APRIL 28, 2002, 5TH SUNDAY OF EASTER: CHAPTER
SEEING THE CONFIDENT SPEECH OF PETER AND OF JOHN AS WELL, AND LEARNING THEY WERE UNLEARNED AND SIMPLE MEN, THEY MARVELED (Acts 4:13). Peter always had a self-confident manner and approach to life that was the expression of his temperament rather than based on a firmly developed character. His native generosity and frankness were amiable but not always reliable. The Lord though saw his potential for a reliable solidity early in his dealing with the future chief apostle, and promised to make the most of it in the future. He took the occasion to change his name to Peter, that is, Rock; Peter would be the rock on which the Church was to be founded. Meantime, being overconfident, Peter at times got into situations that were too much for him. Under pressure he panicked and yielded to fear as happened when he tried to walk on water to meet the Lord and again when he followed him into the court of the high-priest and was accosted by unfriendly servants.
Pentecost, however, he became a new man. This became apparent in his first great sermon
given in the presence of the people who had resisted and crucified the Lord. On this
occasion he demonstrated a fearless and steady courage. His character was now at one with
his temperament; no longer was he wavering in the fact of hostile attack or yielding when
subject to physical punishment. Nor did he hold back in his witness by words as he
addressed men far better educated and trained than he in human learning. His attitude is
characterized by St. Luke as demonstrating confidence in speaking freely. His words were
clear, his manner firm and he expressed himself with great freedom of spirit.
The Greeks had a special word for this quality; they called it B"DD0FÆ", which means, literally, saying it all, speaking out all that is on ones mind. In the chapter that recounts Peters speech to the Jews concerning their role in putting Jesus to death, this word occurs three times. It is considered to be a gift of the Spirit that the early community prayed for. And now Lord look on their threats and give your servants to speak your word with all confidence, B"DD0FÆ". . . . And when they had prayed, . . . they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and they spoke the word of God with confidence (B"DD0FÆ"). In spite of the hardiness and confident boldness with which he spoke there was no aggressive hostility in his speech; there was an appeal to the heart in Peters manner that resulted in the conversion of several thousands of his listeners, including priests and Pharisees. For the confidence inspired by the Spirit does not show hostility or contempt for others; rather, it confronts them with truth in such a way as to invite them to join the speaker in communion of thought and spirit.
Later on Peter was called upon to deal with a variety of persons and situations in which his ability to communicate effectively and persuasively was tested and put to good use. He was not exempt from faults altogether, as we learn from one of St. Pauls letters, but he learned from his failures and he fulfilled his very challenging role as chief of the apostles and of the church with resounding success. He won the confidence of many, and proved an effective and persuasive leader. In the end he showed himself to be a reliable witness, dying willingly in the service of his mission.
The big change in Peter was in his heart, it was interior, and, in consequence, he could be firm without being aggressive or hostile. On the contrary, he could express kindness and concern for the good of others and for the common good while remaining clear and outspoken in pronouncing his views. In this he is a model for all of us. For each member of our community has his own responsibility for participating in community life in a manner that is modeled on the examples given us in the Gospels, beginning with the Lord. And certainly we are to form our behavior and reform our character according to the principles that are openly set forth and promoted by our Savior. Our Cistercian Fathers were outstanding in this form of imitation of Christ and of his chosen apostles, especially Peter and Paul. So were many of the fathers of the Church, such as St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. John. We who lack their remarkable gifts can and should nonetheless learn from their virtues so to treat with one another as to achieve the same purpose of building up the body of Christ in keeping with our capacity.
While Scripture sets our goals it is Gods intent that each believer learn from his and her own cultures and from the human tradition those arts and skills that contribute to unity and mutual respect among persons. In a life like ours where we live our whole life within the same community and in a restricted area, it is of high importance that all members cultivate those skills necessary for harmonious and friendly association. Moreover, the work of purifying the heart soon comes to a halt unless we make efforts to overcome the obstacles that we ourselves put in the way of open and trusting and friendly relations with one another. This is a major requirement of profiting from community life. We do not necessarily grow better from living in community. We can become more selfish, more demanding, less charitable, unless we honestly recognize our disordered tendencies, make it easy for others to correct us and strive to overcome any behavior and inclination that is contrary to the good of others and the harmony of community life. This requires inner work.
I recently came across a saying by one of the great minds of the 18th century who is still studied today by serious philosophers. I refer to David Hume. Here is what he had to say about the kind of behavior that contributes to good relations and easy exchanges among persons who are more highly civilized.
Among well-bred people a mutual deference is affected, contempt for others is disguised; authority concealed; attention given to each in his turn; and an easy stream of conversation maintained without vehemence, without interruption, without eagerness for victory, and without any airs of superiority [cited in Jacob Braude, Complete Speakers and Toastmasters Library, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1965) 74].
While this description makes no pretension to be actuated by concern for spiritual values, yet it does explicitly identify features of behavior that makes human conversation pleasant and calculated to enhance respect and favor good and agreeable association. We can learn fundamental rules of conversation and behavior in general from it that enhance the quality of exchanges that take place between practically all persons, of every condition in life. Naturally Christians and monks in particular will wish in addition to supplement these norms with others that oblige them by virtue of our commitment to charity and the common good. But already to follow these directives is to contribute appreciably to the improvement of personal relations of any group of persons, a monastic community included.
St. Benedict had already given directives to monks concerning their manner of presenting their views to others in the community. Humes description is a good supplement that makes more concrete suggestions as to how to carry out in practice Benedicts norms. For example, the Rule states that The brothers, however, should offer their advice with all deference and humility, and not presume to assert their views in a bold manner. (Ch. 3) Again, after some years of experience when Benedict added a number of chapters to his Rule, he spoke of this same topic concerning how a monk should speak to his abbot if he disagrees with a decision. In this instance, it is a question of being ordered to undertake some task that seems impossible to the subject. First of all the monk is to preserve an attitude of faith so that he does not close himself to the possibility that he will end by accepting it and doing his best. Meantime, he should accept the order of the superior with all gentleness and obedience. But if he sees that the weight of the task altogether exceeds his strength, he should patiently point out to the superior why he cannot do it. He should do so at the proper time, and without pride, obstinacy or refusal. And so we can be sure that even when under pressure the monk is to speak with respect, reserve and detachment.
Already a century before the abbot of Montecassino drew up his Rule, St. Basil in Cappadocia had prescribed the same kind of behavior for the brothers and sisters of his fraternities. In his Long Rule 13 where he treats of silence, he rightly notes that one cannot adequately deal with that topic without speaking also of communication. Here is what he has to say about the appropriate way for monks to speak.
The practice of silence is good for novices. For in gaining control of the tongue they will both give sufficient proof of self-control and will also learn in quietness, eagerly and attentively, from those who are skilled in instruction, how they should ask questions and give answers in particular cases. For there is a tone of voice, a moderation in speech, an appropriateness to the occasion, and a special vocabulary which are proper to religious people and can only be learned by one who has unlearned his former habits [cited in Augustine Holmes, osb, A Life Pleasing to God (Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo. 2000), 254].
For Basil, then, silence is a means of learning how to speak, among other things. It is also a help to learning humility and its practice often requires a truly humble spirit. Humility is an important basis for all community life and in particular it is essential in learning to speak in a manner that is appropriate for the monk. It is made more effective when it is supplemented by a respect for others and the sincere desire to discern and adhere to Gods will. All of these attitudes should be cultivated by monks who are called to a life of contemplative prayer lived in community. They are essential for a vital prayer life and at the same time for a community that is truly united in spirit.
Dialogue is one of the practices that is essential for creating and maintaining that spirit of respect and mutual trust which contributes so much to forming bonds among people. And dialogue cannot function effectively save when all the participants actively share in the ways indicated by Saints Basil and Benedict. David Hume did not mention humility explicitly but no one can consistently speak in the manner he describes without a good measure of humility and respect for others. There is no possibility of forming true community or of arriving at decisions that prove effective for the purposes of any human group that does not live under tyranny, without all the members accepting limits and following the established rules. This subject was studied thoroughly over a period of many years by an American writer who published his findings in 1876 in a book still much used today. He states his purpose was
to assist an assembly to accomplish the work for which it was designed, in the best possible manner. To do this it is necessary to restrain the individual somewhat, as the right of an individual in any community, to do what he pleases, is incompatible with the interests of the whole. Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty (Roberts Rules of Order, New York 1989, 14)
Jesus made it perspicuously clear that humility is a condition for following him. It is essential for discerning the will of God among various possible solutions to the issues to be decided by the abbot. Moreover, anyone who in community dialogue pushes his own ideas too passionately fails in his duty to assist the abbot in recognizing Gods will. For the community members role is to give an opinion by way of advising the abbot who alone has the duty of deciding the issue under consideration. No one is to act as a tyrant seeking to gain his will at the expense of any who disagree with him. A dialogue in the monastic community is not a debate, nor is it a political meeting where victory for ones party or views is the goal. Rather it is the humble search to discern what God is asking of his followers, and he reveals that only to the humble and the pure of heart.
Thus true dialogue is an exacting school of selflessness; and a form of monastic asceticism and of charity. For it takes much concern for other to remain deferential and detached in giving our views, no matter how strongly we may personally hold a particular position. It requires much effort to practice that form of humility which represents our preference with deference and respect for the opinion of others in the realization that God may reveal his will to another who has less experience than we possess.
We must train ourselves to speak, as Hume put it so well, without vehemence, without interruption, without eagerness for victory, and without any airs of superiority.
Only when all participants conduct themselves in this way will the climate be such that those persons who are less aggressive but perhaps more perceptive feel encouraged to present their opinion with that freedom of speech that St. Peter so fruitfully exhibited. St. Benedict intended such a welcoming climate to dominate in his communities for he wanted even the youngest to speak out freely. That cannot happen unless the seniors display the qualities of humility and self-control of which St. Basil speaks.
All of us are here in order to seek God and to be ready when he comes to take us to himself. Making good use of dialogue both in private conversations and in community is, for a Cistercian, a very useful practice to this end. The silence, humility and concern for the common good that are the climate of all dialogue worthy of the name are, in any case, essential attitudes and virtues for every one who lives our vocation. There is a monastic manner, as St. Basil states, of speech that monks are to learn already as novices. They learn it most readily when they see it practiced by their seniors. This form of speech is not too wordy, not loud and disturbing of the general silence, not worldly speaking of such things as entertainment and sports and useless news.
The purpose of founding a monastery such as ours in a country where it does not as yet exist is to create new possibilities for the faithful to serve God in a more interior contemplative manner than would be available without the witness of a truly contemplative community. This applies above all to those called to live the Cistercian life but also to the many lay persons and clerics who visit the monastery for the purpose of deepening their life of prayer. How we talk, how we dialogue among ourselves and how we keep silence determine in good part whether we fulfill our purpose in being here effectively or fail to do so.
There is no real contemplative life that is confined to certain times of the day or certain activities. We are to live a contemplative life and that means we must be inwardly transformed so that all our doings, inner and outer, personal and interpersonal, are carried on in union with our Lord. Gradually, as the monk lives in a community of men truly seeking God, his whole day is passed in the presence of God. True monastic life is a way of continual prayer. This is our high calling, our reason for being here at all. Let us fulfill our role in the Church with a whole-hearted dedication and contribute to our own sanctification and that of those who come to us as postulants and as guests.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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