MAY 12, 2002, SUNDAY AFTER THE ASCENSION- CHAPTER 

I WILL PREPARE A PLACE FOR YOU AND AGAIN I SHALL COME AND TAKE YOU TO MYSELF (John 14: 3).  These days between the Ascension of our Lord and Pentecost invite us to enter more deeply into the depths of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity and its bearing on our own lives today. For if Jesus speaks the words I have just cited to his apostles who were in the dark about their future and surrounded by hostile and powerful enemies, it was to give them assurance. But not only to them; he assures all of us who later were to listen to his apostles and their successors and put our faith in him. He states this explicitly later in this same discourse on the night before his death. ‘I do not ask for these alone, but also for those who are going to believe in me through their word’, are words addressed to the Father on our behalf. The fact is that Jesus has gone ahead of us into that eternal presence that endures without end or change. His role at the right hand of the Father remains for all time what it was from the first moment of his glorification: to intercede for us and to prepare a place for us all so that we might find a welcome in the Father’s house when he comes to claim us at the end. 

Jesus is our mediator as he was mediator for his chosen disciples; but he is more: he is also our friend as he was theirs. He made this clear also at the Last Supper in addressing himself to his closest disciples shortly before he was to depart from them in his mortal body. ‘I will no longer call you servants, but friends (John 15: 15). He renews his expression of friendship at every Eucharist when he unites himself to us as well as offers himself for us. Death no longer has its negative meaning once we become friends of the Lord. Rather it is a reunion with a loved one. Any one who has confronted death in a concrete, threatening situation experiences a depth of solitude that makes evident how even the firmest bonds of human love are dissolved by death unless they are anchored in the transcendent love of our Savior. No matter how pure, how intense and selfless our love for another we cannot accompany that person in death except through the grace-filled life of the Spirit of the Lord. A mother cannot save her child however willing she may be to substitute herself were that possible in order to deliver it from the sickness that threatens its life. As obvious as this truth is yet it remains of such a nature that only one who has experienced the threat of the permanent loss that is death actually knows its bitter reality. The Psalmist was keenly aware of this truth:

Truly no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice that one should live on forever, and never see the grave. . . . Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like beasts that perish. (Ps. 49.7-9, 12).

Jesus is our friend by virtue of his word which, once received by faith into our hearts, acts to purify them of falsity that we might be the more worthy vessels of his benevolence. It is his very nature to desire our friendship in return. For, as St. Aelred asserts, ‘Jesus is friendship’ itself. Truly to know him is to experience that mutual love he shares with all who give themselves to him. He renews the expression of his desire for our friendship at every Eucharist when he unites himself to us as well as offers himself on our behalf.  As a result death is emptied of its essentially negative meaning. There is still the pain of temporary absence from those we love in this world but it is swallowed up by the living hope of a glorious reunion after a short while. In this way, death loses its sting; it is conquered by the love of Christ. It is experienced rather as a reunion with a loved one in whom we shall recover all the loves that have remained faithful to him.

Friendship, then, is the secret of life that is stronger than death. But, of course, it must be the kind of friendship that Jesus taught and which he offers to those who put their faith and hope in him. Understood in this way, there is no more important topic to which we might give our consideration than that of cultivating true friendship with our Savior. When our Lord himself spoke of friendship with his disciples he significantly defined it in terms of knowledge. ‘I have termed you friends because all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you (John 15: 15).’ Since Jesus heard his Father in profound prayer, what he shared with his followers that constituted them his intimates was the fruit of his contemplation. According to Jesus, then, the basis of intimacy with him in a transcendent association is communing in the personal knowledge of the Father obtained through contemplative prayer.

The truth is that the one activity that we shall be engaged in for all eternity, whatever form it assumes, that we can already practice here in time is prayerful and loving contemplation of God. There are, to be sure, various degrees of this prayer, some more profound than others. Some persons are more suited by nature to receive and respond to the grace of special kinds of insight into the divine mysteries; others, less endowed with such powers of inner concentration and spiritual sensitivity, may, nonetheless, be equally united with God in faith and love. It is commonly the case that such persons are less conscious of this hidden but very concrete knowledge of God and his mysteries. Karl Rahner refers to such people as mystics of everyday life.  St. Teresa of Avila, in the last pages of The Interior Castle also comments on those religious who, having received the kinds of graces she has just finished describing in her work on mysticism, then pass through periods when these favors disappear.  She reassures them in words that apply also to those who receive no such gifts of infused contemplation but who remain faithful and obedient to God. She states her view in the following terms.

Do you know what it is to be truly spiritual? It is for men to make themselves the slaves of God- branded with his mark which is the cross. . . . for humility is the foundation of the whole building and unless you are truly humble, our Lord, for your own sake, will never permit you to rear it very high lest it should fall to the ground (The Interior Castle, Seventh Mansion, ch. 4. tr.  A benedictine of Stanbrook, (London: 1930) 256, 257).

In other words, whether we are favored with a special grace of prayer so as to experience consciously insight into the divine mysteries or not, we can become friends of our Lord through the experience of his cross. By such suffering we learn the humility that allows us to know him in his suffering and death. None of us is excluded from the search for union with God and from the firm hope of attaining to his friendship through becoming like him above all by love and humility. These together are a form of knowledge that reveal to us something of the secrets of the mysteries hidden in Christ from all eternity and revealed to us in our times as they were in former times. It is such practical knowledge, not merely that which can be articulated in words and systems of thought, that makes one a friend of the Lord Jesus.

The Fathers of Church as well as St. Paul were in full agreement with this teaching of the Savior and sought to inculcate it in the faithful. The most practical and influential and at the same time most profound, among the Western fathers, St. Augustine of Hippo, articulated his views on these matters with typically insistent reasoning, expressed in that cadenced Latin of which he possessed the secret.

‘He who receives my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me’ (John 14: 21).He who has them in his  memory, and keeps them in life; who has them in his words and keeps them in his morals; who has them through the ears and keeps them in his deeds; the one who has them in his deeds and maintains them by perseverance, he is the one who loves me. (Tractados sobre el Evangelio de San Juan (36-124), ed. V. Rabanal, OSA, [BAC, Madrid: 1965],344)

We who have been formed in modern times do not find it easy to conceive of love in terms of obedience, any more than we grasp the fundamental role of humility of heart as alone providing the perspective essential for attaining to the knowledge of God which is life giving. It is a major task of the contemplative way of life to occupy itself with these matters and appropriate them in view of achieving its goal of friendship and union with the Lord.  But with God’s grace and fidelity to our Rule and traditions we can learn this truth which has never been an easy one at any period of history for human nature to assimilate. Since these dispositions of mind and heart are learned by practice as well as by meditation and hearing, it is incumbent upon us all to see that we not only hold them in our memory and in our words but in our deeds.

We, as members of a community and an Order that is international, have also the responsibility to learn to communicate them adequately, each of us in keeping with his particular position and capacity. The Statute on Formation speaks of this duty and points out its significance in the formative process that is ongoing throughout life. The pertinent text reads as follows.

11. All who live in the community share respsonsibility for its unity, its dynamic fidelity to the Cistercian charism, and its capacity to provide all its members with the conditions needed for the human and spiritual growth that leads to the fulness of love.  

12. A community’s ability to form new members depends largely on its having a unified spirit so that it can impart a single orientation to the upcoming generations. Where unity is lacking difficulties are created for those entrusted with the task of formation.

As this same document points out later in the text the members of the community are to foster a climate ‘where mutual trust and fraternal support aid conversion of life’.(13). This teaching is in harmony with the doctrine and practice of St. Bernard who stressed so insistently the great influence for the contemplative life of the climate of fraternity and of  fervent dedication to lectio, prayer, silence and manual labor. He speaks with enthusiasm in a passage I cited not long ago. Like all ideals that are set up as beacons to guide our steps in daily life, it must be envisaged repeatedly if we are to follow its guidance. 

The cloister is truly a paradise, a region defended by the palisade of discipline in which there are a great number of goods. A glorious thing it is for ‘men of the same customs to dwell together in a single house’ (Ps. 67.7). It is good and happy that brothers live together. You see one who mourns his sins, another who burns with charity, another progressing in humility. . . another who works in activity, another who reposes in contemplation. (Obras de San Bernardo I., Sermones Varios, 42.4, [Madrid: 1953] 1055). 

There is an analogy between the effect of such unity on love of which St. Bernard sings the praises and the effect of so directing the rays of light through a polarizing substance as to unify them all in the same direction thus forming a lazer ray. Such light takes on increased force by virtue of the unity of direction that characterizes it so that it can be used to burn through metal or even as a deadly explosive force. As our Lord knew so well from the unity he experienced with the Father, when men are united in obedience and collaborate in creating a community that agrees in maintaining a way of life ordered to God, then bonds of friendship that are not severed by death itself are formed. To establish such a community is the reason we have all come here together; through carrying out this task we shall become friends of the Lord and be joined forever in singing his praises.  

 Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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