The Holy Father's Zeal for Monastic Holiness

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An attentive study of Pope Benedict XVI's writings and addresses to date reveal his lively interest in the monastic face of the Church, and his desire to see Benedictine monasticism, in all its expressions, recover the energy and beauty of holiness that in past ages so enriched the Body of Christ. To my mind, his most compelling discourse on this subject remains the discourse he gave at Heiligenkreuz on 9 September 2007. You will find that text here.

In his General Audience this morning, Pope Benedict XVI presented Ambrosius Autpertus (730-784), monk, abbot and, to use the Holy Father's expression, "the first great Mariologist of the West." The subtitles are my own.

Against Monastic Lukewarmnesss

Ambrose Autpert was a monk and abbot in an age marked by strong political tension, tensions which also had repercussions on life inside the monasteries. Of this we have frequent and concerned echoes in his writings. He denounces, for example, the contradiction between the beautiful outer appearance of the monasteries and the monks' lukewarmness; certainly his own abbey was included in this criticism. For his monastery he wrote the life of the three founders with the clear intention to offer the new generation of monks a benchmark with which to compare themselves.

Spiritual Combat

He also wrote the brief ascetic treatise "Conflictus vitiorum et virtutum" [Conflict between the vices and virtues] with the same intention, which had great success in the Middle Ages and was published in 1473 in Utrecht under the name of Gregory the Great, and a year later in Strasbourg under the name of St. Augustine. With these writings Ambrose Autpert intended to train the monks specifically on how to address the spiritual battle on a daily basis. In an important way he applies the truth expressed in 2 Timothy 3:12: "All those who want to live fully in Christ Jesus will be persecuted," no longer external persecution, but he refers to the assault of the forces of evil that Christians must face within themselves. He presents 24 pairs of combatants in a kind of juxtaposition: each vice tries to persuade the soul with subtle reasoning, while the respective virtues refute such insinuations preferably using the words of Scripture.

Greed: the Root of All Evil

In this treatise on the conflict between vice and virtue, Autpert opposed the vice of "cupiditas" [greed] to the virtue of "contemptus mundi" [contempt of the world], which becomes an important element in the spirituality of the monks. This contempt of the world is not a contempt of creation, beauty and goodness of creation and the Creator, but a contempt of the false vision of the world presented and insinuated to us by our own greed. This greed affirms that the value of "having" is the supreme value of our being, of our living in the world and our image of ourselves as important. And so greed falsifies the creation of the world and destroys the world. Autpert notes that the desire for profit of the rich and powerful in the society of his time also exists within the souls of the monks and because of this he wrote a treatise titled "De cupiditate" [On Greed], in which, with the Apostle Paul, he denounces from the outset the vice of greed as the root of all evil. He writes: "From the soil of the earth several sharp spines sprout from various roots, however, in the heart of man, the sting of all the defects come from a single root, greed" (De cupiditate 1: CCCM 27B, p. 963 ).

"But We Are Not Monks!"

I offer this reflection, which, in light of this global economic crisis, is revealed in all its relevance. We see that from this very root of greed this crisis is born. Ambrose foresaw the objection that the rich and powerful would raise, saying: but we are not monks, these ascetic standards don't apply to us. And he answers: "It is true what you say, but also for you, in your own way and to the best of your ability, the hard and narrow way applies to you, because the Lord has proposed only two doors and two ways -- i.e. the narrow gate and the wide, the hard and comfortable; he did not indicate a third door or a third way"(ibid, p. 978). He saw clearly that the life styles are very different. But even for the man in this world, even for the rich it is necessary to fight against greed, against the desire to possess, to appear, against the false notion of freedom as the right to dispose of everything according to one's own will. Even the rich must find the authentic path of truth, of love and in this way the path of moral rectitude. So Autpert, as a prudent shepherd of souls, knew then to say at the end of his preaching of repentance a word of comfort: "I have not spoken against the greedy, but against greed, not against nature, but against vice" (lc, p. 981).

The Church Inseparable from Christ

The most important work of Ambrose Autpert is his commentary on Revelation in ten books: it constitutes, after centuries, the first extensive comment in the Latin world on last book of Sacred Scripture. This was the fruit of a long work, which took place in two stages between 758 and 767, therefore before his election as abbot. In the preface, he indicates precisely its sources, which is completely abnormal in the Middle Ages. Through its perhaps most significant source, the comments of the Bishop Primasio Adrumetano, written around the middle of the sixth century, Autpert comes into contact with the interpretation of Revelation of the African Tycho, who had lived a generation before St. Augustine. He was not a Catholic; he belonged to the schismatic church of the Donatists, however, he was a great theologian. In his commentary, he saw the mystery of the Church reveal itself, above all in the book of Revelation. Tycho had reached the conviction that the Church was a body with two parts: One part, he says, belongs to Christ, but there is another part of the Church that belongs to the devil. Augustine read this commentary and benefitted from it, but strongly emphasized that the Church is in the hands of Christ, it remains his body, forming with him a single entity, a participant in the mediation of grace. He emphasizes therefore that the Church can never be separated from Jesus Christ.

Mary, Model of the Church

In his reading of Revelation, which is similar to that of Tycho, Autpert is interested not so much in the second coming of Christ at the end of time, but in the consequences for the Church of his first coming, the Incarnation in the womb of the Virgin Mary. It tells us something very important: In reality, Christ, "must daily be born, die, and rise in us who are his body." (In Apoc. III: CCCM 27, p. 205). In the context of the mystical dimension that surrounds every Christian, he looks to Mary as a model of the Church, a model for us all, because also in us and between us Christ must be born. On the basis that the Fathers saw in the "woman clothed with the sun" of Revelation 12:1 the image of the Church, Autpert argues: "The blessed and loving Virgin [...] daily gives birth to new people, from which is formed the General Body of the Mediator. It is not therefore surprising that she, in whose blessed womb the Church itself deserved to be united to his head, represents the image of the Church."

Decisive Role of Mary in the Work of Redemption

In this sense Autpert sees a decisive role of the Virgin Mary in the work of Redemption -- see also his homilies in the occasions of the purification and the assumption of the Blessed Virgin. His great reverence, and his deep love for the Mother of God at times inspired formulations that somehow anticipate those of St. Bernard and the Franciscan spirit, but without diverging toward questionable forms of sentimentalism, because he never separated the mystery of the Church from Mary. With good reason then Ambrose Autpert is considered the first great mariologist in the West.

God Attained Only By Love

The piety that, in his view, must free the soul from attachment to earthly and transient pleasures, he believes should be united with the deep study of the sacred sciences, especially the meditation of Sacred Scripture, which he describes as a "deep sky, an unfathomable abyss" (In Apoc.IX). In the beautiful prayer with which he concludes his remarks on the book of Revelation, emphasizing the priority which in every theological search for truth relies on love, he speaks to God with these words: "When Thou art scrutinized by our intellect, Thou art not discovered as Thou truly art; only by loving Thee do we reach Thee."

The True Face of the Church in Mary and the Saints

We can see today in Ambrose Autpert a person who lived in a time of intense political exploitation of the Church, in which nationalism and tribalism had disfigured the face of the Church. But he, in the midst of all these difficulties that we also experience, was able to discover the true face of the Church in Mary, in the saints. And so he was able to understand what it means to be Catholic, Christian, to live the Word of God, to enter into this abyss, and so live the mystery of the Mother of God: to give new life to the Word of God, to offer to the Word of God one's own body at the present time. And with all his theological experience, the depth of his knowledge, Autpert understood that with mere theological research God can not be known as he really is. Only love can reach him. Let us listen to this message and ask the Lord to help us live the mystery of the Church today, in this our time.


3 Comments

Fr. Mark - this post was really enlightening. I had never heard of Autpert before - but I love that last quote:"When Thou art scrutinized by our intellect, Thou art not discovered as Thou truly art; only by loving Thee do we reach Thee." Simply beautiful... Yes, only by loving Him do we reach Him...
Thank you for taking the time to put posts out here in cyberspace... I appreciate it...

Peace be with you,
~Jenny

Dear Father Mark PEACE!
Love this article and the one on Spiritual Motherhood for priest. This is the article that I was most interested for now. I got your blog on it but I can not find the original letter from Pope Benedict. Can you help me.

Sincerely Kathleen,Obl.SB

I think many of the differences between East and West stem at least partly from the radically different place monastics hold in our churches. To an Orthodox, Latin monastics seem either to be pushed off onto the margins somewhere, or at the forefront of modernist heresy, because monastics have always been the heart and soul of Orthodoxy. We revere them more than we do our hierarchs, and they provide a solid, conservative anchor to which we remain tethered. Our far more stringent abstinence and fasting guidelines, the central role of the liturgies of the hours in our parish worship, that we draw our bishops from monasteries, these are but three things that stem directly from the central role of monastics in Orthodoxy, and this is historically consistent since the first Desert Fathers. When the monastics came up against the church hierarchy in the East, nearly always, the monastics won, and always in the long run, since it has always been monastics who have held the hearts of the faithful.


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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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