Cistercian writers have been acutely aware of the presence of the angels since the Order first began to take shape after its foundation in 1098. And this should be no wonder – St Benedict places the role of angels, and their palpable presence at key moments, at the heart of his Holy Rule. A number of notable passages in the Holy Rule remind us that our ancient fathers and mothers were not Sadducees in this sense: they could not, given the evidence of Sacred Scripture, deny the existence of the angelic beings (Acts 23:8).
In the first place, the Rule is clear that the angels are always with us, and perform, amongst other tasks, the one of keeping watch over the monks, and especially while they are at prayer. Given that the monks themselves should always be in a state of watching and keeping vigil, it would seem that the angels also join them in their vocation: those who are already and always in God’s presence accompany men and women in their monastic state as they await the consummation of the kingdom, witnesses to the reign of God already making itself felt in the earthly city and yet yearning for its great completion.
The great model for the life journey and battle of humility versus pride is hung upon that wonderful trancelike vision which Jacob has, of a ladder stretching between heaven and earth and angels going up and down upon it (Genesis 28). Benedict sees in this the perfect image for the monastic’s whole-person call to humility in life:
Accordingly, brothers, if we want to reach the highest summit of humility, if we desire to attain speedily that exaltation in heaven to which we climb by the humility of this present life, then by our ascending action we must set up that ladder which Jacob in a dream saw angels descending and ascending. Without doubt, this descent and ascent can signify only that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility. Now the ladder erected is our life on earth, and if we humble our hearts the Lord will raise it to heaven. We may call our body and soul the sides of this ladder, into which our divine vocation has fitted the various steps of humility and discipline as we ascend. (Rule of St Benedict 7)
And the first step of humility continues to insist on the angelic presence in the life of the monk, watching, noting and even reporting!
While the monk guards himself at every moment from sins and vices of thought or tongue, of hand or foot, of self-will or bodily desire, let him recall that he is always seen by God in heaven, that his actions everywhere are in God’s sight and are reported by angels at every hour … and if every day the angels assigned to us report our deeds to the Lord day and ight, then, brothers, we must be vigilant every hour (Rule of St Benedict 7)
The context is important here. It is certainly not as if, in some way, God were removed or even absent from the monk’s life at some time. On the contrary, the very thrust of the first step of humility is that the monk himself must take up that responsibility of mindfulness of God which leads to fear of God: memoria Dei and timor Dei are technical terms which challenge the forgetfulness which marks the lives of those who keep God at a distance, who forget that God is the one who is always present, and that we, by our carelessness and being prone to distraction are the ones who are not present. In this sense, the fear of God which Benedict sets out as the first step of humility is that state in which we are overwhelmed by the felt presence of God, and that becomes the context for the whole living of our lives. And in this the angels are not the celestial private detectives who spy on the errant monastic, but rather the attentive accompanists of those all too human seekers whose feet are not always placed on the path with care. The angels are turned always towards God, and their sole business is to praise him, whatever function is assigned to them: the monk must be the same, turned always to God, and principally by a life of praise.
St Bernard of Clairvaux knew this well and celebrates it in a purple passage of his preaching. Taking as his point of departure another key recommendation of the Holy Rule – that at Compline (Night Prayer) each night the community should pray, along with psalms 4 and 133, psalm 90 (Rule of St Benedict 18), the Mellifluous Doctor comments on the lines “for you has he commanded his angels to keep you in all your ways”. In this we recall also those angels who, as tradition understands them, have been assigned personally to each one of us, our Guardian Angel, silently walking with us in this life, leading us over the threshold into the next, as Newman’s Gerontius knows:
How this word ought in you to produce respect to promote devotion and to provide confidence! Respect because of the presence of angels, devotion because of their friendliness, and confidence because of tier guardianship. Walk cautiously; his angels are everywhere, as he charged them, in all your ways. In every little nook or cranny, respect your angel. Would you dare to do in his sight what you would not dare in my sight? Perhaps you doubt he is present because you do not see him? What if you heard him? What if you touched him? What if you smelled him? Notice that things are not proved present only by sight. Not even all material things are open to sight. So how much more removed from physical senses are spiritual things, which need to be sought by spiritual senses. Your faith, if you refer to it, proves that the angels are never absent from you. They are present then, and present to you; not only with you, but even for you.
Each time you feel some great temptation pushing you and strong tribulation pressing in, call on your guardian, your guide, him who is your helper in tribulation and opportunity. Call upon him and say, “Save us, Lord, we are perishing.”
I think that men are sometimes borne up by angels as if by two hands, so that almost unconsciously they pass over temptations and dangers which terrify them most. And afterwards they are not a little astonished at how easily they got over what at first seemed so difficult. Do you want to know what I understand these two hands to be? A double indication of the brevity of tribulation here below and the eternal reward later on. Who could not believe that such good thoughts are produced in us by the good angels, when it is certain, on the contrary, that wicked innuendos come from bad angels? Be familiar with the angels, visit with them often by careful meditation and devout prayer, for they are always near to comfort and protect you. (Sermon 12 on Psalm 90, He who dwells)
Of course, given St Bernard’s reputation, even when he was alive, for holiness and for a certain awareness of and perception of the divine present even in this passing world, a fund of stories surround him. No doubt, as with most storied memories, they have more than a toe in reality, but, as with all good stories, they are burnished by both tongue and ear in the telling. Towards the end of the twelfth century, about a century after the founding of the Cistercian Order, a Cistercian monk, Conrad of Eberbach, undertook to gather stories and handed on memories concerning the early decades of our Order’s history, and brought them together into his Exordium magnum cisterciense: The Great Beginnings of Cîteaux. Two such tales concern visions which St Bernard is said to have had during the singing of the Divine Office, the Work of God, in the choir in Clairvaux:
The holy father (St Bernard) was once attending Vigils (the night office) with his accustomed purity and devotion, which was known only by God and himself. While the slow modulation of the psalmody was prolonging Vigils, the Lord Abbot opened his eyes and, looking round, saw an angel standing beside each monk, diligently recording on pieces of parchment, like a notary, what was each monk eas chanting, omitting not the slightest syllable uttered in negligence. But they were writing in different ways. Some were writing in gold, others in silver, several in black, and some in water, and a few did not write anything at all.
The Spirit who was revealing this inspired him to understand in his heart the different kinds of writing. Those who wrote in gold signified the very fervent zeal of those monks for the Lord’s service and the complete attention of their hearts to what they were chanting. Those who wrote in silver registered less fervour but stilla pure devotion in chanting the psalms. Those who wrote in black noted down an ongoing good will in psalmody but not much devotion. But those who wrote in water designated those who were oppressed by sleep or laziness, distracted by idle thoughts, or made the sounds but whose hearts were far away and not in harmony with their voices…. When St Bernard saw this the fervour of the proficient ones gladdened him, but his fatherly affection grieved at the deficiencies of the tepid. (Great Beginnings II.3)
Obviously, this story, wonderful in its conception, is a commentary on the application of monks to the Work of God, the singular task of the monk, but serves as well to provide a glimpse at the wide variety of monastics who gathered in the choir. Even though they participate to varying pleasing or poor degrees, there is a place for each of them, and Bernard had the care of all of them. And the angels here? – echoing the verse of the psalm we are reminded that the earthly choir strives to form one harmonious voice (and harmonious probably in the broadest possible sense, given the broadest range of voices!) with the heavenly hosts: in the presence of the angels I will bless you (Psalm 137, quoted by St Benedict in the chapter 19 of the Rule). Indeed, the writers of these stories are at pains always to reflect on Benedict’s teaching in that key chapter of the Rule, chapter 19:
We must always remember what the Prophet says: Serve the Lord with fear (Ps 2), and again, Sing praise wisely (Ps 46 – a wonderful phrase in Latin – Psallite sapienter – and a lesson in itself about our approach to prayer); and, In the presence of the angels I will sing to you (Ps 137). Let us consider, then, how we ought to behave in the presence of God and his angels, and let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are harmony with our voices (RB 19)
Following directly from this story of the angelic notaries, Conrad goes on to illustrate a particular vision centred on the monastic choir at Clairvaux singing the great hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum Laudamus (We praise you, O Lord). This hymn, used at Vigils on feast days and solemnities, moves the choir, for Conrad, to a very special engagement with the Work of God, and sees the angels barely able to contain their own joy:
Solemn Vigils were once being celebrated and St Bernard was present with the brothers. While they were singing the hymn “We praise you, O Lord” (Te Deum laudamus), he saw holy angels radiating great brightness, their faces aglow with attentiveness, passing now here, now there, through each choir (the monastic community was divided into two choirs, arranged facing each other, one on the abbot’s side, the other on the prior’s side of the monastic church), urging the singers on, joining with them, and standing back as if applauding, so that they sang that divine hymn all the way through with devotion and succeeded in accomplishing it in all its modes. The holy man learned from this that the hymn was indeed divine and well known to the holy angels, who seemed to give great attention to the task of having the brothers singto the honour of God with fervent devotion. One of the spiritual brothers was even allowed to see a flame of great radiance burst from the lips of the cantor and rise up on high as the hymn was being intoned. (Great Beginnings II.4)
No pressure on us contemporary cantors there! But the points pile up in this little anecdote. The concentration is immediately brought to bear on the fact that this is the principal work of the monk, to sing the praises of God. This is why such separation from the world, or rather, flight to God, is afforded by the monastic setting, to provide as full an opportunity as possible for the monastic to claim and live his vocation. And there is here a little commentary on that phrase “Work of God” – the angels and monks join together in the work which is assigned to them, leaving everything else in its proper place for its sake: that God may be glorified. And perhaps the phrase also works from a subjective point of view: God’s work is best witnessed when his creation joins in his joy, and his creative generosity never stops while we take part in it by our witness to his presence in our praise. That the cloister is already a taste of heaven on earth, as is sometimes said, is given some witness here also: there is no doubt that the writer wishes us to see a communion in the Church which embraces both heaven and earth, the sharing of a common prayer and way of praying between men and angels which reveals the hidden communion which makes us out of many, one. The presence of the angels in all of these ways is neither fanciful nor naive, but deeply ecclesial and a witness to man’s desire for heaven. Their communion, their unity amongst themselves, is what the monastic community, and indeed perhaps at best the human community, begin to imitate here. And ultimately it’s not the life of angels that we desire, but the life of God and being joined in that Trintarian life which is the communion above every communion, the life which gives life and without which life is not:
The angels have chastity and it is surely that which reigns in this holy community. The angels have charity which can without doubt be found in this holy fellowship. They have perfect humility by which they humble themselves beneath the hand of God. They have obedience by which they carry out his commands and bring his messages to us. They have such unity and concord among themselves that, although some are inferior and others are superior, nonetheless through their unity and concord whatever belongs to each is the common property of all and whatever belongs to all the property of each. All this is found in this fellowship. (Aelred of Rievaulx, Sermon for All Saints)