CISTERCIAN GRACE TODAY:
CONFORMITY TO CHRIST
What was the grace of the man Jesus? This is the crucial question for us. If it is our grace to be conformed to him, we must come to know his form, so that “as he was, so are we in this world” (I John 4:17).
Jesus was chosen to become the open door (Rev. 4:1) through which the Father’s saving love could reach and rescue the world. Receiving this love into himself through the anointing of the Holy Spirit, he gave it full authority over himself, and ceaselessly committed himself to act in accordance with it for the benefit of men and women. As St. Luke says so simply and beautifully, “He went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). This “doing good” meant real new life for the afflicted, the possessed, the outcast, the sinner - to everyone “with ears to hear”. Day after day, by his words and his ways, he introduced people into “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19), into the kingdom of God. The culmination of Jesus’ acceptance of and self-identification with divine love occurred in the giving of his body and blood, and in the self-emptying of Good Friday. By self-emptying, I mean the unreserved bestowal of the Spirit he himself had received without measure (John 3:34).
In relation to our Cistercian vocation, the first thing we must note in Jesus’ life is that it was purposeful - for our good. The Creed tells us that his life was propter : “propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem”. Jesus did not choose a career of philosophic contemplation - to be a professional in the enjoyment of God. “Though he had divinity within his grasp, he did not grasp at it, but emptied himself”, obedient to a mission received from the Father (Phil. 2:6). This purposefulness must mark and orient our living of the Cistercian charism. Whatever aesthetic beauty there may be in the ideal of a “useless” existence - pouring out one’s life before the godhead in the reckless abandonment of adoration, in an exaltation that does not permit the thought of other human beings and their needs - it is a beauty that does not “conform” to the life of Jesus. By our baptism, our entrance into his Body, we have promised to live in mindfulness of this Body.
The temptations of Jesus teach us the meaning of our asceticism. It is to consent to the gradual removal by God of the tremendously solid and resistant obstacles within us. It is the push of God’s grace to move freely through and beyond us into other people’s lives, the grace that has entered so abundantly into us, but so often finds itself stuck. “Stuck”, because as St. Bernard says, we truly are “incurvati in nos” and our convolutions make the movement of God’s goodness across us to others so slow and painful. One way of describing the goal of our asceticism would be to arrive at the realization expressed in these words of Fr. Christian: “My life is of no more value than any other. Nor any less value.” (Testament ). To know this is to be permanently changed in one’s prayers, behaviors and desires; to truly know it demands a long time of being baked in the desert. Certainly our asceticism ought not be debased into a personal process of spiritual fine-tuning.
Jesus’ common life with his disciples reveals to us what our life together must be. What is most fundamental about his shared life with them is that he loved them. This is the only convincing explanation for why he laid down his life for them, and it is the explanation that he himself gave (John 15:13). This personal love for each one of them and for them as community expressed itself in his call to follow him, in his making known to them the mysteries of the kingdom of God (Mark 4:11), in his patient education and impatient rebukes, in his teaching them to pray...and most simply, in his choice to spend his life in their fellowship. The same “greater love” that led him to offer his life for his friends had led him, at the beginning of his ministry, to invite them into his friendship. What is the depth of affection for one another in our communities? How often does the gauge oscillate between “indifference”, “irritation”, “repugnance”, and even worse, “obliviousness”, and how rarely does it reach the level of fraternal charity? We can say that we love our brothers, but the test of the genuineness of that love is its efficacy. Does our love actually traverse the distance between ourselves and them, so that it reaches, touches, rejoices and heals them? Why don’t we ask them?
Living a pre-Pentecost Pentecost with Jesus, when “the Spirit as yet had not been given” (John 7:39) but the effects of Jesus’ exulting in the Holy Spirit were already making themselves felt (cf. Luke 10:21), the disciples slowly grew into being one mind and one heart. As such, they knew themselves to have a common mission. Community of life for the sake of community of work/community of gift to the world. Jesus sent all of them to teach, heal, exorcize, even to raise the dead, and he never sent out fewer than two at a time. Thus, in their work for the kingdom, they were always gathered in his name and assured of a hearing by the heavenly Father (cf. Matt. 18:19-20). We need a greater communion of life in order to be able to identify and carry out our common work. And what might this work be? Today we are aware that it will vary somewhat from culture to culture, but we can assert that two words of Jesus will establish a certain context: “To preach the gospel to the poor” (Luke 4:18) and “My peace I give to you” (John 14:27).
The multiple multiplications of the loaves (Mark 6:30-44 and 8:1-9 and parallels) confront us with Jesus’ resolute compassion for the poor and rebuke our desire to expunge them from our mental landscape. How directly Paul expresses in Galatians his spontaneous conformation to Jesus’ point of view : “The only condition laid upon us was that we should take action for the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal 2:10). It is imperative for us to find our way to this eagerness.
With regard to peace: Jesus has told us that the world cannot give it, and this is a gospel truth our experience should make us smart enough to recognize. But we can give it, because he has given it to us. Part of our communal task will be to discover how to cherish, among ourselves, his farewell gift in such a way that “thousands around us may be saved” (Saying of St. Serafim of Sarov: “Have peace within you and thousands around you will be saved”).
What about our contemplation? What about his contemplation? For centuries we have drawn sustenance and self-assurance from the many passages in the gospel that refer to the
fidelity and frequency of Jesus’ prayer. Traditionally, they have been the more “contemplative” passages, the passages more open to a “tranquil” interpretation: “Jesus went apart to pray”; “Jesus spent the night in prayer to God.” It would be good to combine these passages with others, for instance: “This kind of demon can only be cast out by fasting and prayer” (Mark 9:29), “As he prayed, his sweat became like drops of blood” (Luke 22:44), and “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Jesus did not pray “for the fun of it”, as they say in English. Christus sibi non placuit (Rom. 15:3) He did not pray in order to become more divine or to experience the divine. His prayer was characterized by pain and urgency. He prayed that God’s kingdom might come for all people, and he prayed because he desperately needed the strength to remain faithful in doing and suffering what was necessary in order to bring down the Spirit upon mankind. To do this, he left himself utterly behind, a corpse upon a cross. God did not forget him: the resurrection is the joyful proof of this. We can trust that God will not forget us, and we can pray as Jesus did.
(The preceding is a text I wrote for the Remila Regional Meeting of 1998, held at El Encuentro, Mexico. Asked to expand it into a working paper for the 1999 General Chapter, I have added the following reflections).
The basic presupposition of the first part of this paper is that conformation to Christ means the acceptance of a messianic vocation. Jesus has done his messianic work, which is unrepeatable. And thus, instead of repeating it, he gives us the mandate, “You do it in memory of me.” He has furnished us with a complete training for this mission (“As the Father has sent me, so I send you”) - his words, his actions, his dealings with people, his encounter with death and his triumph over it. This training is no dead letter; on the contrary, it is Spirit and truth. Ingested seriously, it will give us the power to be who he was. But he himself has been removed from our sight, “not to abandon us, but to be our hope” (Preface of the Ascension). And from within the mystery of God, he waits and hopes for us to accomplish our task, and then to meet us again at the moment of the restoration of all things (cf. Acts 3:21).
It is important to realize that Jesus as “mediator” does not imply a Jesus who stands between us and all that the universe holds: God, nature, other people, suffering, our own hidden selves. A mediator is not a buffer; a mediator is a connector - and a perfect mediator is one who makes our contact with reality absolutely immediate. Jesus is that perfect and unique mediator who by his coming and his departure has placed us in vital confrontation with the Father and the entire range of the Father’s creation.
This is simply another way of expressing the unitive nature of our spirituality. In the fullness of Cistercian experience, God inseparably joins His own Spirit with our own, the Spirit that created the world, effected the Incarnation, raised Jesus from the dead, convoked the Church from the ends of the earth. The Spirit is not a “thing” given to us from a God who remains essentially exterior to us, not even a divine spark from a vast but distant fire. The Spirit is the whole God given to us, “oned” with us. We have him. This is what Jesus wanted: “I have come to cast Fire upon the earth”(Luke 12:49 ). What are we going to do with him, he who is burning coals thrown not only upon our head but upon our whole being?
As a way to initiate reflection, let me briefly touch upon three areas of our Cistercian vocation: love, suffering and filiation.
1) To believe that “the Love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5: 5) is to accept that henceforth, in this world, love resides in us. In our dealings with the members of our community, our guests, neighbors, the poor, society at large, we cannot say - consciously or unconsciously - “Let God do it. Let God love them.” There is no second God to love them. God has poured his Love into our hearts, and now it is from there that He chooses to operate. Perhaps we are not at ease with the option God has taken to do His loving from within the constraints of our self-absorbed selves. But we belong to a tradition that proclaims (and not just as poetry) a “love without limits” - a love realized by human persons that has no limits - and we see in people like Bl. Gabriella how much at home and how perfectly efficacious this divine Love can be within an earthen vessel. If it is true, as the liturgy asserts, that the Church is “the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit” (Preface of Sunday, 8), our responsibility to do God’s loving for Him is boundless. The breathless intuition of a modern religious such as Thérèse, “I will be Love in the heart of the Church”, cannot be strange to anyone who has accepted the paternity of the Cistercian Fathers, above all of William of St. Thierry.
2) “I fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his Body, the Church” (Col. 1:24). In every generation, the Church will have need of messianic sufferings. When love confronts evil - in ourselves as individuals, in other persons, religious communities, civil societies - there is always suffering, unless love cedes, and then there is the suffering to be endured by others, who were depending on us to remain faithful to the promises of our early love. It seems to me that within the Order today, our “irascible appetite” has been weakened: that capacity to resist what we recognize as genuinely evil, to “test everything, holding fast only to what is good” (I Thess. 5:21). There is an imperfect love, marked by fear, within our communities -within the superiors and among the members. It is a fear of one another, of the suffering that the Christian and monastic act of challenging one another’s evil could bring down upon us. Isn’t it this fear of suffering that is the chief obstacle in finding a workable way to reinstate fraternal correction, and thus to realizing the necessary reform and renewal within the Order? And the removal of this obstacle? It is to take upon ourselves the yoke of the last beatitude, “Blessed are they who suffer persecution for the cause of justice” (Matt. 5: 10). Christ entered into his glory through his suffering and he entered into his suffering through his confrontation with evil. It is for us to go and to likewise: to carry on, in our small way, his messianic sufferings by combating evil wherever we find it, beginning with ourselves.
3) In going to the Father, Jesus left behind him not one but many farewell gifts: his body and blood, his peace, his mother, his Spirit. All of them derive from the great gift he imparted at the very threshold of his departure -his relationship with his Father. “I am going to my Father and your Father” (Jn. 20:17). The Johannine training of the disciples, which began with servanthood and progressed to friendship, culminates in filiation. I go to the Father to give you the Father.
What does this relationship entail? Intimacy with God, radical obedience to God, testing by God. What does such a relationship demand? Prayer without ceasing and a life that sustains and embodies such prayer. From the time of the Egyptian desert, monks have understood that their monastic vocation was to be before God, to endure God (patiens divina), to be unmade, and remade as sons, “gods in the One” (Evagrius). In my own case at least - others will know about their own - I am subject to a terror in prayer, at the divine nearness, the farness, the being unmade, the being remade. This terror is assuaged by living in a way sufficiently imperfect to keep the Holy One at bay. “What do you want from me, Holy One? Have you come to destroy me before the time?” (Cf. Matt. 8:29) But I know the place is waiting for me - the place named Moriah, Jabbok, Horeb, Gethsemani, and most recently Atlas- and that, as a contemplative, I have to be there.
The Hassidic tradition maintains that in every generation thirty-six suffering just ones, unbeknownst to themselves and to their fellows, take on the duty to face God and to be the pillars of his creation. It is a good cause. Couldn’t we Cistercians contribute to that number?
Dom Bernardo BONOWITZ
Novo Mundo - Brazil