1987, Serial No. 00921, Side B

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Talk 2

AI Summary: 





In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. Let us pray. May the outpouring of your Holy Spirit, O Lord, cleanse our hearts and make them fruitful by the inward sprinkling of His dew, through Christ our Lord. What a really splendid storm that was last night, where I've been living for many years and I haven't had anything quite like it. In fact, nothing since, I think, very nearly thirty years, a wonderful summer storm at the Abbey of Haute-Rive in Summertime, and I remember standing at the long French windows of the guest house, watching the lightning dancing in the mountains of Switzerland, off in the


direction of the châteaux of Val-Saint. Coming back here, perhaps I ought to say, Father asked me to say that he will post some little notice about when I can be seen, if anybody wants to see me. I'm sure it will do me a great deal of good, if anyone does. So, in the morning, fill us with your love. We shall exult and rejoice all our days. It's the right moment, I believe, to think again of at least this thought, from that not wholly optimistic Psalm 89, about the span of our days. Suddenly, though, these two phrases, followed by two more, which some of you will remember, are quoted by the Carmelite Thérèse of Lisieux, which almost doublets the first two, in verse 14.


Give us joy to balance our affliction for the years when we knew misfortune. Incidentally, do, those of you who can read French, please do read Thérèse as we now have her, what she really wrote, because she can be extremely amusing and really rather witty, but it doesn't translate very well. In that morning of our religious life, which we go through as novices and simply profess in religious life, that morning on which we open our eyes to the light that comes from God, we cannot fail to be aware, as we look back on that time later, and even to some extent as we're going through it, how important are the other mornings on which we opened our eyes from the moment of our birth.


What an enormous asset it is to have had something that could reasonably be called a happy childhood behind this, for the impressions made on the growing child tend to last and to affect both our expectations in spiritual matters and even our understanding of their significance. Not, of course, that by any means all monks and religious have a happy childhood on which to look back. For just a few, when the truth comes to be told, the monastery will have been the first place where they felt really cared for in a way that gave them peace. Whichever way round it works out for each of us, there can be no doubt that if we are to persevere in our quest of the things of God until our last day, it's both humanly and spiritually speaking necessary, slowly and consciously, to find a tolerable balance between joy and difficulty for which these two verses of the psalm praise.


I say that the discovery of this balance, of the value and meaning of joy in whatever form God gives it to us, is something to be made slowly conscious. For as I was suggesting in our previous talk, I believe that our life in the earliest years in the monastery, like the earliest years of our life on earth at all, are to a very notable extent determined by what we are taking in, in a way which is not conscious. Indeed, as we give ourselves the kind of little school which the holy rule is, understanding comes only to the extent to which we are really living the life around us, rather than thinking about it. This is a point which is, I believe, rather well and convincingly made in one of the studies in the rather bulky pages of RB 1980. It's, of course, a book like all collected books, rather a mixed bag, but this is rather good, I think, where the writer, discussing the kind of thing the rule is, says that it


belongs to the category of wisdom literature, a feature of which it has to be taught without the expectation of being immediately understood. Practical wisdom is essentially related to experience. That favourite word of the earliest assertions. I remember a Dominican teacher of mine saying, of course, once you're talking about experience you're almost in heresy. How wrong he was. In other words, it has to be lived rather than thought. And, of course, experience, like the more ancient view of God and God's work in the world, cannot distinguish too clearly between what God does in the realm of nature and the


realm of grace. We cannot begin to make our whole life a living sacrifice until we accept it as a whole from the hand of God. We have to begin to be grateful both for what God has obviously and directly done for us and even for those things which he has perhaps only permitted. On a holy Saturday night we shall hear once again, unless like many other things nowadays it's omitted, the phrase of the blessing of the Easter candle that speaks of the happy fault that's won for us so great a redeemer. Augustine, to whom this thought was a very familiar one, certainly became aware as he looked back on his own life in the Confessions, essentially a middle-aged book, he was in his forties. He noticed that there are in most lives other kinds of happy faults than the fault of original


sin. Things which God lets us do which humble us to the dust and in the end drive us into his arms more urgently than the most splendid inspirations that ever come to us. We should never forget that one of our joys in heaven will be our forgiven sins, for it's where our Lord touches us in his forgiveness that in some ways he touches us most personally and most intimately. There is of course the verse in Psalm 93 that says, When cares increase in my heart, your consolation calms my soul. We have to live this to know it. The kind of joy that makes us exult all the day is not often the joy that's never known, a touch of sorrow. But we ought never to fall in love with our sorrow, should we? And we can only learn this balance and receive this balance in the total context of the school


of the Lord to which we've been called, if we will let it form us by our generosity in living it all out and not allow our energy to drain away by little pockets of unlived life all over the place. It's moreover in this area that we most help each other, for it's certainly not only the settler who should make his business to see that no one is made sad in the house of God. It's one of the reasons why we all have to see to it we make peace before the sun goes down, and also see to it that we respect the seniors and love the juniors. Indeed, if all our love of each other involves a kind of respect, it is because we, as we go along, we begin to discern at first dimly and then a little more clearly that we're


all wounded people, even those who may appear to be the most gifted humanly and spiritually. It is, of course, to the sick that the physician of souls primarily comes, if they're humble enough to call for the doctor. But already implicit in what I've been saying here is the notion that by really living the rule, we acquire certain attitudes of mind, ways of thinking and talking, of which the rule itself is a great deal more full than it is of specific directions about what is to be done in every circumstance. In fact, it specifically provides for great flexibility in a large number of important matters, including the recitation of the divine office itself. This should remind us that there is, of course, one way of keeping the rule, which is not


in fact a way of really living it. To follow this way is to avoid being kept supple in all the ways the Spirit of St. Benedict wishes. From the very opening words of his prologue, Benedict has his eye on the true sources of our life and the importance of keeping these open. One of the most striking reminders of this is little chapter 434 on the distribution of goods according to need, where, as in the instructions for the abbot about how he is to handle his subjects, the principle is, not in equal measure to all. God doesn't do things like that, neither should we wish to, nor should we complain when we see this principle acted upon. Benedict has some very strong words about how grumblers should be punished. Such people are, in any case, always more punished in their hearts than they could ever


really conceivably be by any external punishment. For they lose their peace. And the rule wishes everyone in the house to have that, because, after all, it is the true condition of life and growth. The only thing to be done for those who lose it is for them to expose the root of their bitterness to the Lord and ask him to draw his own kindness and sweetness out of it. And I suppose the other thing that you all must have found is that if you are tempted and troubled, for goodness sake, pray for everyone else who is. That makes the burden much lighter, absolutely at once. In this way, occasions for conversion go on all our lives, which is indeed what we promise by vow to be open to. Nor is it ever too late to open ourselves, but it's better to have learned the dispositions


which lead to conversion in our earliest years, when we are, in fact, meant to be learning not only the language which God speaks through the way he forms us, but also the ways and customs of those who are called to be members of the household of God. I suddenly remember how, in one of the meditations he wrote, probably for his novices, perhaps even before he became a Cistercian, this William of Sanctuary says that we are all like untrained people coming up from the country, when we first come into the life of the monastery and learn the approaches to prayer, a bit awkward and rather rough. We ought all to feel the need to be shaped. I shall always remember how a normally kind and gentle schoolmaster of mine, when I was about twelve years old, said to me one day in a fit of temper, which I didn't quite understand, oh, you're unteachable. How often that little wound led me to pray that by the mercy of God this might never


be my abiding condition. If we turn to the scriptures, there are, as you know, one or two cases of the young being trained in the service of the Lord. Among them is Samuel, another is David, upon whom the mysterious plans of God begin to move out of its more distinctively social stage into something nearer the vision of the prophets, about the covenant in the heart, by which everyone knows the kind of thing that only the leaders and official teachers knew in earlier times. I'm sure it's not false humility that makes Bernard sometimes say that the monks to whom he's preaching will understand by experience some of the things he's trying to say better than he can now explain them. To turn first to the case of Samuel, we should, I suppose, notice that God places the prophet he is forming at a very early stage in the climate appropriate to his life and formation.


Behind him he has his mother's love and formation in gratitude, but before him that strangely barbarous world in which he will minister. Nor does God fail to stick to his customary ways. He uses even decidedly inadequate priests to teach Samuel how to respond to his call. The scripture scholars among you will know that the first book of Samuel seems to combine two conflicting accounts of his life. But it is the result which is welded together that is our canonical scripture and is something very real to teach us. The young boy, perhaps about the age of Jesus at his 12-year-old visit to the temple, has first of all to listen and only then to acquire something of the visionary insight of the seer.


Certainly all novices in the service of the Lord must learn both these things if they are to enter into and be formed by this life in the school of the Lord. But really attentive listening to the voice of God always remains the vital corrective to every kind of insight, no matter how wise. And this of course does not cease with our novitiate, so that at all times we need to pray again and again, O give me Samuel's ear, the open ear, O Lord, alive and quick to hear each whisper of thy word. And close to that, and doubtless deeply related to it, is Samuel's prayer, which Psalm 98 remembers. Among those who invoked his name was Samuel. They invoked the Lord and he answered.


So that close to our formation in more or less external habits comes the interiorization of this life to which the habits of what we might call the frame are directed. Of these we must say something more next time. We must note that Samuel, even in his old age, is still being formed by the kind of lesson which is most easily learned by those who are constant in prayer. The lesson of knowing how to bear the trial of disappointment and difficulty, and just how really to wait upon the unpredictable arrangements of God. For having once been sent to anoint the handsome and powerful Saul as king, Samuel finds it almost impossible to believe that when to his sorrow he is sent to anoint Saul's replacement, it will not be a man of the same type. Instead, God has chosen the youngest son in the family, a ruddy-cheeked lag from the


sheepfolds. Even without discussing what we know about the sources of our information on David, he was obviously a complex character who was to turn out to have a genius for friendship that would help him through many an apparently impossible situation in which men of narrower connections might have been lost. But David too, in his turn, has to learn about the surprises of God. It's difficult not to believe that he was flattered at the offer of wearing the armor of the impressive Saul. But he has to be realist enough to learn a lesson which is repeated in one form or another all through the Old Testament. The most modest and unlikely looking resources are enough for God. A pebble from the brook and his sling are enough to lay the giant low when God directs


the flight. Here the element of self-knowledge plays its part, a precious step in the growth of humility, which fits David to be himself the instrument in the long-term purposes of God. He's not himself to build the house of God. But this doesn't mean his rejection. God has his own way of getting what needs to be done, done. David has to leave it to him in hope, sure that God will remember him even when it looks likely that he's been forgotten. Need I press the point I've been trying to make here? If the first stage of our lives in the monastery, if what one might be called nowadays by that dreadful word is, I suppose, the sort of thing one might call by that rather awful word inculturation. It's not because the fullness of our life is to be found in becoming the ideal monk,


whether that ideal be our own or someone else's. It's because within this flexible framework we learn how to read the Holy Scriptures that God is not only transmitting to us in the text we read and the phrase we sing, but those he's still writing in our own lives and the life of our community. If prayer, holy reading and work are the threefold elements in the monastic life, as in Benedict who transmits it to us, it's certainly because the true vitality of any life, all our lives, really depends upon an interplay between these three, all of which are going in different ways to be ways God is speaking to us. Our monastic life is almost nothing if it's not, holy reading, translated into life.


Not only the word of God that speaks as we receive it, but the word which, unknown to us, our life also speaks to the church. I say it's unknown to us because there's no way in which we can proclaim it by effort or artifice, and every effort we make to control it or speak of it, if it is true, will only contaminate its message. Not everyone will recognize the truth its message contains, but almost everyone will recognize when it's completely bogus, or more or less so. This doesn't require the eye or ear of the prophet or the expert. When God is present, the message may be puzzling, but there's no doubt that something rather special is there. Perhaps when it's most clearly present, those who bear the message will often doubt themselves


and feel the need for the kind of urgent prayer which is so wonderfully expressed in Psalm 70. It's a prayer, you'll remember, of someone who is aware of getting old and has the enormous help of having behind him so much experience which ought to lead him to complete trust. Basically, he's not insecure about God or even about life, but he is insecure about himself in the new world into which he is being born, as we all are in every moment that passes. What will happen to him when the unknown enemies who seem to be waiting in the wings surround him? He's right to look back then, to remind himself of all the things for which he reminds God, chiefly because it is he who needs to remind himself. In you, O Lord, I take refuge. Let me never be put to shame.


On you I've leaned from my birth. From my mother's womb you've been my help. My hope has always been in you. Do not reject me when I'm old, when my strength fails. Do not forsake me. In such a life, God will always be present, even if he feels sometimes, and even for long times, as though he were absent. It's not possible, or even desirable, while we're young, to build ourselves on a rock on which we can stand against all odds. If we try to do that, God will often do us the mercy of pulling it from under our feet. The love which really casts out fear only becomes something almost visible in the man who has reached the point where he knows he has no resources of his own, as chapter 7 of the Holy Rule tells us.


When we say that, it doesn't mean that such a man has no past, or at least no spiritual past, which is connected with what he now experiences. For here we see the crop grown from the seed, which has been growing day and night over the patience of the years, waking and sleeping, not knowing how it happens. Such a one can look back safely, and not wistfully or sentimentally, to what God has been doing, rather than at himself when young. Which in any case, of course, there's no way of doing. We all of us have some experience meeting people who we cannot conceivably imagine ever having been young. One of the reasons for this, if one had to put it into words, is that very often somehow they have evidently at some point stopped living or aimed at the idea of being old long before they got there.


I'm having one of those distractions which I think I want to share with you. Some years ago I happened by accident to see a film made by the BBC of interviews, which were in fact a follow-up of a film which I hadn't originally seen, of people interviewed in their twenties, asking them about their life and how they intended to live. The film I saw was a follow-up, as I said, and as far as the flashbacks informed me, what happened to the people in their twenties was they all had tremendous ideals, they were all going to do most extraordinary things, they were all revolutionaries, they were going to change everything, including themselves of course. And then, twelve years later, the BBC followed them up. It was very, very distressing. Because, in fact, there they all were. Only twelve years later, some of them looked about forty-five or fifty,


they had entirely settled habits, hardly one of them was revolutionary, there they were, all tied to their lawnmowers, their cars, their gadgets and so on, and thoroughly fixed in a groove, except for two. And the two were window cleaners. And they went round on bicycles, and they were still absolutely alive, they could talk about anything, they saw the world as it really was. I suppose it's worth telling to monks, because you see, in one way, the two men on bicycles had not done so well as all the other ones, they hadn't got a large sum of money in the bank and so on, but they lived alive. It's something to remember, ever since then I've said to everybody in their twenties, do remember, if you're not still alive at thirty-six, you're already dead. It's better to take the risk of plunging into life at every moment,


wondering perhaps how on earth we're going to get through, but remembering the constant surprise of the joy of the grace that comes with the mourning after every night of tears. And always praying, as one of my old teachers did, even on his deathbed apparently, do not reject me, now that I'm old, when my strength fails, do not reject me. He died, I think, as I remember him. There was something very childlike about him, all the time. Meeting him so often in the mornings, he would say to me, you know, I'm wasting my time, I'm just not getting any further with this thing. But still he was pushing on, trying to do what it was, you know. And I think he died like a man still really alive. You could think to that, I think. So that our hearts may be full of gratitude when that day comes. We give you thanks, almighty God, for all your benefits, through Christ our Lord.