Be quiet and know that I am God, high over the nations, high over the earth

September 5, 1999, 23rd Sunday- Chapter


Be quiet and know that I am God, high over the nations, high over the earth ( Psalm 46:11). This exhortation has long been understood as an invitation to contemplative prayer. It is one of numerous passages in the Bible that gives assurance that we can at tain to a true knowledge of God. This persuasion is all the more convincing in that it is rather presumed than explicitly justified. Throughout the Old Testament and the New that human be ings can contact God and arrive at a valid knowledge of him and of his will is everywhere taken for granted. There are a wide variety of expressions employed by the sacred authors to convey this conviction. A good number of these are found in the Book of Psalms: "Taste and see that the Lord is good" (34:9) is cited by St. Basil for one; "Delight in the Lord and he will give you the petitions of your heart (37:4)." The prophets were so convinced they had encountered God per sonally that they spoke in his name, even when it was dangerous to do. The men who wrote the Wisdom literature employed a distinctive style, quite different from that of the prophets, but they too were persuaded they had a valid understanding of God based upon experience they subse quently reflected upon.

When we attempt to define more precisely the nature of our knowledge of God and its possible extent relative to God's action and his nature, we meet with considerable difficulty. The chief issue is whether we can know God as he is in himself, in his nature. Or is our understanding of him confined to his manner of treating with us? As certain mystical theologians were to state the matter: can we know God in his essence or only in his energies? This is the way the question was formulated in the 13 hundreds at the time of the Hesychast controversies. In the Bible the issue was stated in terms of vision: Can a human person see God and live? Does God reveal himself face to face, or does he only allow his back to be seen? And even if a great prophet, like Moses, is allowed to see God face to face, yet how penetrating is that vision? How complete?

Any number of instances are recorded where God assumes certain forms as he communicates with people: an angel, several angels, fire in a bush, a still small voice, a powerful burst of thun der in which the loud voice of God is heard, the brilliant light of Tabor surpassing earthly luminosity. Obviously all such language is symbolic and the thought is analogical. Some of the images suggest a more direct contact and so a fuller knowledge than others. That there is a real meeting between God and humans at times is certain. That this encounter is a true experience and results in a knowledge of his will and some measure of acquaintance with his person(s) is no less sure. But how full and immediate this experience is remains shrouded in a certain mist, or a cloud; on occasion even in thick darkness.

These same questions have been asked in post-biblical times not only in the 14th century hesychastic controversies, but already at the height of the Patristic golden age in the fourth century especially by Gregory of Nyssa. The persons who were convinced they knew God by experience felt it an obligation to establish as far as possible their credentials for affirming the validity of our knowledge of God himself. The norms to use in this evaluation continue to be the subject of investigation and reflection today. Often in recent times the issue is framed in terms of "the experience of God." Articles are written on this topic such as the recent study by Aquinata Böckman, "The Experience of God According to the Rule of St. Benedict" ("Gotteserfahrung nach der Regula Benedicti", Erbe und Auftrag 75 (1999), 282 ff); entire meetings have been devoted to an examination of this subject (consult, for example, the sessions of German-speaking abbots in 1973, and the book "L'expérience de Dieu dans la vie monastique", La Pierre-qui-vire, 1973). The matter is also examined in works dealing with the nature and meaning of mysticism, such as those by Andrew Louth in England and Bernard McGinn in this country. Certainly, as the learned essay by Böckman makes evident, this question retains a last ing interest for monks and nuns in the Benedictine tradition. Evidently all thoughtful Christians will find themselves repeatedly returning to reflections on the significance and validity of our knowledge of God. After all, according to the words of Jesus in St. John's Gospel, eternal life is constituted by such experience: "This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17: 3)."

As Sister Aquinata Böckman observes: "The experience of God belongs to standard vocabulary today, but it is one of the least clear concepts." This may well be due, she notes, to the fact that such an experience is intrinsically ineffable; it simply cannot be adequately expressed in words as those who have had the most intense encounters with God have repeatedly affirmed, St. Paul the most notable among them. Not only because God is a transcendent mystery in himself, and yet immanent to the human person, but also because such experience is innermost to each per son. Since every individual is so differentiated from others, there are as many kinds of experi ence of God as there are persons. Yet it is generally accepted that there are certain general char acteristics that are common to all such experiences. She lists several: the experience of God is marked by directness and immediacy of simple presence when compared to logical processes and conceptual knowledge. It is also a perception of a whole by means of the inner senses; it is felt as something received not brought about by the subject; it is centered on God not on one's self. Further, it comes as a surprise and is a kind of meeting with another.

The first point that Andrew Louth makes in connection with mysticism is that for over a thou sand years the experience of God and its study was integral with dogmatic theology. The Fathers treated both as aspects of the same faith realities (cf. "The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tra dition", Oxford Univ.1981, xi). "The basic doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, worked out in these centuries, are mystical doctrines formulated dogmatically." Experience of the risen Christ and living in his Holy Spirit were the basis for belief. Faith in the mysteries of the Lord Jesus had resulted in experiential knowledge and a loving attachment to him. Reflection on the content of this lived relationship in the light of the teachings of Christ as understood after the resurrection led to stronger attachment to his person including the sentiment of intimate union. At the same time, it led to a progressive clarification of the more precise meaning contained in these realities expressed in formulas that constitute dogmatic theology. This integral approach to the spiritual life meant that prayer, liturgy, meditation, study, explanation and exegesis, preaching and contemplation were intricately bound together in an more or less undifferentiated whole.

At the origins of the Catholic mystical tradition after Scripture itself which remains the chief source of spiritual knowledge an important figure is Philo of Alexandria (about 20 BC to 50 AD), the Jewish Platonist exegete of the Hebrew Scriptures in their Septuagint version. He was to have a large influence on Origen whose writings proved so fertile in insights and vocabulary for the Fathers who contributed most to the development of mystical theology, including St. Bernard of Clairvaux. His writings so impressed certain Catholics in the Middle Ages, in fact, that he was honored alongside the great prophets, as can be seen from a fresco in a Catholic Chapel in Southern France. Philo was well acquainted with Greek thinkers, especially Plato, and is a representative of Middle Platonism. This movement was essentially Platonic with an admixture of Stoic doctrine, including the Stoa's stress on the Logos who they understood to be immanent in the material world. But Philo, while employing certain Greek ideas and insights, remained a fervent Jewish believer and so modified in a creative way some of the philosophical ideas he had inherited. The most significant contribution he made, it seems to me, was to modify the Stoic concept of the Logos, which viewed the Logos as the reason that fashions and remains immanent in all things. He understood it to refer also to the transcendent, living God, and went on to explain it as "the thing that speaks", to logon, in Greek. As John Dillon has remarked this view has no parallel in all of Greek philosophy. Philo understands the Word as "the image of God, chiefest among all beings." This Word who speaks directs the Universe, is perceived intellectually, and is so close to God that there is no intervening distance between the two.

By introducing this view of the Word as the One who speaks to man and, at the same time, is intimately associated with God, Philo opens the way to a direct access to God. More, this God is not a distant and hidden divinity; rather, he actively pursues his creature to raise him to himself. His Word is a gift of grace; indeed, God can be found only by his special gift of grace. In meditating on the revealed Scripture, one encounters God's Word and thus is introduced into the realm of the higher mysteries and approaches God himself. There is an immediacy and directness involved in contact with the Word which amounts to a form of mystical experience, in the view of Louth (op. cit., 29). Meditating on the Logos nourishes the soul. Philo compares the Word to the manna: "You see what kind of food belongs to the soul. It is the Word of God, continuous, resembling dew, embracing all the soul leaving no portion without part in itself (Leg. All, cited in Louth, loc. cit.)." Thus Philo stresses meditation on Scripture as the way to immediate experience of God, a doctrine that was destined to exercise immense influence on the Fathers of the Church.

At the beginning of his five volume study of mysticism which is still in course of being written, Bernard McGinn takes up the question of the defining what is properly meant by the term mysticism. "The immediate, direct experience of God" is preferred by any number of writers on the topic. But McGinn finds this conception inadequate when studying the actual history of mystical experience. For one thing, the term mysticism came into existence only in the 17th century, in France. He points out that the term "mystical theology" was used for more than a thousand years before the appearance of the term "mysticism". He notes that mystical theology, that is to say the concept that an individual forms concerning the nature of union with God and its significance, is not just something added on to one's encounter with the Lord. On the contrary, it anticipates and serves to direct one's whole way of life and of prayer. It enters into the experience itself. Someone who believes that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh and that it is in knowing him that the believer comes to know the Father, will pray and experience God very differently from a person who does not accept Christ as God, equal to the Father. Thus there is a very decided mutual interdependence between spiritual experience and theological interpretation and belief. An adequate study of mysticism, McGinn maintains, should treat it as part of religion, as a process or a way of life, and as a consciousness of the presence of God (op. cit. xv, xvi).

This view fits in well with the study I referred to earlier of "The Experience of God according to the Rule of St. Benedict" by Aquinata Böckman. She lists as criteria for genuine Christian experience of God that "it is grounded on faith and does not substitute for it; it takes place in the space of the community, in the Church and so of sacramental reality; it manifests itself in humility, joy and inner peace; and lastly, it leads to selfless service in obedience."

At first sight the Rule of Benedict does not seem a promising source of teaching on the experience of God. It is concerned with the structures and practices of community life in large part, but, at the same time, it makes faith and the inner dispositions of the heart, especially humility and charity, fundamental. The purpose of the Rule, union with God in the Holy Spirit, is clearly affirmed, and cleansing of the heart is the immediate aim of many of the practices it describes. There is no explicit discussion of the experience of God. However,by applying these norms in an examination of the Rule the author finds considerable evidence that St. Benedict, had known intense experience of God. She concludes from her study that there are three distinct topics treated in the Rule which favor the experience of God. The first is the role of Scripture, the second is personal prayer and the last she calls dynamics, that is to say, the initiatives of God acting upon the powers of the soul. Her analysis contributes to an appreciation of each of these elements in Benedictine spirituality.

The Bible, she states, is the dominant element in a Benedictine community. This inspired book is presented as inviting the monk, showing the way and threatening. These are perceived by the inner senses in the course of the liturgy, lectio divina, reading at table and in the abbot's teaching and example. At the beginning of his vocation, the inspired word invites the hearer to conversion. This encounter is essentially an experience of God, and leads to the decision to enter a monastery in some instances, as is seen in the life of St. Antony. Continued contact with Scripture, heard by the ears of the heart, stirs us up to generous obedience to God's will and becomes a source of a transforming light to illuminate our path in daily living. Throughout the whole of life Scripture acts upon the monk as he responds to its message. He there encounters Christ and is formed in humility by imitating him. To persevere in the monastery till death is to share in the passion of Christ. Living in community where Christ is the center and the fear of God is present to him, the monk is encouraged to practice fraternal charity in such a way that he grows into a pure and strong love until "he prefers absolutely nothing to Christ."

Personal prayer in the Rule is another source of the experience of God. Particularly, through abiding in the presence of God and frequently raising his thoughts to seek the help and mercy he needs, the monk makes of his very weakness a place to experience divine assistance. In his chapter on personal prayer Benedict speaks of prayer being prolonged by an inspiration of an experience of heavenly grace ("ex affectu inspirationis divinae gratiae" RB 20). In treating of the observance of Lent, the Rule speaks of "praying with tears and compunction of heart", which is suggestive of a more profound experience of God's goodness and holiness. A number of other passages also indicate the importance Benedict attaches to private prayer made with confidence in God's power and mercy.

The third kind of text that stands in relation to the experience of God is that which deals with the dynamic effect of grace upon the spirit. In the Prologue we are told that God seeks out his worker and "looks for one who longs for life." The person who hears this invitation responds by truly seeking God, which is the Rule's primary criterion for judging the genuineness of a vocation. Some form of personal knowledge of God is presupposed by such a disposition. There are a number of other passages that imply some form of personal experience of grace, notably those which mention inner growth and the taking on of purer and higher dispositions. In Chapter 62 Benedict urges any priest of the monastery "magis ac magis in Deum proficiat", "to advance more and more into God." He precedes this exhortation by a call to rid oneself of the various obstacles to such closeness to God, notably pride and haughtiness "by means of the obedience and discipline of the Rule." St. Augustine had already used this expression "to make progress in God" and explained it as meaning so to advance as not to grow proud. St. Benedict

The chapter considered by most to be central in Benedict's Rule is Ch. 7 on humility. Particularly significant for our purpose is the fourth degree of humility in which the person feels overwhelmed by the demands of his vocation and yet chooses to suffer without complaint for the sake of God. This acceptance leads to confidence and even joy, an indication of a certain deeper experience of God's grace. God is known not only in light but also in darkness and struggle. This process is carried further in the sixth degree of humility where the monk has a heightened sense of his nothingness and sinfulness that implies a more intense knowledge of God's holiness.

Other passages can be cited to demonstrate that, as is stated in Chapter 1, "the Rule is a teacher of experience", and more particularly, the experience of God. Both McGinn and Böckman perform a considerable service by demonstrating how mystical theology is rooted in the broad context of life and can best be understood when the experience of God is recognized as already operative in its preparations and its effects. Far from being confined to moments of contemplation, the knowledge of God permeates the whole of daily living, influencing our motivation and dispositions of heart and gradually transforming us after the model of Christ Jesus our Savior, in whom we have hope of eternal life in the presence of God the Father.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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