Thursday of the 15th Week in Ordinary Time
So there they were, Cassian and his sidekick Germanus, somewhere in the desert of 4th-century Egypt, when the temperature was about what it is now, and Germanus had a problem with today’s Gospel. He had heard Jesus say, Come to me, and I will give you rest, and so he did come to Jesus. He even went all out and took Christ’s yoke upon him in a special way by becoming a monk, and yet, as far as he was concerned, Christ’s yoke was anything but easy, or his burden light. So the two of them went off to visit old Abba Abraham to ask him about it, and Cassian tells the story in the 24th and last of his Conferences, in which Abba Abraham talks about something we don’t hear much about nowadays: mortification.
In Conference 23, Abba Abraham gave the short answer to Germanus’ question. He explained that Christ’s burden is light for the monk who can say, with St Paul, I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me. In Conference 24, Abba Abraham explains how to get there. He says that Christ’s yoke is felt as a burden when we’re walking in the wrong path. In his words: “It is we who make rough with the nasty and hard stones of our desires the right and smooth paths of the Lord; who most foolishly forsake the royal road made level with the flints of the apostles and prophets, and trodden down by the footsteps of all the saints and of the Lord himself, and seek trackless and thorny places”; and he goes on to talk about how useful temptations can be for us. In modern terms, we can either be pro-choice, choosing for ourselves which path to take, and then we labor and are burdened with our own desires. Or we can be pro-life, letting Christ our life show us the path to take, and then he lives in us.
St Benedict took up this phrase from Cassian about the royal way, and throughout his Rule he refers to “the path of regular discipline” or “the path of the discipline of the Rule”. For him, the path of monastic discipline is a form of mortification: it makes the yoke of Christ so easy, and his burden so light, that the monk runs along the way of God’s commandments; Christ lives in him.
All of these ideas were brought together in the Prayer of Monastic Consecration, attributed to St Odo of Cluny, and which we still use at the Solemn Profession of a monk. It reads, in part: “Lord Jesus Christ, you are the way, and no one comes to the Father except through you. We implore, then, your benevolent mercy: your servant has been drawn away from the desires of the flesh; guide him now along the paths determined by the Holy Rule. You called sinners, saying, Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Grant that this your invitation may have such power in him, that casting off the burden of sin, and tasting your goodness, he may receive his nourishment from you, as you have promised”.
As Christ repeats his invitation to all of us, may we too cast off the burden of sin that we bear, and at this Eucharist, taste and see the goodness of the Lord.