Monday, 4 February 2013


At ChristChurch, Clarendon Park, this evening for the second session in the course, "Going On Beyond: Meditation and Mysticism in the World Faiths", offered by Christians Aware as part of their Faith Awareness programme. The nine-week course has been devised by Ian Grayling and Kevin Commons from the Leicester Serene Reflection Meditation Group.

Our topic this evening: “Mysticism from a Cistercian Perspective”, is presented by Father Joseph Delargy, Abbot of the Monastery of Mount St Bernard Abbey. Father Joseph (on the right of the photo above, with Kevin Commons) was kind enough to send me the complete text of his talk, which is reproduced in full below:
I have been invited to speak about Mysticism from a Cistercian Perspective. There are two words in that title that may need clarification.
Cistercian is the order of monks I belong to. It is a Roman Catholic Christian order founded in the year 1098. Today it numbers about 4000 of both of monks and nuns, about 2000 monks and 2000 nuns spread throughout 200 monasteries throughout the world.
Mysticism is harder to define. Even though it is a word that is used much in Christianity – we speak of mystical theology, mysticism, and mystics, we think of the Spanish Mystics Teresa and John of the Cross, or the English mystics, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, the Cloud of Unknowing - we find it hard to actually define it. A definition of mystical theology is: the study of the human experience of God and a definition of mysticism is: involving the explicit experience of the immediate presence of God. So it is to do with the experience of God in this life.
Another problem with the word mysticism is the tendency to equate it with unusual phenomena like ecstasies, trances, visions, but these are always peripheral to true mysticism, all the true mystics never sought anything like that and if they did experience them they often found it an embarrassment. A saying that is often said by older monks to over eager novices is that mysticism "begins in mist, is centred on I and ends in schism."
The mystical teaching of the Cistercians would be above all found in the writings of the first Cistercians monks, people like St Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St Thierry, Ailred of Rievaulx, Guerric of Igny and others. The Cistercians were originally a reform movement, started in 1098 in France, when a group of monks left the abbey of Molesme to found a new monastery with a simpler lifestyle and following the Rule of St Benedict more closely, stripped of all the accretions that had attached themselves to it over the years.
Their teachings are found in their sermons, treatises and commentaries. The Song of Songs in the Old Testament was one of their favourite books of the Bible and they never tired commentating on it. St Bernard’s great commentary runs to 86 substantial sermons and he only got as far as chapter 3 verse 1, not even half way through. The English Cistercians John of Ford and Baldwin of Ford continued this work after Bernard’s death in 1153.
The Cistercians saw the love story between the bride and the groom in the Song of Songs as representing the relationship between God and the soul.
Bride = the soul (or the Church) = anima
Groom = God = the Word
One verse they homed in on was 2:4. Our modern bibles say: He brought me to the banqueting hall and his banner over me was love but the old Latin bibles they would have used instead of saying his banner over me was love say He set love in order in me. That seems to be the whole key to Cistercian mysticism – the ordering of our love.
We do love, as humans we can’t do anything else, but we either love the wrong things or love the right things but love them too much or too little. Our love needs to be put in order.
Another important theme is that of image and likeness. Following Holy Scripture and the book of Genesis they believe that man is made in the image and likeness of God. After the fall of Adam we are still the image of God but we have lost our likeness. The spiritual/mystical path has as its goal to restore our likeness to God.
The Cistercians couldn’t get over the fact of the Incarnation, it fascinated them, the fact that God emptied himself to become man in Jesus Christ, the true humanity of Christ, a man like us in all things but sin. Pope Benedict XVI speaking on this aspect of St Bernard’s teaching in 2009 said:
In the extenuating battles between Nominalists and Realists two philosophical currents of the time the Abbot of Clairvaux never tired of repeating that only one name counts, that of Jesus of Nazareth. "All food of the soul is dry", he professed, "unless it is moistened with this oil; insipid, unless it is seasoned with this salt. What you write has no savour for me unless I have read Jesus in it" (In Canticum Sermones XV, 6: PL 183, 847).
For Bernard, in fact, true knowledge of God consisted in a personal, profound experience of Jesus Christ and of his love. And, dear brothers and sisters, this is true for every Christian: faith is first and foremost a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, it is having an experience of his closeness, his friendship and his love. It is in this way that we learn to know him ever better, to love him and to follow him more and more. May this happen to each one of us!
Silence was another important element to the Cistercian mystical path. Not just silence to foster recollection but silence in order to "hear" God. They believed that hearing comes before sight. We will only see God in heaven but in this life we can ‘hear’ God (metaphorically speaking) speaking to our soul.
Simplicity was important – simplicity in liturgy, architecture, and life style. Whilst beautiful things – statues, stained glass, etc. - can lead us to God they can also be a hindrance getting in the way of a pure experience of God. In a sense the Cistercians were minimalists.
The Cistercians followed the Rule of St Benedict (c. 530) and so its teaching was foundational to them. Humility and obedience were essential elements of their spirituality and mysticism.
Manual work was held in high esteem by the Cistercians. St Bernard said he learnt more from the woods and the trees and the rocks than he ever did from books.
The Cistercians described the mystical experience as ‘Visits from the Word’ – no strange phenomena – but when prayer is easy and living the virtues then the Word (God) is with us. When prayer is difficult and living the virtues is a struggle then the Word has departed. We sense the Word’s presence and absence but we don’t know the moment when he came or went. The comings and goings of the Word are entirely up to God, though we can facilitate them by making ourselves ready.
No saint is as optimistic as St Bernard, no saint is as hopeful as he is, in the ability of man, wherever and whoever he is, to return to God. No one was beyond hope for Bernard. The most wretched sinner was seen by Bernard as a man with his foot on the first rung of the ladder back to God. For Bernard the man at the very bottom has nowhere else to go apart from up. No saint was ever as encouraging as St Bernard. In a very well known passage Bernard writes – and this comes after speaking about the heights of the spiritual life and union with God – he writes:
Every man – even if burdened with sin, enmeshed in vice, ensnared by the allurements of pleasures, caught in mud, fixed in mire, a slave to care, distracted by business, afflicted with sorrow, wandering and straying, filled with anxious forebodings and uneasy suspicions – every man, I say, standing thus under condemnation and without hope, has the power to turn and find it can not only breath the fresh air of the hope of pardon and mercy, but also dare to aspire to union with God…. Why should he not venture with confidence into the presence of him by whose image he sees himself honoured, and in whose likeness he knows himself made glorious? Why should he fear a majesty when his very origin gives him ground for confidence. (SC 83)
St Bernard certainly lived by this. In the well-known story, one day St Bernard was on his way to see Count Theobald and on the way he came across a crowd leading a man out to the gallows for execution. The man was Constantius and he was guilty of murder. We can imagine the scene, the baying crowds heaping insults on the murderer and the terrified man being dragged along. Bernard stopped and took the rope by which the man was tied and said to those in charge "Let me have this murderer, for I wish to take him and hang him with my own hands" (i.e. by living the penitential monastic life). Such was Bernard’s authority that those in charge let him take the man and Bernard took him to Clairvaux where he became a monk. Under Bernard’s guidance Constantius made atonement and reparation for his sins by a life of obedience and penance as a monk for the remaining thirty years of his life until his holy death. Constantius is remembered in the menology of our Order on June 20.
When the crowds looked into the terrified man’s face they saw an evil demon, when St Bernard looked into the man’s face he saw past his sins to a potential saint. Cardinal Basil Hume used to say (quoting Oscar Wilde): "Every sinner has a future and every saint has a past."
In his sermons on conversion he paints and all to familiar picture, when we try to convert we are beset with greater temptations. But we are not to despair. He writes: (If we ask) … "Is it possible for such wretchedness to make a person happy?" (I say to you) Whoever you are, if you are in this frame of mind, do not despair: it is mercy, not misery, that makes a person happy, but mercy’s natural home is misery. Indeed it happens that misery becomes the source of our happiness when humiliation turns into humility and necessity becomes a virtue. Sickness has real utility when it leads us to the doctor’s hands, and he whom God restores to health gains by having been ill. (Conversion 12)All I have been saying is from the past, from history, so I would like to speak about a modern Cistercian Mystic, Thomas Merton. In December it was the 46th anniversary of his death.
Thomas Merton was born on 31 January 1915 in Prades in France in the eastern Pyrenees where his father was painting. His father, Owen, was a New Zealander, and his mother Ruth, was an American. When Merton was one year old the family moved to the US, first to Douglaston on Long Island then to the borough of Queens in New York. Merton had one brother, John Paul, who was a few years younger than he. When he was 6 Merton’s mother died and this was followed by a period of wandering for the family. First his father took him to Bermuda and then once again to France, where Merton went to school. In 1928, when Merton was 13, it was decided to continue his education in England and they moved to Ealing, W. London. He began school at Ripley Court, a prep school in Surrey, and then when he was 14 he moved to Oakham Public School in Rutland, just 25 miles away from where we are sitting now. After Oakham he gained entrance to Cambridge University where he studied modern languages French and Italian. At Cambridge something went wrong, though we are never told quite what it was, but to the end of his days Merton seemed to have a real hatred of Cambridge. After two years at Cambridge he transferred to Colombia University in NY and was much happier there reading English Literature and doing his Masters degree on William Blake. He lived in NY on and off for the next 6 years and during this period he converted to the Roman Catholic faith, being baptised on 16 November, the feast of St Gertrude, in 1938, when he was 23. Three years later he entered the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky in the U.S. and soon after began his prolific writing career.
There is no single opinion on Merton: some see him as the most important monk of the 20th century, and indeed the most important monk of modern times, others see him as an anomaly. Whatever the opinion, though, it can’t be denied that he was a significant figure and still is. What his influence on the development of the Order was is hard to say; it could be argued he had an enormous influence on the Order, or equally, that he had no real lasting influence on the Order. My opinion at the moment is that he had a large influence on the Order, but not directly, but indirectly. I don’t think we can point to anything and say we do or don’t do this because of Thomas Merton, but I think the attitude and outlook of the Order has been very much shaped by Merton.Just recently I came across a piece of his writing that I think can serve us as a good meditation.
It is his first ever Christmas he spent in the monastery, so that is just after a few weeks, bearing in mind he entered on 10 December, Merton was waiting in church for the midnight Mass to begin and Merton writes in his journal:
Lord it is nearly midnight and I am waiting for you in the darkness and the great silence. I am sorry for all my sins. Do not let me ask any more than to sit in the darkness and light no lights of my own, and be crowded with no crowds of my own thoughts to fill the emptiness of the night in which I await you.… Your brightness is my darkness. I know nothing of you and, by myself, I cannot even imagine how to go about knowing you. If I imagine you, I am mistaken. If I understand you, I am deluded. If I am conscious and certain I know you, I am crazy. The darkness is enough. (Bridges to Contemplative Living, edited by Montaldo & Toth, Ave Maria Press, 2010. p. 28)
Powerful words from someone who has just been in the monastery for two weeks.
Twenty four years later this basic theme and attitude is still there in his mature writings. In 1965 in the Climate of Monastic Prayer he writes:
Contemplative prayer is, in a way, simply the preference for the desert, for emptiness, for poverty. One has begun to know the meaning of contemplation when one intuitively and spontaneously seeks the dark and unknown path of aridity in preference to every other way. The contemplative is one who would rather not know than now. Rather not enjoy than enjoy. Rather not have proof that God loves him. He accepts the love of God on faith, in defiance of all apparent evidence. This is the necessary condition, and a very paradoxical condition, for the mystical experience of the reality of God’s presence and of his love for us. Only when we are able to ‘let go’ of everything within us, all desire to see, to know, to taste, and to experience the presence of God, do we truly become able to experience that presence with the overwhelming conviction and reality that revolutionize our entire life. (Ibid. p. 29)
I think that is a good and helpful passage. We all experience periods of aridity in the spiritual life but here Merton teaches that we have only begun to know the meaning of contemplation when we "intuitively and spontaneously seek the dark and unknown path of aridity in preference to every other way." So our aridity is not a hindrance on our journey to God but rather it is the way, the path, to Him.

Father Joseph has set the bar rather high for the speaker following him next week. Hang on a minute - that'll be me! *gulp*

ChristChurch is busy. We're used to the City of Leicester Singers rehearsing here on Monday evenings. Tonight, session four of an eight-week course on the history of the Old Testament is being held in the Vaughan Powell Room, next to ours - though no one can remember that being on last week. In the Worship Space (the main area of the church), Rev David Jennings, Canon Theologian, is delivering the monthly Leicester Theological Society: "Is the Bible the word of God? Discuss". Until this evening, Leicester Theological Society has held its monthly meetings on Fridays. I've often wanted to attend their lectures but they've either coincided with the kids staying with me or some other social commitment. But it's odd that they should be holding them here now on Monday evenings, when some of those who regularly attend the Christians Aware / Faith Awareness sessions would more than likely want to attend the lecture. For that matter, I'd fancy joining in the Old Testament history course too!

But it's a wee bit more than a minor irritation here this evening. In the Worship Space, David Jennings is using the microphone and PA and his talk is seeping into our room via a speaker that we can't switch off. It's turned down as low as it'll go but we can still hear every word, bubbling under Father Delargy's talk. When he's about to take us into a period of silent meditation, I break ranks and dash into the Worship Space to see if they can cut the sound to our room. But even though they're on to Q&A, there's no natural break in the flow that would allow me to interject. After standing there for the better part of ten minutes and failing to make myself seen or heard, I head back to our session. I have to say I'm relieved that that particular distraction won't be there next week.

1 comment:

  1. This blog post was picked up and published in the, "Today in Diversity and Social Justice: Diversity and Social Justice Issues" (Sunday Feb 10 2013 edition). Search the archive for this story under #EQUALITY: