IT IS WRITTEN IN THE PROPHETS: ‘THEY WILL ALL BE TAUGHT BY GOD’, AND TO HEAR THE TEACHNG OF THE FATHER AND LEARN FROM IT, IS TO COME TO ME.  (John 6:45)  Implied by these words of our Savior is that the words of the prophets are in truth the teaching of the Father. Accepting the truths enunciated by the inspired men of the Hebrew scriptures means to put one’s trust and faith in the Father. Stated explicitly here is another truth that is central to our Catholic faith: to accept the Father’s teaching is to come to Jesus. He goes on to add that ‘ every one who believes has eternal life’.  

The text cited by our Lord in this passage is taken from the prophet Isaiah (54:13). The context of this prophecy is an expression of the abundant blessings God has in store for his chosen people in the future. The one that Jesus evidently considers the chief of these favors reads: ‘Your sons will all be taught by Yahwe’. If our Lord signals out this privilege as a special indication of the Father’s loving care, it is because no one can attain to eternal life save by accepting him as the one sent by the Father. He states this in no uncertain terms in this same passage: TO HEAR THE TEACJNG OF THE FATHER AND LEARN FROM IT, IS TO COME TO ME.   

This point of Jesus’ preaching is fundamental. This truth justifies the church’s constant faith that the Old Testament is rightly understood only when read in the light of the Risen Christ. The Father speaks in Moses and the other prophets and TO HEAR THE TEACJNG OF THE FATHER AND LEARN FROM IT, IS TO COME TO ME. Obviously, to come to Jesus in this context means to accept him and his message with faith. Rightly to grasp our Lord’s teaching entails accepting what the Father had taught in the Hebrew scriptures in so far as they reveal his plan of salvation in and through his Son, sent into the world as its redeemer. 

The immediate purpose for which Jesus asserts this truth is to warn his audience that their materially minded attitude prevents their coming to him with that docile faith which alone opens the way to understanding. They are not able to accept his teaching because the are too concerned for their carnal interests. He tells them this by way of reprimand:  

Do not work for food that cannot last, but work for the food that endures to eternal life, the kind of food the Son of Man is offering you, for on him the Father, God himself, has set his seal. (6:26) 

This discussion has a double topic: faith in Christ in general and more specifically, acceptance of his teaching on the Eucharist. Both remain as significant for us today as ever they were at the time of our Lord. If St. John has presented our Lord as dealing with the two topics in this one discourse it is surely because faith that the Eucharist is more than a sign but actually the body and blood of the living Lord Jesus is a condition for accepting him and for receiving the salvation he brings. 

I tell you most solemnly, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life and I shall raise him up on the last day.  For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. He who eats y flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him. (6: 53, 54) 

These are powerful words and a test of faith, as the event revealed. For many of his disciples deserted Jesus when he insisted on their literal truth in this way. Those who remained with him simply accepted his word as truth and in doing so showed that they were taught by the Father. ‘We believe’, Peter answered for the others, ‘we know that you are the Holy One of God.’ (6: 69) At this point, what Jesus said to Peter amounted to what he had stated on another occasion: ‘Blessed are you Simon, Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. (Mt 16: 17) 

Ever since the day that Peter made his confession of faith in which he accepted, implicitly, Christ’s insistence that it is truly his very body and blood he gives in the Eucharist, this sacrament has been at the center of the Church’s life. It continues to play a major role as well in the life of contemplative prayer. That is above all true of monastic spirituality. For the Eucharist is the heart of the liturgy and monastics had, the great achievement of bringing together liturgical prayer and the prayer of the heart. A phrase was coined by a clever monk in the Middle Ages sums up this monastic way of prayer: Semper in ore psalmus, semper in corde Christus (a psalm always in the mouth, Christ always in the heart.)  As William Johnston, who remarked on this fact, notes ‘In the monasteries mystical prayer [that is, contemplation] can never be separated from liturgy: it is constantly nourished by Scripture and by Eucharist’ (Mystical Theology, 18).  

This consideration carries us to the heart of our vocation. The interior life of the Cistercian monk who enters into the charism of our Tradition is centered on Christ who reveals himself to us in the word of scripture and gives himself to us in the sacrament of his body and blood. No one exemplifies better than St. Bernard the love of Christ and the prominence accorded to the words of the Bible in the contemplative life. He had little to say about the Eucharist, however. It was left to others such as Abbot Baldwin of Ford, to write at length on that mystery, and in recent times Thomas Merton too wrote a treatise on this sacrament.  

Origen, who exercised a decided influence on St. Bernard’s sermons on the Canticle, had already conceived of the scriptures themselves as a kind of sacrament of Christ after the manner of the Eucharist. When he spoke of ‘breaking the bread’ for the people he meant ‘explaining the scriptures.’ The inspired word, rightly understood and assimilated, is fitting considered the bread of the spirit in that it nourishes the life of the inner man. The word is taken in, not with a view to increasing knowledge of history or of an ancient culture and thought, in the manner of many modern historians; rather, it is a communication of divine energy, giving renewed life.  

This was the teaching of Origen that interested the Latin monks of the West who knew him through translations of his commentaries on the various books of scripture. Jean Leclercq has brought attention to the fact that nearly all the manuscripts of the works of the Alexandrian exegete are of monastic origin (‘The Love of Learning and the Desire for God’, 100). In every period of monastic renewal there is evidence of a decided interest in reading, copying and preserving of these writings. The Carolingian reform of the 8th and 9th century already found sustenance in his allegorical interpretations of the sacred text. Still greater interest and spiritual profit accrued to the monks of the twelfth century and to the Cistercians in a special way.   

That St. Bernard followed in Origen’s traces in his manner of approach to the Canticle which emphasized the psychological aspect of spiritual experience. The fact that in the library at Clairvaux there were a relative large number of Origen’s books indicates attests to his influence and reveals Bernard’s concern to become acquainted with the acknowledge master of the spiritual meaning. The monastery of Signy, where William of St. Thierry entered our Order, also had a relatively wide collection of the Latin Origen its library.  

Though Origen was not himself a monk in his status, yet, through his dedication to the search for the hidden, spiritual sense of the word of God and his focus on inner experience he became the father of monastic spirituality in general.  His contribution to Cistercian tradition concerning the contemplative search for union with God gave it a particular character that was eminently suited to Cistercian aims and spirit. St. Bernard made original use of the possibilities latent in Origen’s insights to give color and detail to the outlines traced out by the Alexandrian teacher. In this way he assured a continuity with the early tradition of the East as well as he provided a manner of conceiving the spiritual journey well suited to the monks of the West.  

Jean Leclercq concluded, in the course of his study of the monastic tradition, that the monastic spirituality of the Latin West, up to the century after St. Bernard, was closer to the East than to that of the later Western world. (op. cit., 114). All the major Cistercian writers display in their works this more integral character which marked the whole of the patristic age. Even while they were faithful to the spirit and content of the Fathers they adapted the older culture to the interests and insights of their own twelfth century, notably, the greater concern for psychological analysis of the affections. I might remark at this point that in order to appropriate the Cistercian charism for our own times, we must undertake the task in the same spirit. If Merton succeeded in speaking to a wide segment of the West and East in recent times it was precisely because he assimilated the thought and spirituality of the patristic age and interpreted and applied it to the needs and insights of his age.  

The Cistercian synthesis accordingly has a kind of wholeness that gives it a universal appeal. By way of illustrating this integral nature of our tradition I might cite an exchange that took place in the course of our discussion with a Buddhist Zen master during our recent visit to a Buddhist monastery in Korea. When the master spoke of the Christian concept of God he affirmed that it considered him as some one exterior to man, the creator who was a kind of object. And so our approach to the meditation is very different from the Buddhist. I objected to this view as inadequate and added that it is our conviction that God is more intimately interior to us than we can experience our own self and that we live more in God than in our self. He then said that way of thinking is very similar to a Buddhist expression. The point I make here is that way of praying is the approach cultivated by our Cistercian tradition and of course is based on St. Paul and on St. Augustine. It finds resonance in the soul of a Buddhist and provides a basis for dialogue.  

In passing I would add that, to be sure, there is a vast difference between the Christian experience of God and the Zen experience of the Buddha nature, the chief of which is the place of the person of the risen Christ in our tradition. What is not always adequately conveyed by those involved in the dialogue is that Christian prayer is no less transcendent in its mode than is Buddhist. We believe that our true self can be realized and fully established only in Christ so that we must experience Christ as more truly our self than any self apart from him. Cistercian spirituality incorporates this truth and has as its goal the actualization of this mystery. In this life we accept that it can only be experienced partially and briefly. St. Bernard states that in a catchy phrase: rara hora et parva mora (a rare hour and a brief stay). The full and permanent consciousness of our existence in Christ is reserved for eternity and the beatific vision, face to face, as St. Paul expresses it.

When we speak of the Cistercian as the contemplative life we refer to the whole complex of practices that constitute our observance, not only the prayer of quiet. For even the first steps on the path that carries us to the vision of God participate in the life of God by virtue of the Spirit who, in a hidden manner, inspires and sustains our return to the Father. Some who live this way of life will prove to be more endowed for manual labor, others for study, still others for prayer. Some may receive mystic graces in prayer. From my observation over the years such graces are not as rare as might seem.  Although having different graces and various ways of living within the parameters of the Rule, yet all are called to union with the Lord through purity of heart, humility and obedience. It is not necessarily those with the greater natural facility for prayer and contemplation who are the most holy. Though we all should aspire to simple and pure prayer, for it is the most helpful gift toward union with God, yet the measure of holiness is conformity to God’s will, humility and ardor of love.   

The means provided by our Cistercian tradition include a variety of approaches to attaining the goal of a monastic life. In a description of life in the cloister, the Abbot of Clairvaux lists the typical occupations encountered in different monks. 

You may see one weeping over his sins, another exulting in the praises of God, this man ministering to all, that teaching others, here is one praying, another reading; while one man shows mercy another is punishing sins; there is one on fire with charity, while a neighbor displays humility; that man is humble in prosperity, this sublime in adversity; that monk is laboring actively this resting in contemplation. (De diversis 42.4 [Obraqs completas VI, Madrid: BAC 1988] 318). 

 However, not all occupations have equal value considered in themselves. St. Paul, after listing a whole series of gifts of the Holy Spirit, urges his readers to ‘be zealous for the better gifts’ (1Cor. 12: 31) For the Cistercian, as Bernard himself taught elsewhere, the better gifts are those of interior, pure prayer. He considers those monks most favored who are not charged with offices that take them out of the cloister or with the duties of a superior, because they are freest to focus on the cultivation of pure prayer and to be occupied with the word of God more exclusively. He states his view in relation to Martha and Mary as types of contemplative prayer in contrast with more active service. 

Happy the house and blessed the community where Martha complains about Mary. For it is altogether unworthy for Mary to be jealous of Martha, thoroughly unjust in fact. You certainly do not read anywhere that Mary complains that Martha leaves her alone in her contemplation. Far be it, far indeed, that he who is occupied with contemplation should aspire to the tumultuous life of the brothers in offices. Martha may seem always insufficient to her and not up to all her duties and desires that her work be imposed on others…. Mary though remains silent and Christ speaks up for her. (In Asumptione Beatae Virginis Maria Sermo 3.2 , BAC vol. IV., 354) 

This appreciation of contemplation is representative of our Cistercian heritage. Our fathers gave primacy to pure prayer, rising from the depth of the heart aspiring after the loving knowledge of the Lord Jesus. The other activities and structures of the monastery, the formation program are in place in view of supporting a life of constant prayer. They were aware that the conditions for contemplative knowledge were exacting for only the pure and humble of heart are capable of seeing the truth and beauty for which all long, all too often, unconsciously. To us who have received the gifts of the Spirit in the form of a call to the Cistercian life the words St. Paul addressed to all the faithful have a particular relevance, for they express powerfully the goal and purpose of all our striving. It is with these words that I take leave of you as I am about to return to my own community in New York. May the Lord always preserve you in this great work till we meet in his kingdom.  

Now this Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, with our unveiled faces reflecting like mirrors the brightness of the Lord all grow brighter and brighter as we are turned into the image that we reflect. This is the work of the Lord who is Spirit (2Cor 3: 17, 18) .

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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