MAY 18, 2003, 5TH SUNDAY OF EASTER- CHAPTER 

I AM THE TRUE VINE, AND MY FATHER IS THE VINEDRESSER. HE REMOVES EVERY BRANCH IN ME THAT BEARS NO FRUIT. (John 15: 1-2) The Gospel of John has provided the Gospel texts for liturgy during this Easter Season. This parable of Jesus is one of the more familiar of his sayings. However, it is not usual that the second verse that I have just cited is the one signaled out. More commonly we hear the line that reads “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Obviously, this is a highly significant revelation and a source of spiritual strength. We can hardly reflect on this teaching too often for it reveals a truth that is a constant source of hope and trust for all believers. With this image of the vine and branches we are assured that by our faith in Jesus as Savior we belong to him; with him we form an organic whole. The Lord enlarges upon this point and draws a very practical conclusion from it when he adds the exhortation “abide in me as I abide in you.” To abide in him is to dwell constantly in union with his person. This is an invitation to a life of continual awareness of him and so is a call to cultivate a life of continual prayer. 

Very early in the history of the Church there were men and women who upon hearing this call undertook to change their lives. They desired to respond to this express urging which John presents as having been made at the most solemn occasion in the Lord’s life, at his Last Supper. There were various ways of understanding what is entailed in ‘abiding in the Lord’. But in general, St. Augustine’s comment expresses in brief the fundamental requirement of such an intimate dwelling in the risen Lord. He notes the need for us to be cleansed, and yet this cleansing surpasses the powers of human weakness. It even surpasses the powers of he angels. This is why Jesus says that “MY FATHER IS THE VINEDRESSER . Only the Blessed Trinity can effect the needed cleansing.  

It (the vine) bears fruit because it is clean; and that it might bring forth more, it is cleansed further. Who in this life is so clean that he should not be cleansed more and more?… He cleanses the clean, that is, the fruitful, that the purer they are the more fruitful that might be. (‘Sobre el Evangelio De San Juan’ 80.2 [Madrid: BAC, 1965] 364). 

Moreover, as attempts were made to put into practice ways of life that were ordered to this purpose of continuous living in the Lord, there grew up a fuller awareness of the fundamental need for a high purity of heart and mind. Experience revealed what practices aided such inner conversion and purification and which were the difficulties and obstacles that had to be dealt with to attain this goal. Due to the accumulated wisdom, both practical and intellectual, resulting from the strenuous and dedicated efforts to enter upon this way leading to purity of life, there evolved a tradition that was rich in human understanding as well as insightful in divine matters. Over time men modified these insights in order to adapt them to the gifts, opportunities and difficulties offered by the different cultures and times. Even in the early generations of the desert Fathers, there were already recognizably distinct manners of pursuing the goal of union with the Lord within the general agreement upon the fundamentals of the Christian life. 

There were men who emphasized the community life as did St. Pachomius and his many followers. Others favored smaller groups gathered about a single elder who undertook their spiritual instruction and formation. Still others gave greater prominence to solitude such as Abba Arsenius. There was a group gathered about Evagrius who were deeply concerned with the intellectual life and who had studied and developed Origen’s thought in a monastic setting. All of these were intent on the same goal of carrying out God’s command so as to be found acceptable to him at the end. Since he had made his will known in Scripture, they all were at one is assigning a prominent place to the study and meditation of the word of God. Not least of all, though following a rather broad range of practices and of lifestyles, they all were striving after a life of continual prayer and seeking purity of heart without which no one will ever see God. 

There was a general agreement throughout the Christian world, going back to the time and teachings of Jesus himself, that in order to attain God one had to be cleansed of sin and freed from disordered passion. Moreover, this requirement applied not only to the final state of man in the beatific vision but also to the contemplative life in this world. There is no separation between prayer and practice considered as the efforts made to get free of selfish interest and vice and to take on the virtues. This insight has permeated all forms of true Christian living whether in the world or in the desert, whether in the married state or as a religious. This is true of the West as well as of the East, even though in the Eastern Churches it has been more visibly held in honor. One of the clearest symbols of this fact is that the bishops of the Byzantine and Russian tradition, though having the pastoral care of the people as his primary duty, must be a monk in principle. And being a monk means being dedicated to prayerful union with God and contemplation. 

In the fourth century, surrounded by the Greek speaking circle of monks in the desert of Nitria Evagrius Ponticus worked out a theology and a practice of contemplative prayer that had a lasting influence that is still felt today. His prayer was based on a concept of man that is overly spiritual in that it gives but a rather limited and temporary significance to the body. But what he came to recognize in the intellect was a capacity for a highly developed sensitivity to divine reality active in creation. As the believer became progressively free of passion and meditated on God’s presence in the world and in history, this power of the intellect grew stronger so that eventually it was capable of knowing God himself. Prayer at this stage passed beyond all images and words and was wholly absorbed with God. Later monks and theologians made further contributions to this form of prayer that led to a kind of technique for getting free of distractions and focusing on the pure presence of God in the depths of the heart. This prayer "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.” This prayer was to be said from the heart, not just from the mind and was often repeated, with attention throughout the day until the practitioner was constantly aware of the deep presence of our Lord within. This way of prayer was developed and practiced chiefly by monks known as hesychasts, that is, those who are quiet. This quiet refers above all to the state of the heart, but also has in view the fact that a silent solitude is the most apt place for such prayer. 

Now all of the above elements in this prayer tradition have a very direct and practical bearing upon our Cistercian way of life. Although there are differences of emphasis and tone, yet from the earliest days of our Order the ideal of a life of constant prayer actuated the founders of Citeaux. Emphasis on the person of Jesus in contemplative prayer was immensely furthered by the writings of St. Bernard. Living in silence and solitude, avoiding distractions meditating the Scriptures were prominent features of early Cistercians and have remained characteristic to the present. The proper balance of these and the other elements of monastic life proved hard to maintain in the West as it did also in the Eastern Church, even in periods of great fervor and dedication.  Just as at Mt. Athos in the early 14th century there was hardly any one who understood the prayer of the heart as developed by the Fathers, so also at LaTrappe where many saintly men lived an exemplary life, there was little understanding of the contemplative traditions of the early Cistercians.

 Thomas Merton did a great deal to change that. He was formed in a discipline of silence, manual labor and the daily recitation of the Divine Office very similar to that which was lived at Citeaux in St. Bernard’s time. Like Bernard and the other early Cistercians he read carefully the Church Fathers who had contributed most to the contemplative traditions of the Church, notably Augustine, Cassian and Gregory the Great. He also became interested in the Eastern Fathers who contributed to the hesychastic way of prayer, notably Evagrius and especially Maximus the Confessor. In his teaching and writings he emphasized the more interior aspects of the monastic life, in keeping with the doctrine of Bernard, Aelred and William of St. Thierry. Thus Merton’s work represented a major correction of monastic observance and prayer in that he gave priority to the work of the heart and contemplative prayer. He put the more penitential features of the life in the service of purity of heart in view of preparing for pure prayer rather than making penance a primary function of the monastic observances. 

Following along the path traced out by Merton with its stress on a more contemplative orientation of or Cistercian way, Dom Thomas Keating, while abbot of Spencer, worked out a theory and technique that is a practical way of going about a more contemplative prayer. It is oriented to those who do not have the opportunity to live in the environment that favored constant prayer. Monks too may find this procedure helpful if they have not already worked out their own manner of praying from the heart. He gave the name Centering Prayer to this method. As he himself says, there is nothing really new about the aims or practice of this form of inner communion with the Lord. Although some have criticized it as being too influenced by the East or otherwise not explained in keeping with Catholic theology, he maintains that it is really based on Cistercian teachings and merely is a practical way of going about the kind of prayer the early Cistercians practice. I would add that it also incorporates some elements from the eastern hesychastic practice. I myself am not familiar with all his writings, but from what I do know, and from my talk with Dom Thomas whom I know well, I think his goals and method are a positive contribution to the life of prayer.  

In fact, I find nothing new in the method, nor would anyone who is familiar with the teachings and practice of the great hesychastic mystics and authors. In fact, Fr. Basil Pennington who collaborated with D. Thomas and has written a popular work entitled ‘Centering Prayer’, states quite explicitly that “Two things are new about Centering Prayer: the name and the packaging.” The rest is taken from monastic and mystical tradition. Centering Prayer is a presentation of monastic prayer packaged for people who do not have the leisure, silence and solitude afforded by a cloistered monastery, as Fr. Basil’s book shows clearly. The sources of this teaching are the monastic tradition, especially Thomas Merton and the Cloud of Knowing. The central idea is taken directly from Merton who wrote in his last book that 

Monastic prayer begins not so much with "considerations” as with a “return to the heart,: finding one’s deepest center, awakening the profound depths of our being in the presence of God who is the source of our being and our life.(Climate of Monastic Prayer, cites in Pennington, 62) 

 For Centering Prayer simply speaks of a way of entering the heart, of uniting the mind and heart so as to enter into the presence of the Lord with all possible attention, employing the fullest of inner energies in encounter with the Lord. . This is precisely the hesychastic teaching on prayer. If we follow our own Cistercian way of life faithfully, with its emphasis on silence and walking in the presence of God day by day, we will be led by grace into this more interior and contemplative way of praying.  One criticism that has been made of Centering Prayer-unjustly, in my view- as presented by D. Thomas is that it treats encounter with the Lord as automatically arising from a technique of concentration. Perhaps the place of faith has not always been stated clearly enough in the various presentations of this prayer. However, I have every reason to believe that few realize better than D. Thomas that all experience of our Lord takes place in faith and all prayer is an actualization of faith. 

All pure prayer is a gift from God and it is given only to those who seek it with a pure heart. And so the life of prayer of the heart extends beyond prayer time; it includes the whole of life. All of our efforts to free ourselves of our compulsions, from our selfishness, our undisciplined and uncharitable talking and behavior is a preparation for this prayer made from the heart. Maintaining the cloister as a place of peace, order, friendliness and regularity is an important preparation for this prayer of the heart which F. Basil calls Centering Prayer. The silence that contributes to such inner recollection is not merely a discipline; it is already an entering into the place of prayer. If we keep that in mind we will not feel it is unnatural or arbitrary to have the rules for silence that we have agreed upon and which have been so carefully maintained throughout the centuries by our Order. As we observe these usages together we will come to experience that silence, as well as maintaining the climate of prayerful union with God, is at the same time a form of communication and of communion when shared by men dedicated to contemplative prayer. Preserving it is a form of fraternal support and of charity for that very reason.     

The chief immediate aim of Centering Prayer is to provide a setting and a method of experiencing the deeper interior places of the heart. This aim is taken directly from the hesychastic practice. As I pointed out above Theophane the Recluse had made the central point of his teaching on prayer that the mind should descend into the heart. He understood well that for different persons various ways would prove helpful to manage to arrive at such a unifying experience. The use of a short prayer or word in order to focus all one’s attention in the deeper places of the soul may be helpful. Knowing when to use a word or words that assist in this centering effort is important so that once one enters the peace and quiet of the hidden place of the heart, he knows how to leave off all words and pass beyond to the pure presence of the Lord.  Fr. Basil speaks of this movement into the depths in his presentation of Centering Prayer 

This place- which we make no attempt at pinpointing physically or imaginatively- is deep within, our spirit. It is the place of encounter with the living Triune God. It s the place where at every moment we come forth into being by his loving creative action. It is the ‘ground of being” to use another Merton simile.

The name “Centering Prayer” well expresses the effective imaginative activity that is present in the initial movement of faith and love that brings us to Presence. (Pennington, 62) 

As Fr. Basil notes, he prefers the image of the center to the traditional image of the heart used by the hesychasts. Both are imaginative images; whatever one helps us to arrive at the place of God within the soul determines its usefulness. The advantage of the heart image is that it is at once Biblical and traditional. That God dwells in the heart and soul of those who truly believe and who obey his word, receiving the Spirit at Baptism is a truth of our faith. The Prayer of the Heart is one method of entering into that place of encounter which is accessible only to a loving and living faith. Monks who find this way helpful are encouraged to make use of it.  All of us are called by our life as Cistercians to the Prayer of the Heart. The Church sets us apart that we might make of our whole life in all its activities and practices a continual communion with God. This is what gives meaning to our silence, solitude, lectio and obedience, all of which help us to abide in the depths of our heart with faith in our Lord who dwells in us and invites us to dwell in him, all the days of our life and unto eternity.   

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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