I have been reading Sandra Schneiders on the renewal of religious life. She says religious must maintain a certain liberty in regard to the world which enables them to bring to bear upon it the evangelical values, that is the spirit of the beatitudes, which is essential for the transformation of the world. This counter-cultural, prophetic presence requires both contemplative insight and courageous action.
As we know, the beatitudes is today’s gospel. I think we are used to thinking of this gospel as what the saints were like: they are the ones who are poor, who weep, who are patient, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful, who are pure of heart, who make peace, and who are persecuted precisely for acting out of these values in the world. I’d like to suggest that our contemplative insight, our contribution to the transformation of the world, is centered on being pure of heart, for these are the ones who see God. In John 19, which is one of two gospels I’ve proposed for my own funeral, the soldier, seeing that Jesus is already dead on the cross, pierces his side with a spear, and the evangelist quotes the prophecy "They will look on him whom they have pierced." To me, this sums up the contemplative life, or at least the contemplative I want to be: to spend my life looking on him who was pierced.
In John 14 (which was a key passage during my retreat), we are promised the Spirit of Truth, which the world does not see. Jesus is going away, and the world will see him no longer. But we still see him, for he still lives.
I’m suggesting that another way of interpreting the beatitudes is to say that the saints are the ones who see Jesus. They look on him pierced in the poor, the sorrowing, the suffering, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted. 1 John 3.2 says we know that when he reveals himself, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. The saints are those who see him already as he reveals himself in these distressed and distressing disguises. Maybe being a saint is a combination both of being those the beatitudes describe, and of seeing Jesus in those who are so blessed, because we recognize ourselves in them.
There is another aspect of being able to see God, and that is keeping ourselves open to where we expect to find him. How life-shaking it is to have an encounter with the living God who is so different from the images we have made of him.
One night Dom Ivo wanted a cookie for dessert and opened a package with brown, round things in it, and took a bite. It was not sweet and crispy, but had a strange taste and was kind of chewy. Turns out it was a fishcake! Then there was the time at Santa Rita when we took a margarine container out of the fridge to serve the bishop, and when we took the top off, it turned out to be holding leftover peas and carrots. The first time Joel was here, he went to pour milk into his coffee, and what came out of the milk carton was tiny wild strawberries. He said it was bizarre! Maybe these are parables of being able to recognize God. We have certain
expectations when we go to the refrigerator, or when we begin mental prayer. Cookies are sweet. The container that says "Margarine" contains what it says. We expect milk to be white, cold and liquid. But sometimes what actually comes out of the container is something quite different. We have expectations when we go to church. God has come to us a certain way before, and we have gotten used to this; we have experienced God’s presence in prayer through established routines (and establishing these good habits may have cost us!). But sometimes what we encounter in the experience labeled "God" is something quite unlike what we expected.
I think that we can be grateful that our situation on Tautra, especially our many guests, is changing our concepts of God, of our vocation and mission as Cistercians, and of ourselves. That is the dynamic that is important, when we encounter the living God and allow our images to be blown to pieces. This is a challenge that is not to be overcome, but lived in and through. This is our very life in God.
Dom Ivo told me he translates the passage in the Rule about the Lord often revealing his will to the youngest, as not only "the youngest" but "from an unexpected quarter." It may be a member of the community we have difficulty with or one who seems not to have so many talents or who is not so involved in all that’s going on, or who simply has different needs than I do (Imagine that there can be someone who has different needs than mine!). Blessed is the one who can recognize God issuing from this container which we have mislabeled!
The saints were open to seeing and receiving God in a form they did not expect. They were delighted when they expected something white, cold and liquid, and instead got small, red, sweet berries. Founders—we are all founders in Norway, the kingdom looks like something we have not imagined. We each have the capacity to be a saint—if we can hold ourselves open to the unexpected and allow God to be God, allow him to reveal himself in a way we are not used to and cannot even imagine. Be prepared the next time you absentmindedly go to the refrigerator or to church—you never really know what’s going to come out of the container which you—until this moment—have called "God."