Discernment, as St. Paul presents it in this stirring text, is a function of transformation of the mind or spirit (nous). This is a highly intriguing view of our subject. By implication, the apostle affirms that the discernment required for carrying out God’s will fully is possible only by means of a restructuring of the inner life that is so all encompassing that it amounts to a metamorphosis. This is the English word that more closely does honor to Paul’s Greek (metamorphousthe), implying as it does a more radical change than does the term ‘transformation’, the corresponding word of Latin origin. We have already discussed in the second conference the topic of transformation in relation to the training and growth of the spiritual senses. Transformation, however, is too large a subject to admit of adequate consideration of only one aspect of its manifold and complex process. The spiritual senses represent one level of the inner life where a radical alteration of functioning transpires as part of the movement from the alienation in the land of unlikeness to recovery of likeness to God. They are the newly formed faculties to be utilized in the invisible world inhabited by the new man and their fashioning is a major feature of the transformation of which St. Paul speaks here. Another aspect of transformation is the role of love, both natural and supernatural, which is operative in the birth and maturation of the new man referred to in this passage under the designation of ‘newness of your mind.’


Love supplies the energy that brings about the transformations which are required for the fashioning of the new man in his maturity. Again it is St. Paul who makes it clear that while in baptism we are created anew in Christ, yet achieving the full stature of mature manhood in Christ is the work of an ongoing movement, a growth in the Spirit of Jesus.


And he gave some to be apostles, others prophets, others evangelists, others pastors and teachers for the perfecting of the saints in view of the work of service, for the building up of the body of Christ, so that we might no longer be children, tossed about and carried away by every wind of teaching in the craftiness of men, in their malicious deceitfulness of error. Rather we are to practice the truth in charity so as to grow up in all ways in him who is the head, Christ (Ephesians 4: 11-15). 


So it is by ‘practicing the truth in charity’, following up the gift of new life at baptism with deeds of love in conformity with the heavenly realities that give substance to truth, that we are to fulfill our destiny as mature members of the body of Christ. This constitutes a dynamic view of the life of the Christian. It presents life and our way of employing God’s gifts and the use we make of the opportunities of our condition as a developing process that calls for a willingness to leave the familiar behind as we advance into the future; we must avoid the human tendency to repose in the enjoyment of the attainments we acquire. This process is ordered to culminate in a superior state of being, a maturity that represents the ‘perfecting of the saints’, united with the head, Christ. All too often psychotherapy and counseling have as their goal a better adaptation to the world as it is. This aim in some situations is good in itself and necessary; in many cases it is not adaptation but a new direction of the whole of life that is the proper goal, a conversion. Anything less is inadequate for a number of reasons, chiefly because of what it excludes. Even where it is appropriate adaptation is but the first in a long series of stages of growth. The aspirations for a fuller life, knowledge and love of truth and lasting beauty, communion with all that is good and wholesome, and possessing these things in an absolute manner, not subject to diminution or transience and yet filled with the movement of life, in short, union with God is what measures man’s spirit. The Christian is to be on the move as he goes through life, not only in his outward behavior but also and above all, his inner dispositions and aspirations are to progress to ever fuller, more complete attunement to the manifestations of God. Paul had stated just prior to the phrase urging transformation in the text cited at the head of this conference that we should ‘not be conformed to this world’.


The energy that is required by this life-long movement that refashions our whole personality in all its elements into a creature ready for eternal participation in God’s life is supplied by love. God’s love for us, agape, and our complex love for God which is composed of both human and divine elements. Natural desire, Eros, itself is complex, being manifold in its aims and in its manner of functioning. For desire is not the child of want (πεvία) only, as Plato taught; desire is fed also by possession of the good. Father Sebastian Moore has explored in a fruitful analysis this positive manner of viewing desire.[i][i] It is precisely because we already know, by possession, how sweet and joyous life can be that we desire it in its absolute fullness. It is the person in health, not the sick, who has appetite for food that maintains and increases his healthy state. The philosophical tradition has had all too little to say in concrete detail concerning interpersonal relations, and possibly Fr. Moore is on the right track when he ascribes this serious lack to the failure to recognize this positive element in desire.


Although his explanation was ultimately reductionistic in ascribing Eros and its transformations to sexuality in its subtle (infantile) and more overt (genital) manifestations, yet Freud has the merit of calling attention to the pervasive nature of Eros as the motive force generating the energy invested in significant persons beginning with infancy and strongly active in early childhood.  Subsequent explorations of human relations and their role in the development of the individual personality, have all been largely indebted to Freud’s early work, even while rejecting, as most psychotherapists do today, his exaggerated emphasis on the sexual in the formation of character and in the causality of neurosis and other psychic disorders. Some, such as Karen Horney and Eric Erickson, quietly paid little attention to the more extreme views of Freud concerning sexual motivation in development and in disorders of the psyche and mind and as they built up their own theories of psychic functioning and of the formation of neuroses.  At the same time, they made such use of those of his ideas and insights as provided a plausible basis for a schema of development that stressed interpersonal relations much more than the biological drives and bodily functions that were the basis for Freud’s manner of viewing the stages of human development. Even those men of great talent, such as Jung and Adler who reacted forcibly against his emphasis on the sexual origin of psychic energy and elaborated original theories at variance with Freud’s, were greatly in his debt for certain of the most basic intuitions to which Freud gave expression and directed attention.


Significantly it was attention to Eros, the god of love, that led to the intensified study of human relations and their role in psychic unfolding and soul making that has characterized modern thought. We see many exaggerations in our culture that have arisen as a consequence of this emphasis of the interpersonal: many persons give too great a place to feeling, to the subjective and manifest an over-sensitivity to offending others even when justice and charity call for correction. There is given too little importance to hard fact (history is what you choose to make it) and truth in its transcending and absolute character is hardly accepted as existing in many circles. Still, this recognition that the inter-personal is a key element that contributes decisive form to the psychic energies as they arise in our depths has opened new possibilities of understanding of our human nature, and has provided a corrective to the too negative view of the human person that considered desire too exclusively as expressive of poverty and lack.


Desire is generated by love. And love, Jesus has made clear, is the chief, ultimately even the sole measure of our worth in God’s eyes. One cannot speak of love without reference to desire, at least by implication, and that is the case whether the beloved is present or absent. Gregory of Nyssa maintained this would remain characteristic of our union with God throughout eternity, in the beatific vision, with this distinctive difference that desire would have nothing restless or unfulfilled coloring it; on the contrary, the very repletion of the desire for God’s beauty and truth will serve to stimulate further desire to penetrate more fully into his mysterious being. This view of what is denominated epectasis brings out the positive element in desire that, to our loss, so frequently goes unrecognized.


Not always is it overlooked, however, as the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa shows. St. Bernard too appreciated the advantage of perceiving desire in its affirmative aspect and commented that we would not seek God unless we already had found him in some manner. Thus encouraging us to discern in our desire for God a pledge that he has first communicated himself to us in some hidden but real fashion. That such encouragement is badly needed will be obvious to anyone who has listened to many life stories. The problem of the false self with all its disastrous consequences in the form of alienation from what is potentially a source of fulfillment in one’s true self, of inability to enter into intimate relations of friendship, of lack of trust and healthy belief in God and a host of others, is in some measure inherent in the human condition since the fall. Karen Horney has, better than any other analyst, shown in her descriptions of the manifestations of this pseudo-self, the dynamics operative in a large sector of human behavior that contributes to unhappiness.[ii][ii]  Accordingly she envisages the therapeutic goal as the discovery of the ‘true self’ and its liberation from the crippling and distorting influences of oppressive and arbitrary inner forces.  While she does not enlist spiritual realities in her approach, her identification of the problem and its manifestations proves very helpful for many in the search for self-knowledge of the affective life. Obviously, her schema requires to be supplemented by the spiritual tradition, and such doctrines as the image and likeness anthropology, but she fills in large gaps in the area of human character study and personality development.


I stated above that one cannot speak of love without reference to desire. The converse is also the case: desire is inextricably bound to love. We simply presume that what any one desires he loves. It is not surprising then to discover how prominent a role is assigned to both love and desire in the spiritual life and what attention both have received from the greatest of spiritual teachers and directors. The two who were the most influential teachers of our Cistercian fathers have long been recognized as the most helpful Patristic authorities in regard to these two topics. St. Augustine is known as the doctor of love, and will merit our attention as we pursue that theme further. St. Gregory the Great has been aptly termed the doctor of desire. He quite deliberately focused his efforts upon this subject in spiritual direction, convinced that desire for God supplies the indispensable energy needed for spiritual progress. We may observe an instance of such concenrs in a letter to a fervent layman, a prominent court physician, to encourage him to devote himself regularly to meditation on the Scriptures.  Disce cor Dei in verbis Dei, ut ardentius ad aeterna suspires. "Learn the heart of God in the words of God, that you might the more ardently aspire after eternity."[iii][iii]  As he so often did, Gregory here devised a memorable formula, addressed to the immediate needs of a very busy official, which has a timeless application in the lives of all Christians.


St. Gregory here opens an illuminating window on his method of spiritual accompaniment. In his concern to stimulate desire, he chooses as a means the practice of lectio divina, to the kind of reading that leads to union with God. When he states that it is the heart of God, ‘cor Dei’, that we learn through Scripture study he directs reading more to love than to increase of knowledge.  He does not say that we learn sacred theology, the history of the people of God, the style of sacred Scripture and its literary genres.  Of course, he was attentive to these matters as far as the learning of his day permitted, and he obviously had studied the Bible with a view to cultivating such knowledge.  But he did not stop there; nor does he want his readers to do so.  We are to pass through the words of the sacred text to the very heart of the Divine Person who inspired them.  The prayerful study of Scripture leads us to the depths of God's own being, which he refers to here as ‘cor Dei’. Incidentally, though Gregory could not yet be conscious of a form of devotion that would take form only centuries later, he prepares the way for its growth when he makes the ‘cor Dei’ the object of Scriptural reading.


St. Thomas Aquinas, moreover,  actually  takes this step of discovering in his reading of Scripture the Heart of Jesus as the key.  In a memorable passage he makes a most interesting reflection on the relation between understanding Scripture's true meaning and the heart of Christ.


The phrase "heart of Christ" can refer to Sacred Scripture which makes known his heart, closed before the Passion, as the Scripture was obscure.  But the Scripture has been opened  since the Passion; since those who from then on have understood it, consider and discern in what way the prophecies must be interpreted.[iv][iv]


This passage was taken up in the New Catechism, as Fr. Chrysogonus has recently pointed out.[v][v]  It shows how Thomas' insight, and as we have seen this applies by implication to St. Gregory as well, in this passage is in harmony with one of the three criteria for Scriptural interpretation set forth in Vatican II (DV 12¶4) , which it cites and glosses in the following terms.


Be especially attentive "to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture".  Different as the books which comprise it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God's plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since the Passover.[vi][vi]


Thus Gregory’s concern to stimulate desire for God in giving spiritual direction, is conveyed through insistence on the very concrete means of lectio divina. St. Ignatius Loyola in the same line as Gregory stresses repeatedly in the course of his Spiritual Exercises the need to clarify one’s desires. In order the better to discern and choose God’s will we must know our own. The spiritual director does well to heed this basic truth. Our most deeply rooted desires are so readily disguised even from ourselves that we fail to know they are motivating us. We easily develop false expectations whether of ourselves or others or, more commonly perhaps, both. Often enough we are driven or at least influenced by conflicting desires that result in frustration of our best efforts. The first step toward eliminating those which are problematical is to discern their existence. Ignatius was keenly sensitive to this requirement of progress and so he urges that the retreatant asks himself what he truly wants. If an obese man wants to lose weight but also allays anxiety every time he feels it by eating to excess, he will find himself constantly frustrated and so susceptible to frequent feelings of anxiety. The same law is operative on the level of the spirit as with the psyche and the affections: incompatible desires existing side by side result in self-defeat and frustration.  Recognizing the existence of such dividedness is the first step in removing the conflict through the right ordering of desire. That can be achieved only by the right ordering of love. Discerning the precise desires operative in our choices and plans, our relationships and our hopes is the way to discovering the state of our loves. Such recognition puts us in a position to take more efficacious means to harmonize our loves, to set love in proper order. That spiritual directors need to give special attention to his task of examining the nature of love, its kinds and fruits, the way it operates in relation to the manifold areas of life too often overlooked. Learning to speak without embarrassment of such feelings and experiences of the love of God is a neglected task for most persons of our culture. If it is not done in spiritual accompaniment where will it seem appropriate? This is, in my considered opinion and experience, one of the more pressing challenges of spiritual direction in our times.


In our society, such discussion is increasingly left to fundamentalists whose manner of expression and narrow views concerning religion all too regularly tend to compromise in the opinion of others the very real love of God they possess. Noting the absence of discourse on the love of God among believers, including priests and religious, a few years ago a professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Weston, Father Edward Vacek, published an article in which he shares his own observations and reflections on this phenomenon.  He entitles it The Eclipse of Love of God.[vii][vii]  Here are his opening lines.


When David Hare interviewed clergy as part of his research for his play, "Racing Demons," he ran into a problem:  None of the priests wanted to talk about God.  One of the disturbing questions his play raises is whether Christians, with the exception of a few fanatical fundamentalists, are concerned about loving God.  In my own conversations with Christians, I find that almost all of them talk approvingly of love for others, some talk confidently about God's love for us,. but few are willing to talk about their love for God.


This phenomenon is not altogether new, to be sure. Of course, it is one thing to love God, quite another to talk about that love.  As I indicated above, it is not necessarily those who love God most who are best qualified to discuss or write about their relation to Him  Take, for example, The Sayings of the Fathers, which reflects the experience in the desert of Egypt at the beginning of monastic life, a time of notable sanctity of life.  In the numerous paragraphs that make up this collection, how few there are that speak of the love of God explicitly! In the collection that lists the Sayings according to subject one of the topics treated is ‘Charity’, however, all 25 of those listed refer to fraternal charity not love of God as such. These holy men felt great reticence before so exalted a topic, in spite of their obvious love for God, so that they spoke of it but rarely.  However, I believe it would not be too difficult to show how, in the background of their teaching, the theme of love for God is ever present, and in fact motivates and inspires the great care these men took to purify the heart and prepare themselves for seeing God, for living with him in glory.


Father Vacek's  observations, it should be noted, go beyond the question of speaking about the love of God with others; he raises the more basic issue as to whether believers still consider the love of God to be an important reality in their lives.  It is not easy to evaluate people's answers to the questions he posed them.  In such a matter as this many will not be able to reply off‑hand at any deeper level; some, if helped, might come to recognize in themselves a hidden love for God which they had never become consciously aware of to a point where they would name it as such.  Still the answers he got to the questions he put do reveal that more attention needs to be given in preaching, teaching, and in prayer to this theme of our own love for God.


When people replied, for example, to the question,"What do you mean by love for God?" all replied with answers like "Helping one's neighbor", or "caring for the poor", or  "respecting your deepest self".  The author points out that many atheists do all these things and consider them responsibilities.  Even some theologians give very unsatisfactory answers to this question, he notes, such as saying that God does not need our love.  The author finds all this very unsatisfactory, and gives it as his opinion that it is not enough to love creatures; if we wish to develop as full human beings we must love God Himself.  We are made for Him and unless we enter into a direct relation with him we cannot become ourselves, or even remain healthy human persons.  Moreover, the first commandment makes it our primary duty to love God; the second commandment does not substitute for the first but rather grows out of it.


I believe that Fr. Vacek is on to something important for all of us today.  It is challenging to face the issue head on: "Do I really love God?"  Perhaps the first thing many of us need to do before we try to answer that question is to clarify what we mean by love,.  There are different kinds of love, after all, and distinguishing them can help us to discern more precisely our relationship with our heavenly Father and the other two persons of the Trinity.  We can love God for his own sake, we can love him for our sake and we can love him with the love of friendship, that is, for the happiness of sharing the things we treasure with God.  This last contains some elements of the first two but adds to them the concept of mutuality.


St Bernard saw the immediate purpose of the whole of the ascetic and spiritual life as an attempt to order charity and spoke of this undertaking in his Sermons on the Canticle. He was following in the steps of St. Augustine in doing so and contributing a good deal of his own in the process. Long before Augustine Plato had already pointed out the need to analyze the nature of love before pursuing it in practice or in praise. In the early part of what is probably his best known dialogue, one of the characters comments very much to the point as follows.


Phaedrus, the argument has not been set before us, I think, quite in the right form;‑ we should not be called upon to praise Love in such an indiscriminate manner.  If there were only one Love, then what you said would be  well enough; but since there are more Loves than one, you should have begun by determining which of them was to be the theme of our praises.  I will amend this defect;; and first of all I will tell you which Love is deserving of praise, and then try to hymn the praiseworthy one in a manner worthy of him.[viii][viii]


Pausanus, whose words I have just cited, goes on to distinguish two types of love: the one he calls common; it is that of meaner types of men, and is rather of the body than of the soul; the other Love is heavenly.  It is free of wanton behavior, noble in its manner and purposes, and faithful throughout life.  While his concept of heavenly love has certain other features that we can hardly agree with, yet he does us the service of showing the need to distinguish among loves before speaking of them. All too few persons seem to have the ability and inclination to engage in such discriminating consideration on this subject which plays such a major role in every one’s  life. One who did have both the appreciation of the fundamental importance of love and the talent required to analyze its workings was St. Augustine of Hippo. He had learned much on this theme and on the spiritual life in general from Plato and his later followers, but still more from his meditation on the New Testament and often commented on his views. The following is one of the clear statements on this theme.


By charity, therefore, it happens that we are conformed to God . . . what else is there that is best for man, save that he clings to the one who is the most blessed? That is certainly God, to whom we cannot adhere except by love, affection and charity? . . . But if virtue leads us to the happy life, I would affirm that there is no virtue save the highest love.[ix][ix]


Augustine then completes his argument by pointing out that precisely because virtue leads to the happy life, it must be ordered to the highest Good, which is God himself,  the Blessed Trinity.  This is achieved through the operation of charity.[x][x]  In another context the bishop of Hippo defined virtue as ‘the order of love’[xi][xi] Men are good or bad according as they love what is good of evil. Thus love is what determines to which city anyone belongs. In his own words: ‘Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves ; the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.’[xii][xii]  He returned to treat of this subject of love so often and with such insight as to merit the title ‘doctor of love’.


If he spoke so often about love and sought to demonstrate its manner of affecting the dispositions of the soul, the virtues and defects of character and determined the relation with God, it was because he was convinced that explaining love as adequately as possible is a way of helping others to purify and intensify love. Thus such analysis and description forms an important task of spiritual direction. Aware as he was that love in its manifold, often subtle manifestations repeatedly requires to be examined in order to be properly directed and maintained in its proper orientation it is certain that in his private dealings with those who he accompanied spiritually he often had recourse to the same kind of exploration of love that we encounter in his writings.


Moreover, to examine and speak of it has the effect of appropriating it more fully and of increasing its hold on us. Through discussion and expression of the deep things of the Spirit, and that includes love of God and the desire to be united with him above all, our sense of identity as children of God and members of Christ is strengthened and confidence in our convictions is enhanced.


St. Bernard took up this task for his own time as St. Augustine had done in his day. The theme of love was rediscovered in the eleventh century and became a dominant topic of song, poetry and courtly discourse. In fact, although all the well-known fathers of the Church wrote at some length on the theme of love of God, Bernard was among the very few who dedicated an entire book to a study of this topic, in addition to discussing it elsewhere, in letters and sermons. The abbot of Clairvaux saw clearly its importance for religious and by analyzing its characteristics not only demonstrated and described its stages in his work De diligendo Deo, (On the Love of God) but he also showed, in his book on De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae (On the Steps of Humility and Pride), a coherent and detailed account of its transformations. He traced its radical transmutation from self-love to the highest degree of adhering to the triune God in such intimacy as to become one in Spirit with him. He summarizes the content in the following terms.


Since we are carnal and born of concupiscence of the flesh, our cupidity or love must begin with the flesh, and when this is set in order, our love advances by fixed degrees, led on by grace, until it is consummated in the spirit . . .[xiii][xiii]


In order to form a conception of Bernard’s manner of assisting his monks to gain deeper insight into themselves in view of advancing in the love of God, we can hardly do better than examine his analysis of desire in his book On the Love of God. He presumably would employ the same kind of approach in the privacy of spiritual direction as he does in the book destined for a larger public. Bernard begins his investigation with stating a fact of experience that all readily admit: ‘Every rational being naturally desires always what satisfies more its mind and will. It is never satisfied with something which lacks the qualities it thinks it should have.’[xiv][xiv] By adducing a series of instances that display this natural law of behavior and which reveal the insatiability  and futility of pursuing desires that are driven by excess passion, the principle he enunciated assumes the more concrete and even vivid form of life. Desire fulfilled leads to increased craving when pursued without reason’s control; such abandon to unreasoning craving produces fatigue and restlessness rather than satisfaction of the appetite. Passionate desire is circular in its movement, never arriving at a goal that satisfies its appetite for more. In order to find the restful satisfaction of fulfilled desire, one must know himself. Being spiritual and possessed of reason the human person can rest only in that which corresponds to its nature. Material goods will never satisfy the mind. God alone can produce the rest of fulfillment for ‘he is the efficient and final cause of our love. He offers the opportunity, creates the affection, and consummates the desire.’[xv][xv] As he pursues this line of argument he presents God’s love with enthusiastic appreciation of God’s goodness to us and his desire for us. ‘No one can seek you unless he has already found you. You wish to be found that you may be sought for, and sought for to be found. You may be sought and found, but nobody can forestall you.’ Thus the abbot ends by showing how passionate and futile desire is cured through discerning that its very insatiability is an indication that it masks the craving for the true riches of the spirit, God himself. This analysis serves to introduce the description of the four stages of love. Thus it points the way to the transformations of this deep-rooted natural desire for God that, culminate in a love sufficiently pure and strong as to render a human person, elevated by grace, capable of sharing in the life of God himself. Although there is no indication that Bernard was following St. Basil in this line of demonstration, yet his argument is based on the same principle that the Cappadocian had invoked when speaking of the love of God in monastic spirituality.


The love of God is not something that is taught, for we do not learn from another to rejoice in the light or to desire life, nor has anyone taught us to love our parents or nurses. In the same way and even to a far greater degree is it true that instruction in divine law is not from without, but, simultaneously with the formation of the creature- man, I mean- a kind of rational force was implanted in us like a seed, which, by an inherent tendency, impels us toward love.[xvi][xvi]


It is natural, he affirms, to love the one who gives you life and intends you for himself. God is the efficient and final cause of love, says Bernard, thus affirming the same case in a more abstract language.



The goal of the spiritual life is the most intimate union with God imaginable. A sharing of all that one has and is with the Creator who fashioned us  with this purpose in mind. Spiritual accompaniment has precisely the purpose of assisting another to attain this end. For such a surpassing and noble aim nothing less than a metamorphosis, a restructuring of the person is requisite. Adequately to conceive the state to which we are destined and for which we undertake the great work of spiritual direction is clearly beyond our powers of conception. Even so eloquent and intelligent a mystic as St. Paul acknowledged that, although he experienced something of the highest realities of the third heaven, their character remained ineffable. He was reduced to employing an oxymoron in referring to them ‘arcane words’(_ρρητα _ήματα) [2 Cor. 12:4], that is to say, words whose content remains hidden. He affirms that this is not due to his personal limitations; rather, ‘no human being is allowed to speak them’.


Later St. John in the Apocalypse attempted to convey some impression of the glory of God in which we are called to spend our eternity. He wrote that when ‘I turned to see the voice that spoke to me . . . I fell at his feet like a dead man.’(Apoc. 1:12, 17) Ever since those favored with the highest experiences of God have attempted to suggest something of the nature of the goal for which we are destined. All have been candid is acknowledging the inadequacy of their attempt, and yet remained convinced of the importance of making the effort to provide some form of image that could serve as a guide to assist others to prepare themselves for their life in God. We are familiar with any number of these attempts, some more useful than others, depending perhaps as much on the character and taste of the reader as on the quality of the writing and the specific form of the underlying experience.


One such description that appears to me to illustrate most effectively the need for spiritual accompaniment that is ordered to the dynamics of transformation was written in the 13th century by a poetess who was influenced by Cistercian spirituality, Hadewijch.  In a poem she composed we find the lines that read: ‘Until you come to that luxuriant land/ Where beloved and loved one shall wholly flow through each other.’[xvii][xvii]  This depicts divine intimacy at the level of one’s very being, though the author is careful to point out that the being of God remains distinguished from that of the creature even while permeating its very substance. This imagery points up the active nature of our union with God so that we shall know our very being as existing in his being and realize that our most spontaneous and personal acts belong wholly to God while remaining truly ours.


We are made for mutuality, a mutuality that engages us completely. In order to become fully the self we are created to be we must cultivate our capacity for sharing all we are at every level of our person, not only the deepest center, which for most of our life escapes our focused consciousness, and all the hidden recesses of memory, but all our faculties and their operations. Spiritual accompaniment is, ideally, ordered to realize such a state of the person by itself actualizing it, as far as our present condition permits. Our Cistercian fathers held a view of spiritual friendship that approaches such a conception very nearly. St. Aelred formulated it at great length and in profuse detail. He was not alone, however; the writings of St. Bernard, William of St. Thierry and other abbots of the Order also reveal a similar manner of viewing the ideal relationship among friends. It represents very closely what we now call spiritual accompaniment.


Though he almost certainly did not advert to the fact, when Aelred presents God himself in the very essence of friendship, he was carrying to its culminating point the admirable doctrine on friendship in relation to the contemplative knowledge of God formulated by a fourth century monk in Egypt. Evagrius Ponticus had reflected intensely on this theme while living in the contemplative solitude of the desert and by experience came to understand that, far from being a barrier to spiritual friendship, solitude devoted to the contemplation of God favored it. His formulation of  this teaching is calculated to dissolve any objections to friendship in monastic life. ‘Spiritual friendship’, he writes, ‘is knowledge of God in which the saints are given the title friends of God.’[xviii][xviii]  He advanced this doctrine still further in a letter to a friend whom he directed when he observed that ‘Christ is truth and friendship. And this is why all those who possess the knowledge of Christ are friends of one another.’[xix][xix] Prior to Aelred this is the highest tribute paid to the doctrine of friendship to be found anywhere: to make friendship itself a descriptive title of the Lord Jesus. ‘Christ is . . . friendship’; this saying awaited a completion that was brought to it, as we shall see in a moment, by a twelfth century English Cistercian abbot. It is very probable that Evagrius had instilled appreciation for this theme in his more immediate disciple, John Cassian, who wrote with enthusiasm a conference that commended the desert teaching on Friendship.


St. Aelred was above all a perceptive pastor of monks, who consequently was intently concerned with spiritual accompaniment. Of him another outstanding abbot has written that ‘The major part of his writings forms a journal of a director of souls’.[xx][xx]  The abbot of Rievaulx then was recovering the best of ancient tradition when he took up the topic of spiritual friendship and brings to its culmination the doctrine on friendship by a bold expression that, unknown to him, complements the Evagrian affirmation that ‘Christ is . . . friendship’. At the end of Book One of his work On Friendship, he had equated friendship with wisdom. His friend, the young novice, Yvo, is at first perplexed by this affirmation, but upon hearing further explanation suddenly gets a fresh insight that, arguably, represents the high point of all that has been written on the subject of friendship and spiritual accompaniment. Here is the text.


That friendship cannot even endure without charity has been more than adequately established. Since then in friendship eternity blossoms, truth shines forth, and charity grows sweet, consider whether you ought to separate the name of wisdom from these three.

Yvo. What does all this add up to? Shall I say of friendship what John, the friend of Jesus, says of charity: “God is friendship”?

Aelred. That would be unusual, to be sure, nor does it have the sanction of the Scriptures. But still what is true of charity, I surely do not hesitate to grant to friendship, since “ he that abides in friendship abides in God and God in him.”[xxi][xxi]


Spiritual accompaniment attains its peak of achievement when it takes on the character of spiritual friendship. For to practice such a pure form of love is to recover likeness to God whom Aelred defines with the same term that Evagrius had used of Christ: “God is friendship”.  If we wish to know what true friendship is we must know God and, as Evagrius had said, share in the contemplative knowledge of him at its purest and best. By applying to this teaching the insights brought to the study of love by Thomas Merton, this Cistercian doctrine on friendship as a way to God that is formative of contemplatives, is brought into our own times and made more accessible. Merton, through the kind of analysis of love we have described in this conference, was able to give a moving, eloquent, expression to the understanding of love that he had arrived at after years of monastic  experience.


Love, then, is a transforming power of almost mystical intensity which endows the lovers with qualities and capacities they never dreamed they could possess. Where do these qualities come from? From the enhancement of life itself, deepened intensified, elevated, strengthened, and spiritualized by love. Love is not only a special way of being alive, it is the perfection of life. He who loves is more alive and more real than he was when he did not love.[xxii][xxii]


At the beginning of these conferences we saw that spiritual accompaniment was not confined to the limits of some formalized session, nor to well-defined areas of the spiritual life; rather its scope is as broad as life itself. Nothing that is human escapes its interest, and all that is divine and accessible to man’s sincere striving is its proper concern. As Merton had so well understood, life at its best is elevated to its purest and most noble expression by love. It is above all, then, with this theme of love in all its extension and its manifold forms, human and divine, that spiritual accompaniment keeps in view, and strives to purify and render more full and complete. If this worthy task is pursued with discernment under the guidance of love itself, then it will bear fruit that will endure unto life everlasting.&



[i][i].Sebastian Moore, Let This Mind Be In You. (London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 1985) 6.

[ii][ii].See especially Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth. (New York: W. W. Norton Co. Inc., 1950); also, Our Inner Conflicts (New York: W. W. Norton Co. Inc., 1945).

[iii][iii].Gregory the Great, Epistola V.46. Corpus Christianorum 140, p.340.

[iv][iv].Expositio in Ps.21, 11.

[v][v].Fr. Chrysogonus Waddell, Liturgy vol. 29 no.3 (1995)1.

[vi][vi]. Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 112, p.32 where it glosses Deo Volente 12¶4.

[vii][vii].Edward Vacek, s.j., The Eclipse of Love of God. America, March 9, 1996, pp. 13‑16.

[viii][viii].Plato, The Symposium, 180. B. Jowett, tr., pp. 308, 9. 

[ix][ix].Augustine, De  moribus ecclesiae, 23‑25.  PL 32:1321‑ 1322

[x][x].Cf. Dictionaire de Spiritualité 2.1, s.v. charité, 559.

[xi][xi].Augustine, The City of God. 15.22. (New York: Random House- The Modern Library, 1950).

[xii][xii].Augustine, The City of God. 14:28. 477.


[xiii][xiii].Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God 15.39, Emero Steigman, tr., Cistercian Fathers Series 13B (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications Inc., 1973) 40.

[xiv][xiv].Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God 15.18, p. 21.

[xv][xv].Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God 15.22, p. 24.

[xvi][xvi].Saint Basil, Ascetical Works, Sister M. Monica Wagner, C. S. C., tr., ‘The Long Rules’, 2 (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950) 233.

[xvii][xvii].Hadewijch: The Complete Works, Mother Columba Hart, tr., Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press 1980) Poem 4.11 p. ; see further Poems 35 and 36 and Letter 6, no. 350ff.

[xviii][xviii].Évagre le Pontique, Scholies Aux Proverbes, 69, Paul Géhin, tr. et ed, Sources Chrétiennes 340 (Paris: Cerf, 1987) 162.

[xix][xix].Evagrius Pontikus, Briefe aus der Wüste, Gabriel Bunge, tr., Sophia Band 24, (Trier: Paulinus Verlag 1986) 304.

[xx][xx].A. Le Bail, La spiritualité cistercienne, Cahiers du cercle thomiste féminin, 7 (1927), cited by A. Hallier, Un Educateur Monastique: Aelred de Rievaulx (Gabalda: Paris 1959) 134.

[xxi][xxi].Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, 1.68-70 Mary Eugenia Laker , SSND, tr., Cistercian Fathers Series 5 (Kalamazoo, MI, Cistercian Publications, Inc., 1974) 66.

[xxii][xxii].Thomas Merton, Love and Living. ‘Love and Need: Is Love a Package or a Message?’ Naomi Burton and Brother Patrick Hart, eds., (New York: Farrar, Strauss Giroux) 1979.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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