Homilies - March 2013

Select a homily to read:
Conference on Peter Damian: March 7, 2013 by Abbot James
Fourth Sunday of Lent: March 10, 2013 by Fr. Christopher
Fifth Sunday of Lent: March 17, 2013 by Abbot James
St. Joseph's Day: March 19, 2013 by Fr. Joseph
Solemnity of St. Benedict: March 21, 2013 by Abbot James
Palm Sunday: March 24, 2013 by Abbot James
Holy Thursday: March 28, 2013 by Abbot James
Good Friday: March 29, 2013 by Abbot James
Easter: March 31, 2013 by Abbot James

Conference on Peter Damian

  • March 7, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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The following is a talk by Abbot James, given the monastic community on the evening of March 7.

About two years ago I got a letter from a woman named Patricia Ranft, a professor emerita at Central Michigan University, requesting a subvention to help pay for having a manuscript of hers published by the Catholic University of America Press. I didn’t respond since I felt we were receiving many more urgent requests for charitable donations, but I did make sure that we bought her book for our library when it was recently published. It is titled The Theology of Peter Damian and is based primarily on the 180 letters of his that have come down to us, many of them so lengthy as to be called treatises in their own right. Since Peter Damian was, like us, a monk, and since he was a reformer at a time when the Church’s need of reform was in some respects very similar to the need for reform today, I think it would be useful for all of us to know something more about this saint. You might recall that we commemorated him on his feastday on February 23, but since that date regularly falls in Lent, we seldom hear anything by or about him in the readings at Morning Prayer or Vespers. Before I say anything about his life and teaching, it would be worth hearing Professor Ranft’s appreciation of the man. In the concluding pages of her book, she writes:

[Peter Damian] is a man of his time in presentation, [but] a man who transcends his time in content…. That he was a premier theologian whose message still speaks to us today is more than fortunate; it is a treasure.

It is indeed refreshing to find a theologian who applies such sound principles to everyday situations. He is a social commentator and critic par excellence…. His guiding axiom is simple: let your life bear witness to your beliefs. Or, as we might say today, practice what you preach. Accordingly, he chides popes and bishops when they fall short of Christian ethical standards. He insists that lay people are members of the priesthood of believers and that their function within the Body of Christ is essential. He listens to the complaints of the laity … and encourages them to criticize clerics when needed. In a society dominated by strict class divisions and almost exclusively concerned with the rights of rulers, Damian champions the rights of the ruled. He attacks avarice relentlessly and identifies the damage it does to a growing society…. If he finds disparity in ecclesiastical discipline, he rails against it….

… Any society—especially one experiencing many of the same problems as eleventh-century Italy—that ignores Damian’s theology does so to its own detriment.1

Who, then, was this man? Born into an impoverished family in Ravenna in 1007 and orphaned early, he was cared for mostly by a compassionate older brother, who saw that the boy received a good education in schools at Parma and Faenza. At this time, a strong eremitical movement had arisen in the Church, led by St. Romuald, who founded hermitages at Fonte Avellana in 1012 and at Camaldoli about ten years later. Admiring this way of life, Peter Damian joined the community at Fonte Avellana, which still exists as a house within the Camaldolese congregation of Benedictines. Without ever wanting to be anything but a hermit there, he was nevertheless soon called away to serve the Church in various capacities, at times as a papal legate and for ten years as the cardinal bishop of Ostia. Only in the final years of his life was he able to return to Fonte Avellana, and even then he was sometimes called away. At age 65, on his way back from a mission at Ravenna, he died at a monastery in Faenza. He is buried in the cathedral of that city and was declared a doctor of the church in 1823.

There is no way to touch on even the majority of the topics Peter Damian dealt with in his writings, so I will single out only three, all of them dealing in some way with the nature of the Church. One of his earliest works treats a topic that at first hearing sounds trivial, but it allowed him to develop some truly fundamental insights about the Church. A hermit named Leo had asked him whether it was right for him, when praying alone, to use the phrase Dominus vobiscum, “The Lord be with you,” where the plural form of “you” might seem out of place when there was no one but the hermit physically present. He gives a number of reasons why it is proper for a hermit to use such language in prayer, but the most important is because the life of a hermit is solitary in only one respect, the physical, and that is not the most important. He writes:

If the whole Church is the one body of Christ, and we are the Church’s members, what is to hinder us as individuals from using the language of our body, namely, the Church, since we are truly one with her? For if, while we are many, we are one in Christ, as individuals we possess our totality in him; and hence, even though in our bodily solitude we appear to be far removed from the Church, still by the incorruptible mystery of unity we are always most intimately present in her.2

This means that no one ever prays all by himself, but always as part of the Church as a whole. Indeed, the entire eremitical movement of the eleventh century was marked by the conviction that this way of life was truly of benefit to the entire Church. One of Peter Damian’s works was a life of St. Romuald, in which he wrote that Romuald “could not bear to remain sterile. He felt a deep anxiety and a longing to bear fruit for souls, and kept searching for a place where he could do so.”3 It would surely be good for us to have that same spirit pervade all of our prayers in our own abbey.

A second point that also manifests Peter Damian’s concern for the Church was the courageous and outspoken way in which he condemned various vices that were rampant in his day. Some of these may no longer be so problematic, such as simony, that is, obtaining a position or office in the Church by giving money to the person able to grant the office, but there were other vices that have sadly been very much in the news in recent years, especially sexual offenses by clergy and the willingness of some bishops to turn a blind eye to these. In very hard-hitting language, he writes in one of his letters: “Listen, you do-nothing superiors of clerics and priests. Listen, and even though you feel sure of yourselves, tremble at the thought that you are partners in the guilt of others; … I mean [superiors] who wink at the sins of their subjects that need correction, and who by ill-considered silence allow them license to sin.”4 Peter Damian was well aware that such frank language would gain him enemies, but his dedication to the good of the Church gave him the courage to write as he did. In the conclusion of that same letter, he writes: “I have no fear … of the tongues of detractors. I would surely prefer to be thrown innocent into the well like Joseph, who informed his father of his brothers’ foul crime, than to suffer the penalty of God’s fury, like Eli, who saw the wickedness of his sons and remained silent.”5 We can certainly lament the fact that some of our own bishops, in misguided attempts to avoid embarrassment for the Church, have tried to keep instances of clergy sexual abuse hidden from the police or other law-enforcement authorities. Far better is what one modern historian of Church reform said about Peter Damian, namely, that he was convinced that “publicly revealing the [Church’s] worst sins was the means to preserve the credibility of the church.”6 Let us pray that we get more and more bishops and other church leaders like him today.

Finally, it is worth hearing something about the way Peter Damian understood the differing callings of various groups within the Church. In some respects, he sounds very much like St. Francis de Sales some five or six centuries later, as when he writes to Godfrey, Duke of Tuscany, that it was not right for him to spend so much time in spiritual exercises to the detriment of his obligation to see to the strict application of justice in his realm. In one letter to Godfrey, he wrote: “[If you] spend the greater part of the day attending masses and saying prayers, [you will become] the agent of the adversary, the devil,” for your duchy will “be thrown into turmoil unless human affairs [are] remedied by a return to equity and justice.”7 Since Godfrey did not change his ways after receiving that letter, Peter Damian soon wrote to him again, saying that even though the duke was personally outstanding by reason of his decent and upright life, he was nevertheless not fulfilling his duty of promoting “the strict application of justice” in his realm. “Let evil men see in you a prince, and not deride you as a priest,” Damian scolds. “It is required of you … to enforce justice and to oppose with the force of legitimate authority those who are about to act unlawfully.”8

More generally, Peter Damian was an early advocate of what we nowadays call lay spirituality, which included the desirability of lay persons taking some part in the official prayer of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours, to the extent that this was compatible with their other duties. Our own Oblates try to do this, and we should encourage them in their vocation in whatever ways we can. It is also worth noting that some of them, in their dedication to us, have been very generous in making donations for the renovation of our seniors wing.

Then, when it was a matter of the spirituality of monks and hermits, Peter Damian once wrote a long letter to his brethren at Fonte Avellana that he intended not only for them but for all who would follow them in later generations. He goes into considerable detail about their customary fasting and other ascetical practices, lists some of the ways in which he had tried to improve the buildings and the liturgical vessels, and also has a beautiful paragraph on what he considered most important of all. It goes like this:

One item that seems to exceed all the rest, one thing that may be said to surpass all the virtues of those who live here in holiness, is that there is such love among the brethren, such unanimity of will forged by the fire of mutual charity, that everyone considers himself born to serve all and not himself. What another has, is [also his own] possession; and what is his, he lovingly shares with all. This too, my brothers, is the source of no little joy for me, that if one of you appears to be ill, all will at once inquire about his condition so that he will not delay giving up his accustomed rigor. [You are] not only prompt in furnishing all his necessities, but you also take joy in offering yourselves as willing nurses.9

In writing thus, Peter Damian is echoing the spirit of St. Benedict’s Rule, especially chapter 72 on the good zeal that monks should have in their concern for one another. It is one more reason why Professor Ranft is surely correct in the final two sentences of her book: “Peter Damian deserves to be heard. We will be all the richer if we listen.”10

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Patricia Ranft, The Theology of Peter Damian (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2012), 221-23.
2 Peter Damian, Letter 28, in Peter Damian: Letters 1-30, trans. Owen J. Blum, O.F.M. (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1989), 269.
3 Peter Damian, Vita Romualdi, quoted by Ranft, 38.
4 Peter Damian, Letter 38, in Peter Damian: Letters 31-60, trans. Owen J. Blum, O.F.M. (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1990), 15.
5 Ibid., 49.
6 C. Colt Anderson, The Great Catholic Reformers (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), 34, quoted by Ranft, 89.
7 Peter Damian, Letter 67, quoted by Ranft, 186.
8 Peter Damian, Letter 68, quoted ibid., 186-87.
9 Peter Damian, Letter 18, in Peter Damian: Letters 1-30, 166.
10 Ranft, 223.


Fourth Sunday of Lent

  • March 10, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Christopher

  • The Prodigal Son Download

Stories of fathers and sons, brother competing with brothers, are manifold in the world of novels, drama, biographies, and psychology. In our refectory reading during meals we are hearing the lives of the men in President Lincoln’s cabinet, William Sewall, Salmon Chase, Edward Bates, from their childhood up. They are the men who had vied with him for the Republication nomination for the presidency. The childhood of Chase is the saddest I think because of his stern, demanding father and later an uncle as surrogate, who both made him spend long hours at his studies to satisfy their expectations, and punished him severely when he failed them.

The Bible too is full of stories about fathers and sons, mothers too. In it we read about Isaac and Ishmael the sons of Abraham, about Esau and Jacob the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca and the parental favoritism that led to Jacob’s deceits. Jacob had twelve sons from his two wives and two slave women. We know the results that favoritism and sibling rivalry generated among them. Jesus used our common human experiences to tell stories that reveal some truth about our relationship with God or with one another. Today from St. Luke’s gospel we heard the parable of the Prodigal Son, which follows two other parables about lost things; namely, a straying sheep and a missing coin. In all three instances there is joy and celebration when the lost things are found.

Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees and scribes, who were complaining about his eating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus, the Son of God, told these proud sons of Abraham a story to help them get beyond their understanding of God as a Law Giver, punishing those who disobey and rewarding only those who obey it fully. He wanted them to see another side of God, a God who is compassionate, abounding in love and mercy. Maybe they would realize they have the mind of the elder son, who complained, “I have served you all these years and never disobeyed your orders;” and obviously he felt he got no joy out of it. With such a mindset the elder son cannot understand the father’s ordering a celebration for the home coming of his wasteful brother.

Obviously God is God and we are his creation. Our relationship is not between equals. It is written somewhere that God dwells in light inaccessible. Without a special grace we cannot see God face to face to know him the way Jesus knows him. It is written somewhere else that it is a frightful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and again that our God is a consuming fire. If these were the only images we had of God, we would be like those who asked that the mountains fall on them rather than be brought into his presence. Or as the prophet warns those who ask God to intervene: Who will endure the day of his coming? For he is like the refiner’s fire or like the fuller’s lye.

In his own actions and dealings with human sinfulness Jesus reveals the mind of the Father who sent him. He came to call sinners to repentance, inviting them to accept the gift of mercy and forgiveness. During his earthly ministry, as a man like us in all things but sin, he felt he had to start by conversing, questioning, even sitting with sinners, accepting them where they were in order to show them better ways. The real focus of the parable is the father who is prodigal with his forgiveness and his mercy. ‘While the son was still a long way off the father caught sight of him returning home. He got up, ran to him, threw his arms around him and kissed him, and then ordered his servants to prepare a feast.’ What wayward son or daughter would not long to fall into the arms of a God like that? Jesus said that there is tremendous joy in heaven over even one repentant sinner .

What about us? Which of the characters in the story can you or I identify with? Jesus’ revelation of the ways of God that are not our ways challenges us to look at our own understanding of what God expects of us, hopes for us. Also we must look at how we relate to one another as members of God’s family, as brothers and sisters among the children of God. Is God really like a father who shows no favorites? Who does not judge by appearances? Who alone reads the heart and our innermost thoughts?

The Old Testament tells us that God does not desire the death of sinners; rather God urges us repent and be turned around so that we can be embraced in his arms. Some of the fathers and mothers of the Church interpreted the embracing arms of God to be the Son and the Spirit he sent on missions to save all made in his image, to begin the evolving of a new creation. All initiative for our salvation comes from God. It is not our own doing. We simply have to be humble enough to know we need God’s forgiveness, and trusting enough to accept and even claim it.

When, like the young son, we come to our senses, and realize the dire situation we put ourselves into by our spirit of disobedience, it is time to acknowledge our foolishness – for all sin is stupidity or blindness. It is time to turn around and go to confession. In the sacrament we experience the mercy of God, reconciling us to himself through his own Son’s loving sacrifice, restoring us to unity with all our brothers and sisters in Christ through the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. Along with Paul’s urging the Corinthians, I implore you to be reconciled with God.

As we go on to participate in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross in the Eucharistic rites, we have here a pledge that we may one day arrive at the eternal Promised Land, heaven, where the sacramental body of Christ, our manna, will cease and we will feed mystically on the very Word of God himself. To him with Father and Holy Spirit be honor, glory, praise and loving obedience now and forever. AMEN

Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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Fifth Sunday of Lent

  • March 17, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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Very few of you drive over here to the abbey from Virginia for our Sunday Mass, but even those who do not live in that state might recall that in the mid-1990s the state of Virginia officially did away with the practice of parole for prisoners. The law was not retroactive, however, meaning that anyone sentenced before 1995 is, in principle, still eligible for parole. A while back a columnist for a newspaper down in the southeastern part of the state wrote an article about one of these pre-1995 prisoners, noting that the lawyer who was his attorney at the trial has since been disbarred for malpractice, that this lawyer had neglected to produce some significant pieces of evidence at the trial, and that at one of this prisoner’s parole hearings an elderly member of the parole commission slept through the proceedings. While not positively advocating parole for this particular prisoner, the columnist certainly did raise doubts about the legitimacy of the man’s continuing imprisonment.

What really struck me were some of the comments made by respondents to this and a similar column that appeared a few days later in that newspaper. The vast majority of those who wrote were adamantly opposed to parole. Here are a few direct quotations from their replies: “Let the prisoner rot.” “Let him whine and whine.” “Use the death penalty to rid us of these animals.” “People do not change.” “It has been proven that if you commit a crime you will do it again, over and over again. This has been proven.” Other respondents regularly called those who advocate parole “bleeding heart liberals.”

I couldn’t help thinking of those remarks as I read today’s Gospel in preparing this homily. Here in the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel we have the account of a woman whose actions made her strictly liable to the death penalty according to the Law of Moses, and there is no doubt that persons in ancient Israel were in fact stoned to death for adultery and certain other offenses. For that reason, the persons in this account who are putting Jesus to the test definitely have the law on their side. Since Jesus is elsewhere in the New Testament shown following various injunctions of the Mosaic Law, even saying in Matthew’s Gospel that not one jot or tittle of that law would be done away with till it all came true, one can sense that he was indeed here faced with a genuine challenge. His response, of course, was not to ignore the law completely but rather to point out how all of his hearers were themselves liable to judgment. The fact that the oldest of the woman’s accusers were the first to slink away shows that they had had many more years to accumulate their own guilty deeds!

The really important point, however, is not that Jesus bested these men in a dispute but that he recognized the possibility of conversion. He didn’t excuse the woman as though she had done nothing wrong, but he refused to condemn her, telling her instead to go and from then on to sin no more—not, of course, in the sense that she would never do the slightest thing wrong, but that she should no longer commit adultery or any such serious sin.

For us, the lesson is twofold. First, that we ought to be far more concerned with our own behavior than with judging that of others, and second, that we ought never write someone off as being beyond the possibility of conversion. No one on earth ought ever be cast aside as hopelessly mired in sin or crime, and no true follower of Christ ought ever say, like one of those respondents to the columnist, that “People do not change.” The very first words of Jesus in what is the earliest Gospel, that of Mark, are: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.” The Greek word here translated as “repent” means literally to “have a change of mind” or “change of heart,” in other words, “Be converted.” In this annual season of Lent we are called to take these words with special seriousness, with regard both to ourselves and to the way we view other people. All of us can change for the better, and with the help of God’s grace we may be confident that we will change. Let us pray for this kind of conversion as we continue our celebration this day, also remembering in our prayers those prisoners whom many in society have written off and who are therefore daily tempted to despair.

Abbot James Wiseman
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St. Joseph's Day

  • March 19, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Joseph

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Here I was yesterday, March 18th, and I was clueless as to what to say in my homily today. I was reluctant to call on St. Joseph because he often treats me as though I were a nitwit--and I am very sensitive. However, as I'm struggling to come up an idea--any idea--he surprises me by suddenly appearing. He says, "what is it this time? I heard you sigh, so thought you must be in need." I said, "How good you are to come, even before I called on you." "What are friends for," he said, but I detected a slight edge of irony. Then he went on, "Never mind, let me guess: tomorrow you have to give the homily and you are clueless as to what to say." "How could you possibly know that?" He rolled his eyes but said nothing. Then he went on, "don't you have at least a starting idea?" I said, "I thought I'd like to talk about the trip to Bethlehem." "We've already done that." "I know, but we certainly couldn't have exhausted ANYTHING contained in the Scriptures."

"Well, all right, but for this I'm going to have to assume the role of "the omniscient narrator," as you say in your "Narratives" class. "Why would that be?" "Because I'm going to be speaking about things Mary was thinking but never verbalized." It was now several months after the Annunciation, he went on, and it was quite apparent that she was pregnant before and we began to live together. Of course I knew because the angel had appeared to me in a dream and revealed the mystery. Mary, however, did not feel free to reveal the things Gabriel had told her, so she had to bear the embarrassment and the gibes. And believe me there were plenty of them. Mary was so extraordinary in so many ways that there were many who were jealous and they all became detractors. And of course, even if Mary had felt free to reveal the truth, who would have believed her? "I'm going to be the mother of The Holy One of God, the Messiah!" You can imagine how that would be received!

But Mary had other problems. Although Gabriel had not used the term "Messiah," all that he did say led that way: "The Lord God would give him the throne of David his father." Mary knew the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, as the prophet Micah had said, "From you [Bethlehem] shall come forth for me the one who is to be ruler in Israel." But how to persuade me to go there? All I had been told was that "it was through the holy Spirit that this child was conceived in her." No thought of going to Bethlehem ever entered my mind. Mary began to pray for help in her dilemma.

So when I was at the marketplace as I heard announcement of a census, that every family heard would have to go to his ancestral home to be registered, I was very troubled. I didn't want to leave Mary alone in her condition, nor should she attempt such a trip in her condition. I began to pray help in this quandary.

When I got home from the marketplace, Mary said, "Joseph! What's wrong? You look like you just lost your last friend!" "That tyrant who pretends he's our benevolent emperor commands that all family heads must go to their ancestral homes to register for a census." Mary prayed a secret prayer of thanksgiving and said, "Why that's Bethlehem! What's wrong with that?" "I can't leave you alone at a time like this." "Of course not, I'll go with you. I promise you, I'm strong enough, and when I'm tired of walking I can ride on Penuel." (Penuel was our donkey.) And so it was decided--or rather Mary decided--that she would go with me to Bethlehem.

Mary was as good as her word. She walked at my side most of the time; she rode Penuel when she tired. At any rate, we arrived safely in Bethlehem. I left Mary at the outskirts of the town with Penuel while I went to seek out my Uncle Joshua. I hadn't been in touch with him for quite a while, but he had assured me that I had a place to stay any time I came to Bethlehem. What a blow! I learned he had moved far down south to Beersheba. His son Jehoshaphat, my cousin now owned the house and would gladly have given us room, but he already had as many as the house would hold. "Half the people in Israel, it seems, are claiming descent from David," he complained, "they have descended on Bethlehem like a swarm of locusts; Jeconiah, the old skinflint at the inn is charging triple the usual price, and you'd be lucky to get a place there."

We went to the inn, but it was as advertised: crowded and charging triple the usual rate. The innkeeper took one look at us, knew we didn't have the fare and said, "No room." He didn't even say "sorry." I said, "Look, my wife is pregnant; she may be giving birth at any time--you can't turn us away." He said, "I shouldn't do this, but I'm all heart, so I'll let you stay in the stable. Hasn't been mucked out in a while, but its empty since my mule died." We went around to the back only to encounter a very large, belligerent looking man. He said, "What yer want? I rented this stable for my ox." I said, "you must be a squatter; the proprietor has given it to us. However, we'll let your ox stay if you don't make any trouble." With that his belligerence subsided.

It turned out he was the father family squatting in a small lean-to next to the stable. The man's name was Caleb, His wife was a small timid woman with bruises visible on her arms, named Debra, and there was a 6-year old son, dirty and surly-looking, named Abel.

Mary felt the birth was near, I went to find the midwife, but by the time I got back Mary had already given birth. She was looking lovingly at the infant Jesus, and from afar we heard the beautiful angel voices singing to the shepherds "Glory to God on high, peace on earth." Debra crept in and spoke adoringly of the beauty of the child, while Abel scowled in jealousy.

The next morning our sense of rapture was rudely broken as we heard a loud slap-sound from next door, Debra began weeping hysterically, and Caleb yelled (at Abel, obviously) "come back here, you little brat or I'll beat you worse than I did your mother," but Abel had run out.

Later in the day Mary was resting and I was sitting out of sight, little Abel crept into our stable with a handful of dirt and headed toward Jesus with obvious intent. I was about to intervene when Jesus turned on Abel a smile so full of love and tenderness that Abel stopped in his tracks; he dropped the dirt and stood transfixed, while a tide of love washed over him. Soon he began to weep, but his face took on a look of pure joy. He ran into the lean-to and through the door I could see him jump into Caleb's lap, put his arms around his neck, and Caleb's angry "Why you little ..." was cut off as the child kissed him. Caleb's look of anger changed to wonderment and then to tenderness toward his little son; he turned his head so that the tears starting from his eyes would not be seen. A little later Debra returned and was astounded at what she saw. They heard Caleb say, "Come here, my dearest, ..."

The next day that little family resumed their journey to wherever they were going and stopped by to say "goodbye." Abel was hanging onto his father's hand and Caleb slipped his arm around Debra's waist; they thanked us for what we had done; actually, we hadn't done anything, but we knew what they meant. Jesus, Mary, and I stayed there for some days while Mary regained strength for the trip to Jerusalem and her Purification. During the journey there Mary reflected, "I've always known the power of love, but I never realized before how contagious it can be. If more people realized it, how different our world could be."

Fr. Joseph Jensen
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Solemnity of St. Benedict

  • March 21, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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Almost every book ever written about St. Benedict refers to the moderation of his Rule, often with quotations about the way he wants “to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome” (Prol. 46) and about the abbot’s need to be “discerning and moderate, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob, who said: ‘If I drive my flocks too hard, they will all die in a single day’” (RB 64.17-18). A specific example of this moderation came up in our table reading from the Rule just a few nights ago, where St. Benedict insisted that there always be two cooked dishes available at the main meal of the day so that a brother who might not be able to eat one kind could always partake of the other (RB 39.3).

Of course, it would be one-sided to conclude from such passages that Benedict thought living as a monk was especially easy. That same part of the Rule’s prologue that talks about avoiding things harsh and burdensome nevertheless warns that a certain strictness is required for the amending of faults (Prol. 47), and the same general section of the Rule that allows for a variety of dishes also specifies that for the greater part of the year, beginning in mid-September all the way up to Easter, the monks are to eat only one meal a day, and that never before mid-afternoon and in Lent only toward evening (RB 41.6-7). I doubt that any of us would care to observe so extensive a fast for about seven months every single year. In addition, the saint has a rather extensive series of chapters on punishments for those who do not make satisfaction for various kinds of faults: some are to be excluded from the common meal and made to eat alone after the others have finished, while an even worse offender is also prohibited from attending the common prayer, with the rest of the community being forbidden even to converse with him (RB 24 & 25).

What are we to make of this? Is the difference in tone among these parts of the Rule so great that the very unity of the document is jeopardized? I don’t think so. St. Benedict was simply realistic in his understanding of human nature: There are limits beyond which most of us cannot go—hence the need for his vaunted moderation—but there are also tendencies in each of us that detract from community life and these faults have to be corrected in some way. It is this point that leads to one of the most impressive examples of what we might call St. Benedict’s “middle way.”

In reflecting on this, let me first note that there are some very important parts of the Rule that emphasize Benedict’s desire that any monk who undertakes this way of life should persevere to the end—normally in the monastery of his profession, though the saint does leave open the possibility of someone’s moving on to the life of a hermit. Here are some examples of what I mean by his concern that each monk persevere: The very last sentence of the Prologue reads: “Never swerving from [God’s] instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom” (Prol. 50). Then, in chapter two, the saint writes that the abbot should so accommodate himself to each monk’s character that he will not only keep the flock entrusted to his care from dwindling but will rejoice in the increase of a good flock (RB 2.32), while the chapter on receiving new brothers clearly states that anyone who professes monastic vows is expected to observe them for the rest of his life (RB 58.15-16).

It is, then, only with the greatest reluctance that St. Benedict recognizes the possibility that one or another monk might at some point be so recalcitrant, so averse to amending serious faults, that he would have to be expelled from the community, and this would only came after a lengthy series of attempts to bring the wayward monk to a change of heart. This is what I consider one of the most striking examples of what I am calling Benedict’s “middle way.” He knows on the one hand that dismissal from the community may at times be necessary, so he dare not be overly lenient in turning a blind eye to faults—that would be one extreme. But Benedict also avoids excessive ruthlessness in dealing with wayfarers but instead provides for a whole series of measures to bring them fully back into the fold. This even includes the humble recognition that he or any other abbot might not be the best person to bring about the needed reformation. For this reason, in chapter 27 he mentions the assistance of monks called by the unusual term senpectae. That chapter begins with these words: “The abbot must exercise the utmost care and concern for wayward brothers, because it is ‘not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick.’ Therefore he ought to use every skill of a wise physician and send in senpectae, that is, mature and wise brothers who, under the cloak of secrecy, may support the wavering brother, urge him to be humble as a way of making satisfaction, and ‘console him lest he be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.’” (RB 27.1-3).

This is surely one of the most humane parts of the Rule: on the one hand, it recognizes that some genuinely bad behavior has occurred that cannot be overlooked and must be corrected if the monk in question is to remain in the community, but on the other hand the chapter shows the lengths to which Benedict thought that he or any superior ought to go to bring about the needed change of heart, even if this means humbly recognizing that others in the community might be better able to break through the impasse. Any of us should actually feel privileged to live under the guidance of so wise and discerning a legislator. As we continue with our celebration of the Eucharist on his feastday, let us then pray that more and more of St. Benedict’s wisdom and discretion may characterize our own lives as well.

Abbot James Wiseman
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Palm Sunday

  • March 24, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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Two evenings ago some of our monks were discussing the question of the proper liturgical name for this Sunday. This did not surprise me, for there have been a couple changes in recent years. This day was formerly known as Palm Sunday, with the preceding Sunday called Passion Sunday, but in 1969 this name of today’s feast was changed simply to Passion Sunday, the previous Sunday then being called the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Subsequently, and perhaps because the procession with palms continues to be a major part of the ceremony, the name was changed once more to what it is now, the rather lengthy “Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord.” This new designation is a way of acknowledging that two different aspects of Jesus’ final days on earth are being commemorated: first, his entry into Jerusalem, which was the focus of the opening rite, including the procession into church, and second, Jesus’ passion, which we just heard in the account found in Luke’s Gospel. Previously, there was an even further way of accenting the two foci: it was recommended that the main celebrant wear a cope for the opening rite, and then change from cope to chasuble for the service in the church itself.

Happily, we no longer have the cumbersome change of vestments, but there definitely remains a certain discordant note to the entire service. If you are wondering why this should be, the answer is historically rather clear: The procession with palms has come down to us from its origins in the ancient church at Jerusalem, where Jesus’ entrance into that city was liturgically reenacted from the fourth century onward. But the reading of the account of Jesus’ passion from one of the four Gospels comes from another city, the church at Rome. As one liturgical historian puts it, “The two traditions cross-pollinated and merged over the fourth through the eighth centuries. Thirteen centuries later we may still experience the dual influences on this liturgy as relatively unhomogenized.”1

On one level, this might seem regrettable. Wouldn’t things be cleaner, neater, more harmonious if that kind of cross-pollinating merger had been avoided? Perhaps, but I want to suggest that there is at least one great symbolic value to what we actually have, for it reflects the fact that life itself, like the liturgy, is not something that can be neatly programmed according to some ideal of strict uniformity. Much of life is messy and unpredictable, and the persons who navigate it best are those who are able to accept things as they occur, making the best of situations that they would never have expected or chosen. Let me give two examples, each in some way relevant to today’s feast.

Presumably like most churches throughout the world, we just sang a hymn that begins with the line “All glory, praise and honor to you Redeemer, King.” What few people probably know is that this was written in the ninth century by a bishop named Theodulph, who was at that time imprisoned by the emperor Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, under suspicion of having cooperated in a treasonous plot against Louis. This was terrible change of fate for someone who had earlier been one of Charlemagne’s most trusted advisors, a man who served as bishop of Orléans and was entrusted by Charlemagne to promote some important reforms in the Church of his day. To the end of his life, Theodulph protested to Louis his innocence of the charge of treason, but rather than sulk, he spent the years of his imprisonment writing many hymns and poems, including this hymn that has for centuries been sung on Palm Sunday in churches throughout the world—a wonderful example of how someone can make the best of a situation of adversity.

Much closer to our own time, today is the thirty-third anniversary of the assassination of the Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot to death while offering Mass at a convent on the evening of March 24, 1980. Here, too, we have a man who had to face some of the most serious charges that could be leveled against a church leader. Whereas Theodulph was suspected of treason by a civil ruler, Oscar Romero was accused by some of his fellow bishops of manipulating the Bible and debasing the figure of Christ found therein. In responding to the wild charges they had made against him in a document they sent to Rome, he replied not with rancor but with simple honesty and humility, writing: “I recognize before God my deficiencies, but I believe I have worked with good will, far removed from the serious things I am accused of. God will have the last word, and I calmly hope to keep on working with the same enthusiasm as ever, since I serve our holy church with love.”2 Here, too, was a man who took very seriously the teaching of St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians. We just heard in our second reading Paul quoting an early Christian hymn that tells us of how Christ humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross, but I hope you might recall from other occasions that the verse preceding this hymn, a verse not included in the Lectionary for today, gives the reason why Paul quoted the hymn at all: he admonishes all of his readers or hearers to have the very same attitude that was in Christ.

Archbishop Romero certainly had this attitude. Not only did he not strike back in anger over the accusations made by some of his fellow bishops, even more significantly he approached his impending death with the mind of Christ. Just as we heard Christ’s words in our Gospel: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” so too did Oscar Romero forgive those who were out to kill him. He never sought martyrdom, but as the years went by and the death threats from government forces became more frequent, he became convinced of the great likelihood that he would be assassinated. Here are his very words, uttered in an interview with a reporter just a few days before his death: “You can tell people, if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize that they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”

At a time when, sadly, some of the bishops of our Church have not lived up to their responsibilities, it is heartening to know that we have had many saintly bishops down the centuries who have shown us the right way to follow the Lord Jesus both in life and in death. These go all the way back to the earliest centuries in men like St. Ignatius of Antioch, on through the Middle Ages in someone like St. Theodulph of Orléans, in the early modern era in St. John Fisher, and quite close to our own day in one whom many are already calling St. Oscar.

Like all of them, and like Jesus himself, we know that our own lives will never follow a straight and utterly predictable path. Like today’s liturgy itself, there will be inconsistencies, a lack of perfect harmony, surprises great and small. What really matters is how we deal with events as they come our way. At times we must all surely recognize that our past responses were far less than ideal, less than full of the trust that Jesus showed when he prayed to his Father in Gethsemani, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” As we continue our Eucharist and prepare to receive this very Lord in Holy Communion, may we be as open as possible to the reforming and strengthening power of this greatest of sacraments.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Benjamin M. Stewart, “Living the Word,” The Christian Century, March 20, 2013, p. 22.
2 Oscar Romero, quoted by James R. Brockman, Romero: A Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989), 180.


Holy Thursday

  • March 28, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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When I was a seminary student over at Catholic University some years ago, one of my Scripture professors was a gentle Hungarian, Fr. Joseph Zalotay, who died in 1998. Perhaps to save time correcting exam books at the end of a course, his final exam was always oral, and one of the questions he asked a lot of us was why the Fourth Gospel, unlike the other three, has no account of the institution of the Eucharist, nothing about Jesus saying, “Take and eat; this is my body,” and “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.” You might think that the correct answer is that this would have been superfluous because we already have in the sixth chapter of that gospel the great Bread of Life Discourse, where Jesus proclaims: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” “Not bad,” Professor Zalotay might have said, but not the best response. He had taught us that the real reason for the absence of an institution narrative is that its place was taken by what we just heard in the reading of the gospel, the account of Jesus’ washing of the feet of his disciples. How so? Well, this act of humble service shows us in a graphic way what for any of us is the real effect of the sacrament, what the scholastic theologians called the res tantum, namely, our more intense and committed incorporation into the body of all those who make up what we call “the Church.” Another way of saying this is that reception of “Holy Communion” fosters, nourishes, and deepens our “daily communion” with one another in love and service.

To be sure, the gesture of washing others’ feet may no longer be nearly as relevant as it would have been many centuries ago. Nowadays we normally wear shoes and socks, keeping our feet reasonably clean. I even dare say that at least some of the twelve persons who will participate in our own ceremony of the mandatum a few minutes from now probably made sure to wash their feet in advance lest they appear dirty during the rite. Back in first-century Palestine, however, when there were no asphalt roads or concrete sidewalks and when most people wore only sandals on their feet, that part of the body tended to get especially dirty. In many households, it would have been the servants, or even the slaves, who performed this service when the owner or invited guests arrived at the door. This was still the case in St. Benedict’s day in sixth-century Italy, for the chapter of his Rule dealing with the reception of guests includes these verses: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say, ‘I was a stranger and your welcomed me.’… Once a guest has been announced, the superior and the brothers are to meet him with all the courtesy of love…. The abbot shall pour water on the hands of the guests, and the abbot and the entire community shall wash their feet. After the washing they will recite this verse: ‘O God, we have received your mercy in the midst of your temple.’” (RB 53.1,3,12-14).

If we today perform the same act only in a ritual setting, it should nevertheless impress upon our minds the need to take very seriously the words with which Jesus concluded our gospel reading: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” What this means in a practical sense is that each one of us should decide how to perform acts of service that would be more appropriate in our own time. We might take a cue from what Pope Francis did in Rome this very day, when he celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper not in the basilica of St. John Lateran but in the Casal del Marmo juvenile detention center. His message to these young offenders was not only that they be assured that there are people in the world who care about them. In addition, as the prison chaplain Fr. Gaetano Greco said, the pope’s visit was meant to “make them see that their lives are not bound by a mistake, that forgiveness exists and that they can begin to build their lives again.” Is it not possible that some of us present here today might do something to give hope to persons in our own area who are confined in a prison or detention center?

Or again, and as you would guess anyway, many of the young people whose feet Pope Francis washed come from broken families and had sought an escape from their painful home situation in drugs or alcohol. Is it not possible that some of us present here today could help young persons who may not yet have come into direct conflict with the law but who are definitely “at risk”? It may be someone struggling in school, on the verge of giving up because a passing grade seems unattainable but who could begin doing better with the help of a tutor.

Here’s still another possibility, a recollection from my childhood: Although my father was not ultra-pious, he was definitely involved in the life of our parish. Of all the activities he engaged in there, I well remember his saying one evening at supper that the most satisfying of them all was his involvement in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which involved regularly bringing food to families in need. This statement has stuck with me, mainly because it illustrates so clearly that genuine Christian love is not a matter of words or feelings, but of deeds. As Jesus said, not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom, but only those who do the will of the Father.

If you are wondering how one could get started along these lines, one way is to make use of the Internet, which can be an instrument of much good as well as of tremendous harm. If you simply enter the phrase “Archdiocese of Washington volunteering” in Google or some other search engine, you will immediately be directed to a website called “Volunteer Opportunities: Archdiocese of Washington.” In this way, you could find a very thorough list of all sorts of ways in which you could actually put into practice Jesus’ command that we follow the model he has given us. Some of the listed opportunities are the following: direct help to the poor and vulnerable; life issues and unplanned pregnancy; prison outreach; health care; legal help; adult literacy; and legislative advocacy. This would allow you to click on the area most in accord with your own experience and interest. I only ask you to forgive me if I have deprived you of the excuse that you’d like to volunteer at something but don’t know how to get started.

As we now continue this Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we’ll have those who will participate in the mandatum come into the choir area, and later, when all of the congregation come forward to receive Communion, may we be mindful of what has always been the res tantum, the real effect of this sacrament: our mutual growth in love and service.

Abbot James Wiseman
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Good Friday

  • March 24, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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Our patron, St. Anselm, provides me with the way to begin this homily. Among the many influential things that he wrote during his lifetime, perhaps no phrase has become better known or more frequently repeated than his concise definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding.” In itself, this is so clear and concise a definition that one might well ask: Why did it take so many centuries for someone to formulate it? Actually, St. Augustine once wrote something similar, but it didn’t have quite the conciseness of Anselm’s definition. A simple example to illustrate the point might be this: Yesterday evening we celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper and so were especially mindful of the sacrament of the Eucharist. Our faith tells us that the consecrated bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ, and to approach the altar with this conviction has been enough to nourish the devotion and promote the holiness of countless Christians down the centuries. But at least some people are not satisfied with affirming the truth that has been handed down to us from the early Church. No, they also want to ask how this might be better understood. Ever since the Middle Ages, the Catholic answer has usually been in terms of transubstantiation, as taught classically by St. Thomas Aquinas. In more recent times, some were not altogether happy with Thomas’s treatment of the question, so they began speaking of the change in the bread and wine in a different way, using terms like “transsignification” or “transfinalization.” These approaches have not gained widespread acceptance, but there is no doubt that they were exercises in theology in the Anselmian sense—attempts to better understand a central point of Catholic faith.

With that background, let’s now consider another phrase, one more appropriate for this afternoon’s service. We just heard an account of Jesus’ passion and death, something we refer to at every Eucharist, even as on Sundays and solemnities we proclaim explicitly in the Nicene Creed that “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” Most people would probably say that this is an even more central aspect of Christian faith than the affirmation that the consecrated bread and wine are truly the body and blood of Christ, and again countless persons have devoutly affirmed Jesus’ saving death down the centuries and found in this conviction the hope and joy that has always been the hallmark of Christian life when lived at its fullest. From the earliest times, the cross of Christ was proclaimed as a sign of God’s infinite love for each of us. As St. Paul writes in Romans, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Simply accepting this claim is the main thing, but many also feel a deeply human need to reflect on this datum of our faith, to try to understand it more deeply, to ask just what it means to say that Christ died “for us” or “for our sake” or “for our sins.”

The liturgy itself offers a starting point, for it is most appropriate that our first reading every Good Friday is from one of the so-called Servant Songs in the Book of Isaiah, a text that is actually quoted no fewer than seven times in the New Testament, not to mention more than thirty allusions or verbal parallels in either the Gospels or apostolic letters. It was altogether natural for New Testament authors to light upon this passage from the prophet Isaiah, given such verses as “He was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He bore the punishment that makes us whole; by his wounds we were healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, all following our own way; but the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all” (Is 53:5-6). The obvious sense of these and similar verses is that this Servant—whom Christians see as having been realized in the sinless Jesus—in some way took our place, in some way endured the punishment that would otherwise have fallen upon us because of our own sins and transgressions. This was beautifully phrased in one of Charles Wesley’s hymns, of which two stanzas go as follows:

[Christ’s] mercy cast a pitying look,
By love unbounded love inclined,
Our guilt and punishment he took,
And died a Victim for mankind.

His blood procured our life and peace,
And quench’d the wrath of hostile Heaven.
Justice gave way to our release,
And God hath all my sins forgiven.
[Hymn 36]

I think there is no doubt but that this captures the predominant understanding of what is meant by affirming that Christ suffered and died for us. If it has any drawback, it may be that it leaves us, the recipients of this unbounded mercy, too passive, requiring of us only that we really affirm it to be true. I would therefore like to suggest another approach that has been suggested recently by some theologians, one of whom writes: “[Christ accepted the cross] because we too have to. His was a cross that had always been ours, the one way open to us, in a skewed world, for putting a stop to the consequences of our own malice without adding to them. Accepting that way, the way of the cross, was an act of solidarity with us and an offer of solidarity with him—an appeal for us to follow him by willingly taking up whatever crosses the world imposes, by making them occasions for joy, by forgiving [any who have wronged us].”1

I certainly don’t pretend that this is the last word, or even the best word, in the way any of us might reflect on what it means to say that Christ died for us. One might even object that it sounds more like “Christ died as one with us” than that he died “for us,” but surely the former statement is also true. Where Christ Jesus went, through the gates of death, we too will one day follow. And let us not forget that this is never the last word for a Christian, for it is also a central part of our faith that those gates are openings to a new and fuller life. As Cardinal Jean Daniélou once wrote, “Redemption does not mean some kind of ransom or settling of accounts .... It means Christ’s conflict with the powers of evil, his victory over them all, and his conquest of the kingdom of death.”2 In that conquest, may we too take heart and rejoice.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Charles Hefling, “Why the cross?” The Christian Century, March 20, 2013, pp. 26-27.
2 Jean Daniéloiu, quoted in A Word in Season¸ II, new ed. (Villanova, PA: Augustinian Press, 2001), 143.


Easter

  • March 31, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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In my homily on Good Friday I referred at some length to a passage from the 53rd chapter of the Book of Isaiah, and tonight we have heard readings from the two following chapters of the same book, passages that are among the most beautiful and consoling in the entire Bible. In the first of these two, the Lord addresses not only the people of Israel but us as well with words of great tenderness: “The Lord calls you back, like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit…. With enduring love I take pity on you, says the Lord, your redeemer…. My love shall never fall away from you, nor my covenant of peace be shaken, says the Lord, who has pity on you” (Is 54:6,8,10). In the second of the two readings from Isaiah we heard similar words of God’s mercy and readiness to forgive: “Let the wicked forsake their way, and sinners their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord to find mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving” (Is 55:7). Then, in our reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Apostle picks up the same theme of leaving behind a slavery to sin and reveling in a new way of life, one opened up to us by the resurrection of the Lord. Paul writes: “We were indeed buried with [Christ] through baptism into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life…. We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin…. Consequently you must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:4,6.11).

It is no doubt easy enough for many of us, who have heard such words year in and year out, to fail to realize how utterly central they are to our whole Christian way of life. Throughout the New Testament, there is an intimate relationship between the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of forgiveness of sins. The Fourth Gospel concludes an appearance of the risen Lord on the first Easter Day with these words of Jesus to his disciples: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:23). And in a passage from Luke’s Gospel that we will hear on Thursday of Easter Week, that evangelist writes that when Jesus appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem, he opened their minds to understand the scriptures and said to them: “Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Lk 24:45-47).

We ought never underestimate the power of this facet of the Good News. Historians of religion who seek to explain how Christianity spread so rapidly throughout the Mediterranean world in the early decades of the Church regularly focus on this theme of forgiveness of sin, this freedom from debilitating guilt. One such scholar asks, “What produced this love and joy in these early Christians?” and he answers that it was release from three intolerable burdens: from fear (including fear of death), from the cramping confines of a self-centered ego, and from guilt. Of the last of these three, he writes: “Recognized or repressed, guilt of some degree seems built into the human condition,… We may manage to keep [it] at bay while the sun is up, but in sleepless hours of the night it visits us…. In its acute form, it can rise to a fury of self-condemnation that shuts life down. Paul had felt its force … [saying]: ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ (Rom 7:24).”1

It may be that relatively few persons experience sinfulness to such a degree, but sadly it can afflict some in a very pernicious way. I once received a prayer request from a woman whom I have never met but for whom I have the utmost sympathy. In part, the request read as follows:

I would like to ask you for your prayer, because I am almost desperate. Please pray for deep healing for my soul… My soul is very strongly bound up with dense darkness … and obsessive lies about my guilt. I can’t say how exhausting this constant torture is. I am not able to move one step forward, not able to pray freely…. Please pray that the Lord deeply heal every moment of my previous life of sin with His unconditional love, that I may know with all of my heart His love for me and have total trust in His infinite mercy and every grace I need for my healing.

I don’t know any details about this person’s life, and I am not so naïve as to think that merely reading such beautiful texts on forgiveness and new life as we have heard this evening would free her from this obsessive sense of guilt. There may well be need for expert counseling. Surely someone so clearly devoted to God ought to experience the joy and peace that Christ Jesus wants for all his followers. But even those of us who have been spared that degree of pain must still recognize that we all fail in various ways and so need to make amends. The Rule of St. Benedict is very clear about this. He has a number of chapters on how to deal with monks who have committed various faults, and in these parts of the Rule he regularly speaks of the need for the offending monk to “make satisfaction.” Now just what does this mean? How does one “make satisfaction”? Actually, for Benedict it is pretty straightforward: humbly admit your fault. If the fault was public, then admit it to the whole community, even to the point of prostrating yourself at the feet of all the other monks. If the fault was private (or in Benedict’s words, “hidden in one’s conscience”), then Benedict writes that the monk is to reveal it “only to the abbot or to one of the spiritual elders, who know how to heal their own wounds as well as those of others, without exposing them and making them public” (RB 46.5-6).

That sounds simple enough, but if we’re honest I think we’d have to admit that it is not always easy to admit one’s sins or failings to others and ask their forgiveness, even though doing so is the absolutely first requirement on the way to reconciliation. Indeed, at times this may be all that is possible, if, for example, the person whom one has offended will not acknowledge or respond to one’s expression of repentance. Ideally, however, forgiveness will be extended, and only then can we speak of genuine reconciliation. I’ll give you a simple example of what I mean, not really dealing with anything deliberately sinful but something that was nevertheless regrettable. Not long ago I forgot all about something that I had agreed to do for a group of about forty people, who were definitely inconvenienced by my forgetfulness. When I later realized my oversight I felt really bad, calling myself names that I honestly could not repeat here. I also wrote to the person in charge of the program, apologizing as best I could but without any certainty that I would get a reply. Instead, I got back one of the most gracious messages I have ever received. It began with these words: “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, my brother,” and after some further sentences concluded with the admonition: “Don’t be harder on yourself than Christ would be. Happy Holy Week!”

I hope you don’t think that by recounting this little incident I have strayed too far from the momentous subject of our celebration this evening, the rising to new life of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This new life is not something that anyone is meant to enjoy all by himself or herself. Rather, it is to be shared in mutual love and concern, and one of the very best ways to do so is by graciously being willing to forgive one another for whatever sins or failings might stand in the way of genuine life together. The intimate connection between Jesus’ resurrection and the seeking and receiving of forgiveness that should mark our own lives was clearly seen by one of the greatest Fathers of the Church, St. Gregory Nazienzen. He spoke of it in his first very homily after priestly ordination, preached on Easter Sunday in the year 361. I’m pretty sure I quoted it once before, many years ago, but it is worth hearing again, and with these words of St. Gregory I will conclude my own homily:

This is the day of the Resurrection, and for me a fitting beginning [for my priestly service]. Let us all be united in heart, and let us give glory to God on this solemn festival. Let us address as brothers and sisters those who hate us, as well as those who love us and have helped us…. Let us forgive all things in the Resurrection.2

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Huston Smith, The World’s Religions (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 332-33.
2 St. Gregory Nazienzen, First Easter Homily. A slightly different translation is available from the Catholic Information Network at http://www.cin.org/easter1.html