APRIL 2, 2000, 4TH SUNDAY OF LENT: CHAPTER

THEY WILL BRING YOU DOWN TO THE EARTH, AND YOUR CHILDREN WITHIN YOU, BECAUSE YOU HAVE NOT KNOWN THE TIME OF YOUR VISITATION. (Luke 19:44) The word for time that St. Luke in this passage puts in the mouth of Jesus is not hora, hour, that is, clock time, but rather kairos, opportunity, the right conjuncture of matters at a particular moment. Another nuance suggested by this term, kairos, is the fixed time, predetermined by Providence.  On occasion it is also used to designate the endtime when Christ will come in judgment.  In other words, what Jesus says here in effect is:  You are going to be destroyed because you missed your chance to save yourself; you did not recognize the moment God fixed for your salvation and so your judg ment will be severe, without mercy.  Terrible words to hear from the lips of the one who bears God's message of forgiveness and his offer of love.  St. Luke records them not only for the sake of preserving a historical recollection of Jesus' foreknowledge and insight into the working out of God's plan; he also intends them as an admonition to us and to all future generations.

At this season of Lent we are repeatedly admonished to prepare our self so that when the        arrives for our own visitation by the Lord, we shall recognize and seize the moment.  The ability thus to sense opportunity and advance with it into the future is a major acquisition of the spirit, aided by divine grace, that can be cultivated by reflection, study, discipline and prayer.  It is a talent that includes self-knowledge and a certain affinity with the structure of society and of nature.  On the natural level such a capacity requires considerable sharpening of the mind and the senses and serves to render a person's life more efficacious for others and for himself.  One sees it displayed on occasion by persons of outstanding talent in the various fields of human endeavor- in art, in politics, in war, in business, even in sports.  Some persons perceive situations as ripe opportunities that others view as too risky, or as a hindrance, or simply as being without promise.  These person of insight are in a position to act decisively and to follow through with appropriate interventions.  They are carried forward by the momentum of events and the very tides of nature seems to bear them onward, creating new forms that favor their cause.  They are able to give fresh impetus to the movement they serve, sometime for ill, at other occasions, de pending on the merit of their purpose, for good.  Shakespear understood this thoroughly and stated the principle in memorable lines put in the mouth of Brutus, a Roman general of uncom mon character and intelligence.
 

We at the height are ready to decline./ There is a tide in the affairs of men,/ which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;/ Omitted, all the voyage of their life/ Is bound in shallows and in miseries./ On such a full sea are we now afloat;/ And we must take the current when it serves,/ Or lose our venture.(Julius Caesar, Act IV. Sc. III. 222-5)


The American poet, James Russell Lowell, (1819- 1891) saw in the political strife of his day the kind of situation that Jesus perceived as he entered upon his passion and sadly uttered the words of doom on the city he loved.
 

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide./ In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side. (The Present Crisis [1844] cited in John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations, 599b)


This theme of Jesus' decisive moment is taken up also by St. John who gives to the term ora, hour,  the meaning that St. Luke gives to kairos.  He has the task of responding to the Father's will as His plan unfolds.  He does not act on his own, but receives all from the Father.  Before his hour comes he refuses to submit to violence and escapes the efforts to kill him.  When the proper time comes he recognizes it for what it means in the concrete and proceeds to prepare himself and his disciples for meeting it.  Just before the passion begins he makes the prayer that all be accomplished in keeping with the divine plan.  Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son. (John 17: 1)

Such active submission as he here displays does not occur by chance.  Our Lord's whole past life enters into this decisive moment.  His choice carries him with it, all that he is, as he well real izes, into another realm where not he but the Father presides.  At such a moment there is more at stake than one course among others in life; one's very self is at stake.  This hour, when it occurs in any person's life, determines who he or she becomes in the inmost self.  In God's mercy there are lesser and yet very significant moments that are also formative of our deeper self.  They are not so definitive as the critical hour of destiny when it comes; however, they prepare for it and so share in something of its earnestness and decisive quality.  The alert person is on the watch for such opportunities for advancing in the art of living.  He learns to discover opportunity when it presents itself; he develops the capacity to discern its features, to feel its presence, to see it when it beckons.  In responding to such indications of nature and grace he learns to perceive its more subtle signs and discover more incidents where opportunity appears and cultivates the habit of bold and generous action.  Such a process is intended by the character of our Cistercian way of life.  The various activities that we are formed to undertake, the environment that we are charged to create and maintain in the cloister have as their purpose this gradual formation to the art of life.  St. Bernard describes the cloister as a school where this art of living according to the Spirit of the Gospel is the speciality.
 

 These men (Saints Peter and Paul), who have learned more fully the ways of life from the master of all, are our masters and teach us down to the present day.  What then have the holy apostles taught and teach us?  Not the art of fishing, not that of making tents or any thing of this sort; not to read Plato or to pour over the subtleties of Aristotle.  Nor is it always to study and never attain to knowledge of the truth.  They have taught me to live.  Do you think it a small thing to learn to live?  Hardly! It is a very great thing; indeed, it is the greatest of all. (In Festo SS. Petri et Pauli, Sermo I.3 PL 183: 407A, B)


The life really worth living, Bernard goes on to add, is to endure evil and to do good, and to persevere in this way until death.  He then applies this more specifically to the monks of his community, indicating just what this entails for men committed to the Cistercian way.
 

 I am of the opinion that you, who are in our congregation, live well if you live orderly, sociably and humbly.  Orderly in regard to yourself, sociably in relations with your neigh bor, and humble in regard to God.  Orderly so that in all your actions you are careful to watch over your ways, and in the sight of the Lord and of your neighbor you keep your self from sin and avoid giving scandal to him. To live sociably entails making yourself loved and loving others; conducting yourself considerately and with friendliness; sup porting the brothers' weaknesses of character and of body not only patiently but will ingly.  You live humbly when, having done all these things, you scorn the spirit of vanity which so readily arises from such virtuous behavior, and never consent to it no matter how much it arises.(Idem, 4)


Living involves, then, in Bernard's view, living well, that is, in keeping with the constitution of our human nature.  Made in the image of God, we can live well only when our life and our very self reflect, in the measure of our capacity, the nature of God himself.  This involves restoring our lost likeness to the Son who is the perfect image of the Father.  The work of restoration takes place in a world of time and movement and so entails our sharpening our sensitivity to the com munications made to us through created things and their evolving and shifting relations.  These movements are guided by an all-knowing and all-powerful Providence.  As we are formed to discern the revelation given us in God's word, in the events of our daily life, especially those happenings that are directly ordered by faith to pleasing Him, our inner self takes on new powers of life and becomes more sensitive to indications of God's ways and the manifestations of His will.  We are able to undergo this process more effectively as we perceive more sharply the vari ous elements that make up the world around us and within us.  In some sense it is true to say that we cannot know the world within us without knowing a good deal about the world all around in which we are fashioned and by which we are daily influenced.

The Greek Fathers especially considered this kind of knowledge to be truly indispensable for those who are called to union with God.  The disciple of Gregory Nazianzan, Evagrius Ponticus, emphasized its role in the contemplative life.   God must be known first in His creation before he can be known in Himself.  Thus the contemplation of things created, of their development in time, and of relations among events guided by Providence are the normal way to grow in the knowledge of God and to be purified by the graces received and the serious efforts required in order to realize this program.  Study of history and Scripture, meditation on the inspired word, the discipline of practicing a trade, reflection on nature as well as on human affairs so as to dis engage the moral and spiritual lessons they conceal- all these elements are means given us to attain to this kind of self-knowledge and that knowledge of God necessary for further purifica tion and advancement to full union with Him.

Being alert, sensitive to the deeper possibilities for spiritual growth, working at meditation and simple prayer daily with the resulting enhancement of our capacity for perception comprise the major means afforded us by our daily monastic practice.  As we come to recognize opportunities more readily we discover increasingly the ways in which God is at hand to communicate His life to us.  This readiness of response is an attitude that Jesus sought to inculcate in all his disciples.  Watch, be alert, for you know not the hour at which an account will be asked of you.  The bride groom will come at midnight, he tells us, and only those whose lamps are burning brightly can enter with him into the wedding feast.

It does not require a long time to experience that this path traced out by the Lord himself leads through places that are obscure and rough.  We must take the way of poverty of spirit if we would ascend to the heights.  Learn to stop demanding too much of life, of our brothers; be con tent with what seems to be little in the way of satisfaction, but which is enough for those deter mined to walk the whole distance with the poor Christ.  Only when our senses are trained to find stimulus and satisfaction in ordinary and seemingly uneventful happenings and situations can we see the inner light more clearly.  Jesus told us that the lesson to learn in order to find rest in him is that of becoming little, and to cultivate a meek and humble heart.  This meekness is not easy for us to come by.  We have some hint of what it involves when we look at the word itself that Jesus would have used in describing his own inner dispositions.  In Aramaic, Syriac and Hebrew the word      (makik) and its various related forms means to be lowly, crushed, lie flat, hum ble, poor.  The satisfied need ever more stimulus in order to react with pleasure to anything.  The poor in spirit, on the other hand, do not expect much and do not need anything out of the ordi nary to take satisfaction in things.  They have learned to demand little, not to impose their preferences on others, nor to apply to others their private norms and tastes before responding to them with fraternal affection.  They come to prefer the life of obscurity and accept solitude as a condi tion for deepening of consciousness and so of greater awareness of God's love and guidance. Fr. Louis- Thomas Merton

Fr. Louis Merton increasingly spoke of this inner poverty as the climate of monastic prayer.  One of his more moving insights had to do with seeing this meekness and inner lowliness as not only the truest way to go to God, but also as a great contribution to the world of our time.  He puts the matter in these terms which, in my opinion, represent one of the most moving and eloquent descriptions of the contemplative vocation to which we as monks are called..
 

 The deep root of monastic "dread" is the inner conflict which makes us guess that in order to be true to God and to ourselves we must break with the familiar, established and secure norms and go off into the unknown....  This is precisely the monk's chief service to the world: this silence, this listening, this questioning, this humble and courageous exposure to what the world ignores about itself- both good and evil....The monk who is truly a man of prayer and who seriously faces the challenge of his vocation in all its depth is by that very fact exposed to existential dread.  He experiences in himself the emptiness, the lack of authenticity, the quest for fidelity, the "lostness" of modern man, but he experiences all this in an altogether different and deeper way.... The monk faces the worst and discovers in it the hope of the best.  From the darkness comes light.  From death, life.  From the abyss there comes, unaccountably, the mysterious gift of the Spirit sent by God to make all things new, to transform the created and redeemed world, and to re-establish all things in Christ.(Contemplative Prayer 27, 28)


May we exemplify in all its depth the fruitfulness of this monastic program during these days of Lent.  By recognizing the time of our visitation by the Lord Jesus, may we be made worthy to accompany him as he returns to the Father, along with all our brothers and sisters who put their trust in him who is our Savior and our God.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger


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