MAY 19, 2002, PENTECOST: Chapter

 I REJOICE THAT YOU BELONG TO THIS SCHOOL, THAT IS, THE SCHOOL OF THE SPIRIT WHERE YOU LEARN GOODNESS, AND DISCIPLINE AND KNOWLEDGE.  These words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux were addressed to his monks in chapter on the Feast of Pentecost, sometime around 1145 (cf. Sermo In Festo Pentecostes III.5 PL 183: 332A).  We continue the tradition he followed of coming together in this chapter room regularly and to reflect together on some aspect or other of the same study that St. Bernard and his monks pursued with such dedication.   

You will have recognized in the passage cited above that Bernard incorporates here a phrase from the Bible, as was his regular practice.  The text is from Psalm 118: 66 and since the full verse contains the verb teach it suits his context admirably when he speaks of the school of the Spirit.  Does the Abbot of Clairvaux intend subtly to suggest that the school of Clairvaux pursues the same program that was set up by the Holy Spirit for the chosen people in the age of King David, who was considered the author of the Psalms?  In any case, that is an inference that we can legitimately make for ourselves.   

The Bible contains the chief material for the learning imparted in the monastery.  The Book of Psalms has a particular prominence in it for the monk, since it forms the main element in the daily office of the hours.  St. Benedict speaks of the monastic way that he legislated for in his Rule as equivalent to the Gospel.   In the Prologue he exhorts his readers in the following terms.  Girding our self with faith and the practice of good works and putting on our sandals let us traverse his way by the guidance of the Gospel.  The Rule is but a practical application of the Gospel, not in its fullness, perhaps, but at any rate, as he puts it in his last chapter, for beginners. It is an adequate preparation for a higher life, and not just for a more exacting and more contemplative life on earth.

In spite of his modest disclaimer, Benedict clearly was convinced that by living according to his Rule from the heart, the monk would be ready for life eternal in the kingdom of the Father. 

The lessons at this school can be learned, however, only under the influence of the Spirit who inspired the sacred text.  If the monastery is the school of the Spirit it is because the Holy Spirit is the principal teacher.  The Psalm text is directed to God when it says: Teach me goodness and discipline and knowledge.  The Lord’s answer is given with the sending of the Spirit as the students strive to assimilate the doctrines contained in the inspired book.   The Spirit functions within us in such a way as to put us in touch with eternal realities; His action takes place in this world of time but operates from eternity.   Accordingly, under the influence of the Holy Spirit time is relativized; its destructive effects are inoperative, neutralized.  In the Spirit only what is positive and life enhancing in time abides and remains operative.  The school of the Spirit teaches the way that leads to eternal life to all generations of those who enroll in its ranks.  

Taken up in the Spirit into glory the risen Christ continues to remain present to his Church and to each member of his mystical body throughout all ages. A literal translation of the final sentence of St. Matthew’s Gospel brings this truth to the fore strikingly. Behold, I am with you all days until the completion of the world. Amen.  Every day and all the days together Jesus continues to guide his faithful followers.  He enlightens and inspires them; he encourages and strengthens them in and through his Holy Spirit.  The sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and the inspired Scriptures function as privileged means of this activity.  They are, however, not exclusive of other ways in which we are influenced and led to advance on the path that leads to the Kingdom of the Father.  The good example and advice of faithful believers and teachers in the Church, the events of history seen in the light of revealed truth, the kindness and charity of people we live with and encounter also serve as vehicles of grace.  For God’s Spirit is present throughout His creation in the form of wisdom, as it is written. 

Wisdom, the maker of all things taught me….  For she is the breath of the power of God, and a certain pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty God….  She is the brightness of eternal light and the spotless mirror of the majesty of God… And so she reaches from one end to the other with strength, and arranges all things sweetly (Wisdom 7: 22… 8:1). 

Everywhere present, active in all ages the Spirit is the hidden agent of the grace won by our Lord through his sacrificial death and resurrection.  Creation is preserved in existence by the Spirit of God; all that is serves potentially as a mysterious sacramental communicating some measure of divine life to those who in faith and with spiritual desire open themselves to receive it.    

As I mentioned above, this activity of the Spirit is more particularly energetic in the inspired writings of the Bible and in the Eucharist above all.  The words of Scripture are anchored in time.  They are historical in that men whose experience and language were time-conditioned recorded them at various periods in the past.  But the Spirit who imparted to them a transcendent quality that related them to the divine world where God is all in all also conditioned them.  That being the case, they continue to serve as vehicles of a revelation that is life imparting when they are received with a living faith.  Their meaning is inexhaustible, having a power of significance that is suited to each individual and every period of history.   

This meaning with its variety of significance naturally changes with the passage of events, but preserves a continuity that has its basis in God Himself.  Only the accidental aspects vary with persons and situations, the mystery of God’s life is the essential content of what is communicated.  The various mysteries of the Incarnate Christ with their own special grace are thus preserved in their efficacy for all who approach the word of God, the liturgy of the Church and the Eucharist.  Each of us can have access to the particular graces associated with every one of the salvific events of our Lord’s life, above all with his passion and resurrection.  We are not disadvantaged in relation to past generations.   For the grace of the Spirit preserves a freshness and fullness in these vehicles of divine life and favor. 

Saint Bernard perhaps more than any other Church Father contributed to this appreciation of the Spirit’s work in the spiritual life.  He gave due importance to the historical events of the life of Christ on earth and had a personal devotion to the holy places which had been recently conquered by the Crusaders.  Yet he understood with a vivid faith that was intensified by an early experience that these happenings are not relegated to history but exercise a current influence in the souls of the faithful.   He is the spiritual writer who first spoke of the three Advents of Christ. The first coming in lowliness in the flesh, the last coming in glory and power to judge, and the coming to the soul in the mid-time to bring healing and sanctification to his faithful followers. Fr. Paul Verdeyen observes in this connection that: The intermediate coming is an invention of Bernard.  It is understood that this frequent, even daily coming of the Word opens the field of personal experience ( Bernard de Clairvaux, Le ThJologien, S.C. #380 Paris 1992, p. 561).   This characteristic emphasis on inner experience is fundamental to Bernard’s teaching on the process of conversion in the monastic life.  He stresses it in the very first of his Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles. 

 Only unction teaches a Song of this sort, only experience learns it. Let the experienced recognize it; may the inexperienced burn with desire not so much to know it as to experience it (Sermones in Canticle I.11 PL 183: 789). 

Again he returns to this point in another of his treatments in this same series of conferences. 

Today we read in the book of experience.  Be converted to yourselves and let each one attend to what his conscience tells him concerning the things that are said. (Sermones in Canticle III.1  PL 183: 794).    

Bernard is convinced that it is the Holy Spirit who will reveal what God expects of us through our conscience.  To turn inward then and to examine the inclinations of our heart in the light of conscience is to discern what specific way God is leading us.  Experience is not simply subjective; it opens up to the reality revealed to us through the movement of the heart influenced by the Spirit who abides in us.  Conscience formed by revelation as taken in through Scripture, the liturgy, the teachings of the Church confront us with the objective given of the mystery of Christ.   

The Spirit is the source of discernment.  The ability to recognize the indications of God’s will, to perceive the truth in situations that call for our response is essential to advancing on the way to God.  Thus from earliest times, even in the days of the former prophets in the Old Testament, certain characteristics of the Spirit’s action were identified and employed to establish those instances when this divine impulse or enlightenment were operative.  That there were some persons particularly endowed with the gifts of the Spirit was seen as an indication that God continued to favor His people with care and loving guidance.  When there were no prophetic voices to be heard the Israelites tended to fall away from their duties to God and saw this silence of the prophetic as an abandonment.  The law alone was not enough; it had to be interpreted and applied by charismatic persons, led by the Spirit.  The Jewish liturgy itself reflects this state of affairs in that it includes a reading from the prophets as well as a text taken from the Torah. 

The same provision for continuing prophetic guidance was made by the Lord when he established the New Covenant.  He did not merely leave a body of teachings behind for his apostles to preach and pass on.  He promised the Paraclete, the Spirit of holiness who would lead them into all truth.  This truth must be made alive in the hearts of believers by a divine force.  Ultimately, the tradition that Jesus initiated and had his apostles transmit is not confined to words and narratives, but is the living Spirit of God.  This Spirit assures the continuing efficacy of the Word and sacraments; the Spirit is the life of the Church. 

But can everyone experience this action of the Spirit?  That there are persons especially favored with such gifts in the course of time all of us believe.  There are towering figures of holiness, men and women whose lives displayed such obvious charity and courage and insight into the mysteries of Christ that they can be identified and honored as vehicles of the Spirit.  Many of them are further commended to our acceptance by the signs and miracles they performed, people like St. Bernard in the twelfth century, and in our times Padre Pio who was beatified earlier this month in Rome.  But what about us, the ordinary ones in the Church, whether lay, religious or priests?  What is our experience of the Spirit? How can we know if and when He is active in our life?   

St. Paul had already addressed these questions and elaborated a list of signs that the Holy Spirit was active in the hearts of the faithful.  As Bernard was to do later, Paul turns us to the inner man, there to note the movements of the heart.  He tells us what to look for as indications that the Spirit is working within.  The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, self control (Galatians 5: 22).  Where we discover these dispositions we can infer the presence of the Spirit of Jesus within us.  Following Paul, the more gifted spiritual leaders of the Church worked out further indications of the Spirit’s presence.  The mystical doctors such as Teresa and John of the Cross wrote with insight and at length on this topic.  The contemplative St. Ignatius gave special attention to discerning the guidance of the Spirit in the matter of vocation in life and developed a detailed approach to this end which is still studied and employed in the context especially of the long retreat. 

Karl Rahner, who already as a student was much exercised by the question of the spiritual senses and the human spirit, pursued with sharp acumen the whole area of inner experience and the role of the Holy Spirit.  His concern was to reaffirm the importance of the Holy Spirit’s activity in the life of everyone, not only those gifted with special graces of prayer, but all believers.  He went further, and described at length how the very structure of human freedom and intelligence in their operation depend on the transcendent realm of the Spirit.  He states the matter in this way. 

Nevertheless, the unlimited extent of our spirit in knowledge and freedom, which is ineluctably and unthematically given in every ordinary experience, allows us to experience what is mean by God as the revealing and fulfilling ground of that expanse of the Spirit and its unlimited movement.  Transcendental experience, even when and where it is mediated through an actual categorial object, is always divine experience in the midst of everyday life (Experiencing the Spirit, 15). 

The mysticism of everyday life became one of the major areas of concern for Rahner.  His contribution to the theology of the Spirit gives him an honorable place in the development of the teaching on discernment as well as that concerning grace and mystical experience in general.   He adduces a good number of concrete examples typifying such everyday mysticism in an attempt to enable us to relate the conclusions of his analysis given in the citation above, to such situations as any of us may live through in the course of life.  I shall mention here just a few, which any of us might have experienced or had occasion to meet with in dealing with others. 

The person who remains faithful to duty even though he feels that in doing so he is denying some of his best gifts and nobody will thank him for it.       

The individual who is silent when treated unjustly, and yet does not feel that his silence means that he is above criticism. 

The one who is truly good to another and remains so without getting or expecting any recognition or thanks, and yet does not feel that makes him noble, or especially selfless.   

The person who seeks to love God even though he seems to receive no response from the God who remains silently hidden in His transcendence.  Even though his prayer seems to fall into a void and his love to be wasted in emptiness, and he is not sustained by feelings of awe or other consolation, yet he persists in his devotion.

 The one who accepts death as the beginning of an endless fulfillment. 

 Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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