HEAR, O MY CHILD . . .
ASCOLTA, O FIGLIO . . .
A Spiritual Commentary to the Prologue of St
HIS is not a commentary to a text, but rather
meditations provoked by reading it. It always seems to me that
the themes that I have seen in the Prologue to St Benedict's
Rule are really the fundamental themes of monastic
spirituality. It is traditional in the history of spirituality
to meditate upon a text, and not to desire to comment or
analyze, but rather pour it out as prayer. The text suggests a
theme that the mind then develops freely, asking only that one
be obedient with simplicity to the ideas that raise up certain
expressions in one's inmost being. Though it would have been
easy many time to refer to other texts even of the same Rule
to add value to the teaching, I preferred the flow of a
discourse that without any systemitization could humbly bring
interior prayer. The book that results therefore has no
scientific pretense. It is a word from the heart and desires
to speak to the heart: cor ad
Ausculta, o fili, praecepta magistri, inclina aurem cordis tui, et admonitionem pii patris libenter excipe, et efficaciter comple; ut ad eum per obedientiae laborem readeas, a quo per inobedientiar desidiam recesseras.
Listen, O my child, to the teachings of the Master, and incline the ear of your heart and accept willingly the rules of your loving father and with all your might fulfil them; so that you turn through the labour of obedience to Him from whom you withdraw through the sloth of disobedience.
Spiritual life is thus essentially a relationship. If you are closed up within yourself, and refuse love, virtue is worthless, the greatness of virtue measures, thus, the depth itself of your perversion, telling of your distance from God.
This is why St Benedict first of all insists upon this teaching. To live is precisely to establish a relation with God, and to deepen this each day, each day making Him more intimate and living.
The relation of a soul with the Lord is thus to be made more intimate through the progress of prayer and the exercise of obedience. Each relationship with things, with those who determine our human lives, should open into a relation with God in such a way that all our action should be an act of obedience to the Father's will. So in eating or drinking (as St Paul said) we should not be drawn from our relation with the Father, but ought to live in humble obedience our relation with Him and make all our life the fulfilling of his will.
But we ought to see this relation more deeply if it is so fundamental, we ought to see how this relation is established and how it ought to become each day more intimate and living. We will see this if we analyze what St Benedict tells us in the Prologue.
A Vocation begins our pilgrimage to the Lord. The soul enters in relation with One who calls it. And God can thus establish the relation, it is His initiative and is manifested in a call that we ought to hear, to which we must respond.
Religious life of itself begins with these words, 'Ausculta o filii', 'Listen, O my child'. It is in listening that we become God's children, God's sons and daughters, God's family, accepting the Word, becoming ourselves this same word.
It is required that the soul not refuse this relation that God established with it, it is necessary that it open itself to accept the word, being attentive to it.
He speaks, but we cannot hear him; God begins this relation of love, but we can refuse the relation even at the beginning with refusing to listen.
We ought to live constantly in a state of interior compliance, in humble and pure waiting. Each day we ought to respond to the Lord the words which he said one day to the young Samuel, 'Speak, Lord, your servant is listening'.
The relation is established through words. And it is in words that God communicates with us. A communion with God is a listening to the word and is in responding to Him. This relation is first of all a school, but a school that is a communication of life. The disciple is called immediately, 'son', 'daughter'.
The teaching which the Lord gives is truly a teaching of life itself; we who listen to him become his son, his daughter.
The spiritual fathering is carried out through teaching. God is the Father in the revelation that He makes to us of Himself with his Son, in the gift of his Son who is the Word. Even St Paul has fathered by means of the Gospel the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 4.15).
The fundamental theme of the Benedictine Rule is Fatherhood. The whole monastery depends upon the Abbot, and the Abbot, the image of Christ, exercises his fatherhood through a mastery, a teaching. The monastery is the 'school of divine servanthood' and the first task of the disciple who would be a son, a daughter, is that of listening to the word of the master, of accepting the word which gives life.
The master is truly a father: he does not give in fact in his words, anything other than himself, but he gives himself.
The word of God is God; if He speaks to us, he gives to us therefore even Himself. The master, teaching, does not establish with his pupils a relation of paternity as does God because he does not communicate, at least necessarily, life.
God communicates His word, communicates always Himself; establishes always with the disciple a relation of fatherhood and the disciple lives with the Master a filial relation, as his heir, his son, his daughter. It is a school sui generis, the school of God; it teaches life, the disciple assimilates Him who teaches, because he does not receive a teaching different that Him; thus the perfect disciple is like the master, as Jesus said in Luke's Gospel.
'Admonitionem pii patris libenter et efficaciter excipe': it is truly from the beginning a filial disposition of love which ought to distinguish us who enter in relation with God. You cannot live a relation with God from the beginning, but as a relation as His son, His daughter. To be father and to be son, to daughter, one cannot say is anything but to live a communion of love. If he is Father, he cannot give you anything other than Himself; if you are his son, his daughter, it is not enought to listen, you ought to abandon your self to Him in a loving and free obedience.
Our reply is as the Incarnation of the Word. Our reply is the same word of God become its fulfillment. A law that is fulfilled, a prophecy that is realized.
Spiritual life there is not ethics, being purely supernatural, it is not even wisdom: it is first of all a relationship. We know what a thing divine life is; each divine Person in God is relatio et subsistens, a pure relation of love: nothing else. The Father is only the Father, the Son is only the Son; the Father is all for the Son and in the Son, the Son is all for the Father and in the Father. Each divine Person is this total ordering of itself in the other related Person.
Now Christian spiritual life is truly participation in divine life. Inasmuch it is participation to the relation of the Son we are sons and daughters in the Son.
There is no word that is greater in all the Rule, because there is no word that is greater in all the Gospel.
The Prologue opens, 'Ausculta, o filii', 'Listen, O my son, my daughter'. And you are son, are daughter; we cannot live our relation with God if we are not His Son. From that of the Trinity God is cause of being, is the Prime Mover, but from that of the Trinity, God does not reveal His mystery, He does not enter into relation with things: He lives, says Pseudo-Dionsius, in an infinite, eternal solitude; He transcends in so doing all creation, which thus has no possibility of ever entering into a personal relation with Him. God himself does not enter into relation with things; God does not know us but in Himself, and it is even in Himself only that he loves us; he does not leave Himself. If therefore we can live in relation with God, it is because of divine grace that in some way introduces us into the bosom itself of the Trinity and makes us participate in that relationship that constitutes the divine Persons.
We are sons and daughters of the Son through contemplating eternally the face of the Father. It is this which we say at the end of the Canon of the Mass: 'Praeceptis salutaribus moniti et divina institutione formati audemus dicere. . .' We can say, and we can dare to say: 'Our Father, who art in Heaven' because in some way that strengthens us and gives us the power to pronounce these words, Jesus' command, of whom we are His members. We are one with Him; for this we live His very life, a purest act of love to the heavenly Father.
Spiritual life in St Benedict is first of all expressed, is manifested as a relation. This would be to say is all in Christian life: whether the virtues are the expression of this relation, or whether otherwise we maintain ourselves in the Trinity's mystery. A person can be obedient and believe in nothing; a person can be chaste and have no relation with God. It is the theological virtues which make the Christian and establish and realize this personal relation of the soul with God. I live if I live in love, I live if I contemplate the Father; I live the Christian life, if I enter into a personal relation with a 'You', a 'Thou'. As the Son is none other than the personal relation of love with his Father, so is the Christian. Inasmuch as we are Christians, in so much we live our spiritual vocation and, even more, inasmuch as we live our monastic vocation, inasmuch as we are this pure relation: 'I and You'. If God is absent from our life not only are we not monks, we are not even Christians, even if we have all the virtues. And this relation of the soul with Him which defines the Christian, because being Christina is being in Christ, a being that is in the Son, a being in Him who is pure act, an eternal, infinite act of love, born of the Father, eternally returning to the Father.
Spiritual life outside of Christianity, can know the beauty even of the highest spiritual experience; one thinks of the mysticism of Plotinus, of Hindu mysticism: but this absorbing into the One would make even us Christians dizzy if we even thought about it a little. It doesn't make us paragons: what distinguishes Christianity is prayer: the child who says a little word to God lives already on a plane infinitely higher than that of the mystic, lives an absorption into unity, the experience of the spirit: because the one praying enters relation with Him who transcends, not only the physical world, not only the visible world, but even the invisible and the spiritual world. In fact each prayer implies an ascension, brings us to participate in Christ's ascension: in our prayer we are lifted up above all and from all to join even the heart of God.
Life is first of all relationship.
The Prologue begins this way: 'Listen, O my son, my daughter'. God is a Person with whom you can desire or not to be in relation; but you ought to will it and you ought to live this relation evermore intensely, in such a way that all your life, within certain limits, becomes one sole prayer, one sole aspiration to God, one sole desire that impels you to Him, one sole aspiration that carries you incessantly to Him, so that you can be in His Light for ever. 'LISTEN, O MY SON, MY DAUGHTER'.
The theme of relationship is bound to the theme of the word: Listen. It would say there is someone who speaks to you. Spiritual life is a relation which is established between two persons; and the relation between these two persons is practically realized in the word: it is in the Word that God communicates to me, it is in the word that I communicate myself to Him.
But what is the Word? At the extreme limit it is the Word Himself of God, because what can God do , in speaking to me, but give me His Son? And what can I do, in speaking to God, if I do not carry the only begotten Son to the Father? The Christian's highest prayer is precisely this carrying to God His Son. Remember what St John of the Cross said in The Living Flame of Love, 'The soul will never be content, nor God ever satisfied with the soul, unless the soul carries God to God, in God'. God can never be content with only Himself. Thus God can never be content unless we carry to Him His Son. That this giving and recieving is lived not only in the mystic soul, but all the Church, and is lived precisely in the highest action of its life, the Mass. The memory is thus underlined and translated and explained: 'Offerimus praeclarae Maiestatis tuae de tuis donis ac datis' (and the gift to the Father is the Son) 'hostiam puram', The Father gives us the Son, and we should give to the Father the Son; and raise Him in our poor hands even to Him.
But inasmuch as God communicates to us His Word so is required the soul's interior disposition. Genesis says that God spoke and everything was made: this language is anthropomorphic. How can God speak when there was none to listen? It treats of Creation. God does not speak to nothing, but he speaks to us, because we have ears that can listen: 'Qui habet aures audiendi, audiat, quid Spiritus dicat Ecclesiae', we read towards the middle of the Prologue. These words are from the Apocalypse, 'Who has ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church'. Thus we have ears to listen to God. These require this relation of love between ourselves and God, this particular disposition of attentiveness, to receive what can be accepted of the Word of God, to be able to hear God, to receive Him in us.
This requires attention to a Word.
Who listens is 'son, daughter'; who speaks, according to the Prologue, is 'master'. The relation of the son, the daughter, does not fulfil the relation of the soul towards God. The only begotten Son before the Father is not a disciple and the Father before the only begotten Son is not a master, but when we speak of humankind, of divine paternity and of human filiation, we mean a continuing progression in intimacy. The relation thus can always become closer, deeper. St Irenaeus already taught this in Adversus haereses, God has always taught us and we have always to learn from God. To be sons and daughters: we are not that ever enough. Baptism makes us Sons and Daughters of God, while our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount told us 'ut sitis filii Patris' 'Be your Father's children'. Are we not sons and daughters? We ought to become this even more, because we can never transform ourselves into the Son of God. If we can never transform ourselves, but we ought equally tend to Him, what an immense journey unless it open to the soul this divine intimity! God is the Master. We ought to learn to be always his sons, his daughters, because He Himself teaches us the way to reach Him. Divine Fatherhood towards us is carried out through in a schooling.
Spiritual life is seen thus as teaching. This theme will be found even at the end of the Prologue, 'Constituenda est ergo nobis schola dominici servitii'. The monastery is 'a school' to which we go every day: The Master is Himself and we, his disciples. And this is what distinguishes, according to St John's Gospel, Christian life, after Jesus gave his Spirity, 'et erunt omnes docibiles Dei', 'and all were taught by God. An interior Master who gently informs us, teaches us, accompanies and guides us, who raises us ever more closely to Himself.
How great is the richness of this language! In the reading of the Rule we ought not to do so hurriedly, because even if the Rule is not inspired, it is nevertheless a word which has nourished innumerable generations of souls, so dense is it with teaching and with life.
'Et inclina aurem cordis tui', 'aurem cordis', the attention of the disciple is a loving attention. One only learns inasmuch as one loves. And the teaching requires the fact that there is profit: the disciples ought to learn.
Another great theme in the Prologue is that of the fulfillment of a word. The word is always read through the soul, read so that the soul ought to fulfill it, 'et efficaciter comple'. The fulfilling of a divine will naturally comes about from obedience, and it is this theme with which the first part of the Prologue concludes, 'so that you can return through obedience to Him from whom through the negligence of disobedience you were distanced'. The requirement of obedience was never before so affirmed as St Benedict affirmed it in his Rule, making of it truly the base and fulcrum of all religious life, of all Christian life. But Christian life supposes sin, obedience therefore is a return. St Augustine in the Confessions teaches that we through sin are as if exiled into the region of false appearances, 'in regione dissimilitudines', thus the journey of the spiritual soul is a return to Paradise to be newly created in the image and likeness of God. All our life is a return and the return requires a journey. In St Benedict it will not be a simple journey, but a race. How many times we return in the Prologue to this term of a race! St Benedict does not want lazy souls, he wants fervent souls, souls that won't hesitate too long about where to place their feet, not touching the earth, they would fly!
We need to run to reach God: the distance which separates us from Him is infinite, and only in a leap can we overcome it. If we go only on foot, we will always remain at the beginning.
I have outlined very briefly the themes of the Prologue; now I want to recall the first, relationship.
We ought to note that the spiritual life is first of all and above all a relation of love. If God ceases to be the 'You' to whom the soul turns, all life collapses in landslides, is lessened. We are so made that we feel we are only alive if we live for someone, if we live for something. Who does not live the religious life can have the illusion that life has a certain meaning if one works for someone, if one loves someone. Outside of the religious life one can very well create for oneself the illusion that one's life is worth the pain of being lived; in reality outside of religious life there are never enough relationships, living being a mutliplying these relationships endelessly. Whatever relation we have with a creature, it is not enough to pour out the infinite possibility of love that is in our heart. He who is a son before his parents is not only a son; he needs also independence in his life, and ought to live also for some other creature. Thus the husband cannot live only for the wife; he also lives apart, he lives his profession, he lives his art. He needs to live in relation to many cretures because it is not sufficient to live for one alone; but God can truly consume all our life, not only now, but for all our eternity. God on the other hand consumes the life itself of God: the Son only has the Father, the Father has none but the Son. If God is enough to God, why are we not enough for each other? We ought to note that as much as we respond to our vocation so much does God become the all of the soul, becomes the One whom the soul knows, the One whom the soul loves. All our life until its end ought not to be other than a unique aspiration to God. Desire, hope, love; all impels us in one direction alone, on one journey: towards God's face. We ought to feel this because this is essential to all Christian life. You are not made other than to live the Christian vocation until its final consequence: there is no difference between the active life and the contemplative life. There do not exist an active life and a contemplative life: what exists is the Christian life, which is consumed in the contemplation of God. What does the Fourth Gospel say about the only begotten Son? 'In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum . . .' This 'apud Deum', in Greek, 'pros ton Theon' would be to say, 'before God, in God's presence, in the face of God': all the life of the Son is a turning to the Father, for love of the Father, none other. This ought also to be so for us, for every Christian, but for us it ought to be more so than for others, not because the others are not called to live this same life, but because we wish to anticipate in the present life the future life. The other Christians wait only for tomorrow, after death, to live in the face of God. We have chosen to live today before the Face of God, because already today we desire to live in Paradise. Why wait for tomorrow, when now Paradise is alreay opened? Why want to wait for tomorrow is we are in sight of the Father?
Christian life is relationship. Augustine is right: the one difficulty, the only real impediment to Christian life, is egoism, selfishness, that self love that makes us revere ourselves. If you revere yourself, you no longer live a relation of love towards Him. Habitual egoism can be a hindrance, a danger even greater than sin. Sin remains sin, but the consequences of sin in turn is not so grace as are the consequences of a habitual attachment of the soul revering itself. This soul bowed down to the self, as St Augustine said, is hindered from turning to God, not even seeing the sky.
'Our Father who are in Heaven' we say, but if one is bowed one cannot turn to God, one cannot look up, one cannot any longer see his Face; one has lost the contact, has broken the relationship. What does such a one live? Only one's misery, not living except to die.
Freed from ourselves, not living any longer for ourselves, but for God: this is the first requirement of Christian life, a continual liberation from ourselves. This is needed: for the soul to only exist for the divine 'You'. God alone! But how can the soul live this relationship? As a personal relation with God, if one can also abstract particular feelings, but not that of the sense of relationship, based on the word that God turns to me. It is in fact the Word of God that only can begin the relationship. If God does not first speak, you can not speak to Him. Your word cannot be but a reply to His. But if He always speaks to you and you listen to His word, how can you live the relation with God, except with responding to Him? Thus to Christian life prayer is essential. A great master of spirituality in France, P. de Condren, said, 'as essential as our breathing, so is prayer essential to the Christian'. Prayer is like the breathing of the soul; without prayer the Christian dies.
Holiness is measured precisely through the journeying in prayer. In fact St Teresa of Avile described the journey of the soul to God as a road of prayer. The 'Journey to Perfection' is translated quite naturally as a journey of prayer.
Prayer is essential, it is the form itself of life for us, if to be Christian would be to say to live a relation with God. When now we do not live a relation, we risk at least compromising our advancement in the divine life. Nothing can compromise our progress more in the interior life than infidelity to prayer. One cannot ever be faithful to prayer and continue faithful to our sins, to our voluntary negligences, to our more or less deliberate venial sins.
To live a relationship: and always first to speak of our living a relationship, requires us to see, to recognize that this relationship cannot but be established with us. Let it be first said: we cannot speak without listening. From this the importance that is recollected because our prayer seases to be such and is purely formal if we lose that minimum of recollection that permits the soul to hear God. Our prayer is a reply. Woe to the one who lacks the minimum of interior recollection: this recollection is the condition of true prayer. How many souls there are who believe they pray and yet never pray! They are only absorbed in speaking themselves.Their word is not to anyone, it is only a speaking to themselves; in fact while they say such prayers they but go knowingly or not into phantasies, imaginings, thoughts, worries, memories: God is not absolutely present. That must not be for us! We ought to live our prayer, paying heed to the need for recollection: 'Ascolta' is the first word of the Prologue.
But what is it to say to listen? What is it is so
Chapter One: Our Relation to God
Monastic life is nothing more than Christian life, because there is nothing greater than Christian life, lived in its perfection: it is essentially a relation, a relationship of love. But in this relationship the initiative is from God, we cannot speak to Him if we do not reply to a word that He first has addressed to us; the word that He tells us is thus normative of our response.
One of the greatest renewals of contemporary spirituality has been just this: the recognition that there is not first ascetism and then mysticism, but that first comes mysticiam and then asceticism. If it is God who has the intiative, the soul from the beginning is passive regarding grace, it could be more or less conscious of this passivity, but the passivity of the soul before God comes before whatever its own movement towards God. The rest is the traditional doctrine of the Church: not to recognize it would be heresy. The Council of Orange had already defined it; not only the act of faith underlies a gift of grace, but the Council defined that even the 'pius credulitas affectus' is the work of God; and thus even the desire to believe implies the secret action of grace. It is always God who acts, we do nothing except follow the divine act, we do nothing but cooperate with grace; while grace precedes our actions, precedes whatever movement of our soul, and inasmuch as the soul is holy, so much is it pliant to the powerful action of divine love. The growth of the soul in holiness does not imply working at this harder: it implies instead a suffering more of the divine action, implies an ever more complete abandonment. Thus does the Virgin respond to the word of the Angel, 'Ecce ancilla . . . fiat mihi', 'Behold the handmaid . . . be it done unto me'. That 'fiat' is passive. Our Lady does not do, she lets God do everything in her. And this is our cooperation with God: to hinder it as little as possible so that the Omnipotence of God is manifest in the soul itself, because we have this power to check mate the same divine omnipotence.
God is first, not only in so as he ought to be the first to be served and loved, but first also because He himself is the Prime Mover. Our moving is dependent on His.
If Christian life is essentially a relation, we ought always to be more aware how in the relationship we ought first of all to listen. There is nothing wiser in the Rule of St Benedict that the first word with which it begins, 'Listen'. What ought we do? Accept God who comes. It will then be God who will make all to the measure that you have listened to him.
But why ought the relationship of God with the soul to be expressed with this word or with this law of listening? 'Listen'. Why does the Rule not say first contemplate, or taste the Lord? A great truth is expressed in this word: not only our dependence upon grace, but even the character itself of grace which God communicates. I can say 'Look at these windows'. The seeing does not that the windows want to be seen: they exist, you have eyes, it is sufficient to open them and see them. But if I say, 'Listen', this word implies that there is one who speaks and speaks to you, and wants to communicate himself to you.
Not only God is, but he also loves you. God not only is infinite and eternal Being. He is also the Father who communicates with the Son; and more, he is the Person who turns to you and wishes to eastablish a relationship with you of love: he speaks to you.
By itself to contemplate does not necessarily imply that the object wants to enter into a relationship. But if it says to you, 'Listen', it is a sign that Another has turned towards you and wants to speak to you, and wishes to communicate something to you. The word, 'Listen', more than any other can thus teach us not only the priority of divine action, but the character of this action, which is an action of love, of personal love, where the Son wants you, wants to speak to you, communicate with you, His design of love. Why do we not fall into ecstasy? God speaks to each one of us, communicates himself to each one of us! Nor is that the only thing: it is enough that this be and you see him; God is One who desires you, who bows down completely before your littleness. your noughting, to offer himself to your love.
If I speak my word I do not speak all myself; I would want to say more; I would want even to hide myself; speaking so many times and saying nothing, or even saying what is not the truth. Speaking we do not succeed ever in communicating ourselves totally; from this our words are successive and many. They say always something, when they say something; but they never say all, nor can they say this. In the worst case they can, not so much give ourselves, as much as conceal ourselves.
But God is not so; speaking He communicates, not something of Himself: God is One, is absolute and eternal Simplicity; if He speaks, He cannot but say one Word and that Word cannot but communicate Himself infinitely. He gives himself all in one Word only, which eternally he says. In this listening to God, the soul opens to accept the infinite gift itself of His Being.
Certainly the Word of God once we have listened to it, refracts itself as if through a prism, and becomes `all words', but this multiplying depends upon us, not upon Him who speaks: depends upon our limited capacity to accept His Word. Pseudo-Dionysius in the 'Theology of Silence' says that as the soul is taught to accept God more more (I am saying it in my words) so much more need is there that the word of God multiply itself, because the soul receives something of that infinite Being through the many words, through the many teachings. As much as the soul becomes more perfect, so much more does the word of God become focussed, become assumed, and when the soul is truly perfect, then the soul accepts the Word of God in a pure, infinite silence. The Word of God identifies itself now with the silence of eternity.
In Paradise God will communicate with the soul eternally, infinitely in the Word and the soul will deepen into the infinite silence of Divinity gathering this one Word, to become itself in some way this Word: 'laus gloriae', the praise of glory.
Here it is not so, we have need of the Word of God being refracted in so many words to be taken in by us. This is because the words that God says to a soul seem different from those he says to another. The Word of God is adapted to each soul, so it can be accepted and because this soul slowly simplifies itself to transform itself into the one Son of God.
The word of God in itself is equal, but each one of us listens, in a different way.
The word 'Listen' can be, thus, all one's life. Not only does God himself communicate all, but he communicates himself always. He who is Unchanging. All our life is but an accepting of this God who eternally gives of himself: not only gives himself infinitely, but eternally. The life of the soul can truly identify itself with this pure listening, with this sweetest attention paid to Him. God is not only the one who gives himself, it is not only 'now' that he gives himself: in God there is no 'now' or 'who': or better He is the 'Now' and the 'One' eternally. Wherever you are, whatever now you live, God communicates with you.
'Listen': the word is absolute. There is not time here, there is no place here in which this word does not echo for you; there is no time, there is no place in which God is not communicated to your soul, does not give himself in the Word that comes to you.
What is this word? 'In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum'. If God speaks to us, he communicates, I would say, Himself. I ought to make this clear, the Father gives us His Son; because the Word of God is the Only Begotten Son. To listen to God is to accept Jesus. God cannot say to us any other word; because He has no other; the Word of God is his Word, it is the Only Begotten Son. But note the teaching which St Benedict gives us, implicitly, in the Rule: the Word which God communicates to us, is a word which is read, is a word which prophesies, is a word which ought to be fulfilled by you; is the word which in you ought to become flesh. This is the Christian life: it is like a prolongation of the divine Incarnation. The Word of God communicates itself to your soul, because you becomes its 'mother'; all Christian life is participation in a divine maternity. The Father gives birth to the Son; he is born of our same womb and the Word of God is born in our poor heart to live with us, as he was conceived and born of Mary's purest womb. Certainly we shall never live the divine maternity that Mary did, but we share in that maternity. Did not Jesus say in the Gospel? 'Who is my brother, my sister, my mother? Those who hear my word and do it'. To put it into practice is so to say to conceive and give birth to the Word, according to St Francis of Assisi and St Thomas Aquinas. The Word which is the law become flesh in your life 'et efficaciter comple' adds the Rule. God says this Word to you, so that you fulfill it. He say to you this Word so that it become in you the reality of your life. If you do not do this what thing is your life? It is lost. What is eternal if not God only? And you participate in life to the measure that we participate in His, to the measure that you will be associated with this infinite mystery of divine life. If we meditate just a little!
'Listen . . .' he says to us; not treating of listening to the words of a man, but of listening to God. He does not treat of listening to a word of God, he treats of listeing to His Word. He does not treat of listening to a word that is like that of men, inefficacious; he treats of listening to the Word that is divinely efficacious because it is God Himself: he does not treat of listening to a word that is accidental, to treats of listening to a Word that is the Word Himself of God, who is the Only Begotten Son, and he treats of it being gathered into our poor heart. This is because 'Listen' basically recalls all spiritual doctrine, all theology, implied in Luke 2, the account of the Annunciation of the Angel to Mary.
But if this is true, the word 'Listen' in the Rule tells us something else: God always communicates Himself to each soul, but he does not communicate Himself directly, because in our present life his relationship to us is not immediate. We must live in a sacramental economy. Most Holy Mary did not receive the Word directly, she received it through the message of the Angel, 'Angelus Gabriel', says the Gospel. The Angel Gabriel went to the Virgin called Mary, 'et ingressus ad eam dixit: Ave gratia plena'.
'Listen', says St Benedict's Rule. Who is it who speaks? The 'Pius Pater' and the pious Father is the Abbot, St Benedict. In the words of St Benedict it is God who speaks. This is to say that God speaks to us through mediators. The mediator for the word God for our soul is the Abbot, are our fellow brothers and sisters, are even the events of our lives, eveything. We ought not to put into brackets the world and things in order to enter into direct contact with God. We shall never enter into direct contact with God until we can live in the present life. The immediate contact with God is only in the future: it is the beatific visions. Here God speaks to us through all and everyone. And we ought to have such faith as to know how to recognise and to listen to this divine Word in the words of all other things. 'Listen': certainly first of all the words of the Abbot, for those who live in a monastery, but not only that word; we ought to recognise in listening to the divine word in all things, through all events, that God always speaks to us. The eternity of God is translated for us, if we listen in time, into his continuity. He speaks to us continuously.
Such delicacy is needed for the soul to maintain itself always in listening through all things! You can seek to put things in parenthesis to maintain yourselve in a more immediate contact with Him, but your recollection cannot ever be so profound that you can exclude all contact with things and with people. From this it comes about that the relation that one can have with things and with people ought to be translated into a relation with Him. There is nothing here that is profane, there is nothing here that by itself is separated from God; Thus all by itself ought to communicate to us the Lord because through all He truly communicates himself to us.
Listen, accept God through all, in all, always. This is the Christian life. From this is the necessity for a contemplative life not only for those who live in a monastery, but wherever: for those in the city, in the countryside, for those who go to market, to the office; always the soul finds itself before God. Who lives in a monastery is certainly more fortunate than others because he can achieve better how the divine word is always turned continually to the soul. After original sin the things, the events, can, yes, be the means through which God communicates to the soul, but in reality these have become opaque and can even draw us from divine nearness. The soul can be closed up in them and not join the Lord through them. For those who live in a special atmosphere of recollection it is easier to accept God through things, in each instant. We ought to remain attentive before the Lord, not differentiating between actions, times, places: God is everywhere and loves us everywhere. God is always present and always loves us. Loving us always, in all places, He gives us Himself and we always and everywhere ought to accept God. And this is the contemplative life.
'Listen' says the Rule. How great all this is! How magnificent! 'Listen': does it not seem to you already a programme of life? Do you believe that this is enough for being holy? It is the first word, and that is sufficient. Even so, we are such poor things that we need of many words to receive even half of one. For this reason I will continue to speak to you. If you always have listened even to just this one word, you have no further need to listen to anything, but to maintain yourself truly before Him who loves you, in pure loving attention to accept him in yourselves.
Before God who speaks, the soul first of all ought to maintain itself in a state of attention. One part of our being ought to be always ready for God; we ought to constantly live in a certain interior recollectedness. The silence, the recollection, are essential conditions for this continual act of faith and of adhesion to Him to whom the Christian life calls us. This is why, if God speaks to all, monks and nuns are in the most favourable condition to welcome him. Because life in a monastery is all taken up with conserving the soul in an atmosphere of silence, of spiritual recollection. One does not change the divine vocation, which is to be sons and daughters, 'ut sitis filii Patris vestri', but the conditions can be changed to be more or less fabourable to living this vocation and monks and nuns are in a particularly favourable condition. Nevertheless the conditions for recollection if they are only exterior are not sufficient for keeping the soul intent upon Him. A personal responsibility is desired; recollection ought to be the task of each one and that recollection is different for each soul. Not only is the responsibility individual, but each soul lives that recollection more or less, to the measure to which they are capable of listening. A saint's recollection, even if it seems more distracted than that of others, yet is greater than that which is always there in the silence of a monastery, because a true saint is no longer distracted by anything, but through these events only receives God. One needs to be with one's eyes open, so that one sees Him only. We ought not to be with closed eyes or even with lowered eyes, so that they be opened to everything, but through all happenings only receiving God. Though we could stand with our eyes open and see none but Him. We ought to stand with our eyes closed, or at least with our gaze lowered, because if we opened them to all things, we risk no longer seeing Him; if we listen to all discourses, we risk not listening any longer to His Word. Recollection for each soul can and must be different.
All spiritual life in the Gospel is summed up in two laws only: 'vigilate et orate', watch and pray, which Lallemont translates as 'custody of the heart, obedience to the Holy Spirit'. The divine Word to which we listen requires a personal recollectnedness; if God communicates in full measure, in what profound recollection the soul ought to rest! What pure attention to the Lord will distinguish the life of the soul itself! If you live this attentiveness continuously, all your life shall be a communion with God! Each act of your day shall be a receiving of God, the communion on the part of God is never interrupted; if it is interrupted it is because the soul does not accept it.
Live this eternal communion of love, welcome the Word of God. Let your soul listen to this God who speaks and conceives in you His Only Begotten Son; accept him, keep him in yourself with a jealous care, with that spirit of adoration and of love, with which the Virgin kept the Word of God in her womb. Live in continuous communion with Him: this is the Christian life.
'Listen', said St Bernard, 'Listen', you repeat each day, you will repeat it tomorrow, always: it is not a word that can ever be surpassed. The soul cannot say more to be transformed itself into Christ. Gather, then, each day, each hour, each instant the divine word, because its being becomes a a living tabernacle of God, even because we are in some way assumed into the Word, and finally transformed into Christ. Then will come about what was asked by Sister Elizabeth of the Most Holy Trinity: 'Let my humanity come up to His, in which He renews His mystery'. God does not ever renew His mystery, he continues it; or better yet, he makes it present in our humanity, and it is this that we ought to fulfil even in us, to live to be a presence of Christ for all souls.
The Eucharist is a Sacrament, and the Sacraments are 'propter homines'. What does this mean? We are as the purpose of the Eucharist. 'Propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit . . . et incarnatus . . . passus . . . resurrexit'
'Propter nos homines': the Incarnation, 'propter nos . . . ': the Eucharist. The entire mystery finds its fulfilment in the fact that God gives himself: communicates with me to live in me. What greater thing is there than this! We ought to be Him: much more than a tabernacle, because in the tabernacle the marble remains marble and the gold, the silver and the tin that contain the consacrated Host remain gold, silver and tin; nothing more. But God cannot communicate with me and leave me that which I am; He communicates to me so that I am assumed in some way in unity of life with Him, so that we are one body, one spirit only with Him.
'Listen', therefore, and accept, O soul, the Word of
God, to transform yourself finally into Him whom you love.
Chapter Two: Obedience
Listen, O Son, O Daughter, to the precepts of the Teacher, and incline the ears of your heart and accept willingly the admonitions of your loving father and with all your might fulfil them; so that you return through labour of obedience to Him from whom you were distanced through the sloth of disobedience.
It is said that mysticism precedes asceticism, which is true. While it is also said that we live in a dependenc upon God, we are not aware of this dependence except through a journey of interior purification: while it being He who moves us, we are not aware of this, unless it be that we become lighter, as when carried by the breath of the Spirit.
The word of God which is a precept, 'praecepta magistri', ought to elicit from us its complement. How? Practically all this requires obedience as the substance of all religious life. The road that ought to lead the soul to God, according to the words of the Prologue, is obedience: 'ut ad eum per obedientiae laborem redeas'. It discusses a return, and one can only make this return through walking in obedience. It says more in the Rule: through a painful, exhausting journey. We ought to explain these words. They seem untrue, why?
Remember the parallel between our vocation and the word that was returned by Mary to the Angel; not only in our present life does God speak to us through intermediaries, but even the efficacy of our response to God depends upon our abandonment. Our cooperation is to allow God to act, according to Mary's words themselves: 'Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum!'
For this one must first arrive at this pure passivity! Most Holy Mary can be so because from the beginning she was perfectly pure. To reach this purity we need to learn to walk, and to walk on foot, and the journey is long, and it is slow! the distance separating us from God infinite. It is said, we need to fly, but first we must put on wings. First we much want the task of obedience. Ascesis comes after mysticism, but from the beginning we ought to take on with our full strength this ascesis, we ought to live this with all our might, taking on this task willingling from our response to God, so the more will we experience the omnipotence of grace which will help us, sustain us, illumine us, guide us.
The content of the road of the soul is obedience; an obedience that is at first wearying, then becomes always less so, gradually while we journey on, until it becomes complete willingness, even pure and total abandonment. At the end the soul ought not do anything other than allow itself to be loved by God, allowing itself to be possessed by Him. In fact it since he has asked us to walk we ought to be ourselves taking each step, at least we have that impression. Then when we want to, we shall stop. Effectively in spiritual life our journey is as much more rapid when we stop, stop in God, unchanging in Him. He himself carries us, raises us, lifts us up! But first we need to walk. Then the journey of obedience proceeds towards abandonment, and the abandonment becomes as more perfect, as much as we become stable. It is not a simple action, but a permanent state of the soul.
At its base everything is here: all spiritual life consists in little things. Christian spiritual life is so simple that one can say it consists in this: in listening and in obeying, and the one thing is not without the other. When one does something, but does it perfectly, in which one thing all the others are contained. Does not perfect charity imply the perfection of all virtues? Thus in every act we live all life when we shall be perfect.
But before being this, obedience is not purity, purity is not poverty, poverty is not mortification. And we weary in exercising all virtues, and we ought to live this weariness generously, without becoming exhausted. In spiritual life our youth is renewed to the measure of our generosity. One does not become tired because tired, because one gives much, one becomes tired because one gives little. The weariness in the exercise of virtue we feel is not because we are generous but because we are slothful.
For St Benedict, drawing on the rest of Eastern monastic spirituality, obedience is the constitutive act of religious life. Without obedience there is no religious life, not only in the legal sense, but in the larger meaning, because it would not even be Christian life. In Catholicism practically the exercise of every virtue is always resolved in obedience, precisely because we do not ourselves the inititiative, but we ought to depend upon God. To live is to say to depend upon Him who is our Creator, the one who cannot be except through obedience. For this even faith, in Catholicism, is obedience: obedience is a teacher.
I don't know if you have read a novel written by Cardinal Newman after his conversion, Loss and Gain. In this novel he speaks of an Anglican who converts to Catholicism (obviously this novel is autobiographical). In an interesting page a friend of this convert asks to believe in all that Catholics believe, but does not feel the necessity to make himself, for this, Catholic. Is it the content of what we believe that determines our father, or is it the obedience to the word of God? This is the problem which Cardinal Newman takes up. And he resolves it precisely in these terms: the Anglican who believes in all that the Catholic believes, believes in nothing, because he does not believe in another apart from himself; at the conclusion of his reasoning; he does not trust in the word of God.
We are assured of believing truly in God if our act is an act of true obedience; for this the Lord has desired that his divine revelation comes to us proposed by the infallible teaching of the Church, because we would be assured against ourselves that our act is truly an act of faith, in an act of obedience to the Magisterium. God surpasses me, God transcends me: were it not for the Church's Magisterium you would not ever be sure of believing in God rather than as a conclusion of my reasoning. How could you truly be sure of beliving? I believe in so many things independently of revealed truth: I believe for example that China exists, but this is not an act of supernatural faith . . . I believe also in my feelings, in my senses: I believe I see, for example, but with this I do not execute an act of supernatural faith, I execute an act of faith in my eyes; I think that my eyes do not delude me. But in all this there is not supernatural faith. If I believe in a truth that the Church teaches me, but I believe it not because the Church proposes it to me, but because in studying and restudying I discover that that truth is credible, in what do I believe. In my intelligence, I do not believe in God. The problem is another thing: the problem is whether we can know with our intelligence as the truth a propositioon of the Church's Magisterium, but this is another question.
Without the Church's Magisterium we are not assured of believing in God. Now to believe is to say to obey the Magisterium, also that faith is obedience. And so says the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans: we ought to believe forcing our intelligence to such obedience, because belief is a reasonably homage to God.
Also in Christianity love is obedience. In the sermon after the Supper Jesus said, 'If you love me, obey my commandments'. Observe the divine commandments, is precisely to ovey; thus no Christian lives in a relation with God except through obedience. What is obeyed whether out of faith or out of love does not depend on the object of obedience, but its motive: He whom we obey is God; that is in the exercise of this obedience we live in direct relationship with God. But is it not the theological virtures which put us in contact with Him? This obedience in fact becomes faitht, because to put ourselves in direct relationship with God, we believe in His word, becoming charity, because in this obedience we renounce our will to live God's own will. Even for Our Lord himself charity means obedience: He lives the relationship of infinite love with the Father, as the Only Begotten Son, in obedience. 'Meus cibus est ut faciam voluntatem ejus qui misit me', 'my meat is to do the will of Him who sent me', said the Lord at the disciples' return, when He was found with the Samaritan woman. And he also said, 'Quae placita sunt ei facio semper', 'I always do what pleases my Father'.
Jesus' life is obedience. Naturally this obedience is so perfect that it is identical to his love, and thus his divine love translated into human terms, is the infinite love of the Word which is incarnate in a human life, and is lived in single successive acts by Him as man. There will be no difficulty for us if we conceive all our religious life as Christians, as souls consecrated to God, in terms of obedience. This is so true, that in the ancient monastic spirituality, especially in the Rule of St Benedict, there practically was no vow of chastity, nor a vow of poverty, in as much as these are enfolded in that of obedience. The vows of the monastic life, more than came to be recognised legally in a later time by the Church (Poverty and Chastity) are instead: the vow of stability, that of the 'conversio morum' and the vow of obedience: above all the vow of obedience includes the others. Thus the virtue of obedience constitutes Christian life and even more that of monastic life.
Obedience is all, but obedience requires strengthening because there is already sin. To obey is to say to mortify one's will. Even for Our Lord obedience was to the death and to the death on the cross. Even He had wanted to feel this travail. Not for Himself ought He to have felt any difficulty in obeying his Father, 'Non mea sed tua voluntas fiat'! 'Not my will but thine be done!' Not for Himself but because He assumed mortal sin. With sin we turn ourselves against God: to obey would be to say not for him to die to his own will. To die to one's own will is a thing that costs, that ought to cost. Nevertheless to die is not necessarily a penalty, is not necessarily a death. In some way we can say: in heaven we shall only live our coming less to ourselves in the presence of God. We shall not therefore live but our dying in that ineffable presence. Even death here below will be without punishment. Our dying is painful is so much as we live consciously or unconsciously in opposition to the will of the Lord; in so much as our nature after sin is found inclined, turned no longer towards God, but towards itself, bowing to itself. To the measure therefore that sin lives in us, obedience not only brings death (it will always bring death, but a blessed death: 'Beati mortui qui in Domino moriuntur'), but it will also bring pain and labour, 'Per obedientiae laborem', says St Benedict. We need to labour to the extent that in us there is still a certain opposition, even if not consciously so, not voluntary, but instinctive, to divine will. Not wilfully, but instinctively it feels that Jesus. because even Jesus feared death, ought to suffer agony accepting and embracing the Father's will.
'Per obedientiae laborem'. As long as we are not dead, we ought to die, and until that death gives us that pain, we ought to suffer. But God does not want our suffering, and we cannot say or should not say as did St Catherine of Genoa, 'Lord, I do not want to suffer, because while I suffer, it is a sign that there is something in my nature that opposes Your will'. What is St. Catherine of Genoa saying? She was wanting to live the perfection of charity that in God transforms us in such a way that one comes less to oneself, one's dying not being anymore the soul suffering, but joy. But first we can say that we ought to will suffering, and right to the end, without which God cannot give us even an ounce, because until we can die, we ought to die, and until we can suffer, we ought to suffer. We ought to pass through all martyrdoms until we are no longer capable of suffering, until in us there will not be any opposition to divine will.
When. Probably only in Heaven. Even St Catherine of Genoa suffered in dying; as it is said in Marabotto's life about her. She could cry out 'I don't want to suffer', but even in her desire there was no more opposition to God, there was not anything in her physical nature that recoiled from pain, and from the disfiguring of death.
For this, despite all, even from that of death, but in reality it is death which seals a life, even in the saints. The supreme act of human holiness is always for all in the dying, and always for all the separation of the soul from the body, the definitive exit from this world; even for St Teresa of Avila. And we ought to tend toward death, and want it even now, and desire it precisely in as much as it ought to be the supreme act of our love; which is right because in that act we can live the consummation of a union with Him, in the definitive and total gift of our being to the Lord. Not only of our will, not only of our intelligence, but of our body. Why do we want to drag this out? A definitive and total gift without any further possibility of taking it back; because once dead, we are dead. Those who have preceded us in death do not return to us, are thrown into God's bosom, lost forever in that infinite light.
'Per obedientiae laborem'. The essence of religious life is obedience. If this is true you understand how the religious soul hungers for obedience. Justly Our Lord has said to us that he is the food of those who do God's will. We should be so famished! When it is not possible for us to exercise this virtue in fact, we ought to feel how it could be this food which would sustain us, without which we would die. We ought to be as hungry for obedience as for bread. If the religious soul were tempted to be drawn from this virtue, all that it had done is lost, even despite mortification, even if doing great work for the Lord. God has no need of your great works. What can the Lord do with all human work? What can he do with all the work of the saints? Our Lord has done less than all the saints on the visible level. Through works, He chose your heart, He chose your will, the one thing he could not possess without you.
'Bonum obedientiae': this is St Benedict's conclusion. The good of obedience is all here: not in the works you do, but in the fact that through this work, or through this act, you abdicate yourself, and give yourself to God. I am not my body, I have a body, but I am my will; I practically identify myself with this will which is the supreme act of human existence. And in the gift of my freedom, of what is my will, it is that I really give of myself, it is that really I live my dedication to God, and it is that I really love Him.
'Bonum obedientiae'. We ought to hunger for obedience, because it is precisely through this that we can live the gift of ourselves continuously to God, and giving ourselves to Him, He can possess us. He can assume us. How can the Word of God be incarnated in us, through using the ends that we used at the beginning, if we do not give ourselves to Him? How can He possess us if we do not let him possess us? Can we become His body ('Unum corpus multi sumus, omnes qui de uno pane et de uno calice participamus') if we do not give ourselves to the Lord? Obedience is only realized in the gift of ourselves to God. The Lord does not see our works, but our heart. Whatever is of the world, whatever is immense is reduced to nothing! What might be the final purpose of sacrificing so many lives, in such constant immolation of existence, in monastic chastity, poverty, obedience? No human work justifies the sacrifice of a will that is greater than all these works. The sacrifice is will simply for this immolation itself. What counts is our dedication to God, not works, which through this dedication are fulfilled; it is not works which count, so much as the gift of oneself. So there are monastic souls in which all this work is ruined. Our Lord permits this so often; the destruction of monasteries, the need to flee, leaving the house, abandoning the works, going hither and thither, come what may. These are things that happen in religious life; they have always happened and always will. But this is as if to say nothing, because these do not block in themselves our living equally the religious life. That does not consist in this or that, it consists in living our dying to ourselves, in the gift of ourselves to God.
'Bonum obedientiae'! This is what counts! If the Lord wanted great deeds he would have chosen wiser men, more intelligent, organizers who were more capable. . . But generally it is not so. God has no need of all this, the apparant result does not interest him, the human one, of history. History? And what has he to do with history? In five hundred years what will remain that is of such importance today? If we live for history we live only to die. What counts is love, is the cleaving to God who alone remains immortal, it is our union with Him, our transformation into Him that alone is left, the gift of ourselves to God, that obedience assures. This is because the Lord can ask, and has asked many times, so that we ought to obey one less wise that us, even one that does not seem wise: God can ask that we fulfil through obedience that thing that goes against the most elementary criteria for a good result, the Lord can go through obedience even to the end result of such things.
As to what obedience costs us, we cannot avoid it, we ought to assume all the suffering that obedience brings to us; but we ought to assume it with the certainty that to the measure that we are generous this suffering will be changed. When the soul no longer knows opposition or conflict to divine will, then it finds peace, and rest; it finds this in renouncing its own will. And when the soul does not recognize the will of the Lord, so that it feels lost, as if it has not longer any valid support, as if it has been abandoned in some way by God.
'Per obedientiae laborem', the travail of obedience, in reality, requires a will in us that can even be in opposition to divine will, since it requires a human will.
What we ought to do, we ought to do conforming our will, with all the strength belonging to it, to the divine will. Religious obedience is never identical to loss of will. One lacking in will power should never be accepted by a monastery: one who is incapable of acting, of having his own will, lacks the right to enter a religious house. One enters a religious house to die there: but if you do not even have the power to die, because you are already dead, what can you do? Obedience ought to truly bend our will, we ought to conform our will to the Lord's will, which is expressed through the Superiors. To obey does not mean to sleep, not to be spineless. To lack will isn't obedience. There can be two religious souls who seem equal in obedience; but the one who is obedient is the one truly exercising obedience of will in renouncing oneself, and living the real gift of oneself to God.
In consequence of this obedience does not exclude the spirit of initiative, it does not exclude the openness of the soul to the Superiors. This is right because the Superiors are in position to call from me even the sacrifice of my self, my total immolation, who ought to have the sense of a real responsibility regarding the souls they direct and in these souls ought to be the awareness and the full acceptance of what this obedience could impose: death. Even if I speak, even if I open myself up, my openness cannot ever circumvent the superiors because they have my obedience, but my opening is somewhat the condition that my sacrifice may be fulfilled in a more authentic religious mode. From my part, the sense of a willed passion, as for Jesus, 'oblatus est quia Ipse voluit'; in the Superior with the sense of his own responsibility for the one making the sacrifice, certainly not being pleased in the immolation of his own children, but knowing precisely what price the act had that is requested for the good of the monastery, and above all for the sanctification of those themselves whom the Father loves and could not love in a more true way, than asking of them the sacrifice of themselves; because this is love. If he were to spare you, he would not love you, he would leave you to yourselves, not to God.
'Ut ad eum per obedientiae laborem redeas' Through obedience one returns. Why does one return? And what does this return mean? 'Redeas', in this word is implied an entire theology. We are distanced from God through sin. And even from the first sin, with the Creation. 'We were in God', said Blessed Jan van Ruusbroec, and so also Eastern theology believes; we were in God, were God in God from eternity because we were already in the word, the exemplary cause of all things, certainly not distinct from Him. But God has really wanted as separated from Him with the creation. Has He really wanted us separate from Himself and for ever? Our life is a return to God. We will remain distinct from Him, while we are not Him; distinct from Him, as the human nature of Christ remains distinct from divine nature for eternity; distinct from God even as persons, while nevertheless living all, one same life: 'ut sit Deus omnia in omnibus'! This is the return! To be God in God. Our vocation is to be God through a participation in love, St John of the Cross teaches. Obedience is our return to this 'being God in God,' it is to love the divine life.
The human act is that in which our will intervenes, our sense of responsibility, and the consciousness of what we do. What is needed for this fulfilled action to become a human action? The fact that it is done freely and with full consciousness, an act which is realized through our will. But if in my action is realized the divine Will what thing do I live? The life of God. To life God's Will is in some way to realize God Himself. God's Will is God. If God wills that I climb the stairs or that I cook, through that act I carry out God's Will. I do God's Will through that act, but that act is not the same as God's Will: God's Will is god Himself. Whoever is in God is God, whoever has God, is God. Through the infinite simplicity of His Being, the Will cannot be distinguished actually from God's Being. To do God's Will would be to say to realize God in us through the things that He commands, doing this so that God lives in us. Through such obedience we live divine life, we are regarbed by God, we are in some way assumed into God. God fulfills His will through our live and our live becomes in some wat His. In perfect obedience we will live in full conformity to divine Will, the life of the transformed soul. Up to now we do not live in this transformed union because the divine Will is not yet fully brought into our human actions. Whatever is still of 'us' and not 'He' even if it fulfils exactly on the external level His Will.
As many times as we do not fulfill God's Will, that we are complacent in the act, that we do no more than that work, we do not adhere truly, until death from what we could do for Him. It is all very well to give ourselves with a holy face the worst of ourselves to what we ought to do but it is not true that fulfilling our work better than all the saints we do God's Will better than they, because they in the completing of their work, did it so, with good will, but did not hesitate and did not involve themselves so much in their work, as much as through their work, they adhered to Him, lived of Him. Through the act, live God. It isn't the work that counts, but that through the work there is this will that in fact is distinguished, even if inseparable.
To this Will we ought to adhere until death to all
that He commands. Only He is absolutely adorable. If for you
He always manifests Himself in a event, in a precise precept
that you ought to fulfill, He nevertheless transcends all
signs, and cares for you because through all signs you adhere
to God. In obedience you ought so to empty yourself of all
your will because in you H is made present. The good of
obedience thus does not surpass what you do, but remains in
you, it is God Himself whom you place in the most intimate
centre of your heart.
Chapter Three: Spiritual Combat
The Prologue continues:
To you my discourse always returns, whoever denies himself, ready to fight under Christ the Lord, true king, you gird with the strongest and most brilliant armour of obedience.
Chapter Four: Prayer
First of all ask Him with fervent prayer that he lead to the perfecting of all good that you begin to do, so that He, who already has deigned to number you amongst his sons, will never sorrow at our less than good works.
Something similar happens in us. If the divine will is in some way to be realized through us, the use of our will is precisely that in renoucing ourselves through offering ourselves to the Lord, the renunciation to his autonomy to become the instrument and organ of a divine will.
This offering of the soul itself to the Lord is certainly concretely our obedience, but an obedience that is never without love. To this obedience we are constrained, but always the more perfect it is, so much more perfect is the love where we give ourselves to God to be possessed by Him.
The gift of ourselves to God is the exercise itself of prayer. Not only in prayer imploring divine help, but we pray practically that He invest us and possess us. And certainly we cannot pray that He possess us except to the measure that we give ourselves to him; thus our prayer is true in as much as it is supposes our will to dedicate and offer ourselves.
In each of our prayers we are struck by ourselves offering ourselves to God. In prayer we live the gift of ourselves to the Lord. As with God speaking to us giving us Himself, so do we speak with God, giving ourselves to Him.
God communicates Himself in the word that he says to us. The word that God says to the soul always requires even the word of the soul to God. To the measure that we listen to the Lord, we feel the need to turn to Him in prayer.
The word of God becomes prayer in us. To the gift that God makes of Himself to us in the word, the gift that we give to Him of ourselves in the word responds. The word that God tells us is a command: 'praecepta magistri', the word that we return to God is prayer, is imploration. To the word of the One replies the word of the other, but the Word of God and our word is the same: in unity of the word is fulfilled as a prolongation of the divine Incarnation.
'In primis', first of all, said St Benedict. Obedience in fact to divine will is not possible if it is not preceded by prayer.
God manifests His will to us, gives us His law, but what is the first effect of this communication of divine Will to the soul?
St Paul says: 'Law gives us the sense of sin'. What is greater than the sanctity with which God calls us, so much the we feel as if lost and confused in front of this divine exigency which overcomes all human possibility in being realized. Then God speaks to us to condemn us? This question even St Paul asked himself in the Epistole to the Romans and the Apostle answered: 'Absit', 'No, certainly not!' What is then the first effect of the law of God, of this word that is a precept? 'Ausculta, o fili, praecepta magistri': 'praecepta'. What is the first effect of this word that is the expression of a divine will that you ought to fulfil? If God draws near to us, this is in the divine light, first in seeing God, seeing oneself, first in being attracted by the infinite beauty of God seen the true ugliness and being terrified, undone.
God speaks to us because our road towards Him cannot have any other base than humility, the recognition of our abslute impotence, of our profound misery.
To recognize the infinite transcendence of God and our own impotence that the word of God works in the soul, the soul returns to its word of supplication and devotion: prayer.
The first effect, then, of the manifestation of a divine will is that the soul finally begins to understand is of being able to do nothing without imploring God for help, for salvation, for life.
An objection that was always made against Christianity (why has God saved humanity in these last days; whether humanity needs being saved and cannot save itself, why has God waited for so long before coming to our aid?) theology replies: we need to experience even to the depths our own misery so that our prayer can rise imploring that we obtain salvation from God. Thus all painters see the Virgin as she is told by the Angel, in prayer; the prayer of the Virgin brings about the event, through this prayer God's promise is fulfilled.
God promises, yet only keeps it in reply to your prayer. God wants us not to be totally passive, or at least to be passive, yes, in respect to grace, but not to be removed from fufilling His design of salvation and of love. As all depends on God, so also all depends on us; God promises and fulfills, we ask and obtain.
We need then to feel truly to the depths our own powerlessness, to implore God for the help that only ought to come from Him: 'In primis ut quidquid agendum inchoas bonum, ab eo perfici instantissima oratione deposcas'. There are no wiser words. If God manifests to us some exigency of His Will, we do not believe through this we can fulfil the divine Will. Because many times we make many proposals and shortly thereafter we lack even more? If God tells you what you ought to do, he says it not so that you immediately fulfil it, but because first of all you obtain from Him the grace to be able to fulfil it. Alone, you cannot ever fulfil the will of God and it would be an absurd presumption and blasphemous to pretend that.
If the Will of God is God himself how could you realize God except through His grace? Just as if you still had faith in yourself, once God had manifested what He wants of you, and believe you can do it with your strength alone, without running to Him with humble, fervent prayer, he will make your porject fail and the thing go worse than before. And this is good: we need to take a tumble; until we are broken and lacerated in humility, we cannot even walk.
Fundamental to all is humility, humility that truly knows its nothingness, and therefore knows it can do nothing without divine assistance. Sometimes the first reaction to the manifestatiion of a divine will is not immediately obedience, so that the fulfilling of this divine Will can depend on your will; it depends on the grace which you ought to implore, on the help which you ought to obtain from Him; and this grace and this help can only be as efficacious as is great the Will of God that you ought to fulfil. God has asked us to be contemplative souls, to live the life of Heaven.
Why in monasteries are there so few great contemplative minds? One, two, three, four, if we put together many, ten reach century amongst the thousands upon thousands of monks. Why only a dozen of such great souls?
Certainly the divine Will as regards a contemplative soul is a will of an extreme exigency. God wants that this soul live except in Him; but the fulfilling of this Will is not difficult if it depends on God; if God himself does not live in a soul how can the soul live the divine life? But then what is the obstacle that blocks the soul from living this life to which God calls it? The obstacle is this: the soul is not yet sufficiently humble in sensing the necessity of continuous prayer, the need for a prayer 'instantissima'.
'Instantissima' is to say two things: it is to say in the 'present', because it is fervent, but it also means, 'continuously'. There are two kinds of monastic prayer. It is true that St Benedict would say that our prayer should be brief, at least that the inspiration not be prolonged, but what is it to say 'instantissima', that is continuous. Here are two things needing to be reconciled: one speaking of prayer that should be brief, because otherwise it would draw us away from fulfilling our comunal duties. It treats, for instance, of being in the oratory when all the community is not called to remain there, but each to attend to his own work, is held by St Benedict to be an imperfection. At least the Lord does not bind you there, when you ought to go forth, because you carry God with you. Even if you are not actually praying in the oratory, all your life ought to be a continuous prayer, through your work, in the fulfilling of your mansions, always in union with Him.
Prayer ought to be continuous, and this is one of the fundamental themes of ancient monastic spirituality, and of Eastern monastic spirituality. The Eastern monks of the first centuries exaggerated that from them arose a monastic movement headed by St Alexander, who proposes himself obedience to this rule of continuous prayer and the monks are called 'acemeti'. These were men who never slept, only when they fell asleep could they rest a little, and they did nothing else. Naturally all this is against an ordered life even of prayer, even of spirituality. If you require of some actual continuous prayer, it will be at the cost of attention and of the spirit of one's faith. Prayer will become by degrees the act of an automaton. We are made in such a way that we ought to go from one thing to another. Successive as we are, because we are living in time, we renew ourselves spiritually even through a certain variety of tasks and duties and work needing to be done and thought: now we need to eat, now we need to talk a bit, now to read a book, now to write, now to pray. The variety itself of these acts assures a sane psychological equilibrium, allowing an ordered life of prayer and favouring progress even in the interior life. There are few souls who can conduct their lives without involving such variety. The vocation of the hermit will always be an exception, not only on the spiritual level, but also the natual level, because it requires such natural gifts, that are not indeed easy to find; one risks, from attempting too much, at arriving at nothing.
Nevertheless, there were 'acemeti' who intended this task of continuous prayer so much, that others felt this need and sought to respond to it in other and better ways. Even St Benedict seems to me, not only in this way, but in others, too, at least indirectly, to recall the doctrine of continuous prayer as it was taught in the East. At least two passages in the Rule seem to recall it: in the Prologue, where it is noted that evil thoughts need to be broken on the stone that is Christ; then in Chapter IV 'De instrumentis bonorum operum' where it speaks of evil thoughts that need to be broken on the stone that is Christ.
These words are significant, I think, of what is the most characteristic form of prayer in Eastern monasticism: the invocation to the name of Jesus, which, for a beginner, requires also vocal prauer, but for a monk is the continuous aspiration to Christ, through everything; keeping our soul truly in prayer, in this aspiration to Jesus, continually, livingly, incessantly. But this is not just some aspiration to praise, or to thanksgiving, as much as it is an imploring for mercy: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner'.
If God manifests His Will to us certainly it is we who ought to fulfil it. But God only can bring that fulfilling of His Will and He does so through me, to the measure that I am ready to Him, because He invests me and because through me He lives.
Now in what way am I ready for divine grace, how does God assume me, how does God work through me, as if I were an instrument of His omnipotent action of grace? Through prayer. We respond to the words said by God with the words we say to God. God commands you, you pray to Him; the word of God to us is law, the word of man to God is to implore mercy. Thus if the word of God is not followed by human words, it is a command that becomes condemned. Just as you cannot fulfil divine Will without grace, if you do not respond to the word of God imploring this divine grace, it will necessarily come about that this word will condmen you. 'You do not need me to condemn you', says Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, chapter 12, 'it is my word that you have heard that will condemn you'.
The word of Jesus! It is a word of love because it calls us to be Him, requiring of us a transformation into Him, but this is so because it is a love so great that this word can transform us to condemnation if we do not respond by fulfilling it; and on the other hand we cannot fulfil it unless we implore grace. Our efficacy is only in prayer. If God had given the Law to Israel (knowing that it could not ever be fulfilled, because had it been fulfilled there would have been no need for the redemption), he gave it because Israel had the saddest and most tragic experience of its unfaithfulness, in such a way that in its last centuries, after the exile, there could not but be n Israel this one prayer to God: 'Lord, have pity on us! Until when, O Lord, will you leave us alone? When will you free Israel?' The Psalms, above all those written following the exile, are in sorrowful lament, incessantly, from all the nations to God, that he have mercy. Divine law had made Israel aware of its own powerlessness. The first fruit of divine law, then, is the recognition of our misery, of human impotence.
We are called to be holy; how can we not be lost and not feel ouselves in confusion? is it not possible for us to withdraw so that we condemn ourselves; but how can we advance if we do not hope, if we do not obtain from God what He fulfils what He himself asks? It is right that the divine vocation requires incessant prayer of us.
'Instantissime oratione'. Why 'instantissime'? It has been noted that the Latin expression is extremely difficult to translate into Italian: pressing, but pressing with anguish, so much that one loses one's breath, that one loses one's life. This recalls the example of a shipwreck from which one must fling oneself, and cry for help, in order to be saved. Such is the soul. The divine word gives the soul the sense of the abyss of misery which it is in. The word of God calls us so from above, seeming to leap down to us, even lower, to make us feel even more our powerlessness. And then, according to this revelation of the divine Will, the soul gets the strength to cry out: 'De profundis clamavi ad Te Domine', to cry out from the depths, to a God who saves us, frees us, raises us: 'Lord, have mercy one me, lift me up, save me'.
'Instantissime oratione'. We are not speaking here of praise. Praise will come. First of all the soul must feel the infinite disproportion that there is between it and God. It is called into union with Him from that abyss that still separates us! We are so wretched, so weak, so ill, and He is so infinitely Holy! Rather, we ought to be garbed in the same light, we ought to be transformed into Him. How can He Himself not so transform us?
'In primis ut quidquid agendum inchoas bonum, ab eo instantissima oratione deposcas'. These are words of such greatness, such beauty, such unique truth. We remember what St Thomas Aquinas said, that while in this present life the proper character of prayer, or better of true prayer, fitting for us pilgrims is the prayer of request.
Praise is the prayer of the Angels and the Saints. Monks recite prayers of praise together, not separately but together, inasmuch as representing the Church, which is without wrinkle or stain, which is the immaculate Spouse of the Lamb. The Opus dei which is the monks' duty, their fundamental office, is fulfilled inasmuch as they represent the Bride, and they do not represent the Bride while there is one soul apart from them. Taken singly how can we feel this can be said to be the Spouse? How can it be felt we can praise God, without his praise not turning into an insult?
We praise God through what we are. The Opus dei praises God because precisely in that prayer it is the Church which prays, and the Church is holy. We praise God through who we are, and we are such poor things! Come can we not feel that our praise is wretched. God is infinite. What are our words? What are our feelings? Whatever can our virtue ? We have such fear of offending him more than of praising him, as we draw near to God.
Our true prayer, the prayer which characterizes us along this path is the constant plea, 'Lord Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner'! This is right because we feel what He calls us to, right because we feel how much He loves us, we wish to be worthy of such love, and we wish to reply to such needs, we feel that in us there is no strength, no possibility without Him. 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner'!
'In primis ut quidquid agendum inchoas bonum, ab eo instantissima oratione deposcas . . .' We ought to hear resounding within us continuously these words that are of such great beauty! They are decisive words for our interior life.
The Prologue sums up the entire Rule. In living the Prologue we truly live all our monastic vocation. The first thing that it asks of us, 'in primis', after having heard God, is that we reply to Him with prayer. The word of God to the soul is the Law, our word to God is prayer. If the life of God in the meeting with the soul is a communication that He makes of Himself in His word, all the life of the soul is identified in this aspiration to Him, in a continual prayer, in a supplication that becomes always more instantissima, along the way the soul journeys. It is only to the measure that we are distanced that we do not realize our weakness. But when the soul draws closer, so much more does it sense its nothingness, the monstruous fragility of its being, to much does it know its absolute impotence and the danger than menaces it.
While one journeys, the sense of danger is averted up to a certain point, placing one's feet on level ground is difficult, and if one falls, one is hurt. But if one ascends towards God and the climb is rather sweet at first, it then becomes more sharp, and the road always more stark, so how can one not feel the difficulty of the ascent and the danger of a fall? With nails and ropes one can perhaps scale a ledge with a pick, but when flight is required, or rather when we are carried by God and we feel that our entire salvation is in His hands, for there is nothing to which we could grasp or which could save us except He who can lift us up? There is no other possibility for us of dangling in the air to keep ourselves up there; we must plunge then into the abyss. Thus the soul gradually comes to find itself more deprived of help, as if suspended over emptiness; in this it even more needs to implore God for help. Do not believe there that this diminishes the need for prayer; increasing this gradually increases holiness. Only Paradise guarantees this for us for ever. From this is the need for continuous, pressing prayer, of a living prayer, like a cry that rises from the abyssal profundity of our soul to reach across the abyss to God.
'In primis ut quidquid agendum inchoas
bonum, ab eo perfici instantissima oratione deposcas'. Deposcas: the prayer of a request that is essential
for life now. We are pilgrims: nothing is now certain and in
us that is nothing but weakness and misery; all that in us is
good is from Him from whom we ought to obtain it, day by day,
hour by hour, moment by moment. In us there us no meaning, not
even of being, but that of living in grace, of living in
holiness; in us there is no strength to turn to Him,
overcoming the law of inertia that makes us fall into the
abyss. He alone can carry us to the goal, He alone can fulfil
what He asks of us. And God asks me that I obtain it from Him,
because he wants what He can do, even through my work. This is
the omnipotence of God that achieves the answer to the
omnipotence of the prayer that pleads.
Don Divo Barsotti, C.F.D., Father Founder, Ascolta O Figlio . . . : Commento spirituale al prologo della Regola di S. Benedetto/ Listen, O Child . . . : Spiritual Commentary on the Prologue of St Benedict's Rule, Florence: Libreria Editrice Fiorentina, 1965
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JULIAN OF NORWICH, HER SHOWING OF LOVE
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