CHILDREN, ONLY FOR A LITTLE WHILE I AM WITH YOU. YOU WILL SEEK ME ... The liturgy today turns our attention to the fact that the Lord, after his Resurrection and Ascension disappeared from human sight. There is, in God's mysterious plan, an interval in which those who put their faith and trust in the Lord must live in his apparent absence. As we know by other words he pronounced, Jesus saw to it that this absence to the physical senses would be made supportable and rendered fruitful by the gift of his Holy Spirit, sent to be a Paraclete, a consoling support and adviser. For us who come after the Lord's Ascension the whole of life is passed in this condition where we know him only in faith, only by the presence he communicates to us in his Holy Spirit. The words he left us in the Scriptures and the sacraments he instituted and made over to his Church mediate this efficacious presence that gives the strength and confidence needed to advance on the way to God in faith until the end of life.
St. Augustine had dwelt at length on these matters of presence and absence of the Lord and shared his reflections with the people of his flock in a sermon.This time of our misery and our weeping is signified by the forty days prior to the Paschal Feast; the time of rejoicing, which will come later, the time of rest, happiness, life eternal, of the reign without end that does not as yet exist, is signified by these fifty days in which we sing the Alleluia. These signify two periods of time for us: one before the resurrection of the Lord, the other after his resurrection; the one in which we now live, the other in which we hope to live in the future. The time of sorrow, signified by the forty days of Lent, we both signify and possess; but the time of rejoicing and rest and of the reign, signified by these present days, we indicate by the Alleluia, but we do not yet possess the praise. (Sermo 254.iv.5 PL 38:1184).
As is clear from this passage, to view life in this world as predominantly marked by sorrow and weeping and sin and penance distorts the Catholic view of our condition. There is another, more important side to Christian existence in this world, one that is filled with light, hope and joy. The presence of the Risen Lord, active within us by his Holy Spirit enables us to redeem the time. It is all too easy for us to focus on the misery of life in times of stress and suffering and when prosperity comes along to dismiss, at least in practice, the obvious limits offered by this world. For this world offers much that is inviting and provides considerable immediate satisfactions. It readily seems to offer all one needs, and in any case, at times appears to be all there is to have. Yet such an attitude to life upon closer examination, and especially with a larger experience of the world and the accidents of life, proves to be gravely defective; to maintain it requires that one exclude a large portion of reality. For one thing, it excludes the poor, the sick, the jobless, the uneducated; it depends on conditions over which the individual has no control, such as social order, peace and economic prosperity. Making this world the one place where the human person can find satisfaction and enjoy the good things of life, means denying the spiritual values that alone correspond to what is best in our nature, such as loyalty to friends and fidelity to commitments when such constancy results in material loss. By trying to buy happiness cheaply, one makes a poor bargain and inevitably ends in ultimate frustration.
The Gospels taught a very different view of life than our modern world holds out to its followers: we are destined for eternal fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. The way that leads to true happiness is that of struggle and self-denial. We are to take up our cross daily and follow the Lord Jesus to glory. If life in this world is to be realistic, it must reflect our present condition of exile from such a homeland, an exile that is constantly felt as absence from the one place where we can truly be ourselves. The struggles and burdens of this path are not the only features that mark this path; we are to know the consolation of our communion with our companions, our friends and fellow Christians. We are spurred on by the hope that already is a source of joy in anticipation.
This concept of the way to life reflects a view of the human condition that, far from being pessimistic, is the only one that takes into account the full extent of the realities in which every person passes the brief time allotted to life on earth. All are headed for death. Death itself is commonly preceded by suffering due to illness or violence or both. Love and possessions are not capable of assuring happiness for long in a world where death has the last word. Any view of life that does not come to terms with the pervasive threat of loss of health, fortune and of death, is but a delusion.
Monastic spirituality was faithful to the Gospel tradition when, keenly conscious of the limits and ultimate defeat of the world's offer of happiness, it focused on preparation for the eschata, the last things. St. Benedict recommends to the monk To keep death before one's eyes daily (RB 4:55). St. Bernard was faithful to this doctrine and came to understand well that all persons have to deal with the pervasive misery arising from the fact that everyone is destined to die. (The Degrees of Humility and Pride, III. 7) He maintained that the first stage of the spiritual life consists in accepting that fact realistically, while maintaining hope in God. Progress in spiritual things means cultivating love of neighbor and the practice of mercy. "But that you might have a merciful heart for the misery of another, you must first acknowledge your own." (op. cit., III. 6 PL 182: 945).
Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, writing to St. Bernard, witnesses to the same keen awareness of the limits imposed on the human condition by the fact of our mortality, and concludes from the shortness of life that we are to devote ourselves without delay to a happy completion of our journey.Short are the days of man (Job 14:5). They flee away, nor do they return. They leave no trace behind. Man slips away like flowing water, running out, with their flow in a headlong rush, to an end of which he knows nothing. For that very reason then there should be no dissimulation, but rather we are to hasten; we should not tolerate dangerous procrastination; we are not free to linger, for, as Scripture (Prov. 17:1). cries out, man does not know what the morrow will bring (cf. Epistle 150,The Letters of Peter the Venerable , ed. Giles Constable, Cambridge 1967, I p.367).
Anyone who honestly thinks through the appearances of things to the realities of our condition soon realizes the limits to any happiness so long as our hearts are set upon fulfillment of our deepest longings within the horizons set by this world. Some few persons, it is true, rich in this world's goods and the influence money and intelligence provide, hold a different view; they do so, however, as it seems to me, only at the cost of excluding the vast majority of human beings from their scheme of things. They also exclude what is most noble in the human heart, so that what they consider to be happiness is, viewed from the spiritual depths, a fruit of insensitivity to spiritual beauty. The Psalmist already felt that only a foolish person would deny the existence of God and make his relation with God his first concern. The fool has said in his heart "There is no God above" (Ps. 53.1).
The spiritual life is not impeded by the limits of a finite and imperfect world; on the contrary, the suffering and loses undergone in the course of human development in its various stages are conditions for spiritual growth when they are taken up in faith and met with hope in the promises of God, and confidence in His grace. We are living in what has been called an interim time. It is the little while between Jesus' Ascension, and his return to take us to himself. We are to live it out in the presence of the risen Lord who has promised to remain with us in the Spirit. The Fathers of the Church, and St. Basil in particular, were deeply impressed by Jesus' injunction at the Last Supper, that the breaking of the bread and the blessing of the cup should be repeated in his memory: "Do this in memory of me". We are not only to celebrate the Eucharist in his memory but to keep him in mind throughout the whole of our life. To assist us in this we are to fill our minds with the words and the narrative of the events of our Lord's earthly life. These events and this teaching are more than records of the past: they constitute a living communion with the Lord of glory who, though invisible to the eyes of the body, remains within the interior precisely by virtue of our attentive presence to him who promised to abide with us.
St. Augustine, himself a member of the privileged classes and gifted as few persons have been, was persuaded by his experience as well as his earnest meditations that no matter how fortunate a person might be suffering and distress is the lot of every human being in a world permeated by the ugliness of sin. At the same time, he was convinced that even now we can rejoice in hope and lead happy and useful lives of service to others by making faith in the risen Christ our guide. Let the ugliness of this life become a time of fertility for us, he adds in this same sermon. Later on he indicates the way in which we are to makes our lives fruitful.For now, my brothers, let us sing, not for the delight of tranquility but for the solace of labor. Let us sing as travelers do: sing but walk; by singing give relief to your labors; do not love idleness; sing and walk. What does it mean to walk? To advance, to advance in the good... advance in right faith, advance in good morals. Do not wander off the path, do not go back, do not stand still. Turn to the Lord... (Sermo cclvi.3 PL 38:1193).
Surely, among other contributions, monastic life faithfully lived is a sign of the vital presence of the Spirit of the Risen Lord within this world of time. This way of life is a witness to the practicability of the Gospel, showing by example when it is lived in fraternal charity and in the love of God, that the truth revealed by Jesus is a realizable alternative to the futile way of materialism. Such a community demonstrates that life has a meaning beyond what the world can offer; because of its hope it can face the miseries of life and take into account the limits of this world, and of death itself, without being frustrated by them. Above all else, a fervent and faithful monastic community is a pledge to the Church and to all persons of good will that God has given us a spiritual destiny which alone promises stable and sure fulfillment of the purest and noblest of human desires. The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord that we look forward to in the near future celebrates the definitive glorification of the Divine Person of the Word of God, who is at the same time Jesus our Savior. He is the embodiment of our hope and he lives now in the transcendent life of the Blessed Trinity. Love for him, a life following after him and obedience to his teaching- these are the contributions that monks are called upon to make to our fellow believers and to all people who are seeking the truth. May God grant that we be worthy of this mission, and prove faithful to the Lord who died that we might be his friends and share with him the heritage that is the glory of God our Father, in the Holy Spirit.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
Return to Index.
Return to Abbey's Homepage Fax: 716-243-4816
- E-mail: Abbot John Eudes Bamberger