peter damian: the heart of a reformer

The sculpture of Saint Peter Damian at the entrance of the Sacro Eremo di Fonte Avellana.

We have yet another feast right here in the beginning of Lent, Peter Damian of Fonte Avellana on February 22. One author wrote concerning St. Peter Damian that, “His energy and spirit, his learning and achievements mark Peter Damian as one of the outstanding personalities of the 11th century, if not the entire Middle Ages.” We, of course, claim him as one of the greatest saints of our Camaldolese congregation, mainly because he was the biographer of Romuald. He was a major proponent of the eremitical life, though he himself spent very little time as a hermit.[i] The congregation that he headed was in large part cenobitic as well. But he is also known in the rest of the Church for his work in greater ecclesial reform. He was much sought after for advice by a series of popes, and eventually named bishop of Ostia and then a Cardinal. That’s when his efforts at reform in the greater church were particularly strenuous. He got involved in protecting the rights of the church against secular corruption; the secular clergy and the episcopacy were especially weighed down simony, nepotism and general moral laxness.

I couldn’t help but wonder: what is it that fires the heart of a reformer? If it’s just someone who has a personal agenda, the reform is going to go nowhere. St. Francis of Assisi wouldn’t have lasted; Romuald wouldn’t have lasted; the Trappists wouldn’t have lasted if their reform was only their personal agendas at work. Like Saint Peter Damian, the true reformer’s zeal is always rooted in personal conversion, and the reform grows from out of that. It’s an organic thing. If we try to orchestrate it, it’s destined to fail. Francis heard the call: “Rebuild my church.” But that was based on him rebuilding Francis first. This is the lesson we have to learn from Peter Damian––not to go out and reform, but to go in and reform. His first movement was there––to the inner journey, to the inner work, to the monastic conversatio.

The thing is, if we do this work of conversatio, we never know where the Spirit is going to take us, what the Spirit is going to do with us when we have been molded into what Spirit wants us to be. We might be sent to evangelize! We might be sent to our deaths! We might get asked to paint our faces in clown make-up and sell balloons in downtown Monterey. And we might be called not to do anything but stay home in our cell and sit waiting, patiently, content with the grace of God. But that’s not our business.

Our business is to be clay in the hands of this God, to reform our lives continually and make ourselves available to the Spirit. Whatever we do even in terms of our own inner healing and growth, what we do in terms of personal conversion itself, is a gift to the Body. You could draw this vision from what Peter Damian himself wrote to a recluse at Sitria, in what I think of as the most eloquent defense of the eremitical life: “The Church of Christ is united in all her parts by such a bond of love that her several members form a single body and in each one the whole church is present.” Perhaps this is another way of saying St. Paul’s famous aphorism: In my body I make up what is lacking in the suffering of the Body of Christ.[ii]

It goes both ways: what goes on in us is also important to the whole Body; on the other hand what goes on in the Body is important to us. One of Peter Damian’s most vehement polemics was Adversus Canonicos––“Against the Canons.” (The canons were an order of priests who lived in community following a rule similar to monks. They usually staffed cathedrals, which was often an honorary position.) At Peter Damian’s time there was a lot of corruption in the ranks of these canons. Apparently some them wanted monks to be forbidden from ecclesiastical apostolate, basing their argument on the fact that monks, and especially hermits, are supposed to be dead to the world. So why are they meddling in the apostolate? They didn’t want some annoying ascetic coming in and telling them how to run their parishes, their cathedrals or dioceses. They even thought that monks shouldn’t exercise the office of priesthood because their monastic vocation impeded it. Peter Damian answers, as Don Anselmo wrote, with “irony worthy of the subject,” that it’s “precisely for this reason, that we are dead to the world and profess a life in perfect antagonism with the principles of the world, that we have the liberty to act in the ecclesiastical field.”
 In other words, who better to speak about any matters concerning the church, than those who have died to riches and power, those who have no agenda or personal claim, those whose lives are hidden with Christ in God.

Furthermore, Peter Damian writes, again in Adversus Canonicos––“Against the Canons”:

We don’t know why and in what way you want to separate us from the consort and the unity of the church, when it is indeed certain that the Catholic Church was not founded or governed by canons. The Apostles that founded the church and the supporters of the church did not live in your way, but in our way. So the Evangelist Luke refers in the Acts of the Apostles; so Philo, the Hebrew doctor, calls the first Christians monks, not canons, and their houses monasteries, in books written in praise of us.

Then he goes on to cite Moses and Elijah, and just about everyone on the pages of the New Testament, saying they are monks not canons. For Peter Damian the monastic life––or should I say, the contemplative life––was the very center of the faith, this life of being hidden with Christ in God, and from out of that everything else did and just about anything could flow. And flowing from that, monastic community is the model of the apostolic church.

There is a line in Peter Damian’s biography of Romuald that Romuald “wanted to turn the whole world into a hermitage.” Thomas suggested to me once that didn’t necessarily mean that Romuald wanted everyone to live as solitaries, but that he wanted to be able to share with everyone the gifts of contemplative prayer, that mystical experience that is the heart of the energy of Christianity, the shift of consciousness and the fresh new way of thinking that grows from it. Is this not the same in Peter Damian’s case? His monastic conversatio led him not only to insights about the church, but energy to incarnate and enact those insights. This I think is the legacy of people like Bede Griffiths, John Main, and Thomas Keating, who 
preached the message of the “universal call to contemplation.” And contemplation then becomes the core and motivation for everything else. It’s the experience of union with God engendered by the experience of 
contemplative prayer; it’s a new way of seeing the Gospel that only the contemplative life can offer that they were spreading––not just a specific way of being a monk, since they all lived it in such different ways, Romuald, Peter Damian, Bruno the Carthusian.

If we are living true to our vocations, if we have really died to the world
then not only do we have a gift to offer the rest of the church––we become the 
gift that we offer to the rest of the Body. Let’s pray for that ourselves, for the fresh new way of thinking that comes from our experience of union with God through prayer and meditation, and the energy to embody it and enact it.

cyprian, 22 feb 18

[i] He actually had harsh warnings for any monk who puffed himself up because of his hermit status: “Let it never be that the hermit swells himself up as a privilege of a more perfect life, when perhaps he doesn’t equal many others who, even though in a lesser state, walk the more sublime way.”

[ii] Col 1:24.

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