THERE WAS A SWEET TRANSFUSION OF WORDS BETWEEN THEM, THE DELICIOUS HEAVENLY FOOD(Grégoire le Grand: Dialogues Sources Chr. 260 Paris 1979.) This comment by Pope Gregory the Great was spoken of St. Benedict and his good friend, Abbot Servandus, who used to visit him regularly for spiritual conversation. The author goes on to inform us that such exchanges had the effect of giving them a taste at least of heavenly reality by stimulating their desire.
It was on the occasion of a visit by this friend and after such a conversation that St. Benedict had the famous vision which assures us that he was a true contemplative and mystic. We have heard this account read at Vigils this past week when we celebrated the Feast of Benedict, the Patriarch of Western Monks. It is, in any case, one of the best known of various stories of Benedict's life. This experience was a vision of light, we are told. The venerable abbot arose before vigils to pray during the night in private when
suddenly in the deep hour of the night, a light from above was poured out that banished all the night's darkness. So bright did this light shine amidst the dark, in fact, that it surpassed that of the day. A marvelous thing then happened in this contemplation for, as he later recounted, the whole world, as if brought together in a single ray, was presented before his eyes.
When the deacon Peter, who is the Pope's partner in this Dialogue, expresses his inability to conceive how such a vision is possible, Gregory points out that "for the soul who sees the Creator, all the world is small."
As I pointed out above, this vision and the accompanying explanation is widely known. Its significance has justly been studied and commented upon by a variety of competent scholars. What is less familiar in this story, however, and yet hardly less significant than the vision itself, is the fact that what prepared for this contemplative experience was not a day of solitary recollection and spiritual reading, but a deeply spiritual exchange among like-minded friends. In St. Gregory's words, cited at the beginning of this conference "THERE WAS A SWEET TRANSFUSION OF WORDS BETWEEN THEM, THE DELICIOUS HEAVENLY FOOD."
The language of this statement is striking of set purpose, for Gregory was a master of words. When he says that the conversation between the two abbots represented a SWEET TRANSFUSION OF WORDS BETWEEN THEM, he suggests that their dialogue was more than an exchange of spiritual experiences; it was a communion in the spirit effected through a sympathetic mutual sharing. Words were a vehicle not only of information but especially of communion. Through words uttered in such trusting and ardent openness in some manner the very inner life of the each passed into the other. Just a transfusion of blood results in the assimilation of elements that had been a portion of the body of another into the bloodstream and so the body of the recipient, so also words spoken in such spiritual sympathy and ardor were incorporated into the inner life of the listener. The motive force of such conversations, as the author states explicitly, was the desire to taste heavenly realities.
Pope St. Gregory was aware of the power of words to influence the human spirit and was at pains to assure that the word of God was communicated in such a way as to prepare his audience to open their heart to receive that word. His 35 Books commenting the Book of Job are a monument to his sensitivity to the power of the word to transform the interior dispositions of his readers. He largely succeeded, in fact, for not only was he a powerful influence during his own time but he was a major spiritual teacher for the generations that followed him. The Moralia in Job in their entirety were copied in the scriptorium of early Cîteaux under St. Stephen Harding and illustrated by a highly gifted artist. The concern to assure the presence of this work in the monastery library and the evident care lavished upon the manuscript are so many indications of the honor in which Gregory's teaching was held at the mother house of our Order. So is the fact that Gregory's teaching entered into the mainstream of Cistercian spirituality through the widely read writings of the four prominent abbot authors of the Order.
Words, then, are formative of human character and have a molding influence upon our inner landscape. They channel the direction of our thoughts and direct our aspirations; words give rise to images and desires, they alter our hopes and expectations, they estrange us at times from ideas and the persons who utter them; on other occasions they created bonds that bind us firmly to people for whom we conceive a profound sympathy. This applies to written words that we read alone or hear in the company of others as well as to the words spoken face to face in single, intimate conversation or in more public discourse.
Monks have, from earliest times, had a reverence for words. Above all, of course, for the inspired words of Scripture and gave much of their time and energy to reading, repeating, meditating and memorizing them. Had not Jesus himself, on a most sacred occasion, told his apostles that to keep his word was to love him? What better way to keep it than to fix it in the memory and at time of prayer to make it descend into the heart and so to prepare oneself to put it into practice when the appropriate occasion arises?
Another practice calculated to enhance respect for words was also given prominence from earliest times by monks and that was to employ them sparingly. To avoid much talk, to distance oneself from all gossip and unbecoming language, to cultivate an appreciation of silence in the presence of God-such behavior results in a greater sensitivity to the significance of words, to their effects and their power for good and for evil. Benedict gives considerable emphasis to each of these practices. Here are a few of his texts.
Monks should give special care to keep silence at all times, but especially during the night hours.... From Compline on let permission be given to no one to say anything. Should anyone be found who infringes this rule of silence he should be subjected to a more serious kind of punishment (ch. 42).
The Rule has an entire chapter, in fact, devoted to silence, under the Latin title De Taciturnitate, which can best be translated perhaps as Reticence in Speech. In the course of this chapter Benedict recommends that permission to speak be given rarely even to the best of monks. When the monks do speak they are to do so, he adds, "with all humility and subjection of reverence." If we wish to live out the spirit of our way of life we must give considerable attention to these recommendations for they are not mere afterthoughts, but essential elements in our way of life and are intended to form attitudes that we carry over in our relations with one another as well as with our superiors. Monks do not assume demanding ways or express themselves with aggressive language to one another, above all not to their superiors, according to Benedict who refers here explicitly to the duty to address the superior with all reverent subjection of speech as well as of heart. This can be very difficult to do when there is question of something we have strong feeling about, but it is precisely for such occasions that the Rule is given us as an aid to overcoming our weaknesses and developing good habits.
We know that our early Father took these injunctions of the Rule regarding silence so seriously that they employed a sign language rather than speech and used it when that could be effectively employed. We find that in certain circumstances it serves well even today especially in order to maintain silence in the common places so as not to disturb others. But, to be sure, it is the cultivation of living in a prayerful communion with the Lord, or walking in his presence regularly, day by day, that gives meaning not only to silence but to the whole of our cloistered life. Silence is an added dimension of withdrawal from the distractions and temptations of a world that is actuated by motives and goals at variance with the teachings of the Lord Jesus, the world for which he refused to pray.
And yet, he directed his words to all, without exception: "Go out and teach all the nations... teaching them to observe all that I have commanded to you (Matthew 28: 19, 20)." His words are the source of life for they are endowed with the power to refashion those who receive them with faith and keep them with love into children of God, capable of knowing the Father and of living in his presence. Even now, those of us who, like St. Benedict and his friend Abbot Servandus, already possess those words and live by them as best we can enjoy this same privilege of passing on words of life that pass through our heart and bind us to the Lord in the Holy Spirit. May we ever treasure these words in our heart, prove faithful to them in our actions and be guided by them in our relations with one another. Then shall we too be preparing ourselves for that divine vision that reveals to us the eternal light of God in which all things of this world are seen as small and beneath us who are called to be children of light in the eternal kingdom of the Father.Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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