First Corinthians: Words of Wisdom for our Cistercian Communities Today

What guidance do St. Paul’s letters offer to today’s monks and nuns in our cloistered way of life? A recent online scripture course held for monks and nuns in our region of monasteries addresses this topic, taught by Sr Anne Elizabeth Sweet OCSO, a Cistercian nun of Tautra Mariakloster in Norway. Sr Anne Elizabeth holds an MA in Theology from Catholic Theological Union of Chicago and a PhD in Scripture from the University of Notre Dame, USA. In addition to her many years of teaching, she has also contributed scripture commentaries for liturgical publications, published three books on the Psalms in Norweigan, and co-authored two books on the Liturgy of the Hours and Northern Light , Monastic Wisdom Series (Cistercian Publications).

Here, our Junior Professed Sister Beatrice shares her account of the course on St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians which she followed along with 20 other participants online from our region in the Cistercian Order (OCSO):


Love builds up (8:1)

From February 5th – 11th, monks and nuns from ten monasteries of the Region of the Isles took part in an online course on the First Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians, taught by Sr Anne Elizabeth Sweet ocso, a nun of Tautra Mariakloster in Norway. Originally from America, Sr Anne Elizabeth has been immersed in Scripture study since her teens. Her great love of the Word ensured that we were all eager to hear her wisdom on the epistle, knowing too that her experience of monastic life would add a unique perspective to the teachings of St Paul. The five- day course was primarily an opportunity to delve deeper into the letter, but also provided a welcome occasion to meet with our Cistercian and Bernardine brothers and sisters in a spirit of prayer, learning and fraternal joy. 


Called to be an apostle of Christ (1:1)

Beginning with a history of St Paul’s conversion and ancient Corinth, we were shown how St Paul’s call to be an apostle of Christ parallels with the Corinthians’ call to holiness. It is the will of God that Paul should be a minister of the Gospel, but there is also a call to each one of us: a call to be sanctified and to enter into God’s covenantal love. Paul begins by encouraging the Corinthians to be unified in their prayer, liturgy and community life. They ought to be of the same mind and purpose- just as we are called to be of one heart and mind in our monastic communities today.


You should be in agreement and there should be no divisions among you, but you should be united (1:10)

While some of the problems facing the Corinthians in the first century are unfamiliar to us, it isn’t a stretch to say that St Paul’s admonitions and recommendations have an ever relevant message. Meat sacrifices, worship of pagan gods and head coverings might not be the issues discussed most frequently at community meetings (!), yet like St Benedict’s Rule, the recipe for growth in consensus, sanctity and authenticity prevails: it is the way of the Cross.


We proclaim Christ crucified (1:24)

Without delay, Paul proposes a solution to the Corinthians’ disunity- it is the wisdom of the cross which he and Apollos cling to. The Corinthians are distracted by societal values, hierarchy and competition, whereas Paul is appealing to their sense of belonging: he is asking them to put on the mind of Christ and to find meaning in the cross. The factions in the community based on who baptised who- and the leaders the Corinthians attach themselves to- are subverting the purpose and grace of baptism itself. Paul highlights how Christ has transformed what is wise in human standards to folly in his crucifixion. 


I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some (9:22)

The Rule of St Benedict calls us to humility by embracing suffering quietly. Paul too reminds us that the power of God manifests itself in weakness: the event of the cross displays God’s judgement on the inadequacy of self-sufficient human wisdom. However, like the Corinthians, we are reminded that when we enter into the spirit of humility, we surrender our lives to the wisdom of God and achieve spiritual maturity.


For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves (9:29)

Eucharistic practices are also prevalent in Paul’s letter. In partaking of the Body of Christ, we are one body. This is the refrain of unity again: in the Eucharist, we are united with one another and we are united with God. This physical gesture brings about a new body which is the physical presence of Christ in the world. The memorial aspect of this sacrament is also called to mind: to remember is not just to recall, but to make something present again. It is a sharing in the salvation Jesus has attained for us. Paul shows us that because of the Corinthians’ quarrelling, the Eucharistic celebration is inauthentic. In failing to act in love, Christ is not present and his transforming authority is completely lacking. Again, we learn that factions destroy unity so that we no longer celebrate the Lord’s supper in love.


To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (12:8)

St Paul’s words serve as a warning to us and call us to greater care and harmony in community. However, while the letter is full of cautionary advice, we are also heartened and reminded that the gifts given to us in community engender conversion and hope. The spiritual gifts bestowed on us are abundant! In baptism, spiritual gifts are given for the common good and we have a responsibility to use our gifts to build up our communities into the stature of Christ. We can facilitate each others’ union with God by generously using our spiritual gifts and in living faithfully to our monastic vows. We retain nothing for ourselves but form a single body as an expression of the mystery of the Church. The gifts of the Holy Spirit to each one of us are dynamic- they work within us. While the Lord entrusts this gift to us, we are accountable to the community to use it as Christ is continually formed in our hearts.

For me, the ending of the course with Sr Anne Elizabeth brought an opportunity to discern the spiritual gifts that have been given to our community, the Order as a whole and the wider Christian community, allowing the love of God into the world to renew our hearts and share in the transforming power of the Eucharist and the cross. May our deepening understanding of St Paul’s First letter to the Corinthians allow us to make the prayer of St John Henry Newman on this epistle our own:

“May he, as of old, choose ‘the foolish things of the world to confound the the wise, and the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty!’ May he support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in his mercy may he give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last!” (Sermons on the Subjects of the Day p. 307)

– Sr Beatrice Brady, Glencairn


Sr Beatrice