Living the Dream of the Kingdom on Earth: A reflection from Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey

“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:25)

A scholar of the law asks Jesus a question which will be echoed throughout Christian tradition, and in a particular way in the monastic tradition. Give me a word by which I may live. Tell me how to find God. Show me how to live my humanity to the full. In John Cassian’s first Conference, the fundamental question is: what is your goal and what is your end? The end he identifies is the kingdom of God, eternal life, God himself. And the goal, the path to travel toward this end is love, love that expands and transforms the person into the likeness of God. Our scholar knows this much: the love of God with one’s whole being, and the love of one’s neighbor as oneself. Now he must figure out how to do it.

Last week, we looked to the Declaration on Cistercian Life as an expression of our mission in the Church and for the world. I chose to emphasize how all elements of our life serve to open us to intimate encounter with the living God. This was to focus on the vertical dimension of our life, the radical God-centeredness of it. But there is another aspect which emerges. Let us listen again:
“The Church has entrusted a mission to us which we wish to fulfil by the response of our whole life . . . ‘To give clear witness to that heavenly home for which every man longs, and to keep alive in the heart of the human family the desire for this home … as we bear witness to the majesty and love of God and to the brotherhood of all men in Christ.’”
Declaration on Cistercian Life, March, 1969

To order our lives to the contemplation of God, to heaven, does not mean we are so intent on where we are going that we don’t see anyone or anything along the way. After all, God made the earth to be a heaven – the place where God and man meet familiarly. That this identity is obscured in the world and in ourselves because of sin does not mean we must look elsewhere. God’s paradise can begin to be lived here. This is what Christ’s incarnation revealed to us. Our mission to live for God invites us without contradiction to live for our brothers and sisters. The Declaration again:
“We live in a community of love where all are responsible. It is through stability that we commit ourselves to this community.”
“Through the warmth of their welcome and hospitality our communities share the fruit of their contemplation and their work with others.”

The horizontal dimension is there in every aspect of our vowed life:
Obedience to God is lived in and through mutual obedience to one another.
Chastity and poverty bind us to God as the source of our happiness and well-being, but also render us available to those around us, and to those far from us, in so far as we refuse to put our own interests first.
Stability roots our fidelity to God in the life of a concrete community, warts and all.
Conversatio morum is our common road to the life of the kingdom.

At times the horizontal dimension, the other centeredness of it, is the only thing that can keep us walking on the monastic path. I remember a section from Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, in which he was struggling so much to find meaning in his life in the monastery that he was tempted to leave, but someone gave him a word to live by: you have no idea how your life given here will benefit people beyond number you will never meet. If we can no longer live it for ourselves or for God, we can live it for others.

The turning point in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is the moment he feels the deep stirring of compassion, the urge to show mercy to his fellow human being who is in need. The word used is ἐσπλαγχνίσθη – he experienced a gut-wrenching fellow-feeling, which impelled him to action. Luke uses this verb on two other occasions. It describes Jesus’ response when he sees a mother processing to bury her son (7:13) and it is the father’s response when he sees his lost son returning home (15:20) in another striking parable. It is a word which characterizes Jesus’ response to the human condition. It is the condition of God’s heart as he walks the road with us. To know God is to be opened up to profound empathy for our fellow human beings. The man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, stripped, broken, half-dead, is each of us and all of us together. Our neighbor. Our brother or sister. We cannot personally lift every wounded fallen one from the dust of the earth, much as we would like to. We may not even be able to solve the immediate sorrows of those around us. But we can care.

Recently, I read of a mother’s advice to her daughter: Never look away from suffering. Allow yourself to notice it; don’t avert your eyes, your heart. Don’t pass by on the other side. We may not know how to respond to another’s suffering. Perhaps this is what leads us to pass by, to avert our gaze, even to find anger rising in us that we must be subjected to someone else’s drama. We are afraid to get involved, to be drowned by it. By this I do not mean that intervening is always the right thing to do. We must try to be delicate in discerning what is really needed, what is being asked for, what is possible. But we do not have a right to close our eyes, our hearts, our lives to one another.

We return to the Declaration:
“Following the first Fathers of our Order we find in the Holy Rule of St Benedict the practical interpretation of the Gospel for ourselves.”
This is nowhere more apparent than in chapters 4 and 72 of the Rule.
“You must honor everyone.” (RB 4.8)
“They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other.” (RB 72.4)
This verse from the Rule, and indeed the whole chapter on good zeal, is an allusion to Paul’s letter to the Romans, a passage that I heard early on in my monastic journey as a perfect summary of what we are about. Our humble task of trying to live the paradise of God on earth:
“Let love be sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the holy ones, exercise hospitality. Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Have the same regard for one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, on your part, live at peace with all.” (Rom 12:9-18)

The Church has entrusted a mission to us which we wish to fulfil by the response of our whole life. To bear witness to the majesty and love of God and to the brotherhood of all men in Christ. To live to the full the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of love. To live the dream of the kingdom of heaven on earth.