WHILE HE WAS BLESSING THEM HE WITHDREW FROM THEM AND WAS CARRIED UP INTO HEAVEN (Luke 24: 51). Today's liturgy looks forward to the Ascension of our Lord which is celebrated this Thursday. We have been commemorating the interval between his resurrection and ascension in recent weeks. During this period of forty days, St. Luke informs us, Jesus appeared to his disciples and instructed them on various matters concerning his teaching. How properly to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures was a major topic he addressed, beginning with his encounters on the very day of the resurrection. The principal insight necessary for an understanding of revelation had been lacking both to the Jewish authorities and to Jesus' own disciples. The risen Lord made it the first point of his post-resurrection instruction, given at Emmaus.
And he said to them: "O senseless men, too slow of heart to believe all the prophets had spoken of. Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and going through all the prophets, he interpreted to them from all the writings that concerned him (Luke 24: 25-27).
Later that same day when he appeared to his apostles in Jerusalem he took up the same theme.These are the things that I told you about when I was still with you, that it is necessary that all that is written in the Law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms about me should be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds so that they might understand the Writings (Luke 24: 44, 45).
This period of instruction lasted only a limited time to which Luke assigns the code number of forty, but still it was long enough to allow for a formative experience that made the essential teachings of the Lord an integral element in their Easter experience. The way the Church was to read and preach the Scriptures was imparted by the Risen Lord of glory. That the manner of interpreting Scriptures had to be revealed results from the fact that the Holy Writings are not made by human hands, but are divine in origin. While there is a historical truth in the inspired text, there is at the same time a spiritual sense of Scripture that is essential for recognizing its true meaning. This dimension of the sacred book is embedded in the words and events they describe, but it remains sufficiently obscure to the human mind that those who were the most familiar with the Bible were unable to discern the key that opened it up. For adequate understanding the assistance of the Spirit of Jesus is essential; only with the aid of grace can the reader discern the full divine truth imparted by the Bible.
On the occasion when our Lord instructed his disciples in the proper way to read and understand the Scriptures he himself was the vehicle of that grace. The expression used by Luke here is theologically significant: Jesus opened their minds. Without the light imparted by Christ the Scriptures remain a closed book.
That is as true today as it was in the days following Easter. As we relive liturgically this forty-day interval of divine instruction in exegesis and theology we are encouraged to listen attentively to our divine Master with the ears of the heart. The lessons he imparts require a mind sensitized by the presence of the Spirit who alone can unlock the text He inspired with the key of heavenly illumination.
The key insight to the interpretation of the whole of the Bible is that God reveals Himself in the person of His only Son, Jesus Christ. The Word of God became flesh among us and he alone adequately reveals the Father. All that went before prepared for his coming and contributes to interpreting his meaning. The significance of all that follows him must be construed from the principles that he established in his life and teaching. Efficacious understanding is a function of fidelity and purity of heart more than of intelligence and knowledge. Jesus states as much quite explicitly in a moment of exultation on one occasion.I give you thanks, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to children. Yes, Father, this is what you were pleased to do (Matthew 11:25, 26).
The glorified Christ then is the source of the Church's interpretation of the Bible, just as it was the risen Lord Jesus who gave power to the apostles to loose and to bind- to determine, that is, what is in practice pleasing to God and what is not. Successfully to preach and spread the Gospel requires an authoritative message, one that bears a recognizable mark of truth. It requires as well the power to determine what insights and views are legitimate applications and extensions of the truths essential for following the way opened up by the revelation brought by the Word made flesh. This power was imparted, according to Matthew, at the same time the Lord commissioned his designated followers to preach to the whole world.
The Ascension of Jesus marked his departure from this world and followed immediately upon his delegating these powers to his apostles. With his departure and entrance into the Presence of the Father the center of the Church shifted from this world to heaven. The Ascension marks the beginnings of an activity whose inspiration derives from a communion with the transcendent world where the glorified Christ abides in the presence of the eternal Father. Action according to the plan of Christ must therefore be based on a living communion in faith and love with his person. Contemplation in the Spirit is, along with the sacraments, the means by which this communion is assured.
The sacraments, especially baptism and the Eucharist, are given to all the faithful in order to establish and maintain this communion. Some measure of contemplative prayer eventually becomes the normal accompaniment of sacramental life. Every member of the Church has the obligation to pray and thus enter into a more personal communion with God in Christ. The practice of prayer seriously undertaken normally leads to a change in the mode of praying. Not only prayers of petition for needs but also prayers of gratitude, thanksgiving and praise come to play an increasingly significant role in our dealings with God. As this development occurs, we become more sensitive to the living presence of the Lord and are inclined to be more attentive to his person than to the words we employ in the course of our commerce with him. Fidelity to this form of simplified prayer carries us more immediately into the presence of the Lord so that we increasingly live, work and walk before him, seeking in all things not only to serve him but also to remain united with him.
Through this daily fidelity over an extended period of time, under the influence of the Spirit of the glorified Christ, the process of which St. Paul speaks has its transforming effects upon our inner life, first of all.The Lord is the Spirit. Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. And all of us with unveiled face contemplating the glory of the Lord are transformed into the same image from glory to glory as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:17, 18).As the abbot of Clairvaux saw so clearly, for the work of our transformationTwo things in us must be purified, the intellect and our affections, the intellect so that it might know and the affections that they might will Christ illumines the intellect, the Holy Spirit purifies the affections (Sermo de Ascensione Domini III.2 PL 183: 305B).
Elsewhere in this same Epistle cited above Paul makes it clear that this process of profound transformation and inner illumination is accompanied by a purifying suffering. Only through the cross was Jesus glorified, and, since the servant is no better than the master, we must traverse the same way of sorrow, humiliation and suffering in the measure that God suits to our capacity if we would attain our goal. Each Christian vocation has its proper means for contributing to this radical remaking of our whole person. The monastic life in our Cistercian Order understood the practices that it took over and elaborated as contributing to this dynamic process of inner transformation. The silence, meditation, prayer, obedience, sacred reading, manual labor, communal life and poverty were not ends in themselves but rather intended to be employed with prudence and insight in function of contributing to the work of the Spirit within the heart. In this way the monk who begins with the works of penance learns to enter the place of the purified heart which the grace of God turns into a paradise. St. Bernard describes this transformation movingly.But do not consider that this place of interior delight is a material paradise. You do not enter this garden with the feet but by the affections. Nor are the fruits of earthly trees recommended to you but the beautiful and joyous orchard of spiritual virtues. It is a walled garden where a sealed fountain pours itself out into four streams. From the one channel of wisdom the four rivulets of virtue stream out.... But do not hope that it is by our word that it is commended to you. The Spirit alone is the One who reveals it. In vain will you search for it in a book; rather, seek it in experience alone. It is Wisdom and no man knows its price.... Erudition does not teach it, but rather unction ( Sermo de Conversione ad Cleros, xiii. 25 PL 182: 847-848).
This is the inner paradise which all of us, along with all the faithful living other forms of life, are called by baptism and by monastic profession, to create with the guidance and strength provided by the Spirit of the Lord. Bernard was persuaded that the ideal place to work to create the paradise of the heart was the paradise of the cloister. He spoke of the monastic enclosure in these terms, setting up the ideal that every community strives to realize. Each monk has his part to play in creating such an environment as to support others in their efforts to cooperate in this inner work which prepares us for participating in the eternal life of God's Kingdom.Truly the cloister is a paradise, a region protected by the pali-sades of discipline in which there is a very productive fertility of precious wares. A glorious thing it is for men of a single manner to dwell in a house (Ps 132.1)... What should you consider, faithful soul, in these markets? Walk about the virtues of those living together in the house of the Lord of virtues, and make up your bun-dle from among them, for your manner of life. You who lived at first in the neighborhood of the shadow of death, pass over into the region of life and truth (Sermones de Diversis, xlii. 2 and 4 PL 183: 661D and 663B).
Experience today shows that our society makes it increasingly difficult to establish a friendly environment for such spiritual transformation. Extra efforts are required and special care must be taken by all of us, monks and lay persons included, to create and preserve communities that provide the help that each of us must have in order to achieve this high purpose of spiritual reformation. Christians who enter upon a serious family life together, or those who have joined with others to form prayer groups or neighborhood cells where they support one another in the faith must make special efforts to help one another in this work of transformation by grace. Obviously, anyone who lives in a community in possession of structures and practices that have proved their worth in effecting this remaking of the inner person is highly privileged and has much to thank God for. In addition, living in a situation where all are sincerely engaged in seeking God is a constant support to continue in pursuing this goal. There remains, to be sure, the constant daily challenge of making personal use of the means at hand. No task depends so much on our personal initiative and effort. St. Bernard was keenly aware of this and so encouraged his monks, by way of concluding a sermon for the Ascension, in the following terms that each of us might take to heart.For this reason, my beloved brothers, persevere in the discipline that you have undertaken so that by means of humility you may ascend to the heights. For this is the way there and there is no other (In Ascensione Domini Sermo II.6 PL 183: 304).
A most efficacious way of making progress in humility is to take to heart the criticisms that our brothers or superiors make to us. Every person is vulnerable in some area or other; each of us has certain defects we are unaware of as well as faults that we are conscious of. One of the major contributions to understanding the deeper levels of human psychological structures was made by Carl Jung in his observations on the shadow archetype. Everyone in the course of development fashions a negative self characterized by those qualities that are most objectionable to the ideal self. To the extent we identify with the values of the ideal and assimilate them we become integrated in our conscious behavior. This integration is achieved in good part by suppressing those tendencies which oppose the values we so laboriously assimilate. Some of this suppression is quite deliberately achieved by virtue of determined choices. A good deal of it though is held in check by feelings of fear, shame, and guilt that is so intense that we defend ourselves against experiencing it consciously. Since it is not dealt with, it remains active within us at a deep level. While it remains unrecognized, yet it influences us when activated by certain circumstances. Others with a certain healthy sense of reality may perceive them for what they are while we remain unaware of their influence. Thus it happens that those who live with us at times observe that we are overreacting, or that we are failing to react appropriately to others through insensitivity whereas we seem to be justified in our own conscience. This is the mechanism that largely explains what Psalm 51 refers to as "secret sins", that is sins I commit without being aware of. While we may not be guilty in God's sight for such defects of behavior, yet we do have responsibility for seeking to understand better their source and correcting them. This work is referred to by Jung as integrating the shadow.
When others bring them to our attention, even with friendly intent, it can be threatening to us precisely because we abhor precisely such behavior. When we are criticized by those whom we find exasperating or offensive it is all the more difficult to try to see what truth there is in their strictures. If we managed to see such instances as a major opportunity for spiritual growth, they can become the occasion of much profit. Such occurrences are inevitable in community life, and represent one of its chief advantages from the perspective of spiritual advancement. They offer occasions for us to gain badly needed insight into our own heart whereby we can further this process of inner transformation
Such encounters, however, can also prove to be among the chief stumbling blocks to community living precisely because they affect us where we are most vulnerable and least aware of our character. Only those who submit to this rude and humbling discipline can hope to overcome the deepest, most hidden obstacles to spiritual growth. For me to profit from them requires that I trust in God's loving mercy and display a courageous determination to face what is least acceptable to me about myself. It is only in meeting such challenges we can complete the great work assigned to us by the Lord in giving us our vocation as his followers. For only those who attain to meekness and purity of heart are capable of fulfilling the commandment to love one another as we are loved by the Lord. It is this noble love we must possess if we would contemplate him, together, eter-nally in all his glory.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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