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Seeing Holy Mass with Benedictine Eyes

Our Lord in His generosity has given the Church many wonderful “schools of spirituality” nurtured within the great religious orders. While ultimately all of these schools are in harmony with each other (otherwise they could not be considered Catholic!), each one approaches the spiritual life, the virtues, the practice of the Faith, devotions, apostolate, etc., with different emphases and accents.

It could be said that each of these schools has something essential to teach us about our spiritual life and indeed about the Mass itself. In this series, I will offer a sort of running commentary on the parts and aims of the Holy Mass as its different aspects resonate in different schools of spirituality: Benedictine, Carmelite, Dominican, Franciscan, and Jesuit. Do not expect a full summary of a given school of spirituality; that would take an entire volume and has been done already by saintly religious who are more qualified to do it than I am. Here my purpose is more modest: to illuminate the Mass from five different angles, showing how it can be seen as a prism through which the white light of Christ bursts forth into the spectrum of all the different schools.

We begin, then, with the Benedictines.

The unofficial motto of the Order of Saint Benedict is ora et labora. This is a rule for the whole of life. Benedictines faithful to their Rule are well-known for the beautiful balance of their lives: they know how to balance work and prayer, the bodily and the spiritual, the manual and the intellectual, the exterior and the interior; they know how to balance the individual and the social, as well. Prayer is like breathing in, taking in God’s grace; and work is like breathing out, using the gifts He gives us to build His kingdom in the world. Ora et labora. Or like the pulse of our circulatory system: the blood returns to the heart to be oxygen­ated, and is then pumped out into the rest of the body, to bring the oxygen where it’s needed. Saint Pio of Pietrelcina once remarked: “Prayer is the oxygen of the soul.” We, too, in our souls, need to return to the heart, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to be renewed by His grace; and when this has happened, we are then able to be sent forth to the rest of the members of His Mystical Body, to serve their needs.

Ora et labora. We give ourselves to God, in the Mass, in public prayer, in private prayer; and He gives us the strength to go out and work. And we find that the more earnestly we strive to serve Him in everything we do, the more eagerly we come back to prayer, to the fountain of life, because we see how much we need His help to do great things.

Even the Mass follows this principle. We are praying in our spirit, but we are also working with our senses and our limbs: we stand, we sit, we kneel; we make gestures; we sing, speak, and fall silent. Why do we do all these things? Over and above the symbolism of particular words and actions, there is a general reason: when we worship we are not altogether passive, we are active: we put our muscles and vocal cords into it, as a way of giving ourselves, body and soul, to the Lord.

But neither are we activists who think that worship is all about saying and doing stuff. The very best activity we have as human beings is our receptivity to God’s grace, and that is actually the most important thing in our participation at Mass: not what we do externally, but what we do internally, or what we allow to be done to us. The external gestures and words are to initiate, guide, and strengthen our internal reception of the graces God wants to give us. Once again, see the wisdom of the Benedictines. They do not say Labora et ora, work first and then pray, but Ora et labora: fix your mind on the Lord, and then go about your work—even the “work” of the Church’s liturgy, the opus Dei.

In the structuring of human life there are two main errors to be avoided, and each involves exalting one side of the balance to the detriment of the other. There is prayer without work: we call this quietism, the view that one should abandon oneself to God in such a way that one needs to do nothing else and be concerned with no one else: there is, in effect, no work to be done. And then there is work without prayer: we could call this activism—as if the most important thing we need to be doing is working “out there in the world” to solve its problems. This attitude, of course, is far more common in our day and age than the opposite one. When’s the last time you met a quietist? But activists are a dime a dozen.

Saint Benedict calmly reminds us: Ora—et labora: Pray first, then work. Go to Mass, then resume your daily business, whatever it may be. Do not put even important matters before the unum necessarium, “the one thing necessary.” Notice the wisdom of the monks and nuns. They limit whatever work they must do to set periods of time each day, so that their work never interferes with their prayer. They build up sacred walls around the prayer times and make sure they are inside those walls at the appropriate hour. Like a fortress or a citadel, this refuge cannot be destroyed. “Let nothing take precedence over the work of God,” says the Rule. It seems that in the Church today, churchmen let almost anything take precedence over it. This is a grave disorder.

The holy saint of Norcia always refers to the liturgy as “the work of God,” opus Dei. He calls it this for two reasons: first, because it is really more properly God’s work; we are putting ourselves in a position to let Him work in us. As Jesus says in John’s Gospel: “My Father worketh even until now, and I work.” He is the potter, we are the clay. If the clay isn’t on the wheel or in the potter’s hands, it won’t get shaped. Saint Benedict also means that it is our work for God: by giving of our time, our thoughts, our desires, we show Him that He is first in our lives. We give Him our mind, our voice, our song, our silence, our full-bodied and soulful adoration. This is what we will be doing in heaven, where we say we hope to go—so we had better start practicing it here on earth, or else getting into shape will be a bumpy climb through the circles of purgatory for us!

Our spiritual life is by far the most important thing for us to take care of, no matter where we are or what we are doing in our lives. If we had piercing intellects like the angels, we would see this very clearly; as it is, we are rather foolish, and we are constantly tempted to put second things first, and put first things off. At the end of the day—at the end of each day, when we examine our consciences—the number one question has to be: Have I drawn close to the Lord today? Have I prayed? Have I given myself a chance to pray? Have I received, if it was possible, the Sacraments that He offers to me for my sanctification?

Nothing else in life can substitute for the divine power of the Sacraments; nothing can substitute for the unique role of the sacred liturgy and interior prayer, which are indispensable causes and conditions of spiritual growth. In a nutshell: if we want to grow spiritually, we have to make these things the axis on which our life turns.

Read part II: “Seeing Holy Mass Through Carmelite Eyes

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