The Prophet (peace be upon him!) said to the returning soldiers, ‘Blessed are those who have performed the minor jihad and have yet to perform the greater jihad.’ When asked, ‘What is the greater jihad?' the Prophet replied: ‘The jihad of the self.’
(Al-Majilisi, Bihar al-Anwar,hadith no. 31.)
The last lines of the Gospel we read today (Mt 23:1-12) seems to me to be one of those fundamental truths about Jesus’ way, this movement toward littleness, toward simplicity, toward powerlessness: “The greatest among you must be your servants. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled; those who humble themselves will be exalted.” But it is often the first thing to go, even––maybe especially––in religious life. Do not be like the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus warns his disciples. “All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and being called ‘Rabbi.” But we love our widened phylacteries and long tassels, and seats of honor and our honorific titles! (Our OSB Cams and Revs!) I remember being at Mass at a seminary in Rome one Sunday when this Gospel was read. I had never seen such pomp and circumstance at an ordinary Sunday Mass. We were all arranged hierarchically, with even visiting concelebrating priests in full vesture, with a dozen or so acolytes. And I remember saying to the priest who was with me as the guy started the homily, “I can’t wait to hear what he does with this!” After the homily he whispered back to me: “He was brilliant. He avoided the gospel completely!” We have to be constantly vigilant, swim against the stream, because without our noticing it, sometimes what we started out to do can become its polar opposite.
Of course what it brings to mind for me is the monastic impulse in the church. At least one version of the story has it that when Christianity was legalized and got too comfortable, this band of men (and some women too) headed out into the desert to live a life of renunciation, solitude, simplicity and austerity, swimming against the stream of, as C. H. Lawrence wrote in his brilliant book Medieval Monasticism, “laxer standards and the careerism that crept into the church once imperial approval had given it respectability.” (Lawrence, 2) But those early desert dwellers were simply going out to live a life that was rooted in the Gospels, in imitation of Jesus, by following the evangelical counsels, in poverty and simplicity, by avoiding clericalism and any kind of social standing. I think too of our own founder St. Romuald, who turned his back on the comfort (and corruption) of San Apollonare in Classe and headed into the forest, to live a life of austerity and simplicity, features that would be the hallmark of the Romualdian reform in general, again swimming against the stream of the natural tendency toward social position and comfort.
Today is also the feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and we could certainly say the same thing about him and the early Cistercians as well. They were definitely a reaction against what they saw as the corrupting influences of the wealth and power of Cluny. They aimed to live a life of greater austerity, simplicity––“in the swamps of France”; they even wore a white habit to distinguish themselves from the black habits of Cluny. And when St. Bernard preached his fiery sermons about conversion, he wasn’t trying to convert people just to Christianity, but to the monastic life as a living out of the Christian life, “…claiming that those who observed the Rule of St Benedict were reproducing the life-style of the Apostles.” (Lawrence, 184)
Yesterday was the feast of St. Bernard Tolomei, the founder of the Olivetan monastic congregation, the congregation of Laurence Freeman and my good friends at San Miniato. We heard all about Bernard Tolomei’s “contempt for the world” that was the impetus for his beginning to live a monastic life. Ironically, he took his name from Bernard of Clairvaux, but the first thing I thought of was what Pope Benedict wrote about Bernard of Clairvaux––the exact opposite! (This is from the encyclical Spe Salvi 15):
It was commonly thought that monasteries were places of flight from the world (contemptus mundi) and of withdrawal from responsibility for the world, in search of private salvation. Bernard of Clairvaux, who inspired a multitude of young people to enter the monasteries of his reformed Order, had quite a different perspective on this. In his view, monks perform a task for the whole Church and hence also for the world… [M]onks have a duty towards the entire body of the Church, and indeed towards humanity; he applies to them the words of pseudo-Rufinus: “The human race lives thanks to a few; were it not for them, the world would perish ...”
And in keeping with the theme for the retreat that Douglas Burton-Christie is giving to us at New Camaldoli this year, “Practicing Paradise”:
In fact Bernard explicitly states that not even the monastery can restore Paradise, but he maintains that, as a place of practical and spiritual “tilling the soil,” it must prepare the new Paradise. A wild plot of forest land is rendered fertile—and in the process, the trees of pride are felled, whatever weeds may be growing inside souls are pulled up, and the ground is thereby prepared so that bread for body and soul can flourish.
But then there is this dark side of Bernard’s legacy too that many speak of: first his preaching of the Crusade, and then the Cistercians’ sponsorship and Bernard’s near canonization of the Knights Templar. I’ve been reading a lot about this in James Carrol’s book Jerusalem, Jerusalem. Did nobody notice that this was the polar opposite of “the Gospel of peace and love”? The Knights Templar thought of themselves as warrior monks; they even adopted the Cistercians’ white habit, but now it was emblazoned with the dramatic, distinctive red cross, the cross that had become a sword. Didn’t anybody notice that as far as professions are concerned “monk and warrior stood at opposite poles”? (Those are the words of C.H. Lawrence again.) Later the Knights themselves would be charged with various heresies and perversities, and eventually they were brought before the Inquisition and suppressed––though they would rise again a generation or two later as the Masons. Again another polar opposite: what started out as a military order to protect the church turns into a secret society against it! But even more importantly, how did the tendency toward simplicity and poverty get transformed into the energy for violence and worldly domination?
This tendency is still with us, and maybe it always will be. I’ve been reading a lot lately about a school of thought that has been surfacing in our own political realm known as Dominionism. The philosophy is basically that Christians (and Christians alone!) are biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Jesus returns. (See Ryan Lizza’s excellent article “Leap of Faith,” New Yorker, August 15 & 22, 2011.) Some of these Dominionists, like this man the late Francis Shaeffer who is singled out as the main inspirer of this movement, even argue for violent overthrow of governments––in the name of the Bible! Dominionism relies on Genesis 1:28, where human beings are urged to “have dominion over all the earth.” But it seems to me that the texts Christians should be looking at for how we are supposed to have dominion in the world should be the one we heard today: “The greatest among you must be your servants.” Or the Philippians Canticle that says Jesus “emptied himself and took the form of a slave… and therefore God raised him on high.” Or else John 13, which shows exactly how Jesus had dominion: he tied a towel around his waist and washed his disciples’ feet! That’s how we are supposed to have dominion over the earth. We are supposed to be the slaves even of the fish and the fowl and the cattle; we are supposed to be servants of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth; we are supposed to wash the feet of all others, not be their masters.
It’s not just the monastic movement, but the Christian movement itself is marked by this tendency toward poverty and powerlessness. And not just the Christian movement, but the spiritual life itself is marked by this movement toward dispossession and a blessed simplicity. The famous hadith of the Prophet Mohammed comes to mind. He had dispatched a contingent of the army to the battlefront, and when they returned he said to them
‘Blessed are those who have performed the minor jihad and have yet to perform the greater jihad.’ When asked, ‘What is the greater jihad?' the Prophet replied: ‘The jihad of the self.’
(Al-Majilisi, Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 19, p. 182, hadith no. 31.)
In Arabic this is known as jihad al-nafs, the “struggle against the self.” (The Arabic word nafs of course is related to the Hebrew word nepesh, sometimes translated as “soul.”) This struggle against the self is really against evil ideas, desires and the powers of lust, anger, and insatiable imagination, placing them all under the dictates of reason and faith in obedience to God's command, and finally, purging all evil ideas and influences from one's soul. This struggle is much more difficult than fighting on the battlefield. Pope Benedict ends the section on St. Bernard saying that, “Are we not perhaps seeing once again, in the light of current history, that no positive world order can prosper where souls are overgrown?” Otherwise, what Carrol’s book brings in high relief, how often we turn religion into a kind of tribal warfare. At one point he recalls the quote of Abraham Lincoln, about not presuming that God is on our side, but humbly praying every day that we are on God's side.
We have to be constantly vigilant, swim against the stream, because without our noticing it, what we started out to do can become its polar opposite. Let’s pray in the authentic spirit of the gospel, and St. Bernard, that the trees of our pride would be felled, and that whatever weeds may be growing inside our souls would be pulled up, and that the ground of our being would be prepared so that our bodies and souls may flourish.