Saturday, February 12, 2011

Abbot Baldwin of Ford’s Treatise in Praise of the Perfect Monk

  We live in a culture which worships youth and beauty as though they were gods.  Youth passes quickly and outer beauty is fleeting.  Even if someone is young and physically attractive, this is not necessarily a reflection of their inward character.
  Abbot Baldwin of Ford (d. 1191) begins his praise of the perfect monk by quoting from
Lamentations 4:7:

                         The Nazarites were whiter than snow, purer than milk,
                         ruddier than old ivory, more beautiful than the sapphire.
and speaks about how this passage praises the Nazarites not without reference to something else, but certain comparisons are drawn1so that being compared to things which are themselves worthy of praise, the Nazarites might shine forth more brightly.
   The beauty which is praised is not the physical beauty of the Nazarites, but their conduct, the glory not of the flesh but of the mind, or virtue, of integrity.  In the eyes of the flesh the glory of the flesh has no little attraction, but it is actually vain and deceitful, as it is written, “Attractiveness is deceitful, and beauty is vain.” (Proverbs 31:30).  What is vain beauty if not a beautiful vanity?  What is deceitful attractiveness, if not attractive deceit?  Those who see it are gloriously praised, but when they look at it they are deceived, and when they gaze at it, it deludes their eyes like a sort of conjuring trick.  If  they were to use the keen sight of their inner eye to penetrate the depths of the human body, they would find that the beauty of the flesh is nothing but a veil over depravity, nothing but an outward display which covers a hidden ignominy and confusion.2  
    Bodily beauty may have glory in the eyes of men, but not in the eyes of God.  It lacks the virtue of merit and has no hope of reward.  God is the inner judge and sees into the heart (Proverbs 24:12), and He loves the beauty which is interior.  When the Psalmist addresses the king’s daughter, he says, “The king shall desire your beauty” and so as not to hide the fact that it is an inner beauty, he adds, “The daughter of the king is clothed with splendor, her robes embroidered with pearls set in gold”  (Ps. 45:12-13).
    The beauty of the Nazarites is inward, not outward, and they are therefore named after the flower of holiness, not the flower of the field, which is the flower of the flesh. The flower to which they are compared is the lily.  As the Scripture says, “Flourish as the lily, and put forth leaves in grace” (Sir 39:19).   Those who were Nazarites in the days of the Law, consecrated to God, were prefigurements of Christ, and by their abstinence and their conduct they also represented those who would imitate Christ in the future.  They abstained from wine and intoxicating drinks and everything which could result in inebriation. In the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah we read how the sons of Jonadab also abstained from wine, for Jonadab instructed his sons not to drink wine, and they obeyed the voice of their father.  As a result of this, the Lord says, “Jonadab shall never lack a descendent to stand in my sight” (Jer 35:19).   
    If, then, according to the voice of the Lord, Jonadab never lacks a descendent to stand in God’s sight, there must be sons of Jonadab, imitators of Christ, who now, in our own day, stand in the sight of the Lord.  It is Christ who is the true Jonadab, one who is always willing to obey in all things, which is what the name Jonadab means.3 Someone who says to God, “I will willingly sacrifice to you” (Ps. 54:6) is always ready. The Nazarite, too, is ready, and this verse of the psalm alludes to him: “My flesh has flourished again, and with my will I will give praise to Him” (Ps. 28:8).  The phrase “with my will” refers to the Holy Spirit, for where the Spirit is, there is liberty (2 Cor 3:17); but the phrase which precede this, “my flesh has flourished again”, does not refer to the present glory of our feeble flesh, which is the flower of the field, but to the hope of a glorious resurrection and the flower of the sanctified flesh, which is put to death with its vices and lusts.
    Abbot Baldwin then proceeds to summarize what he has said up to this point by referencing the three points of comparison stated in the Book of Lamentations  (whiteness, ruddiness, and purity) and the virtues of the Nazarites. 
    In regard to the whiteness of the Nazarites he states that the abstinence of the Nazarites and the sons of Jonadab was a sacrament, an example, and a sign. For them it was the sacrament which led to their sanctification; for us it is an example to imitate, a sign for our instruction.  In their abstinence we find a model of a three-fold abstinence, namely love of self-will, love of carnal pleasure, and the love of worldly vanity. The love of the world is vain, the love of pleasure is sweet, and the love of self-will is tenacious. 
   The more the soul loves itself tenaciously and obstinately and cleaves to itself in a certain way, the greater its difficulty in being able to detach or separate itself from itself.
It is scarcely possible to find anything which a soul loves more than its own self-will and its own opinion.  Therefore, when it is dragged away from its own will, it is as though it were severed from itself, and it bleeds as if it had been wounded.  The love of self-will is like a wine which intoxicates the mind and throws all the senses into confusion.  It confuses our hearing, for example, so that it fails to hear what it should obey.  This wine confuses the eyes of discernment, so that they fail to see the truth; and it robs the other senses of their proper functions and mingles in the midst of them the spirit of giddiness (Is 19:14).  This is not the wine we are told to give to those who are sad (Proverbs 31:6). Those who are sad and those who weep for sins of self-will are intoxicated with the wine of compunction (Ps. 60:3).  They are given to drink the wine which cheers the human heart (Ps. 104-:15) which is the promise and hope of forgiveness.  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt. 5:5).  It is said of such as these, “Give wine to those that are sad and strong drink to those who grieve in their souls” (Proverbs 31:6).
     This wine of self-will is strained and pressed out in the wine-press of obedience.  It is made from a sour grape which our fathers have eaten and which has set the children’s teeth on edge (Jer. 31:29).  Adam, the father of disobedience, mixed this wine of self-will and passed on the draught of death to his children as if to say, “Drink of this, all of you”
(Mt. 26:27).4 All the sinners of the world are still drinking from it. Christ, on the contrary, came not to do His own will but that of His Father (Jn. 6:38) and passed on the cup of obedience even to death, saying to us, ‘Drink of this, all of you’ (Mt. 26:27). 
Drink of this, He says, which I serve, not that which Adam served.
     Writing to his monks at the Abbey of Maredsous in Belgium, Blessed Columba Marmion (d. 1923) stated that the domain were latitude must be taken, in regard to self-renunciation, is that of interior mortification, which likewise is the most perfect.  This mortification represses the vices of the mind, breaks of self-love and attachment to our own judgment; it refrains tendencies to pride, independence, vanity, touchiness, levity, curiosity, and subjects us to the common life, that penance of penances.5
   This wine of self-will and disobedience is forbidden to the Nazarites and the sons of Jonadab, and they must not drink it.  It is good for us not to drink this wine.  Those who know this distrust the whole of their own will and; they do not put their trust in themselves but entrust themselves to the rule of another’s judgment, 6  they are always fearful of willing something for themselves, as if it were a product of their own self-will.
Therefore, they bind themselves with the bonds of obedience and confine themselves by the laws of regular discipline.  They change their will into obligation and reduce their freedom to servitude (Gal. 2:4).
   Those who use the world (1 Cor 7:31) legitimately are as white as snow, but those who do not use the world at all are whiter. The whiteness of the former comes from their abstaining from things which are unlawful; the whiteness of the latter consists in their refraining even from things which are lawful. The former are troubled and anxious about many things (Lk 10:41), because although there is nothing that they love more than God, they love many things other than God, and not for the sake of God.   Their love, therefore, is divided for the more we concern ourselves with the love of perishable things the more we detract from the perfection of divine love. “When the spirit is cut in two and runs in different ways, the powers of love detract from one another.”7
    By being called whiter than snow, the Nazarites are honored with a praiseworthy title, but in order that praise should be heaped on praise, there is added, ‘purer than milk.’ Oil, milk, and fat are all pure, and this purity symbolizes mercy, of which the Lord says, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6).  Those who have the purity and sweetness of milk are those who, in mercy, relieve the needs of the indigent, so that they might have milk to drink and be filled from the breasts of their consolation (Is. 66:11). 
    The body requires many kinds of support for its needs and requires many kinds of remedies for its infirmities.  The soul, too, requires those things which are necessary for its spiritual consolation and its true health and salvation. 
    Those who love the souls of their neighbors more perfectly than their bodies sustain them in their suffering for Christ.  They are zealous for God and are stirred with a greater affection for spiritual needs.  They are weak with those who are weak and burn with indignation for those that suffer a fall (2 Cor 11:29).
    True mercy; however, has compassion on both kinds of needs, but it has more compassion on that which is more important and less on that which is less important. It is indeed a great mercy to suffer with one’s neighbor when he is in want, but it is a much greater mercy to take such care of him that he does not perish. To feel pain for the evils which people suffer is affected by great mercy.8
     Zeal for souls, therefore, is superior to a sympathetic feeling for the sufferings of the body.  The latter is the purity of milk; the former is the purity of oil, which surpasses all other liquids. The latter is characteristic of the rich who, in mercy, distribute their goods to the poor; the former more suited to the Nazarites, for it is there that we find the very marrow of sincere love for one’s neighbor. What better reason is there for loving our neighbor with whom we share the same nature than that we both might participate in the same glory?  The Nazarites, therefore, who give first place to their zeal for souls while in no way despising the needs of the body, shine forth with a double brightness: being whiter than milk, they always possess the brightness of grace and the brightness of glory in the eyes of God, who says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt.5:57). Those who have professed the common life and who, in the future, will have everything in common, meanwhile share what they have in such a ways that each of them wants to have nothing more than that which can benefit the others.  Anything which is not brought in the grace of communion they consider as superfluous, and they take no pleasure in owning anything for themselves, just as they are forbidden to take anything which belongs to another.
     Sharing the grace of charity enables those who live the common life to always put the general profit and the common good ahead of their personal convenience. According to the teaching of St. Benedict, a monk renounces himself so that in giving advice he does not presume to make a stubborn defense of his own opinion, nor to strive too hard after his own will and the desires of his own heart, nor to have the least thing which could be called his own.  Instead, as servants of God, the monks humble themselves for the sake of God under the hand of one of their fellow-servants (the abbot as per RB 5:12,15) and in him all the power of governance is vested.  Obedience to the abbot demonstrates that the monks are sons of God, and it is the abbot who is their love, their bond, and their communion.  Conversely, the greater their communion, the stronger is their bond, and the more perfect is their love.
     In the tradition of St. Bernard and the other Cistercian Fathers, Abbot Baldwin routinely refers to Scripture to convey the various theological point he makes.  We are told that God dwells in inaccessible light.  God has no wish to remain unknown since by remaining unknown He will remain unloved.  God therefore shines with a soft light in our hearts and this light is the virtue of charity which is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.  It is the virtue of charity which enables us to see God in our neighbors and thereby live the common life.  God’s presence in us makes up for what is lacking in our human nature due to original sin and gives us the strength to extend charity to those around us. 
    By its very nature, charity wishes to be shared with others as a fire reaches out to whatever it is burning.  The common life gives us that arena, within which, to share God’s charity by extending it to those in the community.  While actually putting this into practice is sometimes easier said than done, this should not become a source of despair which prevents one from making the necessary effort.   God allows for friction in relationships and other difficulties not to discourage us, but so that we come to the realization that we are not spreading His love by our own power.  God has chosen not to interfere directly in our free will, so he provides us with opportunities to turn our will to
Him and thereby remain free.  The Holy Spirit grants us the grace to carry out the mission of spreading God’s charity and we must turn to Him constantly in prayer in order to keep going.9 
     In addition to the whiteness and brightness of the Nazarites’ face there is also added ruddiness.   The grace of whiteness brings to their face its bright color, and the grace of ruddiness gives it its cheerful expression.  A red face normally indicates heat or shame. 
The Nazarites are reddened with the heat of burning devotion and ashamed as to a   consequence of their reverence for integrity.  They blush at everything unseemly; they abominate everything undesirable, and are ashamed at whatever is unbecoming.
    Those Nazarites are not merely ruddy, but are ruddy as old ivory.  Ivory, we are told is the bone of an elephant.  The elephant is an animal whose bones are so huge, tough, and strong that it can support a war machine on its back.  Such is the strength of the saints who possess the outstanding glory of stability, firmness, and beauty as ivory among their bones.  If the flesh is so weak that it can symbolize the weakness of the saints, why can we not use the bones to indicate their strength?  The following passage would certainly refer to the saints, “The Lord guards all their bones” (Psalm 34:20).
    Our forefathers and those who imitate them certainly exhibit the strength of old ivory. 
Of them it can be said, “All day long my disgrace is before me; my face is covered with shame at the voice of the taunter, the scoffer, at the sight of the foe and avenger. This befell us though we had not forgotten you, though we had not been false to your covenant, though we had not withdrawn our hearts, though our feet had not strayed from your path” (Psalm 44:16-19).   
    While this is certainly true of our forefathers, all of this was under the Law, and the Law led no one to perfection (Heb. 7:19), since the perfection of the gospel was still absent.  It had not yet been said that “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor” (Mt. 19:21).  It was this which was still being said, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a blow for a blow” (Ex. 21:24).  Neither had they heard, “If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer him the other also” (Lk. 6:29).  The world did not know the secret and consummate counsels of perfection brought down from heaven by Christ and proclaimed in Christ, counsels which not all could take.10 
    Why does God command me not to hate my enemies, but to love them instead?  If I am provoked by the slightest insult, I can feel the fire of anger burn within me and in no time it flares up.  My heart burns for revenge, and my tongue falls headlong into abuse.  However, God must not be loved merely with word and tongue.  Instead, He should be loved so that the love of Him shines forth in deed and in truth.  Since God has no need for any benefits Himself, He has put in His place, as it were, our brothers and neighbors who need these things, so that they might receive from us the good deeds which are due to Him.  No one, therefore, should flatter himself that he loves God; no one should deceive himself by thinking that he loves God, if he does not love his neighbor, for if he does not love his neighbor, than he does not love God. (1 Jn. 4:20)  If a monk does not love his brother whom he sees, who is present with him as one who stands in the place of God, to whom shall he pay his debt of charity?  The love of neighbor, therefore, is the tie of love and the bond of peace by which we maintain and preserve in ourselves the charity of God and the unity of the spirit.  Anyone who does not love his brother separates himself from unity of spirit. He does not love God, and lives not by the spirit of God but by his own spirit; he now lives for himself and not for God.11
    In this charity, all that is bitter becomes sweet and all that is hard is softened.  Here alone your yoke is easy and your burden light (Mt. 11:30).  The more strictly something is imposed upon us, the easier it becomes by the devotion of charity. 
    Anyone whose zeal for Christ has reached perfection is mindful of fact that he was created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27), and mindful too of the price with which he was redeemed by the Son of God (1 Cor 6:20). Thus, on account of this awe-inspiring dignity, he takes a noble pride in opposing that worldly pride which is unworthy of any dignity, and judges it unworthy of his nobility to love the vanity of worldly honor, and to not love the promises of God which surpass all our desires.
   We are also told that the Nazarites are more beautiful than sapphire.  The perfection of beauty is here shown to us by a beautifully ordered sequence.  The first stage of perfection is to keep ourselves unstained from all the corruption of this present life (James 1:27), as far as human frailty permits it.  The second stage is never to neglect in any way the care of our neighbor, so far as opportunities for help or advice present themselves. The third stage is to endure steadfastly, by the heat of holy devotion and the blush of holy shame, everything harsh and undeserved; so far as human weakness allows it. The fourth stage is to keep the eye of intention always directed to God, whenever we do good or endure evil, and to restore all to the glory of God, so far as human ability can manage it.
   The first virtue is achieved either by a devout hatred of oneself or by being harsh in one’s mercy toward oneself.  The second is achieved by charity which is kind, charity towards one’s neighbor.  The third is achieved by charity which is patient, charity for one’s enemy.  The fourth is achieved by charity which is outstanding, our charity for God.  This last gives the others their form and makes them truly virtues; it establishes and completes them so that they will not be worthless.  For whatever good a person does or whatever evil he endures is reckoned to be totally worthless—neither genuine nor worthy of praise—unless the eye of intention is directed to God, so that it may be pleasing in His sight, in the light of the living (Psalm 56:13). 
    When a devout and upright intention is joined with the hope and desire for celestial things, it possesses among some things the purity of the sapphire which imitates the appearance of heaven, but among others it displays a greater beauty since it is patterned on the purity of the purest heaven of all.  There are some whose love for God is utterly pure, who love God in preference to all other things, and whose love for Him is not mixed with any other love.  However, there are those who also love God in preference to all others, but whose love for Him is mixed with a love for other things as well. In the case of the former, the love of God occupies the only place, in the case of the latter, it occupies the highest place. A love which holds the highest place does not exclude other loves, but a love which holds the only place admits no other love into its fellowship.
    The Nazarites possess this former love.  They are established in such purity of intention, desire, and hope that it is as though they always see God, and God, who always rejoices in His works, always sees them in the glory of His beauty as the works of His hands (Ps. 104:31). They regard each other, therefore, with mutual regard and take delight in their mutual vision.  For the psalmist says, “The eyes of the Lord are upon the just” (Ps. 34:15), and the just man says, “My eyes are ever on the Lord” (Ps. 25:14).  See how it is that even now, in this present life, there is a certain way in which the Nazarites see God eye to eye.    
   Following the Rule of St. Benedict and remaining faithful to his prayer life assists the monk in his efforts to keep his eyes ever on the Lord.  It is important to keep in mind that such a goal is not only meant for monks or others who live the common life.  The Church teaches us that those who live in the world are called to perfection as well and there the
Church has made available to everyone the tools necessary to reach such perfection. 

                                                             End Notes               

1)    PL 561-562
2)    Bell, David N. (trans) The Spiritual Tractates of Baldwin of Ford Vol. 2 CF 41 (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Studies, 1986), p. 196
3)    Jerome, De nominibus bebraicis (PL 23:187-818)
4)    Bell, p. 200
5)    Marmion, Columba Christ: The Ideal of the Monk (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1926), p. 185
6)    Rule of St. Benedict 5:12
7)    Ovid Remedia Amoris 443
8)     Bell, p. 204
9)     Grosse, Jeremiah R. Abbot Baldwin of Ford’s Treatise on the Common Life
10)   Bell, p. 207
11)   Grosse Common Life


Bell, David The Spiritual Tractates of Baldwin of Ford Vol. 2, CF 41(Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Studies, 1986)

Grosse, Jeremiah R. Abbot Baldwin of Ford’s Treatise on the Common Life

Jerome, De nominibus bebraicis (PL 23:187-818)

Marmion, Columba Christ: The Ideal of the Monk (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1926)

Ovid Remedia Amoris 443

Rule of St. Benedict

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