Sunday, July 19, 2020

Weeds and Wheat

Today’s Gospel presents us with the question of the relationship of the “wheat”, the “children of the kingdom” and the “weeds”, the “children of the evil one”. The slaves of the householder propose to him what appears to them the obvious solution: pull up the weeds. Concerned that they might pull up the wheat as well, he says to let them grow together until the harvest. If this is the case, the question is how this co-presence of wheat and weeds is to be lived out; specifically, by us as monks?

The slaves of the householder know enough to recognize the difference between good seed and bad seed, wheat and weeds, but they do not know the householder’s mind. Reflecting on the word ‘slave’, I thought I might revisit St. Bernard’s distinction between the slave, the hireling and son and see where it might lead. Bernard originally treated this in his Letter on Charity to the Holy Brethren of Chartreuse, which he later appended to his treatise On Loving God. The love of a slave only gets so far as to recognize that the Lord is powerful. He relates to him out of fear for himself. 

I apply this to the present context of today’s Gospel in this way. The slave relates to the householder in terms of the logic of power and self-interest. Therefore, his process of discerning the will of the householder would follow the same logic. We can imagine it going something like this: “It would surely be in the best, that is self, interest of the householder to use his authority and power to yank up the weeds and so be rid of them.” In Bernard’s scheme, the perspective of the hireling is somewhat better because he recognizes that the householder is good, but only that he is good to him. Therefore, he also is unable to move beyond the realm of self-interest to the good of the other. It is likely then, that he too would suppose that the will of the householder would be to pull up the weeds. In Bernard’s view, only the Son, who honors the Father, understands that the Father acts in charity and models his own life as son according the law of charity. “Charity is found only in the son”, says Bernard. “Charity does not seek its own advantage.” “Charity is unspotted” because “it keeps nothing of its own for itself.” “The unspotted law of the Lord is that love does not seek what is useful to itself, but what is good for the many.” “Pure and sincere charity” (1 Tim 1:5). “makes us care for our neighbors good as much as for our own.” (On Loving God, XII.34-35)

The weed is and remains, a unique, singular, unrepeatable, incommunicable form made in the image of God; a status, Bernard insists, no human being can ever lose, and, therefore, worthy of love. A being, who by the very fact of its existence is good, and, therefore, as such, makes a claim on all who encounter him, a demand to be loved. This is not a matter of exerting one’s rights, but a simple matter of existing. The capacity of the slave and the hireling to respond to this summons to love is severely diminished because self-interest distorts their vision. Only the son has the freedom from self-interest to begin to see his brother in the light of God.

The slave, the hireling and the son have their correspondence in Bernard’s four degrees of love, which we can’t explore that this morning. Instead, I’d like to focus on the fourth degree. As a reminder, the four are (1) man loves himself for his own sake, (2) man loves God for his own benefit, (3) man loves God for God’s sake, and (4) man loves himself for God’s sake.  

In the fourth degree, man receives back his initial love for himself, which he possessed in the first degree, but transformed. He now loves himself for the sake of God. This, Bernard says, is a place of peace, in which “the mind inebriated with divine love, forgets itself, hastens toward God and clinging to him, becomes one with him in spirit.” This experience is rare, but “blessed and holy [is that man] to whom it is given to experience something of this sort, even if it be but once and for the space of a moment.” “To lose yourself, as if you no longer existed, to cease completely to experience yourself, to reduce yourself to nothing is not a human sentiment but a divine experience.” “To go through such an experience is deifying”, says Bernard.

It is only in the resurrection, that is, “in a spiritual and immortal body, calm and pleasant, subject to the spirit in everything, that the soul hopes to attain the fourth degree of love, or rather be possessed by it.” Souls that have been reunited with the body in the resurrection, have received a “second garment” and “are that much more freely and willingly borne towards God’s love because nothing at all remains to solicit them or hold them.” The soul, “taking leave of itself and passing into God entirely… becoming more and more like God”, drinks of “wisdom’s pure wine”.  This condition of self-forgetful love in which the body is wholly at the service of the soul in charity is what Bernard calls “intoxication”. This is what the fullness of charity looks like. In the rare moments of experience of the fourth degree we get some sense of this intoxication. This experience is of great importance because we carry it in our memory back into our everyday lives. The soul and body are granted a foretaste of how they are to relate to one another without the burden of sin. (On Loving God, X.27-XI.33)

But there is also a being drunk with the wine of charity that Bernard refers to as a way of being, relating and serving in the monastery, which he develops in Sermon 23 on the Song of Songs. Commenting on the verse “The King has taken me into his rooms” (Sg 1:3) Bernard speaks of admission to the wine room by the King as the result of an arduous process of conversion, which follows the process of monastic formation.  First one must enter the room of discipline, in which “Our primary task is to tame [our] willfulness of character by submission to discipline, where the stubborn will, worn down by the hard and prolonged schooling of experienced mentors is humbled and healed.” In so far as we undergo this, we “learn to live peaceably and sociably with others, no longer out of fear of discipline but by the impulse of love.” From the room of discipline we pass into what he calls the room of nature, “For when morals are disciplined there comes…the good of nature. Such a man becomes pleasant and temperate, a man without a grudge, who neither swindles nor attacks nor offends another; who never exalts himself nor promotes himself at their expense, but offers his services as generously as he accepts theirs.”

Last, there is the “wine room”. In this room is found “the wine of an earnest zeal for the works of charity (caritas).” Of this room Bernard says, “One who has not been admitted to this room should never take charge of others”. “This wine should be the inspiring influence in the lives of those who bear authority, such as we find in the Teacher of the Nations, when he said: “Who is weak and I am not weak? Who is made to fall and I am not indignant? In the wine room “grace is especially found in its fullness. For ‘love is the fullness of the law’ (Rom 13:10) and if your love your brother you have fulfilled the law.” (Rom 13:8)

“Those who exercise authority for the welfare of others are comparatively few and fewer still those whose power rests in humility. These both are achieved easily by the man of perfect discretion, the mother of the virtues, the man who is drunk with the wine of charity even to contempt for his own good name, to forgetfulness of self and indifference to self-interest. This is the unique and exquisite lesson of the Holy Spirit infused in the wine room.” (SC 23.III.5-8)

In prayer and the life of conversion one is prepared for admission to the wine room, which is granted only by invitation of the king, where we may have a foretaste of the resurrected life in the fullness of joy and blessedness. Such an experience is not only to be had in rare moments of prayer and lectio but also in acts of service infused by the Spirit, marked by self-forgetfulness and indifference to self-interest. Here, too, in service, one may know the peace in which “the mind inebriated with divine love, forgets itself, hastens toward God and clinging to him, becomes one with him in spirit.” Such a one is well beyond the love of the slave for the householder. And the wheat, the children of God, who walk along this path of charity, bear fruit when they are infused with the joy of this divine life and radiate it to their neighbors. Only the Holy Spirit can touch the soul of those who have closed themselves off to him, but in this way the children of God can become his servants, mediators of his love. In this hope let us now go to meet him in this Eucharist.

Photograph by Brother Brian. This Sunday's homily by Father Timothy.