A Brief Review of
The Sun at Midnight: Monastic Experience of the Christian Mystery
Reviewed by Danny Wright
In The Sun at Midnight, Bernardo Olivera, a Cistercian monk, examines the history of mysticism as it has been experienced through the Cistercian tradition and posits that mysticism is what we need in order to move forward in our relationships with God and our fellow man. He believes that the West is not only experiencing a change of era, but an era of change, and that every era of change has its moment of religious awakening. Religion is paramount, because it pushes us to discover our ultimate meaning and answers the basic existential questions of life. He encourages the reader to understand that mystery is the most intricate and integral level of reality and that it gives meaning to everything that exists, and that mysticism itself gives birth to religion. The author purports that every baptized believer is a mystic and that we should follow the example of the greatest mystic of all, Jesus of Nazareth. As we experience God and his mystery, we will continually see the need to grow and develop because we will forever be dumbstruck in the presence of an Almighty God that reminds us that everything we know is a mere approximation and that our best descriptions of the mess in this sin-ravaged world are simply gibberish.
*** Other Books related to The Cistercian Tradition
Cistercians desired to taste and understand God. They were to be acquainted with Him and to enjoy Him. They were taught to overcome self-love, experience authentic solitude and find their identity in Christ. Olivera postulates that the important Cistercian mystagogues were not scholastic theologians, but experiential theologians, and that their teachings can be inspirational for us in our present day.
Cistercian monastic wisdom informs us that God tends to reveal Himself in one of seven common variations. The first probable experience that Olivera relays is that God’s grace might reveal itself in the sweetness and kindness of a warm and loving friendship with God. He points out how the Psalmist speaks of tasting that the Lord is good, and writes about when Benedict speaks of the delightful sound of God calling our name. He even includes a discussion of Bernard of Clairvaux’s treatise On Loving God. The author then shares the second experience which he names compunction and describes it as our hearts being punctured and we are either made aware of our real condition before God or we might begin to feel homesick for heaven. A third common experience is that of the desert where a person experiences a purifying simplification that is sometimes revealed in a dry and arid period where prayer is difficult, yet we often understand that things are progressing, as we move from understanding Jesus “according to the flesh” to knowing Him “according to the Spirit.”
The next common encounter that the author mentions is desire and is experienced when the Spirit works to “reorganize, replace, redirect, purify and transform” our ontological desire that will find us wanting to connect as creature with Creator. He even points out that the fluctuation between presence and absence keeps the fire alive in our soul. The next feasible fashion of God’s appearing through mystery is in the context of a spousal relationship. The author reviews Bernard’s understanding of how the Song of Songs is about the transformation of “carnal love” into “spiritual love,” or the movement from “one flesh” to “one spirit.” The section about spousal love is extensive and provides an overview of the prolific body of monastic work on the subject. He closes the section by saying that few experience this gift of grace because people are unwilling to give themselves fully to the One who gave Himself entirely for us. The succeeding revelation of mystery is found in a unity of Spirit, and is commonly based on 1 Corinthians 6:17, where Paul writes that if we are united with the Lord, we are one spirit with Him. In this encounter, we affix our will to the will of God and continue to be restored in His likeness, and the Spirit that unites the Father and Son does the same for us. The final extension of God’s mystical grace is discovered in the concept of alternation, and deals with what Bernard calls the “disconcerting presence of rhythms and absences.” There is an understanding that without this supposition of alternation, there will be no advancement in the school of virtue. The experience of mysticism is played out in the Christian’s life through the process of the paschal rhythm. Like Christ, we must live and die, but we are in the process of being raised to an “ever-greater” life.
Bernardo Olivera’s The Sun at Midnight provides an introduction to the concept of mysticism and acquaints the reader to the oeuvre of many important mystics. It will serve as a reference for the years of journey that lie ahead.