THE MONASTIC COMMUNITY AS A SCHOOL OF CHARITY

 

                                                                                                                                  Francis Kline

 

 

 

                                                      Introduction: A metaphor

 

 

Fraternal charity in the monastery is like climbing a mountain.  We look up at the summit, fixing our gaze on where we would like to be.  By desire, and by listening to the exhortation of the Gospels to love our neighbor as ourselves, we come closer to the top.  We arrive nearer and nearer to our goal by repeated conversions in compunction of heart, forgetting for a time our weakness.  We put on Christ in an ecstasy of love, in which, like him, we may love our brothers/sisters as he loves them in his Paschal Mystery.  But our love, forever weak and fleeting, just as our ecstasy in him, is occasional, not constant.  We fall down the other side of the mountain, having had the knowledge and the experience, remembering the enduring mercy of the Lord.  Our charity may fail, but his love is everlasting, and the memory of it, to which we hold fast in the community, sustains us and helps us to go forward until we have reached the promised land.       

 

 

                                                       Christ in the community

 

 

In the monastery, we aim to achieve the perfect love that casts out fear (RB 7:67).  This love, of course, is the love of Christ.  The whole of the structure of the community, as envisaged by the Rule, is built on this love of Christ.  Its sole purpose is to foster this love.  The Rule speaks of preferring nothing to the love of Christ (RB 4:21; 72:11), and believing that the Abbot holds his place in the community.   By the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, Christ and his love are present and acting in individuals and in the community which is a local Church, and thus the very Body of Christ.  We understand, too, that the Liturgy of the Hours, because it is Liturgy, is also the locus for the presence and action of the Paschal Mystery, whenever the community is gathered to celebrate it.  The presence and action of Christ is the place where God's love for us is palpable and effective.  And that love is given and received throughout the Body, the community of the monks.  This love, naturally, is what we strive to put on more and more.  It is the very program of the Rule to which we are vowed.  The point to remember is that in the monastic community, it is already present and acting.  The exhortation of Jesus, which, though not quoted in the Rule, but which can certainly sum up its message, For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you (Jn 13:15), is not too high for us to reach.  More than an ideal of misty and mythical proportions, the fraternal charity to which we are invited, calls us to become what we already are, alive in Christ, living no longer for ourselves, but for him and for all those for whom he died and was raised.  Thus our own salvation cannot be considered without practicing the love that binds us necessarily to our brothers in community, that is, to Christ.  Having been called to this love before the foundation of the world, we are now called in the monastery to clinch that love in an eternal possession.  By its very nature, his love becomes a power mounting up to a personal transformation.  And this new person communicates and receives love through the  frail instrumentality of community life.  Often we realize the significance of exchanges in the community as pregnant with the love of Christ only after they occur.   Our individuality can now be glorified in Christ, instead of slipping down into the abyss of sameness with the transgressors.  The monastic way, therefore, is the way of the Gospel made possible in the Paschal Mystery of Christ.  It is a proclamation addressed to those who, in the multitude of people, hear the Lord calling them to himself and offering the gift of true and eternal life (veram et perpetuam vitam [RB Prol 17]).                   

 


                                                   Christ as the ecstasy of God

 

 

The action of Christ's love in us needs further examination.  Since it is so strictly derived from his own love of the Father, we may approach the Revelation with this question in mind: What is the nature of the love between the Father and the Son?  Here, we necessarily withdraw from trinitarian theology, because a more ample treatment of the topic at hand would have to involve itself with the circumincession of the three Persons.  Put quite simply, God goes out of himself to come to us.  He comes to find us, so that he may take us back with him where he is.  The divine economy works within the Trinity when the Father sends the Son to redeem the world by the power of the Spirit.  In the Johannine theology, it sounds thus:  I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father (Jn 16:28).  Far from lessening his godhead, God reveals himself as God precisely because he goes out of himself (in Greek = extasis; in Latin = excessus; in English = ecstasy?) in an ecstasy of love, the obediential love of the Son for the Father in the communion of the Spirit.  The mystery here is in the nature of love, that it shares itself by going out of itself.   Since Christ is God, we can say that God goes out of himself when Christ goes out from the Father in obediential love.  At the same time, Christ is God's love for us.  Christ, then, is an ecstasy of love.  And by reason of his humanity, the ecstasy, which Christ is, becomes our bridge with God.  In him, our union with God is made possible. 

 

 

                                              The ecstasy of God and ourselves

 

 

So now, with this Christ planted in our hearts, or, rather, we planted in the heart of Christ by Baptism, and by the monastic life, which is the development of our Baptism,  any love we exercise is going to be of this same nature.  The love planted in our hearts does not change us automatically without our consent and without our action.  But it builds a bridge across the immense chasm that separates our lowliness from God's majesty.  Christ, in his ecstasy out from God, is the bridge from God across to us, and our way back to God.  Christ's ecstasy is also our ecstasy.  We do not walk to God, acceptable and accepted, as we are.  We go to God in the only way that is acceptable to him as God, through Christ who also is God.  Our finitude becomes infinity.  Our paltry reason, so rooted in self preservation, leaps up to the folly of the Cross.  What is proper to us and our culture, gets overturned in the divine construction of the bridge which is Christ.  Not only must our sin be forgiven, but our nature must be transformed, before we can approach God, before we can satisfy the unsatisfiable urge which God has planted deep within us.             

 

 

                                                The ecstasy and the Scriptures

 

 


The Gospel writer understood the going out of ourselves in an ecstasy of love in the story of the sinful woman (Lk 7:36-50) and in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-24).  In the former, we hear that a woman in the city, .....who was a sinner, having learned that he (Jesus) was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment.  She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.  The remarkable detail here is that her conversion takes place before she decided to enter the Pharisee's house.  What went on in her mind?  Who had touched her heart?  Do we doubt who it was?  The Pharisees saw only a degraded sinner who was rendering the Master unclean and doing the unpermitted and the unthinkable in public.  But what they could not see was her conversion, which accomplished two things.  It opened her eyes to the terrible sin of prostitution (if, indeed, we may imply this from the story) by showing her own degradation.  But it also simultaneously convinced her of her own glorious call in Christ.  How else could she have felt degraded?  Degraded from what?  And in the conversion moment, by some miracle of God's mercy, she was steeled by the glory, so that she acted upon it.  God called forth from her some hidden fount of goodness that even her own reason could not see, but that his eyes, being that of the Creator, could see.  She got up from her contrition, with her heart pierced with love, and made her way to the Pharisee's house, and performed one of the richest acts of repentance in salvation history.  So great was her love, and, what is more, her trust, that she broke with custom and the religious legal tradition, touched the body of Our Lord, showed and celebrated her emotion and repentance, and never doubted his forgiveness and mercy.  She went from prostitute to saint in a very short time, in an ecstasy of love, from which, had she considered it carefully, she would have backed off in fear.  

 

Using this Gospel story as the structure for his own image,  St Bernard describes how the Beloved begins the ascent to love in the act of repentance at the feet of Our Lord.  But having received this first love, she rises quickly, rushing to kiss hands, but knowing all the time, in an ecstasy of love, that she desires the kiss of his mouth.  Pushing aside all considerations of prudence, custom and propriety, and trusting blindly and wildly in the exuberance of his mercy, she makes bold to seek, to knock at and to desire what she has no right to, but which she knows he intends to give her.  In that moment of union is the mystery of the human person, derived from the mystery of God's own inner life.              

    

So, too, with the parable of the Prodigal Son, we find the same kind of conversion and spontaneous move of love which turns the guilt and repentance of a wayward son into a celebration of homecoming.  Self-knowledge is the key here for the double movement which takes place in the heart of the Prodigal.  As St Gregory explains it, the son came to himself after having fallen beneath himself when his degradation reached its lowest point in his hunger for the food of swine.  He realized his awful position, but, instead of wallowing in his guilt and shame, he reasoned with a heart that trusted his father beyond all justice and right.  He returned home upright, with the bearing of a lawful heir, seeking his father's face.  He did not cower over with fear, because his trust overcame all else.  In the same way, he was drawn out of himself when his father met him and kissed him and brought him into the celebration.  He became more than a son forgiven.  He became the object of lavish joy.

 

 

                                        The ecstasy of love and fraternal charity

 

        

The ecstasy of the love of God, based on conversion and led forward by the overriding desire for Christ, is the foundation for the experience of God in the monastery.  It leads the monk onward from personal conversion and the consolation of God's love, to the gradual transformation of his whole person, and, importantly, to the love of neighbor which is the logical locus for his love of God as it moves outside and beyond himself.  So we see that this ecstasy, once begun in Christ, is the beginning of Gospel love and the charity to which we are called in Christ Jesus.  As Christ went forth from the Father and came into the world, he took the world unto himself and returns to the Father with all of us, that is, all those who accept him in faith.  Christ, therefore, has redefined God, so to speak, by including in the love of God all those for whom Christ died and has taken to himself.  Our ecstasy, too, must reach out not only to God in the heart, but also to our neighbor, even as the parable of the Good Samaritan suggests. 

 

 

                                         The community as the locus for ecstasy

 

 


The monastic community is the school of charity precisely because it provides the structure whereby our conversion to God continues from its beginnings to take firmer and firmer root and to spread out from the interior to the exterior, that is, from a personal relationship to God to our entire personal culture and to the brothers with whom we live in community.   But we have seen that charity is more than doing good to our brothers.  It is the gift of Christ one to the other.  If, in solitude, we can go out to God only in an ecstasy of love, so, in community, it is only in an ecstasy of fraternal charity that we can reach out to God where he is present saving the brothers.    

 

                                  The community as a living structure of the Spirit

 

 

The community derives its organization and its governance from the Gospels and their interpretation in the monastic tradition.  So the rank of the community is not based on wealth, class standing or education, but on the time of one's entry into the monastery.  Work does form the bulk of the monastic day, as it does in most people's lives, but finds its place in a balance with the Opus Dei and Lectio Divina.  Within this structure of personal and sacramental prayer disciplines, we are to respect the elders and love the juniors  (RB 4:70).  But at any given moment of the day, we fail to live the Gospel as the Rule enjoins.  Out of fatigue, bad humor, misunderstanding or even resentment, we may fail to live up to Gospel precept.  In a kind of positive neutrality, we may be oblivious for the moment to the needs of a brother.  But a negative neutrality may also allow us to hide behind the rules of silence when we know that someone is in need of solace.  At times, we may be confused by the demands of competing goods.  To act may be charitable.  To speak during the Grand Silence may be intrusive.  To nurse a grudge is wrong, but to speak peace before I am truly ready for it does violence to myself and the situation.  Behind the structure of the Rule, stands the open empty field of discernment in so many areas where the fine line between charity, which demands a certain freedom with guidelines, and an excessive and unbalanced involvement in charitable works, is barely visible.  But there are also whole fields of inactivity between persons in a community which are barren because nothing needful has ever been sown there after the destruction of a violent argument or parting of the ways.  The community ends up always going around this empty space where a little war between or among community members has found no peaceful settlement or means of reconciliation.  In each case, discernment on a moment by moment basis throughout the course of the day invites monks to live an already charitable life on a deeper level, or to reach out creatively over personal hurts to be reconciled to a brother or to the whole community. 

 

 

                                    The structure of prayer practices and ecstasy

 

 

Even when we know the right thing to do, we are often little prepared to act on it.  Mountains of personal resistance to real creative love often stand in our way.  Psychological tangles and briars long in the making stifle even the most willing steps.  Faced with this onerous reality, we have recourse to the basics of the tradition where fraternal charity has always been the hallmark. 

 

Frequent prayer, stemming from a bedrock prayer practice of meditation and lectio in the early morning or at the prescribed times, is the basis for living the Gospel precept of fraternal charity.  Here is where the structure of the life is the most dynamic and the most unpredictable.  At every corner of the cloister, there may be waiting the monk who for us may be the victim of robbers left by the wayside.  Shall we pass by, on our way to some duty, or, more likely, on our way to some activity of our devising?  At any moment, are we ready to answer the Gospel question?  If we are frank with ourselves, we must admit that often times we are not.  But, in Christ, who may find a willing heart when he knocks on our door, we may find the strength.  Continual prayer, however, is the only way to prepare ourselves for these possible encounters with Christ in our brothers.  And it will not be we or our power that responds to a brother, but we,  lifted out of ourselves by the Spirit's power, may come to another's need in what can only be described as an ecstasy (excessus).  At times, we may not even be aware of the Christ experience that another has had through us.  All the better to avoid the thought of pride.  We have only to remain in the prayer of the heart, based on solid prayer disciplines given us in the daily schedule. 


The same holds true for encounters with the brothers that go on in our mind.  Here the discipline of the thoughts and the struggle against the Eight Principal Thoughts is paramount.  Christ makes his appeal in the mind, which so often is the battleground of contention and the harboring of evil.  Without ever a brother knowing what has taken place, we may prepare ourselves to go out to him by Christ's power, because, when alone, we prepared the heart by refusing to listen to troubling and hateful thoughts.  The gradual transformation by the love of Christ must eventually deal with the interior attitudes and thoughts of the heart.  No amount of reasoning and psychological awareness of motives and causes can change the attitudes of the heart.  They can only put off the day of reckoning when our true feelings are manifested by outward actions.  And here, only the ecstasy of love can go out to a brother over the dead wreckage of injury, abusive behavior and disdain.  Forgiveness, and the willingness to ask for forgiveness between two estranged brothers, can only be achieved across the bridge which is Christ.  We must go up onto that bridge.  And we cannot except in a movement of love empowered by Christ's Spirit following the dictates of Christ's words in the Gospel.

 

   

                                                             Love is episodic

 

 

Fraternal love is more than an attitude.  Love calls daily, moment by moment, and makes specific demands on the human heart and mind.  The demands of love are episodic.  They wax and they wane.  Like the very breathing of the heart, they are present now in our face, and now they relax and fade a little.  They read like a constantly jumping graph.  For love is good passion, a response, a need.  When we speak of fraternal charity, then, we must mean love as if it were written by a dot-matrix printer -- a reality which can be seen and described, but which is made up of thousands of little dots, each one with its own life.  Taken altogether, those dots mean love.  But they are hardly ever looked at singly.  Every act of authentic love probably has had a thousand antecedents which were less than love, mere attempts at living the Gospel.  But considered cumulatively, they constitute a virtue well planted in the heart. 

 

 

                      Love considered through the stages of life and communities

 

 


The cultivation of fraternal charity, if it is to be more than an amorphous and artificial universalist good feeling, must lead to mature relationships between members of a community, which, in turn, web by web, weave the fabric of unity in the community.  What is more, within those mature relationships, the gift of Christ is exchanged, from ecstasy to ecstasy,  and the roof of the human community is raised up to the exaltation of the human in the divine and the divine in the human.  That is to say, the monastic community can be introduced partially, at least, into the Reign of God.  The same holds true for the Order as a whole.  Despite the scandals of self-seeking and personal disappointments, the disloyalties due to fear, the pride, the ambition and self-preference, beyond the misunderstandings which often feel like an active persecution and sometimes are, despite the nationalism prevalent in the Order, and the lack of tolerance between cultures, all of which seem to invoke as a response the fourth degree of humility (RB 7:35-43), we can look forward to something better.  In Christ, in the growth of communities, not just in numbers in new places, but also into the twilight of old age, and into new possibilities hitherto undreamed of, we see a wonderful complexity of love given and love received on all sorts of levels and intensities, based, not on personal preference, although individual personality is always involved, but more on the gift of Christ to one another.  The relation of opposites, of master and disciple, of father and son, of fat brother and thin, of the poet and the carpenter, the musician and the farmer, all give completion to the participants.  Even the pairing of actively and impossibly opposed parties, over which fundamental societal divisions flourish, can be harnessed for the sake of energy and the good life:  the literalist and allegorist, the lover of facts and a lover of larger truths, the librarian and the philosopher, the idealism of Plato and the transcendent realism of Aristotle.  Fraternal charity accepts the challenge of an enduring relationship, in and out of circumstances, of the shadow of authority, of the horrible glance of jealousy, of the unspeakable sadness when one outgrows the other.  How can we form the word loyalty here?  How can we mime the word love?  When the well of unselfish love runs dry, and we find ourselves having to face the new self-serving stance of a long time friend?  Does this not lead us back to the deeper disloyalties and scandals of failed parental experiences, of abuse and moral bankruptcy in the family, in the school, at the workplace?  If monastic life is to be more than a flight from all these human disappointments, then we must seek the ultimate and ontological expression of fraternal charity, and not its mere articulation in academia.  This we find in the love of Christ for us.  For it is to this love that we run to when the human heart of a friend turns away.  When structures and policies of the Order suddenly pit two people against one another at a Chapter or Regional Meeting, when rigidity snaps the cords of understanding that formerly bound two people together in friendship, then the love of Christ alone can sustain the wounded heart. And this love, forged in the heart by Lectio Divina and prayer disciplines has staying power that binds our own hearts to him in such a way as to begin to re-enter and salvage those failed relationships which stand as so many wrecks floating on the sea of community life.   Then, we can cautiously begin to bring back a modicum of trust and loyalty even as we safeguard the knowledge of our brother's weakness.  We can forgive, as if we have forgotten, because we, too, have been forgiven.   This love is never the same.  It is fallen and redeemed.  But, like a weld that is stronger than the original metal, the refashioned relationship can send out shoots to the unseen world of the saints, to ultimate reality, and help form this world out of the stuff of heaven.

 

 

                                                             A final metaphor

 

 

Instead of climbing mountains from one ecstasy of love and/or forgiveness to the next, we might begin to view the love of God as a gradual diminishment of boundaries and limits, both personal and communal.  Ecstasy does take us out of ourselves, and, more and more, we may find that it is alright to stay out there, removed from our own concerns, even though the air can get thin.  We develop the lungs for it.  We begin to trust the experience.  And we taste in oh so tremulous a way what unlimited life is like beyond the grave.  The experience has to do with more life, not less; more love of more people, and in this is the richness of God.  Even time and space recede before the energy of ecstasy.  We become more like fire in the stubble than climbers of dizzying heights.  We return to the People of God and find there our fertile field, spreading out like a sea seeping into a low field when the tide is in.  The stature which we receive from Christ does not put us higher that the others, but more transparent to their needs, more sagacious in their affairs, greater than our own finiteness.  In the realm of being, monks roam free, thanks to Christ and his ecstasy, and inaugurate in themselves and in their communities the Kingdom of God for which we are all longing.      

 

 

                                                                                                                        Dom Francis KLINE

                                                                                                                             Abbot of Mepkin