24th Sunday of Year: Chapter

The Holy Cross

MAY I NEVER BOAST EXCEPT IN THE CROSS OF JESUS CHRIST (Galatians 6:14). One of the more ancient feasts of the liturgical year is The Exaltation of the Holy Cross which we celebrate on Tuesday of this week. In the year 325 A.D. the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, at the site of Jesus' resurrection, was dedicated in Jerusalem and the veneration of the cross of Jesus was closely associated with that occasion. The yearly celebration of the Dedication of this Basilic on September 13 and 14 was marked by a particular veneration of the cross. This liturgical linkage arose quite naturally, since the cross, which is a symbol of Jesus' passion and death, and the resurrection condition one another. That was the case in the experience of our Lord during his public ministry for he foresaw his passion and death and was convinced they would be followed shortly by his resurrection. The intrinsic relation of these two events is such that they form a kind of diptych of the Paschal mystery. This is apparent already in each of the four Gospels. The theological implications of each of these mysteries of our Lord are worked out impressively by St. Paul in his epistles it is not too much to affirm that they are the very foundaion of his spirituality. In the course of the Church's subsequent development the texts treating of these two great events proved to be seminal for the Fathers and later spiritual writers.

While St. Benedict does not mention explicitly this feast in his Rule, yet he does speak of the ides of September, which is the 13th of the month, as marking the beginning of the monastic fast. At the feast of the Holy Cross, Benedict also provides for a longer time of reading. [This is stated in the Rule in a rather cryptic manner. We read that "From the Kalends of October" there will be extra time for reading. Though the Kalends of October is the first of that month, yet Fr. Ph. Schmitz translates "From the 14th of September". It was on this date that the Kalends of October are first mentioned in the Roman Martyrology, and that is Benedict's reference point as appears from other places in his Rule]. Not only bodily discipline should know an increase at this season, but greater effort should be made to progress in reading and prayer. This emphasis on reading, lectio divina as Benedict refers to it, is considered by some scholars to be the most characteristic feature of Benedictine spirituality. It certainly is an essential practice for all who follow the Rule, and is meant to contribute directly to meditation and contemplative prayer.

This observance meant a change in the horarium which is accompanied by an subtle alteration of the spiritual tone of the community. More emphasis is given to the works of the inner life and a more focused recollection is facilitated both by the fast and by the season of the year. The fading of nature that is so prominently displayed for men who live in the woods and country-side as autumn deepens into winter is a subtle invitation to meditation on the meaning and end of life. Although Benedict does not explicitly make the association, the fact is that this more penitential and interior focus is taken up in association with the honoring of the Cross of Jesus and all it stands for. Our monastic observance, the Rule notes in the chapter on Lent, should always have a certain Lenten character, but there are seasons when the arrangement of the day serves to sharpen this aspect of the life.

Fasting and the other works of penance are closely associated with the sense of God's holiness which has been offended by sin and neglect. It is also marked by the awareness of the insufficiency of this world. No earthly satisfactions can quench the hunger for spiritual fulfillment; even considered on its own terms sensual gratification shows itself to be as much a source of restlessness as of satisfaction. For one thing it is evanescent; because it passes away in the very act of gratification, and soon becomes only a memory that once again seeks its object. The more a person seeks from the senses the more restlessly do they clamor for stimulus. The body and the psyche become habituated after a time. If ever greater satisfaction is sought so as to overcome the frustrations arising from the incompleteness of the gratification it provides, the individual then becomes addicted, enslaved to the search for a fulfillment that ever escapes the grasp.

Fasting is a way of breaking free from this cycle of dependency and of weakening the power of debilitating habit, avoiding the evil of consequences of self-indulgence. At the same time, it is a deliberate choice of a spiritual good over a sensual pleasure and consequently reinforces a person's commitment to the spiritual world in general and to God's holiness in particular. In so far as it is undertaken with faith in the cross of Jesus it has the further significance of sharing in some measure in the self-denial and obedience of Jesus, above all in his passion and death. This is true of all acts of self-denial and of mortification. In fact, their chief function is to unite us with the passion of Jesus through imitating his example and following his teaching. Thus for the Christian fasting is not only an act of ascesis and discipline, it also contributes to the love and knowledge of our Lord and so partakes of contemplative knowledge of God in Christ.

Early in the history of monasticism fasting, and the other practices of bodily mortification of which fasting is a symbol, took on a prominence that expressed the conviction that to seek God means to deny oneself, take up the cross and follow Christ. The return to God was understood to be a struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil. A strong awareness of how far we are from God due to the effects of sin was characteristic of the first generations of monks, and has never been altogether lost by their successors. The struggle against the passions began with fasting for they considered gluttony to be the first of all the vices to be overcome. Gluttony is an immoderate greed for the satisfactions of food. Since man is so dependent upon nourishment for the continuation of life itself his relation to food is fundamental to his character. How a person conducts himself relative to food influences his way of relating to his world and to people. Unless a person learns moderation in the use of food he will not be able to free himself from the other vices was a conviction widely shared and well founded. They well understood that temperance in food and drink and modesty in speech and in act go hand in hand. As one of the deseert fathers put it: "The one who cannot control his belly will not be able to control his tongue." Without the courage to practice temperance in fact, there could be no justice or reliable prudence in judgment.

The view of monastic lifeas a combat against the passions and the demons who attach us through our disordered desires is reflected in the "Life of Antony", the Father of monasticism. While there is a strong sense of the need for grace and God's help in this work, Athanasius, while providing frequent references to prayes, does not tive any extended description of it, nor does he use the word "contemplation" at all. The same holds true of St. Benedict. While he discusses at length and describes in detail the ways to overcome the vices, for example by obedience and humility, yet he does not enter into any discussion of the inner workings of prayer, nor does he use the word "contemplation." He is content to urge that prayer be pure and from the heart. He does, however, refer the monk to Cassian who treats at length some of the more intricate aspects of contemplative prayer, notably the need to go beyond imagination and images.

Evagrius, whose writings were so influential on Cassian as well as on Byzantine writers, understood gluttony in a broader sense than the craving for excessive quantities of food. He had noted how concern for one's diet can lead a monk to excessive worry about his health and the development of future illnesses. Thus he warns that "the thought of gluttony suggests to the monk that he give up his ascetic efforts in short order." This temptation illustrates how pervasive is one's attitude to food intake in relation to a general concern for the body. His description indicates the way in which the imagination takes over under the influence of fear at the thought of depriving oneself of adequate nourishment."It brings to his mind concern for his stomach, for his liver and spleen, the thought of a long illness, scarcity of the commodities of life and finally of his edematous body and the lack of care by the physicians (cf. The Praktikos Kalamazoo 1970, 17)."

Cassian, in his extensive treatment of the vice of gluttony, displays considerable interest in the more specific question of food intake. He is aware, however, that

As regards the manner of fasting one cannot easily keep a uniform rule because neither the same strength is found in every body nor, as with the other virtues, is it procured by the soul alone (Institutes, V.v PL 49: 209-210).

He goes on to explain that weakness of the flesh does not constitute an obstacle to purity of heart, so long as it does not become a pretext for self indulgence. He is aware though just how easily one can fall into such a fault when there is reason for a certain indulgence. He also realizes that it is not enough to refrain from food; we must eradicate the desire for over- indulgence, as is the case in regard to the other virtues. The soul is the seat of virtue, the body is but the instrument, important as that is.

Already nearly two centuries before Benedict, Origen had developed a theology of the inspired word which had a broad influence in antiquity and has recently regained serious attention of theologians and exegetes. He considered the Scriptures to be much more than a record of past events and of theological reflection. The inspired writings in his view are a sacrament that efficaciously imparts grace to those who use them with faith. That means that they not only speak about God and his revelation in and through Christ, but that they also contain and impart his Word. As Daniel Shin, a Methodist pastor, remarks in an article treating of Origen: "The ultimate goal of the presence of the Logos in Scripture is to bring about a transformation in the person from sin to perfection (cf: ",Some Light from Origen: Scripture as Sacrament", Worship 75 (1999), 408. I follow his ideas here in some detail)." So efficacious is the sacrament of the Scriptures, Origen maintains, that ",even if the mind does not perceive the result of the aid that comes from Scriptures, yet your soul is aided by means of the bare reading itself ",(Homilies on Jeremiah, 22 cited by Shin). The idea here is that even when the literal meaning of the text escapes our understanding, yet reading it with faith is still a source of grace for the Logos acts through the words. Scripture is a form of nourishment that strengthens the soul making it strong and healthy.His sense for the sacramental nature of the Scriptures is fundamentally Catholic and deserves to be cultivated today. As Eugene Kennedy observes:

The sacramental sense is... the great natural treasure of Catholicism. It is the way of met aphor and poetry, of myth, symbol and story, for only through these do we enter the mys tery of religion that pervades life. This sacramental vision that appeals to the imagination is precisely what is at risk in this period in which such a mighty effort is underway to restore to Catholicism a literal religion that appeals to the will instead (America, Septem ber 27, 1999, p. 27).

Origen himself was an experienced and gifted teacher. He knew how differently disposed are the persons who take up the sacred text and that not all were capable of profiting to the same extent from its use. He explained that the Logos accepts that each person has a distinctive capacity and adapts himself to it. The three senses of Scripture represent such an adaptation. Not all can grasp the moral sense or the allegorical, but the literal meaning is more readily apparent to the serious reader. The Word adapts himself to the stage of spirituality in which the reader is situated. He does not expect the beginner, still in need of purification, to discern the deeper senses that a reader more advanced and enlightened by graces received and assimilated is capable of discovering in the same passage of the sacred text.

Karl Rahner took up this question in our own times and came to a position which is in harmony with Origen's teaching. He states that considered theologically and even metaphysically, the sacraments and the word of God are of exactly the same nature in that both have present in them the salvation effected by the incarnation of Christ (cf. Shin, op. cit., 413). In fact, far from being separate, word and sacrament are essentially "phases and moments of the same process (cf. Theological Investigations 4, 279)." The word of God actually communicates what it refers to; God himself comes to us in his word. This self communication of God is contingent upon its being received with faith and love. Just as a word is a symbol of a hidden reality, so too a sacrament is an efficacious word made visible. One of his disciples, Vorgrimmler, goes so far as to maintain that the word is the most dignified of all the sacraments. This would seem to echo Origen's view who wrote in his Commentary on John 6:32: "It is enough if the bread and cup are understood by the simple as being the Eucharist, as the common interpretation has it; but those capable of going deeper should take it of the Word of Truth, who is divinely promised as our food (cf. Shin, op. cit., 6)." The real subject matter of Scripture is a hidden manna; everywhere there is concealed behind the thin veil of the letter the saving mystery of Christ for those who have the faith and ardent love to search it out.

St. Benedict in  Prayer

This food of the spirit is what St. Benedict would have us nourish ourselves with more abundantly during this period of the monastic fast. The whole of monastic observance, including the divine office and manual labor has as its main function the sanctification of each member of the community by means of an inner transformation that is the fruit of both grace and our collaboration with God's purposes. There are appropriate rhythms in the course of life which is a part of the gift of prudence and wisdom to perceive and respond to. A harmony between the spirit and the world that surrounds us with its seasons and cycles of time is the natural condition for man to experience. Benedict's arrangement of the yearly cycle with its seasonal variations enhances our capacity for discerning these requirements of our nature. His horarium assists us to follow through when it is time to give our self more to manual labor, when to reading and study, when to meditation and prayer.

As the transforming process advances in the inner life of the monk, these various activities are increasingly integrated. Reading and study become a mode of prayer when undertaken with the dispositions and perspectives that the Word is present in Scripture with an active force that contributes to the transformation of those who approach it with a loving faith as Origen and Rahner insist. Above all prayer itself becomes a dimension of all the aspects of life as it gains in simplicity. For the Presence of God so affects consciousness that work, study, and even the conversations that we engage in as part of our community life are rather experienced as so many ways of communing in the Spirit. This tendency to simplicity of motive and of consciousness is a fruit of the monastic spirituality handed down to us from St. Benedict by our Cistercian Fathers. May we always prove worthy of their witness and their concern to share with us their descendants the riches they discovered in this way of living out the Gospel. And may we in turn, by daily fidelity to our call, and by an alert effort to respond to the opportunities afforded us by our times and society to incarnate the values we have received share them with those who come to us and with those who will follow after us.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

[abbey crest]

Abbey of the Genesee

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