Dilatato Corde 5:2
July - December, 2015
St. Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order, Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes, France, 1129
St. Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order, Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes, France, 1129


This is an edited version of a presentation made at a Buddhist-Catholic dialogue on spiritual maturation that was sponsored by the North American Commission for Monastic Interreligious Dialogue and held at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, May 28-31, 2015
We begin our monastic journey in response to a call. In the Prologue to his Rule, Saint Benedict asks: “What can be sweeter to us, dear ones, than this voice of the Lord inviting us? Behold, in his loving kindness the Lord shows us the way of life.” In the Benedictine tradition, the final destination of this journey is the kingdom of God. First Benedict tells us to “walk in his paths by the guidance of the Gospel, that we may deserve to see Him who has called us to his kingdom.” Then he tells us “if we wish to dwell in the tent of that kingdom, we must run to it by good deeds or we shall never reach it.” First we walk, then we run, and after that we must climb. Citing Psalm 15:1, Benedict writes: “let us ask the Lord, with the Prophet, ‘Lord, who shall dwell in your tent, or who shall rest upon your holy mountain’”?
Thus the last exit on the road is eternal life. Few of us in our younger years think much about that, since death does not seem to be approaching with any great speed, unless perhaps we are confronted with grave illness. Part of maturation is simply getting older. It is then that we are more likely to keep death daily before our eyes (RB 4:47). When we experience our own aging, the loss of parents and friends, as well as the aging of our community and its diminishment in numbers and strength, the words of Psalm 90:12 take on new meaning: “Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.” Our accomplishments or lack thereof, the positions held or not held, no longer seem all that important. Hopefully past arguments that we once thought so important no longer seem urgent. We hold our opinions more lightly, since they no longer matter quite so much. Possibly we get angry or upset less often. Perhaps we simply ignore the transgressions of others and feel less guilty about our own. We have come to accept our own and others’ weaknesses of body and character (RB 72). We find more joy in little things. We are more content, no longer seeking greener pasture because we have realized that our own pasture is green enough. But of course being older does not necessarily mean that we are also more mature.
We are not yet wise at the beginning of our spiritual journey, when we eagerly respond to the yearnings, often unclear and confused, that lie within our hearts. Who of us could foresee the implications of our initial decision to enter the monastery? How many of us really understood then what we were getting into? We very likely did not anticipate the difficulties of obedience or of community life, the tedium of daily routine. We came to the monastery to learn all these things.
The first step of any journey is to depart, to leave the familiar comforts of home. We experience a strong, persistent attraction, seeking union with God or a fuller realization of life’s potentials. We might resist this attraction, but it wins out in the end. To attain what we desire, what we long for, we may have to travel far from home, or we may remain nearby. Nevertheless, we all leave home in one way or the other; we leave behind that which is familiar. Overcoming our fears, we chart new territory. If we cannot do this, we do not succeed in monastic life. I do not suppose that I am the only one who, facing family opposition, left home without the opportunity to say good-bye. I was young; in my fervor, with God’s grace and in inborn stubbornness, I believed that I was following the Gospel: “Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.’ [To him] Jesus said, ‘No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God’” (Luke 9:61-62).
When we first out on our life’s journey, we often do not know the destination, the direction, or the means of travel. We find examples of this in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Book of Genesis, when the Lord called Abram, he did not tell him where he was to go. The Lord said: “Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1). Later, after Abram had become Abraham, the Lord called him again. This time the Lord told Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Once again God did not give Abraham precise directions. God said: “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you” (Gen 22:2). In the New Testament, first Jesus calls his disciples and only then does he give them directions. Jesus tells his disciples that they do not know the way. In John’s Gospel: “The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come, and you will see” (John 1:37-39). To be shown the place, we must first ask the question, “where are you staying.” Then we have to be open to hearing the answer.
Having entered the School of the Lord’s Service, as Benedict terms the monastery (Prologue), we register for Monasticism 101, the introductory course. We have a lot to learn. We have to acknowledge that we have a lot to learn, and we have to realize that the lessons come with experience. If we think we already know it all, we won’t get very far; we won’t make it through the postulancy, much less the novitiate. The prerequisites for Monasticism 101 do not include thirty semester-hours of philosophy and another twelve hours of theology. These are requirements for the seminary. Entrance to the monastery does not require intellectual ability or acquired knowledge. Rather, it requires patience and a fundamental stance of humility.
Despite what I have said about not knowing the way when we begin our spiritual journey, there is a goal, a purpose to monastic life that motivates us to enter the monastery and to persevere in it. Cassian, in the first Conference of Abbot Moses, distinguishes between the final goal, the telos, of monastic life, and its immediate aim, the skopos. Abbot Moses said: “the end of our profession indeed, as I said, is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven: but the immediate aim or goal, is purity of heart, without which no one can gain that end” (Conference 1.4).[1]
Cassian does not provide a consistent definition of purity of heart, but he does identify it with love, to which everything else is subordinate. He understood the phenomenon of misplaced priorities: “It arises that in the case of some who have despised the greatest possessions of this world, and not only large sums of gold and silver, but also large properties, we have seen them afterwards disturbed and excited over a knife, or pencil, or pin, or pen . . . some guard their books so jealously that they will not allow them to be even slightly moved or touched by anyone else.” Hence Cassian concludes:
Perfection is not arrived at simply by self-denial, and the giving up of all our goods, and the casting away of honors, unless there is that charity, the details of which the Apostle describes, which consists in purity of heart alone. For “not to be envious, not to be puffed up, not to be angry, not to do any wrong, not to seek one's own, not to rejoice in iniquity, not to think evil” etc., what is all this except ever to offer to God a perfect and clean heart, and to keep it free from all disturbances? (Conference 1.6).[2]
Like so many spiritual writers before him, Thomas Merton used the metaphor of the journey in reference to spiritual growth and development. In a September 1968 circular letter to friends, published as Appendix I in The Asian Journal, Merton wrote: “Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an every greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.”[3]
In his last lecture, Marxism and Monastic Perspectives, given in Bangkok in 1968, Merton wrote of both Christianity and Buddhism as seeking to bring about a transformation of human consciousness and the monk as the person par excellence to whom this task is deputed. He wrote: “The monk is a man who has attained, or who is about to attain, full realization.” Merton stated that the purpose of the interior journey is a transformation of consciousness, a “new consciousness” that will transform and liberate the truth in each person. Merton put it this way:
The whole purpose of the monastic life is to teach men to live by love. The simple formula, which was so popular in the West, was the Augustinian formula of the translation of cupiditas into caritas, of self-centered love into an outgoing, other-centered love. In the process of this change the individual ego was seen to be illusory and dissolved itself, and in place of this self-centered ego came the Christian person, who was no longer just the individual.[4]
One who has undergone such inner transformation has overcome their autonomous ego and acknowledges the interdependence of all beings. This is the whole idea of compassion, which is central to Buddhism: “the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another and all involved in one another” (341). In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the notion of interdependence expressed by the elder, Father Zosima, in these terms: “There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men.” This sense of interdependence lies at the heart of inner transformation and leads at least some people to the monastery.
Merton understood the Benedictine vow of conversatio as a “commitment to total inner transformation.” He added, “It seems to me that that could be regarded as the end of the monastic life, and that no matter where one attempts to do this, that remains the essential thing.”[5] The vow itself, of course, does not result in inner transformation. It is only the commitment to that process, which takes a lifetime of effort and God’s grace.
How do we attain the goal, that is, total inner transformation?First, we must be faithful to the spiritual journey we have undertaken.The vow of conversatio is commonly understood as fidelity to the monastic way of life. According to the Rule of Saint Benedict, It applies to “those who live in monasteries and serve under a rule and an abbot,” with all that entails, including the inevitable difficulties of obedience and community life.
Our fidelity to the spiritual path is necessary but not sufficient. As already mentioned, we need humility. In chapter 7 on humility, Benedict expands the metaphor of journey to include ascent, an upward progression. He writes: “if we wish to reach the very highest point of humility and to arrive speedily at that heavenly exaltation to which ascent is made through the humility of this present life, we must by our ascending actions erect the ladder Jacob saw in his dream, on which angels appeared to him descending and ascending.” The last and twelfth step of humility is the end of the climb, the top of the ladder. Benedict says: “Having climbed all these steps of humility, therefore, the monk will presently come to that perfect love of God which casts out fear.” If love is the end of the journey, it is also the motive for undertaking the journey in the first place. Benedict concludes Chapter 7: “No longer will his motive be the fear of hell, but rather the love of Christ, good habit and delight in the virtues which the Lord will deign to show forth by the Holy Spirit in His servant now cleansed from vice and sin.”
Humility often comes at the price of great suffering. It may not be dramatic in form. It comes in the guise of daily life. We have to experience our own frailty. We may not succeed at some work or assignment. We may experience betrayal by one whom we trusted. We may discover, as I did in my early years, that someone whom I considered an epitome of monastic life, a mentor, has feet of clay like everyone else. We cannot explain or control suffering. We do not look for suffering, but we cannot evade or avoid it; we can only go through it. Suffering is redemptive only if we accept it with love.
In Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Merton wrote:
Both Buddhism and Christianity are alike in making use of ordinary human experience as material for a radical transformation of consciousness. Since ordinary everyday human existence is full of confusion and suffering, then obviously one will make good use of both of these in order to transform one’s awareness and one’s understanding, and to go beyond both in love. . . . Suffering, as both Christianity and Buddhism see, each in its own way, is part of our very ego-identity and empirical existence and the only thing to do about it is to plunge right into the middle of contradiction and confusion.[6]
Christians must receive the word of the cross and accept a complete self-emptying, a kenosis, in union with Christ, who was obedient unto death (Phil 2:5-11).
The process of kenosis implies the transformation of consciousness of which I have spoken. Kenosis can be defined as the renunciation of our autonomous ego and the uncovering of our true Self, our authentic inner being. Saint Paul expresses it this way in his Letter to the Ephesians: “You should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth” (Eph 4:22-24). Having done so, then, in the words of Saint Benedict:“Our hearts expand and we run the way of God's commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love” (RB Prologue). Our hearts stretch to encompass all beings and all parts of all beings. At the end of our journey, we gather together all the scattered fragments and left-overs of ourselves and others (Matt 14:20).
[2] Ibid.
[3] The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, edited from his original notebooks by Naomi Burton, Patrick Hart and James McLaughlin (New York:A New Directions Book, York, 1973), p. 296
[4] Ibid, 333f.
[5] Ibid., 337.
[6] Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York: New Directions Book, 1968), p. 51.
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