Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Reflections on My Reflections on St Bernard's Reflections

I thought I might try to clarify or further reflect on a few things I wrote yesterday. While we can always expect to receive edifying insights from the writings of the saints, we (thankfully) don’t have to expect warmed-over hackneyed piety. In his sermon I quoted yesterday, St Bernard makes the unvarnished statement that the rest of us recognize as true but are afraid to come right out and say: “We have the impression that we come out of prayer like we entered into it; no one answers us with even one word, gives us anything at all; we have the impression that we have labored in vain.” But of course he doesn’t just leave us hanging there with our disappointed hopes. He offers a profound insight.

Now, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are criticized (sometimes justly) for interpreting issues or answering questions with their (sometimes ingenious) concatenations of wholly unrelated biblical passages. But I like St Bernard’s answer here: “What does the Lord say in the gospel? ‘Stop judging by appearances and make a just judgment’ (Jn 7 :24). What is a just judgment other than a judgment of faith? For ‘the just man shall live by faith’ (Gal 3:11). So follow the judgment of faith rather than your experience, for faith does not deceive, whereas experience can lead into error.” A just judgment of the issue of apparently unanswered prayer is a judgment of faith, for if you are just you live by faith. If you live by faith, that means you assess and interpret the events and experiences of your life according to the content and dynamics of Christian faith, and not merely by what you see, hear, feel, etc. So if you live by faith, you trust that God hears your prayer and will answer in the way that is best for your spiritual progress and salvation. This “judgment of faith” is more reliable than your subjective experience, says St Bernard, and we ought to have discovered by now that indeed “faith does not deceive, whereas experience can lead into error.” For we don’t often know how to interpret our own experience, bound up as it often is with emotional excess, perceptual defect, and the coloration of our own desires and expectations.

This “judgment of faith” can apply to the other issues I brought up yesterday, which are matters of experience—not experiencing the joy, the peace, the inner transformation and renewal that the Gospel promises. Therefore experience, or the lack thereof, cannot be the ultimate measure of our life in Christ, but rather, living by faith must be the bottom line. That’s why the last of the 10 suggestions is probably the most important: Persevere Anyway (I think I’m going to make that my motto). For if the just one is to live by faith, such a one must learn how to persevere through the vicissitudes of various experiences and through the uncharted waters of “unknowing.” And we may have to simply humble ourselves in the awareness that we still have a long way to go before we are even capable of immersion in the mysteries of God. The Elder Macarius of Optina said: “Do not look for any remarkable gift of prayer in your heart. You are not worthy of it. Rather, let the empty, cold dryness of your prayer be food for your humility…” You won’t find that passage quoted in any modern spiritual self-help book!

Finally, as to what I quoted from the Pope. His gentle teaching about Christ adapting Himself to our weakness should not be interpreted as Christ condoning or tolerating our sin, permitting us to remain in it and promising forgiveness in the end. No, Christ hates sin and does not tolerate any sort of evil at all. But He adapts Himself to our weakness by accepting our inadequate (though sincere) response to his love and his call to holiness. He meets us at our low level, but this is for the sake of raising us up to his. He accepts our meager offerings—if that’s all we’re able to offer at this moment—while He tries to teach us the meaning of a complete and unreserved self-gift. He doesn’t hold us to a standard impossible for us to meet—while at the same time giving us the grace to continually meet higher standards than before. He will not stop at anything short of our perfection, for nothing defiled can enter the Kingdom of Heaven, as the Good Book says.

So continue to pray, continue to struggle, continue to seek the face of Him who calls you—in short, continue to live by faith. Make the judgment of faith upon the events of your life, and not merely that of experience. Then someday you’ll have the opportunity to talk things over with St Bernard in that place where you don’t even need faith anymore—only love.