CONFERENCE OF RELIGIOUS OF THE ANTILLES
GENERAL ASSEMBLY: 07 – 11 APRIL 2015
THEME: THE HEART OF THE MATTER
(RELIGIOUS LIFE RECONSIDERED IN THE LIGHT OF A YEAR FOR CONSECRATED LIFE)
TUESDAY 07 APRIL
9:00 am to 10:00 am
THE WORD OF GOD as foundational to the Religious Life
We will first consider two key phrases in the title of this presentation: “The Word of God” and “Religious Life”. Both “the Word of God” and “Religious Life” pre-date Christianity. For several decades of the Christian era, the Word of God was mostly the Jewish Scriptures, and the Jewish Scriptures make up the bulk of what Christians today refer to as “The Word of God”. A large percentage of the early Christians were Jews and they sought the meaning of the Christ event in their own Scriptures. Religious Life also has a long pedigree and if we are to keep within the narrow boundaries of what is generally referred to as “Salvation History”, then we must limit its roots to the Jewish religious landscape. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 and the excavation of Khirbet Qumran on the northern shore of the Dead Sea have raised considerable speculation for several decades about the “monastic” character of the Essenes and their relationship with the origins of Christian monasticism. However, the vow of perpetual celibacy, as practiced by Christian Religious Communities today, would have been contrary to traditional Jewish theology, which regarded the injunction of Genesis 1:28 to increase and multiply as the first commandment of the law. A Christian justification of the celibate state was to be found in a particular interpretation of the New Testament Scriptures (Matthew 19:12ff). The “Therapeutae”, another Jewish sect which flourished in Alexandria, consisted of persons who left behind family and property and pursued a contemplative life.
John Cassian (360-435), Christian monk and theologian, is noted for bringing the ideas and practices of Egyptian monasticism to the early medieval West. In one of his major works, “The Institutes”, he affirmed that the first Christians of Egypt were obviously monks, and thus monastic life was given an apostolic origin. The evangelist Mark was the first to rule as bishop over the city of Alexandria, and established his Church along the lines of the early Christian Community in Jerusalem as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles: The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul; no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, as everything they owned was held in common. The apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power, and they were all accorded great respect. None of their members was ever in want, as all those who owned land or houses would sell them, and bring the money from the sale of them, to present it to the apostles; it was then distributed to any who might be in need. (Acts 4:32-35)
And in his other major work, “The Conferences”, John Cassian underscores the apostolic origin of the monastic life. He states in his eighteenth conference as follows: The discipline of the coenobites took its rise at the time of the apostolic preaching. For such was the whole multitude of believers in Jerusalem, which is described thus in the Acts of the Apostles (see biblical quote above). (Con 18.V.1)
A significant contributor to the history of Christian spirituality and the development of monasticism is Origen of Alexandria (184-254). He made a clear distinction between action (praxis) and contemplation (theoria). However, it has nothing to do with the modern distinction and opposition between the apostolic and the contemplative life. Origen’s distinction refers to two aspects of a person’s spiritual life that are both overlapping and complementary. For Origen, the active life is the ascetic combat through which we cultivate virtue and root out vices. They are more aspects of the spiritual life rather than stages. Origen is the first to interpret the Martha-Mary story of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42) as referring to the higher value of contemplation.
Scripture played an enormous role in the development of religious life, beginning with the monastic movement. Pachomius (292-348), generally recognized as the founder of Christian Coenobitic monasticism, wrote a Rule in which he stated that there should be no one in the monastery who does not know by heart at least the New Testament and the Psalms. Each candidate had to learn to read on being admitted to the monastery so as to be able to learn the Scriptures. And once this was accomplished it became a constant source of meditation or rumination all day long both in public and private. And in his Rule, Benedict (480-547) suggests that one of the ways the monk can spend the time between Vigils and Lauds is to study the Psalms (RB 8:3). Here he underlines the importance of the psalms as a tool for Lectio. Benedict uses Scripture profusely in his Rule, and he also recommends it to his monks. In the last chapter of the Rule, where he describes the Rule as “this little rule”, he encourages his monks to read scripture. “What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life?” (RB 73:3). Benedict is following in the footsteps of the ancient desert fathers who themselves were saturated with the Word of God. And the psalms played a vital part in their spiritual life. In his book, AD MONACHOS, Evagrius Ponticus (345-399) says: “In the one singing psalms, irascibility is quiet; and the long-suffering one, fearless shall he be” (#98).
As has already been stated, The Word of God, as it has come down to us, is largely Jewish. In order for it to be embraced by the Christians, it therefore had to be a matter of interpretation. William Barclay gives us a very clear explanation of how this would have been easy for them to do: “The early Christians had appropriated the Jewish Scriptures – the Old Testament had become the Christian book. And in the Jewish scriptures, they saw Christ there. This was a fairly easy transition as the early Christians were mainly Jews and had been trained in the technique of interpreting scripture at different levels. It was a Jewish belief that all Scripture had four meanings – Peshat, which was the simple meaning which could be seen at the first reading; Remaz, which was the suggested meaning and the truth which the passage suggested to the seeking mind; Derush, which was the meaning when all the resources of investigation, linguistic, historical, literary, archaeological, had been brought to bear upon the passage; Sod, which was the inner and allegorical meaning. The initial letters of these words, PRDS, are the consonants of the word PaRaDiSe, and to enter into all these meanings was as if to enter into the bliss of Paradise. Now of all the meanings Sod, the inner, mystical meaning was the most important. The Jews were, therefore, skilled in finding inner meanings in Scripture. It was thus not difficult for them to develop a technique of Old Testament interpretation, which discovered Jesus Christ all over the Old Testament.”
The origin of Religious Life in the Church is synonymous with the rise and development of the monastic movement in the early centuries of the Common Era. In addition to its prophetic role as an alternative way of life to one conditioned by materialism and hedonism, it consisted often of a personal and direct response to the word of God as indicated by Holy Scripture. Several of these monks can identify scriptural texts which catapulted their insertion into this way of life. Anthony of Egypt (251-356), for example, was deeply touched by a passage which he heard being read in Church and that transformed his entire life. St Athanasius (296-373) writes: “Six months had not passed since the death of his parents when, going to the Lord’s house as usual and gathering his thoughts, he considered while he walked how the apostles, forsaking everything, followed the Saviour, and how in Acts some sold what they possessed and took the proceeds and placed them at the feet of the apostles for distribution among those in need, and what great hope is stored up for such people in heaven. He went into the church pondering these things, and just then it happened that the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. It was as if by God’s design he held the saints in his recollection, and as if the passage were read on his account.”
Hans Urs von Balthsar (1905-1988), one of the most important Roman Catholic theologians in the twentieth century, once said: “Theology for a thousand years was a science of the knees. It has now become a science of the seat of the pants.” This is an adequate description of what became of theology from the eleventh century onwards with the rise of scholasticism. In an address by Fr. Michel de Verteuil (1929-2014) in Rome in 1992 on “The Theological Background to Inculturation – LECTIO DIVINA”, he makes a clear distinction between Monastic and Scholastic theology. “Monastic theology involved the whole community, whereas scholastic theology was for specialists, an elite group”. This has led to a compartmentalisation of life, the creating of dichotomies between the spiritual and the secular realms. It has led us to create a false dichotomy between prayer and action, the contemplative and the active person.
“He now went up onto the mountain and summoned those he wanted. So they came to him and he appointed twelve; they were to be his companions and to be sent out to proclaim the message, with power to drive out devils” (Mark 3:13-14). In our Religious Life, we have often separated these two dimensions of the call of Jesus, the companionship and the ministry. The companionship is what I propose as the contemplative dimension of the call of Jesus. Anyone who has been in love does not need to be reminded that there are moments in loving relationships where words are unnecessary. It is the same as our relationship with God. Wordless, quiet rest in the presence of the One Who loves us has a name in the Christian tradition – contemplatio, contemplation. We learn to let go of our own words – we simply enjoy the presence of the other.
The centrality of the scriptures and especially the psalms (as in the Divine Office) to our religious life is essential in our response to the challenges which beset all our communities today. I think what is needed today for the rejuvenation of Religious Life and Religious communities is a return to the central role of The Word of God in the Scriptures and particularly in the psalms. The beautiful story of the Road to Emmaus is especially relevant at this time. The two disciples were rejuvenated by the Risen Christ (Luke 24:27) as he opened the Scriptures for them and beginning with Moses and the Prophets, “he explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about himself.” And we are told by Luke that as Jesus did this, their hearts started to burn within them. Can this happen to us religious, when we too have our heads downcast? St Augustine said that God wrote two books, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Life. We need to read these two books and place them alongside each other. We must allow the Book of Scripture to throw light on the Book of Life.
The Church since the second Vatican Council has entered upon a road of self-examination. Religious communities as well have been asked to return to the spirit of the Gospel: Since the ultimate norm of the religious life is the following of Christ set forth in the Gospels, let this be held by all institutes as the highest rule. (Perfectae Caritatis 2a) It is through the Word of God, by reflecting on it continually, that the renewal of religious life lies.
The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, in its message to Consecrated Men and Women for the Year of Consecrated Life, “REJOICE!”, underscores the importance of the Word of God for the renewal of Religious Communities: Fidelity in discipleship occurs through and is demonstrated by the experience of community, a theological reality in which we are called to support each other in our joyful ‘yes’ to the Gospel. “It is the Word of God that inspires faith and nourishes and revitalizes it. And it is the Word of God that touches hearts, converting them to God and to his logic which is so different from our own. It is the Word of God that continually renews our communities”. FRANCIS, Meeting with the Clergy, Consecrated People and Members of Diocesan Councils, Assisi (Perugia), 4 October 2013.
The Word of God needs to be interpreted in a particular way. There are several problems in trying to reconcile some of the accounts in the Jewish Scriptures with the Gospel of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The repeated commands in Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges, for example, attributed to God to wipe out the inhabitants of the Promised Land find difficulty to be reconciled with the preaching of Jesus. The problem is often dealt with by allegorizing and applying a spiritual interpretation. Interpretation is the key to the use of the Word of God for the renewal of Religious Communities. However, the emphasis must always be on doing the word. The Word of God is not for itself but rather to inform our lives and the lives of our Religious Communities.
The brethren came to the Abba Anthony and said to him, “Speak a word; how are we to be saved?” The old man said to them, “You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.” But they said, “We want to hear from you too, Father.” Then the old man said to them, “The Gospel says, if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). They said, “We cannot do that.” The old man said, “If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.” “We cannot do that either,” they said. So he said, “If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil,” and they said, “We cannot do that either.” Then the old man said to his disciple, “Prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids (make a little porridge). If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers.” (Anthony, #19)
This was one of the more frequent questions in the desert: Give me a word! The other was “What should I do?” Very often the elder would refer the seeker to the Scripture. The word of the Scripture and the word of the father were one and the same. The Father was a living text. In today’s story, Anthony merely referred the brethren to the scripture. The scripture and the psalms in particular give us a language to speak about the life of God in our lives and the lives of others. The desert fathers were so saturated with God’s word that they would always have a response, a word to offer. One cannot give what one doesn’t have.
The dialogue does not revolve around the meaning of the text, but on whether or not the brothers are able to do it. What was important was the emphasis placed on doing the scripture. The psalms and the scripture led the monk to live in a particular way. One had to do the scripture.
A story from the apophthegmata shows clearly this relative importance of reading compared with the absolute importance of the contents of Scripture:
At a time of great cold, Serapion meets in Alexandria a poor man who is completely naked. He says to himself: “This is Christ, and I am a murderer if he dies without my having tried to help him.” So Serapion takes off all his clothes and gives them to the poor man, then he remains naked in the street with the only thing he has left, a Gospel under his arm… A passer-by, who knows him, asks him: “Abba Serapion, who has taken away your clothes?” And Serapion, showing his Gospel, replies: “This is the one who has taken away my clothes.” Serapion then goes to another place and there sees someone who is being taken to prison, because he is unable to pay a debt. Serapion, seized with pity, gives him his Gospel, so that he can sell it and so pay his debt. When Serapion returns to his cell, no doubt shivering, his disciple asks him where his tunic is, and Serapion replies that he has sent it where it is more needed than on his body. To his disciple’s second question: “And where is your Gospel?’ Serapion replies: I have sold the one who continually told me: Sell your goods, and give to the poor (Luke 12:33); I have given it to the poor that I might have greater confidence on the Day of Judgment” (Pat. Arm. 13, 8, R: III, 189).
For Anthony, representative par excellence of the anchoritic life, as for Pachomius, representative of the coenobitic, Scripture is above all a Rule of life. It is even the only true Rule of the monk. Neither Anthony nor Pachomius wrote a Rule in the sense in which it would be understood in the monastic tradition after them, although a certain number of practical rules of Pachomius and his successors have been brought together under the name of the “Rule of Pachomius”.
What is important is not merely to read scripture but to live it. The Desert Fathers were always searching the Scriptures for a Word. We learn from them a particular way of reading scripture, a way to reach out the whole of our religious life. The tradition was an oral one. They passed on the wisdom to others by the word. And they did not pass on their word but God’s Word.
The Word of God is the foundation on which Religious Life is built and renewed.
Abbot John Pereira, O.S.B.
Mount St Benedict, Trinidad and Tobago
 Fry, Timothy, O.S.B., RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English with Notes, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press) 1998, c1981
 Fry, Timothy, O.S.B., RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English with Notes, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press) 1998, c1981. See also: Nugent, Andrew, O.S.B. “The Slow Release Miracle” Chapter 9, p. 65.
 “John Cassian and the formation of authoratative tradition” by Mark Sheridan, OSB
 Fry, Timothy, O.S.B., RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English with Notes, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press) 1998, c1981
 Lectio Divina as school of prayer among the Fathers of the Desert, by Armand Veilleux, O.C.S.O.
 “Evagrius of Pontus (ca. 345-399) was educated philosophically and theologically under Basil and Gregory Nazianzus. He was deacon for Gregory in Constantinople and seems to have been helpful to him in carving out the solution to the Trinitarian problems faced by the council in that city in 381. An amorous attachment to a lady highly placed in imperial circles caused him to flee to Jerusalem, where the monastic communities of Rufinus and Melania on the Mount of Olives received him. Under the influence of Melania, he retired to the deserts of Egypt to complete his monastic conversion … He was among the first of the desert fathers to articulate in writing the wisdom of the spiritual tradition of the monastic movement.” (J. Driscoll)
 LANGUAGE FOR GOD IN PATRISTIC TRADITION by Mark Sheridan, OSB
 “Lectio Divina and the Fathers of the Desert”, article by Armand Veilleux, O.C.S.O., November 1995. This is the source of these two paragraphs.