Hidden Power

Hidden Power

13 October 2016

(The idea of "expiatory suffering" is controversial.  Nevertheless it
is traditionally an important part of contemplative prayer and living
.  This is the fourth additional chapter for "The Abbot's Shoes -
Seeking a Contemplative Life" which is to be found at

A Trappist monk who chooses to hide the fact that he is ill and in
pain might well have developed a neurotic love of suffering.  However,
it is much more likely that he sanely and sincerely believes he is
sharing in Christ's Passion.

Viewed from the outside the sacrificial strand of  the contemplative
life appears nonsensical, even contrarious.  Why a meatless diet?  Why
the disappearance of certain meals during Lent?  Why an abbot's total
power to command?  Why the ban on speaking from sunset 'til dawn?  Why
suffer in silence?

A Christian monk's self-denial should not be confused with the
ascetical practices of other religions.  His goal is not enlightenment
through the demolition of ego and self, but concern for others, their
welfare and salvation.  It has everything to do with the belief and
custom of the early Church that prayer and self-denial go
hand-in-hand.(1)  Thomas Merton's first abbot, Frederic Dunne, taught
his community that "prayer with sacrifice is infallibly answered".(2)

The Irish-ness of the monastery on Kopua Road meant that this vital
part of its life was not shouted from the roof-tops.  Their easygoing
modesty and self-deprecating humour made sure of that.  One morning as
I walked through the orchard and back to my shed I was greeted by the
Guest Master, Father Declan, who seemed full of "the joys of spring"
even although it was autumn.

"The truck is down by the river," he said.  "Would you like to have a
look?"  Well why not, I thought, failing to register anything special
about the truck being "down by the river"!  To cut a long story short,
whilst he had been opening a gate, the large ex-army lorry Father
Declan had been driving took off by itself.  It shot past the startled
priest, hurtled down a steep hill, cut a spectacular swath through
head-high blackberry bushes, finally coming to a steaming, shuddering
halt with half of its engine submerged in the Manawatu River.  No
shouting or yelling.  No banner headlines.  Leave the drama to others.
And so it was in all of our life together ... especially when it came
to dying to oneself for the sake of others.

Many today might scoff at the story of the Celtic soldier-turned-monk,
Cuthbert of Lindisfarne(3), being helped by wild otters during his
frequent all-night prayer vigils.  To "fast" one's comfort and sleep
by standing in freezing sea water to keep awake, doesn't put too much
of a strain on my imagination.  Cuthbert's determination to pray for
others more effectively for longer periods of time, and his modus
operandi are comfortably biblical and contemplative so far as I am
concerned.  And as for the otters warming his frozen feet with their
breath and drying them with their fur?  Well, why not?  I certainly
observed in the monastery that as the veil between Heaven and earth
grew diaphanous, all creatures - domestic and wild - seemed more at
ease about us.

What might appear to be showy acts in obedience to our Lord's demand
that anyone who would come after Him "must deny himself and take up
his cross daily and follow me"(4) were in fact something other ...
hidden, profound, powerful.  The Trappists of Takapau didn't flash it
about.  But it was going on all of the time like an underground stream
of pellucid purity and beauty.  And you could only "learn" it by
osmosis.  Perhaps by just watching the way a monk rested for a moment
on his fencing shovel, and then later the same day held aloft the
chalice containing the Blood of his King.  His bearing and air
communicated everything; more than a complete library of mystical
theology ever could.

Edith Stein simply called it "helping Christ carry his cross".  It's a
way of life which in no way questions or denies "that the work of
salvation has been accomplished".  Writing in the shadows of Nazi
Germany's death camps which ultimately claimed her life too, she said,
"Only children of grace, can in fact be bearers of Christ's cross.
Only in union with the divine Head does human suffering take on
expiatory power."(5)

The monastery is such a long way away from Jerusalem and Calvary;
separated by thousands of miles and years.  And yet because the
Crucified cleaves to the poor men of that place, and they to him, the
meaning of their sufferings is transformed.  Their constant, silent
homily and hymn of praise is "the sufferings of Christ flow over into
our lives ... indeed we share in his sufferings ... for the sake of
his body which is the church".(6)

1)   Acts 13.3, 14.23  Mark 9.29  Some manuscripts read: "This kind
can come out only by prayer and fasting."
2)   "The Less Travelled Road" Rev. M. Raymond (The Bruce Publishing
Company, Milwaukee 1953)
3)   634-687 AD
4)   Luke 9.23
5)   "Love of the Cross" (ICS Publications, Washington DC)
6)   2 Corinthians 1.5  Romans 8.17
Colossians 1.24 "It is now my happiness to suffer for you.  This is my
way of helping to complete, in my poor human flesh, the full tale of
Christ's afflictions still to be endured, for the sake of his body
which is the church." (NEB)
"Our union with (the Lord Jesus) transforms the meaning of our
sufferings.  The suffering of the Christian is part of Calvary."
"Thoughts About the Holy Spirit" James K. Baxter (Futuna Press,
Wellington NZ 1973)