Eucharist, Liturgy of the Hours and Meditation in common: the three pillars of Augustinian Recollect Spiritual practice

Within the Fourth Centenary (1621-2021) of the Province of Saint Nicholas of Tolentine, the month of November 2020 is dedicated to the contemplative branch of the Order. The pillars of Augustinian interiority and contemplative life are an inherent part of the charism of this Family and the daily life of its members, religious or lay people, throughout history.
Pastoral | 2020 Nov 13

As part of the Catholic Church, and enriched by the heritage transmitted by Saint Augustine and by the Recollect movement, the Augustinian Recollect  Family has in prayer one of the pillars and foundations of its consciousness, of its affections, of its way of being and acting. What is the origin and what have been the practices that have fueled this love for contemplation?

Jesus' appealing prayer

The Gospels say that Jesus went to the synagogue on Saturdays, knew the psalms very well because He prayed constantly with them, blessed food,  and liked quiet, lonely, silent places to meet the Father alone. His prayer was deeply affective, in which he called God abba, Dad.

His practice of prayer caught his attention and attracted so much that his disciples expressly asked him to teach them to pray. Jesus practiced all types of prayer: praise, supplication in difficult times, request, thanksgiving.

He also spoke many times of attitudes to get "in prayer mode": without appearing, in secret, in a few words, with perseverance. His life "was so close to prayer that it flowed from it," as the General Ordination of the Liturgy of the Hours says.

The Prayer of the Church

There is no possibility of being a Christian and not praying, of obviating what Jesus considers indispensable. For his followers prayer is a personal encounter with Christ himself. This element is proper and unique, distinguishes Christian prayer from any other type of spirituality.

If the least typecast is the personality, unique and unrepeatable, prayer is also typical of each person, it depends directly on his "way of encountering" Christ. Prayer varies in each person, conforms in every time and culture, it is an intimate act of prayer.

But as a human fact, ways of praying together or, in Christian language, in community can be found. The early Christians had a habit of praying our father three times a day. In the 3rd century a formula was used for every moment of the day, which at the cessation of persecutions was uniformed in the Cathedrals as Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office. The monasteries, for their part, fully developed the hours of Vespers (afternoon prayer) and Laudes (morning prayer) with more biblical texts.

In that environment the Salmodic song reached fullness. In the 10th century it extends to all temples and three centuries later the Franciscan movement promoted the Breviaries, unified in 1568. After Vatican II, the Liturgy of the Hours was set up as it is prayed today.

Augustine of Hippo: Prayer as grace for the pilgrim

Augustine of Hippo did not write a systematic book on prayer. His ideas on this are gathered in Letter 130. The saint says that we pray because we are pilgrims and we need to remember that our homeland is the City of God. Find in the Bible the light for this family dialogue between father and son; God speaks in Sacred Scripture and the person responds by praying. The desolations of a world in which nothing fills our thirst direct us to prayer as consolation of God. Thus Augustine closes this circle: we are pilgrims and one thing we must ask of the Lord, dwell in his house forever..

Augustine indicated the first step in meeting God: avoiding dispersion and distraction, antonyms of prayer; then, heading within oneself and reinforcing one's identity, returning to the interior heart. Then it can be recognized that within dwells the Truth, Christ. Finally, it is necessary to transcend and share the experience, how to confirm the authenticity of that sentence. An authentic prayer proclaims God's love with the same passion with which others declare themselves fans of artists or football teams.

Praying is not for Augustine a mere personal exercise, but a gift from God that is received humbly. As "beggars of God," before praying, the Holy Spirit is asked for his help. Only the Spirit gives that inspiration and moves the heart to do good and to love God. The silent prayer hears the voice of the Spirit and recognizes his voice in the facts and events of life. Thus receive the fire of God's love, it lights up. Augustine says that we are like a cooking stone or a candle: to transmit heat and light, before we have to be lit. Finally, Augustine says that prayer illuminates the eyes of the heart to see things and events as God sees them.

In his Rule, where he expresses how to live in community life, Augustine places prayer in Chapter II. He asks to be assiduous to prayer at established times and for the oratory to always be free for those who want to pray. Prayer, more than a theoretical or mental act, is affective, so it asks that when you pray you feel your heart what you profess with your voice..

Observations, recollections and barefoot

The Recollection, a religious and cultural fabric of its own within the Augustinian Family, has its substrate in the Congregations of Observance of the XIV-XV centuries. There is something similar in almost every order of the Western Church. The observants tended to intensify their union with God through the practice of the sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours, lectio divina and mental prayer. They created an atmosphere of rigorous silence and isolation, a climate suitable for contemplation and inner gathering.

Prayer ordered all daily activity  to mean scandalously and to show in a clearly visible way the preference for Jesus, so that one can see that someone "is always with Jesus", as a good disciple accompanies him throughout the day.

Meditation

The Augustinian Recollection gathered from all this the ideal of the daily Eucharist as the main moment of the day; the Liturgy of the Hours as a space of prayer together with the whole Church in the morning, noon, afternoon, night and rest; and meditation or mental prayer as a space to join Christ personally, but in a community atmosphere, twice a day: in the morning and afternoon.

The Augustinian Recollect’s spiritual ecosystem

The early monks practiced lectio divina, prayerful reading of the Bible in four parts: careful reading(what does the text say?) ;  meditation on what is read (what does God tell me in the text?) ;  prayer (what do I mean to God from the text?) ; and finally, contemplation(loving silence, abandonment, moving from the Word to those who say it)..

The second part, meditation, had concrete developments separated from lectio divina. The Dominicans practiced it in the 13th century. It is an intimate, complementary, silent, personal prayer. In the Augustinian Family it was first mentioned in the Constitutions of 1551, but the Augustinians knew it and practiced it at least since the beginning of that century.

From the earliest days, the end of the Sixteen century, the most notable difference between an Augustinian community and an Augustinian Recollect community was that gathering environment that everyone participated in, without exceptions, dispensations or privileges. There was a marked preference for mental prayer, the center of the day along with the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours.

One of the concerns was to keep the climate quiet, closing and retreating. Spiritual reading, spiritual exercises, devotions to the Saints were practiced. They did a daily public conscience exam, a weekly confession, and prostated themselves to the floor as they entered and left the choir, being rebuked or praised, wrong in prayer, or being late for refectory.

There were strict schedules and rules about silence, closure, isolation, loneliness, fasting, recess, austerity, discipline... They practiced one year of gathering after the religious profession and another at the end of their studies.

 

The Way of Life of Friar Luis de León, the first text on the daily life of the recollect, allowed mental prayer where every religious chose; but the first chapter (1601) added that it had to be done in common. Because, as Augustinians Rodrigo de Solís (†1583) said, "a dull coal, if other ignitions are put together, it lights up." Mental prayer in community is a hallmark of the Gathering.

 

In fact they created houses for religious volunteers who were in them  for about a year in them, called deserts, away from the populations, oriented to silence, closure, prayer and reading. Each month they took turns living in individual hermitages as well as in worship of the Most Holy for 15 hours a day in summer and 12 in winter. Its diet was completely vegetarian: bread, wine, oil, legumes and fruits; no meat or fish. On Sundays and main festivities they celebrated the offices together and the prior conducted a spiritual conversation. They never got away with the apostolate: two preachers resided in every desert.

All the recollect communities nevertheless professed an intense spiritual life with more than six hours of prayer of one kind or another daily. For mental prayer they used only three works by three authors: Friar Luis de Granada(Dominico), Antonio de Molina (Cartujo) and Agustín de San Ildefonso (Augustinus recoleto).

 

In times of noise

Geographical expansion, social changes, and historical avatars changed the ways and times of spiritual life; new devotions appeared, and time was subtracted from mental prayer, which was no longer done entirely in community, allowing a private part.

From the nineteenth century the Recollection  changed markedly. For not a few lusters religious life could not develop with freedom and peace. Wars of various kinds, anti-clerical laws that strangled or even impeded religious life, loss of vigor, lack of formation and means, direct prohibitions and suppressions of religious freedom. Prayer times were reduced, exceptions to the rules were applied, serious interference was suffered, and immediate concerns were rather in survival.

From the twentieth century onwards, cultural influences, daily needs and pastoral tasks, more demanding and heterogeneous, did not facilitate a more exclusive dedication to contemplation. Currently mental prayer is present for one hour a day in the life of the communities, half in the morning in common associated with Laudes and another half in the afternoon associated with Vespers, sometimes in private.

Prayer is a fundamental point in initial and permanent formation. It is also today a space of permanent dialogue with society, which is known in times of noise and looks with longing for spaces of encounter, silence and meditation.

In this sense, the new "deserts" are now represented in the Centers of Augustinian-Recollect Spirituality and their offer of spaces of humanization of life and areas where to give meaning to the person and the community in the midst of a hectic, convulsive society and victim of immediacy and lack of time, rest or dialogue.

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Augustinian Recollects Province of St. Nicholas of Tolentine.

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