Reflections on Abbot Anderson’s “Paradise Lost”

Learn from his fatherly wisdom

Abbot Anderson was invited to speak to the Pope John Paul II Forum about the spiritual teaching of both St. Benedict and Pope John Paul II. I was struck to see how an affinity between them is to be found at the very root of the spiritual life —  Obedience and disobedience of the Father’s command. Abbot Anderson spoke about the realism of St. Benedict, but we could also speak about the concreteness of St. Benedict as well as the appropriate naming of the particular issue we face. There certainly are various psychological theories about human wrong doing; there are conflicting philosophical accounts of human action; theologians also have their various definitions of sin. St. Benedict orients us to what is most fundamental — disobedience. It was then and it is now the nature of sin. The fundamental story we need to know is that of Adam and Christ, the new Adam. We are rebels, and so began the history of fallen man, or as Augustine calls it, “the city of man.” Now some rebels throughout history have been in the right; but not in the case of Adam and his progeny. We see the snake of envy and the poison of sin his rebels put in the chalice of Benedict.

Dom Delatte, in his Commentary on the Rule, cited by Abbot Anderson for another matter, had this to say about the theme of obedience in the Rule’s Prologue: “man has only one way in which to separate himself from God, and that is the way of the old Adam, disobedience.” (p. 3) And there is one way to return, the new Adam, the obedience of Christ. He goes on to explain that the age old struggle for obedience is a “drama that fills all time and all space,” from the beginning to the end. “All intelligent beings are ranged in two camps, those who obey and those who obey not; and the struggle of the two forces knows no truce. Each has its king, and he who claims to withdraw himself from obedience passes by this very fact under the domination of the other King.” (p. 5) In other words, when we pray “thy kingdom come,” do we continue to clutch the rebel’s flag behind our backs?

St. Benedict’s “school for service” uses the weapon of obedience. But this obedience is due to a “loving father” (pius pater). The highest form of fatherhood is that which “transmits doctrine and enlightenment,” and whose ideal and source is in God the “Father of Light” (Jas. 1.7) Dom Delatte points out that the paternal tone of the first words of the prologue are “attractive and reassuring.”

At this very point of returning to the father, of inclining the ear of the heart to the father, the evil one sows confusion. Here is where Pope John Paul II finds the challenge of coming to faith in the modern world. The hermeneutics of suspicion has already sown the seeds of a great lie in modern philosophy. The Pope wrote:

One might think that Hegel’s paradigm of the master and the servant is more present in people’s consciousness today than is wisdom, whose origin lies in the filial fear of God. The philosophy of arrogance is born of the Hegelian paradigm. The only force capable of effectively counteracting this philosophy is found in the Gospel of Christ, in which the paradigm of master-slave is radically transformed into the paradigm of father-son. 

The father-son paradigm is ageless. It is older than human history. The “rays of fatherhood” contained in this formulation belong to the Trinitarian Mystery of God Himself, which shines forth from Him, illuminating man and his history. This notwithstanding, as we know from Revelation, in human history the “rays of fatherhood” meet a first resistance in the obscure but real fact of original sin. This is truly the key for interpreting reality. Original sin is not only the violation of a positive command of God but also, and above all, a violation of the will of God as expressed in that command. Original sin attempts, then, to abolish fatherhood, destroying its rays which permeate the created world, placing in doubt the truth about God who is Love and leaving man only with a sense of the master-slave relationship. As a result, the Lord appears jealous of His power over the world and over man; and consequently, man feels goaded to do battle against God. No differently than in any epoch of history, the enslaved man is driven to take sides against the master who kept him enslaved. Last chapter of Crossing the Threshold of Hope

  Abbot Anderson mentioned at the end of the first talk why “Divine Mercy” is so crucial and how hard it is for modern man to believe that God will forgive his sin. As John Paul II explains we are doubly separated from God through modern philosophy. The lie of “God as tyrant” is spread over the original disobedience. We stand as rebels and yet we fear and believe we cannot return to honor before the true King.

The Abbot, learning from the wisdom of St. Benedict,  found a key to the thought of Pope John Paul II  in section one of Veritatis splendor; it would be easy to miss it because the encyclical is so long and involved, and such a brilliant account of morality. Pope John Paul II begins at the proper beginning, as did St. Benedict: “This obedience is not always easy. As a result of that mysterious original sin, committed at the prompting of Satan, the one who is ‘a liar and the father of lies’ (Jn 8:44), man is constantly tempted to turn his gaze away from the living and true God . . . Man’s capacity to know the truth is also darkened, and his will to submit to it is weakened. Thus, giving himself over to relativism and scepticism (cf. Jn 18:38), he goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself.”  §1 Much of Veritatis splendor (Splendor of Truth) is an elaboration of this fundamental recognition of the “drama that fills all space and time,” disobedience versus obedience.

“The Church venerates him [St Benedict] as the patriarch of the monks of the West; and God has so disposed the course of history that every religious Order is in some way indebted to him and has learned from his fatherly wisdom.” (Dom Delatte, Commentary p. 1) And perhaps Popes as well have learned from his fatherly wisdom.

The Abbot’s first talk should make our Lenten task very clear — shake off the torpor of the great lie, put aside the disobedience of Adam and flee to the mercy of the Father. Abba..

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