Chapter Talk – 25thSunday of the Year – September 22, 2019, cycle-C
As I was pondering what to focus this morning’s chapter talk on, I turned to the third conference we had from Fr. Michael Dodds for our retreat. In staying with his theme for our retreat ‘The Hiddenness of God’, he begins this third conference with a reference to the ‘sin’ of Adam and Eve who now because of their ‘sin’ are hiding from God! Fr. Dodds writes: “The point of the story is that sin, or acting against God’s will, was not part of God’s original plan. It arises from a free, human decision. But that decision initiates a new dynamic between God and human beings, who now try and hide from God”. This new dynamic between the human person and God is a dynamic of ‘wills’, that of God’s will and that of the free will given by God to human beings.
As I was reading this conference, I stopped to look at the reading from the Rule of Benedict for this day, September 22nd: It is chapter 5 on ‘obedience’ and it points to this dynamic of ‘wills’: God’s will and our will, our free will given by God. This chapter of the RB speaks of ‘forsaking’ one’s will. We could ask: what does it mean ‘to forsake one’s own will’? And if I forsake my will does this mean I no longer make choices for myself? To quote an excerpt from this chapter of the Rule: ‘They live not to serve their own will nor to give way to their own desires or pleasures, but they submit in their way of life to the decisions and instructions of another…’
Fr. Terrance Kardong in his commentary on chapter 5 of the Rule makes this distinction: self-will “is intrinsically bad,” while personal will is not. He writes: “In fact, we may not set aside our own will in any definitive sense, for it is a God-given gift and intrinsic to human maturity” (Benedict’s Rule A Translation and Commentary, p.106). However, he then continues by emphasizing the danger of self-will: “It is equally clear that self-will in its myriad of forms is the worst enemy of all spiritual growth. To be focused on personal wants and projects means being correspondingly closed to the views of others and ultimately to the divine will. This is the true face of sin and the deadliest enemy of community life” (Benedict’s Rule A Translation and Commentary, p.107). There is a lot that one can say about his dense statements. Spiritual growth, growth in freedom and love: of self, of God, and neighbor is deeply undermined when self-will is ruling us inside and out. Kardong is saying that self-will is deadly not only for growth but also in community life. I think he is implicitly saying that spiritual growth is about developing that ‘personal will’ that strives to unite one’s will with God’s will. We are called to seek the will of God not only inside one’s heart but as well from others, and from the community. None of us holds the full light of truth.
To return to Fr. Michael Dodds third conference: this conference in itself can be a commentary on chapter 5 of the Rule. He refers quite extensively in this conference to Bernard of Clairvaux, specifically to Etienne Gilson’s The Mystical Theology of St. Bernard. He notes that for Bernard “our basic choice is between God and selfishness”. He then mentions how Bernard images the poles of this choice: the soul is either ‘recta’, rectitude: the quality or state of being straight or upright, righteousness, correct in judgment; or, ‘curva’, the soul becomes curved, pulled into selfishness. Essentially the monastic journey is between these two realities, which to repeat, are imaged in what the ancients termed curva anima, bent over, gazing only towards one’s self, a very restrictive posture where one sees only ‘me’ as the focus and center. And the other side, rectitudo, standing upright, free, with a heart open and expansive, ready to listen at all levels, inside, yes, but as well to the wisdom outside, in the community.
Fr. Dodds goes on to point out that “despite the curvature, the good remains”. He then in referring to Bernard, describes further this dynamic of wills: ‘voluntas communis’, the common will, which is nothing less than charity; and then the opposite: ‘voluntas proprio’, the individual will, which is described as “a refusal to have anything whatsoever in common with others”. Charity becomes buried when selfishness rules our inner life. It is interesting to note that the contrasting dynamic to the ‘individual will’ is termed the ‘common will’. The title of this conference is ‘Hiding from God’. When we live from ‘self-will’ we set up a power struggle with God and with any authority be it the abbess, other sisters, the community as a whole. The ego dominates, is pushy with what we want, it cannot rest till it gets what it wants…To stand upright in heart and soul we surrender our will to God’s will…so that the Divine can direct all that we do…Many times this process is not clear: is this my selfish will or is my will more aligned with God’s will and the ‘common will’? I think that even when we do not know for sure, our intention to do what is right and for love’s sake will be enough…the certainty is not needed….However, when we do not even question what ‘will’ am I acting out of, or choosing out of, then beware!
Essentially as monastics the matter is this: are we ready to surrender to the ‘common will’ or do we need to continue to assert, to push forth our own will…such assertion is reflective of a lack of freedom and not the exercise of a will striving to be in synch with God’s will, striving to listen at all levels to where the voice of the Spirit is speaking.
Finally, I was pondering why did Fr. Michael expound so much on ‘voluntas communis’ and ‘voluntas proprio’ in this conference of the human hiding from God? Perhaps the answer lies in how he ends this talk. He concludes with a profound text from St. Elizabeth of the Trinity who is speaking of the ‘place’ where we are called to dwell. The Word of God she says gives this order: ‘Remain in Me’…do this not for a few minutes but always: “Remain in Me, pray in Me, adore in Me, love in Me, suffer in Me, work and act in Me…..This is truly the ‘solitude’ into which God wants to allure the soul that He may speak with it….There (in this abiding) we will find the strength to die to ourselves and, losing all vestige of self, we will be changed into love”. It seems to me in this surrender of self-will (voluntas proprio), in this dying to self, we will find the will that unites with God’s will and the common will in the smaller and larger moments of our lives.
‘I have come not to do my own will but the will of the One who sent me’….Can we with Jesus say the same? We are here because we are called to do the will of God, to serve and give the all of who we are, our gifts and weaknesses, in service of God and one another.
Sr. Kathy DeVico, Abbess