DO NOT BE CONFORMED TO THIS WORLD; RATHER, BE TRANSFORMED IN THE NEWNESS OF YOUR MIND (Romans 12: 2). The operative word in this text of St. Paul is "transformed" ("metamorphoomai" in the original). Although he uses it but twice, it is decidedly one of the most momentous terms in his spiritual vocabulary, as appears from this passage and the other instance where he employs it. The transformation he has in mind is a life long process which culminates in the formation of a person so constituted that he is capable of participating happily in the very life of God himself. Because of the programmatic nature of the project evoked by this term, we do well to examine both these passages in their context. The words cited above from the Epistle to the Romans are a portion of a fervent exhortation directed to this community that was to become the most influential in the Catholic Church.
I exhort you, therefore, brothers, through the mercy of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God, your rational service. And DO NOT BE CONFORMED TO THIS WORLD; RATHER, BE TRANSFORMED IN THE NEWNESS OF YOUR MIND, so as to determine for yourselves what is the good and pleasing and perfect will of God (Rom. 12: 1-2).
The second text introduces further the role of the Spirit and the contemplation of the glory of God revealed in Christ in this transformation process.
The Lord is the Spirit. Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. For our part, let us all, beholding as in a mirror with unveiled faces the glory of the Lord, be transformed from glory to glory as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3: 18).
The only other times this verb is used in the New Testament is in regard to the Transfiguration of Jesus as recounted by Saints Mark and Matthew. In both instances the text reads: "And he was transfigured before them (Mt. 17: 2; Mk 9: 2)."
In another passage St. Paul uses another term to express the same concept of a radical restructuring of the individual in such a way as to result in a conformity to the archetype, the glorified Christ.
For our citizenship is in heaven from where we shall also receive the Lord Jesus Christ who will transformthe body of our lowliness so that it is fashioned like the body of his glory, according to the energy of the one who is able to subject all things to himself (Philippians 3: 18).
In each of these five passages held up to our faith is the final form of the whole person at the end-time, when the Lord introduces those who have been modeled upon him into the presence of the glory of his Father. Jesus' transfiguration is a foreshadowing of his post-resurrection glorification; it also is a promise of our own, in so far as we participate by our lives in his cross and death.
There are a number of other passages in the New Testament that treat of this same theme but which employ a different vocabulary, one that is less technical. St. Luke, for instance, in his account of the transfiguration states that "it happened that when he was praying the appearance of his face became different and his clothes a brilliant white (9: 29)." In his 1st Epistle to the Corinthians (15: 51, 52) St. Paul states that "All of us shall not fall asleep, but all will be changed in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet." Clearly then we are destined for a profound restructuring of our being, a real transformation. It will be manifest at the end time when Jesus comes in glory, but even now we are in process of this great undertaking, the fruit of the Spirit acting upon us and of our willing cooperation.
The realization that the human condition in this world was such that a radical remaking of the individual was essential to the happy and fulfilled life was not original with St. Paul; rather, it was a widely disseminated view in antiquity and accounts for the considerable popularity of the mystery religions at the period when the New Testament was being formed and for a few centuries after. Various philosophers, at least from the time of Plato, understood that man's state on earth admitted of no worthy happiness except in so far as he committed himself to a process of purification of his spirit that included an ever greater detachment from the many bonds that tie him to this world and which cause him to live in delusion. In other words, a transformation process that affects all the levels of life is the way to salvation. Life must not only be examined so as to ascertain the true nature of man and thus recognize the requirements of happiness; it is also required of the individual that he undergo a change from within so as to be capable of clinging to the true reality for which he is made in an inhospitable world. Seneca, a contemporary of St. Paul- he died in 65 A.D., just a couple years before the Apostle to the Gentiles- speaks explicitly of this process of inner change, and uses for the Greek of St. Paul the equivalent Latin term,transformari, as the most apt to designate this process.
I understand, my dear Lucilius, that I am being not only reformed (emendari), but transformed (transformari). I do not yet, however, assure myself, or indulge the hope, that there are no elements left in me which need to be changed. Of course there are many that should be made more compact, or made thinner, or be brought into greater prominence. And indeed this very fact is proof that my spirit is altered into something better- that it can see its own faults, of which it was previously ignorant. In certain cases sick men are congratulated because they themselves have perceived that they are sick. And so I should like to communicate to you this sudden change of mine (Seneca Epistolae Morales I. Ep. 6, p. 24 tr. R. Gummere, Cambridge MA 1961).
His next sentence is a most interesting statement of the function of such a transformation: " I should then begin to place a surer trust in our friendship-that true friendship which hope and fear and self-interest cannot sever." True friendship requires persons of virtue, people who have learned how profoundly they must be remade, delivered from vices and formed to rectitude, in order to be faithful in all circumstances of life. His concluding remarks, a citation from Hecato, are calculated to stir in all readers the desire to follow him in his dedication to this work of the inner man.
"What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself." That was indeed a great benefit; such a person can never be alone. You may be sure that such a man is a friend to all mankind.
The benevolent love that is concerned primarily with the true good of a friend does not arise spontaneously with sufficient force to sustain the misfortunes and trials of a world subject to so much misery as ours. It requires to be upheld by earnest persons who have made it their deliberate purpose to make themselves worthy of such friendship. This is a noble vision for all persons of good will, even though it remains incomplete for lack of the revelation made to Paul of Tarsus that God's favor must be first given us through the merits of our mediator, Jesus Christ, before we can hope to travel along such a steep road.
This doctrine, based on insight into the human condition and constitution, is fundamental to monastic spirituality and has immense practical consequences for our lives as monks as we live out our vocation day by day. St. Benedict taught this dynamic view of the monk's course in life. He does not expect that the new comer learns a code of behavior that allows him to adapt to the practices of the monastery so that, having mastered the externals he is able to adjust to a peaceful, orderly course within the protecting walls of the cloister. Rather, he understands that in the beginning there will be considerable struggle and hardship and that the attitude of the novice is marked by a good deal of fear. But that will not last forever; after a time of following the community's observance of prayer, meditation, spiritual reading and opening of the heart to the spiritual father, fear gives way to increasing trust and confidence in God and is transformed into a reverential love. Especially by passing through the testing of obedience when "difficult and contrary things, even certain injurious treatment," are accepted in patience and meekness the monk increases in hope of eternal reward and rejoices in confident expectation of recognition by the Lord. The degrees of humility, as he sees them, are so many approaches to a perfect love that casts out fear. Ascending them all is a real process of transformation. He describes what that means.
And so having ascended all these steps of humility the monk soon arrives at that love of God which, being perfect, casts out fear. By its means all that he had observed earlier, not without fear, he begins to keep without any labor, as it were, naturally, by custom, no longer motivated by fear of hell but by love of Christ, and through good habit itself and delight in virtue that the Lord now deigns to show forth in his worker by the Holy Spirit who is now cleansed from vices and sin (Regula C. 7 The Twelfth Degree PL 66: 375-6).
The practical consequences, as I indicated above, of this dynamic concept of the monastic way are of immense importance for the monk and for the whole of the community. Each of us called to this way of life is intended to submit actively to the guidance of the very Spirit of God and to follow where he leads into the future that we are to create in response to his activity within us. We are being led and in order to follow we must be sufficiently detached from all things as to carry out his will not our own pleasure. Radical detachment, profound humility, unrelenting application to prayer and unfailing meekness are the marks of perfect charity. They are arrived at only by those who daily strive to move ahead into the unknown realms of prayer and faith and humble trust. Only an attitude of fervor, of austere self-denial and exacting fidelity can keep one moving in this dynamic stream of spiritual transformation carried along by the pure waters of the Spirit of God.
A recent review article of a book treating of a monastery of our Order brings out well the point I wish to stress here. Not having read the book under review I am in no position to judge the justness of her critique, though her argument is certainly plausible and her style inspires a certain confidence. Moreover, the issue she raises here is one that is fundamental to monastic renewal at present and in the years to come. She remarks that the author's sympathies lie rather with those older monks who are more open to change and a more flexible lifestyle. Change, however, is a decidedly ambiguous term and what it has meant to a good number of the older monks, she infers, is "making things easier". This strategy has been largely unsuccessful as an approach to renewal, at least to judge by recruitment. This is the only norm she refers to. (It could be affirmed that this is a rather weak support for her argument, since many factors enter into vocations. But I would reply that, based on my own observations, in many communities of various Orders, making the life more accommodating has proved disastrous and the damage continues to this day. It has resulted in emptied novitiates and a lifestyle in many convents that has little religious discipline and spiritual challenge to it). Her dryly astringent comments present the situation as she sees it baldly, though her strictures are expressed in a rather gentle, understated style.Perhaps monastic life in recent decades offers two poles, placidity or transformation. Perhaps it was the gift of a generation newly freed from rules to show us the tranquil, "flexible" approach to the spiritual life. Perhaps it will be the gift of a new generation to take up the ancient tools of asceticism and, spurred by passionate love for Jesus Christ, strive like athletes (as St. Paul says) toward the goal set before them (Evolution of a Monastery's Spiritual Path, by Frederica Mathewes-Green, Los Angeles Times Saturday January 15, 2000).
Benedictine peace is not mere placidity and a comfortable adaptation to a given way of life; it is the fruit of a generous and steady search for God that remains a challenge throughout life. As the monk grows in the knowledge and love of God and neighbor he sees more distinctly the multiple ways he continues to be self-centered and subject to the passions in subtle ways. As he gains such insight he is impelled to humble himself, to struggle to resist and overcome his vices. However small they might appear to others to him who has learned something of God's infinite holiness, goodness and beauty his lack of love and vacillations are felt as despicable. He feels the need for a greater purity of life and so is more careful about self-denial, silence, fasting and attentive presence to God throughout the activities of the day. Only such fervor and steady application to the quest for fuller union with God is commensurate with the true spirit of our Order and of St. Benedict's teaching. Only this manner of living is transformative. It is also characterized by peace but it is the peace of victory over sin and self, the result of defeating temptation to settle down and adapt too tranquilly to a life of placid accommodation.
The great monastic exemplars and their forerunners such as the prophet Elias and John the Baptist, all display this single-minded and fervent dedication to continuous growth in prayer and in one's manner of life. The proper task of the monk is "the work of the heart", at the center of his being where he encounters the living God and receives the graces needed day by day for the great work of deification. Fervor and dedication are prominent features of St. Bernard's spirituality; so is the desire for an elevated life of pure prayer which is sustained by the ascetic practices that have always been integral with the more contemplative forms of prayer. He too had been taught by the Gospels and St. Paul that to attain to our full promise and arrive at the fulfillment of our aspiration for the truly happy life we must undergo a profound restructuring, a transformation of our whole self. He gives expression to this realization in his Sermons on the Canticle.We have seen his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father (John 1: 14). For totally benign and truly paternal is the glory that appears in this way. This glory does not oppress me although I look upon it with all my powers; rather I am imprinted by it. For contemplating it with unveiled face we are transformed into the same image from glory to glory as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18). We are transformed when we are conformed. May it not happen that conformity to God be presumed by man in the glory of majesty and not rather in the modest subjection of his will (Sermones in Cantica 62.5 PL 183: 1078B,C).
In a later Sermon Bernard returns to this same theme of transformation and develops it in the context of other images.When he (the good Father of the family) feeds us he is fed himself, I believe, and the food by which he is willingly nourished is our progress. ...His food is my penance, his food is my salvation, his food is my very self. Does he not eat ashes as his bread? I, because I am a sinner am ashes and so am eaten by him. I am eaten when I am rebuked, I am swallowed when I am instructed, I am boiled when I am changed, I am digested when I am transformed, I am united when I am conformed. Do not marvel at this. He eats us and he is eaten by us the more closely we are bound to him (Sermones in Cantica 71.4, 5 PL 183: 1123A, B).
Bernard's good friend William of St. Thierry too developed a strongly dynamic spirituality that saw the goal of the ascetic and contemplative life as a veritable reforming of the person. He uses a somewhat different vocabulary, but conveys essentially the same truth.And so it happens that when we flee to him (God) there is no change in him, that is, in his nature, but we do change when we are made better from worse. Likewise when he begins to be our Father he does not change, but we are regenerated and become sons of God by the grace of him who gives us power to become sons of God. And when we are made sons of God our substance is transformed (transmutetur) for the better (Aenigma FideiPL 180: 424B).
Any number of other passages could be adduced from our Cistercian Fathers which bear witness to their dynamic understanding of the tradition that affirms the purpose of our way of life to be a radical transformation of our very being and not merely the adaptation to the subculture of the cloister. There are further texts treating of this subject under other aspects, such as divinization, that is the highest expression of transformation, as in the well-known saying of St. Bernard: "Thus to be affected is to be divinized (Sic affici deificari est)" in De diligendo Deo 10. St. Aelred, Isaac of Stella and other Cistercian writers have left us texts which reveal the same conviction that the purpose of our life is the radical engagement of our whole being in the work of the inner man, under the influence of the Spirit, until we are refashioned in the likeness of Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
In our own times Fr. Louis (Thomas) Merton rediscovered the fundamental role of this dynamic concept of monastic life and became its most prominent spokesman. Repeatedly he emphasized the need to preserve and emphasize those practices which the tradition has always considered essential for the attainment of this goal of recovering the likeness to Christ through transforma tion. To cite one instance of many, in his diary entry for September 6, 1948, he describes his sense of restlessness and inner conflict arising largely from the consequences of the prominence that his recently published autobiography had brought him. His reflections on this situation are an attempt to clarify his interior vision of his vocation as a monk.To make a Rule the whole meaning of my existence is not enough. To make an Order, a spiritual tradition, the center of my life is not enough. Contemplation is not enough: by itself it is not enough of an ideal. The complete gift of myself to Christ- transformation- total simplicity and poverty- these are some of the things I need (The Intimate Merton, edited by P. Hart and J. Montaldo, p. 59).
Only those communities and those monks and nuns of our Order who have made such changes as contribute effectively to this transforming process have achieved a genuine renewal. In the measure any community or any one of us deviates in our actual way of life from this radical dedication to total union with the Lord we are missing out on our vocation. May the Lord grant that we have the light, the love and the courage always to pursue this goal with our whole heart and strength until we enter into the vision where our transformation will be complete, in the presence of the Father.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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