August 25, 2014

Carry One Another's Burdens

Rule of Benedict Rule Reflection
M. Rebecca

Who will dwell in his tent and rest on his holy mountain?  Benedict’s answer comes from Ps 14 which is our next verses…Vs 25-27: “He says, ‘The one who enters without stain and practice righteousness.  The one who speaks truth in the heart and does not commit deceit with the tongue.  The one who does no evil to a neighbor or allows dishonor against a neighbor.’”

Therodoret of Cyrus in his commentary on Psalm 14 (which is where this verse comes from) points out that there is an order to these directives.  Speak first the truth in the heart, then with the tongue, and then in actions.  All righteousness begins in the heart and so striving for purity of heart is necessary in our seeking goodness.  He says the place to begin is the heart but it cannot stop there, in desire and longing, but must be brought to completion by concrete acts towards our neighbor.   Who could be a better model of this than Our Blessed Mother?  Mary was a woman “w/o stain and who practiced righteousness, speaking truth in the heart”.   We will celebrate in 2 days her Assumption into heaven.  She maintained a purity of heart by pondering on the Word in lectio and allowing it to soak into her heart.  Here is our model. 

Something from our Vigil reading last month for Blessed Joseph Cassant has stayed with me.  It said that in order to help people grow in holiness and their love of God we should promote each other’s strengths and not attack their weaknesses…to build up goodness rather than tear out faults.  This gentleness grows from an understanding of our own weaknesses and strengths as well as a deep experience of God’s loving mercy in our lives.

Isaac of Stella in his 31st sermon explains it well and so I will let him speak:  “Why my brethren, are we so little concerned with finding opportunities to advance each other’s salvation, responding to greater need with greater help and bearing each other’s burdens? This is what St Paul advised:  ‘Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ’ – or, again, ‘forbearing each other in love’. For that is most definitely the law of Christ”.

Isaac continues, “When I notice something wrong in my brother (or sister) that cannot be corrected – either because it is inevitable or because it comes from some weakness of his in body or character – why do I not bear it patiently and offer my willing sympathy?    Could it be because there is a lack in me, a lack of that which bears all things and is patient enough to take up the burden…is it rather a lack of the will to love?” {This lack of love in me should be the focal point rather than my sisters faults!}

He goes on to say, “This is what the law of Christ is like, of Christ who bore our grief in His passion and carried our sorrows in His compassion {}, loving those whom He carried and carrying those whom He loved…”   So like Mary, let us have such vulnerability and humility so as to show compassion and gentleness to each other.  Let us not attack each other’s faults but rather bear each other’s weaknesses in kindness and love following not only this “most definite law of Christ” but also Christ’s example.  Let us encourage others in their strengths, leading each other along the road to salvation, to Christ, to’ his holy mountain’…for we go this road together.

Let us take up the challenge St Benedict proposes of purifying our hearts so we speak with gentleness, pardoning the sin and always loving the sinner.  Christ carries our weakness so let us carry each other’s in like manner.  Today let us consciously practice with attention and mindfulness this gentleness in our hearts, in our speech, and in our actions.

August 24, 2014

Who is Jesus? Who Am I?

                                                                                                                                          M. Rebecca

                                                                                                                                                                                             Mt 16:13-20
            I read somewhere that the two most important questions Jesus asks us are “Who do you say I am?” and “Do you love me?”  Both these questions were asked of Peter and they are asked of each of us today.  How we answer these two questions becomes the foundation from which we build our whole life.  How I answer will determine how I live, who I am, and what I can become.   Or to use our Cistercian Father’s vocabulary:  it will determine my capacity for God, my participation in God, and my potential for God’s likeness.  In the first question Jesus is inviting us to know Him and in the second question He is inviting us to love Him…it is about knowledge and love. It is about mind and heart.

            William of St Thierry teaches us that these two questions are really one – they are inseparable when it comes to Christ.   He repeats throughout his works that:  to know God is to love Him and to love God is to know Him.  Love and reason are seen as the eyes of the soul.  To fully participate in God we cannot walk with a patch over one eye or be myopic!   W/o love, reason moves towards pride; w/o reason love is only fluctuating emotions and unstable devotion.  Obviously we cannot love what we don’t know and if we love what is false then it is a kind of idolatry.  William says it well:  “Reason instructs love and love enlightens reason” – they cannot be separated if we are to have clear vision.  From this we can conclude that if our images, ideas, and concepts of God do not bring us to love Him more, than they are not of Truth for the more we know God the more we love Him. 

            I think the same thing can be said about ourselves as we ask the question, “Who am I”?  If our images, ideas, and concepts of our self do not bring us to love our self more (and I mean love in a healthy, positive way), than we are not seeing our “true self” - for we are not seeing our self in God.   So why is this important?  Basil Pennington wrote that to live from the false self is “to exist” but to live from our true self is to ‘be alive’.  We want to live from our true center where the divine comes alive - so much so that we can say “the life I live is not my own but Christ living in me”!  It is not enough to know this but it has to be actualized.  How is this done?  I think we got a good answer and analogy from our reading this past week in Ezekiel.  He is in a valley of dry bones but once the Word of God is heard, the Spirit of Truth and Love awaken the bones.  They come “alive”.  Our lectio divina, spiritual reading, listening to the Word make us alive in truth and love – in the Spirit.  Again, it is when knowledge and love are one!  It is when our experiences of love are recognized or inseparable with knowing God.  Self-realization, then, is less an awareness of our self than it is an awareness of God.  The question “who am I?” and Jesus’ “Who do you say I am?” become one!  We fully realize our self when we cease to be conscious of ourselves as separate from God.

            This can all seem so dense, hard to grasp in day to day living, so here are some more concrete questions to help us unravel a tiny piece of this mystery.  When I experience love do I associate it as God revealing HIS love to me?  When I show charity to another do I recognize it as GOD’S love moving within me?   To recognize our true self, in the divine image, is to recognize the fact that we are known and loved by God.  It is subtle but even in the monastery I can still cling to a false self - by what I have (such as a position), by what I do, by what others think of me, by what I want others to think of me, the list goes on... We see how the ego can bind us to slavery.

            As we heard in the Vigil reading this week from St Bernard:  Love’s natural tendency is to return to its source.  Sin re-channels this flow to focus on other things or self.  This is why when we focus on ourselves or externals, we are unhappy deep inside even if surrounded by ‘that ole fame and fortune’.  It is also why people who live poorly and in want can still be joyful.   

            In the gospel today, Peter is learning to know Christ and we know in the verses after this gospel interchange, he still doesn’t have it right yet.  The vision is muddled by Peter’s own concepts, images and ideas.  But by the end of John’s gospel, the question is not “Who do you say I am?” but “Do you love me?  As Peter gains more knowledge, his love grows.  We know how the stories ends - Peter will die on a cross for Christ, his love is so great.  Knowing and loving God became inseparable; however, it was a life-time process.  A good question to ask our self today is “am I growing in my love for Christ?”  If not, am I spending my time in prayer and spiritual reading to further my knowing of Jesus?  Am I trying to know Christ in my daily experiences and interactions?  Am I trying to grow in love by going the extra mile in charity for my sisters?  Am I mindful of opportunities to be charity to those around me?

            I will end with the second half of today’s gospel reading.  Peter is told:  “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”   One of the themes we talked about for our Jubilee year was the unbinding or “loosening” from slavery.  We spoke of our desire this year to let go of those things that bind our self and that we use to bind others.  Stereotyping is a way we can bind others but we can also stereotype our self, limiting our vow of conversion, and thus binding our own potentials.  Loosening or unbinding from slavery requires mercy and forgiveness.   How appropriate that in Leviticus it says that the Jubilee begins on the Day of Atonement (10th day of the 7 month).   It is also interesting that the words “amnesia” and “amnesty” come from the same root word!   If we want to give a person freedom we need to let go of the offense or debt but also to have “amnesia” in a way – to forgive and forget.   Jubilee is a time of renouncing – letting go both of things we acquired and debts incurred.  This takes trust but through both we gain liberty.  It is a time to renounce wounds and hurts of the past…a lack of forgiveness is another form of enslaving our self – binding what should be loosened! 

            So what needs “loosening”?  Who do I need to forgive?...Whose debts to release?  Let us forgive and letting go of things that drag us or others down – let us make mercy the rock on which our church and community are built!  If so “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” but rather we will have found “the keys to the kingdom of heaven!”

August 20, 2014

Feast of St. Bernard

                                                                                                                        Sr. Kathleen

Normally I don’t start chapter talks with something on “why I chose this topic” but this time I do need to say something. On the feast of SS Peter and Paul Grace tied her reflection on the two great apostles to the theme of the year of faith, and it occurred to me that it might be nice to do the same with Bernard. Of course, “St Bernard on faith” is a huge topic (though probably small in comparison with “St Paul on faith”), so I will limit this talk to just two elements. The first is a look at one of his sermons in which faith is a major theme - Sermon 28 on the Song; and second, Bernard as an example and inspirer of faith.

Sermon 28 is the last of Bernard’s 4 sermons commenting on the 4th verse of chapter 1 of the Song (so note, it took him 24 sermons to get through the title and the first 3 verses of the Song). The text Bernard is commenting on here is “I am black but beautiful”. It was understood even in antiquity that this verse is being spoken by the Bride, and that’s how Bernard treats it in Sermons 25-27. He starts sermon 28 in the same vein, but very soon does a remarkable twist and the next thing you know it’s no longer the Bride but the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, he’s describing as “black but beautiful,” and then we get a whole sermon devoted to the difference between what’s visible on the exterior, perceived by the senses, and what is the deeper reality, perceived by faith.

Basically, St Bernard interprets “black” to mean the absence of light, that is, the absence of the manifestation of divine glory, and so “black” stands in for the humanity of Christ. And particularly, for that humanity at the point when the divine glory is most dimmed to human sight, namely, on the cross. This is the supreme point where Jesus may be described as “black but beautiful.” Precisely because death by crucifixion is so ignominious, because Jesus was an object not only of abuse but also of scorn, because the cross is the point of supreme shame, this is the moment when the divine glory is most deeply concealed. And yet, as we know, it’s also the point at which, to those who believe, the divine glory is most superbly revealed.

So how is it that we are able to perceive the true beauty and glory of Jesus when he is visually unpleasant, even repulsive to look at? Bernard naturally looks to Scripture for a solution to this riddle, and he notices that the centurion at the cross, who had never seen Jesus before and meets him only when he is no photo-op, makes a declaration of faith, “Surely this was God’s Son.” What leads him to this act of faith? Well, we need to look carefully at the text. The centurion “saw that he thus cried out and breathed his last” – this is what prompts his confession. So Bernard concludes that somehow the sound of Jesus’ voice is what penetrated this man’s heart and gave him faith: “It was the sound of his voice that inspired his belief, it was by the voice that he recognized the Son of God, and not by the face…The hearing succeeded where the sight failed. Appearances deceived the eye, but truth poured itself into the ear…to the ear the Son of God revealed himself, to the ear he made his beauty known.”

Faith is certainly a way of seeing, a way of knowing, as Bernard will make plain in numerous places; but it is only a partial way of seeing, to prepare us for the full vision. And of course he rolls out St Paul’s famous word to the Romans, “Faith comes by hearing.” This is Bernard’s basic conception of faith. It comes to us by hearing, and especially by hearing the Word of God; and then by obeying what we hear, which is really part of hearing.

Bernard sees a congruence between the loss and the recovery of our ability to see God. We lost this ability also by hearing – that is, by heeding the voice of the evil serpent. So our return to God must be by the same route, that is, by inner hearing and following. We all long to see God, that is, to have the full knowledge and revelation of the love and majesty of Jesus Christ that we were created for. The preparation for this seeing, Bernard says, is hearing. “How I wish the Lord would open my ear, that the word of his truth would enter into my heart, cleanse my eye and make it ready for that joyful vision…That even I, along with his other obedient followers, should hear from God: ‘You are clean by the word which I have spoken to you.’ Not all who hear are cleansed, but only those who obey, the blessed ones are those who both hear and keep the word. This is the hearing he asks for…and this is the response that such a person makes: ‘Let me hear what God the Lord will speak within me.’” Apparently the version of Ps 84 known to Bernard translates the line we know as “I will hear what the Lord God has to say” as “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak within me,” which encapsulates Bernard’s teaching on how we may grow in faith – by listening to the voice of God within, hearing it, and obeying.

How is Bernard himself an exemplar of faith? Where do we see him listening to the Word of God and obeying, and gaining clearer sight from this listening?

One perhaps obvious example in his life is his decision to enter Citeaux. Bernard had lots of ecclesiastical choices in front of him, but he was drawn to this new monastery, one of many following the Rule of St Benedict, one of a number experimenting with ways to live the Rule more fervently, but perhaps distinguished from the rest by the seriousness of its reform enterprise, a clarity of vision regarding dis-entanglement from the worldly structures of the time, and perhaps above all the visionary genius of its third abbot, St Stephen Harding. An inner voice not only told Bernard that this was his way to sanctity, but filled him with conviction that it was the best way available at the time of seriously living the Gospel. This conviction was so strong in Bernard, and he was able to articulate it so well, that its effect on his whole extended family was a powerful movement of conversion among them all.

So, Bernard heard what Jesus was calling him to, and obeyed so whole-heartedly that God did give him a clearer vision, one that he was able over the course of a lifetime to communicate effectively to others. This was possible only because he continued to listen. Another sign of Bernard’s listening is of course his brilliant use of Scripture. To know Scripture very well indeed was not particularly unusual in 12th century monastic circles; but his ability to weave various Scriptures in truly creative ways shows how thoroughly he prayed and assimilated the depths of the Word of God.

One part of Bernard’s biography that has always struck me as somewhat singular was his steadfast refusal to become a bishop. The move from abbot to bishop was not uncommon, and Bernard could easily have made the step. In the 12th century it wouldn’t even have meant abandoning a monastic lifestyle; on the contrary, monks who became bishops were expected to keep to their monastic regime in many respects – far more so than today. So why didn’t Bernard make the move? My own guess is that, above all, it was because he knew it was God’s will for him to remain in the monastery. There were also lots of good reasons: certainly he had plenty of power and prestige just as Bernard of Clairvaux; he was able to do plenty of work for the church all over Europe without being a bishop; perhaps there were even advantages to being part of a universal, rather than diocesan, organization. Maybe, too, as a charismatic figure he mistrusted his own inclinations (if he had them) for the kind of power that would have come with, say, a major ecclesiastical appointment. It’s hard to know, and it’s one of the things I want to ask him when I meet him! But surely, underlying all these, is his utter faith in the Lord Jesus and in his plan for Bernard. And like many saints who clearly hear and obey the Lord regularly, he was quite clear in his own mind that as abbot of Clairvaux he was exactly where God wanted him to be; and he trusted Christ would use him well right there.

But probably Bernard’s most important contribution to the faith of the Christian community was the way God used him to be his voice to the church of his time. When Bernard spoke, people lit up with the fire of the Holy Spirit, were filled with joy and conviction and desire and indeed the grace to change their lives. This means Bernard was not just a gifted orator. There’s an anecdote about two of the great Greek orators, Pericles and Demosthenes. Pericles ruled Athens in its golden age; Demosthenes came on the scene later, when the glory days were passing and the free Greek states were about to be swallowed up by Philip and Alexander of Macedon. The anecdote goes like this: “When Pericles speaks, the people say, ‘how well he speaks!’ But when Demosthenes speaks, the people say ‘Let us march!’”

Like Demosthenes, Bernard got people marching. Yes, he was a consummate artist with words. But far more than that, he reflected on and understood on a profound level the needs and aspirations of his time (which were really the deepest needs and aspirations of all people at all times) – and indeed he shared those aspirations. His voice brought spiritual clarity and purpose and strength to thousands of people, because his heart shared the same desires and his faith understood the roots of these desires and how they found their answer in the love of Jesus.

We thank God for our father and ask his blessings on us, that we too may hear, obey, understand, and love Jesus greatly. We ask his blessing on our Order, that we too may be a great blessing to all whose lives we touch. And ask his blessing above all on the Church in our time, that we too may be so on fire with the Holy Spirit that the world may come to know how all it hopes for and needs is found in Jesus of Nazareth.

August 7, 2014

Feast of the Transfiguration

Rule of Benedict reflection
M. Rebecca
Aug 6:  Vs 23-24: “Let us, however, ask the Lord with the prophet, and say to him: ‘Lord who will dwell in your tent?  Who will find rest on your holy mountain?  After this question, brothers, let us listen to the Lord answering, showing us the road to his tent.”

            Earlier when we commented on these verses we distinguished b/w ‘dwelling in the tent’ and resting on the mountain’:  The ‘tent’ was seen as our temporary dwelling since we are pilgrims on earth and the ‘mountain’ as our permanent, eternal dwelling in heaven.  So when the Lord says he will show us the road to His tent…it seems a mistake.  Shouldn’t it be to His mountain?  That is the road we desire; the road that leads to eternal life! 
            But let’s stick to our original interpretation and recall how our Early Church Fathers also referred to this temporal tent as ‘contemplation’ – the ‘tent of meeting’, of encountering God in this earthly life.  With that understanding, St Benedict is saying the Lord will show us the way to contemplation, to encounter God in this earthly life, not just in heaven but in this life, in this tent.  Jesus’ whole life can show us this way of encountering and dwelling with God.  However, the most profound contemplative or mystical experience mentioned in Scripture is the feast we celebrate today, the Transfiguration. 
            St Mark opens with “Jesus led them up on a high mountain by themselves.”   In a sermon by Anastasius who was a 7th century hermit as well as abbot of St Catherine’s Monastery on Mt Sinai, he comments:  Jesus goes before us to show us the way, both up the mountain and into heaven…let us share in this radiance; let Him renew our spiritual nature and transform us into his own likeness…raising us to heights as yet undreamed of.  He continues: Let us run with confidence and joy to enter the cloud like Moses and Elijah, like James and John.  Let us detach ourselves from creatures and turn to our Creator…let us deny ourselves so our mind and heart can rise to God. 
            So this is the road Jesus shows us.  It is demanding work that takes desire, determination, and discipline.  In Mark’s account, I think it is significant that in the verses prior to this ascent, Jesus tells the apostles “if you wish to come after me, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”   As Anastasius said, it is only when we let go of things and creatures, even our self (!), that we can ascend to our Creator.  So we understand better why the Lord is showing us his tent, to this contemplation on earth…so that we too may receive the grace of transfiguration and transformation. 
            My favorite line in the Transfiguration event is the last line:  “When they had lifted their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus alone.”  This is a wonderful definition of contemplation – not only in the moment of prayer but in its lingering fruits.  As we pick up our tent to move along the way, we begin to see “Jesus alone”.  Everything begins to reveal Jesus Christ.  We begin to realize we cannot judge a day as bad, or prayer, or a person because Jesus is there in all things and events and people.  This is when mysticism begins.  Not when we see dazzling garments, lights, and clouds, but when all we see is “Jesus alone”.  We will be told in a few verses later of the Rule that this seeing is done with the heart!
            In the OT there is another ascent up a mountain to encounter God, Moses on Sinai.  What surprises me in the Exodus story of Moses’ ascent up the mountain that the people don’t want to go up with him.  They are afraid and they tell Moses, you go and tell us what God said…and “they stood afar off”.  They said they were afraid if God spoke to them they would die.  This brings us back to the verses right before the Transfiguration story in Mark’s gospel:  “Whoever desires to save his life will lose it.  But whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”  They did not follow the way to his holy mountain because they were afraid to die!......They were afraid to deny themselves and take up their cross…so they stood afar off!

So here is a question for reflection today:  Is there anything keeping me from following the road Jesus shows us?  Is there something I am afraid to die to?  Is there something that I need to die to?  Is there something that I desire to die to?...for Jesus alone.  Let us listen with the ear of our hearts because He desires to show us the way!