IF I GO I SHALL PREPARE A PLACE FOR YOU; I SHALL COME AGAIN AND TAKE YOU TO MYSELF (John 14: 3). A few weeks ago here in chapter (cf. April 22 Chapter Conference) I had pointed out that faith in God's promises was fundamental for the Jews in assuring the perseverance in their belief they had been chosen as the people of God. This belief sustained Israel at the various critical stages of their history. If faith in the promises made to the Patriarchs and Moses was fundamental for the people of Israel, faith in Christ's promises has been a radical conviction of the Christian religion from the time of the apostles. It continues to serve as the living heart of the Church's conviction that she can rely on the grace of God to see her through times of trouble and temptation. The promise that Jesus made at the end of his post-resurrection visits to his followers assuring them "I shall be with you always until the end of the world" (Mt. 28:20) is an unfailing source of confidence for all the faithful. Such firm faith has been a highly effective persuasion on the part of those who have a particular responsibility for preserving the deposit of faith in the Church through the centuries.
But faith in God's promise in turn must be based upon a firm trust in his person. This is particularly true in regard to what we can term the ultimate promise Jesus made to his chosen disciples that I cited at the head of this talk: IF I GO I SHALL PREPARE A PLACE FOR YOU; I SHALL COME AGAIN AND TAKE YOU TO MYSELF. These words are presented by St. John as expressed by our Lord in the setting of the Last Supper, on the night before he was taken away from them by death. One could hardly conceive a more affecting setting for a memorable discourse. Obviously our Lord did all in his power to impress on the minds and hearts of the men to whom he entrusted his teaching and the future of his Church this promise to take his followers to himself at some subsequent return.
The whole question of presence is posed to us during this season of Easter when the issue of our Lord's departure by death and his return at the resurrection only to disappear again from sight at the Ascension is so prominently placed before us. Do we truly believe that he has gone to prepare a place for us and that he will indeed return to take us to himself? Is there any greater source of hope and joy than possessing such a solemn promise, given with all the authority invested in him as the one sent by the Father? It is faith in these promises that makes us present to the risen Lord and allows him to abide within us even now. For such an indwelling is another of his solemn promises to his followers. In fact, shortly after pronouncing these words of consoling promise, Jesus declared to the same men: "If any one loves me, he will keep my word and my Father will love him and we will come to him and abide with him (14: 23)."
Faith, then, does not work in isolation; it is given life and efficacy through the works of love. The mansion in which the Father and Son make their home is fashioned of a faith that is enlivened and made active by a spiritual love, agape. Significantly, when St. Bernard of Clairvaux addressed the assembled Cistercian abbots during this Easter season, he chose this theme as the topic. Here is how he begins his sermon to them.
We have from the Apostle the statement that "Christ dwells in our hearts by faith (Eph. 3: 17)." Consequently, it seems not out of place to be able to say that Christ lives in us as long as faith lives. But after our faith dies, Christ is, in a manner, dead within us. Moreover, it is works which witness to the life of faith, and so it is written: " The works which the Father gives me, themselves bear witness to me (John 5: 36)." Nor is this at variance with that saying which asserts that faith without works is dead (James 2: 20)." For just as the life of this body is recognized by its movement, so is the life of faith known by good works. It follows then that as the soul, by which it moves and perceives, is the life of the body, charity is the life of faith., for it acts through it, as we read in the Apostle: "Faith that works through charity (Gal. 5: 6)." (Sermo II. 1 In Tempore Resurrectionis, Ad Abbates PL 183: 283)
Bernard realized well how readily we gradually slip from ardent works of prayer and self-denial into lukewarm habits of life so that, even though we remain in the monastery in body, we return to the world in spirit. As he goes on to say:
I speak not only to those who in the body return to Egypt, but also to those who do so in the heart by following the delights of this world and so do not have the life of faith which is charity.
Like the holy women who bought spices to anoint the body of Jesus, we too, by carefully guarding our mind, our tongue and our hands can anoint the body of the Lord. When we do so we shall find that he has already risen and he will appear to us. By surrendering self-will and the practice of obedience we prepare the ear of the heart to hear the word of the angel telling us of the resurrection. The divine power removes the heavy stone from the heart where faith lay dead and we see the cheerful countenance of the one who makes our heart accessible to the light of the risen redeemer and opening the way for tepidity and negligence to clear out. Then faith comes alive and permits us to see where Jesus was placed.
This is our great task, then, not only at this season but until the Lord returns, to keep faith alive with the living hope of seeing the risen Lord and being ready to welcome him when he returns to take us to himself. What is this living hope but the loving desire to see the Lord face to face. Already now, by keeping the commandments, above all, the commandment to love one another by seeking in practice what is for the spiritual good of those we encounter in our daily life, we have the Lord dwelling within us. This promise given by the Lord is fulfilled day by day as we strive to carry out in effect those ways of thinking and acting which please God and have been revealed to us by the Scriptures and by the lives and writings of the saintly men and women who followed Christ to glory.
The other promise, that he made just before his death when he said IF I GO I SHALL PREPARE A PLACE FOR YOU; I SHALL COME AGAIN AND TAKE YOU TO MYSELF, remains to be fulfilled at some future which remains unknown to us. We are to be ready at any moment for his coming. For us to maintain such readiness, our expectation requires to be nourished daily. This is also a work of faith and of desire. Jesus sought by his promises to increase both of these attitudes in his followers. Faith is convinced that he is even now preparing a place for us; desire longs for him to return and take us to himself. His absence, as he explained, is a visible condition; it is not inactive on his part, and still less is it an indication of forgetfulness; rather, it is filled with the activity of love. He is even now preparing a place where we can be at home with him and he with us. This place is in the mysterious life of the Trinity where the Father actively abides in the Son and the Son in the Father, united in the one Spirit they share. What the Lord tells us is that this Trinitarian presence is already accessible to us; God lives now in the depths of the our heart by faith that works through love. Jesus has disappeared from sight in order that we might learn to see and live with him in this interior place through being wholly subject to the action of his Spirit. This is the place, situated within the living Trinity that is being prepared for us so as to be ready of occupation when the Lord returns to take us to himself.
Convinced of this we are to desire it with the ardor of expectant love. Origen had already spoken of the function of the absence of the divine Word of God in relation to this readiness of the heart for his return. He understood that desire on our part is enhanced due to our experience of what it means to have him present to us. We learn this by experiencing his action in the soul through the operations of grace, especially the gift of insight into some new and difficult truth.
The Bridegroom is thus sometimes present and teaching, and sometimes He is said to be absent; and then He is desired.... He appears to His bride all through the winter- that is to say, in the time of tribulations and trials. That visitation, however, whereby she (the soul) is visited for a little while and then left, in order that she may be tested and then sought again, so that her head may be upheld and she be wholly embraced, lest she either waver in faith or be weighed down in body by the load of her trials, is different.(Origen: The Song of Songs, Book III ACW, pp.211, 212).
In his First Homily on the Song of Songs, Origen speaks more personally than is his usual practice, and at some length describes how the alterations of consoling presence of the Word with painful absences marked his own life of prayer.
The Bride then beholds the Bridegroom; and He, as soon as she has seen Him, goes away. He does this frequently throughout the Son; and that is something nobody can understand who has not suffered it himself. God is my witness that I have often perceived the Bridegroom drawing near me and being most intensely present with me; then suddenly He has withdrawn and I could not find Him, though I sought to do so. I long, therefore, for Him to come again, and sometimes He does so. Then, when He has appeared and I lay hold of Him, He slips away once more; and, when He has so slipped away, my search for Him begins anew. (Origen: The Song of Songs, ACW, pp.279, 280).These periods of spiritual dryness alternating with strengthening insights into the love and truth and
beauty of God and the mysteries of Christ's life, characterize the inner life in varying degrees, following rhythms that are distinctive in each individual. St. Bernard was deeply impressed with these variations in his own life. He realized that for many they were bewilderingly without cause that could be identified, occurring in seemingly arbitrary independence of the individual's behavior. Bernard, who had been strongly marked by Origen's commentary on this topic, felt it would be helpful to his readers for him to repeat and elaborate at some length, the Alexandrian's explanations that did much to clarify his own experience. He devoted one of his Sermons on the Song of Songs to this subject.
Let us say that the Word of God, the spouse of the soul, comes to the soul and leaves it again as he wishes, but we must realize that this happens as a result of the soul's sensitivity, and is not due to any movement of the Word. Indeed, when the soul aware of the influence of grace she acknowledges the presence of the Word; but when she is not, she mourns his absence, and again seeks his presence... Thus the Word is recalled- recalled by the longings of the soul who has once enjoyed his sweetness. Is longing not a voice?... Perhaps it was for this very reason that he withdrew, that the more eagerly she recalls him, the more closely she will cleave to him. (On the Song of Songs IV, CF 40, pp.87, 88)
Bernard at this point in his discussion feels impelled to share with his readers his own repeated experience of this coming and going of the Word . His stirring account is one of the most personal descriptions of his inner life to be found in all of his writings. It takes as its starting point Origen's description of his own experience of this same alternating coming and going of the Spouse, but, in elaborate and refined detail develops the description at considerable length so that the reader's desire to enter upon the same prayer is stimulated and focused. Life is in the details and nuances, and so the more living the presentation the more it exercises a strong appeal to desire.
The coming of the Word was not perceptible to my eyes, for he has no color; nor to my ears, for there was no sound; nor yet to my nostrils, for he mingles with the mind, not the air; he has not acted upon the air, but created it. His coming was not tasted by the mouth, for there was no eating or drinking, nor could he be known by the sense of touch, for he is not tangible. How then did he enter? Perhaps he did not enter because he does not come from outside? ... You ask then how I knew he was present when his ways can in no way be traced? He is life and power, and as soon as he enters in, he awakens my slumbering soul (op. cit. Sermo 74.5, 6 , pp. 90, 91).
This is but a relatively brief section of Bernard's extended discussion of his interpretation of the kind of prayer he often knew. If I dwell upon it here during these days of the Easter season it is in order to keep before our attention the very purpose of our liturgical commemoration. It is by our welcoming in faith and with love the Word made flesh and glorified that he continues to dwell with us and to make known his presence within us so as to enliven and intensify our desire for him and for the new life he brings us. This attention to the risen Lord of glory living and acting within us is our primary work as monks. It is also our chief contribution to the Church and the society we live in. In order to dedicate ourselves to this work of the heart, we must be prepared to endure the difficult times when the Word is absent to our consciousness and, by fidelity and fervent adhesion to his will with increased desire maintain our soul ready for his return. In fact, it is our place to hasten his final return by this kind of interior alertness that is the expression of faithful love. By our lives and the desire of our heart may we continue the work of which Bernard spoke when he explained how longing itself calls down the presence of the world's Savior: Thus the Word is recalled- recalled by the longings of the soul who has once enjoyed his sweetness. Is longing not a voice?Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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