NOVEMBER 10, 2002

THE PASTOR MUST BE FULL OF SYMPATHY FOR EVERYONE AND BE DEVOTED TO CONTEMPLATION MORE THAN ANYONE. FOR HE MUST TAKE ON HIMSELF THE WEAKNESS OF OTHERS WITH A HEART FULL OF LOVE AND RISE ABOVE HIMSELF IN LONGING FOR THE INVISIBLE WORLD IN ELEVATED CONTEMPLATION (Gregory the Great, The Pastoral Rule vi.3). Gregory explained further that the person who seriously gives himself over to contemplative prayer could readily be tempted to hold less dedicated people in contempt if he does not cultivate a heartfelt sympathy for their weaknesses. He then adds that the other risk he encounters is that of being so taken up with the tasks involved in coming to the assistance of the weak that he gives up the contemplative life.   

This advice of the Pope, who was surely one of the most effective pastors ever to serve the Catholic Church, was to guide some of the great pastors of the Middle Ages. A copy of his Regula Pastoralis was to be found in practically every monastic and cathedral library of any consequence.   This teaching of Pope Gregory was nowhere better understood and practiced than by men, like Gregory himself, formed as monks and living their pastoral ministry as abbots. Three in particular who come to mind because posterity has preserved the record of their lives and conserved large portions of their extensive writings are Saint Anselm of Canterbury, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and St. Aelred of Rievaulx.  

Each of these monks became an outstanding example of a prelate who displayed exceptional sympathy for others while remaining more dedicated to contemplation than others among contemporaries. All three men lived out their pastoral ministry while they followed the Rule of St. Benedict. St. Anselm eventually became the Archbishop of Canterbury, but this did not cause him to alter his spirituality; rather his elevation served to enlarge the scope of his pastoral ministry. He was concerned to maintain and improve the quality of life in all the monastic communities of England for he was persuaded that the spiritual well being of the English Church was largely dependent upon monasteries. He remained a monk to the end of his days, not only in spirit but, with relatively superficial modifications required by his office, also in his way of life. He chose as advisors and companions monks. Furthermore, as Archbishop he considered his primary duty to serve as superior of the Benedictine community of Christ Church, Canterbury.    

That Anselm adhered to the program traced out by Pope Gregory has been convincingly demonstrated by Professor Richard Southern (cf.  ‘Saint Anselm: A Portrait In A Landscape’, Cambridge University Press 1990, 235).  Gregory’s works were prominently among the manuscripts copied both at Citeaux and Clairvaux and his teaching was particularly influential in the formation of the Abbot of Clairvaux. As Pope Gregory was the instigator of the monastic community that successfully undertook the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons he remained prominently present in the memory of the English church. His writings were well known to Abbot Aelred and were held in high esteem. Thus Gregory‘s influence served to reinforce the various other reasons why in the teaching as well in the life of each of these abbots ready sympathy and the friendships arising from it played a more prominent role than was the case in other presentations of monastic spirituality. The spontaneous sympathy that marked their dealings with others and their concern to cultivate friendship were at once the fruit of their prayer and a strong stimulus to fidelity to their contemplative dedication. 

That remained true throughout their lives. The same charity that intensified their desire for union with God and so sustained their contemplation was the soul of their relations with others, including their closest friends. The same can be affirmed of St. Aelred, as is evident from his extensive writings on friendship and its place in the life of one who truly seeks God. The concept of friendship that animated their dealings with those closest to them and which they described in their writings, was certainly an austere one. Though a superficial reading may suggest otherwise, there was nothing sentimental attaching to their concept of friendship or their relations with their close friends.  

Any spirituality that gives prominence to cultivating sympathetic relations with others is, in a considerable measure, humanistic. That is to say, it makes considerable room for the development and expression of wholesome relationships with others. Such dealings meant that they took into account the gifts and the needs of those they treated with, giving them the space and freedom needed to live out their own particular talents as well as assisting them in their deficiencies and weaknesses. At the same time, the focus of their lives was conformity to Christ and through him a continuous union with the will of the Father. This search for God involved a readiness for self-denial and an unyielding commitment to truth and reality, whether painful or gratifying.          

St. Anselm employed some of the most frankly passionate expressions in his letters to friends that could readily lead the reader to mistake the true meaning and significance of his affection. The letter he wrote to two young relatives of his who had made a long trip to see him about joining his community at Bec illustrates well how necessary it is to read him carefully and in context rightly to grasp his message.  

Already my eyes desire, most dearly beloved, desire to see your faces; already my arms stretch out to take you in their embrace . . . O, how my love burns within my heart; how all my affection strives to break out at once! How it seeks to express itself in words but no words suffice; how much it wants to disclose itself, but neither time nor parchment can contain it. O, speak to their hearts, good Jesus; without you no voice can prevail on their ears. Tell them to give up everything and follow you. [‘The Letter of Saint Anselm of Canterbury’ vol. 1, tr. Walter Froelich  (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1990) 284, 286.]  

As Professor Southern has so thoroughly demonstrated, Anselm made friendship an integral element of his theology. The highly affective sentiments expressed in the above letter were written to two persons he had probably never met in person. The ardor he gives vent to is not passion but spiritual; it is a union based on convictions of the mind. The seemingly intimate expressions of affection were intended by the author to be read by a numerous audience, as were his letters as a whole. Southern states the matter succinctly: ‘His friendships, like his theological insights, are intellectual realities, passionately conceived and vividly expressed.’ (Southern, 158) That does not mean his sympathy was less real, for reality in his experience, was in principle not the material outward presence of individuals but the spiritual essences. He was at the same time filled with a ready sympathy for others and totally dedicated to contemplation. His biographer makes it clear that people who came into contact with him continued to respond to the charm of his personality, though, naturally with age and painful experience, a certain subduing of enthusiasm of expression is noticeable in his letters. His last letter to the community of Bec as he was about to depart for Canterbury in his function as primate of England reveals his priorities as he wishes them to be remembered. 

In this my final petition, I call on you all not to allow the sweetness of your love toward me to grow cool. For even if I can no longer be present with you in body, I will never cease to remain with you in the love of my heart…. Never think you have enough friends. Bind everyone, both rich and poor, to you in loving fraternity, for the good of your church and the salvation of those whom you love. (Ep. 165, cited in Southern, 160)

* & *

That the values of sympathy and contemplative prayer stressed by Pope Gregory were fundamental in the life and teaching of St. Bernard of Clairvaux is abundantly evident from his manner of life as well as from his explicit teaching. Already in his earliest published book, Bernard sets forth in a well thought out system his view of the spiritual life. While he takes up themes already found in the monastic tradition, he develops the topics he treats in a distinctive manner. St. Benedict followed in the steps of Cassian and of the Master in presenting the steps of humility as central to the spiritual life. But none of these authors had attempted to indicate the dynamic progress of these stages, or their function relation to one another. Their depiction is strictly descriptive. 

St. Bernard’s originality displays itself in his concern to demonstrate his teaching by a careful analysis of inner states of soul and their transformations. He reveals the process y means of which a transformation is effected. His original presentation consists in detailed descriptions of the various stages that are logically and temporally successive. The second stage depends on an adequate working through of the first and earliest period of he spiritual life. Until one has confronted in depth the dispositions, memories, passions, ideas and values which make up his present state, he cannot consistently be sympathetic and loving to others. Thus insight into the depths and honest admission of his misery as well as acceptance of his potential for growth in the spirit are essential in Bernard’s manner of conceiving the spiritual life.   

Only when a great deal of effort has been expended in such confrontation with what is defective in us are we able to take fuller responsibility for our character and identity. Until we know our self in truth, having felt the realities within, we can hardly advance from the bitter sorrow for sin experienced at the early stage of conversion to the heights of contemplative rapture that brings about a profound, if limited, knowledge of the Blessed Trinity.  It is this dynamic conception of the deeper levels of the soul in its advance to God that makes of this teaching so practically helpful still today. In light of recent depth psychology it is much easier to recognize the value of this approach to inner growth and spiritual maturity. Karl Jung, in recent times, has pointed to the need for everyone who is to achieve an integral personality to undertake a task very similar to that described by Bernard. He refers to it as this negative self as the shadow. The alternative to this honest  confrontation with the negative self is neurosis of greater or lesser degree. Stagnation is one of the spiritual effects of such failure. Others Bernard himself describes in the second half of this work which he calls “The Steps of Pride’.   

In matters of a practical nature the goal one has in mind is decisive for choosing appropriate means to attain one’s purpose, Bernard shrewdly observes. In this affair of spiritual progress the reward sought is nothing less than our Lord himself who is truth and life. Supplying the motive force necessary for this climb from the depths to the stage where contemplation becomes possible and truth appears in all its demanding purity is charity.  ‘What is this refreshment which Truth promises to those who climb and gives when they gain the top?’ Is it perhaps love itself?’ The Abbot of Clairvaux then describes this spiritual trajectory in a brief compass with the following lines:  

Yes, the path of humility is a good path. It seeks, o for truth; it wins charity; it shares the fruits of wisdom. Just as the end of the Law is Christ, so the perfection of humility is the knowledge of truth. When Christ came he brought grace; when truth is known it brings love. It is to the humble it is known. [‘The Steps of Humility and Pride’ II.5, tr. M. Ambrose Conway, ocso, Cistercian Fathers Series 13 (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1974) 34.] 

This stress on the necessity of working one’s way to objective demands of the truth brought by Christ, however painful it proves to be, remains as valid a directive as ever it was. The more experience we gain of the spiritual life the more convincing is this pathway that Bernard traces out.  Anyone with prolonged experience in counseling and spiritual direction can attest to the fact that failure to seek out the deeper causes of our passions and of our bad habits is the commonest obstacle to spirit and psychological progress. The vocabulary of modern psychology has changed but not the reality to be dealt with. What St. Bernard designates as truth, is today called reality, or in other contexts, the empirical self. Taking responsibility for the inconsistencies of our moral life, acknowledging our inner conflicts and their harmful influence on our behavior are included in the task that our twelfth century author refers to in writing that ‘we look for truth in ourselves when we judge ourselves’.  

He is keenly conscious of the fact that this is but a first stage on the ascent to the fullness of truth and so the true life intended for us by Christ. We must also seek the truth in our neighbor in order to go beyond self and rise to the level of charity. We discover this truth ‘in our neighbor when we have sympathy for their sufferings’, he writes. This is a key insight that Bernard develops at some length in our to indicate the manner in which mercy contributes an essential element without which there can be no entry into that realm where truth manifests itself to us in all its beauty and majesty in the person of the living God. 

The merciful quickly grasp the truth in their neighbors when their heart goes out to them with a love that unites them so closely that they feel the neighbors’ good and ill as if it were their own. . . . Their hearts are made more clear-sighted by love and they experience the delight of contemplating truth, not now in others but in itself, and for love of it they bear their neighbors’ sorrows. (Steps, III.6) 

As desirable as the cultivation of this mercy is in that it is a condition for attaining to the measure of truth that matches our capacity for life, it can be successfully undertaken only by those who meet an essential condition. Bernard expresses it in these words. ‘You will never have real mercy for the failings of another until you know and realize that you have the same failings in your own soul. Our Savior has given us the example. He willed to suffer so that he might know compassion.’ (Hebrews 2:17) 

What the abbot effects in these lines and in other passages of this work, is to demonstrate in concrete detail a program for realizing the injunction of earlier Fathers, such as Saints Augustine and Basil, to gain effective self knowledge in order to make progress in the service and love of God.  He has come to grasp not only the way that leads to truth and eternal beauty but the specific transformations of the dispositions of the inner man that enable him to be united intimately with the Blessed Trinity. He summarizes his description of the stages of this inner development and its corresponding progression in the relations with the three persons of the Blessed Trinity. 

Charity is a gift of the Holy Spirit. By it those who under the instruction of the Son were led to the first step of truth through humility, now under the guidance of the Holy Spirit reach the second state through compassion for their neighbor…. The Father will make known the truth to the sons… By word and example the Son first teaches men humility; then the Spirit pours out his charity upon those whom the Father receives finally into glory … the one Truth who works at all these stages: in the first teaching as a Master, in the second consoling as a Friend and Brother, in the third embracing as a Father. ( Steps VII.20) 

The teaching of the abbot of Clairvaux is a program for the spiritual life that is suited eminently for a whole lifetime dedicated to contemplation in a monastic community.  All the monks, not only novices and juniors, remain in formation throughout life as they pursue this high purpose which alone is worthy of the human person. This way of life does not demand that those who enroll in its training course be especially endowed with innocence or superior gifts of nature. The monk, like every other person, is a sinner who suffers from the defects of his past, both psychological and spiritual. He can expect to go through periods of severe testing due to the inevitable confrontation with his selfish passions and bad habits. This is the crucial period that separates from the broad ways of the world those who take up the cross and follow Christ through the passion to the new life that is a gift of the Spirit. The person who perseveres in this inner work of the heart learns by experience what suffering inevitably results from the alienation from God and man that is caused by sin. He also discovers as he persists in fidelity in his efforts to see himself in the light of God’s holiness, what an abyss is hidden within his heart. Areas of misery he had not suspected or known only abstractly take on concrete outlines and he begins to fashion a fresh sense of his own person. He now sees and feels what it means to need salvation and to be totally dependent on receiving what he needs by the sheer goodness of God and of neighbor.  It was St. Bernard’s genius to recognize that the key to true humility is the honest and wholesome willingness to see one’s self in the light of truth. In undertaking this work himself he was able with God’s grace, to realize the program traced out by St. Gregory when he wrote: THE PASTOR MUST BE FULL OF SYMPATHY FOR EVERYONE AND BE DEVOTED TO CONTEMPLATION MORE THAN ANYONE.  Bernard showed that this applies not only to pastors but to all who seek God. May he obtain for us the grace to pursue this path and so to follow Christ to the presence of the Father in glory.&

 Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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