March 12, 2017
“Lord it is good for us to be here…A bright cloud overshadowed them.” Notice the phrases “good for us” and “overshadowed them.” We Cistercians, just as these apostles, are together on the mountain, together in the desert, together in the garden of Gethsemani, together always. Truly we are community persons, cenobites. Our monastic sources make it clear as day that this was the original intention. What our Fathers and Mothers dreamed of and established was community, schools of love and schools of continual prayer, in which each person by means of an atmosphere of silence, a beautiful enveloping cloud so to speak, had an inward journey to make, had his or her own secret dwelling with the hidden Lord. This and not physical aloneness was the solitude our founders so desired---a space within the heart that could be experienced as an immense land. From within this solitude we reach out in communion to all our sisters, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep and forever grateful for our shared vocation and common vision.
Listen to Guerric of Igny as he describes this blessed way of community and solitude in his fourth sermon for Advent: “By the wonderful favor of God’s loving care, in this solitude of ours we have the peace of solitude and yet we do not lack the consolation and comfort of holy companionship. It is possible for each of us to sit alone and be silent, because we have no one to disturb us with interruptions, and yet it cannot be said of us: ‘Woe to him who is alone, since he has nobody to console him or if he should fall has none to lift him up.’ We are surrounded by companions, yet we are not in a crowd. We live as it were in a city, yet we have to contend with no tumult, so that the voice of one crying in the wilderness can be heard by us, provided only that we have interior silence to correspond to the exterior silence that surrounds us.” Truly this is a perfect description of what I have been calling the delightful solitude.
How does one arrive at the interior silence which, as Guerric puts it, corresponds to the exterior silence that surrounds us? This is not easy. First we need to be able to name what is making the interior noise and, secondly, we need to be willing to combat it. What becomes clear is that the noise within is in some way or another related to a lack of love for others whereas interior silence brings us into communion with others. As St. Bernard says, ‘’Christ the Lord is a spirit before your face, and he demands solitude of the spirit more than of the body, although physical withdrawal can be of benefit when the opportunity offers, especially in time of prayer. Apart from that the only solitude prescribed for you is that of the mind and spirit. You enjoy this solitude if you refuse to share in the common gossip…if you reject what everybody covets, avoid disputes, make light of losses, and pay no heed to injuries…However great the crowds that surround you, you can enjoy the benefits of solitude if you refrain from curiosity about other people’s conduct and shun rash judgments.” Andre Louf echoes this when he says: “Silence is a putting aside, a renouncing of all schemes, desires, inclinations and thoughts which cannot be incorporated in the aching prayer of the Spirit within us. Everything in us still affected by ambition, selfishness, sensuality, anxiety, and which prevents us from expressing ourselves wholly before God. We must beware of the strange and confused world inside us with which we so readily identify.” I think this is precisely what Constitution 24 means when it says that silence fosters mindfulness of God and fraternal communion, for through the silence by which we rest in God’s loving presence, we enter into his own loving thoughts towards other; we enter into his communion with others.
The Cistercian Fathers loved to speak of our lives together in solitude and communion, and their images of desert or mountain or garden easily evoke in us a sense of both these realities. In some cases, however, they use unusual images such as Gilbert of Hoyland’s delightful development of our lives together as a pomegranate in which we, the seeds, happily cling to one another without grumbling or quarreling or breaking through the rind, the rind obviously representing stability and enclosure, the guardians of monastic solitude. As Gilbert concludes, “Let charity unite and the rind defend”!
For me the most powerful image has been that of Isaac of Stella’s mountain in which we find community life described in terms of alternations: “In imitation of Christ we ascend to the Father, letting oneself be calmed, simplified, and unified in restful meditation; in imitation of Christ, we descend to one’s brothers, letting oneself be distended, torn, shared, divided, becoming all in all in action…Thirst for Christ alone, and attend to him alone where there is Christ alone. Give yourselves gladly to the service of all where his presence is multiplied.” But today, the second Sunday of Lent, is a day for all of us to be together on the mountain, all of us alike being calmed simplified and unified by the Father as we gaze on his glory in the face of Christ.