WE SPEAK THE WISDOM OF GOD IN A MYSTERY THAT IS HIDDEN. (1Cor.2: 7). Blessed Guerric, like St. Bernard before him, was firmly persuaded that in the infant Jesus this hidden Wisdom of God the Father was manifested to the little ones of the earth. His faith saw in this helpless child the Word of God who, without ceasing to be divine, divested himself of his glory to take on the weak form of a new-born infant.O blessed infancy whose weakness and foolishness is stronger and wiser than all men, for the reason that the strength of God and the wisdom of God effects his divine realities in our human ones (Sermo de Nativitate Domini 1.2).
The child born in Bethlehem embodies that mystery of which St. Paul speaks so eloquently in the first pages of his letter to the Greek citizens of Corinth. For the disarming weakness of the infant foreshadows the future self-emptying of the cross of Jesus by means of which the plan of redemption is carried into effect and manifested. Paul stated the matter in the following terms.The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, to us, it is the power of God. For it is written: " I shall destroy the wisdom of the wise and bring to nothing the knowledge of the learned . Where is the wise man? Where is the searcher into this world? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world (1Cor 1: 19, 20)?
In a recent survey of advances in the understanding of sub-atomic physics the focus was on the major contributions made by two brilliant American scientists, searchers into this material world. Both are Nobel prize winners and recognized as outstanding in their research. Both, however, remained sceptics as regards the ultimate purpose of creation and of life. They are in the dark as to the existence of God; the source of the created matter they explore is hidden from them; so is its purpose. These men represent one of the types of persons Paul refers to as illustrating the inscrutable mystery of God's wisdom that is revealed to the simple, the relatively uninstructed, and concealed from the wise of this world and those who search out the meaning of created reality.Since in God's wisdom the world did not know through the wisdom of God, God was pleased to save those who have believed through the foolishness of the preached message....God chose the foolish things of this world to confound the powerful (1Cor 1:21, 27).
Jesus himself had already confronted the same issue of recognition of truth and the way to true wisdom. He was frustrated in his attempts to reach out to the learned, the influential leaders and the wise of this world. "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to little ones (Matthew 11: 25)."
In the end it was members of the class of privileged men who not only refused to acknowledge the divine revelation Jesus brought; they sought to prevent him from propagating it and even went so far as to put him to death. Probably the harshest words ever uttered by Jesus were directed to these men of influence who opposed his saving mission.Woe to you learned and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you lock up the kingdom of heaven before men, and you yourselves do not enter in, nor do you allow those who approach to enter....And so, see now, I will send you prophets, wise men and persons of learning, and you will kill and crucify some of them; others you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city (Matthew 23: 14,34).The early Cistercians were very much taken up with the whole question of wisdom and knowledge and the means to arrive at truth. Bl. Guerric speaks of the only way to arrive at the true wisdom to his monks in a conference given during Advent.How many there are who wander in solitude! Indeed, all who are solitary, that is, the proud who think highly only of themselves....They do not cease to be what they were for they do not fear God... since the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. If fear is the beginning of wisdom, then also the beginning of good ways. This same fear of the Lord is that which produces the counsel in the heart of the wise man which leads him to say: "I have considered my ways and turned my steps to your testimonies (Psalm 146.7)."...It is this fear of the Lord that inclines the proud man to penance so that he hears the voice of the one crying in the desert and commanding to prepare the way, and indicating how to begin: "Do penance; for the kingdom of God is at hand (Matthew 3:2)." (cf. Sermo V.2 PL 185.1 : 26)
The condition for a true and reliable understanding of oneself and the world in which we find ourselves is to recognize our sinfulness and to turn to God seeking his mercy and favor. This is the message preached by the Baptist and was the way he prepared for the coming of the Lord. If Peter, Andrew, John and James so readily left all things to follow the Lord, and became his intimates, it was because they had already listened to the preaching of John the Baptist and sought a life of virtue. The Abbot of Igny, then, is in the prophetic tradition when he insists with his monks that the proper preparation for Christmas is to undertake the works of conversion from the heart. He points out that the man who judges himself gains great merit before the Lord for in doing so he begins to practice justice. He cites Proverbs (16:5) in support of this view: " The beginning of the good way is to practice justice. That is more acceptable to God than sacrifices." In particular, the justice that is due one's neighbor who may have some complaint against us is essential for the Christian who would advance in prayer. Offering, in one way or another, reparation for any offence and showing oneself receptive to reconciliation if one has been offended are not optional for the Christian. Jesus had already taught the importance of such fraternal charity in God's eyes.
To many, no doubt, this teaching may seem too obvious to require repetition and still less to need emphasis. Guerric, however, is sufficiently experienced to realize that this, and all other forms of justice, are fundamental to the spiritual life and yet are readily neglected for one reason or another. Along with fidelity to the daily duties of life, the majority of which are seemingly trivial taken one by one, concern for truth and justice in all our dealings are the foundation upon which the whole spiritual edifice rests. Only after years of striving always to be just, honest, faithful to duty day by day does one come to appreciate how great an achievement it is to be a reliable and just human being. Only after we have applied ourselves seriously and steadily to this ordinary way of solid virtue can we properly respect such habitual fidelity in others and honor it appropriately. Still further, only then can we truly discover how meaningful the daily monastic routine is because in it we are united with God and learn to experience his presence and action in our world. Fr. Louis Merton had a sensitive awareness of the importance of such attention to the tasks of common duties and appreciation for their role in the contemplative life. He gave finely expressed advice concerning attentiveness to such daily fidelity in a letter to a young Carmelite novice.Do not try too hard to see anything special in yourself or your actions. You must be very simple and value all the little ordinary things of Carmelite life for no other reason than that they are pleasing to Jesus. Soon the life will seem just as ordinary as every other life. Probably does so already. And that will strike you as strange. You will feel as if there were something lacking. Nothing is lacking if you have faith to see that there is one big difference- the only difference; you are leading a life that is entirely consecrated to God. It is not yours but his. It is unbelievably hard for many religious to convince themselves in practice of this great truth (The School of Charity: Letters, 60).
Later in the same letter he points out how useful it is to perceive in our various activities and in the things we handle or observe their individual value even while we know that in themselves they are indifferent relative to the God whom we seek to serve in them. Thus we engage our mind and senses and penetrate through the surface of activities and of exterior things to their inner structure and beyond that to the God whose attributes they reflect. Detachment is not at all the same as boredom; the contrary is the case. To be detached because we perceive duties and persons and things in their inner relation to God is to live a life of quiet excitement and to discover the secret place of joy in the soul.
These are great truths. They deserve our respectful consideration. In fact, this doctrine is that royal way of virtue of which Guerric speaks in his Advent sermon: "In this way of penance justice and peace meet one another in a gratifying and joyous encounter and kiss. The justice, that is, of a man judging himself and the peace of the God who forgives (op. cit. PL 184: 27). The Gospels present God's plan of salvation as it was realized in the Word made flesh as overturning the world's values and establishing a fresh standard by which to judge values and to guide one's practice. This reversal of values is evident both in the Synoptics and in the Gospel of John. In an early Chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, for instance, the Beatitudes baldly affirm judgments concerning happiness that contradict all the practical wisdom of the world. "Blessed are the poor of spirit, for their shall see God.... Blessed are they who suffer persecution... "
In John's Gospel the terrible suffering of the cross is considered to be a lifting up in glory, anticipating already the glorious resurrection that was to follow so soon after. The hidden life of Jesus who passed most of his years in a small village, with its provincial setting is a statement concerning what God considers to be the measure of worth. What dignified and gave importance to his life was the dutiful, faithful, daily dedication to the Father's will. Day by day he lived out this discipline in the same familiar setting for many years with concern for cultivating those attitudes and habits of mind and body which contributed to prepare him for responding to the divine plan as it became known to him. Jesus' teaching and public ministry was in good part the fruit of this preparation. The elements of his life were community, work Scripture reading, meditation and contemplation. The monastic founders and fathers understood this very well and, basing themselves on the model of Jesus' life, including the hidden years, at various periods established and developed the traditions that have come down to us.
Aware of the many temptations and difficulties encountered by those seeking to live a serious Christian life in the midst of a world that is taken up with its own values, ambitions and pleasures, a number of the monastic writers spoke at times as if the only safe and sure way to salvation was to live as a monk, preferably in a monastery situated in solitude. This is understandable for their own experience had led them to do precisely that. But alongside writing that give this impression there also grew up traditions which were consciously cultivated and preserved with a view to puncturing this inflated concept, which does not sufficiently respect the Gospel's presentation of God's ways. Already in the time of the desert fathers there were sayings which put into perspective the thinking of some of the most experienced and venerated monks. Take the example from a story told of one of the holiest of contemplatives.On a certain occasion when Abba Macarius was at prayer the sound of a voice came to him: "Macarius,you have not yet attained to the measure of two women who live together in the nearby city." Hearing this Macarius got up, grasped his staff and went to the city. There he found two married women and asked them what was their way of life. " We live normal married lives, they told him, so what is there to tell?" But he insisted they tell him in detail just how their day goes. They then explained that they were unrelated and had married two brothers and lived in the same house for many years and never once had they spoken an unseemly word or quarreled. They had both agreed to try to convince their husbands to allow them to enter a convent of virgins, but, in spite of many prayers were unable to obtain their husbands consent. " So we made a testament that neither of us would speak a worldly word at all." And Macarius said: "In truth, it is not being a virgin, or married, or a monk or a secular that counts. God ministers the spirit of life to all (PL 74: 778 shortened and paraphrased).
Every vocation, every state in life, has its proper role to play in the Church and can lead the faithful to true holiness of life when lived with dedication in all seriousness. Each one must make generous use of the means at hand and putting faith in them, however ordinary and seemingly trivial, go to God through carrying them out with attention and love. We as monks have many helps to remind us of our goal and to assist us to pursue it daily with energy. We best show our gratitude for all we receive by learning to find God's loving presence in all the work, words and activities that constitute the warp and web of our monastic day. Attending to the hidden presence of God in all things, above all in all our dealings with people, transforms the most common and ordinary matters into vehicles of grace. In this way as we live love and faith enlarge the inner spaces of the heart, opening our spirit to that world where God is all in all. May we grow in such attentive love during this final week of Advent so that we might receive with joy the great gift of salvation brought to us and to all in the coming of the Lord Jesus, born of Mary.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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