THE WHOLE WORLD AS IF IT WERE COLLECTED TOGETHER UNDER A SINGLE RAY OF LIGHT WAS LED BEFOR HIS EYES.  These words are taken from St. Gregory the Great’s Dialogues (Book II. 35) . They describe a vision that St. Benedict had one night shortly before he died. Gregory introduces his account by affirming that Benedict himself recounted the story of how at first, upon looking out of the window while he was praying before vigils, a more diffuse, very bright light shone in the darkness changing the night as it were into day.  These events were followed by his seeing the soul of Bishop Germanus of Capua carried to heaven in a sphere of light. 

A great deal pertaining to our monastic life can be drawn from this story about our Father St. Benedict and about St. Gregory who tells of this marvelous vision and goes on to comment on it. We do well ourselves to follow in the footsteps of many generations of monks who made Gregory’s writings their favorite spiritual reading. In particular, the first generations of Cistercians were formed by Gregory’s teachings on the life of asceticism, prayer, and contemplation, and his way of presenting Benedict had a strong impact on how the Rule was understood.  In the passage I have just referred to, for instance, the implied message is that the man who lives as Benedict did, following his Rule, is so formed in spirit that he becomes capable of beholding heavenly light. In short, the Rule is to be lived so as to form contemplatives. 

Living according to the Rule is not only a way of attaining to a certain maturity through following a formative discipline. Certainly, as the Rule itself makes evident, that is one of its immediate aims, since such maturity is a basis for a fully Christian life and the foundation for deeper spiritual experience. That St. Benedict envisaged such maturity resulting from the formation provided by his teaching is evident from the detailed description he provides of the qualities he expects in the cellarer. Chosen for this position should be a monk who has been formed in the monastery so as to be capable to treating with men and affairs in a manner that is not only efficient but as far as possible, pleasant and helpful to others. Consistent courtesy, consideration for others, attention to duty, modesty in speech and manner, willingness to serve, firm yet gentle in correcting- these are the qualities that the monastic lawgiver seeks to form in the monks who follow his direction. They add up to the kind of person every one likes to do business with and have as an associate. His is a good working description of a mature Christian personality. 

But St. Gregory, having already indicated how his protagonist had, by practicing what he taught, displayed these and other admirable qualities, here wishes to make a point that places all the rest in a new perspective. Benedict, he tells us, has so lived his monastic experience that he has become an outstanding contemplative, a true mystic. He has not only developed in the various virtues that make men useful and companionable to one another; he has also so lived that his inner senses have been sharpened so that he is attuned to heavenly realities beyond the visible world. He exemplifies the effect of following St. Paul’s admonition to the Romans where he wrote: ‘ I beseech you, brothers, that . . . you be transformed in the newness of your mind, that you might discern what is the good and well pleasing and perfect will of God’ (Romans 12: 1-2).  

This means that all along the abbot of Monte Casino was practicing the various observances such as fasting, silence, obedience, lectio divina and the rest, with discernment as well as with fervor. Not by chance did it happen that the Rule he wrote became noted for its discretion and moderation. Men who were seeking God as monks found, by experience, that this Rule for Monasteries could be applied in very differing circumstances and for persons of widely distinct backgrounds and culture. Its author had managed to make a synthesis of elements taken in large part from earlier tradition which rendered the way he traced out harmonious with the general requirements of humankind. Before long, women as well as men adopted the same Rule of life and often lived it more faithfully and fruitfully than many communities of men. 

Clearly Benedict’s gift of discernment was exercised in the service of his search for union with God. His moderation was not a compromise with weaknesses that leads to vice; rather, his discretion allowed him to aim at the highest goal while taking into realistic account the limits and defects he discovered in himself as he pursued this aim with persistent ardor. His separation from the world through living in the cloister did not cause him to become narrow in mind or heart; the contrary was the case.   That is the very point St. Gregory wishes to stress in his narrative of the vision Benedict saw near the end of his life. Benedict, Gregory informs us, had become capable of beholding the brilliant light emanating from the beyond where God thrones, and then to witness that radiance focus itself into a single ray that encompassed the whole world. This grace was the fruit of his entire monastic life which he had lived in such a way that it trained him for seeing the light of God’s reflected glory and thus detached him from this world.   

Benedict’s discernment was itself in the service of his single-minded search for God. He kept this contemplative goal in view all along the way and it was this transcendent perspective that kept his judgment realistic precisely because it allowed him to be objective in his evaluation of this world. Such realism is a fruit of detachment; it permits one to see realities as they exist in God’s knowledge and plan. If Benedict displays a singleness of purpose in his Rule, he never becomes cramped or fanatical in his demands. His Rule retains the broadness of horizon that marks the divine perspective. Gregory himself makes this point when his companion, Peter the Deacon, exclaims, after hearing the account of the nocturnal vision, that this whole account is beyond his powers to conceive. Gregory replies:  

For the soul that sees the Creator every created thing is narrow. However little of the light of the Creator one sees, every created thing appears small to him. The reason for this is that by the very light of this intimate vision the bosom of the mind is enlarged and expanded in God so that it becomes superior to the world. Indeed, the soul of the one who sees becomes superior to itself. And so when the soul is ravished above itself in the light of God, it is enlarged for interior things (Dialogues II.35).           

It tells us a great deal about Gregory’s own contemplative life that for him such an experience poses no problem. He has no difficulty in understanding how a man, himself living on earth, could see the entire world as a small object in the distance. Desiring to give as full an explanation as he can in order to help Peter to grasp how such a remarkable happening can have actually occurred, he adds further clarifications. 

What wonder therefore if he sees the world gathered together before him when he was elevated outside the world in the light of his mind?  That the world is said to have been gathered together before his eyes does not mean that the heavens and earth were shrunken but that the soul of the seer was enlarged. Since he was snatched up into God he could see without difficulty everything that is beneath God.      

We are accustomed to exposure to photographs of the earth as seen from the space ships that circle our planet at great distances from it, so that it requires but little imagination for us today to form some concept of Benedict’s vision. It takes a special effort for us to appreciate how remarkable an event it was for somebody at that period (the early sixth century) to fashion the kind of image that Gregory describes and which Benedict experienced in his prayer. What admirable understanding Gregory here displays! The fact that he was able to understand with ready appreciation such an unheard of experience- beyond the power of Peter even to imagine- indicates that Gregory himself was at home in the same world of the spirit that Benedict knew. He must have been gifted with something of the same kind of sensitivity and insight that the Abbot of Monte Casino himself had as manifested in his mystical visions. 

Surely for us today the most noteworthy observation in connection with this vision is that Benedict toward the end of his life had advanced far in the contemplative life through being formed by the same Rule we follow. It was in living according to this Rule that he became familiar with divine realities.  He had developed into much more than a mature, capable human being; he became a man of God, sensitive to heavenly realities, responsive to the movements of the Spirit. More, his vision of the soul of his friend, Germanus, the Bishop of Capua, suggests that he was capable of deep friendship, being so attuned to the soul of another human being that he perceived his departure from this world at a considerable distance. Significantly, these two visions occurred one immediately after the other, in this way suggesting that his human relationship was intimately bound to his experience of God’s light.  

What are we to derive from these considerations in regard to our own manner of living our monastic life ‘according to the Rule of St. Benedict’ as we state in the vows we solemnly make to God in our profession as Cistercians? Perhaps the palmary lesson to assimilate is one of orientation and perspective. The most determinative factor in the formation of a monk committed to Benedict’s Rule, Gregory suggests here, is the reformation and elevation of his inner life. While we are to put into practice zealously the outward observances, yet our primary concern is to focus on the effect these have on our interior dispositions and our spiritual senses. In short, the guiding principle of Benedictine life is our transformation in Christ, the restructuring of our inner man in such a way that we become familiar with experiencing the divine world where God is all in all. 

This means that in all our activities we must strive to purify our actual motivation so as to remain united with the will of God while we carry out our various duties.  We can learn to preserve in our consciousness the desire to serve God even while we work with attention to our tasks. We have a natural tendency to begin a work for the purpose of carrying out God’s plan for us but gradually to allow ourselves to become absorbed in the task itself so as to permit other motivations to influence us and so to obscure in our mind our original purpose. By frequently elevating our mind in prayer and focusing our intent repeatedly on the Lord himself we gradually form the habit of abiding with him until, under the influence of grace, we remain habitually conscious of his presence. This requires an oft repeated examination of our thoughts and motives and a serious critique of our own behavior in its deeper and somewhat hidden tendencies. It is a labor to be sure; in fact, it is this effort which early monks called ‘the work of the heart’ and considered this to be the proper and primary work of the monk as such. It is known only to himself and God most of the time. But gradually its results become more apparent to others who recognize the presence of God in his manner and behavior. 

In this manner does the monastic way of life achieve its fuller expression and its primary purpose. The contemplative life is a life of constant prayer and constant prayer is realized only by a radical refashioning of the deeper dispositions of the heart and an intensification of spiritual consciousness. The inner senses of the soul are refined and strengthened by this practice of guard of the heart that strives to keep our attention and desire centered on our Lord and the things that unite us with him. One of the earliest practices developed by the monastic fathers was this watching over of the thoughts that one admits into the heart. We cannot prevent images and thoughts of all kinds from occurring to us while we are engaged in our work, contacts with others and even at reading and prayer. But we can, by a determined vigilance refuse entry into the places of the mind and heart that come under our control and depend upon choice. 

One of the purposes of silence practiced at work, when together in various tasks as in the kitchen and at the common work, is precisely to facilitate this guard of the heart. Learning to work together while keeping quiet during such times as dishwashing and preparing vegetables instead of talking aloud is a discipline that is most helpful to such inner attentiveness. We owe it to one another to provide this kind of help in working at our advance in the inner life. Those who seriously live this way day by day make an important contribution to the formation of others, even though they may not think of doing that. Whereas those who are careless create difficulties for their fellow monks and even at times become obstacles for their perseverance. Seemingly friendly chatter on the part of monks has nothing friendly about it: it is contrary to the genuine welfare of the brothers and lowers the spiritual tone of the community. Maturity in friendship, like all forms of true charity, is concerned with the genuine welfare of the other, and so is ready to practice disciplined self-denial when that is called for by the situation and the character of the persons concerned.  

St. Augustine had learned by his wide contact with persons and events the radical need for all to penetrate beyond the limiting boundaries of sense experience. He repeatedly shows how only those who go into the inner world of the soul will be able to form truly durable and fruitful relationships with others as well as with God. For instance, although he comments on the fact that many are not disposed to profit from exposure to this teaching he considers it better to stress the need to attend to the inner world so that those who are well disposed might not be deprived of the direction their well-being requires.    He is convinced that to know God truly one must know himself. And to know himself means to understand by experience the nature of his soul. And the soul can be truly known only through attention to the interior. He puts it in the following way.

What is it to see within?… For there is something which the soul … sees through itself. And in fact it sees better what it sees through itself than what it sees through its servant (the body).  It truly happens that the soul sees itself through itself and that the soul, in order to know itself, sees itself (Ennarationces sobre los Salmos 41.7 [BAC: Madrid, 1965) 12.   

 Earlier in this lengthy explanation of the spiritual significance of this same Psalm 41, Augustine had spoken of the role of desire in the spiritual life. If he goes at great length to show how necessary it is to pursue the interior dimension of reality and of one’s own being, it is because he is persuaded that by entering into the interior depths of the heart one will come to a personal contact with God who abides there. And he us persuaded that experiencing God increases the desire for him that is so essential for continuing our pursuit of union with him.  For to encounter God is to meet with the One for whom we are created and so it is to discover the highest of all bliss, even now in this life. Let us close these reflections with Augustine’s attempt to convey the joy of that living knowledge of God, so closely related to the vision of light seen by Benedict at the close of his life.  

He who has the most excellent house in secret has a tabernacle on earth. …Yet, while he looks upon the tabernacle he is led into the house of God by following a certain sweetness, a kind of interior and hidden pleasure, as from the house of God there sounded some sweet sounding organ. And while he walks about in that tabernacle, he is drawn on by an interior sound, delightful to the ear. As he follows its tones he is drawn away from every noise of flesh and blood until he arrives at the house of God. … In the house of God there is an eternal feast… with a chorus of angels in the presence of God accompanied by unceasing joy….  The sound of this festival charms the hearing of the one who walks in this tabernacle and considers the marvels of God in the redemption of the faithful. (Ennaraciones. sobre los Salmos 41.9, 10, pp. 15,16).

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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