IF ANYONE WISHES TO COME AFTER ME LET HIM DENY HIMSELF AND TAKE UP HIS CROSS DAILY. (Luke 9: 23). This text is surely one of the most fundamental of the whole of the Christian life. It is meant not only for the apostles, not only for monks but for all followers of Christ, all the faithful without exception. To accept Christ, to put faith in him entails, then, living a life of self-denial, even of suffering which is symbolized here by the powerful image of the cross. Faith and contemplation must be sustained by the imitation of Christ; without the asceticism and discipline and self-denial that fervent Christians and monks in a particular way have always practiced, there is no authentic life in Christ. This self denial and patient acceptance of some measure of suffering is not reserved for some special occasion when a particular effort must be made in order to remain faithful; rather, it is a regular way of life, a fundamental disposition that is brought to bear on all occasions as is indicated by the expression daily. Such an attitude of selfless dedication is then the norm for discipleship for Christians. By this measure we are to judge our self and our performance day by day. If we would know what worth we possess in God's eyes this is the standard according to which we may estimate our value. Who among us can claim that he measures up to so exacting a demand?
As if realizing how readily we put such teaching out of mind and find ways to explain it away, in order to reinforce the seriousness with which he inculcates this norm Jesus goes on to draw out the radical implication of his doctrine in stark language. He who wishes to save his soul will lose it; he who loses his soul for my sake will find it. The word for soul here in Greek, psyche, refers to the animating principle of human beings and so could be rendered by the expression corporeal life as contrasted with the nous, (the mind) which is eternal. In fact, as he further elucidates his meaning Jesus contrasts (psyche) here with the very self, thus indicating that the self is more than earthly life; it is undying. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but to destroy or forfeit himself?, he asks. Deny yourself, take up your cross, lose your life, are here employed as three ways of depicting the attitude of a true follower of Christ. The gain to be achieved by taking on this dispositions and living by these norms is that one becomes a follower of Christ, saves his life and, as he ends by stating, is counted worthy to see the kingdom of God.
This promise of our Lord that those who follow him as he takes up his cross will be joined to him when he comes in his kingdom leads St. Luke to append immediately the narrative of our Lord's Transfiguration. With three chosen disciples he ascends the high mountain of Tabor where he is suddenly transfigured by a divine light that renders his whole person a dazzling manifestation of glory. His followers are given a taste of the kingdom in anticipation of his coming passage out of this world, called here his exodus . The purpose of this revelation is to strengthen his disciples' faith in his promises and confidence in his person. We will need all the faith and trust we can obtain when the time of suffering and humiliation comes upon us, the Lord well knows. Seeing him already glorified and hearing the approbation he receives from the Father's voice are to serve as a stimulus to adhere to him as he sets his face to go up to Jerusalem, as we read later in this same chapter. The glory of God shining on the face of Christ gives light to the eyes of our heart and instills in our spirit eagerness to join him in the presence of the Father.
These are the mysteries set before you today, my brother Ignatius, as you receive the habit of a novice and enter upon the next stage of your formation as a monk, in view of dedicating the rest of your life to seeking union with God in his beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Our Father, St. Benedict, realizes that undertaking this way of life challenges the novice deeply and can prove to be an unnerving experience at times. In his Prologue with considerable frankness but gently he addresses the postulant to prepare himself for a testing that he realizes through experience will inevitably come upon him.
But if something turns out to be a bit restrictive due to the demands of justice in order to correct any vices and conserve charity, do not through fear immediately flee from the way of salvation which is always narrow in the beginning. For as you grow in your way of life and in faith your will run in the way of the commandments of God with a heart enlarged by the sweetness of love.... and persevering in his teaching in the monastery till death, we may participate in the sufferings of Christ by patience that we might merit to be his companions in his kingdom.
The love of which St. Benedict speaks appears for the first time in the Rule here. It occurs at a critical juncture, as the address to the new comer draws to its end. The discipline of the Rule is ordered not to strictness as such but to the blossoming of the humanity of the monk as he learns what true love is. The love taught by the Spirit is meant to last a life time and into eternity; it cannot be based on emotion and the attraction of passing charm which soon withers. Rather, it is based upon virtue, sacrifice and dedicated discipline. That does not mean it is without its own charm and warmth; on the contrary, it wears well and discloses the hidden fragrance of its affection gradually. It is never dissipated and emptied out but daily replenished at its source which is the passion and death of Jesus daily poured out on our behalf at the altar.
Indeed, one of the more helpful ways of viewing the monastic life is as a school where the monk learns the ways of God. In this final paragraph of his Prologue St. Benedict refers to the monastery as the Dominici schola servitii, a school of the Lord's service. This concept of monastic life as a place of training and study where there was a specially chosen teacher, the abbot, and a group of disciples who together formed a single community held a special attraction for St. Bernard and other major writers of our Order (For the following cf. E. Gilson, The Mystical Theology of St. Bernard, 61- 67). Bernard refers to the monastery variously as the schola Christi, (cf. Sermo de Div. 121:1 PL 183: 743B) and the schola Spiritus (In Festo Pent. III. 5 PL 183: 332A). Later on the Exordium Magnum (Dist.I. cap. 2 PL 185: 998A) refers to the early generation of monks, on whom the Cistercian reformers modeled themselves, as imitating the schola primitivae ecclesiae which was found not only in Jerusalem but also in Antioch. St. Bernard and those influenced by him, were not the originators of the concept of the monastery as a school of Christ. Other monks before them such as St. Peter Damian and John the Man of God had employed the expression, though it was the Cistercians who elaborated its implications considerably. St. Bernard begins one of his sermons in the following manner.
We are in the school of Christ where we are taught two doctrines. For he, the one and true master teaches one; the other is taught by his ministers. By his ministers he teaches fear, by himself, love. So it happens that when the wine is failing he orders his ministers to fill the jars with water, and it still happens daily that when charity grows cold his ministers fill the jar with water, that is, they inculcate fear in the minds of men.... Water though weighs on us just as fear has punishment, so let us approach him who changes water into wine, punitive fear into love. Then we might hear what he himself teaches about love (Sermo de Diversis 121.1 PL 183: 743).
On another occasion Bernard takes up the theme of the monastery as the schola Spiritus and develops this concept at some length with considerable rhetorical flare that is hard to capture in translation and which suggests his joy at belonging to the ranks of those taught by the very Spirit of God.
I rejoice that you are members of this school, the school, that is, of the Spirit where you learn goodness and discipline and knowledge (Psalm 118:66) and you may say with the holy man I have understood more than those who teach me. Why is this the case?, I ask. Because I clothe myself with fine linen and purple, and abound in fine banquets? Is it because I have understood the shrewd insights of Plato and the sharp reasonings of Aristotle or that I have labored for understanding? Far be it! Rather, because I have sought your testimonies (Psalm 118. 99).
On still another occasion the Abbot of Clairvaux speaks of monastic life as a place of learning under those teachers specially designated by our Lord himself, Saints Peter and Paul. Though he does not use the word schola by implication he describes the cloister as a school of life, to name it from its curiculum.
These are our teachers who learned more fully the ways of life from the teacher of all and who teach us to the present day. What is it these holy apostles taught or teach? Not the art of fishing nor the skill of tent-making or anything of this sort; not how to read Plato or be occupied with the subtleties of Aristotle, nor always to be learning and never arriving at the truth. They teach us to live. Do you think it a small matter to learn to live? A great thing, indeed; in fact the greatest there is.... I think a good life is one in which a man endures what is evil and does what is good and continues with this until death (In Festo Sti. Petri et Pauli I.3 PL 183: 407).
St. Bernard himself does not employ the expression schola charitatis, though he certainly would approve of its use by the man who did coin it, his close friend, William of Saint Thierry. William uses the term very tellingly in the context of a work that seriously analyzes the nature of love and treats of its cultivation. His opening sentence sounds the keynote of this fascinating work: The art of love is the art of arts and nature reserves its teaching for herself, and the God of nature (De Natura et Dignitate Amoris I.1 PL 184:379) William designates the monastery as a specialis charitatis schola (op. cit. IX.26 PL 184:396). Our Cistercian Fathers had a distinct preference for cultivating, studying and analyzing charity . It is as if they settled upon this as their specialty in life. They did their doctoral research, as we might think of it, on the topic of love in the school of Christ.
We do well to advert repeatedly to their stress on this theme and to judge our self and our life in light of this high purpose. So to enter into the discipline of monastic practices as to become more self-giving, more concerned for the glory of God and welfare of those we live with is surelya most efficacious way to attain our goal of union with God. Not only Bernard and William but other Cistercian abbots thought of the monastery as a school. John of Ford in two of his sermons uses the expression schola charitatis (Sermo 57. 59; Sermo 97.17, CCCM XVII and CCCM XVIII, p. 656). Baldwin of Ford speaks of the monastic community as a school where Christian philosophy is studied.
Blessed are you as well, brothers, who have registered in the discipline of wisdom and the school of Christian philosophy provided that you die while persevering in philosophy... so that in none of you there be found an evil heart of incredulity that departs from the living God (Sermo In Festo Sancti Benedicti I.4 PL 185.1: 101B).
Baldwin understands the training of this school to include the practical discipline of accepting the exacting demands of the Rule, the difficult obediences and especially any harsh corrections. This school includes practical training as well as doctrinal learning; it is a school of life and humility where one learn to carry the cross.
It is not only novices who are students in this school of Christ; all of us are, and we remain learners throughout our whole life. Still some of us who have been given special gifts and training serve to teach others how to live one or other aspect of the Cistercian life. To teach others how to pray, read profitably, study fruitfully, work efficaciously and skillfully in some useful task requires the collaboration of various members of the community. How to relate peacefully and prove useful to the brothers can be taught by example and this is not the least important lesson to impart. What does it mean that we are to specialize in charity in this school? Among various other things it means that if we find that a particular way of working or obeying or following any particular activity enjoined by the Rule results in our becoming more self- centered, or critical and less kind to others we do well to review our manner of going about it. Self-control, diligence, hard work, earnest application and the other virtues can make us more loving or more harsh, proud or domineering, as we can readily observe happens in worldly persons all too often. Of course, failure to cultivate these manly virtues, and others that go with them such as courage and honesty, also is a serious defect that frustrates the purpose of living in a monastery.
St. Benedict is aware of the difficulties involved in the course of cultivating these good habits and he here points out that these difficulties themselves, whatever they may seem to the novice, will pass in time. With courageous fidelity and patience we begin to find satisfaction and even delight in the very things which at first strike us with fear. It is love of our Lord and faith in his cross that effects this transformation within us. It is helpful to recall that the apostles themselves passed through trials that surpassed their strength; they yielded to fear and for a time fled from the cross rather than expose themselves to the sufferings that they would have to incur were they to cling to Jesus' side at all cost. But in the strength of the glorified Lord and by the gift of his Holy Spirit they soon recovered their courage and faith, and once they did they proved unshakeable in their confidence and fidelity. If we are told of these things by the Evangelists it is to warn us but also it is told for our encouragement. Like these men we too can overcome our hesitations, doubts and fears once we set our eyes on the risen, glorified Lord Jesus. This is the way St. Benedict points out for all of us to follow. The novitiate is the time to make especially generous and fervent efforts to take up the cross daily and to follow Jesus in the light of his resurrection which he will reveal to the eyes of the heart of those who love him and place their trust in his promise to be always with us.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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