12th Sunday of Year: Chapter

Saints Benedict and Bernard

J UST AS THE BODY IS ONE AND HAS MANY MEMBERS, AND ALL THE MEMBERS ARE OF ONE BODY… SO IS IT WITH CHRIST (1Cor 12:12). Jesus taught that there are two commandments that comprise the whole of the law- love of God is first, and the second is love of the neighbor. He further insisted that the two are inseparable. There is no true love of God without love of neighbor. He maintained that love of neighbor whom we see is a sign of the love of God whom we do not see. In keeping with this teaching, the earliest writings of the New Testament emphasize the communitarian nature of Christian life. Although there are some outstanding individuals mentioned as members of the Church such as Paul, Peter, John, and Apollos, yet they function in collaboration with others. The ideal presented is one of sharing all things with the fellow members of the Church. This sharing is a fruit of Christ's example and teaching and a conscious imitation of the way he chose. To love is to share all things in common according to need. To love means also to collaborate closely in spreading the faith, in teaching it and in sustaining those who are occupied with preaching the word.

Among the early fathers of monastic life were some who, while maintaining close bonds with the community of believers lived apart most of the time, as hermits in the desert or some other isolated area such as the mountains around Antioch and in the hills and caves of Anatolia. Others, however, preferred the common life and associated themselves with like-minded persons to form communities. St. Basil is one of the most influential of this cenobitic monasticism. He was a deeply convinced exponent of the doctrine that Christian spirituality is essentially communitarian in nature. He puts it in these terms.

I have learned that the life of many who share the same end is in many ways more useful. First of all there is the fact that nobody suffices to himself; we need the help of others to provide the various corporeal necessities…. Besides, the nature and manner of loving Christ does not permit everyone to seek what is his own… There is also the fact that one who lives alone does not readily get to know his faults since he has nobody to rebuke him or to correct him gently and mercifully (Regulae Fusius Tractatae, VII, Basilii Opera 2.1, ed. J. Garnier Paris 1839, p. 481- 482).

Basil expounds upon this theme at considerable length for he has very strong convictions concerning it, having had occasion to observe closely the life of a number of people who did live on their own. He does not teach, as St. Benedict was to do later, that eventually, after extensive training and experience in community some might be called to a solitary form of life. St. Basil is a stalwart defender of a spirituality that is essentially rooted in community life, not only in theory but in actual practice. We advance toward perfection through enhancing our capacity for a harmonious living with others. This achievement is effected under the influence of the Holy Spirit; it is not simply the result of human effort and social engineering. Union with Christ is effected within the mystical Body and so involves a common, harmonious collaboration.

St. Benedict followed St. Basil, whom he admired greatly for the soundness of his doctrine and the holiness of his life, in his emphasis on community and the common good. He defines a cenobite very concisely as monastic, combating under a rule and an abbot. He considers this type of monk to be the strongest sort, and concerns himself with legislating only for such persons. The whole of his Rule is permeated with a spirituality that, while attending to the needs of the individual person, is at pains to relate him to the community of brothers.

We do well to advert repeatedly to this fundamentally communal spirituality and doctrine which is so deeply rooted in the Gospel and other New Testament writings. In recent times the whole of Western culture has been marked by individualism. The good of the individual is the focus of attention in large areas of our culture, and this emphasis has markedly influenced spirituality as well as social values and practices. This development is not without its strengths and advantages. But when such individualism encroaches upon the rightful claims of the common good it degenerates into selfishness and becomes oppression of the less favored. That our society is marked by such selfishness and in many ways favors it to an extent where it has become a threat to the general good is widely recognized today.

In spiritual matters such individualism results in a distortion of Christ's teaching concerning the nature of union with God, and is an obstacle to attaining to it. Life in the Spirit is not the private domain of the individual, even though it is concerned with the most intimate and personal of all human endeavors. Nothing is so personal as our inner life which depends upon those attitudes and decisions that engage the deepest and highest centers of our being. The spiritual life depends entirely at one level upon our sincere choices and decisions in which we commit the self we are essentially to God and His interests and will. The quality of our spiritual life depends upon our personal freedom, its intensity, its breadth and height and depth. In the measure that our freedom is developed it takes up our affection and all our emotions, attaching them to the object of our choice.

At the same time, in proportion as we are united with God we know our self as belonging more to Him and His kingdom than to our own self. The purity and depth of our inner life, then, far from isolating us in our individualistic world, determines the degree to which we open out into God and are concerned for all who belong to God in Christ. Since all his human creatures are created for life with God and have, in principle, been redeemed by the blood of Christ, such relatedness extends beyond the visible bounds of the Church to all men and women. Thus it is by virtue of its intrinsic dynamic structure that the spiritual life negates the narcissistic tendency to foster individualism and is essentially communal.

That St. Bernard and the other prominent abbot-authors of our Order in the 12th century had a keen sensitivity to theessentially communitarian dimension of the spiritual life is well known and has been repeatedly demonstrated in studies of their works. They elaborated an admirable, practical doctrine concerning such matters as fraternal relatedness, friendship, concern for the common good and various other aspects of this question considered in their bearing upon the life of prayer and union with God. What has been much less widely recognized and studied is the teaching and practice of later Cistercian generations of monks. More recently a number of scholars have taken up this interesting topic. Their work has brought out a number of significant observations and led to some insights that I believe contribute to our fuller appreciation of our Cistercian heritage.

In the years between 1190 and 1210 a monk of the Cistercian Order at Clairvaux, Conrad of Eberbach, who later became abbot of the monastery of Eberbach located near Mainz, compiled a lengthy work consisting of a large number of tales concerning the experiences of a number of monks of the Order. He wrote his own introductions and conclusions to the stories and lives he heard from various oral sources and collected others from an earlier work by Heribert, a monk of Clairvaux, the Liber Miraculorum, written between 1178-81. He gave his collection the title of Exordium Magnum (The Great Beginning). It seems it was never very widely distributed outside monastic and religious circles, but was rather popular with Carthusians and Hieronymites among others. It was particularly read by Cistercian monks, especially in the low countries (cf. Fr. Bruno Griesser, Exordium Magnum Cistercsiense, Roma 1961, 25). Its influence was rather limited to the period of the late Middle Ages, but it continues to have a real value for anyone seeking to understand the way of life of monks of our Order, especially following the death of the better known writers and abbots. Etienne Gilson, for one, thought so highly of it that he recommended it as indispensable for anyone who wished to become familiar with the Cistercian spirit (cf. La theologie mystique de Saint Bernard, p. 234).

Conrad wrote the first four books while still a monk at Clairvaux during the years 1186-1193. He was able to speak with a number of men who had known St. Bernard and lived with him in the monastery. More importantly, he lived in a community whose spirit and life style were formed by Bernard who was their first abbot and who served as the teacher and superior for some 35 years. Conrad added the last two books while at Eberbach between 1206 and 1221. He witnesses to the actual experience and manner of living of French and German monks then at a time when the Order was still in its early fervor.

Our author is not a historian in the modern sense of the word by any means, but in his book any number of historical facts are mentioned in passing or in connection with some edifying story that he narrates. For instances we learn from him that about the year 1168 A.D. an epidemic caused the death of 45 monks in a period of 60 days at Clairvaux (cf. op. cit. 2.25, p. 125). Such a wrenching trial would certainly have affected the community for a long time afterwards, and give a particular color to the spirituality as lived. No doubt a good number of those who were carried off were young, bringing home the fact that youth too confronts the possibility of death daily. While the stories he tells are often over credulous they reflect the mentality and religious psychology of the period. They provide us with experiences of monks who were very convinced that they lived in the presence of God and had regular exchanges with angels and saints.

In a recent study of the teaching of Conrad's work Bernard McGuire singles out the narrative of the vision of Godfrey, a monk of Clairvaux. It illustrates the point that this modern scholar considers to be a characteristic of our Order's spirit. He states the matter in these terms. " The Cistercian mystical tradition exhorts the person to seek the presence of God through the presence of other persons." (Cf. Mistica Y Espiritualidad del Exordium Magnum, p. 249 in Mistica Cisterciense ed. Monte Casino 1999)

Here in brief is the story. Godfrey who was the infirmarian at Clairvaux at the time (he later became a bishop) was chanting with the brothers in choir one day. Suddenly he had a vision of a glorious procession entering the church from the cemetery door and making straight for the infirmary. Everyone in the procession was in good order, appropriately attired in keeping with their function as priests, deacons, sub-deacons and acolytes. He noted that the candles were rather of fire than of wax and that the vestments were extremely precious. A large number of persons dressed in white followed the ministers and at the end came the Blessed Virgin Mary, accompanied by Saints Peter and John. Godfrey then heard the Spirit within him speak words in praise of Mary. As this noble procession left the church for the infirmary, the venerable monk Tescelin, who had long been confined to the infirmary where he was suffering with great patience, gave up his spirit. Godfrey had no doubt this procession was a sign of his transitus to heaven (cf. Exordium Magnum 3.23, p 203). The lesson to be drawn by his readers is quite clearly one of firm hope and confidence that the monastic life lived in patient suffering with Christ make the Cistercian monk dear to heaven and assures him of the special loving attention of heaven's queen.

Caesar of Heisterbach was by far the more original author of such tales. He began his writing career already as a child, cultivated a professional mastery of his craft and wrote in a clear and readable Latin, a feature that contributed to the popularity of his book. In 1199 he entered the monastery of Heisterbach where he became Master of Novices. He had a strong interest in passing on what he understood to be the best of the Cistercian tradition to the young especially. His major work, entitled The Dialogue of Miracles, includes some 736 stories that illustrate his doctrine of monastic spirituality, to which he regularly adds some explanation of a more didactic nature. He divided these stories into 12 sections called Distinctiones, each of which represents a step on the ladder that carries the monk to the perfection of union with God in glory. Every step is illustrated by a large number of instances that bring out some aspect or other of the topic treated in that section. The First Distinction, for example, is entitled Contrition and contains 43 chapters illustrating some pertinent feature of this important virtue.

One amusing tale in the section on Temptations recounts how the abbot Gevard of Heisterbach was holding forth in chapter on some spiritual subject and noted how many, especially of the lay brothers, were falling asleep. When some began to snore he felt called upon to intervene. Suddenly he announced to the assembly he was going to tell a story of King Arthur of the round table, that they should pay close attention. At this everyone woke up as he had expected. He then chastises them for sleeping when he speaks of God and showing great interest soon as he speaks of some light matter (IV.36).

Mother of Cistercians

Cistercians were still being criticized by the Benedictines in the time Caesar was writing and one of his purposes was propaganda for the Order. In a story that has given rise to some masterpieces of painting he tells how a Cistercian monk who had a special devotion to Mary had a vision during prayer. He saw the various categories of saints in heaven some of whom were dressed in their proper habits as Cluniacs, Praemonstratentians and canons. However, he was disconcerted when he could find no Cistercians in their number. Mary saw his discomfiture and so explained to him that since the Cistercians were so dear to her she kept them under her arms, and opening the large cloak she wore she displayed before his eyes the great number of Cistercian monks and nuns hidden there (cf. op. cit. VII.59).

Perhaps the most profitable feature of this story for us today is the fact that it illustrates how the desire for heaven was so prominent in the prayer of the Cistercians at this period. This emphasis resulted in a spirituality that stressed hope and the love of God rather than fear of punishment. Moreover, it included a special devotion to the Mother of our Savior and to the saints who were also involved in their contemplation. This feature of our tradition brings us back to the point made at the beginning of these considerations. Salvation is not merely a matter of individual union with the Lord, but is essentially bound up with those we live with and with all who belong to Christ, with whom we are destined to be united in the kingdom where God is all in all.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger</P>

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