With an audience of Christian, Muslim and secular thinkers gathered at the College des Bernadines on Friday evening, Pope Benedict XVI shed light upon the foundations of Europe’s culture—the "search for God and the readiness to listen to him."
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the subsequent barbarian invasions of Europe, Western culture was in danger of disappearing as the barbarian pillaging wiped away the last semblances of order created by the Romans.
In the midst of this chaos European culture came into existence, and it is with this context in mind that Pope Benedict spoke the following words to the assembled scholars: "I would like to speak with you this evening of the origins of western theology and the roots of European culture."
Noting that the hall in which he was delivering today’s address was "built by the spiritual sons of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux," the Holy Father said that the hall is "in a certain way emblematic" because it was the monks who preserved Western culture during the time of upheaval.
Yet, it must be admitted that monasteries being the "places where the treasures of ancient culture survived" was not the intention of the monks, the Pope explained. "Amid the confusion of the times, in which nothing seemed permanent, they wanted to do the essential - to make an effort to find what was perennially valid and lasting, life itself. They were searching for God."
This search for God, for things eternal, did not take them away from the present world, but led them to search along the path provided by Him, "because they were Christians, this was not an expedition into a trackless wilderness, a search leading them into total darkness. God himself had provided signposts, indeed he had marked out a path which was theirs to find and to follow. This path was his word, which had been disclosed to men in the books of the sacred Scriptures," the Pope said.
A Culture of the word
"Thus," Benedict observed, "by inner necessity, the search for God demands a culture of the word or - as Jean Leclercq put it: eschatology and grammar are intimately connected with one another in Western monasticism. The longing for God, the désir de Dieu, includes amour des lettres, love of the word, exploration of all its dimensions."
To come to know the thing that lasts, that is, the Word himself, the monks understood that they must delve into all of the dimensions of the Scriptures, and this type of formation, which includes "the formation of reason – education," teaches man to perceive, Christ "in the midst of words."
This meeting with truth is also not just an individual encounter, but is also communal, Pope Benedict stressed. He pointed out that, "The word does not lead to a purely individual path of mystical immersion, but to the pilgrim fellowship of faith. And so this word must not only be pondered, but also correctly read. As in the rabbinic schools, so too with the monks, reading by the individual is at the same time a corporate activity."
The corporate nature of the interaction with the Word was also expressed in song, with the monks being united to their community and with the larger heavenly host of angels in worship of God.
The culture of the word, which developed deep within Western monasticism from the search for God, and understands the world as being the continual result of the historical action of God in time, also finds expression in the way the Scriptures are understood.
After examining the ways to find the Word within the word at a deeper level, the Holy Father spoke of the tension between freedom and obligation, a tug-of-war that Europe is witnessing today.
"It presents itself anew as a task for our generation too, vis-á-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. Absence of obligation and arbitrariness do not signify freedom, but its destruction," the Pontiff warned.
The search for God that the monks embarked on also involved "labora" or work. They viewed human work and the shaping of history as "sharing in the work of the Creator." This worldview is essential, Benedict insisted, because "Where such evaluation is lacking, where man arrogates to himself the status of god-like creator, his shaping of the world can quickly turn into destruction of the world."
With the society collapsing, the monks sought God, but they did not think that they were forcing their worldview on people. Rather, they saw their faith as the truth about creation, "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."
Turning to the present-day situation of Europe, Pope Benedict XVI said that although it "differs in many respects from the one that Paul encountered in Athens," "the two situations also have much in common. Our cities are no longer filled with altars and with images of multiple deities. 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."
"Quaerere Deum - to seek God and to let oneself be found by him, that is today no less necessary than in former times," he asserted.
"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," the Holy Father cautioned.
Pope Benedict concluded his address by re-emphasizing that "What gave Europe's culture its foundation - the search for God and the readiness to listen to him - remains today the basis of any genuine culture."