Project Canterbury

An American Cloister

The Life and Work of the Order of the Holy Cross

By Shirley Carter Hughson, O.H.C.

West Park, New York: Holy Cross Press, 1948.

Chapter V. The Chapel.

MANY years ago when the Order of the Holy Cross was working on the east side of New York City, one of the Fathers was engaged in instructing a little boy for Confirmation and first Communion. In the course of a lesson on the Church and the ministry, he sought by a series of questions to lead the boy to the realization of the fact that the clergy have a very real job in the world, as real a job as any other honest workman.

"What does a cobbler do?" he asked. "He mends shoes," was the reply. "What does a grocer do?" "He sells groceries." "What does a doctor do?" "He makes you well when you are sick." "And what does a priest do?" he finally inquired. There was a moment's pause, and then the boy answered, "He prays."

The reply was startling in its direct appreciation of the fundamental work of the priesthood. The definition serves not only to describe the chief work of the priesthood, but also of a Religious community. The essential work of a Religious community is prayer. The activities may vary from time to time; they are not of the essentials of the Religious Life, but prayer is to the Religious what military drill is to a soldier, what his craft is to an artisan. It is more than this. It is to the soul what the air we breathe is to the life of the body. Whatever else he may be engaged in, not only must all his activities be carried on in the [33/34] power of continual prayer, but his principal occupation must be that of praying.

There must be, therefore, some place prepared where this paramount work may be carried on with the highest degree of concentration, and the least possibility of interruption. Every Religious house is, therefore, provided with a chapel. This is so not only because of the necessity of freedom from interruption, but because the Religious is not only to pray in private but corporately and in community; and to this end it is necessary to have a place where this great and essential work can be "done decently and in order," as St. Paul expresses it.

Some years ago a kind friend gave us a beautiful Chapel as a memorial of a departed loved one. This building is of rare grace, and its lines of beauty make it a worthy offering to God. But it would be of little value were it not used continually as a trysting place with the Divine. This was the purpose for which it was built and consecrated, and to which it is daily devoted.

Perhaps, an account of a day in St. Augustine's Chapel, (for it is dedicated under the invocation of this great champion of the Faith who is the principal patron of our Order), will suffice to give an idea of what the chapel of a monastery really is.

Life in a Religious house begins at an early hour. The day must begin with God, and there is no thought of aught else but prayer. A far light down a dim corridor shows the way to the holy place. As [34/35] each one enters, he takes holy water, signs himself with the sign of the Cross, and bows the knee as an act of worship of our Lord whose Sacramental Presence is perpetually on the altar. But he does not first repair to his stall in choir. There is a duty which comes before that. In the dusk of the dawn as each white-clad monk enters, he goes direct to the sanctuary, and kneeling with folded hands and uplifted heart, he makes his renewed dedication of himself to God with the first devotion of the day, saying the Suscipe, that act of self-consecration which has for no one knows how many ages been the prayer of unnumbered saints:

"Take and receive, O Lord, my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I have Thou hast given me. I now give it back again to Thee to be disposed of according to Thy good pleasure. Only give me Thy love and Thy grace: with these I shall be rich enough."

There is no delay. The devout purpose moves swiftly to its accomplishment. Hardly has the Religious taken his place in his stall in the choir when from the tower the monastery bell booms out the summons to the Angelus, that ancient memorial of the Incarnation of our Lord:

The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Ghost.

[36] Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the Fruit of thy womb Jesus: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. Hail Mary, etc. The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

Hail Mary, etc.

V. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God:
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray.

We beseech Thee, O Lord, pour Thy grace into our hearts that as we have known the Incarnation of Thy Son, Jesus Christ, by the message of an angel, so by His Cross and Passion we may be brought unto the glory of His Resurrection, Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Angelus said, Lauds and Prime follow, the two Offices taking about half an hour.

This is followed immediately by the Masses. It is the custom at Holy Cross for every priest in residence to celebrate Mass each morning.

No one who has not visited a Religious house, and assisted at its devotions, can grasp the profound solemnity of the hour when, all other activities being suspended, every heart is engaged in pleading the [36/37] Great Memorial of the Lord's Passion before the Eternal Father. The long line of dim chapels, the gleaming altar lights, the chime of silver bells proclaiming the lifting up of the Holy Sacrifice, the silent figures kneeling in adoration of the Son of God present in this august Mystery--how powerfully does the Holy Spirit employ these outward things to instruct and strengthen faithful souls!

In the monastery, besides the high altar in St. Augustine's Chapel where the principal Mass is always celebrated, there are eleven other altars. In a transept on the south of the choir is the Lady Chapel, while in the adjoining tower-room is a chapel dedicated to St. Joseph, the foster-father of our Lord and the most chaste spouse of the Holy Mother. In the novitiate is the chapel of St. Francis of Sales who is the patron saint of the novitiate of our Order. Other chapels are named for our patrons, Saints Dominic, Helena, and Katharine of Alexandria, while still others in the crypt or in other parts of the house, bear the names of great saints, or of certain Mysteries of our holy Faith. There is a chapel of St. Michael, the prince of the Holy Angels.

All these are places of devotion, although naturally, the main chapel is the one where the prayers and offices and meditations find place, for on the altar of St. Augustine's our Blessed Lord dwells perpetually in His Most Holy Sacrament. There, too, is the shrine of our Blessed Lady, and there upon the walls are the Stations of the Cross, those memorials of [37/38] the Passion which our Lord endured for love of men. In St. Augustine's Chapel the community finds its central place of gathering. Here, as nowhere else, do we realize that in the Order we are called to live in unity of love and fellowship one with another. Here do the Religious gather seven times a day for corporate prayer. Shortly after breakfast Terce is sung, at twelve the office of Sext, followed by None, with a five-minute examination of conscience between. At five, Vespers, with the Magnificat of her whom all generations call blessed, is sung, on Sundays and the more important feasts the Office being rendered with great splendour, the altar adorned with many lights and with flowers as offerings to our Lord and His saints. On such days, it is usual for Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament to follow Vespers.

But these are not the only uses to which we put this trysting place with God. Here the community gathers daily for intercession, to pray for the Church, the world, for those who are in trouble, sorrow and distress.

One of the happiest privileges of our life at Holy Cross is to offer in our corporate intercessions prayers for the multitude of souls who write to ask us to pray for them, for their friends and loved ones, who need help temporally and spiritually. Here we remember continually the Holy Dead, supplicating that they may find rest and peace and mercy of God in purgatory.

Here, also, we have our retreats. One day in every [38/39] month is set apart by each member of the community, according to our Rule, as a day of private retreat; although not infrequently we observe this day together. Here for ten days each year the whole community is in retreat prior to our annual chapter meeting. From time to time during the year novenas, triduums, and days of intercession are observed. These are times when one feels as at no other the atmosphere of prayer. In frequent novenas and triduums the work of prayer before the altar is without a break. During every moment of the twenty-four hours, night and day, the holy work goes on. The brethren take periods of an hour, or less time, being relieved at the end of the period by someone else, but the prayer is unceasing.

On every Friday evening in the year, mindful of our dedication in honour of the Holy Cross, there is in Chapel a short meditation on the Most Holy Passion of our Redeemer, except in Lent when the Stations of the Cross are made instead.

The Chapel, however, is not used for the exercises of the community only. We share our Chapel and its privileges with the many hundreds of guests who come to us during the year for a little space of spiritual retreat and retirement. Sometimes these retreats are formal, and many persons are in attendance. Again, through the year great numbers come singly, to get away from the hurly-burly of the world, and to enter for a little time into the peace and quiet of the cloister. There are clergy and layman, old and [39/40] young, business men, students, workingmen, all classes are represented, and we count it as one of the privileges of our life to be able to extend these opportunities to our brethren.

St. Augustine's Chapel is a busy spot, full of the energy of God's business. Here many a soul, tossed and bruised by the buffeting of an unsympathetic world, has found peace. Many a one in the stillness of this sanctuary has heard a voice calling him to surrender all and follow our Lord in some special vocation--the priesthood, the Religious life; or has found on his knees in this holy place the solution of the problems which so often wear down the soul, and make the burden seem greater than one can bear.

On Sundays and on the greater Holy Days High Mass is sung with all the adjuncts of the traditional worship of the Catholic Church, a brief sermon being preached on Sundays and the more important feasts. In our community the ancient plainsong is used, and while we do not wholly despise the blandishments of modern music, there is something of a thrill in the consciousness that in our praise of God, both in the Mass and in the Divine Office, we are able to employ the same melodious vehicle of worship that was used by our fathers a thousand years ago. It is another link with the saints of old, another reminder of our oneness with the Catholic Church of every age.

The Chapel of a monastery is a power-house, where one seeks and finds grace and light for every [40/41] need. Not only at stated times when it is of obligation that the brethren be present, but through all the hours of the day the members of the household, guests as well as the Religious, come here to the feet of our Lord to find strength and peace in the divine companionship.

Project Canterbury