Saturday, September 30, 2006

Chapter Conference: Form and Formation

[This is the text of the Prior's chapter conference on Thursday]

When Hans urs Von Balthasar set out to write his magisterial theological trilogy based on the three transcendentals, he decided to begin with the one which, in his mind, has been most neglected in the modern world, that being beauty. The transcendentals are those properties of being that are sought for their own sakes: goodness, truth and beauty. They are usually considered to be something of a unity, and so Von Balthasar is at pains to show that by neglecting beauty, we lose sight also of moral goodness and intellectual truth. Or when these are in sight, morality becomes moralism and self-righteousness and truth becomes sterile intellectualism. It is the humbling unpredictability and stubborn particularity of beauty that breathes life into the study of morals and truth.

Von Balthasar’s concern mirrors parallel concerns voiced by many other theologians and practitioners of the spiritual life today, who prefer to speak about the need for worship of God and adoration. I personally am drawn more to Von Balthasar’s vision, perhaps because too often worship can be viewed as a negotiation, a do ut des: I give so that you will give. I worship God so that He will give me what I want. It becomes another piece of morality, rather than something mysteriously compelling. In Balthasar’s view, we worship because the glory of God captivates us, almost requires us to become cognizant of the fact of our smallness before something beautiful. Furthermore, the encounter with beauty requires of us a change of life, a conversion. Thus, for Von Balthasar, aesthetics founds morality: we want somehow to return a gift of ourselves for the beautiful. It also keeps us from making an idol of philosophical systems by complementing them with things ‘spare and strange’.

This is perhaps interesting for some of you, but my intention is not to speak this evening about theological aesthetics. Rather, I would like to speak about monastic formation, but from a rather different point of view. Perhaps we don’t often think of formation as connected to the root ‘form’. ‘Form’ is an important component of the beautiful. Beauty does not come to us abstractly, but always in a form (by this, I do not mean a Platonic form, the ideal of various concrete appearances, but the Aristotelian and Thomistic notion of the very concrete arrangement of matter). There is no abstract sunset, cathedral or symphony. Rather, beauty comes in the form of a particular, unrepeatable incarnation. We have an idea of a symphony, but then there are real, actual beautiful symphonies, such as Beethoven’s Sixth or Mozart’s Jupiter, to name two of my favorites. Most listeners would agree that these are superior to Beethoven’s Second or Respighi’s Sinfonia Drammatica. These latter two examples still fit the abstract idea of a symphony, but their forms are not as persuasive as vehicles for the rapturous power of the beautiful. Similarly, we will say, “look at the beautiful sunset!” not because every sunset is equally beautiful, but because we are beholding an actual sunset that impresses upon us the grandeur of God’s glory.

Thus we see that form does not stand on its own, but must somehow be informed by this nearly indefinable spiritual reality, which in turn is inherent in the detailed contours of the form. In other words, the spiritual reality that makes us want to change our lives again does not come unmediated, but must be connected to physical forms.
So we come to the formation of a monk. Let me quote Von Balthasar here:

“The Christian will realize his mission only if he truly becomes this form which has been willed and instituted by Christ. The exterior of this form must express and reflect its interior to the world in a credible manner, and the interior must be confirmed, justified and made love-worthy in its radiant beauty through the truth of the exterior that manifests it. When it is achieved, Christian form is the most beautiful thing that may be found in the human realm.”

What Von Balthasar is lobbying for here is an apologetic of sanctity. The saints, who embody the highest form of Christian personhood, compel us by the beauty of their lives. When we encounter Saint Paul, Antony the Great, Saint Benedict, or Thérèse of Lisieux, we encounter not an abstract sanctity, but particular forms of Christian living that invite us to imitate them as they imitated Christ. This will mean that we must follow the form of Christ, that mode of discipleship imbued with the Cross, and therefore called cruci-form: a life poured out in thankful worship of God and service to neighbor.

It should thus be clear that all Christian life requires formation, and that this formation, to be credible, must be ongoing. None of us can stop being formed by the sacraments and the gospels until we have been completely purified and our lives become incandescent with the radiance of God’s glory. We don’t do this because we want to be ‘good’ or simply to ‘lead by edifying example’. This can work to a point, but it also can be somewhat self-defeating if we fall into the trap of thinking ourselves good. This is perhaps why Benedict stresses humility, the final result of which is the monk whose attainment of perfect love drives out fear and in whom virtue is delightful.

All of this suggests to me three fundamental components of formation in monastic life. First of all is to recognize in faith that God’s will, expressed through the rituals of the Church, confirms that the form chosen by God for each of us in vows is precisely this form that Benedict had in mind when writing of the monk cleansed of vices by the Holy Spirit, running the paths of God’s commands with heart overflowing with love. We will answer God’s call to the extent that we inform ourselves with the spirit of monasticism.

Secondly, to do this requires meditation on these forms. This is why it is important to become friends with monastic saints, to learn the practices of monastic life and to give ourselves interiorly to a thorough search for all that is at odds with the spirit that needs to be manifest in our lives. To the extent that we compromise our ‘monasticity’, our lives lack the beauty that should radiate from us, and our witness becomes less compelling. This is often difficult to see because the world approves of something different, and to train ourselves to prefer Christ’s love to the love of the world takes a certain self-denial.

Third, I have just mentioned training. This is what is obviously meant by formation normally. We train men to become monks. I hope that what I have said so far makes it clear that we must continually train ourselves day-to-day and year-to-year to become more and more monastic. In the same way that Beethoven kept writing symphonies and progressed from the First and Second to the Sixth and Seventh, we can’t stop at Solemn Vows and think that now we are monks and we can get on to other things. Our business is to become more and more the monks we are meant to be, and so we must continue our study of things monastic so that these inform us more and more.

Finally, the untutored listener might not be able to tell that Beethoven’s skill at symphonic composition is better than Respighi’s. They might in fact be equally repulsive to those who don’t like classical music. If one wants to enter into a serious discussion of beauty, however, it is really necessary to take on authority the truth, to use a different context, that Rembrandt is a finer artist than James Abbot McNeill (this is why someone who dabbles in drawing is teasingly called ‘Rembrandt’ or ‘Picasso’ and not ‘McNeill’). We won’t really get to the heart of what is beautiful until we humbly accept tutoring.

In the same way, the unlettered or the non-Christian might not immediately understand what is beautiful about the monk as depicted by Saint Benedict and the tradition. We might find monks captivating in the way that even the unschooled can be taken unawares by Velasquez or Brahms; but without some work, without some effort of learning how to look and listen in order to perceive a deeper beauty, we will probably lose interest. In the same way, we must learn humbly to take on authority the beauty of the lives of the saints and the monastic way of life, especially where its forms seem hard or even ugly to us. If we can simply accept in humility, then we can better allow these forms to form us: and we will not become simply a carbon copy of an abstract ‘monk’, but we will become the person that God intends us to be.

I had a fine music teacher in high school who used to say, “Train yourself to like only good music.” This is hard to do: almost all of us have some weakness for what is banal, trite, sentimental and so forth. If we spend too much time with these sounds in our ears, then we will have a harder time accepting the discipline that liking good music requires. But we will also miss out on beauty! In college, I had another teacher who took up the battle against relativism. He insisted that there really is such a thing as good music! So too, in a time when we like to excuse people on all sorts of grounds from a full, authentic response to the Gospel, we should strive with all of our effort to train ourselves to delight the monastic life and believe in its goodness and beauty. The time we spend reflecting on worldly delights will make it harder to see the translucence of the saintly monk, and our light will also be dimmed. We must make an act of faith that this way of humility and obedience, the form of monastic life, really does go to God and really does evangelize. Let us, then, devote ourselves to this ongoing formation, that the Spirit of God may be manifest in our lives as we are conformed to our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be power and glory forever. Amen.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
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and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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