Advent may be simply considered a festival celebrating the historical coming of Christ into the world; or it may serve as a reminder of Christ’s perpetual spiritual coming among us; or it may be seen in the light of Christ’s birth in the heart of the individual; or it may be acknowledged as looking to Christ’s second coming. All these views are valid, all are, in varying degree, relevant to the season of Advent.
One may take a passive position in regard to the Advent message, to accept God’s great gifts, to praise him for his great and loving kindness, to bless his holy name; or one may prepare to welcome the Christ with an inward, more active and reflective devotion, readying one’s interior life for his presence.
In the religious life these are three grades: that of the postulant, that of the novice, and that of the professed. The religious life of the professed is taken here as an example of the realization of a pattern of spiritual discipline, precisely because it can readily be seen in this how the processes of the pattern have their effect within the ‘interior life’, and in what manner those processes find their resolution and fulfillment. So too can this be perceived in the individual life considered outside the ambience of the religious life; but here there will, of course, be subtle and significant variations in the manifestation and effect of the processes. Nonetheless, the main pattern holds good, as presenting viable stages in the general life and evolution of the soul. In some ways, the expression of the processes in context of the religious life is seen to be artificial or presumed: but the significance of our study consists precisely in the close analysis and interior exploration of the inner dynamics of the spiritual self. For every person, exploration of the pattern of the ‘interior life’, of the Imago Dei, is a unique and transforming voyage of discovery; a singular pilgrimage into the inner worlds, to a central ‘locus’ or ‘dimension’ which is the meeting place of the temporal and the eternal, the earthly and the divine.
Here must be introduced the background witness of a work of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, which relates significantly to the stages of the religious life in particular, the spiritual life in general. His famous ‘Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles’ – that great and complex series – contains several attempts to set out various mystical emblems in systematic form. First, the ‘Canticle’ itself is represented as the third of three loaves, of which the former two are the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Book of Proverbs. Ecclesiastes, St. Bernard explains, is suitable bread for those who need discipline in right living, Proverbs for those who need to be able to distinguish “the solidity of truth”; the Canticle is for those who understand something of holy contemplation. A little later, the three stages of the mystical life to which the professed is destined are likened to three kisses: the kiss of Christ’s feet, of his hands, and of his mouth. But then St. Bernard finds another image, that of ointment or oil.
St. Bernard names three ointments: Contrition, Devotion and Holiness. The oil of Contrition, he says, causes pain, but the oil of Devotion ameliorates pain, and the oil of Holiness drives it away. Here, with this image, the three stages of the religious life – of the spiritual life - are meaningfully invoked.
Contrition, the first and fiery ointment, he says, is created by the soul itself. It is composed of all its sins, compounded in “the mortar of conscience”, reduced and formed as one in the crucible of the passionate heart by the fires of remorse. And now, says St. Bernard, the soul can proclaim ‘The heat of my heart is increased, a fire shall burst forth from my meditation’.
St. Bernard identifies his ‘second ointment’ with a quality which he calls Mercy as exercised by God, Devotion as exercised by humanity. The components of the ointment of Contrition are easy to discover, says St. Bernard, but the spices from which the ointment of Devotion is distilled are not to be found in this world. The ointment is drawn from the divine goodness which is poured forth upon us, the outpouring of God’s blessing within the soul.
The third and best of the three ointments, says St. Bernard, is the ointment of Holiness. The first ointment emits an acrid smell, and moves to recollection of sin and remorse; the second ointment calms and moderates, for it is contemplation of the divine goodness; but the third surpasses both. This, the ointment of holiness, is compounded of all needs, afflictions and unhappiness. Its ingredients may seem base, unworthy: nonetheless, the unguent yielded by these things is costlier by far than the most precious of perfumes. For these ingredients are gathered by the soul, to be contemplated in the light of religious aspiration; and being thus blended with the unction of loving kindness, they are made into an ointment in the fire of love.
St. Bernard provides us with a further image regarding this unguent. When the women came to the tomb to anoint Christ, they were unable to pour ointment over his body: for Christ had risen from the dead. The ointment had been prepared for the anointing of his dead body: but it was reserved for his living body, his Mystical Body, to be applied, physically and spiritually, for the benefit of the members thereof. For it is his Mystical Body that Christ wishes us to anoint and care for, in all its parts; and this precious ointment is accordingly destined to be applied for the needs of the whole Church. It is not any benefit of physical unction to which St. Bernard refers, but the spiritual blessing which is symbolized here.
‘O whosoever thou art that art such, so saturated with the dew of mercy, so abounding in the bowels of piety, so making thyself all things to all, so become to thyself as a “broken vessel” in order to be ready always and everywhere to run to the relief and help of others ...... thou assuredly art the possessor of this third and most precious ointment!’
Let us look at the rite of profession, specifically to the stage of the symbolic prostration of the candidate, and the covering of the candidate with a pall, representing the passage from the old life which precedes entry into the New Life in Christ.
In St. Augustine’s concept of the powers of the soul, ‘memory’ does not mean merely the “power to recall things past”, but the entire quality of the soul as a part of nature – of human nature, or of all created nature. This it is which, if it is to be offered to God, must be freed from the hold of the world its nurse and of the flesh its brother, and from the promptings of that Lucifer whose own sin, Augustine tells us, was to follow his own created likeness to God instead of serving the original of that likeness. Therefore, it is chiefly with those ‘vast caverns of memory’ – with all which dwells below the domain of intellectual reason – that the first stage of the process is concerned. Faith is needed, for otherwise the trial is pointless: the rest of the formula is utter denudation, spiritual poverty, death to the world, self-judgment, complete renunciation. In its very depths, where reward and punishment alike are incomprehensible, the soul must shudder away from self and from evil and must hunger for that which is better.
This is a dedicated obedience, a sacrifice of the intellect rather than of any other faculty. It is not a sacrifice of the will, since the obedience itself is voluntary; and since, although one may submit one’s intellect to human authority for God’s sake, the will is only to be sacrificed to God directly. To such obedience the symbol of burial, or covering with the pall, had emphatic reference. Since this docility of intellect is not a kind of suicide, but looks forward to a resurrection, the corresponding virtue is hope; thus this stage of symbolism represents the immersion of the intellect in submission, that thereby the will may manifest its love of God.
Religious profession is, in truth, a second baptism, in which the candidate is mystically buried with Christ. The Benedictine tradition has the custom of representing profession into the religious life under the symbolism of death, burial and resurrection. St. Bernard, writing of religious profession, says, “We are, as it were, baptized a second time, when, through mortifying our members here on earth, we once again put on Christ, being transformed afresh in the likeness of his death”. Since the seventh century, beginning with the writings of Theodore of Tarsus, the rite of profession has been consistently interpreted in terms of baptism, death and resurrection. The late mediaeval Benedictine ritual of Montoliveto has provision for the candidate to be covered with a pall, symbolizing ritual burial. Simple ritual prostration as token of death and burial is, however, probably the more ancient symbolism. But the roots of these practices are old indeed. In Romans 6: 4 we read “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death; that, as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too should walk in newness of life”.
In his apostolic exhortation to religious, Redemptoris Donum, John Paul II develops the specific way in which the religious is more closely conformed to Christ through a “new” bond by uniting the complete oblation of their lives with his Paschal sacrifice: “Religious profession is a new ‘burial in the death of Christ’: new, because it is made with awareness and choice, new, because of love and vocation; new, by reason of unceasing ‘conversion.’ This ‘burial in death’ causes the person ‘buried together with Christ’ to ‘walk like Christ in newness of life.
As the act of prostration in the rite of perpetual profession suggests, the vows effect a certain death in the person. The religious is laying down her life, in order to enter as fully as possible into the Paschal mystery, to arise a new creation in Christ. John Paul II ...... proclaims:
“The depth and power of being rooted in Christ is decided precisely by religious profession. Religious profession creates a new bond between the person and the One and Triune God, in Jesus Christ. This bond develops on the foundation of the original bond that is contained in the sacrament of baptism. Religious profession is “deeply rooted in baptismal consecration and is a fuller expression of it.”
(Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, The Foundations of Religious Life: Revisiting the Vision, Ave Maria Press, quoting John Paul II, Redemptoris Donum, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1984.)
Blessings in Christ,
Leon Roger Hunt
Bishop, Nicene Apostolic Church
(Autocephalous Catholic Church of Antioch)