Quite a few years ago, I spent a weekend in Paris visiting friends. I was having a miserable day on my own, exploring the city or rather, the mid-life crisis I was going through at the time. I found myself in Montmartre and visited the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, which I found too large and grandiose for my mood. I then wandered into the medieval church of St Pierre de Montmartre, round the corner. It is the oldest church in Montmartre. Its ancient walls have been restored and cleaned so they are now a pristine light grey. I remember sitting in a quiet side chapel. At the end of the chapel was a beautiful stained glass window of a modern abstract design. It stood out because it seemed incongruous in its medieval setting. The window did not depict a scene from the Bible or a saint’s life but was an intricate abstract pattern. It was a blaze of different colours as the sun shone through it. As I sat there and took in the variety of vibrant colours, my mood began to lighten and my spirit grew calm.
Gazing at the window, I was reminded of my family and friends, each one a pane of glass, a different hue and shape, individual, yet somehow linked to me, just as each pane of glass was essential to the overall design of the window. I too was a pane in the design, but because of my mid-life angst had become, naturally, self-absorbed and had forgotten the other panes in the pattern of my life. Seeing the design of my relationships as a whole was a great comfort to me then and, as I recall it, still is now, especially in the challenging moments of living through lockdown alone.
Several years after that visit to St Pierre, I took my first tentative steps towards becoming an oblate. I did not know, then, when I wandered into that church (and have only just discovered) that it was originally the church of the Benedictine Abbey of Montmartre. It’s consecration, by Pope Eugenius III took place in 1147. He was assisted by St Bernard of Clairvaux and Blessed Peter, Abbot of Cluny. I had walked into a church with a sacred Benedictine past. I see now that my visit was another gentle nudge towards an oblate vocation.
Now that I am an oblate, the window has taken on other meanings. Over the last four years, since attending the Rome Oblate Congress in 2017 and becoming a member of the U.K. Oblate team, I now have closer links with oblates from across the UK and internationally (and incidentally, I have also developed closer bonds with oblates from my own monastery). I see the window as the world wide Benedictine community to which I belong and of which I am one small pane. The Holy Spirit of love (through St Benedict’s Rule) is the lead which holds the myriad of vibrant pieces in their place in this all-embracing design. However, I am unable to see the whole design (as I did in the window at St Pierre) because it is too large for me to fully apprehend, as it embraces the world and the centuries. It is enough to be one pane in it, as it is for all of us.
What does the Holy Rule seek to effect within us? It seeks to order the different aspects of our lives, and to shape the disparate facets of our lives, creating an inner unity which, in some small way, reflects Christ and His unity with His Father. With this inner unity comes personal integrity: our outer and inner selves begin to coalesce. In the Prologue, St Benedict encourages us to ‘Seek peace and follow after it.’ It is only this personal integration in our lives which can bring us inner peace, because only with order comes peace. It also brings us that purity of heart which St Benedict advocates as the core of prayer. In this too, we seek to reflect Jesus, for as Henri Nouwen observes, ‘There are no divisions in Jesus’ heart, no double motives or secret intentions.’ (‘Bread for the Journey’ DLT, 1995). Through living the Rule, therefore, our prayer gradually coalesces with Jesus’ solitary prayer to His Father.
Creating a stained glass window demands craftsmanship, patience, perseverance and time. Each individual piece is honed down, shaped and fitted to the overall design. Each piece has its individual place next to the other pieces. So, in a sense, the Rule is also gradually shaping, honing down and fitting the various facets of our lives to transform us into our own individual stained glass window, perhaps abstract, but nevertheless, reflecting the gospel. This is effected in us with time, and in so far as, like the craftsman, we respond with patience and perseverance.
We pray that somehow through our own stained glass window, fragile as we are, Christ will shine through in all his glory.
Neil Zoladkiewicz (Oblate of Ealing Abbey).