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 VIII. The Library.

THE chapel of a Religious foundation has been called the power-house. In like manner the library may be called the armory, for here are stored those many weapons of the spiritual warfare, the weapons of offense and defense, which have been forged and tempered through the Christian ages for the prosecution of the wars of the Lord.

St. Teresa used to say that if she had to make her choice between a merely pious spiritual director, and one who, with less devotion, was learned in the things of God, she would, in every instance, choose the latter. One of the curses of our age is the worship of intellect. No one can question this fact, but to make this statement does not mean that the mind is not guided and instructed by the Holy Ghost equally with the heart. The intellect becomes a curse only when it is made the measure of all things. Neglect of the spiritual leads to making the intellect an idol; but to fail to use the intellect for the instruction of the spirit, produces almost inevitably a train of heresy and false doctrine. Ignorance is the prolific mother of error. Many a devastating heresy has had its beginning in the misguided striving of an ignorant mind after truth.

Because of this, in the best ages of the Church the Religious and priestly profession has always been bound up with sound learning. In the Dark Ages [56/57] when all the world, and in large measure the Church, was groping in ignorance, it was the monasteries which kept the torch of knowledge aflame, and the revival of learning had its beginning in the cloisters of western Europe.

Next to the places appointed for prayer, the most important part of the monastery at Holy Cross is the library. And since the Church of God is the heir of all the ages, and draws upon all human life and achievement that they may be pressed into the service of divine truth, the library is, after the Chapel, the place where the members of the Order prepare themselves for the work to which God has assigned them.

It is a fascinating place, for books always have a peculiar lure. As one enters the monastery, the library lies at the north end of the main hall on the first floor. It is an attractive room, wide and spacious, with timbered ceiling, arches of warm brick inviting into alcoves where one can find quiet and seclusion for study.

The visitor is at liberty to go in and out amongst the shelves and browse at will, [57/58] for at Holy Cross we are at agreement with Dr. Johnson that the next best thing to knowing the inside of books is to know their outside. There is value in knowing that a certain book exists even if you do not read it. In each alcove is a table with its light. Long ranks of books line the shelves, as varied in their subjects as may be found in any library in the land. In a massive case are numerous commentaries on the Holy Scriptures with various texts edited by the great scholars of the Church. These works come first in importance, for the Scriptures are the inspired record of the revealed truth which the infallible Church has handed down to her children.

Over yonder against that east wall those volumes in green and red leather are next in importance to the Scriptures, for between their solid covers are the complete writings of the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church, those holy men who more than any others, since the age of the inspired apostles, have interpreted for us the divine oracles. This monumental edition, to the production of which Abbe Migne, the great French scholar of the last century, devoted his long life, are of a cost quite beyond the exchequer of a modest Religious house like Holy Cross, but some years ago we had the good fortune of having them presented to us by a generous friend. Here we find St. Justin Martyr, whose birth goes back to the days of St. John, and who first as a skilled philosopher, showed the Church how to defend the faith by what we have since learned to call the [58/59] apologetic method. Here we find the works of St. Augustine, "the doctor of grace," whose arguments are as fresh and valid to a twentieth century mind as they were to those of his own fifth century. Here in many tall tomes are the sermons of St. Chrysostom, "the Golden Mouthed,"--for that is the meaning of the name given him for his eloquence. These volumes represent a thousand years of the sanctified learning of the Church, coming down to the days of St. Bernard, "the last of the Fathers," who kept the same flame alive in the dark and troublous times of the twelfth century.

Passing in and out amongst the shelves, one finds the great masters of dogmatic and apologetic theology, of Christian ascetical science, and of the mystical lore of the Church as set forth by the early mystics, and carried on down into later ages by such saints as St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross.

The historical works rise shelf upon shelf; liturgies, that fascinating study of Catholic expression of worship; and biographies, both religious and secular, occupy large spaces. One of the most interesting sections is that devoted to the history and method of missions, in which the subject of Africa naturally has the first place owing to our interest in the great continent amid the pagan darkness of which God has accorded us the privilege of working.

These lists may seem, even to the seasoned student, to be quite formidable, but the Catholic and monastic life has a real place for play as well as for work. The [59/60] man who outgrows his sense of play is an unhappy creature, and as unhappiness has no place in a Religious house, definite account is taken of such lighter reading as is suitable for mental recreation and improvement. The library at Holy Cross is well equipped with the best of the world's literary treasures. The great poets and essayists and novelists, those who wrote in both grave and humorous vein, find a welcome place. Nor do we reject altogether the passing literature of the day.

As the library is a place devoted to close study, the rule of silence is a necessity. One settles himself in an alcove with his books about him, and he has the sense of quiet, and of security from interruption which is so requisite to mental concentration. Here may be seen one of the Fathers of the Order deep in his preparation for a course of mission sermons, or Lenten lectures.

A glance at the volumes he is intent upon shows that here is no bookworm delving into snuffy old tomes for mere intellectual pleasure. However ancient the Gospel message itself, every proclamation of it must be preceded by careful study and consideration, for no two congregations are alike, and the preacher must be ready for swift readjustment of method as the occasion or place may suggest.

Another, engaged in the defense of the Faith, is seen hard at work rivetting his theological armour, while still another has piled about him numerous volumes of the great teachers of the spiritual life, [60/61] preparing for a retreat which he is to give in a few weeks.

All the study in the monastery is, however, not done in the library. The rule permits books to be taken to the cells, and they may be kept out for a month. When certain works are needed for special, extended courses of study, by permission of the Superior they may be taken for as long as a year. Every encouragement is given to the brethren to study and write. In this day we are all conscious that never did the maintenance and defense of the Faith require more of the sons of Holy Church. One must be ready at all times to meet the demands that are to be made, and this cannot be done unless one is full of the knowledge of the truth, and knows well the ways of expressing it in convincing fashion. All this demands much application of mind to a multiplicity of subjects.

It might be thought from what was said in the beginning of this chapter that the library as a place of study was set over against the chapel as a place of prayer. But we had no such thought, for study and prayer are two things which in the religious teacher must ever be associated. We recall the incident in the life of St. Bonaventura, the great Franciscan scholar and saint, who when asked where he found all the wonderful things he wrote for the edification of the Church, replied by pointing to his crucifix.

The Christian scholar must ever be a man of prayer, or his scholarship will fail to convince and teach. [6162] It was Jeremy Taylor, a man of profound learning combined with deep sanctity, who, in his quaint way, gave a direction as to study, in the words, "Read little, pray much." What he meant was that in order spiritually to digest what we read, we have to have constant recourse to prayer. The Rule of the Order of the Holy Cross warns those who live under it, that study which does not work out into prayer is a dishonesty in a Religious, by which is meant that he is using the talents and capacities with which God has endowed him for an end to which those talents were not consecrated--keeping back, in other words, from God for the time being, that which had been dedicated to Him. It is in some measure the sin of Ananias and Sapphira.

With this thought, the library, (and, indeed, this holds good of every part of a Religious house), is, in its own place, to be looked upon as a center where God is to be served as truly as at the altar. High above all is the figure of the Crucified, looking down upon all that goes on within these walls. Here men study, they improve their minds, and repair and strengthen their spiritual armour, and all combined with prayer in order that their battle for the Faith may end the more surely in victory, for the honour of God, for the building up of His kingdom amongst men, and for the securing of the salvation of their own souls.

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