We didn’t just stay in Mananthavady during our meeting. We also visited Mysore and Bangalore. India is an enormous country, and everywhere seems to be at least 3 hours’ drive away. I spent a lot of time on the bus. Because we were such a large group, I was sorry that we were unable to stop in smaller villages, but we did see some of the rural life through the window.
We even stopped for a coconut refreshment stop:
Brother Gregory last week visited the Priory of St Norbert in Mananthavady in India. “A very exotic holiday for a Religious,” I hear you say, but he actually went to participate in the latest meeting of the juniors of the Order, so it wasn’t really a holiday, although it was quite exotic.
Mananthavady is in Kerala, the south-west part of India, which has historic Catholic roots, thanks to the evangelisation of St Thomas the Apostle. Many Keralites are also Syriac Rite, rather than Latin Rite, and we were able to experience the Syriac liturgy in all its richness during our visit.
Junior meetings happen every 6 years (in between General Chapters), and began in the 70s as a way to allow the young people of the Order to fraternise with one another. Because our Order is very decentralised, unless a brother has a top job, or is sent as a delegate to the General Chapter, it is rare that Norbertines really get to meet each other in big numbers.
There were about 20 juniors from Europe and America, and 30 from India, and Father Abbot General presided over the gathering, alongside the Prelate of Mananthavady.
Here are some introductory pictures. I’ll write a couple of posts on this subject, so do not fear: expect more photographs and videos!
We were also fortunate enough to be able to visit the tea factory, where the leaves are processed and powdered. Although I’m not a fan of the decadent teabag fashion, I appreciated seeing how it all happened. The smell in the factory was the smell one gets when opening a new packet of tea: rich, malty and dusty.
The community of the Priory of Chelmsford wish all our readers a very happy and blessed Easter. Surrexit Christus alleluia!
I wouldn’t be a Norbertine were I not able to connect seemingly separate devotions, and since we are in the last days of Lent, I thought it would be apt to write a little on the imagery of the Good Shepherd.
At Lauds in Passiontide, we sing the hymn Lustris sex qui jam peractis, which is a very long hymn. In the penultimate verse, we sing (in Latin):
Thou alone wast counted worthy / this world’s ransom to sustain / that a shipwrecked race forever / might a port of refuge gain / with the sacred blood anointed / of the Lamb for sinners slain.
The nautical imagery makes me think – unusually – of the psalm Dominus regit me, which is often translated, The Lord is my Shepherd, but in older Catholic bibles, it is translated The Lord rules me, which is how it is translated from Latin. The word Shepherd comes from the Hebrew original, since that word (not that I’m a Hebrew scholar) can mean Shepherd. Given the pastoral imagery in the rest of the psalm, it seems a harmless way of translating it into English. It reminds me of the quoted verse from Lustris sex qui jam peractis, because, in Hebrew, as well as Shepherd, it also refers to a ship’s pilot, which is Greek is cybernetes (or cyberman), which is where the Latins get their word gubernato, or to govern, or rule, which is how the sense reads in Latin (Dominus regit me, the Lord rules me). Romans had lots of different words for ruling, because they liked ruling people. When in the Church we talk about Pastors or the Pastoral Office of the Church, or being Pastoral, the word actually refers, as it does in this psalm, to Christ the King, a shepherd-king, like King David. Christ is being pastoral when he rules from his wooden throne on Calvary.
This conjures up that paschal image of the Good Shepherd, which was a very popular image of Christ in the ancient Church. We are familiar with images of Christ carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders, but I quite like images of the Baby Jesus amongst lambs (as above), as this enables me to think on the Incarnation, as well as Easter, since the two are inseparable.
When God created the universe (however that might have come about physically), he did so, as we say, ex nihilo, or from nothing. Unlike the beliefs of pagans, God did not create from pre-existing matter, or mould the universe from primordial clay. If we think like that, then we just make out God to be a really big and powerful man. But God is not like that: there was nothing before creation, not even time (which is part of creation).
When man sinned, all of creation with implicated in its consequences. We tend to see sin as an infringement of a law: God made a law not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, and Adam and Eve broke that law. But sin is not merely breaking law, since to get to the position of disobedience, you need to decide first to be disobedient. Primordially, sin is not something than man does externally, but an internal violation of the order of creation. By that, I mean that Adam and Eve placed themselves in the place of God, and because they are dependent on God, not themselves gods, their very being began to decay: what made them glorious vanished, and they became subject to death. God did not do these things to them: they condemned themselves. Death is not an external punishment of an external sin, but a necessary consequence of an interior decay, since the universe that God created is logical and rational. Sin is so completely all-encompassing, that even man’s very being spirals downward. There are no mitigating circumstances to be considered in a law court: man can do nothing, now, without the help of that which knits together his very being, God, the unifying principle of being itself.
When creation decays, it does not revert back to its pre-created state, back to a primaeval nothing. That implies that pagan clay imagery we mentioned above. But the created being sinks into an even deeper nothingness, since man has lost his internal coherence completely. The consequence of sin is not non-being, but a privation of being, or minus-nothing.
“He fell away from God – in the terrible, literal sense of the word. He fell from genuine being towards nothingness.” (Guardini)
Because man has found himself in this place of minus-nothing, he cannot get himself out, in the same way that man could not have created himself from nothing. How can he now expect to be able to re-create himself from something even less than nothing? Only God can create, and man is in a place of nothing even more deprived than the primaeval nothing from which God created the universe in the first place. How can man expect to be able to climb out of this situation without any help?
Is the help external? Can God throw a rope, by saying from on high: you are forgiven? He could have done that, and saved man by fiat, by word alone. But that would not seem appropriate, since that would be an external cure of an interior malady: it would not be reasonable nor logical to cure in such an absent-minded way. God was going to have to get into this place where man had found himself, and bring him out, on his own shoulders, so to speak.
But there is a problem: God doesn’t have shoulders.
To solve this problem, he himself takes on human nature, that stuff which has been damaged by sin, and he becomes man. An interior cure is needed, and an interior cure is brought about by a man. But this particular man is also God, who has the power to create, that is, to cure the interior sickness interiorly.
“I myself will search for my sheep.” (Ezekiel 34: 11)
This is what is meant by the image of the Good Shepherd. God perceives that his sheep has been lost, so he himself enters the valley of death to look for the sheep, and takes him upon his own shoulders, and brings him back out again.
“God not only glanced down at him an summoned him lovingly to return, he personally entered into that vacuous dark to fetch him, as St John so powerfully expresses it in his opening Gospel.” (Guardini)
He enters the valley of death by himself dying on the Cross, and he picks up the sheep and brings him out again in his Resurrection and Ascension. What he is doing in the valley of death is bringing about a new creation, but an even greater creation than before: the old creation was created ex nihilo, but the new creation is created by God from within the valley itself, from minus-nothing.
The old creation is a creation by fiat. The new creation is a decisive victory. On Easter Eve next week, we will hear the words, “O happy fault, o necessary sin of Adam that wrought for us so great a redeemer.” What seemed such a loss turned out to be a victory, since, we are subjected to the victory and thus the rule of Christ, redeemed by him and created anew on the Cross: “Behold!” he said from his throne, “I make all things new!” (Rev. 21: 5)
“The same God that formed us in the beginning, in these latter days sought us when we were lost in death, gaining His lost sheep, and laying it on His shoulders and bringing it back with joy to the flock of life.” (St Irenaeus)
It is not unknown for Norbertines to have slightly unusual pious devotions. One of my own lesser devotions is to the Star of Bethlehem, that is commemorated this week at the end of the Twelve Days, when Christ manifested himself to the world through the Three Kings that were led to his crib by the miraculous star.
The Magi were, of course, real people; it is a catch-all term for the wise men, astrologers, sorcerers and priests of the cultic religions of central Asia and the middle east, but although references to such people are found as far away as China, they are generally associated with Persia. As with all learned men of the ancient world, they would have a great knowledge of astrology and astronomy. Although the prophets of Israel point towards the mystery of the Incarnation more perfectly, the attraction that the universe experiences towards its Creator and Redeemer is so strong that the ancients of other cultures pointed a shadowy finger in the direction of Christ, too. They may be Roman poets, Greek philosophers, Persian priests, Chinese logicians, American shamans: if there is goodness to be found in these places, it is because they were laying the foundations for the proclamation of the Gospel in their lands.
These pointers exist in nature, too (I won’t bore you with my opinion about fractal patterns). Healthy legend tells us that the forbidden fruit eaten by our first parents in the Garden was an apple. Even this piece of fruit contains within it a star-shaped pointer towards their Redeemer. Cut an apple in half along its equator, and you will see what I mean. The splendour of creation, in cosmic nebulae or in apple pips declares God’s goodness and light, revealed perfectly in the pearly flesh of the Christchild, the Light welling from Light, Lumen de Lumine.
‘Lift up your eyes, whoe’er ye be that fare the new-born Christ to see: for yonder is the shining sign of grace perennial and divine’ (Quicumque Christum quaeritis)
Given my own amateur interest in astronomy, I feel somewhat of an affinity with the Magi who, like many ancients, whiled away their evenings gazing up at the stars. In my opinion, the cosmos (on its grand scale at least), is the most aesthetically beautiful part of the created order. Because of the Magi’s study of the universe and their love of wisdom, they were captivated by this light which shone in the dark skies, the light which led them to the crib at Bethlehem.* It is right, too, I think, to call them kings. In our post-feudal mindset (remembering that ‘modern’ feudalism and aristocracy is the invention the pagan emperor Diocletian), we tend to think of kings and queens with crowns on. Their kingship is derived not from an army or from heredity, but from their attraction to Truth, which is Christ, since those who kneel before God, no matter how low or mighty they are by worldly judgements, are truly sharers in Christ’s kingship.
‘To greet His birth the Wise Men went, led by the star before them sent; called on by light, towards Light they pressed, and by their gifts their God confessed’ (Hostis Herodes impie)
The sacred scriptures call these men the wise men from the east, and they are buried in Cologne Cathedral. Historical accident has meant that many of the great saints have ended up in Western Europe, but this is particularly fortuitous, since, as we know, St Norbert was ordained at Cologne after his conversion experience.
On the road to Freden, where St Norbert was struck down with lightening, he was presented with his own star from God. Because of this very direct call, like the call of God to the Shepherd and the Magi, Norbert was able to quickly discern his vocation and act upon it. In the lightening bolt, he saw the star in the east, and he followed it to the crib. There he slaked his thirst with the Blood of his Saviour.
But what about the rest of us, who, in all likelihood, are neither going to have a star flashing above our heads, now a divine bolt to bring us to our senses? Is God less interested in us?
“Doubtless, the star that calls men to the Christian faith is not the same for all; it shines differently; but its lustre is sufficiently visible for hearts of good will to be able to recognise it and see in it the sign of a divine call.” (Blessed Columba Marmion)
We do not see the same star of the Magi, but we have our own individual stars, that shine in ways that we, if we open our eyes, are able to discern. The Magi were probably not looking for what they found, but they were vigilant, and had their hearts open to divine possibilities. If we shut our hearts and our eyes, then we will not be able to see what God wants for us. When we shut out hearts, God has to strike us down with lightening in order for us to hear him. And even then, we often feign ignorance. If these great and wise men can humble themselves before the little crib, then so can we.
“The Heavenly Father calls us to His Son through the inspiration of His grace; but He wishes that we, like the Magi, as soon as the star shines in our hearts shall leave all on the instant: our sins, the occasions of sin, bad habits, infidelities, imperfections, attachments to what is merely created. He wishes that, taking no account of either the criticism or opinions of men or the difficulties of the work to be done, we set ourselves at once to seek Jesus – whether we have lost Him through one mortal sin, or whether, possessing Him through sanctifying grace, we are called to a closer and more intimate union with Him.
“Vidimus stellam: ‘Lord, I have seen your star, and I come to you. What will you have me do?’ (Blessed Columba Marmion)
* * *
* There are not a huge number of important (or famous) Norbertines in the arena of the modern sciences, but perhaps, given our illuminating subject, it is fitting to pluck out one name from the history books, since he had a particular interest in looking at the stars. Father Johann Zahn was a Norbertine canon of Klosteroberzell in Bavaria, and is credited with the invention of the light projector (a one-time favourite of school teachers), as well as the conceptual invention of the camera. He was, in fact, a noted scientist who had a particular interest in light and its uses, and made important contributions to the application of lens technology. Although a camera obscura can be traced back as early as ancient China, Zahn’s was the first to facilitate – in principle – the ‘capture’ of an image, since his camera had separate light and dark chambers. Since Zahn died 1707, his invention did not prove useful for many decades. Norbertines have always been ahead of their time.
1630 years since the conversion of Our Holy Father Augustine
1586 years since the death of Our Holy Father Augustine
936 years since the birth of Our Holy Father Norbert
923 years since the birth of Blessed Hugh
903 years since Our Holy Father Norbert declined the bishopric of Cambrai
901 years since the conversion of Our Holy Father Norbert
896 years since the first meeting between Our Holy Father Norbert and St. Evermode
895 years since the foundation of our Order at Prémontré
882 years since the death of Our Holy Father Norbert
873 years since the foundation of our Order in Britain
853 years since St. Frederick constructed the abbey church at Mariengaarde
823 years since the foundation of Teplá by Blessed Hroznata
813 years since the birth of Blessed Bronislava of Zwierzyniec
480 years since the suppression of our houses in England under Henry VIII
446 years since the martyrdom of SS. Adrian and James at Gorcum
436 years since the arrest and death of Servant of God James O’Mulkerin
434 years since the approbation of the cult of St. Norbert
389 years since the translation of the relics of Our Holy Father Norbert to Strahov
226 years since the closure of Prémontré
223 years since the martyrdom of Blessed Peter-Adrian Toulorge of Blanchelande
144 years since the return of our Order to England
73 years since the death in Auschwitz of the canons of Nová Řiše
12 years since the foundation of our canonry
8 years since the foundation of our house in Chelmsford
The Prior and Community of St Philip’s Priory, Chelmsford, wish all our readers, benefactors, relatives and friends a blessed and happy New Year!