Vita communis, maxima mortificatio; Three New Novices

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On Sunday, September 6, 2015, the Very Rev. Provost Jonathan Robinson clothed three new Oratorian novices in the Fathers’ chapel of the Toronto Oratory. One of the new novices, Brother Mathew, completed his postulancy at the Toronto Oratory this summer and thus entered his first probation for the Toronto Oratory. The other two novices, while destined for the Oratory-in-Formation in Brisbane, Australia, are resident at the Toronto Oratory while making a canonical novitiate. In Toronto they join two other novices destined for the Brisbane project: Br Shawn Murphy and Br Francis King, who are now in first and second philosophy. An additional novice, Br Edward Olsen of the Kalamazoo Oratory-in-Formation, completes this year’s novitiate class. Brief biographies of the new novices are followed by pictures of the clothing and the Father’s address on that occasion.

Matthew. Br Matthew was born in 1984 and hails from Etobicoke, Ontario. After graduating from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, he moved to Korea to teach English and further contemplate vocation. His two stints in Korea totaled 6 years and it was during his time there that he felt drawn to the liturgical and communal life of the Toronto Oratory. Acting on this call, he has returned to his native soil and is trying his vocation at the Toronto Oratory.

Conor Joseph Power. Br Conor was born in 1983 and hails from Brisbane, Queensland. After taking some time to travel throughout Europe and the U.S. following his graduation from secondary school, Br Conor returned home to Australia and completed a Bachelor of Arts in the Liberal Arts at Campion College in Sydney. He remained in Sydney and later worked with the University of Notre Dame Australia and an industry association. Conor spent a year as a postulant and novice with the Order of Preachers prior to discerning his call to the Oratorian way of life. Br Conor returned to Brisbane to explore his vocation and spent time with the members of the Oratory-in-Formation.

Matthew (Peter) Buckley. Br Peter was born and raised in the city of Brisbane. In 2010 he completed a Bachelor of Civil Engineering and then worked in this area for the next few years. Through various activities and a strong family life of faith he was able to discern the call to pursue a vocation according to the charism of St Philip Neri with the Brisbane Oratory-in-Formation.


Clothing of Brothers Mathew, Conor, and Peter 

(September 6, 2015)

…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isaiah, 56:7)

Three of the Evangelists tell us that our Lord used these words from the Prophet Isaiah, when he drove out the money changers from the temple: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” Those words, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer’, have always had a special place in the collective memory of the Oratory.

We are not a political movement, nor a pressure group dedicated to bringing about certain specific reforms; we are not a religious order in the technical sense, with vows and clearly determinate purposes. The Oratory takes its name from a place dedicated to prayer, as the Constitution put it. Prayer has many different aspects, and there are many kinds of prayer, and it is all too easy to mistake theories about praying for the activity itself. “Pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you cannot,” says Abbot Chapman in the Spiritual Letters. He meant: do what you can in the way best suited to you, but get on with it, and actually do some praying. We will do our best to help you, but in the long run, no one is able to do your praying for you.

Among the little prayers St Philip gave to Fr Francis Zazzara, there is one that goes like this: “I seek you, and I do not find you. Come to me, Lord Jesus.” Remember, that is, to paraphrase St John of the Cross, that if the soul is seeking God, it should also be aware that God is seeking the soul even more. Do what you can, and leave yourself open for God; you want him because he already wants you a lot more than you want him. Leave yourself open, leave yourself open, and then the Holy Spirit will lead you into the heart of Christ – so long, that is, as you do not put up road-blocks to his coming.

And that, of course, is what we are all constantly doing, putting up road-blocks. After a certain point, left to ourselves, there seems little we can do to remove them. If we persevere and don’t turn back, then God will begin to do most of the work. But let us all remind ourselves that God’s chosen instrument for removing the road-blocks and accomplishing our sanctification is suffering, suffering that forces us onto our knees, suffering that gradually conforms our hearts and stubborn wills to the obedience of Christ. For in his will is our peace, and only in his will is our peace. Serious prayer is not a hobby or a pastime, and most people, as St John of the Cross says, turn back when the going gets tough.

But our prayer takes place within the never-ending task of building up the community. Of course, this is true in one sense of every religious order and congregation. The crucial difference for us is to be found in the fact that it is our prayer which has to bind together a particular Oratory into a living community. There is no ‘moral person’, to use the canonists’ term, called the Toronto Oratory, a reality which has its being and endures beyond the particular men who constitute it. Take away an Oratorian’s House, and disperse its members, and the Oratorians who constituted that particular oratory are no longer Oratorians. Confiscate a Jesuit House, and disperse its members, and the individuals go on being Jesuits.

Sometimes, the absence of a Rule that binds under sin, and the responsibility of creating a community adapted to the time and circumstances in which any particular Oratory lives, is looked on simply as the exercise of that freedom which every baptized Christian ought to enjoy. “Rules are for religious orders, the glorious liberty of the sons of God, that’s for Oratorians.”

Even by the creepy standards of much modern religious rhetoric this is pretty dumb. It is hard enough living in community with a rule that binds under sin; it is even more difficult when the rules are quite clearly little more than a statement of how things should be run, and run without the sanction of divine favour, or otherwise. The glorious liberty of the sons of God can all too easily become a formula for a selfish, a thoughtless, and an idiosyncratic way of life that ends up destroying the community, the very community which was supposed to be the site or locus of the exercise of the liberty of the sons of God. The so-called liberty of the sons of God has proved to be nothing of the kind, and has ended as a solvent which has eaten away at the reality of the community until, if there is anything left, it is nothing but a group of bitter individuals blaming each other for the failure of their lives and the death of their ideals.

No tradition in the Church was stronger than ours about the crucial, central, vital importance of la santa communità; few have been clearer as to the truth of the maxim vita communis, maxima mortificatio: community life is the greatest of mortifications.

For an Oratorian, the truth of this maxim can never be forgotten, and the particular sort of suffering which it brings must be faced and accepted. There is a suffering which comes from the mere fact of living in a community. I don’t mean suffering for the Community in respect to those outside it, but rather the painful business of our motives and actions being at times misunderstood, perhaps even worse, of actually being understood, by those closest to us, and having to persevere when we are tired and fed up. You will be tempted to say in the future with Zechariah, “These are the wounds I received in the house of my friends.” But learn to see all suffering, even when it seems, and maybe is, humanly speaking unjust and terribly hurtful, as God’s way of making you over into what he wants you to be.

“For iron,” says St John of the Cross, “cannot adapt itself and be subservient to the intelligence of the artificer, unless he use fire and a hammer, like the fire which Jeremiah says that God put into his understanding, saying: ‘He sent fire into my bones and taught me’. And Jeremiah says of the hammer: ‘Thou hast chastised me, Lord, and I was instructed’. Even so says the preacher: ‘He that is not tried, what can he know? And he that has no experience knoweth little’.” (Living Flame of Love, p 138)

But it will not be all darkness and shadows, and the man of prayer is always looking for the things that are yet to be. In St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians there is a text, a text which, St Gregory of Nyssa tells us, sums up the attitude a Christian ought to have towards the things of this life and our need for God:

…one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on to the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:13-14)

“Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead”: no matter how high the hills we may have climbed so far, the summit shows us another range even higher and more beautiful – and more challenging – than the country we have already passed through. Sin, darkness, and temptations to despair are all very real, but they do not have the last word; sin, darkness, and temptations to despair are not the dominant note of a life given over to Christ in St Philip. So, we must try to forget what lies behind and press forward in hope and joy to what lies ahead, for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Let us, then, all start again, this afternoon, with a prayer of thanksgiving, each one of us in his own way, and according to the circumstances of his life. But at the same time, let us all remember and ponder St. Philip’s words, which we heard read in refectory the other night. Let us ponder them, and apply them to ourselves: “It is an easy thing to infuse a most fervent devotion into others, even in a short time, but the great matter is to persevere.”