MARCH 9, 2003, 1ST SUNDAY OF LENT: CHAPTER

 

DO NOT FOLLOW OUT THE IMPULSES OF YOUR OWN SOUL, STRONG THOUGH YOU BE, AND DO NOT GO AFTER THE PASSIONATE DESIRES OF YOUR HEART (Ben Sirach 5.2).These words were not written by some desert father or a Christian monk; they were composed by a practicing Jew about the year 180 B.C.  Ben Sirach was a deeply religious man who had a gift for observation and for analysis of the human situation and was inclined to serious reflection on what he observed. He was also a scholar, learned in the law and prophets but his knowledge was not confined to what he learned from books. He was thoroughly acquainted with the ways of the world, its glories and its many temptations and snares, for he had traveled widely and probably served as an ambassador for he was acquainted with the mores of high society. He was a married man with children and it appears from his writings on the subject that he was happily matched and warmly appreciated the skills and other qualities of his wife. He devoted his later years to teaching the young and had his own school.  His own grandson had a high opinion of him and of his book and undertook to translate it from Hebrew into Greek to make its wisdom accessible to a broader public. Jesus himself may well have been acquainted with his writings for it was being read as a sacred work during his lifetime. 

One of the characteristics of Ben Sirach is his balanced judgment. He knows how to keep matters in perspective even while remaining dedicated to his values. He can be fervent and enthusiastic about any number of matters and yet avoid excess in his evaluation of their place in the human scene. He is not a fanatic, but he does not compromise his beliefs.  His grandson, the translator, speaks of his good judgment. The sentence quoted at the head of this conference is a remarkable illustration of his willingness to present the need for self-denial and control in order to maintain a proper relation to others and to the affairs of life. As much as he appreciates the good things of life including his virtuous wife, the opportunities for learning afforded by leisure and access to the classics of his people, he inculcates the necessity of self-denial and temperance in order to live the good life which alone leads to happiness.  

This lesson is far from obvious to people. It is not only the young, to whom Ben Sira addressed these words, who do well to take them to heart. They hold true at every stage of life. And many persons of more mature age, even number of persons of advanced years, have still to learn by practice the wisdom they embody. Strong impulse and ardent passion characteristically present themselves to our decision as carrying their own justification. If I feel an impulse strongly enough it warrants expression and fulfillment, we are led to feel. Either instruction with training or reflection on experience observed or lived, are necessary to be convinced that there are impulses and desires that lead to suffering, frustration and misery when they are pursued. Ben Sira knew this feature of the human heart and with these words and others deriving from a related wisdom, he sought to give a formation to the youth under his tutelage that would enable them to avoid the errors that folly led to. 

The wiser heads among the Greeks had come to a similar conclusion as our Jewish author. They saw clearly that the man of virtue, the person of good, steady and reliable character, was characterized by temperance, sophrosune they called it in their own tongue. Without the restraints imposed by this capacity to control and deny the impulses of the passions, a man is unfit for the companionship and trust of the cultivated and good, that means he is not a good candidate for monastic life. Such self possession and the virtues that accompany it, especially prudence, however, seem to have been rather rare in his day, as they are at all ages, for Sirach wrote: ‘ Be at peace with many; nevertheless, have but one counselor in a thousand (6:6).’  

Our author recognized that there is a direct relationship between this capacity for self-denial and friendship and that both were, in some considerable measure, requisites of a reliable counselor. A counselor is a person who has the power of grasping what is at once advisable and possible on the part of the one he advises. Such discernment in turn requires a good deal of empathy, that is to say, the power of feeling within oneself what another experiences in a given situation, whether it be an actual one or a hypothetical circumstance in which he will find himself should he pursue a particular line of conduct. Such empathy in the service of another’s welfare is possible only to one who is benevolently disposed and in tune with the inner dispositions of the one to whom he gives advice. In other words, he must have some measure of friendly feeling to be able to judge how a given course of action will be likely to affect the person advised.  

This does not imply that only the friendly disposed can understand and judge others from within; other passions, such as hatred, resentment and jealousy when joined to a measure of intelligence and imagination can also predict likely behavior and feelings of another based on an inferior empathy. Their insight, nonetheless, is limited to the psychological and social; it does not include the personal and spiritual dimensions. Only those who possess some degree of spiritual affinity are capable of giving counsel that truly benefits. 

The same dispositions and qualities are essential for a truly Christian community life whether it be lived in a family, among friends or in a cloistered community. The concrete expression it assumes will differ according to circumstances but in essence every person who is united with the Lord by grace and charity, in order to carry into effect his  commitments in the name of the Gospel must live by the advice Sirach gave to his readers. ‘DO NOT FOLLOW OUT THE IMPULSES OF YOUR OWN SOUL, STRONG THOUGH YOU BE, AND DO NOT GO AFTER THE PASSIONATE DESIRES OF YOUR HEART’. Nor will he be able to follow through with this program unless he also carries out in practice the same program that Sirach himself implemented, namely, a meditative study of God’s revealed word. 

It happens that these two practices recommended by Ben Sirach, namely ascetical denial of selfish desires and dedication to meditating the word of God prayerfully, constitute the very measures that St. Benedict insists upon for his monks during the season of Lent. He expects us to give a particular attention to holy reading. For him that meant chiefly to the word of God in Scripture and as commented by the orthodox Fathers. A large portion of all the Fathers’ writings, in fact, represent a commentary of some kind of Scripture. That remained the case for the monastic writers as well, down to the 13th century when scholasticism became a dominant influence on theology and began to some degree to influence spiritual writings as well. Anyone who has read St. Bernard knows how penetrated his sermons and even his treatises are with Scripture, and how carefully he read and meditated the sacred text. It is such writings as these, in addition to the Bible itself, that have been providing monks with Lectio Divina through the centuries and in particular have served as Lenten books. 

The primary purpose of the Lenten reading is to enter into a more full union with God through interaction with his revelation. For that reason such reading, as is the case with regard to all Lectio Divina, should be undertaken in a spirit of faith and prayer. In fact, Lectio is a continuation of meditative prayer in a particular form that makes use of the sacred text or of some other work that is especially open to the Spirit. The many saints who have taught us about such matters by word and example have consistently considered that the inspired word of God has a personal message for everyone who reads it with faith and the desire to draw nearer to the Lord through his word.

The light arising from our Lectio at times is quite different than the meaning derived by others from the same passage. This is as it should be because the insight we are ready for and need is truly personal; it results from an interaction between the text and the reader. The more personally we engage our self in our reading and reflection the more unique will be our experience upon encountering the contents of a text. Each of us has an interior life and perception that is distinctive. Moreover, our needs determine in good measure what we perceive as the sense of a passage. These are also quite distinctive and vary even in the same person at different moments of life. Often what we are looking to find, what we are trying to solve is largely unknown even to ourselves. We become aware of the nature of our desires only when we are struck by some word or idea that arises upon our encounter with the sacred text. As a result of these and other pertinent factors the understanding we derive from our Lectio will be a function of our way of grasping the ideas and images it suggests to us and may seem to others a surprising interpretation.  

It is very easy to illustrate this process from examples taken from the readings of some of the best known Church Fathers. When God instructed Abraham ‘whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says…’(Gen. 21: 12), Origen takes this to indicate that Sarah represents virtue, and if a man listens to here wisdom will become his sister.(Hom. in Genesis 4.4 cited in E. Clark, ‘Reading Renunciation’, 184). His preoccupation is precisely to train believers to the life of virtue and of the need to provide fitting inspiration he saw in this text a significance that others would consider surprising.  St. Jerome was eager to establish a strong Biblical basis for the life of chastity. Accordingly, when he read the parable of the harvest which yielded one hundred, sixty and thirty to one, he saw it as a commendation of virginity, which yields 100%, and of widowhood, yielding 60%, whereas marriage produced but 30% for the kingdom. (Adversus Iovinianum 2.19, in Clark, 167). Obviously this is not the way our Lord or the Evangelist interpreted this parable, but there is a certain appropriateness to this reading, just as there is in Origen’s singular explanation of Sarah as virtue.   

One of the surprising experiences that I have had occasion to repeat quite often illustrates this same principle of the personal response that different individuals make to the same words. In the course of giving a talk, whether to a class of students to whom I had been lecturing for a lengthy period of time, or to a group of persons whom I had never seen before, someone raises his hand at a given point. He has a question or makes an observation that to him seems to bear an obvious relation to what I was speaking about. But to me it seems either he has been thinking his own thoughts that were somehow stimulated by something I said. His question has some weak relation to the real content of my talk that it appears to me he has simply understood nothing of the import of what I have been saying. Though he heard the words that I said, he is so interested in his own ideas and needs that he entirely misses any message I have to offer. This is one way of reacting to a text, not too common, fortunately.  

Another is more frequent: the question or comment made by one of the audience does indeed indicate he has heard and partially understood what I have said, but he has heard it so subjectively that he derives a very different message from the words than I had in mind. Still it is related to what was said but obviously the meaning derives much more from his particular situation and interests than from my own intentions in using the same words. The questioner himself is not conscious of altering my intended meaning; on the contrary, he is only aware of the point that speaks to his condition and which seems to confirm or modify some issue or idea of his own. In some such cases, the relation between his comments and my intent is very weak; in others it is considerably stronger and clearer that he is drawing his own thoughts from what he has not only heard but understood. In either case, the message derived from the words of my talk is not what I intended and consciously communicated. It is an alternate hearing of what was stated based on more or less subjective dispositions of mind and of feeling. 

Thus it happens that in the course of giving a talk, or even in conversation or advising another, one says something that carries an unforeseen significance for the hearer. The hearer understands more fully the implications of my words than I did when I said them. This understanding is often due to an affinity of sentiment and values, a sympathy of feeling. The same process occurs in our reading. This accounts for a good deal of the interpretations made by the Fathers that strike the reader as only loosely related to the original text. However, the post-modern hermeneutics has shown to the satisfaction of increasing numbers of scholars, that such readings are a legitimate interpretation. In the case of a number of the holy Church Fathers, such readings seem to have been guided or even inspired by the Holy Spirit.  

Let me illustrate this point with one instance among many. While in this case it applies to spoken words the same kind of happening occurs as well in reading a text. Some years ago I was asked by the porter to speak with a middle-aged, married woman who was in some distress and asked for someone to give her advice concerning the circumstances in which she found herself. I listened attentively to her and found that she was quite an intelligent and articulate lady who had what seemed to me a firm grasp of the rather painful situation which had brought her to the monastery for help. I simply listened since she did not need to be questioned to bring out the various factors involved. This included her manner of dealing with her suffering. I felt there was nothing to add that she was not already doing and understood. So all I did was say: “I think you are going about this problem the right way and see it clearly. Just continue as you are and persevere in your efforts.” Afterwards she wrote me a letter to say that he had never met anyone in her life who understood her so thoroughly and that the advice I gave her changed her whole life for the better. Obviously, she heard my simple words in a subjective way that gave vastly more significance to them than I was aware of when I spoke them.  

In the life of the Little Flower we see the same kind of experience derived from her reading of a text of Scripture. She read in Isaiah: ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow’ (Is.1:18) and what she heard was that God loved her tenderly with the affection of a true Father. The result: it changed her spirituality and her whole life. 

Unfortunately, it also happens that, though one gives very pertinent and accurate advice to people, or they read what speaks to their actual condition, they fail to see how suited it is to their true needs and interests so that nothing comes of it. 

Lectio divina is an art. Let us cultivate it with application and prayerful desire so that we become skilled in hearing with the ear of the heart what the Lord says to us during this holy season and throughout our monastic life. By the help of the Holy Spirit then we shall gain insight and strength to enable us to advance on the way that leads to our final goal, and help others to accompany us on what St. Benedict calls our return to the Father who created us for himself.      

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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