I DO NOTHING OF MYSELF: WHAT THE FATHER HAS TAUGHT ME IS WHAT I PREACH. HE WHO SENT ME IS WITH ME. (John 8:28) Jesus lived what is called in modern times a contemplative life, as this text, among others that could be cited, attests explicitly. For the greater part of his time on earth, he lived such a life in retirement, in umbratilis. That is how St. Augustine designated the way dedicated to the pursuit of truth in quiet separation from the busy world with its employments and public engagements.  When our Lord entered upon the active life of teaching, preaching, healing and lived in community with his chosen disciples he did not abandon the contemplation that he had known from his youth. He remained consciously united with the Father. He stated as much. “The Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:38). The very words he employs, he told his apostles at the Last Supper, are the fruit of his conscious union with the Father: “ The words I say to you I do not speak as from myself: it is the Father, living in me, who is doing this work.” (John 14:10) 

The fruitfulness of Jesus life was manifested in its most significant and abiding effects only after his death and resurrection. The words and the actions of his life, however, did not perish with his earthly existence for the very reason that they were not the words and acts of man: their origin was in the Godhead. The Father spoke through his Word in the human language used by Jesus in his active ministry.   These words of our Lord continue to yield fruit as they have every generation since they were uttered. Jesus himself characterized his speech in unforgettable terms that contain an implicit promise. “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life (John 6:63).”  He who admits these words into his heart by faith and keeps them in his acts already possesses the life in the Spirit that is eternal. 

As other passages declare very clearly, only the person who lives by these words, in one way or another, is admitted to life in the Father. There is no other mediator between God and man save the Lord Jesus, as St. Paul wrote to Timothy: “There is only one God, and there is only one mediator between God and mankind, himself a man, Christ Jesus who sacrificed himself as a ransom for them all (1Tim 2:5)”.  And so learning to listen to the words of our Lord is essential for all who would be unite with him and to spread knowledge of him and of the Father. All the saintly preachers of the Gospel have understood this and lived accordingly. Men like Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great did not choose between contemplative prayer and the active ministry of the word; they were contemplatives in action. The life their preaching gave rise to was the fruit of the Spirit that spoke in and through them. There is no other source of spiritual fruitfulness, in fact, whether it be transmitted through preaching, teaching, deeds of kindness or good example in general. 

This is a basic truth of our faith. It is not merely a pious consideration elaborated for the edification of the devout; rather, this is a well-established article of our Catholic faith. Only the fruit of the Spirit, only the work of grace is efficacious for salvation. All the eloquence, all the acts of virtue and all the energetic service of others bear fruit to eternal life only in so far as they are done under the influence of grace, that is to say, in communion with the Lord in the Holy Spirit. That does not necessarily mean consciousness of that communion, to be sure. Anymore than the indwelling of the Spirit depends on our consciousness of his presence and action within us. In the fourth century there was a group of Christians who maintained that only one who consciously experienced the Spirit’s presence enjoyed God’s grace. This view was rightly condemned by the Catholic Church. It is a heresy that is still alive in certain Protestant circles today in a modified form. 

This teaching of our faith needs to be reaffirmed and insisted on in our own times with a particular vigor of assertion and with a distinctly clear and credible witness. It has undergone an unfortunate eclipse with nefarious results for the spiritual life of the clergy, both diocesan and religious, engaged in the active ministry. The priests who remain aware of this teaching and integrate it as they are able in their practice are mostly those formed prior to Vatican II. Lack of this contemplative dimension of the priestly ministry and of the active life on the part of religious men and women is behind the grave scandals that have led to a diminished respect for the clergy along with a consequent diminishing of trust in the hierarchy on the part of many of the faithful. This anticlericalism, evident in Europe, where it has been endemic for a couple hundred years,has spread since the Council. It is in recent times now a feature of the Church in the USA for the first time in any broad extent, due to the sexual abuses that have come to light and seen to be more prominent than had been acknowledged by Church leaders. 

Currently, this problem of sexual irregularities has been made a subject of public notice and is under consideration by the Bishops of this country. A document that details the problem and provides disciplinary norms for addressing abuses has recently been issued. However, there are good reasons to believe that certain serious transgressions which are only mentioned in passing in this present paper, are rather widespread and threaten to damage the high respect and weaken the trust of the laity in the Bishops and priests of this country in a widening circle of the faithful. The result will be disastrous for the faith of many who will be easier prey for the sects who already have been effecting depredations among the flock of Christ. 

There are, to be sure, any number of causes for this breakdown of clerical and religious life. Most are not secret or unrecognized: secularization of society, the pervasive sexual exposure so widespread in the culture, the erosion of morality in society, lack of adequate religious formation and weak intellectual culture among clerics. But the most basic reason is not adequately remarked and still less is it being sufficiently remedied even at the level of planning. I refer to the need for a vigorous life of prayer in order to abide faithfully by the teachings of the Gospel. Since only God’s grace is efficacious in effecting salvation, only by remaining under the influence of the Spirit of God can the work of sanctification advance.  In the ordinary course of his Providence, the bestowal of his grace is rendered more generous and effective through priests and religious and laypersons who themselves have knowledge of Him by experience. And the more intimate and  conscious the experience the more effective the witness given. 

This is one of the major reasons why contemplative communities exist in many countries of this earth. Monks and nuns of our Order have always prayed for the spread of the Gospel in other lands and for the holiness of the whole Church. One cannot assist at mass without sharing in such intercessory prayer, for one thing. But that is not enough; we must incarnate our witness in local Churches as far as we are able.  A monastic community dedicated primarily to the search for union with God and to acknowledging His holiness and omnipotence by singing his praise and the practice of obedience in faith witnesses to God’s transcendent glory. While an individual believer can also testify to God’s greatness. yet there is an added social dimension when  a community of persons agree to live together with this sole purpose of glorifying God by lives dedicated to union with Him  and to His praises. 

This being the reason for our presence in this place and country, it is incumbent upon us to assure we give such a witness in all truth and communicate it with sufficient clarity as to profit those who come to us. While parish priests and active religious have a particular form of ministry that is of fundamental importance for the Church, monks also have their specific contribution to make for the good of the people of God and of all those who visit a monastery. While such a function has been associated with monastic life since the time of Antony of Egypt in the fourth century, in recent times it has been formally assigned to us by two holy Popes. I was present at the audience given to our General Chapter by Paul VI at the Vatican when he urged us to extend ourselves as far as we can without compromising our contemplative life so as to assist others in their lives of faith and prayer. Later, I was also present when Pope John Paul II made the same plea in the course of an address to the abbots and abbesses of the Order.  

What we are to share is our experience of contemplative knowledge of God. We cannot pass on to others what we ourselves do not possess. Under a double title then we are committed to the challenging task of  “knowing the love of Christ which is beyond all knowledge, as St. Paul puts it (Eph.3:18). This is the primary mission of each of us as monks; to communicate this loving knowledge is the special task assigned us as a community by our Holy Father. Our Constitutions make the first task very clear indeed. Constitution #2 states the case with all desirable clarity: ” Our Order is a monastic institute wholly ordered to contemplation.” 

Consequent upon this contemplative orientation of our way of life, is our common duty to establish and maintain those practices and structures that form and preserve the way of interior prayer. This task is not to be carried into effect in a vacuum but, as the next sentence of this same Constitution states, we are to follow the path traced out by the Rule.

“The monks dedicate themselves to the worship of God in a hidden life within the monastery under the Rule of St. Benedict.”  The text then goes on to mention certain of the features of the Rule that have a particular importance for Cistercians: solitude, silence, assiduous prayer and joyful penitence. These practices are not chosen at random; they are intrinsically bound together. There can be no progress in prayer without penitence and the cleansing of the heart from the domination of passion in its manifold variety. Nor does prayer flourish where silence and some significant solitude is lacking. These observances, then, are aids to union with God in that they contribute to that purity of heart which is a condition for pure prayer.  Pure prayer is another expression for contemplation as that term is used in the Benedictine and Cistercian tradition. 

The orientation to interior prayer, or prayer of the heart as it is referred to commonly, is evident from the Prologue of the Rule. The very first word, ‘obsculta’, ‘listen attentively’, places the monk in a posture of active receptivity which favors this work of taking in the inspirations and lights of the Spirit of God. These divine urgings can arise from any number of immediate sources: the words of a sermon or conference, for example, and that is what Benedict has in mind in this passage. A regular and essential source of such light, and one generously provided for and recommended in the Rule, is the text of the inspired Scripture. Accordingly, lectio divina has been from the very origins of the Benedictine way, a characteristic of contemplation as practiced by monks in that tradition.  

In keeping with this feature of our life, the next article of our Constitutions, paragraph #3.2 , reads in part as follows: “Through God’s word the monks are trained in a discipline of heart and action to b responsive to the Holy Spirit and so attain purity of heart and a continual mindfulness of God’s presence.”  Not only the works of joyful repentance but also by meditating and assimilating the word of God are we to arrive at that purity of heart which prepares for the sight of God. This knowledge of God is to begin in this life and thus prepare us for that eternal vision of his glory which surpasses our present powers. The Imitation of Christ has devoted considerable attention to this inner work of the heart and stresses the need to cultivate the faculty of interior hearing by attentive listening to God’s word as we read it.  

I will hear what the Lord God speaks in me (Ps.84.9). Blessed is the soul that hears the Lord speaking I itself and receives the word of consolation from his mouth... Blessed indeed are the ears that listen to truth teaching within, not the a voice sounding without…

Let not Moses speak to me, or one of the prophets, but do you rather speak, Lord God, the one who inspires and illuminates all the prophets. For you alone without them can perfectly imbue me, whereas they are useless without you. They can indeed speak in words but do not confer the Spirit. They speak beautifully but if you are silent they do not enflame the heart. They bring forth the letter, but you open the meaning. They pronounce mysteries whereas you unlock the understanding. (Book 3, ch. 1.1 and  ch.2.2) 

The art of listening with the ears of the heart can be taught and learned but only with the grace of the Spirit and a steady application on our part. A large part of monastic training aims to teach that art. It does this by creating the opportunities for applying oneself to its practice and by providing the support needed to develop those habits of mind and heart which gradually bring the monk to a stronger desire to know and serve the Lord. Lectio divina makes a major contribution to this attainment. Learning to read so as to hear what is perhaps not stated explicitly in the text depends upon a free-floating desire for further light on the mystery of God and of his Christ. For the proper manner to read any text requires an ability to perceive the reaction of the heart and mind to the words as well as the meaning of the words themselves. The full meaning of any given text – and this is above all true of  who can sense in the words and phrasing, in the tone and images, in the omissions and emphases something of the experience that gave rise to the passage. This kind of listening is a function of the heart’s sensitivity and of association of ideas based on connaturality of taste and of spirit. We hear what is suggested by the Spirit who moved in his heart leading him to write when we have the ears of our heart trained to listen to what he stirs in the depths of our own spirit. This mode of reading and of listening to the Word  himself speaking in Scripture, in the Liturgy is learned above all in the prayer of the heart, through contemplation of the divine mysteries in which we participate in our daily life. In the normal course of growth this modality of listening becomes so natural to us that it characterizes our way of relating to one another, to nature and to the world. Such attentive presence to God in all things becomes our way of being. This, in short, is the fruit of that transformation which is the work of the Spirit and the immediate aim, the scopos, as Cassian calls it, of our monastic life. It is the entrance way that opens to the gates of the Eternal City that has God for its light. Jesus called it the Kingdom of Heaven.

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

Return to Index.

Go to Archive.