Everyday Abba Poeman made a new beginning
Everyday Abba Poeman Made a New Beginning
Since the feast of St. Bernard is very soon, I was reading his sermon #74 On the Song of Songs IV. As I was reading this sermon I was reminded of a pithy desert story: “It is said of Abba Poeman that every day he made a new beginning.” I pondered what does this story say about Abba Poeman’s stance towards life, his relation to God? And perhaps most important: his understanding of who God is and how God comes to him. Anyway we shall see if Bernard’s sermon #74 is reflective in any way of this desert story.
Bernard in general shies away in his sermons from sharing his personal experience of God. However, this is one of the few sermons where we get a taste of it. He begins by saying: “Now bear with my foolishness for a little. I want to tell you of my own experience, as I promised. Not that it is of any importance. But I make this disclosure only to help you, and if you derive any profit from it I shall be consoled for my foolishness…I admit that the Word has come to me—I speak as a fool—and has come many times” (p.89). For myself I find that how Bernard begins his personal sharing to be very endearing and I notice that the ear of my heart is alert to hear what he will say next! After Bernard says ‘the Word has come to him many times’ he then describes how elusive, how ever-so hidden and delicate are these ‘visits’ of the Divine presence. More often than not he realizes that the Word has indeed come to him but he becomes aware of this only AFTER the visit has happened! He may have had a ‘presentiment’ that he would be visited by the Word, but he adds: “I was never conscious of his coming or his going” (p.90). I do think we can relate to this description! We realize only afterwards the impact or effect on our lives of these ‘visits’ of the Word.
Next, Bernard goes on about not knowing ‘where the Word comes from when he visits his soul and where he goes’. He tells his hearers about how the Word is “not perceptible” to all our physical senses, of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting (p.90). Along with the senses he adds: “He did not enter because he does not come from outside” (p.90). And then of course Bernard says he does not come from within our selves either! So where he comes from and where he goes we do not know: “The wind blows you can hear its sound, but where it comes from and where it goes we do not know…so it is with the Spirit’! All of this commentary is building towards what Bernard says next: “You ask then how can I know he was present, when his ways can in no way be traced?” (p.91). Indeed we are at the edge of our seats awaiting what this master teacher in the monastic school of experience will say next! And Bernard does not disappoint. He tells us: “He is life and power, and as soon as he enters in, he awakens my slumbering soul; he stirs and soothes and pierces my heart, for before it was hard as stone, and diseased” (p.91). Here we have these concrete intimations of how the Word comes to us: it awakens our slumbering souls, it stirs, soothes, pierces our hearts of stone causing them to soften and open up again. And to make sure we have the ‘key’ to how God comes to the soul, Bernard repeats again that the Word does not come by signs or by the physical senses. And then he says this about how the Word penetrated to the depths of his being: “Only by the movement of my heart…did I perceive his presence…” (p.91). ‘The movement of the heart’: how delicate asking us to be attentive and still enough to perceive and to receive the gift. Everyday Abba Poeman made a new beginning. Visited by the Word, a brief touch like a gentle breeze on the shore of the heart, a slumbering soul, a hardened, closed heart suddenly starting to change, to convert, to renew. A new beginning: everyday through, with, and in the Word of Life.
And what does the Word of Life come with? We are visited by truth and by grace, says Bernard…and we need both! “I need both of these: I need truth that I may not be able to hide from him, and grace that I may not wish to hide….Truth is bitter unless seasoned with grace, and devotion without the restraining power of truth can be capricious and uncontrolled and even arrogant. How many have received grace without profit because they have not also accepted a tempering measure of truth?” (p.92-93). Well, I don’t think we can say of Abba Poeman that he received ‘grace without profit’. Indeed not, for he brought the grace and truth he received into his daily life…his new beginning each day, new in receptivity, new in faith, new in willingness to serve and follow what both truth and grace gifted him with. At the conclusion of this sermon Bernard gives this warning: “grace brings no profit where there is no truth in one’s intention, but rather brings harm” (p.96). And so let us ‘welcome’ the Word who comes, ever-comes bringing both truth and grace, grace and truth.
Sr Kathy DeVico