Why He Let Me Do It

From Abbot William of St. Thierry’s fourth meditation:

I, even I, Lord, am, as your Prophet has said, a man that sees my own poverty; I am poor and beset with troubles from my youth; having been lifted up, I have been humbled and put to shame. For you have brought me through such great and dire troubles, and then you have turned and led me back to life, you have brought me again from the deep of the earth. You have multiplied your mighty acts upon me; turning toward me, you have brought me comfort. For when of old in your paradise you created me, and gave me the tree of life for my possession, as of abiding right, you willed–or at least you allowed me–to reach my hand out also for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; you did this, so that I, who had grown weary of my inward blessings, might find what sort of outward action I could do, with the consent and help of Eve, my flesh. I tasted of the fruit and saw, not your graciousness but my own shame. I saw myself as one whose infamy needed a cloak to cover it, whose nakedness trembled to meet you, whose liberty required the constraint of laws. For I was found in your sight destitute of all the inward things men thought that I possessed; I was found shameful in my inward parts and found in them no refuge from myself, nor yet from you. And I, who had received the charge of ruling others, appeared as needing to be ruled myself!

“Christ chooses what we would like to eliminate”

As St Teresa would say, “this is very useful to read.” From the  Christmas letter of the Cistercian Abbot General, Dom Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori:

For me, this is one of the more extraordinary aspects of the Christian event: that Christ chooses what we would like to eliminate, what disturbs and disgusts us more, as the place where the encounter with Him becomes for us the clear and safe path of our lives. Why does our community always seem to us to be full of defects and not up to the greatness of its vocation? Why do the superior, the brothers and sisters with whom we must closely share life, seem to us to be the least fit to ensure our happiness and are often the people with whom we have more problems in living together? In fact, the community of Damascus was like this for Saul of Tarsus. This is the place where Christ sends us in order to give fulfillment to our encounter with Him, with Him who is persecuted, crucified, not loved, and first of all, by ourselves.

The Incarnation and Passion as Dance


Another quote from Abbot John of Ford’s Commentary on the Song of Songs:

Among all the marvels of God, what marvel is equal to this, that the king of glory came as a servant to rescue his bride from the yoke of servitude? That from heaven he desired her beauty, though up to now she was black with Ethiopian ugliness? That having sold himself into slavery to serve more fittingly, he stripped off his beauty, stripped off his strength, girt himself with servile lowliness, and in every way made himself ready and apt to wash away her defects? Have you opened wide your mouth about him, daughter of Saul? Have you thrust out your tongue at him, daughter of Canaan and not of Judah? Have you reproached the king of glory for dancing naked before the ark? For you said, wagging your head at him: ‘How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself before the eyes of his servant’s maids, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!’ Yes, inglorious in your eyes, blinded by the lowliness of that nakedness. But blessed are the eyes of the bride who in the total emptying of her Solomon, crowned with a crown of thorns, not only took no scandal, but all the more eagerly, all the more lovingly, ran to his embrace and threw herself into his arms! How fortunate you are, bride of God, how glorious, to be the reward of such a loving servitude, the fruit of such a long and lasting pilgrimage, the prize of such a difficult undertaking, in short, the price of his precious blood! (Sermon V; p. 128-129)

Quid inter omnia mirabilia Dei aeque mirabile huic, quod rex gloriae ut sponsam suam, euius eum adhuc Aethiopissae deformitate sorderet, decorem de coelo concupierat, a iugo seruitutis eriperet seruire uenit ; et ut seruituti congrueret in seruum uenumdatus decorem exuit, exuit fortitudinern, et seruili humilitate praecinctus ad maculas eius abluendas se omnimodis reddidit idoneum et expeditum? Super quem dilatasti os, filia Saul, super quem eiecisti linguam, filia Canaan et non Iuda, exprobrans regi gloriae quod nudus ante arcam Dei saltaret ? Dixisti enim mouens super eum caput tuum : Quam gloriosus fuit hodie rex Israel discooperiens se ante oculos ancillarum suarum uelut si nudetur unus ex scurris. Vere ante oculos tuos inglorius quos nuditatis istius humilitas excaecauit, sed sponsae oculi beati quae in tanta exinanitione sui Salomonis spinarum diademate coronati non solum nullum sustinet seandalum sed eo auidius eoque deuotius currit ad amplexus eius et in oscula ruit. Quam felix tu, et quam gloriosa, O sponsa Dei, quae tam piae seruitutis merces, tam longinquae tamque diuturnae peregrinationis fructus, tam laboriosae negotiationis acquisitio, tam pretiosi denique sanguinis pretium es.

(Sermo V, Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Maediavalis, Vol. XVII, p 63)

You Will Be Honored in the Presence of All


Someone asked me for the text of a sermon that I preached last Sunday in Heiligenkreuz. So here it is reconstructed and translated from notes and memory.

“When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:8-11)

Reverend Fathers, Venerable Brothers, dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

The desire for honor, recognition, praise, good report, approval is rooted deep in our humanity. So is the fear of shame, exposure, and blame. Nor is this entirely a bad thing. There can be an innocent joy in being praised. C.S. Lewis notes that good children rejoice with innocent pleasure in the praise of their parents. And not just children even brute beasts–loyal dogs and horses–rejoice in the praise of their masters. There is something beautiful and graceful in this joy. It is, Lewis says, the specific joy of the inferior, “the pleasure a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator.”

The great Lewis scholar Thomas Howard gives the following example. In a documentary on the day-to-day workings of Windsor Castle, the old servant in charge of hoisting the royal standard was interviewed. There are hundreds of servants at Windsor so of course the Queen cannot know all of them, but this old man said, with evident joy, “She knows who I am.”

There is a graceful, a beautiful joy in praise, but there is also a warped, perverse, sinful craving for praise. Man was originally clothed in glory and grace, but through sin he was stripped naked. Poor and exposed, man tries to cloth himself in something to forget his nakedness and misery. St. Bernard says of those on the first step of pride–curiosity–that not being able to stand the knowledge of themselves they turn outward. But soon the distractions of curiosity are not enough and they seek the praise of others to hide their shame. They seek a lie with which to deceive themselves.

What a miserable life vainglory gives those enslaved to it. The vainglorious despise the others and consider their own judgement better except with regard to themselves; when they are praised they suddenly find the judgement of others trustworthy. The vainglorious Pharisees in the Gospel cannot enjoy the banquet since they are so occupied with their own honor. The vainglorious learn no truth in conversation since they are only concerned with saying something clever and appearing brilliant.

St. Bernard describes how this leads to higher steps of pride. The eighth step is particularly insufferable and ubiquitous–even in the monastery. Those on the eighth step are so caught in the lie that they cannot abide any legitimate criticism, anything which breaks the illusion, and so they violently defend themselves against all blame:  “A man either says ‘I did it not’ or if he did it “I acted rightly in so doing’, or if he acted wrongly ‘not to a serious extent,’ or, if he was seriously wrong, [that worst and most insufferable of all excuses:] “I meant well”. (De Gradibus Humilitatis et Superbiae XVII)

We have to stop this, brothers. If we don’t free ourselves from the lie, we will be exposed when it really matters: at the Judgement of God. All our nightmares of being embarrassed, found out, seen through; of stuttering and forgetting our lines on stage; of failing our exams; the panic, the burning shame–they will all be fulfilled in the most horrible way. “Our only response could be sheer spleen, screaming, and mockery… infinite torture… hatred, irrationality, and burning.” This is hell: to be exposed for all eternity before the undeceivable eyes of all the justified of every nation, the hosts of angels, and our Creator Himself.  “And then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place.”

The only means of escaping this fate is humility: giving up the lie, admitting our smallness, poverty, and sinfulness. “Humility,” St. Bernard writes, “is the virtue which enables a man to see himself as he truly is, and thereby to discover his worthlessness.”

But humility need not be bitter humiliation. It can be sweet. When we praise God, when we are filled with wonder and reverence before His glory, then we desire  to confess our smallness before Him. To me the most beautiful thing about the monastic Liturgy of the Hours is the Gloria Patri: after every Psalm we step out of our stalls and bow low in reverence and awe before the majesty of the Most Blessed Trinity. What joy!

This is the joy that todays epistle imparts:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet… But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant… (Hebrews 12:18-24)

Our confrère Pater Robert Abeynaike has demonstrated that this passage refers to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Lord becomes really, truly,  substantially present on the altar, but He does not cease to be enthroned at the right hand of the Father; no, the whole heavenly court becomes present with Him. Untold saints kneeling before Him, hosts of angels veiling their faces before His Glory, they are with Him here. And we enter into this mystery and bend our knees, and adore, and wonder, and are filled with joy and humility.

But if we are humble then our Lord promises to crown our humility with another reward: with praise. “When your host comes he [will] say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all…” Amen.

Solemn Vows in Heiligenkreuz

Yesterday was the Feast of the Assumption, the patronal feast of all Cistercian churches. Three of my confrères took final vows, and one monk from another abbey transferred his vows to Heiligenkreuz. The Bishop of Regensburg happening to be here, he celebrated Mass, with our Abbot of course receiving the vows.1371_520d4e97cb2

The ceremony for solemn vows follows more or less the outline described by St Benedict in the Rule, and is marked by St Benedict’s Roman sobriety. After the gospel the candidates prostrate themselves before the Abbot, who asks: Quid pétitis? They respond Misericórdiam Dei et Ordinis. The abbot then tells them to arise and preaches a sermon, sitting on the faldstool with the candidates standing in front of him. Then comes the feudal “homagium,” in which the candidates lay their hands in the abbot’s and promise him and his successors obedience according to the Rule of St Benedict “usque ad mortem.” Then every one kneels down and the Veni Creator Spiritus is sung. Then come the actual vows. The candidates read out the vows of stability, conversion of morals and obedience, which they have written by hand on parchment. They then sign the vow charts on the altar. The charts remain on the altar and are offered to God together with the gifts of the Mass. After signing the vows they sing Súscipe me, Dómine, secúndum elóquium tuum et vívam; † et non confúndas me ab exspectatióne mea three times. They then kneel down in front of each and every monk in the community, saying Ora pro me Pater, to which the monks reply Dóminus custódiat intróitum tuum et éxitum tuum. While this is going on cantors sing the Miserere. Then the newly professed monks are then blessed with an extraordinary three part prayer, addressed to each of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity in turn. They are then clothed in the cowl and the Mass proceeds.

Photos: Stift Heiligenkreuz

Abbot John of Ford on Praise

Form Abbot John of Ford‘s Commentary on the Song of Songs:

Without any doubt, praise awakens love and preserves it. Hence it is that the citizens of Jerusalem feed the flame of eternal love by eternal praises. They cease not to cry aloud so as to be steadfast in love. Their cry has no rest, because love knows no intermission. So praise is the food of love.  And you, too, if deep within you there is a little spark of sacred love, do all you can to apply to this spark the oil of your praise, so that your tiny fire may live and grow.

[Laus siquidem amoris incentiua et custos est. Hinc est quod ciues Ierusalem laudibus aeternis aeterni amoris incendium nutriunt. Non cessant clamare, ut amare perseuerent. Non habet requiem uociferatio, quia non habet interpolationem dilectio. Laus ergo amoris pabulum est. Et tu, si amoris sacri penes te scintillulam habes, admoue sedulus scintillulae tuae laudationis oleum, quo uiuat et uegetetur igniculus tuus. (Sermo III, Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Maediavalis, Vol. XVII, p 48)]

“All the Christian Fathers and Theologians:” De Koninck and Aelred of Rievaulx

Charles De Koninck’s passionate defense of the primacy of the common good over any merely private good, published toward the end of World War II, when an understandable reaction against totalitarianism had lead many philosophers to posit the primacy of the “personal” over the social, provoked an equally passionate response by the Rev. I. Th. Eschmann, O.P. Eschmann chiefly objected to De Koninck’s thesis that the good of the order of the whole universe is that good which God principally intends in creation, and to which all particular goods in the universe are subordinated. “Is it necessary to remind Thomists,” Eschamnn writes, “that they should not, in any way whatever, revive the old pagan blasphemy of a divine cosmos?” And if De Koninck’s thesis were true “then the personalists, and with them all the Christian Fathers and theologians and philosophers, should close their shops, go home and do penance, in cinere et cilicio, for having grossly erred and misled the Christian world throughout almost two thousand years.” According to Eschamann De Koninck’s thesis is really a Platonic/Aviccenan thesis that St Thomas was careful to avoid. De Koninck in his reply shows just how central his thesis is to St Thomas’s whole thought, and how deeply it is rooted in scripture and St Augustine. But what of the rest of the fathers and medieval theologians does one find it there? A glance at the Greek Fathers shows that the primacy of the common good was well known to them. And in the pre-Avicennan Middle Ages? Re-reading St Aelred of Rievaulx’s On Spiritual Friendship I was struck by how well developed the specific thesis of the order (or peace) of the universe as the chief intrinsic common good is in his work:

For God, who is supreme in power and goodness, is a good sufficient unto himself; he is himself his own good, his own joy, his own glory, and his own happiness. Nothing exists outside him that he could need, whether person or angel or sky or earth or anything they contain, for every creature cries out to him, “You are my God, for you have no need of my goods.” Not only is he sufficient unto himself, but he is the sufficiency of all other things, giving to some existence, to others sensation, and to still others intelligence. He is the cause of all that exists, the life of everything with sensation, and the wisdom of everyone endowed with intelligence. Therefore, as the highest nature he fashioned all natures, set everything in its place, and with discernment allotted each its own time. Moreover, since he so planned it eternally, he determined that peace should guide all his creatures and society unite them. Thus from him who is supremely and uniquely one, all should be allotted some trace of his unity. For this reason, he left no class of creatures isolated, but from the many he linked each one in a kind of society. —I.51-52

(Deus enim summe potens et summe bonus, sibi ipsi sufficiens bonum est; quoniam bonum suum, gaudium suum, gloria sua, beatitudo sua, ipse est. Nec est aliquid extra ipsum quo egeat, non homo, non angelus, non coelum, non terra, nec aliquid quod in ipsis est, cui omnis creatura proclamat: Deus meus es, quoniam bonorum meorum non eges. Nec tantum sibi sufficit ipse, sed et omnium rerum sufficientia ipse est, dans aliis esse, et aliis sentire, aliis insuper et sapere, ipse omnium existentium causa, omnium sentientium vita, omnium intellegentium sapientia. Ipse itaque summa natura omnes naturas instituit, omnia suis locis ordinavit, omnia suis temporibus discrete distribuit. Voluit autem, nam et ita ratio eius aeterna prescripsit, ut omnes creaturas suas pax componeret, et uniret societas; et ita omnia ab ipso qui summe et pure unus est quoddam unitatis vestigium sortirentur. Hinc est quod nullum genus rerum solitarium reliquit, sed ex multis quadam societate connexuit. —I.IV)

In other words, the unity of peace that unites all creatures, the tranquility of created order, is the trace of the creator in His creation–that for the sake of which he creates. Hence Aelred goes on to say that sin consists in puttung one’s private good before the common good:

But after the fall of the first human, with charity growing lukewarm, when cupidity crept in and let private gain supplant the common good

(At post lapsum primi hominis, cum refrigescente caritate cupiditas subintrasset, fecisset que bono communi privata praeponi…)

St Rafael Arnáiz Barón Walks through a Slum


The following passage was written by St Rafael Arnaiz Barón in 1934 when he had been forced to leave his monastery for the first time. Original: Apología del trapense, in: Obras Completas 267-269. Translated with the help of the German. When I first read this passage I thought of the distributist blogger Daniel Nochols, and especially of his would-be revolutionary commentator Owen White. I thought of it again when Pope Francis was elected, with his great emphasis on the question of poverty– from which we have much to learn.

When I left the church it was night. I did not direct my steps to the city center, but headed for the outlying neighborhoods … There one sees the usual: material and moral poverty… The dirty, black houses, occasionally gave a view of their badly lit interiors. The smell of dust and moisture, disheveled women screaming at the children, playing in the brook… Dirty, poorly lit streets,. The shops are sell nothing but the bare necessities … bread and sandals. Occasionally, a tavern which emits a smell of tobacco, wine and cheap food. All this under an overcast sky without stars…
These are the people, the poor people. Hunger is a commonplace, and the inhabitants of the city center, do not come here, lest they be disturbed by this misery. In the center there are luxury shops, the houses have a doorman and elevator, no neon signs in the theaters, and bright, clean cars glide across asphalt without without splattering themselves with mud or crashing into children playing in the brook.
And yet both the poor and the rich are children of God, all have the same miseries and the same sins… But one day, when God judges, how surprised we’ll be! The desperation of the hungry can be justified, but the selfishness of those who have money, and consider the poor a nuisance, that is unforgivable.
When those above forget God, what wonder that those below rebel?… Do not go to the poor to preach patience and resignation, but go rather to the rich and tell them that if they are not just and do not give of their possessions the wrath of God will fall upon them.
As I walked through these neighborhoods, I was overcome with indignation and shame. The God is banished from society, the more misery spreads. And if in a town which is called Christian creatures hate each other because of class interest, and are separated into rich and poor neighborhoods, what will happen on the day that God’s name is cursed by both?… If the poor are deprived of the idea of ​​God, they have nothing left. Their despair is justifiable, their hatred of the rich is natural, their desire for revolution and anarchy is logical.  And if the rich find the idea of God bothersome, if they  ignore the precepts of the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus … then they have no reason to complain. And if their selfishness prevents them from approaching the poor, then they should not be surprised that the poor intend to seize their possessions by force.
Seeing society as it is today, what Christian does not feel pain in the soul to see it thus? … When I think that all social conflicts, all differences could disappear if we payed a little attention to the God who was so abandoned in the church I had just visited… When I think of the tragedy presented by human life, and that all this hatred and jealousy, selfishness and falsehood could disappear if we looked to God… When I see how easy it would be for men to find the key to happiness, but that in there blindness or madness they do not want to see… then I can only exclaim: Lord … Lord, look on your suffering people… The people are not bad, Lord… but if you abandon them, who will, Lord, survive? … What can we do ourselves? Nothing, absolutely nothing … If you averted your eyes from the world for even a moment, the whole  world would sink back into chaos… Forgive us, Lord.

St Rafael Arnáiz Barón Among the Vegetables; or the Trappist as a Conquistador

rafael arnaiz baron

I have been reading a German translation of the writings of the 20th century Spanish Trappist, St Rafael Arnáiz Barón. There is no English translation of his writings, but here is a very rough translation of one wonderful passage.  (Original: Hno. Rafael Arnaiz Barón, tomado de su “Obras completas”, Mi cuaderno – San Isidro, 12 de diciembre de 1936, Sábado, 25 años.)

The Antics of the Turnips

Three o’clock in the afternoon on a rainy day in December. It’s time for work, and as it’s Saturday and very cold we don’t go out to the fields. We work in a room where lentils are washed, potatoes peeled, collards chopped etc … we call it the  “laboratorium.”

There is a long table here with benches, and a window with a crucifix above it.

It is a gloomy day. The clouds are dark. The wind blows with fitful indecision. A few drops of water fall reluctantly, licking the glass. And above all there is the cold – a cold worthy of the season and the country.

The truth is that apart from the cold, which I can feel in my frozen feet and chilled hands, I see these things mostly in my imagination, since I have hardly glanced at the window. The afternoon is dark and everything appears sad to me. I find the silence oppressive, and it appears that some little devils are determined to tease me with what I call “memories”… have patience and wait. Continue reading