I AM THE VINE, YOU ARE THE BRANCHES (JOHN 15: 5) When St. Bernard spoke to his community in chapter on the Feast of Pentecost around the year 1145 he surely had this verse of St. John’s Gospel in mind together with the well known effects of the Pentecostal fire. Those who saw and heard the apostles at first thought they were drunk with wine. Peter took them up and made a light joke of their unflattering impressions. It is too early for drinking; their enthusiasm is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel, saying: “I will pour out my spirit on all mankind.” Partly as a result of this exchange there was elaborated in the Church a doctrine of sober intoxication (sobria ebrietas, in Latin), as characterizing the coming of the Holy Spirit in general and at times of prayer in particular. Here is what Bernard had to say on the subject. 

This zeal they imbibed for themselves when they were thought to be drunk with wine. And truly they were drunk with wine, but not with that kind unbelievers thought made them drunk. Clearly, I say, they were drunk but with new wine that old wine skins were not fit to receive nor able to contain. For this wine was poured out by that true Vine from on high. A wine that gives joy to the heart, not disturbing the steadiness of the mind. Rather a wine that germinates producing virgins, not that which makes the wise fall away. A new wine... in which there is joy of the heart, not luxury of the flesh. (‘En el dia de Pentecostes’, Sermo 3.1 , Madrid: [BAC , 1986] 214)   

When Bernard refers here to “a wine that produces virgins” he is citing a variant reading of Zachariah 9:17, found in some manuscripts of the Latin text. This text, which does not occur in the Hebrew or the Septuagint, speaks of a vine that flowers t; its wine causes not drunkenness but  produces virgins. How does this come about? According to a number of commentators, whom Bernard knew, this verse of the prophet is a subtle reference to the wine of the  Eucharist. Those who drink it live in the Spirit and are united to the Word as virgins. While Bernard does not mention the Eucharist in this context, but rather he applies it to the experience of the Spirit who was sent at Pentecost. This wine of the Spirit is not proper to earth, he says; it is the drink of heaven where it flows through all the streets and boulevards of the heavenly city. Very cleverly the Abbot of Clairvaux points out that the earth, however, is not devoid of its own precious store that heaven itself thirsts for, namely the flesh of Christ. And he views the Ascension and Pentecost as a kind of commercial exchange whereby earth offers the  presence of its Lord and Savior in exchange for the life-giving Spirit. “If you do not give what you love, you will not have what you desire.”

This neat phrase minted by St. Bernard is worth pondering at some length. It certainly applies to a broad spectrum of human life as well as to this fundamental issue of being ready and open for receiving the Holy Spirit when he comes to us. One reason that mothers love their children so persistently even when the child seems so undeserving to others is that the mother gives so much of what she loves in order to care for her child in its infant years. We tend to appreciate and value only that which we work hard and sacrifice for. We must give of our energy, time and use our talents if we would obtain the result we desire, for we do not believe in the value of anything that costs us little. If any one wishes to have a meaningful life he must give himself to obtain what he would possess, whether it be friendship, skill, science or God. If we hold on to a friend or a loved family member because of our attachment even when it is in his interest that we give him the freedom to follow his own path, our relation will turn sour. It will become a co-dependence, not a mutual communion in some cause that transcends both partners.  

In this too, Jesus is our model. He tells his apostles: “It is to your advantage that I depart... if I go I will send him (the Advocate) to you (John 16:7).” He had to leave those he loved as friends in order to do what was best for them. “If you do not give what you love, you will not have what you desire.” He desired their participation in the same life that he was to enjoy with the Father. To obtain it he had to give what he loved in this world. Bernard tells us we must do the same in our own search for union with God in the Spirit. 

There are other lessons to be learned if we would live wisely in this world, Bernard tells his community. Three points in particular require our attention in order deal with this great world in which we find ourselves. They are: what exists, how it came to be, and why it was formed.  By giving due attention to each of these a man can discover some essential truths concerning God and reality. “For with the greatest power he created all out of nothing, most wisely h created beautiful things, and with the greatest kindness he made things useful.” But there are some persons who devote their efforts to the first point exclusively, seeking only to enjoy sensible things. They are but carnal creatures. Others seek only to learn the order and manner of the universe,  even to the point of paying little attention to bodily satisfactions such as food; they do not trouble to ask why things exist. Such people call themselves philosophers.  Bernard calls them vain and curious and dismisses them.  

The wiser men, however, devote their understanding to the study of the purpose for which things exist. They skip over preoccupation with the structure and organization of visible reality. They discover that God made all things for himself, and all things for those who are his. This leads the abbot to turn his thoughts to his fellow monks. He addresses them directly at this point. 

I rejoice that you belong to this school, the school, that is, of the Holy Spirit, where you learn ‘goodness and discipline and knowledge’(Psalm 118:66) and you may say with the saint:’I have understood beyond those who taught me’ (Psalm 118:99) Why?, I say. Is it because... I have labored to understand the subtleties of Plato and the sophistries of Aristotle? God forbid!, I say but ‘because I have sought your testimonies’ (Psalm 118:22). Happy the man who dwells in this intimate chamber of the Holy Spirit. 

In Bernard’s view, then, the monastery is a school where the monks are taught by no less excellent a teacher than the Holy Spirit of God. This being the case, he further explains, we must not only see to it that our behavior is purified but our thoughts and desires as well. Then the final and greatest task can be fulfilled, to take on the spirit of charity. This is the principal spirit, the spirit of the Father himself who establishes us firmly in those disposition that alone meet with God’s full approval and admits us to his intimacy. 

Bernard’s final observations consist in reviewing the various, multiple functions of the Spirit. The Spirit gives us consolation by the assurance we are truly sons of God; he assists us in our weakness that all are offered sufficient help for salvation. Some he inspires with fervor that enables them to preserve charity. In the more perfect he inflames with such love that they are able even to glory when they are insulted; dishonored they rejoice and despised they are exalted. Such persons experience the freedom of those who are wholly possessed by the fullness of the Spirit. And so Bernard ends his series of reflections on Pentecost shared with his monks in chapter with an allusion to that fruit of the Spirit which St. Paul had highlighted. “Now this Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.“ (2 Cor 3:17)  

The freedom to love God with our whole heart, our whole mind and with all our strength is the fullest expression of liberty. The common view of freedom is that it consists in the power of choosing and carrying into effect whatever appeals, without restriction. Whether the choice is for the good or the bad, whether noble or ignoble the free person is at liberty to follow his desires. This is a defective, even a perverse, conception of freedom. The only true freedom is the power to choose the good and noble and the ability to act effectively in obtaining it. Thus the proper exercise of freedom enhances the capacity for freedom. The more I choose what is morally and aesthetically beautiful, the more sensitive I become to its charm and the greater my satisfaction at attaining it. As a result I choose it with a higher consciousness and a more spontaneous choice both of which enhance the satisfaction provided by the free exercise of my faculties. On the other hand, choosing what is evil and disordered diminishes freedom. This is most evident in the case of sensuality. Everyone who indulges his taste for alcohol to excess soon finds he needs to drink more of it and craves it more frequently. It begins to harm his health and he resolves to cut back or even to stop altogether, but he finds that is beyond his strength. He has become less free to care for his health as he increased his drinking. The same holds true in the use of drugs, excessive eating and related intemperate indulgence of the senses. 

St. Benedict was quite conscious of this principle and refers to its operation more than once in his Rule. He associates it with the action of the Holy Spirit. At the end of the chapter on Humility he makes the following observation by way of encouraging the younger members of the community. 

Therefore having ascended all these steps of humility the monk will soon arrive at that love of God which, being perfect, casts out fear. By virtue of this love all that he at first observed, not without fear, begins to do without any labor as it were naturally, out of custom. He no longer acts through fear of hell but from love of Christ and good habit itself and the pleasure of virtue. The Lord will deign to manifest this by the Holy Spirit in his worker once he is freed from vices and sins. (RB ch. 7 ad calcem) 

That the Spirit dwells in the soul purified from bad habits and the attraction to evil is the teaching of all the approved teachers of prayer and monastic life, in the East as well as in the West. One of the Russian mystics whose doctrine is so forceful in its teachings on the Holy Spirit is Seraphim of Sarov. He taught that  

Every soul lives by the Holy Ghost, is elevated by purity, and is brightened by the mystery of Tri-unity. The Holy Spirit himself takes up his abode in our soul....  Certainly every virtue, practiced for Christ’s sake, acquires for us the grace of the Holy Spirit but prayer is the most effective of all because it is always at our disposal as a means to acquire the grace of Spirit.  (S. Bolshakoff, ‘Russian Mystics’, CS 26 [Kalamazoo: 1977] 131, 132). 

St. Seraphim makes an important affirmation that has significance for all of us. We do well to take it to heart. “The acquisition of the Holy Ghost is, as I have often said before, the goal of the Christian life.” (Bolshakoff, 135) He is highly optimistic concerning the purifying effect of the Spirit on our souls: ”When a sinner is converted to the way of repentance, this light of Christ destroys altogether the very traces of committed crimes and clothes the former criminal once more with the garment of incorruption woven by the grace of the Holy Spirit.” The presence of the Holy Spirit does away with all traces of sin for no evil can endure the fire of his holiness. In fact, the surest and shortest path to humility is to experience something of the light of the Holy Spirit in as direct a way as possible. For this light is at once bright and a burning heat that man cannot tolerate save momentarily and then only by a divine mercy. For once a person beholds some portion of this pure and bright energy of the Spirit he will always be conscious of his own relative lack of purity, the weakness of his love and so of his unworthiness of union with God. Such a grace is the surest and shortest way to attain to that humility of heart which alone makes place for God’s merciful, loving presence in its fullness

St. Basil who lived in a period when there was wide confusion concerning the nature of the Holy Spirit wrote the first major book devoted to the subject of the Spirit. A considerable number of bishops did not think he is divine and equal to the Father and Son in substance. In the course of presenting his views Basil gives a short summary of the role of the Spirit in the life of the Church and of the believer in the following terms. What he held then remains the faith of the Catholic Church today. 

Through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to paradise, our ascension into the kingdom of heaven, our return to the adoption of sons, our liberty to call God our Father, our being brought into a state of all “fullness of blessing”, both in this world and in the world to come.(‘On the Spirit’, ch. 15)  

In a more personal exchange with a bishop who was a dear friend, Basil felt more free to express his views in a way that reflects his own experience of prayer. He ascribes to the operation of the Spirit that understanding of divine mysteries that was granted to him and to which the whole church of God has been indebted for the sure truth of its faith in the Trinity. 

The mind that is tempered with the divinity of the Spirit is at last initiated into the great speculations and observes the divine beauties, but only to the extent that grace allows and its constitution admits (Ep. 233, cited in Philip Rousseau, ‘Basil of Caesarea’, [Berkeley: U. Of Cal. Press, 1994] 262). 

If the apostles received the fullness of the Spirit on Pentecost, they were prepared for receiving him not only by their prayer, but also by their failure and repentance. They had been emptied of self sufficiency through acknowledgment of their weakness and so, having been emptied of false confidence sought God ‘s assistance with a profound sense of need. This preparation proved essential for their sanctification and for the graces needed to carry out their mission. It is no less a condition for all of us as well. An important discovery for all of us is that we must discover the depths of our own nothingness. Making this discovery and living conscious of it is a major function of the silence, solitude and stability of monastic life. Only by persevering in these practices day by day and year by year do we learn by experience how poor we are. Naturally as we come to such consciousness we are tempted to turn away, even to turn back. There are always excuses at hand and even the least clever can find reasons why he should take some other path. But in the end, if a man is ever to know God in the purity of his love and holiness, he must be emptied out, whether by failure, sickness, solitude or some other suffering. The monastic environment has been created with a view to facilitating this discovery and to providing such support as can be given by human means for abiding in this state.  

May we take courage and find assurance from faith in Jesus’ declaration: I AM THE VINE, YOU ARE THE BRANCHES.  Confident that the Holy Spirit will surely come to the aid of such as live faithfully in this search for his assistance may we continue on our way, rejoicing in hope and trusting in him who hears the cry of the poor.

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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