FOR THE REST, BROTHERS, SET YOUR MINDS ON ALL THAT IS TRUE, ALL THAT IS VENERABLE, ALL THAT IS JUST, ALL THAT IS HOLY, ALL THAT IS AMIABLE, ALL THAT IS APPEALING, ON EVERY KIND OF VIRTUE AND ANYTHING WORTHY OF PRAISE (Philippians 4: 8). This text is familiar to us since we hear it at None on Solemnities of Saints. Today at the liturgy we shall hear it once again. It is addressed to the whole of the Church at Philippi, men and women, old and young- all are encouraged to entertain only high-minded thoughts and pursuits. This is St. Paul's admirable concept of how a Christian should be disposed: always occupied with noble tasks and thoughts. Would that the circumstances of life and our society supported such a vision and favored those who dedicate themselves to realizing it as far as possible, day by day.
The inspiration for such a view of life and of character is the risen Lord Jesus and his Holy Spirit given to his faithful followers. To know him and to live in his Spirit is to dedicate our minds and hearts and our efforts to the pursuit of all that is true and worthy of praise. We are made for noble purposes: to contemplate the truth and so to know the living God who is the very measure of truth; to imitate, as far as our limits and grace permit, the ways of the Son of God who lived in the flesh. Our inner life and our best efforts are to be engaged with those matters which prepare us for this work of purifying and elevating our whole being under the influence of divine grace.
St. Paul sets side by side in this passage the Greek words arete and epainon, virtue and praiseworthy. He was probably thinking more of the ideas which were widely current in his time, and which were traceable more to Stoic philosophical thought than to the views of Aristotle. Still, the association of these two qualities evokes the teaching of the Stagirite whose Nichomachean Ethics treats of the virtues and vices and presents many noble thoughts and aspirations to our reflection based upon natural reason. To reflect a little on his teaching, then, is to carry out in practice Paul's advice to think upon all that is virtue. One of the norms that Aristotle refers to repeatedly in order to ascertain whether a given way of acting is a true virtue I found at first quite surprising as a proof. "Praise, he writes, "belongs to goodness, since it is this that makes men capable of accomplishing noble deeds (I. xii.6 Cambridge 1926, p 59)." His argument can be summed up in the affirmation that virtue is that which a good man praises; vice is what a good man blames. For instance, he gives as support for his opinion that wisdom is a true virtue, though an intellectual not a moral disposition, the fact that "a wise man also is praised for his disposition, and praiseworthy dispositions we term virtues (I. xiii.20, p. 69)." At first this might seem too subjective to serve as a norm; moreover, the reasoning seems circular. Upon further examination it certainly has the advantage of being empirical and practical, in any case. Since a wise man is one who has integrated action and reason what he praises he judges to be conformed to mature reason, and so suited to the nature of the human person. On reflection this proof would appear to be a wiser way of testing any given act than conformity to some more abstract norm.
Just before he wrote the lines cited above, Paul had urged his readers to "make your forbearance known to all. The Lord is near." The word translated here as forbearance renders Paul's Greek term epieikes. In the Latin Vulgate it is translated by the word modestia. This phrase is familiar to us from the Roman liturgy where it appears in the Introit of the third Sunday of Advent. I had found this text quite puzzling, even after reading the commentators, until I came across Aristotle's treatment of it. Why signal out modesty as the critical virtue to cultivate so as to be ready to meet the Lord when he comes in glory to judge the living and the dead?
Since Paul considers it to make one particularly acceptable to Christ, it seems important to get as full an understanding of this virtue as possible. We do not get much help when we turn to the New Testament, however. The word modestia is never found on our Lord's lips, for one thing, nor does it occur in the Gospels at all. For that matter, neither does the Greek noun epieikeia, or its synonym in the neuter adjectival form epieikes, though they do occur six times four times in the Epistles of Paul and once each in those of James and Peter. It is applied to Christ, yoked with the word for meekness, however, in 2 Corinthians 10: 1 and in the Acts 24.4 it serves as a compliment to a judge, where the Vulgate translates it as clemenctia (clemency). St. Paul employs it as a quality that a bishop should posses. (1Tim 3: 3 and Tit 3: 2). James in his Epistle (3: 17) tells us it is a characteristic of the wisdom from above, and St. Peter (1 P 2:18) applies it to kind masters of slaves. In all four of these instances modestus (modest) is the term used by the Latin version, so that little light is shed on the precise sense that allows us to understand how it could be considered so fundamental for a fervent and holy Christian as to serve as a kind of one word summary of the perfect believer.
Here is where Aristotle proves more helpful than any one else when it comes to elucidating te basic sense of this mysterious word. His discussion, I think, illustrates how Paul's advice to think upon all that is noble and virtuous proves helpful to those seeking to be ready to meet the Lord. The proper sense of epikeia appears from the context to be equitable. And he defines equity as a higher form of justice by virtue of which a man applies a general law to a particular instance in such a way as to avoid the injustice that would occur were he to interpret the law literally. Here are his own words in summary.
The source of the difficulty is that equity, though just, is not legal justice, but a rectification of legal justice. The reason for this is that law is always a general statement, yet there are cases which it is not possible to cover in a general statement.... the law takes into consideration the majority of cases, although it is not unaware of the error this involves. And this does not make it a wrong law; for the error is not in the law nor in the lawgiver, but in the nature of the case: the material of conduct is essentially irregular.... it is then right, where the lawgiver's pronouncement because of its absoluteness is defective and erroneous, to rectify the defect by deciding as the lawgiver would himself decide if he were present on the occasion and would have enacted if he had been cognizant of the case in question (V. x. 3-5, pp. 315-317).
Aristotle then points out that the person possessing epikeia "does not stand on his rights unduly, but is content to receive a smaller share although he has the law on his side (V. X. 8)." Such a person is contrasted with the man who insists on the strict letter of the law who is termed severely just (akribo-dikaios). This gives the more precise sense to the term modest intended by the New Testament authors, it would seem. A person who prefers, even at his own cost, a merciful application of law where it is legitimate so as to refrain from injury to another when he has a legal basis for a self interested interpretation is practicing justice in the service of charity. He is one who realizes that " strictest law is the height of injustice" Summa lex summa injustitia est, as the Roman lawyers well appreciated. In English and American common law equity is recognized as having legal validity. In the course of history at one point there was a special equity court presided over by the Chancellor of the Realm who served as the king's conscience where people appealed to the king against an unfavorable judgment. This court of equity interestingly was not bound by precedent, in marked contrast with the court of Chancery. Each case was to be decided on the merits as determined by the chancellor.
In referring to Aristotle's treatment of epikeia I do not intend to suggest that Paul had read Aris totle or was directly influenced by him. My point here is only that Aristotle is the one who pro vides the clearest discussion of what this term originally meant in its technical sense. Obviously its signification had evolved somewhat in the years since Aristotle had defined it, and came to be applied not only to situations where justice was concerned but also to general dealings with oth ers. Thus St. Jerome translated it as modesty in the sense of treating others with consideration, not being too assertive, showing restraint in one's dealings. Lightfoot (St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, 160) translates it as forbearance, explaining it as that disposition "which avoids contention and self-seeking". But the original concept of equity still clings to the term and col ors the specific sense that attaches to its use. This word then retrains something of the original meaning of concern for the rights of others that Aristotle assigns to it and explains why the apos tle assigns it such importance in this epistle. Once this understanding of epikeia is arrived at it becomes easy to see why St. Paul considered it a worthy summary of the Christian attitude. In the name of the law Jesus had been rejected and finally crucified. In the name of the higher law of charity he had taught that at times it is necessary to break the letter of the law, and called hypocrites those who caviled at his actions. The equitable person is one who can rightly recog nize when exceptions to the general rule apply; this insight comes in part from erudition but derives even more from a charitable disposition of the heart. Only one who truly loves his neighbor and seeks the common good will renounce his advantage for the sake of avoiding in jury to another or to society as a whole. A person thus disposed is, in fact, imitating our Lord. He can have confidence that he stands ready to meet him when he comes in judgment.
St. Benedict describes the cenobitic monk as a person touched by grace who truly seeks God and so desires to live under a Rule and an abbot. Why is an abbot needed if the Rule prescribes the way of life? Why not follow the Rule alone? There are other reasons as well but one that is pertinent to our present considerations is the fact that exceptions to the law are inevitable and the purpose of the law cannot be assured in certain particular instances except by someone who is able to grasp the requirements of a higher justice. This means that he understands the law itself as an expression of a particular intent of the legislator and the circumstances of a given instance that call for a different application than was foreseen by the lawgiver in order to assure that his intent is carried through.
Anyone who takes part in our General Chapter for the first time and listens to 150 house reports with the comments of the Visitors will probably be surprised at some of the interpretations of some of the laws that had seemed very clear to him before. Listening to the explanations that seek to justify some surprising ways of applying a particular statute is quite often a source of new understanding and leads at times to a revision of the text, at other times simply broadens one's concept of what the law requires. Not every broad interpretation of a law is an indication that an abbot is trying toevade the requirements of the Rule; it may be a demand of charity or justice in a given circumstance that justifies a special interpretation.
This type of situation arises regularly as well when some new legislation is published by the Holy See that conflicts with the current practice in our Order. On occasion it means we must change our practice. An instance of this was the Decree on Unification. Because it was not treated in some communities with enough sensitivity, it became a source of trouble and even division. Had the Order evoked the principles of epikeia and equity these difficulties could have been minimized if not altogether avoided, I venture to say. In a certain number of instances in the course of writing our Constitutions when the Code of Canon Law was in conflict with our legitimate customs rather than change our practice it has meant that we needed to inform the responsible persons at the Vatican why these laws should not be applied according to the letter. An example is the powers ascribed to the General of our Order. His office is quite distinct in its manner of operating than is the case with all other Orders. For one thing he is the General for the nuns' branch as well as for the monks. In such cases the Holy See has readily acknowledged that it did not have our situation in mind in making the law and agrees to accept our practice as a legitimate exception.
Such an instance will come up at the General Chapter in October of this year in regard to the cloister for the nuns, to give a current example. Our Order is the only one in Church that is cloistered and at the same time consists of two branches, masculine and feminine. For it to function appropriately and in keeping with the express desire of the Vatican to assure equality for both branches as far as possible, certain exceptions to the new legislation on the cloister are essential for the Abbesses. The unity of the Order has already been approved by the Holy See and will be seriously impeded in its function unless the unique character of our situation in relation to this legislation is recognized. A strict, literal interpretation would be contrary to the purpose of other laws and so detrimental to the common good of the Order. Once this is demonstrated the purpose of new legislation can be respected without frustrating the intent of earlier laws.
In the Rule for Monasteries St. Benedict foresees any number of instances where the abbot can and should make exception to the provisions of the Rule. Not only in regard to the young and the aged, the sick and the weak in matters of food and horarium but also in respect of precedence in the community. Normally seniority determines one's place in choir, the refectory and chapter, and the abbot should respect that. But, because of the merit of a monk's life he may be assigned a higher place or given a particular position that advances him beyond his seniors. At the same time, all favoritism must be avoided carefully so as not to disturb the peace of the community. When such matters are not left to the decision of a person but legislated for in great detail, the law becomes too burdensome to be practical. That is surely the major reason the Rule of the Master had such a short life span, whereas St. Benedict's Rule continues to attract new followers.
But this virtue of epikeia as St. Paul employs it, applies not only to questions of observance of the Rule and the Constitutions. In all our dealings with others we, as followers of the Lord Jesus, are to cultivate a modesty of demeanor, a forbearance, and willingness to yield to others when they would benefit from our deferring to their wishes. Any one who focuses on practicing such an attitude regularly will come soon come to see how profoundly he must enter into his heart to uproot the self-centered assertiveness that is so native to us. I may be mistaken in my judgement but it has often appeared to me that women and especially mothers who have a number of children exemplify this virtue more obviously than men do.
Such deference is not a passive yielding- no virtue in fact is passive- but requires considerable inner strength of character as well as a deeply rooted charity. One of its manifestations is meekness; it also requires a good deal of humility at times, and not least considerable endurance and patience. In order to avoid inappropriate and dependent behavior it demands a measure of self-confidence so that one does not feel readily threatened or imposed upon by others. Attempting to practice such epieikeia, then, will soon make us aware of any weaknesses we are subject to in each of these other virtues as well. Since meekness, humility, concern for the good of others and confidence based upon God's grace are all essential for contemplation and for union with the Lord, it is not so difficult to understand why Paul chose this term epieikes to sum up the dispositions the faithful are to manifest so as to be confident when the Lord comes in judgment. "Let your forbearance be known to all persons. The Lord is near." This thought remains important for us today. Like the watchword which Paul was the first to and which was so often used in the early Church, Maran atha,Come, O Lord, this reminder of St. Paul that the Lord is near serves to keep the events of our life in a divine perspective. Time will soon pass; eternity draws near. Meanwhile, even now the Lord is near, he remains present to us if we walk by faith and trust in him and display our belief by our way of treating those we encounter on our way with consideration and restraint. He is not only near to us he abides within us and already shares his knowledge and love of the Father in the measure we are able to receive his light and his love. As we strive to respond to his closeness and continue on our way to the kingdom, let us put into practice as best we might the recommendations of Paul to those who prepare for their final encounter with the Lord. FOR THE REST, BROTHERS, SET YOUR MINDS ON ALL THAT IS TRUE, ALL THAT IS VENERABLE, ALL THAT IS JUST, ALL THAT IS HOLY, ALL THAT IS AMIABLE, ALL THAT IS APPEALING, ON EVERY KIND OF VIRTUE AND ANYTHING WORTHY OF PRAISE.... AND THE GOD OF PEACE WILL BE WITH YOU.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
© Abbey of the Genesee
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