+THE EARLY CISTERCIAN LOVE FOR THE ADVENT SEASON 24 Nov.’21
In the following presentation I will be drawing heavily on Fr Louis’ or Thomas Merton’s reflections on the early Cistercian love for this season. So let me encourage each and all of you to spend some time with his book Seasons of Celebration. It draws heavily on the writings of St Bernard but covers also what all the early Cistercian writers like Aelred of Rievaulx felt about and loved so much, in this coming season. Merton begins the first three chapters from his book with these words:
“Advent is the ‘sacrament’ of the presence of God in His world, in the Mystery of Christ at work in History through His Church, preparing in a hidden, obscure way for the final manifestation of His Kingdom… The twelfth century Cistercians place a special emphasis on the coming of Christ by His Spirit to the Christian Person. Like the Rhenish mystics they contemplate His hidden birth in our lives, His Advent here and now in the mystery of prayer and providence.”
Merton gives us a lot to ponder in these words. Advent as a sacrament reminds us of how Advent carries a sacred message as a time set apart, provides us with a special opportunity for encountering the living God. God’s beloved Son, Jesus, is ever present to each of our lives but this season is an especially graced time if we use it to taste the nearness of the living God, if we allow ourselves the time to contemplate “His hidden birth in our lives.”
Merton goes on to say that:
“This is the special presence of God in the world that fascinates them and draws them to Him in meditation upon the Bible, where He is present in His Word and in the light generated by that Word in the heart of the believer.”
So much of our Christian lives is summed up in these words for to truly live our faith is all about allowing Christ to live in us and through His love to touch the hearts of all with whom we are in daily contact. This divine presence becomes a living fire in our hearts as we expose ourselves to the Divine Word always available in the sacred scriptures. I will come back to the whole discipline of sacred reading or lectio divina later on but enough to remind you of its importance during this special time of Advent.
God is continually seeking to be revealed in our world today and as scripture has reminded us, we are living in the fullness of time (Eph. 1: 9-10) when all things are to be united in Christ. “This mystery,” Merton reminds us, “is the revelation of God Himself in His Incarnate Son. But it is not merely a manifestation of the Divine Perfections, it is the concrete plan of God for the salvation of men [and women] and the restoration of the whole world in Christ.” God is not seeking only our human renewal but that of the whole of creation as we have become so much aware of with the dangers of climate warming. Every aspect of our human lives is being touched and renewed by God as we allow God’s loving presence to touch and rejuvenate our lives.
God’s incarnate presence desires nothing so much as to touch and make new the whole of our human lives and all of creation around us. More and more I have become aware of how pervasive this divine presence wants to be if we will allow it to be. Merton talks about the way our early Cistercians found all they could ever have hoped for to be already present and realized in a hidden manner by our observance of this season. He writes in his Seasons of Celebration:
“The Kingdom of God is thus already ‘in the midst of us.’ But, the mystery can only be known by those who enter into it, who find their place in the Mystical Christ, and therefore find the mystery of Christ realized and fulfilled in themselves. For these, the Kingdom of God is mysteriously present. They not only enter the Church, or enter Christ, but Christ becomes their life (for me to live is Christ). They participate in the glory of the saints in light. (Col. 1:12) In a certain sense they become the ‘Church’ since they live entirely by the Church, and the Church lives in them.”
Again Merton is reminding us of what I think we need most to be aware of during this Advent season. God is really very near to each one of our lives, dearly seeking to free us of all alienating influences of our past, if we will allow this presence to penetrate, to free our hearts of all that may stand in the way of an inner transformation. God wants nothing so much as to find the mystery of Christ “realized and fulfilled” in everything we think or do, will or say.
For St Bernard and the early Cistercians there is this abiding need “of our finding Christ the Savior here and now among us” for they saw all too clearly our helplessness in facing the demands of daily life. They saw clearly the three sources of misery that we experience, 1) how we are deceived in our judgement of good and evil, 2) how our attempts to do good fail, and lead to nothing, 3) how we fall short in our efforts to resist evil. It is only with the presence of Christ in us that allows us to overcome these obstacles. Only with Him in our hearts are we able to judge clearly between good and evil. “By fortitude He strengthens out weakness, so that we can do all things in Him. He never grows tired, for He is the power of God, ever ready to revive us and lift us up. But we must call upon Him for help in our battles.” With Him at our sides, in our hearts, we have all the strength we need to resist evil.
Often enough this interior warfare is not easy for any of us to engage in on a daily basis but if we are to be truly Christian it is this dying to self that enables us to be authentic witnesses of our faith. If there is one lesson I have learned from my years of living the monastic life, it is my need to continually turn to our beloved redeemer, the Lord Jesus, if I am going to be faithful to my calling. And this is not only something I have to do weekly or daily but throughout the day if I’m going to be true to my deepest longing.
A great help in this matter is our monastic exposure to the Word of God throughout our life, the fact that we are exposed to the psalms seven times a day and to at least some part of Sacred Scripture each hour of the Office. There are everyday experiences of the Word of God in your own lives and as a final invitation, I would just want to encourage you to make the most of these. For the early Cistercians, exposure to God’s living Word was a constant source of growth and renewal in their lives. In fact, as one reads the works of St Bernard, it is hard to tell whether it is he who is writing or it is just one more quote from Scripture.
His whole way of thinking is biblical. Let my offer one final quote from Merton and I will conclude with this:
“We do not have to travel far to find Him [the Christ]. He is within us. This idea is also basically Pauline: ‘Do not say who will scale heaven for us?, as if we had to bring Christ down to earth or, Who will go down into the depth for us?, as if we had to bring Christ back from the dead. No, says the Scripture, the message is close to thy hand, it is on thy lips, it is in thy heart.’ [Rom. 10:6-8] This is the ‘verbum fidei, [the word of faith]’ the spoken word which plants the seed of faith in our hearts and introduces into the Mystery of Christ or the Pascha Christi. It is by the word of faith, or the verbum crucis [the word of the cross], that the ‘Advent’ of Christ becomes a reality in our personal lives.”