God and the Soul; Three New Novices

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On the Feast of the Assumption, Monday, August 15, 2016, the Very Rev. Provost Jonathan Robinson clothed three new Oratorian novices in the Fathers’ chapel of the Toronto Oratory. The three new novices completed their postulancy at the Oratory in the summer and thus entered their first probation for the Toronto Oratory. They join four other novices currently living in residence at the Toronto Oratory: Br Francis King, Br Conor Power, and Br Peter Buckley studying philosophy for the Oratory-in-Formation in Brisbane, Australia; and Br James Tabarelli studying philosophy for the London Oratory. Brief biographies of the new novices are followed by a picture from after the clothing and the Father’s address on that occasion.

Jason Flammini was born in 1986 and raised in Toronto and later in Sudbury. After graduating from high school he moved to Ottawa where he studied Fine Arts, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Philosophy. With a growing interest in fashion, and in the history, significance and production of ecclesiastical vestments in particular, Jason gained wide experience in the world of clothing and fabrics, and eventually began his own vestment-making business. In this undertaking he acquired a varied clientele among individuals and institutions in search of traditional vestments made with aesthetic and theological understanding. First coming to know the Oratory during his university years, Jason subsequently spent several years as a professed brother in the Dominicans, as well as some time with the Benedictines at St-Benoît-du-lac. After five years living once more as a layman here in Toronto, during which time his connections with us grew deeper, Jason believes he has found what he was seeking in the vocation of lay brother at the Toronto Oratory: a life focussed on prayer and community which also accords him the right context and necessary freedom to pursue his aesthetic and intellectual interests.

Paul (Alexander) Griffiths was born in 1988 in Missisauga, Ontario and after high school obtained undergraduate degrees in Commerce and Political Science from Queen’s University. During his undergraduate years Alexander was engaged in both practical political activity and in the larger cultural questions to which politics gives rise. At the same time Alexander’s musical interests developed, especially as a singer in both the classical and liturgical repertoires. He also discovered the serious practice of the Catholic faith through his involvement with Newman House. After graduation and a period working in financial services, and finding his sense of a calling to the priesthood deepening, Alexander entered St Philip’s Seminary and with intellectual distinction pursued a two year course of studies in philosophy. With a growing sense of the importance of both intellectual and liturgical life, following his seminary studies Alexander decided to pursue his vocation as a novice at the Toronto Oratory.

Christopher Huynh was born in 1992 and raised in Barrie, Ontario. Christopher displays accomplishments in many fields: as a pianist and singer, a visual artist (especially drawing), as a student of languages, and also as a contributor to online forums dedicated to Japanese popular culture in particular; in this connection he has written liner notes for a CD of game music performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Following an outstanding undergraduate degree in Physics from McMaster University, during which he and his collaborators had an article published in a professional journal, Christopher decided to pursue a vocation to the priesthood and completed two years of Philosophy at St Philip’s. During this time his attraction to the Oratorian way of life blossomed, and upon graduation he petitioned to enter the Toronto Oratory as a novice.

Clothing of Brothers Jason, Alexander, and Christopher

(Feast of the Assumption: August 15, 2016)

The clothing of a new novices is always a time for rejoicing, both for the novices themselves, and for the community. For the novices because they has found what they believe is the will of God on how they are to live their lives, and for the community because it has new members. Both these reactions are sound ones, and so in the hearts of all of us there should be a song of thanksgiving for his gifts to all of us, and we all sing with our new brothers, `I was glad when they said unto me, we will go into the house of the Lord’.

It is Into the House of the Lord that Jason, Alexander and Christopher are coming, and if you ask what is the House of the Lord, that is, what is it other than the Church, and they already belong to that; if you ask what is the special mark of the House of the Lord into which they are coming, then we reply in our Lord’s words – my House shall be called a House of prayer. Domus mea, domus orationis vocabitur; we are reminded of those words every time we go into our Church.

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 clearly determinate purposes. The Oratory, as the Constitutions put, it takes its name from a place dedicated to prayer.

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, don’t pray as you can’t Abbot Chapman says in his Spiritual Letters. He meant: do what you can in the way best suited to you, but get on with it; actually do some praying.

In one of the little prayers St Philip gave to 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 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. But, 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 teaches, turn back when the going gets tough.

The unknown writer of The Cloud of Unknowing says in The Epistle of Privy Counsel that:

Many great storms and temptations, peradventure, shall rise in this time, and thou knowest never whither to run for sorrow. All is away from thy feeling, common grace and special….Yet be not abashed; for he shall come, I promise thee, full soon, when he liketh, to relieve thee and with his great might deliver thee of all thy sorrow and pain, far more worthily than ever he did before. Yea! And if he after go, after will he come again; and each time, if thou wilt bear it by meek suffering, will he come more worthily and merrylier than other. P.C. Ch. 12.

The writer is saying, that once we begin to pray seriously over a period of time, then our control over both the rhythm of our prayer and the content of our prayer will be taken away from us. When this happens we have to not only to accept, but also to do our best to co-operate with what God thinks best for us at the time. This alternating of darkness and light, of desolation and consolation is designed to make us pliant to what God wants of us, or, we might say, readily disposed to do his will.

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’.[LLF 138]

The writer of The Cloud teaches the same lesson is a less dramatic, but equally forcible way:

And this he doth because he will have thee made pliant to his will ghostly as a roan glove to thine hand bodily. P.C. Ch 12.

That is, just as a well made glove of fine material fits so well that it is responsive to every movement of the muscles of the hand, so it must become possible for our soul to be responsive to every movement of the will of God. The shadows and the darkness are an essential element of God’s dealing with a generous soul.

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 Philippians there is a text that 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. 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. The struggle against sin, the darkness, even the temptations to despair and to give up, are all very real, but they do not have the last word. There may be periods when these things may seem to dominate the landscape of a life given over to Christ, but they are not the final note of such a life. So, 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 of us, start again this afternoon with a prayer of thanksgiving. Start again, each in his own way and according to the circumstances of his life: Jason, Alexander and Christopher for the grace of their vocation to St Philip’s House, and, for those of us who are already here, a prayer of gratitude to Almighty God, to our Lady and to St Philip for our new brothers. Let us all, ‘forgetting what lies behind, strain forward to what lies ahead’.

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