SEEKING GOD IN THE ROOTS OF EUROPEAN CULTURE
VATICAN CITY, 12 SEP 2008 (VIS) - In the College des Bernardins in Paris at 5.30 p.m. today, Benedict XVI was welcomed by representatives from the world of French culture.
The College des Bernardins was founded in 1247 by Etienne de Lexington, the Cistercian abbot of Claraval, as a centre of theological formation for Cistercian monks. Confiscated during the French Revolution, the building was sold and over the following centuries used for various purposes, until being acquired by the archdiocese of Paris. Following five years of restoration, this fine example of mediaeval architecture opened to the public on 4 September. It is used to host artistic events, conferences and meetings.
The Pope's address focused on the origins of western theology and the roots of European culture. "Amid the great cultural upheaval resulting from migrations of peoples and the emerging new political configurations, the monasteries were the places where the treasures of ancient culture survived, and where at the same time a new culture slowly took shape out of the old", he explained.
Yet the monks' intention was not "to create a culture, or even to preserve a culture from the past. Their motivation was much more basic: ... 'Quaerere Deum' (seeking God). Amid the confusion of the times, in which nothing seemed permanent, they wanted to do the essential, ... they were seeking the definitive behind the provisional".
To this end they followed the "signposts" with which God marked the path. "This path was His word, which had been disclosed to men in the books of the Sacred Scriptures. Thus, by inner necessity, the search for God demands a culture of the word, ... eschatology and grammar are intimately connected with one another in Western monasticism. ... Thus it is through the search for God that the secular sciences take on their importance, sciences which show us the path towards language".
The libraries and schools of the monasteries "pointed out pathways to the word", said the Holy Father, noting how "the word - which opens the path of that search, and is to be identified with this path - is a shared word. ... The word does not lead to a purely individual path of mystical immersion, but to the pilgrim fellowship of faith".
"As in the rabbinic schools, so too with the monks, reading by the individual is at the same time a corporate activity. ... We ourselves are brought into conversation with God by the word of God. ... Particularly in the Book of Psalms, He gives us the words with which we can address Him, with which we can bring our life, with all its highpoints and lowpoints, into conversation with Him, so that life itself thereby becomes a movement towards Him".
Going on to consider the importance of song in monastic life, Benedict XVI noted how St. Bernard of Clairvaux, "describes the confusion resulting from a poorly executed chant as a falling into the 'zone of dissimilarity'". This term was used by St. Augustine "to designate his condition prior to conversion: man, who is created in God's likeness, falls in his godforsakenness into the 'zone of dissimilarity', into a remoteness from God, in which he no longer reflects Him, and so has become dissimilar not only to God, but to himself, to what being human truly is".
For St. Bernard "the culture of singing is also the culture of being, and the monks have to pray and sing in a manner commensurate with the grandeur of the word handed down to them, with its claim on true beauty".
"In order to understand to some degree the culture of the word, which developed deep within Western monasticism from the search for God, we need to touch at least briefly on ... 'the Scriptures', which, when taken together, are naturally regarded as the one word of God to us. But the use of this plural makes it quite clear that God's word only comes to us here through ... human words, that God only speaks to us through the mediation of human agents, their words and their history".
"Scripture", the Pope explained, "requires exegesis, and it requires the context of the community in which it came to birth and in which it is lived. This is where its unity is to be found, and here too its unifying meaning is opened up. ... It perceives in the words the Word, the 'Logos' itself, which spreads its mystery through this multiplicity. This particular structure of the Bible issues a constantly new challenge to every generation. It excludes by its nature everything that today is known as fundamentalism.
"In effect", he added, "the word of God can never simply be equated with the letter of the text. To attain to it involves a transcending and a process of understanding, led by the inner movement of the whole and hence it also has to become a process of living. Only within the dynamic unity of the whole are the many books one book.
God's word and action in the world are only revealed in the word and history of human beings".
"The transcending of the letter and understanding it solely from the perspective of the whole" is, said the Pope, forcefully expressed by St. Paul with the phrase: "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life". But "the liberating Spirit is not simply... the exegete's own vision. The Spirit is Christ ... Who shows us the way. With the word of Spirit and of freedom, a further horizon opens up, but at the same time a clear limit is placed upon arbitrariness and subjectivity, which unequivocally binds both the individual and the community and brings about a new, higher obligation than that of the letter: namely, the obligation of insight and love".
The Holy Father continued: "This tension between obligation and freedom, which extends far beyond the literary problem of scriptural exegesis, has ... deeply marked Western culture. It presents itself anew as a task for our generation too, vis-a-vis the poles of subjective arbitrariness and fundamentalist fanaticism. It would be a disaster if today's European culture could only conceive freedom as absence of obligation, which would inevitably play into the hands of fanaticism and arbitrariness".
Pope Benedict then went on to highlight how the "ora" of monastic life is accompanied by "labora", and how "the Christian God ... is also the Creator. God is working; He continues working in and on human history. In Christ, He enters personally into the laborious work of history. ... God is working" and "man can and may share in God's activity as creator of the world. Monasticism involves not only a culture of the word, but also a culture of work, without which the emergence of Europe, its ethos and its influence on the world would be unthinkable".
Returning to the idea he had expressed at the beginning of his talk, Benedict XVI reiterated that "by becoming a monk, a man set out on a broad and noble path, but he had already found the direction he needed: the word of the Bible, in which he heard God Himself speaking". Yet "if a way is to be opened up into the heart of the biblical word as God's word, this word must first of all be proclaimed outwardly".
"Christians of the nascent Church did not regard their missionary proclamation as propaganda, designed to enlarge their particular group, but as an inner necessity, consequent upon the nature of their faith. ... The universality of God, and of reason open towards Him, is what gave them the motivation - indeed, the obligation - to proclaim the message. They saw their faith as belonging, not to cultural custom that differs from one people to another, but to the domain of truth, which concerns all people equally.
"The fundamental structure of Christian proclamation 'outwards' - towards searching and questioning mankind - is seen in St. Paul's address at the Areopagus" when he proclaims "Him Whom men do not know and yet do know - the unknown-known; the One they are seeking, Whom ultimately they know already, and Who yet remains the unknown and unrecognisable. The deepest layer of human thinking and feeling somehow knows that He must exist, that at the beginning of all things, there must be not irrationality, but creative Reason, not blind chance, but freedom".
The Pope went on: "Yet even though all men somehow know this, ... this knowledge remains unreal: a God Who is merely imagined and invented is not God at all. If He does not reveal himself, we cannot gain access to Him. ... The novelty of Christian proclamation consists in one fact: He has revealed Himself. Yet this is no blind fact, but one that is itself 'Logos' - the presence in our flesh of eternal reason".
Today too "God has truly become for many the great unknown. But just as in the past, when behind the many images of God the question concerning the unknown God was hidden and present, so too the present absence of God is silently besieged by the question concerning Him".
"To seek God and to let oneself be found by Him, that is today no less necessary than in former times. A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences. What gave Europe's culture its foundation", the Holy Father concluded, "remains today the basis of any genuine culture".