OCTOBER 20, 2002, 29TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR: CHAPTER 

BONITATEM ET DISCIPLINAM ET SCIENTIAM DOCE ME. (‘Teach me goodness, discipline and knowledge.’) [Psalm 118. 66]. These words occur in a line of the longest psalm in the Psalter. I have been saying and singing them every week practically for over fifty years now and they still seem to me to be full of life. They contain a whole program for the truly good and happy life, expressed in a highly condensed and suggestive formula. I cite them in Latin for it was in that language that they were read and sung by our fathers and predecessors in the monastic life. They first became familiar to me in that language for they were inscribed indelibly over the entrance to the Latin School I attended in the impressionable years of early adolescence. The Psalms were translated into that language by St. Jerome from the Septuagint Greek version and was undertaken in Bethlehem in 386 AD This work was indicated because of the wide variety of readings in earlier Latin translations. While this version seemed too ‘progressive’ to St. Augustine and some others, it soon became popular (‘Vulgate’ means ‘Popular’). This text is the one that became traditional in the West and has been used prayerfully in worship by succeeding generations of Christians ever since. In one version or other, the Psalter has been prayed in Latin since the two hundreds. The monks of St. Benedict’s community learned the psalms by heart in Latin and recited them weekly as they sang the Opus Dei, the Work of God, in choir.  

The Psalms were commented upon by many of the doctors of the Church, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine being the most widely read among them. It is worthy of note, however, that in places the wording of the text they used differed from the original version of Jerome. This was due at times to the use of earlier Latin texts or, in other instances, to variant readings that were introduced by scribes as they copied new manuscripts. At times the variant reading serves to bring out more clearly the original intent of the author; on other occasions it differs from his meaning but states an insight that is helpful for the spiritual life. (A critical edition of St. Jerome’s translation was published only a few decades ago by the Benedictines in Rome). Even so, though the words I have cited are but a translation, not the original words of the inspired text, like the whole of the Latin Vulgate version, they gradually came to have a particular authority attached to them. The Council of Trent made a special point of affirming that its list of books should be considered ‘as sacred and canonical in their entirety, with all their parts, according to the text usually read in the Catholic Church and as they are in the ancient Latin Vulgate.’[DS 1504, as cited in ‘The Jerome Biblical Commentary II, 532]. 

‘Teach me goodness, discipline and knowledge.’ Rightly understood, then, this prayer made to God sets forth all that is needed in the spiritual life. This becomes more clear when we consider the Latin version in light of the Septuagint of which it is a translation, as well as the original Hebrew text that is the basis for the Septuagint. Each of these provides a helpful insight into the implications of this prayer. Where the Latin has ‘disciplina’ the Hebrew employs the term .3), which means literally ‘taste’, but can also signify ‘understanding’. Taste is the kind of understanding that is learned from experience and represents a certain connaturality with the truth embedded in things and persons, including God himself. It is not the understanding derived from abstract reflection as such, but that which is inherent in life experience, available to the person who appropriates it by reflection, analysis and assimilation. This term has reference to that whole world of inner happenings that result from personal engagement with living reality. Accordingly, it is closely associated with the acquisition of wisdom. And in fact, St. Bernard, toward the end of his life, came to the conclusion that the highest wisdom was analogous to the sense of taste, and considered that even the word for wisdom in Latin, ‘sapientia’ was derived from the term for ‘taste’, ‘sapor’. He makes this point in the following lines. 

If anyone should define wisdom as the love of virtue, it seems to me he would not deviate from the truth. For where there is love there is found not labor but flavor (‘labor non est, sed sapor’). And possibly we could say that wisdom (sapientia) takes its name from taste (sapor) in that joined to virtue it acts as a spice and gives taste to what otherwise is felt to be flat and harsh. Nor would I object if one were to define wisdom as a taste for what is good . . .. When wisdom enters it renders dull the carnal sense, purifies the intellect, heals and restores the palate of the heart. So that now, having a healthy palate, it has a taste for the good, it tastes wisdom itself than which nothing among good things is better. [Sermo 85. 8 Sobre el Cantar de los Cantares, (Madrid: B.A.C. 1987)1052].

That this theme was close to the heart of the Abbot of Clairvaux appears from the fact that he had spoken of it repeatedly. Earlier on he had devoted a sermon to the theme of spiritual taste.  

There is certainly a taste in heaven but it is not the taste found on earth. There is a taste in the kingdom of heaven but it is not a carnal taste, nor a worldly taste, nor one that ends with weeping but a taste into which sadness was transformed. . . . it is the taste of the Holy Spirit. This sense develops when taste is completely spiritual in such a way that corporal considerations no longer appeal to it. . . .  but rather the very presence of the Spirit on whom the angels themselves desire to contemplate.  [‘Obras Completas de San Bernardo, Sermones Varios 18.1 (Madrid: B.A.C.  1953) 952]

Bernard then goes on to give his view of how to identify the man who possesses this heavenly taste and so who is truly wise: ‘That man is wise, then, for whom things taste as they are.  But that man to whom wisdom tastes as it is in itself is not only wise but also blessed.’ 

This line of thought flows from the Hebrew version of this text, then, and more specifically from its use of the word for taste, .3), as the second of the gifts prayed for. However, the Latin version translates this second desired gift as ‘disciplina, discipline’. The connection between this term and taste is certainly not obvious. The only relation between the two that occurs to me is that just as discipline is a way of effecting a desired change in a subject, so also improved taste is the result of changes brought about by exposure to unaccustomed experiences. Discipline is a good biblical word. It occurs often in the Old and New Testaments. The biblical perspective is that while discipline is painful or at any rate disagreeable at first, yet it is productive of virtue and leads to happiness. Moreover, it is a sign of loving concern on the part of the one who imposes it, whether God, the human father or a teacher. To fail to discipline one’s child is to neglect a duty of love. 

Many events that represent God’s treatment of Israel, including the various trials met with in the desert and in exile, are viewed in the inspired texts as disciplinary. They are administered not as punitive but as corrective. This is especially true of those who are converted to faith in God. St. Augustine comments on this word in this same perspective. His remarks that though the Latin version he used did not use the word ‘disciplina’ to render .3), but chose ’eruditionem’, erudition, he finds other manuscripts that do employ ‘disciplina’ and he chooses to comment on this term rather than follow the variation occurring in his copy. 

But our Scriptures are accustomed to put ‘disciplina’, which the Greeks call B"4*," (paideia), where we are to understand teaching (eruditio) through disagreeable means. This is in keeping with that passage where it is written: ‘The Lord corrects the one he loves; he scourges every son whom he takes to himself.‘… For we should not only desire and ask for just any kind of sweetness and goodness, that is, charity, but for such a great charity that under its pressure love cannot be extinguished.   (Ennaratio in Psalmum 118, Sermo 17.2 , Sancti Augustini Omnia Opera, vol. 4 , Paris 1841, 1547- 1548) 

The Bishop of Hippo, before finishing with this topic, goes on to add that the man to whom God gives the gift of ‘love of God, and love of neighbor for the sake of God should surely pray that God so increase this gift that he will not only hold other delights in contempt but will also endure for God’s sake any sufferings.’   Thus Augustine sees in this prayer for disciplina along with goodness an ardent desire for the perfection of love of God and neighbor. 

‘Teach me goodness, discipline and knowledge.’ The third gift that the psalmist prays for is knowledge. The text does not specify what kind of knowledge he desires to be taught. Certainly it is not the knowledge that puffs up, that makes us feel superior to others. St. Bernard was especially aware of how subtle and powerful was the appeal of such knowledge. He designates the excessive thirst for it as curiosity and pointed out that it was precisely the appeal of this intellectual power that led to the fall of our first parents. He refers to this topic on various occasions warning his monks and all his readers against its nefarious appeal. Certainly in our age of mass communication modern monks are much more exposed to such curiosity. Exposure to such worldly matters as sports, entertainment, useless or excessive news even about business affairs and politics are inevitable if we are to remain in touch with our society, and so we must have the discipline to avoid what is distracting and otherwise harmful to our life of continual prayer. Here are some of Bernard’s comments on the subject. 

[The milk of contemplative prayer is better] than the wine of worldly knowledge which, to be sure, is inebriating, but with curiosity, not with charity. It fills us up but does not nourish; it puffs up but does not edify, it replenishes but gives no strength. [Sermo 9.6 Sobre el Cantar de los Cantares, (Madrid: B.A.C. 1987) 156].  

Nor would it be the knowledge that is useful for our material advantage. Such skillfulness is surely a good and is worthy of being sought from God. For practically all men some such skill is important for our sense of worth and appropriate self-respect. Those who lack such qualification as only skill can assure have to carry the burden of inferiority feelings that tend to shackle freedom. But that kind of knowledge is not the perspective of our author in this passage. The context here points to knowledge of another order, a more spiritual acquisition. This verse should be read of the setting of this entire composition. The whole of this psalm has as its subject the law of God as the manifestation of His will, and frequent are the expressions of desire to conform to his will. In addition to this consideration, there is the second half of this verse whose wording makes clear that the kind of knowledge he is seeking is of the spiritual order. The entire verse then reads as follows: ‘Teach me goodness, discipline and knowledge for I have believed your precepts.’  The teaching that is sought from God is the fruit of obedient faith in God’s law and commands. The understanding he asks to be taught, along with God’s kindness and discipline, is the intimate understanding that unites those who share the same values and desires.    

The Septuagint version lends additional support to this view in that it renders the Hebrew word for knowledge, ;3$ (da’at), with the term (<jF4H (gnosis).  As we observe in St. Paul’s use of this word gnosis refers to the saving knowledge of God. In his great Epistle to the Romans it explicitly has God as its object: ‘O the depth of the riches and wisdom of the knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and unsearchable his ways (11: 3) One could readily multiply passages from Paul’s epistles as well as other places in the New Testament where this term is used with similar reference to that knowledge of God which is sanctifying and salvific. St. Luke employed the term also with the same emphasis on experience as appears in the Canticle of Zachary: ‘To give knowledge (gnosis) of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.’(Luke 1:77)  

The Fathers took up the same word in connection with the knowledge of God that results from some experience of his grace and persons. The earliest to give prominence to gnosis considered as illumination concerning the attributes of God was Clement of Alexandria. He viewed such knowledge as the most significant feature of the spiritual life. The later tradition took up his teaching with certain cautions and modifications. Nonetheless, there is a wide agreement in their writings that gnosis, the fruit of contemplation, in its higher forms resulting from mystical prayer, is offered to all in general, not just to the few. Not all, however, have the same capacity to receive it in its conscious and intellectual expression. It is a gift that is most conducive to sanctity for it contributes mightily to purity of heart. While it is bestowed without regard to strict merit and yet one can learn to prepare to respond to it. Such preparation itself is a gift, and it is that which the psalmist is praying for here.

 ‘Teach me goodness, discipline and knowledge.’ Bonitatem, goodness, is the first thing the psalmist mentions in his prayer. It was translated ‘sweetness’ in the version St. Augustine used, so that he pointed out that there is a great deal of knowledge we have that we do not take delight in. What we need and what the author here prays for is the experience of God’s grace as derived from his loving kindness. Only after being strengthened by this consoling sweetness would he be fortified so as to accept the hard and harsh discipline that he also desire to be taught. He knows such discipline is needed to correct his faults and train him in the ways of virtue. For only the pure of heart who practice the virtues taught by Christ and his apostles can attain to the knowledge of God that leads to sanctity and life in the presence of the God of glory. 

 ‘Teach me goodness, discipline and knowledge for I have believed your precepts.’  This is the full text of our verse. The final words touch upon the role of faith in the quest for union with God. One would expect the poet to say ‘I have obeyed your precepts’, but that is not the point he has in mind. What determines his prayer is his desire for a more intimate, intense knowledge that amounts to a real union with God. Faith in one he is seeking is a condition for arriving at his immediate goal. There is no question of seeking the gift of a keener intellect so that he might arrive at more penetrating insight into the nature of his Creator. He desires experience of God’s sweetness that is accessible only to those who put their faith in his commands and his revelation as a whole. As Augustine puts it:’ [D]iscipline is learned by accepting; not by hearing, nor by reading, nor by thinking but by experiencing.’ And discipline is essential to preparing the way for this living personal knowledge that is the intent of this prayer.

 At the beginning of this conference I had stated that the words of this Psalm contain a whole program for the truly good and happy life, expressed in a highly condensed and suggestive formula. Hopefully, in light of what has been brought out in the course of this talk the claim made for these few words of a very long psalm is justified. Recognition that a mystical yearning provides the motive power of this brief prayer is the condition for rightly interpreting its scope and depth. Disciplina and gnosis are analogous to Praktike and Theoria, to use the vocabulary of Evagrius; they correspond to the teaching of ascesis and contemplation described by Evagrius’ disciple, John Cassian, and from him transmitted to the monks of the Church of Rome. Taken together disciplina and gnosis are the fruits of a living faith, which is what is meant by the affirmation that ‘I have believed in your commands.’ Faith, in turn, is the vehicle of the experience of God’s sweetness, giving confidence needed to accept the harsh and bitter discipline needed to purify the heart.   Is this not the traditional teaching of the early Fathers as well as that taken over by St. Bernard and his fellow abbots in the early years of our Cistercian Order? 

When we read this text with this understanding it becomes possible to grasp why St. Ambrose saw in this Psalm 118 a work that invited the reader to follow the way of the perfection of the Christian life. For him this meditation on the Torah with its many references to the law of God with its statutes and ordinances, its commands and prescriptions provides many openings to the acquisition of virtues and to life in the Spirit. When it is prayed in the light of the revelation brought by the risen Christ, as St. Augustine teach us to do in his detailed commentary on this Psalm we can discover in it a variety of suggestions for deepening our prayer both at the Divine Office and in our private prayer. Many of its verses lend themselves readily to such reflections as deepen our appreciation for God’s word. One instance among many is the verse: ‘Your word is a lamp for my steps and a light for my path. (V. 105)’ To make of God’s word the source of our insights and the strength of our desire is precisely the main tool of the spiritual art recommended to us by St. Benedict and our Cistercian Fathers. May we, by their intercession, obtain the grace to practice this art with daily fidelity and in all diligence of desire for union with God. 

 Abbot John Eudes Bamberger


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