Saturday, February 12, 2011

Abbot Baldwin of Ford’s Treatise on the Common Life

     The vocation of any Christian, whether secular or Religious, is to be a lover by extending the charity of Jesus to everyone you come in contact with everyone you come in contact with.  This extension of Christ’s charity can take on many forms depending upon the vocation to which you have been called.
     One of the finest documents I have ever read about the expression of charity in religious life is The Treatise on the Common Life by Abbot Baldwin of Ford.  It is from this document that I will much of the material presented below.
     Who is Baldwin of Ford?  So far as historians are concerned, Baldwin’s life really begins with his election as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1184.  For us; however, the most fruitful years of his life were spent as a simple monk, as abbot of Ford Abbey, tucked away in the rolling countryside of southwestern Devonshire.  Though his family was rather poor, Baldwin received an excellent education thanks to the generosity of the bishop of Exeter.  Baldwin was reputable enough as a scholar to be appointed by Pope Eugenius III as tutor to the nephew of Innocent II, the famous, Gratian.  The Bishop of Exeter was so impressed with Baldwin’s qualities that he appointed Baldwin to be archdeacon of Totnes. Within a few year; however, it became clear to Baldwin that he was meant for a different kind of life.  Sometime around 1169, he entered the recently founded Cistercian monastery of Ford.  He professed solemn vows in 1174 and the following year he was elected abbot.  For the entire five year period that Baldwin served as abbot of Ford Abbey his prior was John, who made a name for himself by writing a series of commentaries on the Song of Songs.  
      Whatever his limitations were as archbishop of Canterbury, as abbot Baldwin did a appears to have done a wonderful job.   From 1175 to 1180, Ford Abbey became known as a center of monastic culture, deep piety, and sound learning.  By 1178, Baldwin’s reputation was such that Cardinal Peter of St. Chrysogonus, in recommending Baldwin to Pope Alexander III as a likely candidate for the red hat, could write that “Baldwin is highly thought of throughout the entire Cistercian order, by reason of his vast culture and learning, his personal merit and his piety.”   In 1180, Baldwin left Ford Abbey and was appointed bishop of the important see of Worchester.  Throughout his four years there he showed himself as competent as a spiritual father and administrator; for, in 1184, he was elected archbishop of Canterbury to succeed the recently martyred Thomas Becket, and received not only the pallium, but the office of papal legate as well.  The Benedictines of Christ Church were so vehement in their opposition to the election of Baldwin as archbishop that it was only through the intervention of King Henry II that Baldwin was able to begin his service as ordinary.
      The Treatise on the Common Life was written during the decade Baldwin spent at Ford Abbey probably as a sermon which was recast later.   It reveals a man thoroughly at home in Cistercian spirituality, an acute theologian well aware of contemporary currents, and one of the last true representatives of the rich patristic-monastic tradition.  He died in 1190 as archbishop of Canterbury while serving as spiritual advisor to King Richard the Lionhearted in Syria during the Crusades. 
    Abbot Baldwin began his treatise by explaining that the common life which his monks shared in the monastery is based upon the example given to them by the Holy Trinity.   Some, indeed most, monastic writers find the ideal of the common life in the primitive Christian community described in Acts 2:42-47 or 4:32; however, Baldwin looks to the ultimate source.   The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one common essence, one common nature, and therefore one common life.  As proof of this, Baldwin quotes John 5:26, “As the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son also to have life in Himself.”  The union of the life of the Father with the life of the Son produced the Holy Spirit.   
    Baldwin also refers to the community of angels as an example of the common life. 
He states:

                           The common life of the angels is a representation and imitation
                            of this common life that is in God, this common which God is; for
              this is a life which the Holy Spirit, as love, as bond, and as communion, 
              brings together into a single oneness. ‘By the word of the Lord the
              heavens were established, and all the power of them by the Spirit
              of His mouth.’ (Ps. 32:6)                               

    Abbot Baldwin exhorts us to model the common life on the life of the Trinity; however, as you have probably realized by now, we are not angels.  Quoting from Baldwin and explaining his theory is one thing, but putting it in practice in the daily life of the monastic community is something altogether different.  
    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 to 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, 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 of 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. 
     The community is a complete organic unit.  Just as the body is one unit.  There is one spirit which animates the whole of our body through its members, joints, and structure.  In the monastery, this spirit brings about mutual peace, service, and patience to all the members.  Each member of the community is called upon to work for the good of the entire group, just as each part of the body functions for the good of the whole.  If we love God with one heart and one soul in accordance with the purity of our profession, there is no doubt that the charity of God will be poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit and that the one Spirit of God will animate all of us as if we were one body.  None of us will then live for himself, but for God, and all of us together will live in unity of spirit through the one spirit that dwells in us. 
      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 live not by the spirit of God but by his own spirit, he now lives for himself and not for God. 
      God is generosity itself, and it is not enough that He give us the things that He has; He also gives us His very self.  Jesus became man like us in all things but sin as a sign of God’s generous love for us so that we might have a model to help us share that grace of charity with others.
      He only truly possesses what he gives away.  Whoever has received a gift from God and shares its benefits with others truly possesses what he has received, and to him that has, more will be given, but from him who has not, even what little he seems to have will be taken away. (Mt. 13:12)   Whatever gifts and talents we are given by God are to be shared with the entire community.  Whoever shares his gifts shows mercy to his neighbor.  
     We receive our gifts and talents as a loan from God for a specific purpose.  Therefore, anyone who refuses to share his gifts is sinner since he has borrowed without repaying (“The wicked man borrows without repaying” Ps. 36:21). Abbot Baldwin illustrates the importance of making proper use of one’s talents by a comparison with the wicked servant who says to his master, “I went off and hid your talent in the ground.”  (Matthew 25:26) The mutual sharing of gifts is a central theme in Baldwin’s entire treatise since it plays such an important role in fostering the common life.
   Abbot Baldwin of Ford was not alone among the Cistercian Fathers in expressing the need for love in community, since charity is at the very heart of Cistercian life.  In the Exordium Parvum, it states that St. Alberic (one of the founders of the Abbey of Citeaux) was known to be a “lover of the Rule and the brethren”.  St. Stephen Harding (another one of the founders of Citeaux) is referred to as a “lover of the Rule and the place”.  St. Aelred of Rievaulx likewise expresses the role of charity in a Cistercian community in his classic work, The Mirror of Charity. 
   For Abbot Baldwin, as for the other Cistercian Fathers and St. Benedict himself, cenobitic (community) life was the ideal situation for helping religious to live out their commitment as servants of God. With the Holy Trinity as a model, the common life in the monastery is seen as an example of what awaits us in Heaven.
   A first time reader of Baldwin of Ford could draw the conclusion that most, if not all, of his writings were theoretical, but not very practical.  The reality is that Baldwin was quite practical in his writings and understood quite well that putting his theories into practice was not easy.
   As I said earlier, we are not angels.  In his Treatise in Praise of the Perfect Monk, Baldwin shows the reader the depth of his understanding with regard to the challenges involved in living the common life.
   In a style similar to Job, Abbot Baldwin cries out to God saying, “O good Jesus, may I, with all due respect, ask You why You came not to destroy the Law, but perfect it?  We were hoping that when You came into the world You should lighten our burdens and mitigate Your anger, and by being made man would become human, unusually human in fact!  However, now You add to our burdens and weigh us down with a heavier load!  Were the hands of Moses not heavy enough?  Did You come to beat us with scorpions and make our yoke still heavier?  Are we not allowed to love our friends?  Are we not allowed to hate our enemies?  O Creator of the new laws, who can bear to hear Your words?  Are You looking for a chance to ruin us?  Is not your name Jesus?  Are You not our God, the God our of salvation?  Will You then destroy us?  God forbid! 
    Why do you command me not to hate my enemies, but to love them instead?  How can I do this?  Look, if I am provoked by the slightest insult, I catch fire inside and flare up! My heart burns for revenge, and my tongue falls headlong into abuse.  For the moment, I am ignorant of God and do not know Your laws, and You say, ‘Whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of judgment.’  If I say to my brother, ‘Raca!’ or ‘you fool’, You frighten me even more, for I am in danger of the council or of hellfire!  Surely ‘You have commanded that Your commandments be kept diligently!’
    To be quite honest, I can forget the benefits, but I cannot forget the injuries.  I am, by nature, such a child of wrath that it is impossible for me not to be angry!  However, You,
Jesus, are You angry?  You who forbid me to be angry or to be the slightest bit annoyed with my enemy, or even to grumble in my heart?   Where can I find the power to make my heart so stable that I will never be annoyed at all, or that maybe, as it were, insensible to all injuries?  Where can we find the power to do what You want us to do and suffer what You want us to suffer unless You who gave us the laws also give us your blessing. Where can we find the power unless You come to us first with blessings of sweetness, unless we remain in the charity of Your sweetness?
    In this charity all that is bitter becomes sweet and all that is hard is softened.  Here alone Your yoke is sweet and your burden light.  What is difficult for someone who loves? The more strictly something is imposed upon us, the easier it becomes by devotion to charity.  Charity is patient, charity is strong, labor does not tire it, nor does any burden weigh it down.  It bears all things, endures all things, and although it is conscious of a holy modesty, it is also, in a reverent way, shameless.  It blushes at all unseemly things, but not at the words of Christ, not at the reproach of Christ, and not at the example of Christ. Christ, who added to the law its perfection, taught us what we should do, and all that He taught He fulfilled in Himself, and he gave Himself as an example.”
    I invite you to read both The Treatise on the Common Life and The Treatise in Praise of the Perfect Monk for yourself. You will not be disappointed.  Even though these were written in the twelfth century, Abbot Baldwin’s treatises offer practical, down-to-earth, solutions to the problems that arise in community life in the twenty-first century.


Bell, David The Spiritual Tractates of Baldwin of Ford (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Studies, 1986) CF 40 and CF 41
Waddell, Chrysogonus The Treatise on the Common Life in Liturgy, OCSO magazine (1977:1 issue)

Exordium Parvum:    (Accessed February 20, 2009)

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