The purpose of this life is a real, living, burning, dynamic relationship with our Creator. This is the blank page upon which we are written, the ignition which fires the engine of our thoughts, words and deeds. Ultimately, the relationship becomes union with Him in heaven, where we get to see God as He is. This beatific vision is the very summit of our existence, and it lasts for eternity. Newman wrote about it in his poem The Dream of Gerontius, which Elgar set to music. The English composer made that ‘moment’ of ultimate, truthful, real encounter into a bittersweet instant, charged with ecstasy and pain, because the truth of God was simply too much for Gerontius’ soul.
That we should be working towards such a moment with our Creator, too: what a thought! And the journey begins now. It is thought-provoking to consider our own response to the marvellous creation that is us, and it is healthy to challenge where we are, as individuals, as we journey towards God.
If all of its members were to engage in this dialogue with Him and consciously work to make it the engine room of their lives, the Church would be taken up by an unprecedented wave of healing, integrity and new life. We probably all recognize that the Church – and the world – is in absolutely urgent need of this one-to-one revolution. Perhaps the Church has never needed it more than now.
Central to the outward actions of our faith, our understanding and learning – to everything else we rightly hold as crucial to our faith – is an opportunity to encounter Jesus. Yes, a real, sustained encounter. It is extremely easy to lose sight of this encounter in our lives, not least when we are surrounded by so many distractions, and when so many people are currently lambasting the Church following the terrible evil of widespread historical abuse.
We become Cistercians, not because we like to follow rules or because we favour a particular liturgy, but because of love. Our love for God is manifested through a real, living relationship with Him, and everything in our vocation is designed in such a way that we may live in His presence. Our rules and regulations, our statutes, our liturgical forms – which include specific Cistercian customs – and our insistence on obedience, when placed together, form a ‘signpost’. It is a signpost made from our history as a chosen people of God. It is constructed from the best materials that we as humans can offer: the best of ceremony, of craftsmanship, of writing and of actions. It shows us where to go, which is towards God – towards a real, living relationship with Him. But when it comes down to it, ours is an experiential life of love. Without this inner encounter, the outward signs are meaningless.
When a people continues to make outward actions as part of its faith, it doesn’t take ever so long before the signpost itself becomes the object of worship. This is what Jesus put to the Scribes and Pharisees in today’s Gospel, when He said: “This people honours me only with lip service, while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless, the doctrines they teach are only human regulations… You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions.” (Mark, chapter 7).
We know that Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfil it. Central to this fulfilment is His new commandment: to love one another. At the time of Jesus, this was a revolution, a turning-upside-down of religious customs.
We might stop for a moment to consider the impact this had on those who heard Jesus preaching. All of a sudden, a country man from Nazareth comes to teach a new commandment. At some point in His life, Jesus would have been referred to as a ‘am ha-‘rets’, which literally means ‘people of the countryside’, yet the same was also used to describe rude and ignorant people. This is how the people of villages like Nazareth were seen at the time; Galilee was not Judea. The great teachers of the law did not come to Nazareth, let alone from it. So it is astounding to consider the effect of Jesus upon these people. He was a disturber, a revolutionary; His was a radically new interpretation. In a world in which boys of eight years old were taught to become men, He told His followers to become like little children. In a world where retribution was a harsh and widespread practice, Jesus told His followers to turn the other cheek. He drew on His excellent lived experienced of close-knit family life and rural hardships to reach out to the marginalized and worse-off. He told them that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. In today’s Responsorial Psalm is a verse: ‘Lord, who shall be admitted to your holy mountain? He who walks without fault.’ Yet, Jesus went straight to those with faults, and proclaimed the Kingdom to them.
And throughout the Gospels, especially in that of St John, we begin to see Christ as the gateway into knowing God. We can only come to the Father through Him. This is our real-time call into an eternal relationship with Him, if only we would heed His voice.
An excellent beginning to such a relationship is listening and remaining open, attentive. Nobody scripts conversations with their nearest and dearest. Instead, these dialogues take place in a dynamic, evolutionary way. It is the same in prayer. God comes to us in ways we cannot foresee.
When we take the Gospels in our hands, there we have an opportunity to meet Christ. When we pray through Scripture, the Holy Spirit is willing us and drawing us into Christ, into the Word, into the eternity of God. When you read a passage, do not be afraid to personalize it. Are you reading about Jesus addressing a crowd? Place yourself in the crowd, and listen. Is He at the wedding feast at Cana? Perhaps you are also a guest, or one of the servants. Is He healing a sick person? You could be that person. Internalize the Word; listen to the rhythm of Scripture as it resounds in your heart. What is Christ saying to you? What doors is He holding open for you? Where are you being drawn?
Of course, the answer is always love. Love will never end, and love is the commandment He gave us, not only through His earthly ministry, but through His birth, death and resurrection. Love, despite ourselves; love, beyond what others may think; love, because it is the golden thread of life which translates into an eternity with Him.
Within the context of faith, there is the sign of Jonas in all of us, that journeying towards God despite ourselves and in the darkness of humanity’s perennial not-knowing. When we gather at night in the Abbey Church for prayer, it isn’t difficult to imagine our building as a great ship. During winter time especially, when the buffeting wind howls and the rain sounds like waves on the exterior stonework, we might easily imagine ourselves deep inside a windowless vessel. Like any ship, ours has purpose and a final destination. Yet, we do not see the landscape outside as we journey – ours is a voyage of faith; we are blind; it is a call to trust. You could say that our monastic choir is where we row, through the act of constant prayer and praise to God. And the rudder – the Word of God – is located at the very centre of our life; our constant companion, inspirer, challenger, that place in which we find our way forward. As today’s second Reading at Holy Mass says: ‘Accept and submit to the Word which has been planted in you and can save your souls. But you must do what the Word tells you, and not just listen to it and deceive yourselves.’ (from the letter of St James.)
These are the mechanisms for our safe passage. But what about life inside the ship? What about our humanity, beyond all these crucial forms and customs? We are called to love, to love aggressively, to be open to each other. As the same reading tells us today: ‘Pure unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father, is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.’ (From the letter of St James.) We are all on such a vessel, whether it is a monastic community, a parish community, a workplace, a family, or whatever situation we are in life. Through it all, Christ’s uncompromising commandment to love one another must live at the heart of the life aboard.
Why? Because it is the beginning of our homeland. Let me explain. Imagine, after a long and sometimes difficult voyage, arriving at the shores of our destination. The doors of the ship open onto the landing stage, and we feel terra firma for the first time. In Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius, there is a beautiful line: ‘…the very pavement is made up of life…’ …life, as in the fullness of it, which is love. Heaven is the Kingdom of love, and we shall recognize and live in that homeland only insomuch as we have prepared for it on our journey.
As we rowed in the darkness, have we forgotten about the other passengers around us, and thought only of ourselves? Have we forgotten that we are ambassadors of love? Have we begun to worship the oars and the wood of the vessel, as important as they are, rather than the King to whom we are travelling? Then perhaps we shan’t recognize paradise, either, because heaven is an eternity of love and communion. Selfishness cannot exist in such a place. This was a theme of C S Lewis in his thought-provoking story ‘The Great Divorce’, in which those who went to hell could not recognize heaven for what it was.
On the other hand, do we know love? Do we recognize its endless joy, its challenges, humility, poverty and social responsibilities? Have we made our life a search for the God of love, through the prism of our fellow oarsmen? Has our life of faith been based on a real relationship? Perhaps, then, we shall feel like we have come home, and we shall become part of the pavement of the Kingdom of heaven.