that during the group’s first Lauds session, I was seated on that side of the chapel that provided a view of the breaking dawn through the windows. Despite there being not much to see, it was a beautiful sight: the gradually lightening sky that ended in a crescendo-like sunburst; and the dark silhouetted branches of a tree outside that by its very darkness made the rising dawn all the more apparent. I was so taken with the sight that, for each subsequent Lauds, I broke the pattern of swapping sides; I would sit on the same side of the chapel at Lauds just so that I could see the sun rising.
However, with each subsequent Lauds, a sense of dissatisfaction, of disappointment began to creep into my consciousness. The sunrise was always beautiful, and on an aesthetic level, I was always stirred by its loveliness; but somehow it always seemed diminished, lesser than what it was the first time I had experienced it. Then, on the day before our departure from New Norcia, it occurred to me – I am tempted to say “dawned” on me! – that what was missing was not my appreciation of the beauty of sunrise, but my understanding that what I was looking for was a kind of “false dawn”. It was as though I was looking at the metaphor and not the reality to which it pointed; that the splendour of the dawn sky was but a reflection of the splendour of the “light” within the chapel, the “world without end” which Christ enacted, and which the Office commemorated.
And so, for the final Lauds of the trip, I broke my pattern again: I sat on the side of the chapel facing away from the rising dawn, hoping to catch something of “the greater Light” to which I refer in this poem.
Fed and fuelled
we step with lighter feet to Lauds;
we let the psalmody
wash back and forth.
But my eyes have strayed
beyond the text
the window where
etched against the sky
a darkened silhouette
trees announce the coming dawn.
out the dark
the Sun comes
summoned by the psalms of monks
whose lowered eyes
adore a greater Light:
world without end, Amen.
New Norcia Ikon – Introduction
In some respects, this is the most personal of all the poems.
I came across the ikon in the New Norcia gift store, and was immediately drawn to it, even though there were other – arguably better – ikons on the shelf of the Virgin and of Christ. But the boldness of the colours drew my eye initially, and then the imagery of the ikon spoke very powerfully to me. St George slaying the dragon did not seem to me to be a romantic story only tangentially associated with the Christian faith; at that moment, and in association with my experience of the lectio divina session dealt with by the poem relating to it, the notion of having dragons to slay seemed especially apt.
This may seem contradictory given the lectio divina session produced a sense of allowing the weeds to grow with the wheat, trusting that, through the process of faith, the negative won’t destroy the positive; but what this ikon spoke to was the element of contest or struggle which the weeds/wheat metaphor alluded to. The weeds won’t simply disappear or not overrun the wheat by being ignored; they had to be contended with, struggled against, kept from becoming rampant. And that is what this ikon seemed to be saying; George was not so much slaying (as in, permanently divesting himself of) the dragon, as encountering and subduing. The final slaying belongs to God; in the meantime, we are commissioned by faith to engage with the dragon and struggle against it.
But this struggle is not just in the negative sense of suppressing our vices and appetites; rather, it is about the struggle that is faith itself, that is the engagement and encounter of faith with which we must wrestle constantly. And so the ikon is ultimately hopeful and encouraging; through its focus the struggle can always be renewed, even after a mistake or a lapse. The point is to try, to engage and contend.
And it is in this call to contention that we are “chosen”. Christ was the Chosen One, the Messiah. We are “chosen”, not because we are god-like, but precisely the opposite: because our struggle is the struggle for humility, to overcome the conceit that our imago dei confers upon us any “godliness”. On the contrary, we are made in God’s image because God wishes to engage us, to join with us in relationship; and so our struggle is to resist the temptation to turn our backs upon that invitation, to imagine that our capacity for creation and destruction means we can exist without God. The dragon is the dragon of pride and brokenness; and the “slaying” is not the triumph of conquest, but the durability of hope and faith.
New Norcia Ikon
A person never chooses an ikon; the ikon always chooses the person.
Did I choose you – or you me?
Did you know I was the One
from the moment of your birth
the moment when the grains of wood
mixed with paint
and gave you form?
Did you wait patiently on shelves
in cargo holds
on shop displays
after years and months
and weeks and days
I’d be along?
Did you gleam anew
through years and ages shining
drawing your Chosen One to you?
My eye and hand reaching like a lover
for the loved
saw not dust but sanctity
not age nor faded shades
but only truth. All the fear and need –
the battles to be fought,
the dragons to be slain –
these your image captured in a glance.
Was it then you went to work
articulating every prayer
your Chosen had for God
but could not speak?
And in your silent prayerfulness
wood and coloured pigment
– ikon writing –
did you speak:
healing, bridging Void
bringing your fallen Chosen One
closer to God?
A Lectio Divina Communion – Introduction
If there was one particular moment in the New Norcia trip that was a “standout” or “highlight” moment, it was the session of lectio divina reading and prayer which Abbot John shared with the group. I have practiced lectio divina reading in a group setting before, but never with such effect and power; and I think this was due largely to Abbot John’s stewardship of the session, and his own deep understanding of, and immersion in, lectio divina as a discipline within the contemplative life. Hence this poem is dedicated to him.
The evolution of this poem is complex, and I’m not sure I completely understand the process by which it came about. The poem begins with words which formed part of the prayer I shared with the group during the prayer period at the end of the lectio divina session, and which were themselves inspired by the reading that Abbot John used (and which form the epigram to the poem). The use of “soul” in the negative sense in the poem stems from impressions I formed from the Scriptural reading during the lectio divina process: the passage referring to the “enemy” suggested the enemy within myself or that was myself – my weaknesses, my failings, my derelictions; but the passage in which the weeds are allowed to grow up alongside the wheat suggested the passage from the Rule of Benedict in which the members of monastic communities are counselled to bear with one another’s failings with patience and generosity. So there was a sense of “soul” engaged in a dual process: of the negative, even destructive attributes of our being counterpoised against a generosity and forbearance that enables the “wheat of God’s love” to grow in us, despite our brokenness and failings.
And I think this is where the connection/crossover to Communion occurs. Wheat, of course, suggests bread, which suggests Eucharist. And Eucharist embodies and remembers the ultimate crossover: the human-and-divine Christ who was Jesus of Nazareth, bridging the void of alienation and breaking the power of sin and death. But this is also the purging that occurs at the end of this passage from Matthew’s Gospel: in judgement we are not condemned but redeemed, made whole and fully, properly human through unification with God in Christ. The weeds are destroyed (not individuals but that which destroys our humanity) and the wheat harvested, resulting in the full fruits of salvation.
A Lectio Divina Communion
for Abbot John
…an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him: “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered: “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him: “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied: “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest…”
(Matthew 13: 25-30, NRSV)
The wheat of God’s love…
These words I pray
hoping that God will harvest in me
the fruits of faith:
the ears of grain that feed not mouths
but only the gnawing hunger
we know as soul.
which reaches out to God
to consume with hungry mouth
the bread of life
the breath of all creation
the wine of blood sacrifice.
which cannibalises heart and mind
leaving just the gristle of our days
to chew upon like cud.
I used to pluck up weeds and
munch the stem
for the tang of foreign flesh:
cellulose and chlorophyll
plant and Sun solidified.
in the quiet of monkish chant
in the still silence of an ever-present Ghost
my soul sticks out its tongue to take
this small wafer of Love
this tiny seed of hope.
Black Crosses – Introduction
This poem recalls a particularly moving moment when Abbot John was showing the group through the enclosed area of the monastery, and was escorting us through the monks’ refectory; at one of the spaces at the dining table was a small black cross, which Abbot John explained was placed in memoriam of a member of the community who had died recently. Whenever a member of the community dies, a cross is placed at their space at the table for a period of thirty days as part of the mourning process. Abbott John recalled that at one stage earlier in the year, there had been two crosses at the table, marking the closely occurring deaths of two members of the community; for such a close-knit and small community, this represented an especially difficult period of loss and grief.
This poem touches on those issues of loss and suffering, drawing on Walter Bruggemann’s exegesis of Genesis as well as the experience of Job to explore the theme of pain inflicted by love, and how in the wounding that results hope nonetheless also rises. The crosses are thus both reminders of loss and symbols of mourning for the departed, as well as pointers toward hope, for the Cross leads to resurrection, that hope which surpasses even the totality of death.
Every contact leaves a trace.
Poignant in their silent speech
small black crosses mark the place
where souls now stilled
gentled time and space:
soul-shaped holes filled with memories.
(Who feeds the soul, nourishes with grace
that part of us that touches God
wrestling at Peniel
the One who wounded him with love
and broke his hip?
filing suit against the LORD
of Joy: that strange light
filled with pain and peace
that strikes and shatters us
and slips away
leaving us the trace of hope
Poignant in their silent speech
small black crosses mark the place
where souls given up to God
rest in peace:
soul-shaped holes, love’s blessing/mystery.
Codex Vaticanus – Introduction
This poem recalls, what was for me, one of the most delightful events of the whole trip: an escorted visit with Father David to the monks’ library to view the facsimile copies of the Codex Vaticanus, which form part of the monastery’s collection. The facsimiles date from the early 1800s; but for me, the real interest in these documents relates to the fact that, along with the Codex Sinaiticus, the original CV is the earliest known collection of texts of what was to become the canonical Bible. The New Norcia copies take the form of eight folio volumes; and the facsimile reproduced the original with all its lacunae and other manuscript features. But the most fascinating aspect of the text was the fact that the script was written (in Greek) without breaks or punctuation to distinguish words, phrases, or sentences from one another. I wondered what it must have been like to have had to read this text aloud, never mind silently to one’s self!
But the pleasure of this experience was heightened by the fact of Father David’s generosity which enabled us to see these documents; for only the day before, as the whole group was being shown through the monks’ enclosure by Abbot John, we had encountered Father David as we left the reading room; and he had looked none-too-pleased to see us traipsing through what was, afterall, part of his and the other monks’ home. And yet later that same day, a conversation with Father David had lead to his unhesitating offer to show us the copies of the Codex. To me, it was an extension of the unstinting hospitality we had been shown the whole time, the hospitality which in the Rule of Benedict calls the monks to view all strangers as Christ.
This poem is dedicated to Father David for extending that hospitality to us.
for Father David
I know it’s not really real:
a copy, a facsimile made
fourteen hundred years
after the date.
But to have
this book beneath my hands –
it’s touch, it’s feel, it’s shape –
oh, the joy, the rapture of the thing!
There the text.
line on line
word merging into word.
Phrase conspires with phrase to confuse
to reduce Scripture
to a stream of consciousness.
In the beginning was the Word.
but this ancient text
lacunae where time and rising damp
punch holes in thought;
perhaps it’s just the middle ground
where we and God
standing face to face
at what the other’s wrought.
Profession (of Faith) – Introduction
This is the poem which I shared with the group on the final morning of the New Norcia trip – the poem which, in many respects, sums up the essence of my experience of the community and conveys the pre-eminent image of the monastic life which formed in my mind.
The title is deliberately ambiguous. It can either be read as a statement (“profession of faith”) or as a title with a subtitle (“profession: of faith”). This reflects both the commitment to a verity that is involved in any profession of faith, but also the ambiguity of that verity given the limitedness of human comprehension – there are some things which we cannot “know” are true, which we literally have to accept as matters of faith.
The subtitle “of monks and vocation” further reflects this ambiguity, because it seems that vocation involves commitment to the very uncertainty and contingency that faith embraces. But it also touches on the strange duality of human nature: the isolation of our individuality over/against the social and communal nature of our being. This was reinforced by the observation of one of the monks that communal life in a monastery was not a cozy, secluded club; it was to be thrown together with other people with whom one often does not get along, and with whom relationship is difficult. In that respect, monastic life was much like family life: we can choose our friends, but not our families; and in both monasteries and families, the relationships that result are things that have to be worked through.
And it is in this context that personal loneliness arises: the sense of being in a community and yet isolated. All human beings are called to a certain loneliness, the isolation that is their unique and unreproducible experience of life. But vocation itself – whether the vocation of faith, or work, or ordination – also involves a loneliness, a “setting aside” that can be shared with others, and yet which is impossible for others to completely enter into and “know”. And yet it is by this loneliness that we are brought into community: we are the communion of the lonely, the isolated, the alienated. And it is in this communion that Christ meets us, overcoming the ultimate alienation of sin and death; but also, through faith and the koinonia of faith, overcoming our existential loneliness.
Profession (of Faith)
of monks and vocation
I’m always separate and apart.
There are hints
suggestions of fellowship:
but always the wall
the coming in between.
We are who we are.
it’s hard not to feel lonely
now and then
to look up at the stars –
far apart in time and space
but patterned nonetheless –
and envy them their congregation.
once in a while
rare and precious
sacred luminosity conspires
brings the cosmic loneliness together,
gathered in His name –
and makes them One.
 Bruggemann, Walter, Genesis, Interpretation Bible Commentary Series, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982, p.260-274
(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.