H NOW IS THE TIME TO ROUSE OURSELVES FROM SLEEP. (Rom. 13: 11). These words of St. Paul to the Romans are cited by St. Benedict in his Prologue to the Rule for Monks. He sees the monastic life as an energetic response to the words of God inviting us to conversion, and so is a kind of awakening to a higher life. Aware that God has sought him out, the monk is conscious of a world that lies beyond the visible creation that he had been dominated by prior to hearing the voice of the Lord inviting him to come higher. Once the word of God is heard as speaking directly to us, personally, our former life does seem rather like a dream in comparison with the new awareness of God's presence to us. His presence itself is felt as an invitation to live with him even now in a personal relationship that transfuses all of our activities with a freshness that gives a fuller intensity of meaning to all we do. More than that, it confers on us a new sense of what it means to be a person, to be the self that we are.
To respond to God's call then is to enter upon this way of conversion. To pursue this way is to change from a duller life, enmeshed in passionate attachments that raw us from what we recognize as being worthy of what is best in us, to a way of living in which some of the beauty and purity and clarity of God's glory alters our consciousness of our inherent dignity as created in God's image. As a result we realize more keenly the purpose of our existence. Every Christian, of course, is by virtue of the faith received at baptism, intended to awaken to this call which is a summons to conversion, that is to say, a turning from thje obscurity of mind resulting from yuielding to disordered passion and sin to the light of Christ.
The response to the call of grace assumes a wide variety of forms as we can learn from the New Testament already and from the history of the Church from earliest times until today. Monastic life is one of the more radical forms that conversion takes to itself. From the beginning of the monastic way of life the decision to seek God in solitude through a life of chastity and withdrawal from the usual concerns and activities of society required a very deliberate decision to alter one's life from the root, which is what radical means. The root of the monk's life in principle is no longer passion, personal fulfillment, success but God's will and his grace.
The work of conversion means applying this high principle to the daily decisions and activities that constitute our train of life. It does not require a very long time in a monastery to begin to discover how thoroughly enmeshed in this world we had been prior to our conversion. We encounter a variety of forms of resistance to what we come to see as being God's will that surprise us. We discover how much more deeply we are tied to our various gratifications than we had suspected. It becomes evident to us as our efforts to respond to God continue that formerly we were in many ways truly asleep. We begin to realize that if we are ever to attain our goal of living radically by God's will rather than our own gratification, that we really need to wake up, be more alert and energetic in our pursuit.
It is at this point the monk makes a major choice in his life. Benedict seeks to warn the novice in advance that he will confront trials which will tend to discourage him and create fear that the life is too much for him. He will be tempted to quit. But the real meaning of such temptations is that they are occasions for entering upon the way of ever-deepening conversion of life.
We are to set up then a school of the Lord's service in which institution we hope to establish nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. But if, in keeping with the dictates of equitable reason for the sake of the correction of vice or the preservation of charity, something rather restrictive should result, do not straightway give in to fear and run away from the way of salvation which is always narrow in the beginning of the undertaking.
The goal set before us is most sublime and is attainable only for those who arrive at purity of heart. The discovery of our lack of such virtue in depth is a painful one and disconcerting to our concept of self. When we suspect that we are not the lovable, admirable person our family and friends had caused us to believe we were, we are tempted to defend our self-image in various ways. One is by blaming our environment and those who do not confirm the view we had of our self. Benedict attempts to warn us against such a course; rather we are to own up to our defects and learn to admit our need for change for the better. Such admission is the first step on the way to purity of heart. It is a preparation for receiving grace including the grace of understanding more truly the meaning of Scripture. Gregory Palamas makes a point of major importance in emphasizing the essential role of conversion of heart in arriving at a true understanding of the inspired word. He states his case quite explicitly.
Without confession and without repentance that accompanies it, we cannot even hear the divine words worthily (Homily 56.3, cited in M-E. Cazabonne, Grégroire Palamas (1296- 1359, moine, théologien, pasteur", Collectanea 62, p. 80).Because of the importance of this theme he is at pains to describe repentance in some detail, as he understands it in a later Homily.
Repentance signifies: to hate sin, to love virtue, to turn away from evil and do good; and before that to condemn one self for one's own faults and to regret them before God, to take refuge in him with a contrite heart and to cast oneself into the ocean of His mercy while considering oneself unworthy to be counted in the number of the sons of God, like the prodigal son (Homily 59.5 cited ibidem).
This teaching on the fundamental role of repentance is rooted in the Scriptures as well as in the Patristic tradition where it occupied a prominent place especially from the time of Origen (cf. for this and the following, Dictionaire de Spiritualité, II.2 p. 1313 ff s.v. Componction). Palamas, by emphasizing its function in the contemplative life, serves to refurbish this term, making it more accessible to the people of his time and, as it turned out, to his many readers. Already in the Acts of the Apostles, following Peter's great sermon after Pentecost his audience, we are told, was pierced to the heart (compuncti sunt corde, in the Latin text) and, repenting of their sin, underwent a metanoia, a conversion. Thus the vocabulary of conversion came to include the terms compunction and the concept of repentance from the first days of the Church's life. Origen took up an even more common Biblical theme, that of sorrow, penthos in Greek, and used it to describe those who afflict themselves spiritually, as did the poor of the Lord. Such persons claimed and received God's special care. Jesus himself had expressed a particular concern for these poor in his third Beatitude: "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." Origen's contribution was to indicate that the Christian should make of this attitude of sorrow for past sins and the ill effects they caused a life-long disposition.
St. Basil took up this insight and modified it in his own way in his Short Rules where he defines repentance as a gift of God that is not only a strongly felt sorrow but also a certain sweetness that accompanies fervor. This disposition has nothing to do with that penthos which is depression or a natural sadness. His younger brother treats this topic at greater length in his commentary on the beatitudes where, following the teaching of St. Paul, he points out that there are two kind of penthos. One is associated with metanoia and does not last longer than the disease it cures, namely the sins repented of; the other is life-long for it is a response to the loss of original beatitude and to the damage caused by sin to the image of God within us.
He (Paul) says that there is more than one kind of sorrow, the one of the world, the other brought about by God; and that the work of the worldly sorrow is death, whereas the other works in those afflicted with it salvation through repentance (The Beatitudes, p. 107, ACW Washington 1957).As the contemplative makes progress and becomes increasingly aware of the beauty and goodness of God, this sorrow increases with the longing to be ever more present to the God of glory.
If a man has been able to perceive the true good, and then realizes the poverty of human nature, he will certainly think the soul in distress. For he will consider that the present life is spent in sorrow, because it is removed from this true good.... due to the fact that the object of the desire is absent from our life.... The more we believe the nature of the good to exceed our comprehension, the more should our sorrow grow within us.... For no one who has clearly seen these things can live without tears himself, or fail to think miserable any one deeply involved in the pleasure of this life. (Gregory finds a final consideration for cultivating this sorrow as he closes his reflections on this theme.
op. cit., 111, 112, 114).
If therefore it is blissful to have the unending and everlasting joy in eternity, human nature is bound also to taste of the opposite (ibidem, 116).One of the paradoxical effects of this spiritual sorrow is that it heals the passion of sadness as well as healing the other passions. Once a man accepts the fact that he is not made for happiness according to this world and places his hope for fulfillment on the life to come, he begins to overcome the causes of sadness according to the flesh. For the good things of this life no longer are the source of his joy and so he is not vulnerable to their loss or absence. They no longer have power to make him sad. In fact, the sorrow according to the spirit, by turning the mind to eternal and divine life, as Hausherr points out, in a certain manner reopens the doors of the earthly paradise (Penthos, 153). He notes that St. John Climachus manages to convey this doctrine in summary fashion by speaking of joy-giving sorrow (charopoion penthos. This disposition accompanies the believer all through the stages of the spiritual life; even the perfect experience it in its purest form, while it assumes different expressions as one advances on the way.
In the West St. John Cassian also taught that compunction became a habit of soul and is one of the virtues. Born of the fear of God, it gives rise to detachment. At about the same time, St. Augustine in speaking, not of compunction as such but of the nature of charity in its pure state, stressed the need for the one advancing in the spiritual way to pass through a transition from fear in order to arrive at its perfection.
Fear pierces; but fear not; charity enters in so as to heal the wound caused by fear. Fear of God wounds in a way similar to the cautery of the physician: it removes the diseased tissue at the cost of enlarging the wound... and increasing the pain. But the treatment does this so that it will no longer hurt once health is restored. So let fear take its place in your heart that it might introduce charity.... Fear is the medicine; charity is full health. (Commentaire de la première Êpître de S. Jean, IX.4, S.C. 75 Paris 1961, 386).But it was St. Gregory the Great who further developed more specifically the doctrine of compunction and whose writings propagated it widely in monastic circles. He formulated the teaching on compunction in terms that became classic in the world of Latin spirituality. Monks especially adopted his way of presenting the two kinds of compunction, the one motivated by fear, the other by love.
There are chiefly two kinds of compunction, for the soul who seeks God first is pierced by fear, afterwards by love. For at first she melts into tears because as she remembers her evil deeds she fears eternal punishment for them. But when through the protracted anxiety of sorrow fear is consumed, a certain serenity is born from the presumption of forgiveness and the spirit is inflamed with the love of heavenly joys. The he who earlier wept lest he be dragged away to punishment, afterward begins to weep bitterly because his entry into the kingdom is deferred. The mind contemplates who they may be in the chorus of angels, what the society of the blessed is like, what the vision of God is, and mourns more because it is absent from these eternal goods than it wept before because it feared eternal evils. In this way it happens that perfect compunction of fear hands the soul over to the compunction of love (Dialogorum Liber III.xxxiv PL 77: 300).What does all this have to do with the spiritual life as it can be lived today in our modern world? A very learned and spiritual French Jesuit, P. Joseph de Guibert asked this question already nearly 70 years ago, for already by then there seemed to be little attention given even by prominent spiritual authors to the role of compunction. His views, it seems to me are, if anything more valid today that when he wrote them (cf. La compunction du coeur, Revue d'Ascetique et Mystique, 15 (1934), 239, 240).
First, he points out that compunction is the result of progress in the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, when they have been strengthened by the practice of self-denial and freed from the bonds that held them in check. Compunction follows from a living faith, a lively hope and an ardent love of God. God will not deny his grace to those who truly seek him through deepening these virtues. The more we love God the more we feel sorrow for having offended him and the greater our detestation of sin. In addition, the more lively our faith and hope, the stronger our awareness that we are not at home here on earth. We are destined for life with God in His presence, that is, in heaven. And the more ardent our love, the more intense our longing to be with Him and the greater the intensity of this second kind of compunction that Pope St. Gregory described- the compunction of love. As Christians and still more as monks, we are called to cultivate this radical awareness of God as our one true source of happiness and our only joy. This consciousness in turn leads us to experience our life on earth as a temporary sojourn. This way of perceiving our present state gives rise to a compunction of heart, made up of a longing for our true home which is a source of that sorrow, sweetened by hope, to which Jesus referred at the Last Supper. "You shall be sor rowful, but your sorrow will be changed into joy (John 16:20)." May such compunction accompany us on our daily way as we return to the Father through sharing in the cross of Jesus as we follow him to life eternal in the glory of God, His Father.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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