What Michael Casey wrote about the self-experiences of dulcedo or “sweetness” as a complement to the tough lives of 12th-century monks of Citeaux is translatable for us today who are inebriated with work, information, and unloving cultures. As Casey’s colleague Thomas Merton wrote, many of us are forced to “not hear the soft voice, the gentle voice, the voice of the mother,” even though “She speaks in everything”. Fortunately, there exist experiential places which access a wiser wholeness that can sober us up and dry us out.
In his book Strangers to the City, Casey highlights values that give prominence to the Christian experience of what Jean Leclercq called a “feminine” spirituality. In gatherings of human beings where the whole Christ is integrally manifested, therapy and grace exist for our fatigued lives. This space for reflection at Christmas in L’Osservatore Romano thus providentially yields to these all too brief excerpts of Cistercian Michael Casey’s persuasive guidance.
“In the monasteries, personal love for Jesus was supplemented by a devotion to four feminine realities, made accessible by the gender of the Latin words: Anima, Sapientia, Ecclesia, Maria. The monk’s devotion to an interior life was governed by principles complementary to his masculine exterior life. The life of the soul was seen as running along a complementary track to the life of the body, understood as the search for Lady Wisdom or Sophia; devotion to Christ’s bride, the Church, care of one’s soul, and a deep personal attachment to Mary, not only as mother of the historical Jesus, but also as a mother, advocate, and patron of one’s own spirituality [as expressed in the Salve Regina].
“The Cistercian life of the 12th century was uncompromising in its demand for single-mindedness, expressed exteriorly by a rigorous life that was the opposite of self-indulgence, and internally by an equally exigent pursuit of un-blinking self-knowledge. Yet, at the level of personal experience, there is only tenderness, gentleness, and an overriding confidence in the all-accepting mercy of God […].
“The word that epitomizes this experience-oriented spirituality is dulcedo, sweetness. It is unfortunate that the term has become debased through the flowery excesses of pietism. Monastic [and Christian] life presuppose all sorts of external observances and deprivations, but these are secondary. What drives them is an untrammeled interior affectivity that has its focus on the person of Christ but is necessarily both unconditional and unrestricted in those to whom [the person of Christ] reaches out. This is not a grim life in which the monk labours at breaking egotism as a convict might break rocks. It is more a matter of allowing oneself to fall under the sway of the attractiveness of God so that lesser realities lose their charm. At these moments when we let go of alternative satisfactions, God’s presence activates the deepest zone of selfhood; something within us flares into life with an unpredictable intensity so that we experience ourselves as drawn to God, lost in God, one with God, divinized. We have tasted and seen for ourselves that the Lord is sweet.”
Amen! May Christ be born in us every day. May his cross and resurrection sweeten the bitter waters in which we swim (Gregory of Nyssa). Merry Christmas and a taste of Holy Wisdom’s dulcedo to all!
Cf. Strangers to the City: Reflections on the Beliefs and Values of the Rule of St. Benedict (pp. 145-146).
By Jonathan Montaldo