seeking God alone
Three things came together nicely today. First of all it was the feast day of one of the most famous monks of the 20th century, the great Abbot Columba Marmion. And then this was the first day of our retreat, during which Sr. Marielle Frigge, OSB, from Yankton SD is going to speak to us about “The Paschal Christ as the Heart of the Rule.” I always remember how both Bruno and Robert used to stress that we are not just generic “monks”; this is the path we have chosen to follow Jesus, to incarnate his gospel. As Abbot Marmion wrote, St. Benedict presents the Rule “only as an abridgement of Christianity, and a means of practising the Christian Life in its fullness and perfection.”[i] And then today’s gospel, which is all about renouncing everything to follow Jesus… I went back to Abbot Marmion’s famous book, Christ the Ideal of the Monk, and re- read the first chapter––“To Seek God,” and that sort of focused me, especially in the light of today’s gospel.[ii] Chapter 58 in the Rule concerning the admission of novices says Et sollicitudo sit si revera Deum quaerit… “May the concern be whether the novice truly seeks God.”
There are two other things I am going to draw on for these reflections. The first is one of the Sunday addresses that Pope Benedict gave. This one was on the feast of St. Benedict, his namesake, in 2005. Forget Ora et Labora; Pope Benedict summarized Benedict’s teaching with the phrase Quaerere Deum–to seek God. The other thing I want to draw from is a recording I heard of Fr. Bede Griffiths preaching on that same phrase on the feast of St. Benedict the year before he died––seeking God. He was comparing the Western Benedictine notion of the monk to the sannyasa–renunciate ideal of India. But not just “seeking God”; both Fr. Bede and Abbot Marmion stress the monk is the one who seeks “God alone.” Abbot Marmion wrote, “A man is worth what he seeks [Excuse the gender exclusive language; he was writing to male monks] … The motive from which we act, the end that we pursue, and as it were to direct our whole life, is for us of capital importance. … We must seek God.”[iii] And Pope Benedict said about the saint that St. Benedict knew “that when the believer enters into a profound relationship with God, he [or she] cannot be content with living in a mediocre way, with a minimal ethic and superficial religiosity.” It’s all or nothing. God alone.
Fr. Bede laid out three different meanings of that phrase, “seeking God alone.” First of all, the monk is the one who is literally alone. This could mean the hermit, but certainly it also means the celibate, or the one vowed to chastity, the one who seeks God by his- or herself.[iv] In Christian terminology we say that the monk’s “aloneness” is an eschatological sign, pointing to the fact that ultimately we will face God alone, when, as Jesus says, ‘there will be no marriage or giving in marriage.’[v] Of course we are ultimately going to find union through communion, we are only going to discover our true selves in relationship, and our apatheia must give birth to agape; nor does that negate the fact that St. Benedict says that Christ will lead us together to everlasting life,[vi] but still… the monos, the singleness, stands as a sign of a fundamental aloneness of the monastic path.[vii]
Secondly, “seeking God alone” means of course seeking nothing else but God. Not riches, not fame, not glory, not family. During the formal rite of initiation into the life as a sannyasi in India, called the sannyasa diksha, the candidate proclaims, “I renounce the desire for offspring, the desire of riches, the desire of the world.” In the Rule, Benedict quotes the Acts of the Apostles, explaining the reason that all things are held in common possession among monks is so that no one presumes to call anything their own.[viii] And after monks make solemn vows they are to be aware that from that day they will not even have their own bodies at their disposal.[ix] This is the monk as renunciate, an image we have lost a little by now in the West, where most religious live in middle- to upper-class comfort.[x] This is one of the reasons that Bede and Abhishiktananda thought the sannaysa ideal could be a re-discovery of the life of renunciation because Western Benedictine monasticism had gotten so laden down with Baroque pageantry and clericalism. The monk is the one who has renounced all and everything for the liberty to search for God alone. This of course is in imitation of Jesus himself, as we heard his call in the gospel today: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ and ‘Let the dead bury their own dead’ and ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’[xi]
In that address mentioned earlier, Pope Benedict alludes to a third aspect of what it means to seek God alone. St. Benedict didn’t found an institution that was oriented primarily to evangelization, of the barbarians who were invading southern Europe at the time or of any other peoples, as other great missionary monks of that era did, “but indicated to his followers that the fundamental, and even more, the sole objective of existence”––this is something Abbot Marmion would have loved to hear––“the sole objective of existence is the search for God,”––Quaerere Deum.
How Fr. Bede says it is that the monk seeks God not through something else, but seeks God directly, not through work, nor through music, nor through art, nor through study, nor even through service, but through a pure and simple search for a direct, immediate experience of God. That does not necessarily mean that the monk doesn’t work––even the work of evangelization––, but somehow the work comes through the experience of God and from the experience of God, not the other way around. Perhaps ultimately a monk would not so much say, “I find God through music,” “I find God through my work,” or “I find God through my study,” as say “I find music through God, I find study through God, I found my work from God.” A monk teacher of mine told me something similar years ago in regards to sacred music, for example; he said he did not think that sacred music was so much the sound of our searching for God, as it was the sound of our having been found by God. It’s a subtle difference, but powerful.
And this last meaning also applies to our way of prayer and meditation. The monk, Fr. Bede said, is ultimately the one who seeks God in the heart above all, not through any image, not through any of our meager understandings of or thoughts about God, as poetic and beautiful and lofty as they may be, but seeking a conscious contact with God–As–God–Is. Abbot Marmion quotes the great mystic Pseudo-Dionysius, saying “we are given the name of ‘monks’––[monos] ‘alone, one’ on account of this life of indivisible unity, whereby withdrawing our mind from the distraction of manifold things, we hasten towards divine unity and towards the perfection of holy love.”[xii] To do this we enter into the darkness of unknowing, a way of knowing that is a way of unknowing, stripping ourselves of all that we think we know about God––and is this not a renunciation, a form of poverty as well––ready for an encounter with God-As-God–Is. Now, anything may spring from that––work, service, or art––when the spring of living water flows back from out of our heart, but the contemplative way puts the “love of Christ” above all other things, seeking God alone, seeking God alone, seeking God alone.
Some last words from the good abbot:
Let us be attentive to seek God in all things: in the Superiors, in our brethren, in all creatures, in the events of life, in the midst of contradiction as [well as] in hours of joy. Let us seek him always, so as to be able unceasingly to put our lips to this source of beatitude; we can always drink from it without fear of seeing the waters exhausted. … It is of [these waters] that Christ Jesus said that they become in the soul ‘a fountain of water, springing up to life everlasting.’[xiii]
cyprian 3 oct 18
[i] Christ the Ideal of the Monk, 1.
[ii] Lk 9:57-62.
[iii] Christ the Ideal of the Monk, 2-3.
[iv] This is why the idea of a “married monasticism” strikes some ears as a sort of contradiction in terms.
[v] Mt 20:30.
[vi] RB 72:12.
[vii] Tie that to axial consciousness, the birth of Buddhist monasticism, the charting of an individual spiritual path apart from the tribe. Ewert Cousins wrote that that was what was so unique about monasticism as it arose in the Axial Period in Buddhism; for the first time and independent spiritual path was marked out, away from progeny and tribe.
[viii] Acts 4:32, RB 33:6.
[ix] RB 58:25.
[x] In India, too, quite often in modern times to enter a monastic order is to take a step up on the social and economic ladder. In Asia perhaps even more than here, especially in Buddhist cultures, the monk is often thought of as erudite preacher and scholar, and is highly respected in and even pampered by society. But the archetype remains of the sannyasa, the bhikku.
[xi] Lk 9:57-62.
[xii] Ibid. 6, quoting “Of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.”
[xiii] Christ, 8.