AUGUST 11, 2002, 19TH SUNDAY CHAPTER
THERE WAS A POURING OUT OF SWEET WORDS OF LIFE BETWEEN THEM, THE DELICIOUS HEAVENLY FOOD...(S. P. Benedicti, Prolegomena ex Grégoire le Grand: Dialogues Paris 1866, 157) This comment by Pope Gregory the Great was spoken about St. Benedict and his good friend, Abbot Servandus, who used to visit him regularly for spiritual conversation. The author goes on to inform us that such exchanges had the effect of giving them a taste at least of heavenly reality by stimulating their desire. Because they could not yet fully enjoy the delicious food of the heavenly homeland, they might at least taste of it amidst their sighs.
It was on the occasion of
a visit by this friend and after such a conversation that St. Benedict had the famous
vision which reveals him to have been a great contemplative, indeed, one of the most
gifted of mystic spirits. It is, in any case, one of the best known of various stories of
Benedict=s life. This experience was a vision of light, we are
told. The venerable abbot arose before vigils
to pray during the night in private when
suddenly in the deep hour of the night, a light from above was poured out that banished all the night=s darkness. So bright did this light shine amidst the dark, in fact, that it surpassed that of the day.
A marvelous thing then happened in this contemplation for, as he later recounted, the whole world, as if brought together in a single ray, was presented before his eyes.
When the deacon Peter, who is the Pope=s partner in this Dialogue, expresses his inability to conceive how such a vision is possible, Gregory points out that Afor the soul who sees the Creator, all the world is small.@
As I pointed out, what prepared the way for this vision was not a day of recollection passsed in solitude, nor an extended time of meditation, or a period of spiritual reading, but a visit with a friend. St. Gregory mentions that this was not a rare event; on the contrary, abbot Servandus was in the habit of paying such a visit Evidently such encounters were marked by high quality conversations in the courae of which the two abbots were able to speak freely of their most intimate spiritual experiences. A literal translation of Gregorys Latin is even suggestive of a life-giving process, a tranfusion of sweet words of life.
The Pope here suggests that their dialogue was more than an exchange of spiritual experiences; it was a communion in the spirit effected through a sympathetic mutual sharing. Words were a vehicle not only of information but especially of communion. By means of words uttered in such trusting and ardent openness in some manner the very inner life of each passed into the other. Just a transfusion of blood results in the assimilation of elements that had been a portion of the body of another into the bloodstream and so the body of the recipient, so also words spoken in such spiritual sympathy and ardor are incorporated into the inner life of the listener. The result deriving from these conversations, as the author states explicitly, was an increase in the desire to taste heavenly realities.
Pope St. Gregory was aware of the power of words to influence the human spirit and was at pains to assure that the word of God was communicated in such a way as to prepare his audience to open their heart to receive that word. His 35 Books commenting the Book of Job are a monument to his sensitivity to the power of the word to transform the interior dispositions of his readers. He largely succeeded, in fact, for not only was he a powerful influence during his own time but he was a major spiritual teacher for the generations that followed him. The Moralia in Job in their entirety were copied in the scriptorium of early Cîteaux under St. Stephen Harding and illustrated by a highly gifted artist. The concern to assure the presence of this work in the monastery library and the evident care lavished upon the manuscript are so many indications of the honor in which Gregory=s teaching was held at the mother house of our Order. So is the fact that Gregory=s teaching entered into the mainstream of Cistercian spirituality through the widely read writings of the four prominent abbot authors of the Order.
Words, then, are formative of human character and have a molding influence upon our inner landscape. They channel the direction of our thoughts and direct our aspirations; words give rise to images and desires, they alter our hopes and expectations, they estrange us at times from ideas and the persons who utter them; on other occasions they create bonds that bind us firmly to people for whom we conceive a profound sympathy. This applies to written words that we read alone or hear in the company of others as well as to the words spoken face to face in single, intimate conversation or in more public discourse.
Monks have, from earliest times, had a reverence for words. Above all, of course, for the inspired words of Scripture and gave much of their time and energy to reading, repeating, meditating and memorizing them. Had not Jesus himself, on a most sacred occasion, told his apostles that to keep his word was to love him? What better way to keep it than to fix it in the memory and at time of prayer to make it descend into the heart and so to prepare oneself to put it into practice when the appropriate occasion arises?
Another practice calculated to enhance respect for words was also given prominence from earliest times by monks and that was to employ them sparingly. To avoid much talk, to distance oneself from all gossip and unbecoming language, to cultivate an appreciation of silence in the presence of God- such behavior results in a greater sensitivity to the significance of words, to their effects and their power for good and for evil. Benedict gives considerable emphasis to each of these practices. Here is one of the more instructive texts, revealing the significance of silence.
Monks should give special care to keep silence at all times, but especially during the night hours.... From Compline on let permission be given to no one to say anything. Should anyone be found who infringes this rule of silence he should be subjected to a more serious kind of punishment (ch. 42).
The Rule has an entire chapter, in fact, devoted to silence, under the Latin title De Taciturnitate, which can best be translated perhaps as Reticence in Speech. In the course of this chapter Benedict recommends that permission to speak be given rarely even to the best of monks. When the monks do speak they are to do so, he adds, Awith all humility and subjection of reverence.@ If we wish to live out the spirit of our way of life we must give considerable attention to these recommendations for they are not mere afterthoughts, but essential elements in our way of life and are intended to form attitudes that we carry over in our relations with one another as well as with our superiors. Monks do not assume demanding ways or express themselves with aggressive language to one another, above all not to their superiors, according to Benedict who refers here explicitly to the duty to address the superior with all reverent subjection of speech as well as of heart. This can be very difficult to do when there is question of something we have strong feeling about, but it is precisely for such occasions that the Rule is given us as an aid to overcoming our weaknesses and developing good habits. In our last class I spoke at considerable length about the healing power and the beneficial spiritual effects of a truly personal contact with others. I had thought it was evident what the implications of this fact are for monastic living but from the questions asked it appeared that such is not at all the case. In this context of spiritual exchange and of the meaning of silence for monks let us reflect further on this question.
You will recall that in discussing the healings resulting from the treatments by Dr. Scott Peck I had pointed out that in my opinion the most effective element had not been touched upon. That healings of emotional problems whether effected in psychotherapy, in counseling, in spiritual direction or simply through mediation and prayer always involve a factor that goes beyond the emotions and behavior concerned in the problems. Dr. Peck himself clearly stands in agreement with this view and later on in his discussion of cases he takes up the issue of personal involvement between the therapist and the patient. This was the very issue I had raised: that only spirit truly heals the person. That every far- reaching advance in the ability to relate to others and to deal more productively with the emotions involved in interpersonal exchanges is effected by some intervention by the specifically personal, and so is in some sense specifically spiritual. The individual as person must be touched and in some measure receive a healing communication for there to be effective healing even in the lower powers, that is to say the psyche. This is another way of saying that only the transcendental has life-giving power.
Now I had thought it obvious that what this implies is that monks are to go about their monastic life in such a way as to bring to each of our personal contacts such of this transcendental element as lies in our power to effect. This, however, is far from obvious to everyone, understandably, now that I think about it more. I recall how much struggle and how many years it require for me to actually experience the reality of the personal dimension of human relations in any perceptible way. The reality is continually operative but at an unconscious level of life. Only through steady, strenuous and persistent efforts to clarify the levels of our inner life, working our way through the emotional resistances to insight into our defects can we liberate our personality so as to enable us to put our self at the service of others. Such personalizing of life does not occur without suffering, persistent and faithful effort and repeated efforts to go out to others. It is not enough to live according to the externals of the Rule and to observe the usages, At the same time, we must engage in this daily search for a more personal knowledge of God through entering into the deeper, hidden places of the heart by confronting our inner reactions, pleasant and difficult, if we would come to that connatural knowledge of him that is implied in the relation St. Benedict had with his friend Abbot Servandus. This kind of mutual sharing in the spirit is possible only to those who make it their serious business to enter into the hidden places of their own heart where the Spirit communicates with them. This work can be carried through only with strenuous and courageous effort for it involves penetrating into and beyond the emotional layers of experience, in which we have invested much of previous life. We cannot bring about such a purification of the soul merely by controlling our feelings and still less by denying their very existence. We must learn to identify and specify quite exactly what emotions actually motivate us; which ones stand in the way of our responding in truth and justice.
Once we learn to do this with the help of grace, we can communicate something of the transcendent spirit to others in the most ordinary exchanges. To share this deepest dimension of our self we must have opened our self to the hidden places in our depths where the Spirit reveals just who the Lord is for us. He shows us in that very revelation what we must and can do in order to become more suited to be his In this penetration to the deeper leels of events as they impinge upon our consciousness we learn to take th light of the Spirit as our guide. We have in his active communications an inner light that expands our inner horizon so that our regular way of perceiving life and eents includes their relation to God. We develop a taste for God. St. Augustine uses this expression in his Soliloquies (I.1.3, op. cit. , 870). God who are wisdom, in whom and from whom and through whomall who have taste, taste (sapiunt, that is, are wise).
We come to grasp that all things transpire within Gods presence and fit within hi plan. Nothing escapes the active care of the Creator, nothing evades his power. The result of this sensitivity is to personalize experience, that is to render us aware that we are always acting in relation to the Divine Persons. Silence but makes possible the cultivation of such habits of attentiveness to God and to the various areas and levels of our own self. As we grow in perceptiveness to this invisible and always operative reality we naturally discern it in the persons and events we deal with.
Inevitably this will result in our dealing with one another with a lqrger measure of consideration. We will find it quite natural to speak with respect for the feelings of our brother, whether he is present or not. Such personal alertness gives rise to a clearer sense of what we can contribute to be of assistance to others. We will spontaneously sense when it is more helpful to remain silent, to give our brother the space he needs for pursuing his own proper path. In summary, it is by living faithfully the various usages and activities that make up our Cistercian life with a particular concern to recognize our personal way of making our contribution. Taking time daily to review our inner experience so as to penetrate further into the deeper layers of our emotiona and to come to understand better our character ill make it possible for us to find ways of improving our personal relations with others. As we engage in this kind of pursus into Gods sharing of his graces with us.
personal manner of approaching monastic life is the most fruitful way we can expend our
efforts and use our energy in seeking God in the spirit of our Cistercian fathers. They
understood quite distinctly that in thus personalizing their experiences in the monastery
they became capable of forming the kinds of relationship among themselves that Benedict
cultivated with his friend, Abbot Servandus. They themselves tell us how much they
encouraged one another by imitating the example of these intimate friends. THERE WAS A POURING OUT OF
SWEET WORDS OF LIFE BETWEEN THEM, THE DELICIOUS HEAVENLY FOOD
they could not yet fully enjoy the delicious food of the heavenly homeland, they might at
least taste of it amidst their sighs....(S. P.
Benedicti, Prolegomena ex Grégoire le Grand: Dialogues Paris 1866, 157) These words
of Pope Gregory the Great applies no less to Saints Bernard and Bl. William of St.
Thierry. They are intended to encourage us to follow in this same approach to monstic
life. May we learn their lesson and make this advice a guide for our lives in the
assurance that men who know themselves and understand how to speak to one another of the
things of God, help one another to prepare themselves for the vision of Divine light. It is in this light that, as Benedict learned,
all things of this world are seen as small and beneath us who are called to be children of
God in the eternal kingdom of the Father.
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