The monks of the Eastern Churches have a particular way of reading the scriptures which is different from the way popularized by Guigo the Carthusian in the West. In the 1990’s, the former abbot of the Coptic monastery of St Macarius in Egypt, Fr Matthew the Poor, said that we should “raise our hearts in prayer until the Holy Spirit gives the Word the spiritual sense which he himself desires to give, and not which we want to give it. We read to learn God’s will for us”.
When read in a monastic liturgy, the readings this morning are a reminder of the basic aim of monasticism. The monastic life, like any Christian life, is meant to be, in Fr Matthew’s phrase, a “communion of love”: love for God, love for our fellow human beings, and also love for nature. This was the ideal that the desert fathers were aiming for, and which the early Cistercians described as a love for “the Rule, and for the brethren, and for the place”.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love. In the generation of the desert fathers, St Arsenius heard Jesus saying this, and he heard it as meaning, “Strive with all your might to bring your interior activity into accord with God”. And Arsenius added, “If we seek God, he will show himself to us, and if we keep close to him, he will remain close to us, for Jesus said if you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love. What commandments? St Benedict answers in Chapter 4 of the Rule, which he entitles, “The Tools for Good Works”. The Chapter begins, “First of all, love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself”.
The second aim of monasticism, and of the Christian life in general, is love for our fellow human beings. Both the second reading and the Gospel are a reminder of this. Let us love one another, says St John in his letter, for whoever is without love does not know God. And Jesus adds, No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. St Anthony heard this same Gospel and said, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ”.
Finally, Cistercian monks have always had a love for the nature that surrounded them, so that all the ends of the earth could see the salvation of our God. Let the streams ring out their joy by providing water sources for our monasteries, so that valleys such as Clairvaux (or the Genesee valley) could be filled with monks singing a new song to the Lord.
The principal way in which monasticism becomes a “communion of love” is through prayer, which Jesus alludes to at the end of this morning’s Gospel: Whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you. Even though the monk lives in separation from the world, its troubles and culture wars, yet he prays for peace and for a culture of life. He asks the Father in Jesus’ name for the healing of conflicts and for all the ills of humanity. The monastic life is a life of prayer without ceasing, a “dialogue of love”, as St Gregory of Nyssa called it. Prayer is the duty of friendship: Christ came to teach us how to live, not as servants, but as friends.
From that perspective, God shows no partiality, as St Peter reminded us in the first reading. God is merciful to everyone and everything. The monk who becomes a likeness of God and a friend of God becomes a man of mercy, pouring out his blessings on all alike. Let us be faithful to Christ who chose us to be men of mercy and men of prayer, and commissioned us to bear fruit that will remain. For there are three things that last: faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.