Homilies - May 2013

Select a homily to read:
Our Common Humanity: May 2, 2013 by Abbot James
Sixth Sunday of Easter (at CUA): May 5, 2013 by Abbot James
Sixth Sunday of Easter (at St. Anselm's): May 5, 2013 by Fr. Christopher
Pentecost Sunday: May 19, 2013 by Abbot James
Changing the World: May 23, 2013 by Abbot James

Our Common Humanity

  • May 2, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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This is a talk given by Abbot James to the monastic community.

Most of you probably recall from Church history courses or some other source that in many monasteries of medieval Europe, especially communities of women, only persons belonging to the nobility were admitted. From the perspective of abbesses or other Church leaders at that time this was no doubt acceptable, just as we’ve been hearing during table reading how so many persons in the American South considered slavery altogether acceptable in the mid-nineteenth century. It’s worth noting, however, that the medieval practice was quite contrary to the mind of St. Benedict. Already in the second chapter of his Rule Benedict writes that a “man born free is not to be given higher rank than a slave who becomes a monk, except for some other good reason” (RB 2.18), and he justifies this by very appropriately quoting St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, where the Apostle writes that “whether slave or free, we are all one in Christ” (Gal 3:28). Benedict’s practice of not making distinctions based on birth or social standing is also clear from his later chapter on child oblates, which begins with some sentences about how “a member of the nobility” should go about offering “his son to God in the monastery” but which concludes with words about “poor people,” even “those who own nothing at all,” being able to do the same.

Surely no one would ever claim that these are the most important verses in the Rule, but they do have their special significance in our own day, when so much is being debated in Congress about whether (and how) persons who are variously called “illegal immigrants” or “undocumented aliens” could be incorporated into our society. If there were an easy answer to this question, we would not be having the tortured debate now going on. As I said in another connection on the recent feast of St. Catherine of Siena, we often hanker for simple, uncomplicated answers to questions, but these are seldom possible. What is, however, surely necessary in dealing with any of these social issues—whether it be slavery or immigration or same-sex marriage or prisoners at Guantanamo Bay or a multitude of other topics that have aroused fierce passions both past and present—is a recognition of the common humanity of everyone involved. Consider the example of the most notorious prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the admitted mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. At one of the hearings before a military court there he criticized what he considered our leaders’ narrow usage of the term “national security,” and he went on to say: “Your blood is not made of gold and our is made out of water. We are all human beings.” A Jesuit priest who was present at that hearing asked himself how it was possible to reconcile Mohammed’s confessed actions with his moral eloquence in the courtroom, so he later asked one of the Navy chaplains who works in the camp what he thought about the prisoner’s statement to the court. The chaplain replied: “He is right. We are all human beings. Only by God’s grace am I here and not in his seat…. All human beings are capable of terrible things. If any of us are free, it is by God’s grace.”1 We may rightly want to see justice done in this case, but never out of a spirit of vindictiveness.

One fine Christian thinker who has dealt with this sort of problem from the inside is Miroslav Volf, who was born in the former Yugoslavia and had to suffer not only the prejudice that came from belonging to a small Pentecostal sect in towns that were either overwhelmingly Catholic or Orthodox but also the pain of seeing his father imprisoned in a communist labor camp. Miroslav Volf eventually studied theology in Germany and now lives here in the United States, and his best-known book, Exclusion and Embrace, has been ranked among the most important theological works of the twentieth century. In it, and in various talks and articles, Volf wisely avoids simple answers to complicated questions. On the one hand, he recognizes that the adage of good fences making good neighbors has a certain sociological validity, but on the other hand he insists that these fences ought always have gateways that can be opened without a lot of fuss. In his words,

Instead of seeking to isolate ourselves from other groups by insisting on our pure identity, we should open ourselves to one another to be enriched by our differences. Of course, we will have to maintain group boundaries. If we did not, the bright colours of cultural multiformity would wash out into a drab grey of cultural sameness. We must cultivate our languages, sustain our traditions, nurture our culture. And all this requires boundary maintenance. At the same time, boundaries must be porous. Guests should be welcomed, and we should pay visits to our near and distant neighbours so that through cross-fertilization our respective cultures thrive, correcting and enriching each other.2

It is not far-fetched to see this attitude reflected in the Rule of St. Benedict, who on the one hand insists on a certain degree of separation from guests and yet wants the guests—whoever they may be, and he explicitly names the poor—to be welcomed as we would want to welcome Christ himself. I say all this not because I don’t think we already do it rather well, but simply to keep before our minds the centrality of this aspect of Benedictine life. As I’ve said before, we will often know only later what a life-changing experience some of our guests may have after just a few days among us, and there may well be other instances of this about which we will never hear anything. All that really matters is that we act as St. Benedict prescribes.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Luke Hansen, SJ, “Our Humanity Is at Stake,” The Catholic Worker, Jan.-Feb. 2013, p. 3.
2 Miroslav Volf, “Europe: Bosnia,” in Wim Beuken and Karl-Josef Kuschel, eds., Religion as a Source of Violence (Concilium, 1997, no. 4; London: SCM Press; Maryknoll: Orbis, 1997), 36.


Sixth Sunday of Easter (at CUA)

  • May 5, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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This is a homily given by Abbot James for the Caldwell Community at the Catholic University of America.

Four Sundays ago, on the octave day of Easter, we heard St. John’s account of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples when they were fearfully huddled behind locked doors. There, as elsewhere in the Gospels, his first words to them were “Peace be with you.” In today’s Gospel reading, taken from Jesus’ Last Supper discourse, we heard of his gift of that same peace: “I leave you peace; my peace I give you,” a kind of Semitic couplet that is repeated at every Eucharist shortly after we pray the Lord’s Prayer. There could hardly be anything that any of us could want more than peace, but what Jesus here promises is not the simple absence of warfare, nor an end to psychological tension, nor some sentimental feeling of well-being. The peace of Christ is really the fullness of salvation, that “eternal life” in which we are even now called to share and which elsewhere in John’s Gospel is called “light” and “life” and “truth” and “joy.” The distinctive quality of Jesus’ peace is further hinted at when he goes on to say, “Not as the world gives do I give it to you.”

Well, what is the difference? What is the way the world gives peace? Does the peace of Christ have anything at all to do with peace among religions or nations, of which there is precious little in so many parts of the world today: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq? In fact, Christ’s peace must have a great deal to do with such matters, since the way we are to live as his followers does not mean retreating to a ghetto and there ignoring the suffering that is being undergone by so many of our fellow human beings. Surely a huge difference between the peace of Christ and what he calls peace as the world gives it is that the world—that is, all who think and act contrary to God’s will—does tend to see peace among nations as simply the absence of active fighting. The signed document that we call a “peace treaty” may well be not much more than an agreement about the laying down of arms. However precious and desirable this may be, it is not the peace of Christ if rancor and acrimony still fester beneath the surface, or if the terms of the treaty are so unjust as to provoke renewed fighting a few decades hence, as certainly happened with the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I.

If that is true as regards peace among nations, it is just as true of peace within a nation, a local community, a family. St. Augustine got it exactly right in his comments on this part of John’s Gospel when he wrote that worldly people

give peace to one another precisely in order that, without the nuisance of lawsuits and wars, they may enjoy not God but their own friend, the world…. Peace cannot be true where there is no true heart-to-heart accord…. Therefore, let us, my beloved people, with whom Christ leaves peace and to whom he gives his peace, let us join with one another our hearts so that we may be heart-to-heart, [joining with one another] not as the world [does] but as He [does] through whom the world was made; and let us hold one heart uplifted, that it may not be corrupted on earth.1

Sadly, we have all heard about or possibly even witnessed damning evidence of what happens when there is a total lack of this heart-to-heart accord. A few years ago I saw on television the photograph of a dead sand viper lying somewhere in Iraq, a poisonous snake whose bite will kill a person within a few hours. As the photograph was being shown on the screen there was played a recording of a female soldier’s voice saying that such a snake had already killed two of the Iraqi prisoners, and then she added: “But who cares? It’s just two fewer that we have to be bothered about.” Of course, such callous attitudes are found not only among American soldiers. The alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, once laughed out loud at a legal hearing when the names of the victims of those attacks were read.

If that is anyone’s attitude toward one or more fellow human beings, it is not surprising there is so much hatred and lack of forgiveness in our world. The real issue for us, however, is this: It’s very easy to express shock and dismay at some of these revelations, to label the perpetrators as sadists or perverts. But can we say that we would never under any circumstances have done anything similar? A thoughtful email posting that I received a while back gave the sender’s four succinct reflections on the situation in parts of the Middle East, the fourth of these being a single phrase: “heart of darkness.” You will recognize that as the title of one of the most powerful stories in English literature, written by Joseph Conrad more than a century ago. In it, a character named Marlow tells of his encounter with Kurtz, who had some years earlier gone to Africa with the supposedly higher aim of civilizing the natives instead of merely plundering their wealth of ivory. And yet, Kurtz descended to such degradation that he has become “one of the greatest portraits in all fiction of moral deterioration and reversion to savagery ….”2 His final words about the natives were, “Exterminate all the brutes.”

We, too, surely like to think of ourselves as persons of high aims and broad good will, and we may secretly take pleasure in contrasting ourselves with the persons I mentioned earlier, or with the perpetrators of the killings in Boston or so many other sites of carnage. If so, it is sobering to reflect on what Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in his long account of his years in the Gulag Archipelago, of how his imprisonment there, for all of its suffering, brought him to insights that he would never otherwise have attained. In his words:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.3

As we continue our celebration of the Eucharist this morning, let us in particular pray for the grace that this corner of evil in our own hearts may become ever smaller, so that the Gospel’s promise about the Father and the Son’s dwelling within those who keep Jesus’ word may mean that the abode of our hearts will be as well prepared as possible.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 St. Augustine, “Tractate 77: On John 14.25-27,” in his Tractates on the Gospel of John, 55-111, trans. John W. Rettig, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1994), 105.
2 Albert J. Guerard, Introduction to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer (New York: New American Library, Signet Classics, 1950), 13.
3 Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 312. [in section entitled “The Ascent”]

Sixth Sunday of Easter (at St. Anselm's)

  • May 5, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Christopher

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In his farewell words at the last Passover supper Jesus promised his disciples that he and the Father would come to dwell in those who loved him and were true to his word. He also promised that the Father would send them the Holy Spirit to remind them of all he said and did, to guide them in all truth. These are the promises of the one who claimed to be the Truth itself, the one who said no one knows the Father but the Son and anyone to whom the Son reveals him. Contrarily he also said that no one came to him unless the Father had drawn him. Because those who accept Jesus as the one sent to be their savior are a gift to him from the Father, Jesus could rightly say, The Father is greater than I.

We see the promise of the guidance of the Holy Spirit come true in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles. As Paul and his Jewish companions began to proclaim the gospel to the gentiles, significant numbers began to accept this new way to salvation. This caused a dispute about how much of the Mosaic Law they had to observe in order to be numbered among those who are saved. This led to the gathering of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for a council to resolve the issue. Today’s reading omitted the addresses of Peter, James, Paul and Barnabas in the debate. It simply concluded with their decision not to lay any burden on the gentiles beyond what was strictly necessary.

In conveying their decision they boldly said, It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and ours to tell you these things. Many times since then the bishops and elders of the church have had to come together to resolve new issues about dogmatic truths and orthodox practices. Their decrees may not have said, “the Holy Spirit and we have decided such and such”, but surely they invoked the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth. Those councils are named for the place where they were held: some familiar ones being the Councils of Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, Lateran, Trent, and in our own times Vatican II.

We believe that the Holy Spirit was at work in guiding the deliberations and decisions of those councils that confirmed the creedal truths of our faith: about the full humanity and divinity of Jesus, Son of God; about Mary’s entitlement to be called Theotokos, the God-bearer, about the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Many antichrists have arisen and will continue to come forward with false interpretations of revelations, the meaning or absurdity of human suffering, and that there is no longer a need for God to explain the material world. “The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God.’” Might is right! Only the fittest, most adaptable to environmental changes, should be the survivors.

As the course of human history continues and things evolve, the church will have to deal with revivals of old errors newly dressed and with new ones. Two thousand and some years of history since the incarnation make it clear that the weeds and wheat will continue to grow together until God shakes out the wrinkles of creation, turns it to dust and blows it away. Then that new Jerusalem will come down from heaven where the glory of Jesus, the true Lamb of God, will cast forth its healing rays. Nothing will be left in the dark. All will be made right. All will be well, very well.

Until that happens the church must continue the fight to retain her freedom to proclaim the gospel to all nations. “Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!” We continue the liturgical cycle of remembrance of all God’s providential care for our poor fallen humanity generation after generation, century after century. The Easter season will soon end. Next Sunday we will celebrate Jesus’ ascension into heaven, taking with him our human nature to be glorified with the glory he had as Son of God before the world began.

In two weeks we will celebrate that promised gift of the Holy Spirit first bestowed on the disciples and Mary in the upper room at Pentecost. In our baptism and confirmation we too received that flame of enlightenment and driving wind of apostolic zeal from the Holy Spirit. By uniting ourselves with the most acceptable sacrifice of Jesus at this Eucharist, may we open ourselves to what the Spirit is saying to us individually in our life decisions and to the church universal in response to the challenges of our so-called post modern world with its culture of death, its secularism and materialism, its playing with life and genetics, its relativism and other aberrations from the truth.

How shall we be among the fittest to be the survivors? “Who then is the conqueror of the world? The one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” We can accept the testimony of the water, the blood, and the Spirit, for they are of one accord. Jesus Christ is Lord. He has won the victory for us. Let us claim it in boldness of spirit and firmness of faith. Alleluia.

Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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Pentecost Sunday

  • May 19, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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For the most part, we live in a part of the country that is spared extremes in weather. The full force of hurricanes is not felt this far inland, we seldom have mammoth blizzards, and even though summer heat can be oppressive, we are regularly spared the triple-digit temperatures that are common in cities like Phoenix and Dallas. There are, however, occasional tornadoes, two of which have done extensive damage in nearby La Plata, Maryland. What’s especially dangerous about such storms is that about 40% of them occur at night, when many people have already gone to bed and so are unaware of warnings broadcast on radio or television. The survivor of one later wrote: “The only thing more frightening than the sight and sound of a tornado approaching is one that strikes while you're asleep…. Nocturnal tornadoes, as they are called, are like nightmares that have come to life.”1 This kind of fierce wind, striking suddenly and without warning, is utterly destructive.

Something of the same unexpected suddenness occurred on the first Christian Pentecost. As St. Luke tells us in our first reading today, “When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were” (Acts 2:1-2). The huge difference, of course, is that here was not something destructive but life-giving, not something to be feared but to be welcomed, just as the Spirit always is in the New Testament. At Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, the Holy Spirit descended upon him and a voice from heaven declared him to be the Father’s beloved Son on whom his favor rested. Then, after his forty days in the desert, the evangelists tell us that Jesus returned to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” (Lk 4:14), and shortly thereafter he began his public ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth by applying to himself words from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor” (Lk 4:18).

Just as Jesus preached glad tidings in the power of the Spirit that was upon him, his first disciples proclaimed the Good News under the same impulse. St. Peter’s very first sermon applied to himself and his fellow disciples what had centuries earlier been voiced by the prophet Joel: “It will come to pass in the last days, God declares, that I will pour out a portion of my spirit upon all flesh. Yours sons and daughters shall prophesy …” (Acts 2:17). When Peter had finished preaching and the people asked him what they were then to do, he assured them that if they repented and were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, they would receive the gift of the same Spirit. Some days later, at the time of his first arrest, Peter replied to his interrogators boldly, “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 4:8), and when he and John were released and returned to their own people, Luke writes that as they all prayed, “the place where they were gathered shook, and they were all filled with the holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31).

It would be easy to point out the many other references to the Holy Spirit in Luke’s account of the history of the early Church. There’s no need to do that, but the key point to recognize is how very often—indeed, almost exclusively—these references are made in the context of proclaiming the Gospel to all peoples. But let us never forget that it was not merely the early disciples who were gifted with the Holy Spirit. Each member of the Church has received the same Spirit, which is perhaps the principal reason why we can rightly say that the Church is, by its very nature, missionary—by its very nature is called to go out to all the nations. I therefore want to reflect this morning on the missionary nature of the Church and what this means for each one of us.

When we hear the noun “missionary,” we almost inevitably think first of all of men and women associated with groups like Maryknoll or the Columban Fathers, whose members have gone to almost every part of the world planting the seed of the Gospel. Their dedication and heroism are legendary, but in recent times they themselves have come to recognize that some of their original ways of evangelization were too dismissive of the religious beliefs and practices of the people to whom they had been sent. I recently finished directing an excellent doctoral dissertation written by a priest from Kenya, a member of the Luo people, who live mostly in the western part of that country and in the neighboring areas of Uganda. Although his dissertation was characterized by academic rigor, it was obvious that he wrote with deep feeling about the way in which earlier missionaries to his ancestors had simply replaced African religious symbols with ones they had brought with them from Europe. By cutting the Luo people off from their traditional objects and symbols of faith, from the rites and customs that had given them a solid background for a firm belief in God, a religious vacuum was created that made it difficult for these people to experience God’s presence and providence. The prominent South African, Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu made the same point when he once wrote that “the African religious experience and heritage were not illusory, and they should have formed the vehicle for conveying the gospel … to Africa…. [We] had a genuine knowledge of God and … our own ways of communicating with [God], ways which meant we were abler to speak authentically as ourselves and not as pale imitators of others.”2

Nowadays, foreign missionaries are generally well aware of this truth and consequently try to build upon what is already positive in the religious beliefs and practices of the people to whom they are sent. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his great encyclical on missionary activity, Redemptoris Missio, “the Spirit’s presence and activity affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures, and religions. Indeed, the Spirit is at the origin of the noble ideals and undertakings which benefit humanity on its journey through history.”3 For us, who may not be going to other countries to proclaim the Gospel but who are nevertheless called to participate in the essentially missionary nature of the Church, the same principles apply. There are plenty of persons with whom we live and work who know little or nothing of the joy and peace and grandeur that can come from living an authentic Christian way of life, but the way to bring them to some awareness of this is certainly not by assuming or implying that everything about their present way of life is purely and simply wrong. Pope Francis has given us some helpful pointers in this regard through things that he said while still archbishop of Buenos Aires and that are now becoming widely available in English translation. As regards his meetings with atheists, for example, he had this to say:

When I speak with atheists, I will sometimes discuss social concerns, but I do not propose the problem of God as a starting point, except in the case that they [bring it up]. If this occurs, I tell them why I believe. But that which is human is so rich to share, and to work at that [level] … we can mutually complement our richness…. I do not approach the relationship in order to proselytize or to convert the atheist. I respect him and I show myself as I am. Where there is knowledge, there begins to appear esteem, affection, and friendship. I do not have any type of reluctance, nor would I say that his life is condemned, because I am convinced that I do not have the right to make a judgment about the honesty of that person, even less if he shows me those human virtues that exalt others and do me good.4

It should not surprise us that this approach has received an appreciative welcome on the part of non-believers, one of whom recently wrote: “I do believe the pontiff to be a genuine man when it comes to taking care of the poor, and perhaps we will see an increased interest in combating poverty from the Catholic Church…. I believe that Catholics and atheists can work together, just as all of humanity can work together towards equality and justice when we put the needs of modern people first …”5 In the power of the life-giving Spirit who was breathed upon us at the time of our baptism and who is called down to transform and vivify the bread and wine at each celebration of the Eucharist, may we put the needs of all our brothers and sisters first, serving them with generosity and good will in whatever ways we can.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Becky Kellogg, “Night Tornadoes Particularly Deadly,” http://www.weather.com/outlook/weather-news/news/articles/nocturnal-tornadoes_2011-04-04 (accessed May 14, 2013).
2 Desmond Tutu, “Whither African Theology,” in Edward Fasholé-Luke et al., eds., Christianity in Independent Africa (London: Rex Collins, 1978), 364..
3 Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, no. 28.

4 Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka , On Heaven and Earth, trans. Alejandro Bermudez and Howard Goodman (New York: Random House, Image Books, 2013), 12-13.
5 Luis Ruuska, “Why This Atheist Has a New Hope in Pope Francis,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/luis-ruuska/pope-francis-_b_2917860.html (accessed May 15, 2013).

Changing the World

  • May 23, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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This is a talk given by Abbot James to the monastic community.

I once asked a very good friend of mine who is a diocesan priest why he had chosen that path in life. His answer was both quick and simple: “To save my soul.” If we were to look at various parts of the Rule of St. Benedict, we might well conclude that that is the sort of answer Benedict himself would have expected of a candidate. For example, he writes in his Prologue that we are to obey God at all times so that “he may never become the angry father who disinherits his sons” (Prol. 6), and a bit later he urges each monk to “run and do now what will profit us forever” (Prol. 44). There is also good Gospel warrant for such motivation, as when Jesus asks: “What will it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?” (Mk. 8:36).

That being said, I’m not at all sure that this has been or should have been the primary motivation of most people who enter a monastery or other form of consecrated life. It certainly wasn’t mine. Having had good, devout parents, I never doubted that I could just as well have attained salvation if I had followed their path in life. I expect that many of you, too, joined the community mainly because you saw it as an especially good way to serve God and the Church, and even to do something positive beyond the somewhat narrow bounds of the Church—that is, to be of service to the larger society in which we live. The question is, how might this best be done in our time and place, an era that many call “late modernity”? One of the more thoughtful reflections on this issue is from a professor of religion at the University of Virginia, James Davison Hunter. Even though a book he wrote is titled To Change the World, he actually argues very strenuously that that kind of language is harmful. In his opinion, talk of “reforming the culture,” “building the kingdom,” or “transforming the world” implies conquest, take-over, and domination and assumes that the world and history can be controlled and managed, leading one to treat God mainly as a tool for achieving one’s objectives. Professor Hunter writes, “Christianity is not, first and foremost, about establishing righteousness or creating good values or securing justice or making peace.” We may indeed pursue such values passionately, but they “are all secondary to the primary good of God himself and the primary task of worshipping him and honoring him in all [we] do.”1 If you agree with that, then it is encouraging to reflect that this is precisely where the Benedictine Rule places the emphasis. As you well know, Benedict writes that nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God, so when the signal is given for that, whatever else the monk is doing should be set aside (RB 43.1-3).

As regards those secondary but still laudable aims—ones like promoting good values and securing justice—one helpful way to understand our Christian role in a society that is as pluralistic today as in the days of the early Church is to look at a short work from the second century, written by an anonymous Christian to a certain Diognetus, who was probably the tutor of Marcus Aurelius. This so-called “Letter to Diognetus” makes the following points:

Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe…. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities … and following the customs of the natives with respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life…. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.

There is much in that letter that is not directly applicable to the Church today, but a crucial point is that we don’t live entirely apart from the rest of society. Rather, we live in the midst of many other people of quite different persuasions than our own, and we are called to be genuinely concerned for their welfare and not just for that of our fellow Christians, and so “to provide for the physical, aesthetic, intellectual, and social health of the [entire] community” in which we find ourselves.

There are all sorts of ways in which this can be done. If we take seriously what the New Testament says about Christ’s having “despoiled the principalities and powers” (Col. 2:15), those forces that are elsewhere called “the world rulers of the present darkness” (Eph. 6:12), then we should feel empowered to act in creative ways, above all in our community’s particular works of education and hospitality. As regards education, a recent article in America magazine titled “Preambles for Faith” made some thought-provoking suggestions. The author, who teaches at a Jesuit preparatory school in southern California, pointed out that since many young people do not think much about religion because they consider it so unverifiable, it is therefore “an indispensable duty of a Catholic school … to animate a spirit of inquiry, a spirit that extends beyond what they see through a microscope or plug into a calculator.”2 He goes on to insist that this spirit can be inculcated not just in religion or theology courses but in all others, whether English or Algebra I or environmental science, leading the students to ask, “How can this be? What else am I missing? What else have I not known?” for “it is only when students relinquish their certainty about inherited beliefs that they rethink their resistance to God.”3 Courses in the visual arts and music may be especially beneficial in this regard, for it is the gift of great artists “to demonstrate in ways that are imaginative and compelling that materiality is not enough for a proper understanding of human experience; that there is a durability and permanence as well as eternal qualities that exist beyond what we see on the surface of life.”4

As regards our other main work, hospitality, while the role of the guestmaster is obviously crucial, we ought never overlook the fact that it is the community as a whole that may well make the most profound and positive impression on a guest. I’ve quoted before the anonymous email we received a few years ago from a former guest who underwent a remarkably transforming experience after a few days here and who attributed it largely to the example of the community as such. That guest wrote: “To see men live happily and so simply and to have all of their needs met showed me how little one really needs to be happy. Whereas the focus I had prior to arrival was on external things that could make me happy, I realized that weekend that all material things will eventually decay and bring sorrow—and that true joy can only be found inside, in the love of Christ himself.”

The words of that guest are simple, but they do capture a lot of what people are up against in today’s world, where, as Professor Hunter writes, many people are socially predisposed “to measure human worth and to find personal significance in material possessions, in appearance, in minor celebrity, or career success.”5 Even if we ought to agree with him that it would not be helpful to think of our life and work in pompous terms like “changing the world,” there is no doubt but that we can make a difference in the lives of the various kinds of people we serve: students, Oblates, short- and long-term guests, fellow worshipers, readers of our publications, and so on. The imminent summer break from school could be a good time for all of us to think creatively and even boldly about ways to do this still better than at present.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 285-86.
2 Matt Emerson, “Preambles for Faith,” America, May 13, 2013, p. 15.

3 Ibid., 16..
4 Hunter, 265.
5 Ibid., 282.