CONFORMITY TO CHRIST ✜
Br. Thomas Johnston
Our singing is sometimes accompanied by the singing of the coyotes outside, and our chapel’s clear glass windows let in the grandeur and beauty of nature surrounding us.
Cistercian Grace Today
An address to the General Chapter of the Cistercian Order | 1999
by the Right Reverend Joseph Boyle | OCSO
LORD JESUS, who are you and who am I?” I often use this question to focus myself as I enter into quiet prayer. Just who is this Christ we seek to be conformed to? The mystery of Christ is so vast and rich that no line of thought can do it justice. Yet, key for me is that Jesus Christ was and is the place ofGod’s presence among us: Emmanuel—God with us. The Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx referred to Christ as “the sacrament of encounter with God.”
When I reflect on the theme: "Cistercian Grace Today: Conformity to Christ,” it seems to me that we are called individually and collectively as a community to be the sacrament of encounter with God: in union with Christ called to be a place of God’s presence in the world. This view affects every aspect of our life. In worship we are united with Christ, as all creation comes to consciousness in us and is able to praise and celebrate the Creator. We pray the very psalms that Christ prayed; we join him in his Eucharistic prayer to the Father. At Snowmass, partly because of the small size of our community, our liturgy does not have the splendor of liturgies in our larger communities. Nonetheless, it has a simple grace to it; the prayer is real and Christ’s presence fits the silences. Our singing is sometimes accompanied by the singing of the coyotes outside, and our chapel’s clear glass windows let in the grandeur and beauty of nature surrounding us.
In lectio divina and quiet prayer, we grow in our consciousness of our union with Christ and open ourselves to the Spirit working in us, the Spirit that transforms us into the image of Christ. In our Cistercian community relationships, we become the presence of Christ for one another. At our last
General Chapter, we examined the theme of the monastery as schola caritatis and found the love of Christ flowing through all the dimensions of our community life. In our caring for and being cared for, in our forgiving and being forgiven, the life of Christ flows through us. In practicing the admonition from St. Benedict: “Seniors love the juniors, juniors respect your seniors,” we offer to society an example that can heal the increasing division between generations in our modern world. At Snowmass, in our respect for the unique process of growth in Christ to which each member of the community is committed, we strive to nurture a freedom in each member that will be conducive to a mature responsibility as a Cistercian monk for the vitality and Christ-centeredness of the community’s direction.
CISTERCIANS are also the presence of Christ in our relationship to the full body of Christ, which we embrace and support with our loving prayer and which we receive with hospitality, receiving guests as Christ, and receiving them as Christ would receive them. In our hospitality Cistercian monasteries provide an environment for guests and retreatants to be drawn into the presence of God and into encounter with God. It seems to me that is why so many people are coming to our monasteries for retreat and liturgy these days. We hope that these people carry the peace and love they find with us back to their communities.
We also hope to be the presence of God for our neighbors. I think of our brothers in Atlas and the deep bond they had formed with their neighbors in that farming community, a bond so deep that the brothers chose to stay in that place with their neighbors even if it meant their deaths. As I understand it, they did not feel the need to preach explicitly about Jesus, confident that the people around them would experience Christ’s love through them. Cistercians seek to be the place of Christ’s presence in our relationship with the environment where our farms, ranches, orchards, and lands are stewarded with deep respect for the Creator and for his designs, continuing God’s care for the world. We are becoming more reflexively or self-consciously aware of this stewardship today. The truth is that this stewardship of the land has always been part of our Cistercian traditions, where our monasteries were models of good stewardship. Today we have a heightened sensitivity for how our actions are affecting the well-being and future of our human family and our whole planet. This stewardship in partnership with the Creator also shapes our response to the prevailing ethos of consumerism especially in the wealthier countries: the continual purchase of new products in a throwaway culture. Our stewardship exemplifies a healthy alternative for living simply on the land.
“Lord Jesus, who are you and who am I?” This question normally serves to focus and silence my inner being, but once in a while an answer emerges to the question—from wherever it is in a person that such answers come. On one particular occasion when I had just become abbot and was wondering what I could do to bring back some the spirit of “the good old days,” I was sitting quietly while this question was echoing in the back of my mind and suddenly I heard the text of Revelation: ”Behold—I am he who makes all things new.” I had to laugh because I was focused on bringing back the old and Christ was turning me a full 180 degrees around so that with him I could face the new! Of course, we reverently carry the core of our tradition into the new with us, but still the challenge of being with and in Christ as he makes all things new is what we face today.
TO CONFORM TO CHRIST is this way—being the place of God’s presence—requires that we more and more take on the mind and heart of Christ: Christ’s way of seeing, Christ’s way of loving. This we do individually and as a community. Individually this transformation requires that we be deeply nourished by lectio and prayer in all of its forms, but especially I would underline (at least from my experience and that of my community) the transformation that comes from quiet, wordless contemplative prayer. I see in this a connection with Jesus going off alone to pray at night to be nourished at the fountain of divine union. Sometimes, in the early morning hours, I find my consciousness being focused by the prayerful question: “Lord, what shape do you want to take in me today?”
Collectively to take on the mind and heart of Christ requires not only that the individuals in the community be deeply committed to their own process of transformation in Christ, but also that the community itself be able to discern together what is the special and particular presence of Christ we are to be in the world today in our unique situations. Being mindful of St. Benedict’s insight that God often reveals what is better to the younger, it is so important that we learn to listen to one another, each and every one in the community, pray over these things, and discern together on how we will live this Christ-life in our concrete, day-to-day situations. I see the work that many of our communities are doing to improve the communications skills of their members as a helpful tool in this process of working together to know and live the mind and heart of Christ.
In our time of rapid and radical social and cultural change, this personal transformation, communal listening and discerning, are especially necessary. To be the presence of God in this world today in conformity with Christ is a deep challenge to each of us and to each one of our communities. It is critical today to be in touch with and reflect what is essential in a world that often loses sightof the essential and where materialism and moral confusion are wreaking havoc. This witness can flow only from an ever deeper union with Christ. ✜