I have been feeling more strongly drawn back to the Hermitage in Big Sur, where I originally made monastic vows. I have continued with the Order, by God’s grace, and on June 19, 2014, I celebrated there, together with fellow novice Brother Gabriel Kirby, fifty years of life under the vows as a Camaldolese monk. Of course, as I said elsewhere, I spent many years in Italy, at our mother-house of Camaldoli in the Tuscan Apennines, and from there traveled many times to India. So grateful for all this! I have no words.
While at the Hermitage this summer, ten days after the anniversary of vows, I gave the following talk: it was the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, but the gospel reading was the same as that which we heard last Sunday (August 31).
In classical ethics — think of Plato and Aristotle — virtue is like Goldilock’s porridge: neither too hot nor too cold, but just right. The Latin maxim is Virtus stat in medio — “Virtue’s place is in the middle,” that is, between the extremes of excess and defect. Christianity is ambivalent about this. Most early and medieval writers acknowledge Plato’s maxim, but they also teach us that there is a whole series of virtues that do not stand in the middle. These are virtues that have an infinite potentiality, because they point us toward an ultimate end that is itself extreme, like God. If you are as old as I am, you must remember a novelty song of the 1940s based on an African-American preacher’s sermon: “You’ve got to ACcentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, but don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”
There is also the way of “both-and,” which is another kind of middle way that deals with ideas and opinions. “There are two sides to every question,” of course: we know that, but maybe we would know more if we tried to think outside the box defined by the two sides. The wisdom of India does not speak of two sides, like Western philosophy; India prefers a triad, like three colors or three flavors that imply a fourth transcending the three. Reading Plato and Aristotle, together with the gospel, can help us make sense of the moral teaching of Jesus, but it can also lead to the loss of the transcendent flavor or color in him, whom Paul and Peter preached and lived.
The liturgy of Peter and Paul celebrates the Roman Church, the people of God in Rome who hark back to these two apostles, and here is where we need the both-and. We want our church to be not only the church of Peter but also the church of Paul, because we need not only an apostle who holds the center together but also an apostle who pushes the boundaries outward.
Today we heard the gospel reading from Matthew chapter 16, which focuses the feast more on Peter than on Paul. Moreover, today’s reading is only half the story. We need the both-and if we want to understand the real Peter. In the full text of Matthew, Simon son of John is given two nicknames: Jesus calls him not only the Rock but also Satan. First Simon said words of faith that were given to him by the Abba of Jesus, and for this he became Blessèd Peter. Then he said words that came from his own human reasoning, and he became an accuser, which is what Satan means in Hebrew. Peter did not accept what Jesus said: that the source of Peter’s blessing was to be the death of the Messiah in whom he had believed. “This cannot be,” says Peter; “This shall not be!”
In the complete text of Matthew, Peter shows himself to be both an extreme believer and a man of little faith, like all other extremists. Once again he tries to walk on water and then he starts to sink. Ultimately he hits bottom when he denies his Master and Friend. At that very moment, Jesus looks at him from a distance, and Peter, seeing the forgiveness in his gaze, goes out and weeps bitterly.
Here is the whole Peter, who was complete only when he had been completely forgiven. The same was true of Paul, who, when his name was Saul, began his relationship with Jesus by denying that he was the Messiah and by persecuting those who followed him. Saul, thrown off his stride, fell to the ground and saw a light that at first made him blind. When a disciple of the Messiah restored his sight and baptized him, he began to be Paul. The name is an omen: from Saul, the name of a king, he became Paul, which in Greek and Latin means “little one.” Maybe Paul was short of stature, but his stride was long enough to take him to Rome and beyond. Peter may have been taller, but Paul stood up to the chief of the twelve apostles, when Peter was being hypocritical.
At the end, they were both in Rome and both attained the full stature of their faith in Jesus, when they witnessed to him by their blood. Paul, the Roman citizen, was decapitated; Peter was crucified, but legend has it, head downward. Is this the full story? Or, we could ask, is it enough if we have both Peter and Paul? Maybe the sages of India are right, and we need a third. Of course, we do have a third disciple, the other one of whom Jesus speaks at the end of the gospel according to John. He is the beloved disciple who outlives the apostles of Rome, and who has no name. Was he John the evangelist? Was he a she? No matter; all three are with us at the banquet of the Messiah, the fullness that includes the three and transcends them.