AND NO ONE ASCENDS INTO HEAVEN EXCEPT THE ONE WHO DESCENDED FROM HEAVEN, THE SON OF MAN WHO IS IN HEAVEN (John 3:13). This saying of our Lord becomes the more difficult to grasp in any firm and clear understanding the more one reflects on it. If it is true that only the one who descended from heaven can ascend to return there, where does that leave the rest of us? From other passages in this same Gospel, however, it is evident that Jesus died for the whole people so that all might be reconciled with the Father. Surely that means being joined to him in heaven after we finish our sojourn in this world. How to reconcile these two undoubted truths?
St. Augustine confronted this dilemma as he commented on this passage to his people in a homily. He was mindful of the first point that John made in his Gospel, namely that Jesus is essentially the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us. And in light of this verity he explained the paradox in the following terms.
AND NO ONE ASCENDS INTO HEAVEN EXCEPT THE ONE WHO DESCENDED FROM HEAVEN, THE SON OF MAN WHO IS IN HEAVEN. Behold he was here and he was in heaven: he was here in the flesh, he was in heaven in his divinity; rather, he was everywhere in his divinity. Born of a mother, not departing from the Father. Two divinities are understood of Christ, one divine, one human. One by which we would be made, another by which we would be remade. Both marvelous: the first without a mother, the other without a father (Tractados sobre el Evangelio de San Juan, 12.8 (B.A.C. Madrid 1968) 308).
If this explains how Jesus could be on earth and yet in a manner enshrouded in mystery at the same time remain present to the Father in heaven, it leaves still the question arising from his saying that >no one ascends into heaven except the one who descends from heaven=. The Bishop of Hippo brings to bear one of his favorite theological principle in treating of this difficulty as he comments on this saying of our Lord.
Are not those going to ascend whom he makes sons of God? Indeed, they are going to ascend, for this promise was made to us: >They will be equal to the Angels of God=. How then is it that no one ascends except he who descends? Because one descends one ascends. What of the others, what save that it is to be understood that because they will be his members he ascends as one? . . . If then no one except he descends and ascends what hope do others have? That hope is for others because he descends so that in him and with him une might ascend who through him are going to ascend. . . . Woe to those who hate unity and make cliques among men (Tractados, 309, 310).
We are to form a single whole with Christ and with all his members; indeed, only if we become one in him with all his members, all those who truly give themselves to him in faith, we cannot hope to join him in the presence of the Father at the end. St. Bernard had learned this lesson well from St. Augustine, both of whom developed this teaching further, based on the words of St. Paul, who insisted so much on the unity of the faithful in Christ.
Bernard taught in his earliest writing that the way to unity with Christ was to enter into one=s heart with faith and in the presence of the Lord. For then we would soon discover that in the light of the Lord=s truth and holiness we ourselves were unworthy of associating with him. For we are weak, inclined to sin and headed for death. He is persuaded that these characteristics mark the inner life of every person. Only by confronting them perseveringly over an extended period of time can we hope to eliminate our habits of sin that contribute to the increase of our alienation from the Lord. Those who struggle manfully to avoid acting out their evil impulses after a time will come to recognize that all men are in the same condition and all need the mercy of God. This leads to the gradual development of a sympathy for others that is an inner concern to be good to them, to help them on their way. In short, it is by remaining in touch with our own need for casting out of our heart all malice, backbiting, gossip and selfish indulgence that we come to be more capable of associating with Christ and of being united with our brothers in bonds of sympathy. In time, as we act increasingly from concern for the good of others and from a pure heart we attain to the realization that it is only by God=s mercy and grace that we have made progress. His goodness to us becomes a sharper realization and so love for him grows spontaneously in our soul. Contemplation of his mercy leads to union with him and a desire to praise him.
From this early summary of the way of progress in the spiritual life it is clear that nothing is more of an obstacle to unity with God and with man than curiosity and gossip. Bernard himself pointed this out in the second part of his work on >The Degrees of Humility and of Pride=. He had obviously observed his monks closely and made observations on their behavior which he then spoke of openly in order to correct those infected with this affliction and to warn off other so so that they would not imitate their harmful example.
The first degree of pride is curiosity which has these characteristics . . . wherever he finds himself, wherever he goes, where he stays he looks all over the place, with his head up and his ears open to pick up all the news, recognize by these exterior movements that the interior of that man, given entirely to external matters, is wholly changed.. . . The soul, in the measure it has ceased to reflect on herself due to negligence, becomes curious of the doings of others (De Los Grados De La Humildad Y De La Soberbia, 10.28).
Gossip, excessive association with others, sharing worldly news about entertainment and the like, are activities associated with idlers of both sexes. Such talk quickly corrupts the spirit of compunction and the seriousness essential for the monastic life, as Bernard as a young abbot, learned to his chagrin. Gossip has done much harm in monasteries wherever it is indulged in. It is divisive; all too often it includes criticism of others, and in particular of superiors. As St. Benedict says he who does much talking will not avoid sin. Let everyone examine himself and take care to avoid all such idle and harmful talking. It is degrading and causes the brothers with a sense of self-respect to feel shame that such behavior is found in the community. This is St. Bernard=s message to his monks; let all of us take it to heart.
The purpose of silence and solitude is not only to avoid all the disorders that arise from excessive speech. As important as that is, there is a much more positive purpose served by maintaining a restraint in speech and learning to speak quietly. Silence and quiet contribute to our communing with the Lord and make it possible for us to enter more deeply into our own hearts so that we can remove the obstacles to the knowledge and love of God. Silence also allows us to penetrate more deeply into the movement of life and the hidden revelations of nature. The contemplative way of life is ordered to such attentive and sober watchfulness. This is the task assigned us by the Church and for which we are freed from the distractions of the active ministry, as important and holy as that service is. When a community lives together in such a climate unity of spirit in the Lord is firmly established. Let us make it our firm concern to live as true monks, seeking God together in charity.
One day in the course of a talk in chapter the abbot of Clairvaux described for his community what his vision was of the cenobitic life and the ideal community. His description is obviously based on his own experience of life at Citeaux and Clairvaux. Bernard speaks of the five regions where the Lord carries on his commerce with our human race.
The second region is the paradise of the cloister. The cloister is truly a paradise, a region protected by the wall of discipline in which there is a great abundance of precious wares. A glorious thing is the dwelling together of men with the identical customs in the same house. It is good and happy for brothers to live in unity. You see one weeping for his sins, another exult in the praises of God; another who serves all; one who teaches others, another who prays; one who reads, another who is compassionate, another who punishes sins; one who burns with charity, one who progresses in humility, one who is humble in prosperity, and that one who is sublime in adversity; one who works in activity and still another who reposes in contemplation. (Sermones Varios, 42.4 Cinco Negociones Y Cinco Regiones , B.A.C. Madrid 1953, 1055).
Bernard=s words breathe an enthusiasm that he imparted to so many others when he spoke of life at Clairvaux. There is no reason why we here today cannot make this view of our life become a reality. Unless we do so, in fact, we shall fall short of our mission here in this country. A monastery is more than a house where men vowed to God live together; it is also a sign of what all Christians hope for. For, as Augustine insisted so pointedly and with such fervent desire, heaven is a collective society of men and women joined in love and occupied in all things with the glory and praise of God.
We do not wait until we die before experiencing the reality of this vision. Although we can know it in its fullness only in heaven yet we can and should already begin to realize something of this communion with the saints in the Lord even now. And the monastery is ordered to prepare us for attaining to this joy that no man can take away from us provided we ourselves prove faithful.
Meditation on divine things, as I mentioned last week here, as experienced in the heart is an important practice that increases the desire for sharing in them. Gregory the Great asserts with much insight that while material things lose their desirability once we laid hold of them and learn their limits; divine things, on the contrary, when known by experience increase desire and do not surfeit. That St. Bernard made such a practice an important element of his prayer life is evident from this same sermon which he ends with a lengthy presentation of the delights of heaven.Here are a few of his thoughts on the theme.
It [Heaven] is a place of delight in which the just drink of the torrent of pleasure; a place of splendor in which the just shine like the lightening of the firmament; a place of joy. . .a place of abundance in which nothing lacks to those who come to it; a place of sweetness in which the Lord appear kindly towards all; a place of peace in which peace makes its seat in all tranquility . . . .Hasten, then, spiritual soul, with the eyes of desire, after this region and see the King of glory illuminated with his spendor, surrounded by the armies of angels, adorned with legions of saints... (Cinco Negociones, 7, p. 1057)
These words are directed as much to us today as they were to the community of Clairvaux in the 12th century. May the Lord grant that we take them to heart, live by them and thus give glory to him and obtain grace for all who come here to seek to draw nearer to the Lord who is our hope and our life.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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