WATCH, THEREFORE, FOR YOU DO NOT KNOW WHEN THE MASTER OF THE HOUSE WILL COME. (Mark 13:37)  For Jesus it was an important message that he imparted when he enjoined on his disciples to remain watchful. After pronouncing the words I have just cited, he repeated this message and extended it beyond the circle of his immediate followers: “What I say to you I say to all: “Watch”. He, of course, put into practice what he taught and so when he took three of his closest disciples with him in the garden the night before he died, he urged them to watch and pray. On an earlier occasion he inculcated this same lesson by means of a memorable parable that is often read in the liturgy. The story of the servant who, in the absence of his master begins to yield to slack and sensual ways and is surprised by the unexpected return of the head of the house and so subject to punishment exemplifies the same point.  Our Lord knew from his observation of the people he met with every day how prone we are to drift along with whatever comes easiest. He knew the human heart and how prone it is to be led aside from duty and good resolutions by sensuality and concupiscence. And so, repeatedly, he preached on the need for us to make special effort to remain alert, attentive to the demands of duty and the inspirations of the Spirit and of conscience.   

The apostles and their converts learned this lesson well. Paul warned the elders of Ephesus to “Watch” for “Some, even from your own group, will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.” (Acts 20:30, 31) To the Colossians he urges the association of watchfulness and prayer. “Devote yourselves to prayer, be watchful with thanksgiving” (4:2). St. Peter associates seriousness with an alert mind in his advice to the churches in a passage that used to be the regular reading at Compline: “Discipline yourselves, be vigilant for your adversary the devil goes about seeking whom he might devour…” (1P5: 8) One of the last beatitudes recorded in the Bible concerns this attitude of inner alertness: “Blessed is the one who watches” (Apoc. 16:15). 

 There are various ways in which we can fail to remain alert so as to resist temptation of different kinds which are the more insidious, easy to fall into, as they are met with so readily in all manners of pursuits. So many things in the world appeal to our curiosity, and much that is available today is inimical to a serious life of attention to the movements of the Spirit within us. How much useless talk there is about such things as entertainment and sports today. It is difficult to resist taking the easy course and going along with the drift to indulging in idle or excessive involvement in such light activities.  Even serious matters can become a source of spiritual dullness when we pursue them with too exclusive an attention. So many professionals and businessmen who are hard workers and earnest in their efforts to remain up to date have no time or energy left for attending to their spiritual life. 

Jesus had referred to instances of sudden, unexpected death that occurred in his times in order to make the point that the victims were not cut down because they were greater sinners than their contemporaries. But the very fact that such unforeseen accidents are an all too common happening is a further reason for his followers to watch and be ready for the master often calls us to depart this life with no antecedent warning. Just this last week or so there have been a number of shocking instances of such disasters. The hundreds of persons in Korea going about their daily business burned to death in the subway; another 95 persons, nearly all young, who perished in a night club fire; over 300 Iranian soldiers killed in an air crash, the massacres in Mindanao of a peaceful village.  Not one of these victims had so much as an hour to prepare for death. Were they ready?   

God’s mercy is without measure and certainly surpasses our calculations so that we can hope that all who suddenly and unexpectedly meet their death are not deprived of his special love. Indeed, it is one of our functions as monks to be praying for such persons and others in particular need of God’s grace and mercy. The life of constant prayer to which we are called is not devoted solely to our own salvation, but to that of the whole Church and even of the whole of humanity. 

The men who founded our way of life were deeply touched by our Lord’s words that repeatedly taught the need for watchfulness and readiness to meet him our savior and our judge. They knew that Jesus called the man who was preoccupied with his business affairs to the exclusion of the welfare of his soul a fool. For God was to call him to account the very night that he promised himself many years of prosperity. They had sufficient knowledge of the ways of the world to realize how readily they were led astray  from the straight path that leads to God when they were exposed to the enticements of the pleasant life day after day. And so they devised a life style that eliminated such obstacles to a life of prayerful remembrance of God.  

One of the first to write on the advantages of such withdrawal was St. Basil of Caesarea. His views were based on personal experience as well as shrewd observation of men and affairs of the world with which he was familiar from early youth.  In  his Long Rules he puts forth the rationale of what became the classic thinking and practice of monastic spirituality in the East as well as the West. For St. Benedict followed Basil’s teaching and made it a cornerstone of his own monastic structure. 

 So also we practice successfully the art of being well-pleasing to God according to Christ’s gospel by withdrawal (anachoresis) from the cares of the world and complete estrangement from distractions (‘Regulae Fusius Tractatae’, 5 cited with modified translation from Augustine Holmes, “A Life Pleasing to God”, [London 2000], 107). 

As we prepare to enter into the season of Lent this week on Ash Wednesday, these considerations are eminently appropriate to engage our attention.  They are fundamental to our Cistercian vocation for this manner of viewing the monastic life style was formative for the founders of our Order and faithfully put into practice by the early monks who placed themselves under their direction. It was this conception that dominated the formation of such men as St. Bernard and the men who were novices with him a number of whom became abbots of the first generation of foundations. For closely linked to this teaching and giving it a positive content is the clear vision of the purpose (skopos) and end (telos) of the Christian life and the conviction that monastic life is the best way to realize these goals. St. John Cassian adopted not only the thought but even the vocabulary of Basil concerning this doctrine and thus assured its widespread adoption in the Latin monastic world. In fact, he made it the topic of the first of his Conferences where he employs the same Greek terms as Basil, introducing them into his Latin text. The aim (skopos) of the monastic life, he explains, is purity of heart; its final end (telos) is the kingdom of God.  

St. Basil saw forgetfulness and distractions as the great enemies of these goals. Watchfulness and conservation of the memory of God are the remedies calculated to prevent these disorders.  We do not affirm too much if we maintain that for Basil the very  reason for withdrawing from life in secular society is in order to establish favorable conditions for watchfulness and preservation of the continual memory of God.  

This must be recognized, that we cannot succeed in keeping any commandment at all, nor in the actual love towards God and our neighbor, if our minds are wandering now in one direction, now in another…. The one who would truly follow God must be loosed from the chains of attachment to this life.  Now this is secured by complete withdrawal (anachoresis) and forgetfulness of former habits…. We ought therefore to perform every act as happening beneath the eye of the Lord, and every thought as observed by him… (‘Regulae fusius Trasctatae’, 5- cited in Holmes, 107- 109).    

Interestingly enough, although there are many instances in both the Old and New Testaments where we are urged to remember God, his commandments and his benefits, yet the expression, dear to St. Basil, ‘the memory of God’ does not occur in Scripture. Psalm 76.4 is representative of many instances where the act of remembering God is indicated without, however, using the phrase ‘memory of God’ that was to become so prominent is Catholic spirituality. The psalm reads: ‘I remembered God and I rejoiced’. Jesus himself inculcated the remembrance of his own person at the last supper and we faithfully  carry out his injunction at every mass, at the consecration by repeating the very words he used: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’

Basil declares quite explicitly in this same Rule that we strive to avoid distraction in order that  we might ‘carry about the holy thought of God with continual and pure memory imprinted on our souls like a holy seal.’ This memory as he presents it is more than a recollection of the past undertaken as a mental or imaginative exercise; it is a form of communion and is permeated with the desire for pleasing God. Only desire and love conserve this contact with God and its very presence enhances love and causes it to grow. It also increases within us the disposition to comply more readily and fully with God’s will. In one of his Shorter Rules Basil puts the case in the following terms: 

I consider a good disposition to be a desire of pleasing God that is vehement, insatiable, firmly fixed and unchangeable. It is attained by wise and continuous contemplation of the majesty of the glories of God, by good thoughts, and by ceaseless remembrance of the blessings that have come to us from God.( cited in Holmes, 119).

We are about to begin Lent this Wednesday. As St. Benedict says it is a time for us all to lead lives of greater purity by increasing our attention to prayer, greater recollection and more earnest devotion to pleasing God. Self denial in the form of fasting is a very real help to such prayerfulness, but it will prove the more fruitful as we practice this living memory of God that constitutes a life of constant prayer. Holy reading contributes mightily to conserving the memory of God fresh and effective in our daily life and the Rule provides for our giving a particular attention to this exercise. While we have a special time of day in which all of us engage in reading our Lenten book we are encouraged to do such reading at other periods of the day as well. Overcoming self for the sake of God’s service and glory is furthered  in a more particular way by acts of charity, by forgiveness of any past injuries  and by working for the common good and creating a spirit of unity. Such ways of acting are the fruit of prayer and of sincere searching for union with God. May each of us make this Lent a season fruitful in such good works as these, and thus contribute to the peace and. Growth of the kingdom of God in this country and in our war-threatened world.

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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