This year, our celebration of the Saints Robert, Alberic and Stephen, the First Abbots of Citeaux, is overshadowed by Br. Benedict’s funeral. His family wasn’t aware of the significance of the day when they requested it as the date for the funeral–it was a Saturday when family and friends could gather. But how typical of Br. Benedict’s vocation with us to be buried on such an important and appropriate Solemnity!
To bring a little more notice to the celebration, the homily from last year is posted below:
Readings: Genesis 12:1-4; Acts 4:32-35; Mark 10:17-30
Back in the days when Fr. Chrysogonus Wadell, the monastic scholar of Gethsemani Abbey, was alive and was a familiar speaker at workshops, he was giving a seminar at his own Abbey for the simply professed monks and nuns of our monasteries about the origins of the Cistercian Order. In the Q & A period, a young monk asked him, “When did the primitive ideals of Citeaux begin to decline?” Fr. Chrysogonus replied, “About five minutes after the founders left Molesme to begin Citeaux.”
It’s a realistic answer and–just in case you’re wondering–no, I wasn’t the young monk who asked the question. It’s not the sort of question that preoccupies my imagination. Whether an individual is a thinker or a doer or feels his or her way through life’s challenges, “ideals” exist primarily in the mind and the imagination. Even when they are translated into action, “ideals” are preconceptions, concepts, at home in the mind; they have to be processed to enter into lives. Inevitably, they lose something in the translation.
Characteristically, when a man asks Jesus, Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?, Jesus does not spell out a strategy for an ideal existence. He’s very concrete and very basic: You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother. Of course, most of that is reproduced by St. Benedict in the Fourth Chapter of his Rule to shape his School of the Lord’s Service. And that same Rule, which our forefathers from Molesme sought to live out at Citeaux, describes what Jesus continues to advise, if in different words and much expanded: Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries is nothing more than a commentary on the Gospel, describing concrete ways to live that Gospel. And neither the Gospel nor the Rule describe or promise an ideal existence. There will be challenges, there will be problems, there will be mistakes and they all constitute the “curriculum” for this School of the Lord’s Service, this School of Charity.
Today’s Gospel tells us that this man’s face fell and he went away sad because he had many possessions. I suspect that one of the possessions that the founders of Citeaux had to forsake were their ideals. Ideals look good on paper but they can be treacherous in fact. Ideals separate the idealist from real people with their limits and the idealist from his own, very real, limits. Ideals have a nasty way of cultivating elitism and narrowing the potentials of real life. We don’t have any really young monks in the community right now but just recall when you were a young monk and how arrogant your idealism could be, how superior you could feel. But how much of that feeling depended on contrasting myself with others in order to ignore myself? Had we not learnt from experience, we would have burnt ourselves out and would have fled from this vocation. Don’t we remember how many have? I’m not arguing for a slovenly monastic observance; I’m just saying that the Gospel and the Rule are incarnated in the concrete and not in some mental abstraction. As the Benedictus promises us every morning, we can attain to knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins; not by the show of virtue, which may be no more than a show of my pride. Ideals need to mature into realistic and concrete principles that are ethically dependable and fair to others.
In today’s Gospel Jesus says, How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God! But when the disciples are amazed by this, he also says, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God–not just for the rich. It is indeed hard; it is genuinely risky. Even for a monk. Our vocation describes a good and time-tested orientation for following Christ to the promised Kingdom. It guides us through the concrete stuff to the monastic life. But can I hear where God is calling me through the actual limits and needs of our life together? Or am I filtering all that through my idealized expectations or the dissatisfaction of disappointed ideals? Am I only ready to hear particular invitations in my daily life? Am I blocking out a compelling call from God because I don’t think this demand or this limit or this challenge should be part of my life? Or does my guilty conscience keep me from accepting the new opportunity? Do I let my sense of inadequacy hold me back and leave me shouting my adolescent ideals ever louder?
There are many ways of having too many possessions and being blocked by them. The first Cistercians struggled to survive, struggled with the limits set by feudalism–so contrary to their ideals–struggled with ecclesial privileges that they had to accept to survive; they got as many things wrong as they got right. Nonetheless they passed onto us a struggle that’s worth living and well worth passing on to future generations. It’s nothing less than witnessing to the Gospel by living with the very real, not ideal, human beings, both in and beyond the monastic community. As we were told at our profession, may God bring to completion the good work he has begun in us.