On the ceiling above the stairs leading to the abbot’s apartments in Heiligenkreuz there is an allegorical representation of the monastery. Stift Heiligenkreuz is represented by a lady in armor with shield and spear. Above the monastery are the three theological virtues: Faith, represented by a lady with the cross and chalice; hope with an anchor; and love, nursing a baby. A ray of light from the faith bounces off Heiligenkreuz’s shield, and drives away the powers of evil: demons, heretics, and deceitful women.
An acquaintance of mine recently received the Benedictine habit at the Stift Nonnberg, the venerable Benedictine nunnery founded by St. Rupert at the beginning of the 8th century in Salzburg. Here’s a video of the vestition ceremony:
There come times in one’s life when one conceives a great desire to read Kierkegaard. There are certain moods that he captured better than any other writer. For example:
I got up one morning in unusually good humour. This positive mood actually expanded as the morning progressed, in a manner I had never before experienced. By one o’clock my mood had climaxed, and I sensed the dizzying heights of complete contentment, a level that appears on no scale designed to measure moods, not even on the poetic thermometer. My body no longer seemed weighed down by gravity. It was as if I had no body, in that every function hummed along perfectly, every nerve rejoiced, the harmony punctuated by each beat of my pulse which served in turn only to remind me of the delightfulness of the moment. I almost floated as I walked, not like the bird that cuts through the air as it leaves the earth, but like the wind over the fields, like the nostalgic rocking of waves, like the dreamy progress of clouds across the sky. My being was transparent as the clear depths of the ocean, as the night’s self-satisfied stillness, as the soft soliloquy of midday. Every mood resonated melodically in my soul. Every thought, from the most foolish to the most profound, offered itself, and offered itself with the same blissful festiveness. Every impression was anticipated before it came, and thus awoke from within me. It was as if all of existence were in love with me. Everything quivered in deep rapport with my being. Everything in me was portentous; all mysteries explained in my microcosmic bliss that transfigured everything, even the unpleasant, the most annoying remark, the most loathsome sight, the most fatal collision.
As I said, it was exactly at one o’clock that my mood reached its peak, where I sensed the heights of perfect contentment. But then suddenly I got something in my eye. I do not know whether it was an eyelash, an insect, or a piece of dust. I know this though, that my mood immediately plummeted almost into the abyss of despair. [Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, trans. M. G. Piety (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) pp. 40-41].
All the classes of society, if they studiously and seriously examine the life, teaching and glorious achievements of St. Benedict, cannot but fall under the influence of his gentle but powerful inspiration; indeed they will spontaneously recognize that even our age troubled and anxious for the vast material and moral ruins, perils and losses that have been heaped up, can borrow from him the needed remedies. But before all, let them remember and consider that the sacred principles of religion and its norms of conduct are the safest and soundest foundations of human society; if they are disregarded and compromised, everything that promotes order, peace and prosperity among men and nations, as an almost necessary consequence, gradually collapses.Fulgens radiatur, §25.
The first temptation that our Lord undergoes in the desert is one that is directly occasioned by his fasting. It is the hunger of the fast that opens him up to temptation:
And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and after that he was hungry. And coming up to him the tempter said: If you are the son of God, speak and make these stones become loaves of bread. But he answered, saying: It is written: not by bread alone shall man live, but in every word that issues through the mouth of God.Matthew 4:2-4
A comment on James Chastek’s blog a while back noted the following about the effects of fasting for several weeks on water only:
Fasting of this type is characterized by phases involving the presence, absence and then return of hunger, with the final hunger being quite different both subjectively and in its objectively imperative nature from the initial hunger phase, which is like what most people think of, and experience as, hunger.
When one embarks on an extended water fast, one transitions into it with feelings of pangs in the stomach, cravings for food, lassitude. This can last for several days up to a week. After a while, the real fast begins: hunger pangs disappear, energy levels may rise, the body begins living on its fat stores, the tongue may become coated, the breath foul, and sometimes skin eruptions appear as toxic deposits are excreted through it as a byproduct of metabolism. The key here, which often surprises people, is the absence of hunger.
Then–and here’s the relevance to Jesus and the forty days–after several weeks, hunger returns. But it is radically different than the initial hunger, which is the hunger you and I think of as hunger. The tongue becomes clear, the breath freshens, the skin ceases to break out. The body has used up its fat stores, and now signals its need for nutriments with the return of hunger. But this hunger is different: it is not experienced as hunger pangs, but as a deep need throughout the body, a kind of cellular craving for food. It is not exactly unpleasant (at first: after any delay in eating, it becomes agony), but it is imperative, and it must be honored. Because now the faster is in genuine starvation. “And he was hungry.”
A typical time from onset of food elimination to return of imperative hunger: oddly, about forty days is not unusual. Some can go quite a bit longer, some quite a bit less. But a typical adult man with typical stores of fat can go about five or six weeks. But when that time is up…you MUST eat. Your body craves food desperately. You must eat, or you will begin to die.
This account is bolstered by what we read of cities under siege in ancient accounts. There comes a time when the inhabitants of a starving city seem to lose the use of reason—everything else becomes secondary in comparison to hunger. Parents even eat their own children. Even that most natural of all loves is clouded over by this craving in every cell of the body. Such cannibalism is a drastic illustration of Abraham Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs;” if you physiological needs are not met, one will not worry about higher goals. Or, as Bertolt Brecht put it more pithily: First comes grub, then morality.
But in rejecting the temptation, Christ rejects the whole idea of ranking what is more necessary above what is more good:
Do not then worry and say: What shall we eat? Or: What shall we drink? Or: What shall we wear? For all this the Gentiles study. Your father in heaven knows that you need all these things. But seek out first his kingdom and his justice, and all these things shall be given to you.Matthew 6:31-33
My Cistercian consœurs in Valley of Our Lady, Wisconsin are building a new monastery. The are blest with a lot of vocations, and the buildings that they are currently using are too small. The current buildings are also not really suited to monastic life. You can learn more about the project and how you can help here.
As infants are transformed into children, they learn to distinguish between, on the one hand, goods and, on the other, objects of desire. “Don’t eat, take, do that!” says the parent. “But I want it!” replies the child. “It will be bad for you,” says the parent. Or perhaps what the parent says is “Don’t eat, take, do that now. It will be better to leave it until later,” to which the reply is “But I want it now!” Why should children do what their parents take to be good for them rather than what they want? Why should a child defer the satisfaction of its wants because its parent takes it to be better to do so? Initially, it can only be because the child desires the parent’s approval and fears its disapproval, a disapproval sometimes expressed in punishment. But later the good-enough parent provides reasons for dis- criminating between objects of desire and hopes that the child will come to recognize these reasons as good reasons. How might a child do so?
One of the salient differences between young human beings and the young of other species is that the former, unlike the latter, are at a certain point treated as accountable for their actions. “What was/is the good of doing that?” they are asked, not only by parents and by other adults but also by their contemporaries, and this in a number of contexts. For as they are initiated into a variety of practices at home, at school, in the workplace, they learn to recognize goods internal to each practice, goods that they and other participants can achieve only through the exercise of virtues and skills. If and when they fail in respect of these, they will commonly be put to the question. So they find themselves having to give reasons for their actions to others and on occasion having to advance arguments in support of those reasons. They become rational agents when they first pose such questions to themselves about their own failures and act upon the answers. If they are so to act, they must of course be motivated by the prospect of achieving those goods that have provided them with what they take to be good reasons for acting. Their desires must to some large degree direct them as their reasoning directs them. Insofar as this is so, they will have begun to become accountable rational agents, accountable both to themselves and to others.Aladair MacIntyre, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, pp. 37-38.