Listen in on an Actual 12th Century conversation Between Two Monks!

(Paraphrased and abbreviated from "The Mirror of Charity" Book II, Chapter 17 by Aelred of Rievaulx)

Aelred, one of the great wisdom figures of our Cistercian Tradition is having a very frank conversation with a young man, ("novice"), who just entered the monastery. Most people think Aelred had a real knack for dealing with newcomers. This fascinating exchange, which sounds to us surprisingly contemporary, actually took place over nine hundred years ago! You are invited to listen in.

Novice: Thanks for seeing me today Father. There is something I want to ask you about; something that seems to me — kind of strange. You see, before I joined the monastery; when I was still living a very secular way of life, I made some bad choices and — well, at the time, I felt bad about that. I knew I had sinned and I felt awful. I actually cried — I'm serious. But, after I admitted my sin . . . wow, I felt such a strong, sweet love for God welling up inside me! I mean, it was intoxicating! Each time I confessed my sins, I felt so peaceful and happy, I mean — like I was drunk with God. At those moments — I felt so in love with God. Now, I'm a monk living in a monastery and — I don't say I rarely have that sweet feeling . . . I don't experience it at all! Isn't that strange?

Aelred: I wonder — would you say the way you lived before was holier or more acceptable to God?

Novice: Oh — no way. believe me, if I had done outside even a tiny portion of what I do in the monastery, my friends all would have thought I was a saint!

Aelred: Let me ask you — before you came to the monastery did you ever experience what the bible says that: "it is through tribulations that we enter the kingdom of God."

Novice: Hm. No — I can't say I remember an experience like that. What I remember is that, fairly often, I had the feeling that I really loved Christ in a more intense way.

Aelred: Would you say you were suffering for Christ as much in those days as you are now?

Novice: Ha — heck no. Out there, I wouldn't put up for one minute with what I put up with in the monastery all the time! I definitely would not have imposed silence on myself or held back from shooting the bull and gossiping with my friends. Actually, after I cried, those moments I told you about, I'd go right back to cutting up with my friends and laughing and telling stories about people. I was free to do what I wanted so — I went to parties; I drank and I caught up with my sleep in the morning.

Aelred: And now — what is your life like now?

Novice: Oh brother. Well — the food is pretty sparse. The clothes are plain. I drink water . . . some orange juice; catch up with my sleep over a book. The bed isn't all that comfortable, and when I'd like to sleep in, I've got a clanging bell in my ear. A whole work period can go by and I don't speak a word to anyone. In the monastery, there's no room for self-will or being lazy. Having said this . . . I guess I should mention one or two things that I really like . . . The monks are kind and respectful toward each other. It's peaceful here and you feel free of the pressures and crazy pace of the world outside. The brothers share everything in common and you don't see partiality or favoritism. And it's amazing really, the way everyone defers to and cooperates with the abbot. Actually, everything you read in the bible you can see the brothers doing in the monastery.

Aelred: Since you're quite new to the life, I won't accuse you of boasting . . . you might be a little idealistic. Keep in mind that any religious community includes people who fail or fall short of their religious profession. But, let me ask you — if you could, would you give up the hard monastic practices you just described if you could get back the sweet feelings and tears you used to have?

Novice: No — no, I wouldn't want to do that.

Aelred: Why not?

Novice: Hm. Well, for one thing, when I used to cry and experience those sweet feelings for God, it didn't actually give me back a quiet conscience. But monastic life does that for me. I have real peace of conscience here and . . . something else — you know, I don't fear death the way I used to. Hm. That's odd. I guess, now, I'm wondering why I actually loved God more outside the monastery, when I had less peace.

Aelred: Do this little thought experiment with me. You are the owner of a large estate and two men work for you. One guy not only does everything you ask him to do and promptly, but he actually does extra things for you without being asked. The other guy repeatedly disobeys you and would never put up with the slightest unpleasantness for your sake. Both of these guys say "I'm devoted to you". Which one do you believe?

Novice: Obviously, I believe the first one. The second one should be fired.

Aelred: Good — well, in light of that, tell me now which of these two states of life of yours you judge to be best.

Novice: Help me to see what you're getting at here.

Aelred: Listen — here's the point. If you find, as a novice, that you remember pleasant feelings you experienced when you life was selfish and undisciplined — break with them. Put that all behind you. Don't be mislead by feelings alone — be thoughtful and reflective about what is truly good and truly a source of happiness and with this in mind, tell me now whether you would rather live in that former way than the way you are living now.

Novice: O.k. The truth is, I have to admit that, if I chose that former way of life — it wouldn't be for Christ or for a desire to be a better person, but only to avoid hardship and suffering — or out of craving for more pleasure.

Aelred: So — you definitely do not wish to return to that way of life.

Novice: No — I don't.

Aelred: That's interesting because — well . . . you seem to insist that when you lived that former life you loved God more!

Novice: Ha. I don't know what to say. My back is against the wall! That I loved God more out there I can't doubt. It is what I experienced! And yet when you say someone who serves God more fervently loves God more — I can't deny that. Obviously, a person whose behavior is more in line with the scriptures is the better person. I'm at a loss. Father — it's a bit painful. I mean, are you asking me to believe that those powerful experiences; the overwhelming feelings I had — that they meant nothing?

Aelred: Absolutely not. Those feelings were a gift from God, and look, they've been enormously fruitful in your life! They will continue to be — so long as you understand the meaning of these feelings. Here's the point, brother, you must understand that you cannot measure love for God by a fleeting feeling. Let me give you an example. You go to see a play performed in a theater. The play features a woman; a beautiful woman, whose character awakens in you a deep sympathy and intense feelings. Now, watching the play, you are, at moments so moved by the feelings awakened in you by this actress that you begin to cry. Would it not be ridiculous on the basis of these tears to infer some quality of love in you for that woman? Are you going to say you "love" the character in this play; a woman for whom you wouldn't suffer the slightest inconvenience after the show is finished? Now, think of yourself before God. What if, by God's design, a young man who is indulging himself in all sorts of gratuitous pleasures is, periodically, stung by regret because of a felt attachment to God, and then immediately goes back to his partying and gossip and lying, having shed those sterile and fruitless tears? What do those tears and sweet feelings mean? Is it not a bit crazy to conclude, because of these tears and sweet feelings that he loves God more than someone who devotes himself entirely to doing God's will and even suffers for his zeal in serving God?

Novice: Yeah. You're right. O.k. — I get your point. Father, the truth is — I'm a little embarrassed. You're giving me a glimpse of myself that is hard to look at. It was a little stupid of me to think that, because I hear some Gregorian chant or listen to a powerful sermon and am able to squeeze a tear or two out of myself, I then immediately commend myself for my devotion to God. I guess it shows that I am still pretty caught up in myself when I make such a big deal of those sweet feelings.

Aelred: You're an honest young man, and so very dear to the Lord! Take heart, son, and be thankful for the insight the Lord has given you, and for the life he has called to you. You are headed for great things. After all, it is better to say to God: "Have mercy on me Lord — I am weak." than to say: "I am wealthy!" when, in fact, you are poor and naked!

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John of Ford, from "On the Song of Songs"

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, from "On Loving God"

William of St. Thierry, from "The Golden Epistle"

William of St. Thierry, from "The Golden Epistle"