HE SHALL BE CALLED SON OF THE MOST HIGH ... HE SHALL RULE OVER THE HOUSE OF JACOB ... AND HIS KINGDOM SHALL HAVE NO END (Luke 1: 32, 33). Jesus was declared a king already at the time of his conception. Mary was given sure knowledge from heaven that her son had a special relation of sonship to the most high God and that royalty attached to his person by virtue of God's decree. The fourth evangelist was deeply impressed with our Lord's royal character and depicts him as king quite explicitly, especially in the passion narrative. Later on the faithful were so imbued with this manner of viewing Jesus on the cross that for centuries the crucifixes placed in their churches showed him not as a tortured and humiliated victim but rather as a dignified, kingly personage victorious and reigning from his cross become a throne. It was only in the Middle Ages, and due in part to St. Bernard's writings on the passion of Jesus, that the more realistic presentation of the sufferings of Christ became the norm.
St. Benedict lived at a time when devotion to the Lord Jesus as king who revealed the way that leads to the kingdom of heaven. He himself opened that way for his disciples to travel. Accordingly, he conceived of the monastic way of living as a service to the Lord. Monks are viewed as committed to a life long engagement under Christ the true King. MY WORD IS ADDRESSED TO YOU WHO, RENOUNCING HIS OWN WILL, FIGHTS IN THE SERVICE OF CHRIST THE TRUE KING. These words from the Prologue of Saint Benedict's Rule for Monks make it clear that devotion to Christ the King is a favorite form of his monastic piety. Rightly to interpret his thought we must situate it in his own times. In antiquity, a major function of a king was to lead his troops in war personally. Italy had many rulers who had become king and emperor because they were successful generals. Jesus as king continues to lead and encourage his followers in the warfare against the forces of the evil powers.
Whether the term militaturus used here by St. Benedict, should be translated as battle, fight in the army, or, as some scholars maintain, to enroll in his (civil) service is still debated (Cf. Garcia Columbas, OSB, La Regla de San Benito, Madrid 1979, 197). In Benedict's time we are assured that militare could also have the second sense, and refer to the court and the army of government officials. In either case, such service entails a life of discipline, hard work and total dedication. I believe that the evidence points rather to the idea of warfare, since in chapter 1 he speaks of the community as a fraternal battle line (fraterna acies) from which the hermit passes to the solitary fight. This is clearly military, not bureaucratic language so that we can justly view St. Benedict as belonging to the ranks of those monks who consider the monastic life to be a form of warfare, analogous to service in the army. This war, though, is fought, not against external enemies but against the passions and the demons.
There existed from early times in monastic circles the widespread concept that to take the habit of a monk was to commit oneself to a lifelong interior struggle. Far from being a retreat into a life of idleness, monastic living engages the monk to a rude discipline and a warfare that at times is as fierce as any physical battle. This conception developed out of a careful study of Scripture and was based on painful experience. St. Paul refers to the Christian as a soldier: Labor like a good soldier of Christ, he wrote to Timothy (2Tim 2:3). Elsewhere, he describes the arms and armor of the Christian who would follow Christ according to the Spirit (Eph. 6:10-18). Our fight is not against flesh and blood, he explains, but against the rulers and powers, against those who hold authority over this world.
This dimension of the spiritual life has fallen into disrepute in certain scholarly circles; many moderns make little over the part played by angels and demons in the spiritual journey. This is unfortunate; it has resulted in a certain flatness in much of current preaching and writing. At the same time, there is a growing popular conviction that angelic and demonic forces are very much in evidence for those who are able to see with an interior eye. We are engaged in a struggle that is more than psychological and social in scope, though these account for a great deal of the temptations that the Christian faces. There is a point at which human passion falls under the influence of agents that transcend inner psychic forces, some benign, others hostile.
Psychological insight alone cannot account for the most interesting and personal events of our lives; the most creative and liberating as well as the most threatening and potentially destructive, occur under higher influences than can be accounted for by human reasoning or analysis. Whether called luck, good or bad, fortune, fate, destiny, coincidence, random chance or any other name, these transcendent powers influence us and lead at times to unforeseen joys, at other times, to fearsome struggles and temptations. Jesus spoke explicitly of his power to cast out demons, and saw his mission as a combat against the forces of darkness. The Fathers of the Church were unanimous in following our Lord's example and teaching in this area. The roster of eminent witnesses to the tradition that conceives of monastic life as a war against the passions and the demons is a long one. It extends from Ignatius of Antioch, around the year 110 AD, through Tertullian, St. Cyprian, Origen, St. Pachomius and St. Antony of Egypt, the desert Fathers, St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory the Great, among others. This conviction remained very much in force through the Middle Ages as can be seen for example, in the works of St. Bernard and Peter the Venerable. The great Benedictine abbot wrote to St. Bernard in terms that indicate he understood Benedictine life as analogous to the military.
The living together of those dwelling in common in the cloister is compared to the multitude of the camps ordered to battle. Each fights against the enemy all the more confidently as he has hope in the nearby aid of the right hand of his fellow soldier (Epistle 20 Book I, cited by Dom Martene, in his Commentary of the Rule for Monks PL 66: 223).
In a later letter also written to Bernard of Clairvaux, he refers to the same manner of conceiving the cenobitic life.
You have promised according to the Rule of St. Benedict that you would fight in the heavenly camps (Ibidem, Epistle 28).
Origen in particular had developed this view of the spiritual life as a combat with an energy of thought and a power of description that left its mark on the subsequent spiritual masters, notably Evagius and the many he influenced. Among these was John Cassian who himself was to become the most widely influential of all monastic authors in the Western monastic world.
The spirituality of the monks of the East and West was tributary to these prominent theologians and spiritual masters in their conception of monastic life as a combat with demons as well as with their own disordered passions (Cf. Garcia Columbas, OSB, El Monacato Primitivo II. La Espiritualidad, Madrid 1975, 231 ss, who discusses the history and nature of this teaching at some length). This point is an important one. We are involved with forces that are of another order than human psychology, and social and political. At a certain level of experience, though we be unconscious of the fact, we are engaged with angelic or demonic powers. We cannot win through relying on our own strength. Grace alone provides the insight and the strength to resist the demons and to follow the angelic inspirations. Our attitude towards prayer and our concept of the depth of our need depend in good measure on our accepting this fundamental truth. The assaults of those who at times fight against us surpass our human capacities of resistance.
Benedict understood monastic life, then, in a very personal way, as a formal engagement to the Lord Jesus, our true King, in an arduous undertaking that would end only with death. Fittingly then was this monastery dedicated to Christ the King from its earliest days. Honoring our Lord as King is as ancient a practice as the Gospels. This form of honor grew quite naturally from the fact that Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God. In his person it already appeared inchoately among them, though hidden save to the eyes of faith. How many of his parables told of the kingdom, comparing it to a wedding feast, to a pearl beyond price. His precursor, St. John The Baptist, found no better way to announce the appearance of our Lord than to proclaim: Do penance, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (Matthew 3:2).
A number of variant titles are used to designate the kingdom. Besides kingdom of God, we find such expressions as the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of the Lord, the Kingdom of Christ, or even simply the kingdom. Closely related is the phrase the Gospel of the kingdom. It was no large step then to pass from speaking of the kingdom of God to referring to Jesus as himself the King. As I mentioned above, the Gospel of St. John takes this step, where the account of our Lord's passion emphasizes the kingship of Christ. He presents our Lord as stating explicitly that he is truly a king, and his bearing throughout the interrogation and his passion is that of a royal personage, superior to all those with whom he treats. In the Apocalypse as well, Christ appears as a royal personage: "And I looked and saw a white cloud, and someone like the Son of man seated on the cloud having a golden crown on his head " (14:14). Later on in that same book, the Word of God appears as a warrior of terrible aspect, astride a white charger at the head of an army, And he had on his garment and on his thigh written "King of kings and Lord of lords" (19:16).
Luke presents the Ascension of our Lord as the occasion when Christ was taken up to heaven to the throne of God. His enthronement at the right hand of the Father in glory is the completion of the mysteries of his life and marks his inauguration as King of heaven and earth. The Feast of the Ascension, then, for many centuries was the occasion when Christ's kingship was celebrated. It remains today the major celebration of his victorious kingship. Only relatively recently, in 1925, was a second celebration this mystery established by Pius XI under the title of Christ the King. While it is of lesser importance than the high Feast of the Ascension, yet it partakes of its dignity. It serves to bring out other aspects of that mystery more fully.
The Holy Father instituted it at a time when atheism was in the ascendancy and growing more widespread and politically stronger with the passing years. He expressly affirmed Christ's dominion over the whole of time and the entire world in the face of this denial of God. What could have appeared a powerless gesture to the Church's enemies at that time now rather shows itself to have been a prophetic act. The Church is today free again in the country where it was most persecuted at that time, and atheism not only has lost its political power, it has less hold on the spirit of people today than does belief.
Accordingly, honoring the Lord Jesus as a kingly figure who rules in heaven and on earth grew up naturally in the early Church. This devotion became more prominent at certain periods than others, but has remained integral with the tradition throughout the centuries. Another intent in creating this feast was to counteract the strong current of secularism that has been so characteristic of our century. Resistance to this trend has proved less successful, however, and increasingly society in the West has taken on attitudes and practices that banish the sacred and the holy from daily life. Monastic life itself is a defense against secularist propensities and today maintaining a community that witnesses to the holiness of creation, or human relations and work is surely one of the significant roles of our way of life. The monastic liturgy, of course, has this same function in an overt, explicit way. Indeed, the choir is the privileged place for making this contribution to the Church and the world. Celebrating this Feast of Christ the King is a particular occasion for adverting to our Lord's dignity as head of the human race and of the innumerable persons that make up the heavenly court. Every day we continue this worship of our Lord as head of all those who are joined to God by grace, above all at mass where we recall, usually explicitly, in the canon the mystery of the Ascension.
Christ himself made it clear that his kingship is not of this world. If he is truly king of earth as well as of heaven, yet his manner of ruling is far different from that of earthly rulers. His authority derives from the Spirit and it is over hearts and minds that he rules, through faith, trust and love. His style of exercising authority is at variance with the manner of the kings and rulers of nations. He came to serve, even to give his life for those over whom he would rule. He seeks nothing for himself; rather it is for the good of his subjects that he is our leader, and for the glory of God, his Father.
People who would become citizens of his kingdom must be formed according to his teaching and example. They must keep his commandments if they would love him, and then the Father too will love them and receive them into the mansions that the Lord Jesus goes to prepare for them. Do good, avoid sin, and in this way you will enter the kingdom of Christ, wrote St. Peter (2P 1:11), for the kingdom is holy and only the holy ones, purified from all defilement of sin and disordered passion, can find their way to enter it and dwell in it. Our legislator is our redeemer; he is the one who gave his very life to free us from sin and purify us for life with the Father. This consideration should inspire us to great confidence in him. We have every reason to be assured that he will do all in his power to enable us to obey his laws and thus prove worthy to join him in his rule.
In our society today people are influenced in their tastes and values in large measure by the stars and heroes they choose for themselves. The excessive adulation of artists, singers, athletes, movie and TV stars, successful business men, among others, is an indication of the continuing need to have some one they admire and respect, for whatever reason, to serve as a model and guide in life. We are incomplete in ourselves and feel a profound need for taking into ourselves what we lack from some one we admire. This deeply rooted tendency does not cease with infancy or childhood or adolescence. It remains operative throughout life. We fashion ourselves after chosen models, whether the choice is made consciously or not. The effect of interiorizing models results in altering our inner world with its values and aspirations. This result obtains even more inevitably when the process is unconscious, for it is then unmodified by deliberate attitudes of our own. We become like those we follow; we take on the ways of our associates and friends and heroes.
To take Christ as King is to model our selves on him as well as to obey him. St. Benedict stresses obedience as the strong arms of the monk in the battle for his salvation. Obeying our Lord by a deliberate choice that is repeated daily in living out one's vows and commitments in life is a high expression of the honor in which we hold him. It includes a radical trust that he is reliable and his values and aims are those we set for ourselves in life. Even more importantly, obedience is an act of love when it is given from the heart. By obeying we seek to please him for his sake, in order to give him glory and to further his cause. Obedience does not strike most moderns as a particularly admirable virtue. At best it seems dull; it is often suspected to mask a dependent spirit, or a lack of imagination and energy.
But everything a human person does admits of ambiguity. Love itself can be exercised in such a way as to serve self-gratification; it may become manipulative, controlling, egotistical. So can obedience. But obeying can also be pure, given freely in love and out of recognition of the wisdom, the power and the goodness of the one obeyed. This is the kind of obedience St. Benedict inculcates; it is this kind of obedience that Christ expects from his faithful followers. It describes the obedience he rendered to his Father even unto death.
To serve Christ the King is to obey him from the heart, and to obey him from the heart is to grow in freedom and to realize our true independence from all that enslaves us in this life. Such obedience to his word, his inspirations and to the teachings of his Church practiced in faith and with love is the best way to honor Christ as our King. As we commemorate his kingship today, let us resolve to pay him the tribute of our free will and to make our life a constant service of his glory by obeying him in all things and by cooperating with one another in carrying out his will day by day, Thus we shall witness to our society that Christ the King is the sole hero who can satisfy the human need for a model whose life passes into ours and brings it to its proper completeness.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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