The Cistercian Way 2: Adoration of the Eucharist

During my stay at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, I made several visits to the monastery’s church everyday to attend the prayers. The church, longer than it was wider, was divided into two portions. The half near the main entrance was for the retreatants staying at the guest house and the public coming from nearby villages to sit and pray. The other half was for the monks.

Between the two sides of the church was an open, square space, with a table in its centre, which served as the altar. Above it, from the high ceiling, hung a vase-like object called the tabernacle. The tabernacle is where the consecrated bread – the host – is kept. This is the most sacred object in the monastery. As my friend Charlie said, “that, for us, is Jesus Christ”.

At the last supper, Jesus broke and offered a piece of bread to his Apostles, saying “this is my body” and then took a cup of wine and said “this is my blood”. Since then, bread and wine, ritually consecrated, are considered to possess the presence of Jesus and awaken this presence in him who takes them.

The monastery’s church has a host kept in the tabernacle permanently hanging from the roof. Every Thursday evening, before the last prayer of the day, the host is taken out for prayer and blessings. This event is known as ‘Adoration of the Eucharist’.

On Thursday evening, I went to the church in time for the adoration. At the appointed hour, the monks entered the square space in the middle of the two sides of the church. On the side meant for the public, there was me and four others sitting on the chairs. Everyone stood up and a little prayer was sung. Then the abbot came forward from the monks and the tabernacle was lowered. The abbot spread incense all around the tabernacle and then opened it and brought out the host – a circular disk on a narrow, rectangular column with which it was to be held. He turned back to the monks behind him and held it up for them to witness and then turned back towards the public, holding it for a few seconds to them. He then placed the host on the altar and went back to sit with the monks.

For the next forty-five minutes, nothing happened. That means nothing outward happened. The monks sat and looked at the host. There was complete silence. The lay persons, too, just looked at the host. No sounds, no singing, no movements. It was a collective, visual meditation on one object which was considered holy by those present in that church.

As I sat there staring at the host, many thoughts passed by my mind. Thoughts about my plans for the next week and next month, memories of a conversation with a monk earlier in the day, slight tiredness in the muscles of my back, a soft sadness, a glad joy that I was here and witnessing what was happening. All these thoughts came and went, but did not make much of an imprint on me. They did not involve me. The focus of my attention was on the host and I restfully looked at this simple little disc that attracted the attention of all of us in that church building.

Once again, I had the feeling that would so often come during the prayers in the middle of the night. All of us came from different countries, different races, with a different mother and father, different problems in life and different hopes. But here we were, all focusing on the disc in the midst of our gathering. My eyes became moist. I wondered if Jemma, the beautifully innocent woman sitting next to me felt the same. I wondered if Charlie, sitting next to Jemma, felt the same, and if he was thinking about his old and ailing mother, taking care of whom formed an important part of his life. But again, these were passing thoughts while the focus of my attention remained on and drawn into the host.

I could feel that a long time had passed and the silence was unbroken. About 20 persons’ eyes and souls looked on at one object. In this monastery, we were far away from the nearest city, and even further away from the big cities of London or Nottingham. Living on a hill, isolated from the surroundings, our lives had a quality of silence and quiet contentment that was now very palpable in these moments of the adoration. The world went on with the noise and bustle of the cities, the men and women rushing across the streets, thinking about their careers, their husband or wife, the recent elections.. How different those lives were from the lives that had come together here in the church at this moment.

I continued to look at the host, drawn to its strange presence. I knew that when I tell my friends about this experience, they would sceptically say that the sacredness of the host is a projection of our minds. At that moment, I let these thoughts be. It was of little interest to consider the merits or demerits of this modern, scientifically inspired perspective on this ancient ritual that had been practised for two thousand years, and in this monastery, for two hundred years, providing strength and revival to people’s hearts.

As the silence grew ever stronger, I thought of the Vedic Indians. Three thousand years ago, they performed the fire ritual. They spoke to the fire – they called it Agni. They sang its praises, thanked it for helping them communicate with the higher powers and acknowledged their intimate friendship with it. To it they gave offerings of what was dearest to them so that it would transmute it to the realm of the gods. The host was not very different. Both rituals – the fire sacrifice and the adoration – brought alive a previously inanimate object. Human faith and human longing for that which is eternal, that which subsists through life, death, sorrow and pleasure, had transformed mere objects into sources of awe, reverence and inspiration. All these thoughts within me, rather than mitigating the silence outside, made it all the more palpable and indeed, holy.

It was time for the adoration to end. The abbot stood up, walked to the altar, held up the host again and put it back in the altar. The ritual was over. The silence gradually dissipated as we all stood up to leave although we were too moved to start talking before we came out of the church. But part of that silence remains with me today as I write this, over three months later. I can only wish that it remains for longer, not just as a living memory, but as a transformative element that illuminates new directions on the paths that I walk.

~ by tdcatss on September 21, 2010.

One Response to “The Cistercian Way 2: Adoration of the Eucharist”

  1. Loved this piece. Could visualize the whole scene. Keep writing.

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