Review: Learning how to live in the presence of God from a Cistercian monk and bishop
As a former student of the Christian Brothers in grammar school, I will forever be grateful to them for introducing me to a spiritual exercise that has remained with me for 70 years. Every hour in school a small bell would ring, and the class would pause to “Remember that we are in the holy presence of God.” Then, after a brief silence, Brother would say: “Live, Jesus, in our hearts,” and we boys would respond “Amen.”
I was reminded of this prayerful practice when reading Entering the Twofold Mystery, the new book by Erik Varden, a Cistercian monk and the bishop of Trondheim, Norway. In many ways the book issues this invitation not only to Varden’s fellow monks—to whom the reflections were initially addressed—but to all of us who strive to remember that we live and move and have our being in God’s gracious and sanctifying presence through Jesus Christ.
The “Christian conversion” to which the title of the book refers is incumbent upon all the baptized, whether monk or Christian in the world. For each one of us, it is both unmerited grace and consuming challenge.
The thrust of Bishop Erik Varden’s new book can be summed up in words preached on Pentecost Sunday: “We shouldn’t domesticate the Spirit. It comforts, but also devours.”
Early in the book, Bishop Varden states a conviction that runs like a leitmotif through the chapters. “The incarnation of the Word set in motion a radical redefinition of relationships that will slowly transform our very sense of self. We are summoned to rise to full stature, to perform with generosity and grace the mission allotted to each one of us in God’s design for the redemption of the world.”
Indeed, the book begins with the author telling of his encounter as a young university student with a homeless man on the streets of Paris. That revelatory encounter, recalled with awe and discretion, decisively changed and shaped the course of the author’s life, transforming his “very sense of self.” The book bears witness to its continuing impact.
The encounter sparked a realization that permeates Varden’s writings: that of the concrete actuality of faith and the commitment it entails. It is the same concreteness that characterizes the Rule of St. Benedict, the great guidebook for monks. But, again, many of its precepts apply equally to all those baptized into Christ Jesus. As Varden writes, by our common baptism, “we are called to manifest that Christ is real, that he heals and saves, that his love is the substance of our lives, no fairy tale.”
Varden’s conferences and homilies aim to foster “a deepening friendship with Christ.”
Varden’s conferences and homilies aim to foster “a deepening friendship with Christ.” In this endeavor the liturgical year provides a privileged framework for entering more deeply into the mystery of the incarnate Word. Thus he includes, in Part Two, homilies that he has preached over the years on the solemn feasts of the church year, during Sundays of ordinary time and on several feasts of saints.
The homilies are brief but memorable. Drawing upon Catholicism’s rich spiritual tradition, they offer insights that penetrate to the heart of the mystery being celebrated. Moreover, they are enriched by frequent appeals to works of art, painting and poetry, music and movies, giving substance to the injunction of Pope Francis to draw upon the via pulchritudinis, the way of beauty, in theology and preaching.
“Infatuation is blind, like any passion. But love sees. It is alert to what a person might become. Indeed, it generates becoming.”
On Christmas Day Varden exults in the “sacramental world” that the Incarnation discloses. He draws upon the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and rejoices that “earth’s crammed with heaven/ and every common bush afire with God.” Holy Week immerses us in the realization that history itself is replete with intimations and anticipations of God’s full agency and presence in Jesus Christ.
Holy Thursday presents a fine reflection on Jesus’ love “to the end,” and Varden remarks incisively that “infatuation is blind, like any passion. But love sees. It is alert to what a person might become. Indeed, it generates becoming.” And Good Friday celebrates the scandalous paradox that “on this day of supreme anguish, we sing of joy,” because dying he destroyed our death! Easter proclaims the sure foundation of our faith: “Jesus, who was dead, is alive and exerts a transformative influence beyond constraints of time and space.” And the privileged witness to this new reality is the transformed lives of disciples—then and now.
So much of the thrust of the book—from the encounter with the homeless man to the considerations of the place of obedience and humility in Christian lives to the richly challenging reflections on the liturgical year—can be summed up in words preached on Pentecost Sunday. “We shouldn’t domesticate the Spirit. It comforts, but also devours. It is a refiner’s fire.” Varden continues insightfully: “A certain literature of cheap spirituality would have us think that the Spirit’s gifts are mere accoutrements; improving additions to our normal self; functions of interior design. Not so. To pray for the coming of the Spirit takes courage. It requires a will to be re-made, to be made new.” Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Varden offers no cheap grace. The Spirit’s coming is costly...but life-giving.
At the same time, Erik Varden, bishop and monk, recognizes that each day is a new beginning. The today, the hodie, of the psalms calls us daily to find our center once more in Christ. Each hour we must remember that we are in God’s holy presence. My sixth-grade self learned this from the De La Salle brothers. Erik Varden learned it from the monastic tradition. Many learn it through Ignatian spirituality. They are all rivulets of the mighty river of the great tradition that flows from the temple of the Most High, where stands the throne of God and of the Lamb.