23 November 2009

Austere at First - Heavenly in its End

Dom Guigo, the fifth prior of La Grande Chartreuse, had written a letter somewhere around the year 1135 to his friend whose name is unknown. Below is an excerpt of that letter which offers advice in the spiritual life. It is a letter that can almost be read as if written to you personally. While it may be nearly impossible to embrace fully Guigo’s suggestions since most of us do not live in a hermitage, one can certainly adapt these Christ-like ways according to one’s state in life. The picture shown here is a manuscript of Guigo’s letter which is kept at La Bibliothèque Municipale de Grenoble.

One man will think another happy. I esteem him happy above all who does not have the ambitious quest to be lifted up with great honors in a palace, but who chooses to be humble, to live like a poor man in a hermitage; who with thoughtful application loves to meditate quietly in peace; who longs to sit alone in silence.

Indeed, to shine with honors, to be lifted up in dignity is in my judgment a way of little peace, exposed to perils, subject to concerns, hazardous to many, unsafe for anyone. Happy in the beginning, perplexed in its development, sad in its end; flattering to the unworthy, disgraceful to the good, generally deceptive to both. While it makes many wretched, it gives satisfaction to no one, makes many unhappy.

Conversely, the poor and lonely life, austere at first, easy in its progress, becomes, in its end, heavenly. It is constant in adversity, confident in uncertainties, modest in good fortune, simple in dress, reserved in speech, pure in manners – worthy of the greatest desires without ambition. Often wounded with sorrow at the thought of past sins, avoids sin in the present, is wary of future evil. Rests on the hope of mercy, not relying on its own merit, it longs for heaven, disdains things of earth, earnestly strives for virtue, which it retains in perseverance and holds firmly for ever. It is devoted to fasting by determined fidelity to the Cross, yet consents to eat for the body’s necessities. In both it regulates with perfect measure by controlling greed when it needs food and pride when it fasts. It is devoted to reading, but mostly in the Scripture canon and in holy books where it is more intent upon the inner marrow of meaning than on the froth of words. But you may praise or wonder more at this: that such a life is continually idle yet never lazy. For it finds many things to do, so that time is more often lacking to it than this or that occupation. It more often laments that its time has slipped away than that its business is tedious.

What else? A fine subject, to advise tranquility, but such an exhortation seeks out a mind that is its own master, concerned with its own good, disdaining to be meddling in the affairs of others, or of society; who so fights as a soldier of Christ in peace as to refuse double service as a soldier of God and of the world; who knows for certain it cannot here be glad with this world and then in the next reign with God.

Small sacrifices are these, and their like, if you recall what drink He took at the gibbet, Who calls you to His Throne. Like it or not, you need to follow the example of Christ poor if you want to share with Christ in His riches. If we suffer with Him, says the Apostle, we shall reign with Him. If we die with Him, then we shall live together with Him. The Mediator Himself replied to the two disciples who asked Him if one of them might sit at His right Hand and the other at His left: “Can you drink the chalice which I am about to drink?” Here He showed us that it is by cups of earthly bitterness that we come to the banquet of the Patriarchs and to the nectar of heavenly celebrations.