Homilies - April 2014

Select a homily to read:
Talk: Thomas Merton and Buddhism: April 5, 2014 by Abbot James
Fifth Sunday of Lent: April 6, 2014 by Fr. Gabriel
Palm Sunday: April 13, 2014 by Abbot James
Holy Thursday: April 17, 2014 by Abbot James
Good Friday: April 18, 2014 by Abbot James
Easter Vigil : April 19, 2014 by Abbot James
Second Sunday of Easter: April 27, 2014 by Fr. Boniface
Feast of St. Anselm: April 28, 2014 by Abbot James
Funeral of Fr. Patrick Granfield: April 30, 2014 by Abbot James

Talk: Thomas Merton and Buddhism

  • April 5, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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The following talk was sponsored by the International Thomas Merton Society.

Over the several decades of these lectures sponsored by the local chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society, many of the talks have been given by Trappist monks such as James Conner and Maurice Flood who knew Merton as a confrere, or by scholars such as William Shannon and Christine Bochen who have written or edited books about him and have served as officers of the international society. I fit into neither category but was invited to speak today for a rather different reason. The Merton Discussion Group that meets monthly at the abbey recently began reading Merton's Asian Journal, and since some of those who attend those meetings know little about Buddhism, a religious tradition that figures so prominently in that journal, it was suggested that since I have long been involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, it might be helpful to have me say something first about Buddhism; second, about how Merton came to be interested in it; and third, about some of the ways that tradition influenced him and what he did (or did not) gain from the exposure.

An Overview of Buddhism

I dare not call this first part even Buddhism 101, for it can be only the briefest of summaries of what one might learn in a course lasting for an entire semester, not to mention all that some scholars have learned by devoting their entire life to one or another aspect of Buddhist teaching or practice. Nevertheless, I trust that what I will say will prove to be a useful introduction to this fascinating tradition, after which I will turn to Merton's own encounters with Buddhist texts and Buddhist practitioners.

Just as Christianity takes its name from what was originally the title of a person, "the Christ," signifying that Jesus of Nazareth was "the anointed one," so Buddhism takes its name from the title of a man who can to be known as "the enlightened one" or "the awakened one" (either term being an acceptable translation of the word "Buddha") There is no way of knowing the year of his birth or death, but both very likely occurred sometime in the fifth century before the common era. He was born in what is modern-day Nepal into the warrior-caste Gautama family, his father being a member of the ruling council of the Sakya clan. The earliest texts do not give his personal name, but later ones say it was Siddhartha, meaning "one who has achieved his goal." His early life was one of relative luxury. An early text has him saying: "I was comfortable, extremely comfortable…. Day and night a white canopy was held over me to protect me from the cold, heat, dust, chaff or dew. I had three palaces, one for winter, one for summer, and one for the rainy season."1 In young adulthood he married a woman named Yasodhara, who bore him a son named Rahula, so it seemed to those around him that Siddhartha had everything that one could reasonably hope for in life. And yet that same early text goes on to say that he was disturbed by certain aspects of the human condition that seemed unavoidable: old age, illness, death. Later texts expand on this by an enchanting story that claims his father tried to keep the very knowledge of such things away from his son but that eventually, on chariot trips outside the palace grounds, Siddhartha one day saw a decrepit old man, on another day someone suffering terribly from a disease, and on a third day a corpse. These were the first three of the so-called Four Passing Sights, the final one being the sight of a monk sitting placidly in the lotus position, unperturbed by all the suffering around him. The texts say that this final sight led him to recall a time in his own life when he had entered a state of calm meditation, giving him an inkling that there might well be a way to cope with all the dissatisfactions we meet on our life's journey.

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Abbot James Wiseman
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1Quoted by Donald W. Mitchell, Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 12.

Fifth Sunday of Lent

  • April 6, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Fr.. Gabriel

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It is not Easter yet. Then we will say, “Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death has no dominion over him.” But that is not what Lazarus gets to say. He will die again; death still has dominion over him. Therefore his story has an element of sadness, even in its dramatic climax, when Jesus says, “unbind him; let him go.” For me, the ending is less interesting than the dynamics which lead up to it.

This story gives a closer picture of interpersonal relationships than most gospel stories. Of the four main characters, only Lazarus is something of a cipher. We are told the others love him; he gets sick and dies. That is all. I wonder if he was the indulged younger brother of two proud sisters.

A key to the story is love. This is a trite thing to say. But love is what makes us human: receiving it, allowing it to shape our personalities, passing it on in significant relationships--or enduring the loneliness when the kind of love we want is absent or no longer there.

We are told that Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus. This seems to mean the “ordinary” kind of love, our kind. Though not supernatural, it is a great kind. It means accepting the other, with all the idiosyncracies at a deep level. Each character here is distinctive. Martha bustles; Mary languishes; Lazarus is emotionally remote.

Martha’s extroversion serves others. Her family benefits from her ability to get a meal on the table. But intellectually she stays on the surface. She meets Jesus in the road, and their conversation is entirely correct, but it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t empower. On the other hand, when she steps back to give her sister center stage, her humility is a beautiful thing.

Mary is a dreamer. Her passivity is exasperating. When Martha goes to meet Jesus in the road, Mary stays sitting in the house. I would like to shake her. When Martha insists she get up, she rises quickly and runs out of the house. She falls at Jesus’ feet, and laments. She is impulsive and theatrical. On the other hand, she is more deeply in touch with the tragedy of her brother’s death than the others. It might be said that she puts Jesus in touch with his grief. On another occasion Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with precious ointment. The fragrance of the ointment “fills the house,” which is a way of saying that everyone is exalted by her action. Mary is impractical, but her impracticality reaches places that Martha’s housekeeping does not.

Dare I do any character analysis on Jesus, from a human viewpoint? He is more divine in John’s gospel than in any other New Testament writer. But here his delay, not coming when requested, seems callous. Oh, he justifies it (“it was for your sake that I came late”), but in anyone not sinless, this would sound like a guilty conscience. His behavior becomes more understandable and humane when he grieves, which seems to hold the power of this miracle.

First, uniquely in the gospels, Jesus weeps. Lazarus seems to be gone to a place beyond reach. Jesus feels lonely and abandoned, no less than the sisters feel.

Second, also uniquely, Jesus groans in spirit—he does so twice. Alternate readings—being troubled, feeling perturbed--seem inadequate for the gut-wrenching physicality of grief. When a loved one dies we protest; we long for the impossible, for the person to come back. Such experience is described by Paul in Romans 8. “The whole creation groans in agony; and not only creation, but we ourselves groan inwardly as we await redemption. We cannot pray as we should, so the Spirit prays for us in groans too deep for words.”

But Jesus does use words, as we must. This is the third phase. His words are surprisingly self-effacing. “Thank you, Father, for hearing me. You always do. But now I ask that you confirm what I do.” Then follow the loud cry and the coming forth. We are left to imagine the reaction. Heads may have turned away in horror. There is as much anxiety as delight in any profound experience. We enter the story by bringing our own unmanageable experience.

It is a case study in primal realities. From these not even love or faith can shield us. The Lazarus story does not end neatly: for the main characters it seems unfinished. We would like to know what happened to them. So I will add an epilogue from the HBO series “Six Feet Under.” Devotees know this as the edgy adventures of a family-run funeral home in Los Angeles. A minor character, Tracy Montrose-Blair, is a pretty, perky, chattering, and obnoxious, funeral-groupie. She sniffs out death rituals the way the rest of us sniff out Starbucks. She gets a thrill from giving canned condolence, and putting the moves on an emotionally unavailable undertaker. Death definitely has dominion over her.

Then there is an amazing scene. She comes to the funeral home to say, “My Aunt Lillian is dead. Her husband and daughter died in a car accident many years ago, but she lived on. She raised Welsh corgis and took up watercolor painting. She loved me; she was the only one who did. My parents found me annoying (as you do), and my ex-husband certainly didn’t love me. I have always been lonely, but now I’m finding there’s a whole new dimension to loneliness that I had never imagined. My Aunt Lillian is dead.”

Immaculate in black dress and pearls (her groupie attire), Tracy Montrose-Blair is no longer trivial or obnoxious. She lifts her tear-stained face to ask, “Why do people have to die?” Not being Jesus, the young undertaker does the best he can. “To make life important. None of us knows how long we’ve got. So we must make each day matter. It sounds like Aunt Lillian did that. So you can be happy for her. For a life well-lived.”

This is not all the Lazarus story has to say. But it is not a fantasy story making the power and pain of death disappear. Instead it speaks symbolically. Under the anguish there is goodness, joy, and life, which, as Jesus shows, not even death can destroy. In the epilogue Tracy is the dead one, our representative. As she was raised up by Aunt Lillian’s love, so may we, in our losses, be raised to the place where death has no dominion.

Fr. Gabriel Myers
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Palm Sunday

  • April 13, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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We begin today the most sacred week of the year, Holy Week, which is surely called "holy" not simply because it commemorates the passion, death, and resurrection of the all-holy, sinless Christ Jesus but also because all of this is intended to lead us to holiness. On this latter point, it is crucial to keep in mind that the words "holiness" and "wholeness" do not sound alike by mere coincidence. No, they come from the same root, which tells us that a truly holy person is "whole," that is, "integrated, undivided." Our entire need for redemption stems from the basic truth that all too often we have been divided, especially in our will. In the New Testament, this division is nowhere so forcefully expressed as when St. Paul, writing to the Romans, laments: "I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate" (Rom 7:15), and again a few verses later: "I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want" (Rom 7:19). This inclination or tendency to do what is wrong even against our own basic desires for the good is, more than anything else, the reason why Christians have always recognized their need for a redeemer, a savior, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Just how we understand Jesus is, however, not a matter of ready-made or universal agreement, but it matters a great deal in how we understand ourselves, our own prayer, the very way we live our lives. I want to illustrate the challenge by looking at one of the most important verses in the Passion narrative that we just heard. There in the garden of Gethsemane, as his closest followers keep dozing off, Jesus prays: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will" (Matt 26:39). This surely means that Jesus underwent genuine distress at the thought of his impending death. That's why we speak of his agony in the garden, and yet some important theologians have been reluctant at attribute such distress to him. The first great theologian of the early Church, Origen of Alexandria, notes that the Passion narrative has Jesus praying that this cup pass from him, suggesting that Jesus knew that there were various kinds or cups of martyrdom possible for him and that he was probably praying for another kind that was even harder, so that still greater benefits for a greater number of persons would be accomplished through some other cup.1 I'm sure we all find such reasoning strange, but it comes from a reluctance to acknowledge that Jesus really was like us in all things but sin and would therefore have experienced an altogether natural aversion to a painful death--crucifixion being so terrible a way to die that it was illegal for Roman citizens to be executed in this way.

I doubt that any of us would have that kind of difficulty with Jesus' prayer there in the garden of Gethsemane or with the distress that led him to say, "My soul is sorrowful even to death" (Matt 26:38), but there is another kind of response that has been more widespread and longer lasting. An almost perfect example would be in a treatise "On Detachment" that has been attributed to the well-known medieval Dominican Meister Eckhart, who remains so popular today that there is an international society dedicated to the study and promotion of his writings. In that treatise, whether written by Eckhart himself or by one of his followers, the author claims that Christ's speaking of being sorrowful even unto death was spoken only by what he calls "the outer man," whereas his "inner man" (which we might say was his "true self") remained wholly free in immovable detachment. As you would expect, the author says that we ourselves should give so much emphasis to our "inner man" (our "inner self") as not to pray to receive anything in particular from God or to have God take anything painful away from us. In the words of that treatise, "a heart in detachment asks for nothing, nor has it anything of which it would gladly be free. So it is free of all prayer, and its prayer is nothing else than for uniformity with God."2

This has been called a "stern-minded attitude,"3 which regards concern over earthly joys or sorrows decidedly secondary and ideally to be altogether transcended. Thus Eckhart says in one of his sermons: "Throw all anxiety out of your heart…. Even if I had to see with my own eyes my father and all my friends killed, my heart would not be moved by it…. I have rightful joy only when neither sufferings nor torments can ravish it from me."4 Or again, in his "Counsels on Discernment" (sometimes called "Talks of Instruction"), Eckhart writes that "the most powerful prayer … and the most honorable of all works, is that which proceeds from an empty spirit…. [And] what is an empty spirit? An empty spirit is one that is confused by nothing, attached to nothing,… and has no concern whatever in anything for its own gain, for it is all sunk deep down into God's dearest will and has forsaken its own."5

Taken to its extreme point, this could lead a person to have no will of his or her own but always to pray purely and simply that God's will be done. Eckhart says as much in what is probably his most famous sermon, which includes the lines: "I tell you by the truth that is eternal, so long as you have a will to fulfill God's will … then you are not [truly] poor, for a poor man is one who has a will and a longing for nothing."6 This sounds heroic, but it has the huge problem of taking us away from the example and teaching of our truest master, Christ Jesus, who clearly prayed for release from the suffering that he feared would soon befall him. That "stern-minded attitude" will always and inevitably have to gloss over or try to explain away Jesus' prayer, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me."

Far more faithful to Gospel teaching is Eckhart's medieval Dominican confrere Thomas Aquinas, who recognized the truth that lay behind those words of St. Paul that I quoted at the beginning of this homily. Paul could lament that he often did what he did not want to do because there really is a sense in which we have more than one will: on the one hand, there is what Aquinas would later call our "sensuous will" and our "rational will acting by natural instinct," and on the other hand, our "rational will modified by [good] judgment." 7There is nothing wrong or reprehensible about the former, provided only that we don't allow it to be the final arbiter of our decisions, and that is precisely what Jesus did not allow when he added that crucial phrase in his prayer to his heavenly Father, "yet not as I will but as you will." There is nothing intrinsically wrong with our natural impulses, our instinctive desires, as long as we respect the proper hierarchy. St. Thomas is eminently clear on this when he writes:

Christ prayed in this way with the object of offering us a threefold teaching. First, he wished to reveal to us that he had assumed a true human nature together with all its natural urges. Second, he wished to show that it is permissible for a person to entertain an instinctive affection for something which God does not will. Third, he wished to show that one must submit his own impulses to the divine will. [Thomas then quotes the following passage from St. Augustine's commentary on one of the Psalms.] So we find Augustine saying, "Christ, existing as a man, reveals a man's particular desire when he says, 'Let this cup pass from me.' This was his human will speaking, seeking its own individual satisfaction. But because he wished to be a just man, following the paths of God, he added, 'Yet not as I will, but as you will.' It is as though he were saying [to us]: 'See yourself in me; your will may have its own desires even though different from those of God.'"8

I hope you will forgive me if this seemed like too theological a reflection, for I am well aware that in some circles today the very word "theological" has the very negative connotation of "removed from reality." But in this case, at least, there are truly practical conclusions we may draw from the theology, above all about the rightness of praying for particular goods, not only as we see Jesus doing in his prayer in the garden but also in his instruction about the Lord's Prayer, or in his telling us to pray for our persecutors, or (in his discourse about the end times) to "pray that your flight be not in winter or on the sabbath" (Matt 24:20), not to mention all the things that St. Paul asks his communities to pray for in his various letters. For us, this means that we ought indeed to pray--and pray fervently--for restoration to health of those among our relatives or friends who are ill, for peace for those suffering the ravages of war in places like Syria and the Central African Republic, for safety for travelers, for decent employment for those who have long been out of work, for freedom for persons who have been abducted or unjustly imprisoned, and for all the other things that regularly and rightly find a place in our general intercessions at every celebration of the Eucharist. But because what we ought desire most of all is that God's will be done, and because we cannot always know just what God wills in particular cases, may our prayer always include, at least implicitly if not verbally, that all-important phrase that our Lord Jesus added there in the garden of Gethsemane: "Yet not as I will, but as you will."

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Origen, An Exhortation to Martyrdom, in Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, First Principles: Book IV, Prologue to the Commentary on the Song of Songs, Homily XXVII on Numbers, trans. Rowan A. Greer (New York: Paulist, 1979), 61.
2 "On Detachment," in Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, trans. Edmund Colledge, O.S.A., and Bernard McGinn (New York: Paulist, 1981), 292.
3 Eleonore Stump, "Not My Will but Thy Will Be Done: Aquinas and Eckhart on Willing What God Wills," Medieval Mystical Theology 22, no. 2 (2013), 161.
4 Eckhart, Sermon "See What Love," in Meister Eckhart: Mystic and Philosopher, trans. Reiner Schürmann (Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1978), 135-36.
5 Eckhart, "Counsels on Discernment," in Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, 248.
6 Eckhart, Sermon "Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit," in Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, 200.
7 See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q. 18, art. 5.
8 Ibid., q. 21, art. 2. The quotation from Augustine is from his commentary on Psalm 32.

Holy Thursday

  • April 17, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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Although we usually refer to today's feast as Holy Thursday, it is also quite commonly called Maundy Thursday. It was many years before I was curious enough to find out where that word "Maundy" comes from. As you may well know, it's an old English corruption of the Latin word mandatum, meaning "commandment," referring to Jesus' new commandment to his disciples to love one another as he loved them, a love symbolized by his washing their feet at the Last Supper. Used as a noun, "maundy" actually means this ceremony of foot washing. Before reflecting on what it can mean for us today, I want to say something about the way in which this rite developed over the course of the centuries. I hope you will find this short history both interesting and informative.

To start with Scripture, if you consider carefully what Jesus says in today's Gospel to explain why he washed the disciples' feet, he actually gives two reasons. First, in his dialogue with Peter, he says that it is a means of sanctification, a way of becoming more closely united to him, for he tells Peter: "Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me" (Jn 13:8). This reason led some of the early Christian churches, especially in Milan, to make foot washing an integral part of the baptismal ritual, the sacrament whereby one first becomes united to Christ in his Church. St. Ambrose, the great fourth-century bishop of that city, called the washing of the feet of those being baptized "a mystery and a sanctification," without which one could have no part in Jesus.

This understanding of foot washing did not, however, gain widespread acceptance within the Church, leaving the field open for the second reason that Jesus gives in our Gospel passage, namely, its being an example of humble service that his disciples are to follow. We Benedictines are especially familiar with this reason, for St. Benedict mentions the practice twice in his Rule. In his chapter on the reception of guests, he says that after the community greets and prays with those who have come seeking hospitality, "the abbot shall pour water on the hands of the guests, and the abbot with the entire community shall wash their feet" (RB 53:13). This service of foot washing was also regularly extended to the members of the monastic community, for in his chapter on the weekly kitchen servers St. Benedict says that the one who is ending his weekly service and the one just beginning it are together "to wash the feet of everyone" (RB 35:9). This practice definitely caught on. In some monasteries the ceremony of washing the feet of guests was practiced almost every day, while in others it was done only weekly or during certain seasons. At the abbey of St. Martin in Marmoutier, there were occasionally as many as 300 persons who would have their feet washed at one time. In the medieval monasteries, it was especially poor guests who received this service, which therefore came to be called the Mandatum Pauperum, the washing of the feet of the poor. In the Middle Ages, bishops would practice something similar in their dioceses, in particular on Holy Thursday, the day that most directly recalls Jesus doing this for his disciples at the Last Supper.

Historians of ecclesiastical music have studied the chants that regularly accompanied the foot washing, and as you might expect the one that was usually sung first was the following: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you, says the Lord." Similar antiphons followed, such as "Let us love one another, for love is from God. The one who loves his brother is born of God, and lives in him," or again, "Where there is charity and love, there is the gathering of the saints." Clearly the texts of these chants were chosen to exhort the congregation to practice humble service in imitation of Jesus and to serve as a means of fostering love and unity among themselves. Similar chants were (and still are) found in the Eastern Church, including this beautiful antiphon: "United by the bond of love and offering themselves to Christ the Lord, the apostles were washed clean, and with feet made beautiful, they preached to all the Gospel of peace."1

There was, however, for centuries no uniformity throughout the Western Church concerning this rite. All that changed with the liturgical reform of Pope Pius XII in 1956, when the foot washing was specified as part of the revised Holy Week services. No longer was there any emphasis on washing the feet of the poor, apparently because it was felt that this unduly singled out that particular group and exposed them to some embarrassment. The rubrics simply said that twelve men should be chosen from the congregation and led into the sanctuary, where the presiding priest would wash their feet. The number twelve was obviously chosen to represent the number of the apostles at the Last Supper, while the priest would similarly be representing Christ. The reformed rite thereby became a symbolic liturgical drama, and one with considerable potential for emphasizing better than mere words the importance of humble service to others.

However, like almost any liturgical ceremony, there is a potential downside to this kind of drama, in which the one presiding at the service is the only one doing the washing. One historical theologian puts the danger this way: "The notion of making a fine display of one's humility can be attractive to some people…. The washing of the feet ritual where 'the leader' does it to others who are somehow 'less' than him can all too easily be subverted into [a kind of] game. But this becomes impossible if each member of the community has to both wash feet and have feet washed--now it becomes a radical statement of equality. Each and every person is to be a servant of the others, and it is the mutuality of service that lets each discover both the challenge of being a disciple and the dignity of being in Christ."2 This practice of mutual foot washing is actually practiced in some small communities descending from the Radical Reformation, such as Anabaptists, Mennonites, and Moravians. From what I have read, the totality of the experience--including personal discomfort, the practical messiness of a damp floor, and thoughtful reflection in hindsight--can be positively transformative for those on the path of discipleship. I am definitely not advocating mutual foot washing here, where the numbers are too large and the space too small, but even our more modest "symbolic liturgical drama" can have a positive effect on everyone present if all of us are really mindful of what is being symbolized, what the Vatican's Congregation of Divine Worship speaks of as the call "to be generous in the works of Christian charity."

If we are to be truly generous in this way, I think we must first admit that there is a "messiness" involved that is far more profound than that of the damp floor that might result from mutual foot washing. There are always going to be far more calls on our love and compassion than can actually be met, and at times this could become so mind-numbing as to lead us to do nothing because we can't possibly do everything. Those who have traveled in especially poverty-stricken parts of the world will have had the experience of giving some money to one child asking help and immediately being besieged by a dozen others who seemingly came out of nowhere asking for similar help. Even in our own city, which may have fewer destitute people than Calcutta or Dhaka, there are thousands who are homeless, some of them this very night sleeping on the ground under expressway bridges or else facing eviction from an apartment that is barely livable in the first place. Happily, there are those who work on what we can call "the front lines" to meet these challenges. One good example is SOME (So Others Might Eat), founded by Fr. Horace McKenna in 1970 primarily to provide nutritional meals for the needy and subsequently expanding to include a medical clinic, a job-training program, and an affordable housing program. Another such group is Christ House, one of their facilities located here in D.C., another in northern Virginia. All such groups maintain websites with detailed information about the kinds of work volunteers can provide. It could well be that someone listening to this homily has enough time to volunteer his or her services for at least some hours each week. There could scarcely be a more specific or practical way of taking on Christ's mandatum to love others as he loved us. And for those who for any reason cannot volunteer their services, at the very least we can all support this kind of work by generous donations of money or clothing. It is so very striking how much St. Paul in some of his letters emphasized the importance of his various communities supporting the needs of the church at Jerusalem with their donations. May all of us take to heart the similar opportunities before us, opportunities to do exactly what Jesus commands and commends in the final sentence of today's Gospel: "I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do."

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 These antiphons are all taken from Peter Jeffrey, "Mandatum Novum Do Vobis: Toward a Renewal of the Holy Thursday Footwashing Rite," Worship 64 (1990); 121-23.
2 Thomas O'Loughlin, "From a Damp Floor to a New Vision of Church: Footwashing as a Challenge to Liturgy and Discipleship," Worship 88 (2014):143.

Good Friday

  • April 18, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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Just as at yesterday's Mass of the Lord's Supper I spoke about the development of the rite of foot washing, this afternoon I want to reflect on the centuries-long development of an integral part of every Good Friday service, the veneration of the cross. The cross is, of course, the most common of all Christian symbols, and learning something of the different ways in which our forerunners in the faith venerated it may enhance our own understanding and appreciation of what Christ's cross can and should mean in our own lives.

If we Christians ever ask ourselves what was the most significant happening in the first century of our era, we naturally think of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but for the Jewish people the most significant event would have been the conquest of Jerusalem by the Roman general Titus in the year70. About a half-century later, the emperor Hadrian founded a Roman colony on the ruins of the city, intending it to be inhabited by his legionnaires. This meant that the places consecrated by the passion and death of Jesus had been profaned and even deserted. Only after the emperor Constantine became a patron of the Christian faith in the fourth century was it possible for the bishop of Jerusalem to have excavations made to ascertain the location of these holy sites. Calvary was identified and the wood of the cross discovered--and this had everything to do with the origin of the ceremony that evolved in the succeeding centuries and that we will participate in this afternoon.

The earliest evidence we have of veneration of the cross comes from the diary of a woman named Egeria, who traveled from Spain to the Holy Land around the year 380 and left us precious details about the religious services held in Jerusalem during Holy Week. She writes that on Good Friday morning a gold and silver box containing the holy wood of the cross was brought to Golgotha and placed on a table before the bishop, who was seated there. Then, she writes, "all the people, catechumens as well as faithful, come up one by one to the table. They stoop down over it, kiss the Wood, and move on.."1 This veneration was a rite by itself, distinct from a service with readings from Scripture and preaching by the bishop held later in the day.

Relics of the cross were soon sent to other parts of the Christian world. In Rome, veneration of a relic of the sacred wood developed as part of a longer liturgy instead of remaining simply a way for individuals to express their devotion. A Roman ordo from the first half of the eighth century describes a procession from the Lateran Basilica to the Church of the Holy Cross, with the pope and his ministers walking barefoot in front of a reliquary containing the precious relic, while cantors chanted verses from Psalm 118. On arriving at the church, the reliquary was opened and placed on the altar by the pope, who then prostrated himself in prayer before the altar, rose, kissed the relic, and went to stand at his chair as the other ministers proceeded to kiss the cross in their turn. Afterward, the relic was brought from the altar to the edge of the sanctuary where the laity could likewise venerate it with a kiss. All the while, readings from Scripture were being proclaimed.

Several decades later, another Roman ordo describes the extension of the veneration to various churches throughout the city and its suburbs. No longer was it a matter of venerating a relic of the true cross, but rather of kissing wooden crosses that had already long since served as symbols of Christ's saving death. Another major change was that the veneration was now accompanied not by readings but by the chanting, in Latin, of the words "Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the savior of the world," with the response, "Come, let us worship," a practice that continues to this very day.

After another century at Rome, the Good Friday service had attained the same general form that we still have: readings, solemn intercessions, veneration of the cross, and Communion. As described in a Roman ordo from the latter half of the ninth century, while two priests left the church itself to get the hosts that had been consecrated the previous day, a cross was brought out from behind the altar in a short procession marked by three stops, with two cantors singing in Greek at each stop the so-called Trisagion: "Holy God; Holy Mighty One; Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us," the choir responding with the same words in Latin. All this time the cross was veiled, the veil being removed only when the procession reached the front of the altar and the presiding priest chanted the same phrase used decades earlier: "Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the savior of the world." Individual veneration of the cross and reception of Communion followed.

It is easy to see that the entire service was now more unified, and "this attempt to create a more orderly ritual is not without symbolic significance. After kissing the cross, which is highlighted as the instrument of salvation [and which can be seen as a response to the proclamation of the passion from the Fourth Gospel], one approaches to receive the eucharistic Body of the crucified one."2 There was now attained a certain balance between a communal dimension, with the entire congregation venerating the cross during the procession, and an individual dimension marked by each person's coming forward to kiss the cross, accompanied by chanting drawn mostly from Psalm 118. As you would expect, some minor changes entered the service during the ensuing centuries, but what I have just described from the ninth or early tenth century is not all that different from what we do today. Even the unveiling of the cross is still permitted, though not required, by the current liturgical books.

It seems to me that several general and somewhat practical conclusions can be drawn from this rapid historical survey. First, we are very much part of a long liturgical tradition. It has gradually evolved, and it may very well evolve further, but if so, the changes will likely continue to be only gradual. What we now have on this very solemn day is surely a quite satisfying blend of some very crucial elements: readings from the fourth song of the Suffering Servant, a part of the Old Testament that has always struck Christians as a remarkable foreshadowing of Christ's passion; New Testament readings not only of the passion narrative but also of subsequent reflection in the Letter to the Hebrews on what it means to have Christ Jesus as our great high priest; prayers or intercessions for practically every conceivable group of persons on earth; the opportunity to venerate the central symbol of the Christian faith both communally and individually; and the reception of the sacramental Body of the Lamb who was slain for us. That all of this richness should be made available to us in simply one service could well elicit the rhetorical question, "For what more could one ask?"

Secondly, although I didn't dwell on the fact, it is worth noting that while we could rightly call this a kind of Roman liturgy--it is, after all, found in the Missale Romanum--liturgical historians point out that elements of the veneration of the cross have come from a number of different cultures and places. We have seen how it all started in Jerusalem, in a service described for us by a woman who had traveled there from northwestern Spain, at the opposite end of the Mediterranean; the introduction of the procession of the cross into the sanctuary is said to have occurred under influence from Gaul, that is, modern-day France; prayers that were at times recited by individuals as they approached to venerate the cross can be traced to Celtic or Germanic sources; the chants that are sung have ancient Jewish roots; and what has been called "Roman sobriety" has ensured that the overall service avoids the exuberant emotional extremes that might appeal to some persons but that would be off-putting to most. What a magnificent example of the universality of the Church and of the way it is possible to draw good things from many different sources.

Finally, whatever problems face our country and our Church both now and in the future, we can surely be thankful for a service that allows us to be mindful of what for us Christians will always stand at the center of human history. Reading in the newspapers about all the momentous events transpiring in the contemporary world might lead us to lose perspective. If so, it would be worth reflecting on something the great diplomat, political scientist, and historian George F. Kennan once wrote. In his diary entry for Good Friday in 1980, Kennan said:

Most human events yield to the erosion of time. The greatest, most amazing exception to this generalization [is that] … a man, a Jew, some sort of dissident religious prophet, was crucified…. In the teachings of this man were two things: first, the principle of charity, of love [and] … secondly, the possibility of redemption in the face of self-knowledge and penitence…. The combination of these two things … shaped and disciplined the minds and values of many generations--placed, in short, its creative stamp on one of the greatest flowerings of the human spirit.3

If each of us were to keep those principles in mind and live accordingly, we could certainly face the uncertainties and challenges of the future with confidence--confidence in God the Father and in his crucified and risen Son, Jesus Christ. When some minutes from now we come forward to venerate Christ's cross and then come forward a second time to receive his sacramental Body in Communion, may we do so with something of the fervor and faith that marked the lives of countless holy men and women who have done the very same thing down the centuries.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 John Wilkinson, Egeria's Travels to the Holy Land, rev. ed. (Warminster, U.K.: Aris & Phillips, 1981), 137.
2 Donald G. LaSalle Jr., "Devotion Searching for a Place in the Liturgy: The Development of the Good Friday Veneration of the Cross in the West," Worship 88 (2014);106. Most of the historical data in this homily come from this article.

3 Quoted by John M. Buchanan, "The Ultimate Mystery," The Christian Century, April 2, 2014, p. 3.


  • April 19, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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It is easy enough for those of us who have grown up as Christians to accept the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as an important aspect of our faith, as something that we rightly expect to be found in the Nicene Creed that is regularly recited at Mass on Sundays and solemnities, but it may take someone from outside our religious tradition to grasp the absolute centrality of the resurrection. A few years ago, many of the world's bishops gathered in Rome for a synod on the new evangelization. At one point, a bishop from India recounted a story about a Hindu teenager who had gone to him to ask about Christianity. The bishop spoke to him briefly, gave him some things to read about Christianity, and suggested that he come back to talk further after he had gone through this material. To his surprise, the young man showed up already the next day, quite upset and even angry at the bishop. "I read here," he said, "that this Jesus was raised from the dead. Why didn't you tell me this yesterday?"

Well, that young man "got it." You wouldn't have any trouble convincing someone like that why Easter is the most important feast in the Church's year. But we should also admit that not everyone would necessarily have the same reaction in reading that Jesus was raised from the dead. More skeptical persons might ask what grounds there are for believing what is reported at the end of each of the four Gospels. After all, when St. Paul preached about the resurrection at Athens, he got a very tepid response from most of his hearers. In our own day, various skeptics point to some differences among the Gospel accounts (such as just how many women went to the tomb) as reasons for their skepticism. An extreme position, not concerning the resurrection directly but rather the ongoing presence of the risen Jesus to our world, appeared not long ago in an essay by a rabbi titled "The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish View." It reads a follows:

If Jesus appeared surrounded by hosts of angels trailing clouds of glory and announcing his Messiahship for all to see, this would certainly be compelling. But it would have to take place in the public domain. Such an event would have to be witnessed by multitudes, photographed, recorded on video cameras, shown on television, and announced in newspapers and magazines worldwide…. Further, if as a consequence of his arrival, all the prophecies recorded in the scriptures were fulfilled … [then] I would without doubt embrace the Christian message and become a follower of the risen Christ.1

I read those lines not to single that man out as a modern doubting Thomas but rather to help us reflect on just what grounds our own faith. What Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok was asking for there would, in his own words, be "compelling" and therefore leave no room for faith at all, and yet the Church has never gone to the other extreme and spoken of faith as some blind, irrational leap into the dark. The Australian theologian Gerald O'Collins has written some wonderful books and articles showing the positive role of historical research in such matters, but he also acknowledges the limits of such study. In the final analysis, those of us who have received the precious gift of faith accept the trustworthiness of those early witnesses whose testimony has been passed down from generation to generation. But if that testimony is crucial, it does not stand alone but is supported by what another fine theologian, Jon Sobrino, has called experiences of something almost ultimate breaking into our situation, experiences that to some extent re-create the experience of the resurrection. He is talking about ways in which the same Good News that led St. Paul to face monumental obstacles in his own life have shown up in the lives of people today, perhaps especially in the lives of those who, from a worldly perspective, seem to have little for which to be thankful. Let me give an example.

When civil war was raging at its fiercest in El Salvador several decades ago, it was common for the campesinos to say things like the following: "What we are clear about is that God has not abandoned us and will never abandon us. We have been able to experience his closeness and his presence with us at the hardest moments we have been through in the course of this war, when the only thing that has been offered us is death. God has offered and given us life."2 And as is so often the case, those who come from other countries to assist people caught up in such conflicts regularly say that they received more than they could give. A medical doctor who came to El Salvador during that war said: "All the time I felt the pain of the daily life of the poor in the shanty towns and the rural areas. It was in the midst of this pain that I discovered something of what I was searching for, a God who … walks with his people and who still suffers alongside those who suffer.3i Similarly, a North American religious sister wrote: "Seeing the faces, listening to the stories, my heart cannot stop hurting. But I am not sad…. I find myself learning from these people what I had always hoped to be true: that love is stronger than death."4

As Fr. Sobrino notes, no such experiences "can fully reproduce the appearances [of the risen Lord] narrated in the gospels. None of them can compel acceptance of the historical reality of Jesus' resurrection. But they can help us to understand--from their present-day reality--what the disciples affirm as a real thing: the crucified Jesus appeared to them raised."5 Such experiences are indeed real, and can serve as something of modern-day analogies to the resurrection just as in the Hebrew scriptures the accounts of Israel's liberation from Egypt or of the boy Isaac's being given life after lying at the very point of death serve as analogies that prefigure the resurrection. The final word in all of them is what that North American sister noted: love, love that is stronger than death. We see it in God's love for his people enslaved in Egypt; God's love for the boy Isaac and, indeed, for the father who was on the verge of doing a truly awful deed; God's vindicating love for Jesus in raising him to new life; God's love for the poor and abandoned of our own time; and God's nurturing and loving call for us to be with them in their suffering in whatever ways we can. One of the more recent martyrs in El Salvador, Ignacio Ellacuría, once told a group of young Jesuits preparing to make their vows that they were being called to live as "risen beings," by which he meant persons who would be fearless in the face of danger and joyful in the midst of oppression. The earliest disciples became fearless once they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, St. Paul was fearless in facing persecution and death in countless ways, and so many martyrs of recent decades have been equally fearless, such a Fr. Ellacuía's fellow Salvadoran Oscar Romero, of whom it has been said:

Not only was he free to speak the truth to everyone, including himself, but nothing prevented him from doing good. He was not deterred by threats against his own person, or by … bombs in the archdiocesan radio station and printing works, in Catholic schools, in the university, in clerical and lay residences, in seminaries. Not only this, but he had to accept the assassination of the major symbols of the church: priests, religious, catechists,… seminarians. But he did not give in, and this showed him to be a free man: nothing stood between him, as a person and as archbishop, and his love of the poor.6

Nothing can or should prevent us from manifesting the same freedom in our own lives, all the more since our circumstances are generally far less fraught with risk to our own lives. May we go forth from this service transformed--indeed, wanting to be transformed--by the grace and power of the risen Lord Jesus.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Dan Cohn-Sherbok, "The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish View," in Resurrection Reconsidered, ed. G. D'Costa Oxford: Oneworld, 1996), 198.
2 Quoted by Jon Sobrino, Christ the Liberator, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), 15.

3 P.W. Gyves, quoted ibid., 71.
4 Letter by Ann Manganaro, quoted ibid.
5 Sobrino, 73.

6 Ibid., 76.

Second Sunday of Easter

  • April 27, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Fr. Boniface

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On April 30, 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized Sr. Faustina Kowalska, and officially established the second Sunday of Easter as the Sunday of Divine Mercy.

Throughout the Scriptures, God is characterized by love, compassion, and mercy. When Moses went up Mt. Sinai, “The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex 34:6). This portrayal of God appears again and again in Scriptures. The Hebrew word hesed which is usually translated by the English word “mercy” is rich in meanings. Used with emet it denotes the quality which makes another dependable and worthy of faith. Hesed can mean something a person does from generosity not from obligation. In judgment it conceives of the judge not as an arbiter but as a deliverer and with the will to save. When God’s hesed is associated with the covenant, God’s hesed is conditional on the fidelity of Israel. God’s mercy is infinite but it also demands conversion and reform.1

“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Hb 1:1) so begins the Letter to the Hebrews. In the Word made flesh the love, compassion and mercy of God became visible, tangible. Jesus’ miracles and signs, his teachings and parables proclaim to all the world the mercy and love of God for the human race. Above all is this evident in Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, the total self-giving of God for our salvation. This is not simply the retelling of an historical event; it is of the utmost importance to us. For we are called not only to share in the Lord’s cross and death. We are called to rise again with Jesus, transfigured as he was, and to share in his glory. He is the first of many brethren, “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). The Scriptures were written for us.

The two accounts of the appearances of the resurrected Jesus begin in darkness. Mary Magdalene set out for the tomb in the dark. In the passage we read today it is the evening of the same day and the disciples are locked in out of fear. Darkness used so often by St. John to symbolize unbelief and evil is here illuminated by the presence of the risen Christ. Although the disciples had heard the witness of Mary Magdalene, they were still incredulous. And now, incredulity battled with reality. The wounds Jesus showed them proved it was he, the crucified one. Awe stricken, beside themselves with joy they gathered around him.

“Peace!” was his first word to them. Was it perhaps a word of absolution spoken to the assembled disciples who in the midst of their joy remembered how they had betrayed him? Peace and reconciliation was his Easter gift to them, a peace unlike any other, a peace only he could give. It was a peace that grounded them in divine love and mercy.

After Jesus showed them his wounds, he offered his disciples peace a second time. This time peace was the power to continue Christ’s mission. The disciples received divine life and love through the open wounds of Christ. However, divine life cannot be possessed; it can only be given away. Therefore they were immediately commissioned by him even as he was commissioned by the Father and through them to whomever they in turn would commission.2

The key to their mission is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Just as God breathed life into clay, so Jesus breathed on his disciples, making of them a new creation. The work of the Holy Spirit is to make things one, and the path to this unity is through the forgiveness of sin. Sin separates us from God and one another. Jesus has taken away the sin of the world and replaced it with communion. Forgiveness and forgiving one another is the condition for unity.3 Through the forgiveness of sins, the sacrament of Reconciliation, the church continues Jesus’ work of salvation and divine mercy.

From the diary of a Polish sister, St. Faustina Kowalska, a special devotion to the mercy of God has spread throughout the world. The message is nothing new, just a reminder of what the church has always taught: that God is merciful and forgiving and that we too must show mercy and forgiveness. In this devotion we are called to a deeper understanding that God’s love is unlimited and available to everyone – especially the greatest sinner.4

Liturgically the octave of Easter has always centered on the theme of God’s love and mercy. Among all the elements of devotion to the Divine Mercy asked for by our Lord through St. Faustina the Feast of Mercy holds the first place. In one of the revelations Jesus made to Sr. Faustina, Jesus told her: “I desire that the Feast of Mercy be a refuge and a shelter for all souls, and especially for poor sinners. On that day the very depths of my tender mercy are open. I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the font of mercy.”

“The soul that will go to confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment. On that day are opened all the divine floodgates through which graces flow. Let no soul fear to draw near to me, even though his sins be as scarlet.”5

But just as we receive mercy, so we must show mercy. In another revelation, Jesus told Sr. Faustina: “I demand from you deeds of mercy which are to arise out of love for me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or to try to excuse yourself from it.”6 What we have been freely given we are to give to others.

Closely associated with this devotion and this feast is the image of Jesus, Divine Mercy himself. It is a visible reminder of all that he did for us in his passion, death, and resurrection – and what he asks of us – to trust him and be merciful to others. Those who venerate it are promised victory over the forces of darkness especially at the hour of death. Two rays issue from the heart of Jesus. The white ones stand for the water which makes souls righteous and the red stand for his blood, the life of the soul.

The image represents the graces of divine mercy poured out upon the world, especially through Baptism and the Eucharist.7

Divine Mercy Sunday is not a new feast celebrating St. Faustina’s revelations. The second Sunday of Easter was already a solemnity as the octave day of Easter. Nevertheless, the title “Divine Mercy” does amplify the meaning of the day. In this way, it recovers an ancient liturgical tradition, reflected in a teaching attributed to St. Augustine about the Easter Octave, which he called “the days of mercy and pardon,” and the octave day itself “a compendium of the days of mercy.”8

Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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1 John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (Milwaukee, Bruce, 1965)) 565,566
2 John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, v. 4(Collegeville, Minn., Liturgical Press, 2004) 157

3 John Shea, 158
4 Seraphim Michalenko, The Divine Mercy Message and Devotion (Stockbridge, Ma., Marian Press, 2008) 8,9
5 Seraphim Michalenko, 48.
6 Seraphim Michalenko, 29.
7 Seraphim Michalenko, 46, 47
8 http://the divinemercy.org/mercysunday/dms.php

Feast of St. Anselm

  • April 28, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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It may not have been a absolute stroke of genius that St. Anselm was chosen as the patron of our monastery back in the 1920s, but it was unquestionably a very appropriate choice. Thomas Verner Moore and the four or five other men who started our community way back then certainly wanted to lead holy lives by following the Rule of St. Benedict, but if that had been their only concern, they might have had as their patron any of a number of saintly monks from previous centuries, some of whom had little interest in learning apart from what was available to them in Scripture. But the "founding fathers" of our own community had already been working in education for some years, and they definitely wanted to remain teachers after they had become monks, whether through giving instruction in a classroom or through the many articles and books that they published. Those early monks of our community certainly found in their patron St. Anselm someone who brought together fervent devotion and acute thinking, sanctity and learning, in a truly remarkable way. Sister Benedict Ward, a fine student of Anselm's thought in our own time, once expressed it thus: "[His] combination of theological veracity and personal ardor is what distinguishes Anselm's writings … and makes him both traditional and revolutionary. It is the ground of all [his] prayers, but especially of [the treatise called] the Proslogion … where speculation is continually breaking out into prayer, [and] dialectic [or systematic argumentation is continually] turning into humility and praise."1

I really believe that those few words capture the way in which St. Anselm can be a patron and model for all of us here at St. Anselm's Abbey School. Sister Benedicta said that Anselm was both traditional and revolutionary, which is really another way of saying what Jesus meant in today's Gospel when he said that anyone "instructed in the kingdom of heaven" is like someone who knows how to bring out of his storeroom or treasury "both the new and the old" (Matt 13:52). Being "traditional" means that a person is able to take the best from what is "old" and capitalize on its continuing relevance to make important contributions to the society of his or her own day. Anselm certainly did this, for he was very familiar with the best of the Judeo-Christian tradition. His many hours of prayerful, meditative reflection on Scripture in that characteristic Benedictine practice that we call lectio divina had filled his mind with the entire sweep of salvation history as it is presented in the Bible. In addition to his profound knowledge of Scripture, he was also exceedingly well versed in the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo, who even today remains the most influential of all the Fathers of the Church from the first five or six centuries of our era.

For us, whether as faculty or students, it is likewise incumbent on us to become as familiar as possible with the treasures to be found in all of the knowledge and wisdom of past ages. This obviously requires careful selection. There is far more available to us than there was to Anselm back in the eleventh century, so we have to be especially careful not to waste time on secondary trivia but focus instead on what is best in all that has been handed down to us, whether in literature, art, the natural and social sciences, theology, or any other field of study. Doing so will give us the kind of grounding that enabled Anselm to become one of the most influential thinkers of all time. None of us may ever attain his stature, but the important thing is to use to the best of our ability all that is available to us, whether in books, films, recordings, the Internet, or similar resources.

But in doing that, let's not forget that other side of St. Anselm, which Sister Benedicta called "revolutionary." Here was a man who wasn't content simply to repeat what others had thought in previous decades or centuries. Rather, he was bold enough to strike out on new paths. To illustrate this, let me contrast him with a man named Lanfranc, who was in his own way an important scholar and actually the person who drew Anselm to the monastery of Bec in Normandy, where Lanfranc had already attained a continent-wide reputation as a great thinker and scholar. People would actually travel from all over Europe to learn from him, and Anselm himself never denied that he had profited a great deal from his older mentor. The two men were, however, of quite different temperaments. Lanfranc was not a particularly original thinker. As R.W. Southern, St. Anselm's best modern biographer, has noted, as Lanfranc grew older, he became "increasingly the great organizer, devoted to the pursuit of order in all things, but more capable of bringing order into practical affairs than into a theoretical system."2 In his writings, Lanfranc was insistent on accumulating, arranging, and examining sources, so his works abound with references to earlier writers.

There could hardly be a greater contrast between that approach and what Anselm did in one of his first great treatises, the Monologion, in which he sought to discover as much as he could about God's existence and nature through the power of thought alone. In this treatise, Anselm does not quote the Bible or Augustine or any other previous writers. Their influence is there, but the reader has to dig for it. As Professor Southern notes, Anselm "would not repeat other men's words or thoughts, unless he had arrived at them in his own way."3 Accordingly, Anselm set his face against the method followed by Lanfranc and the other scholars of that era. For someone like Lanfranc, Anselm's method was unheard of and unacceptable, and he expressed his criticism to his former student, but such criticism from his one-time teacher "did not cause Anselm to budge an inch…. Anselm stood firm."4 He thought for himself, and especially at that period in European history, this was indeed revolutionary.

The point is simply that we ought not merely repeat what we have learned from or about others, but having made the best of traditional learning our own, we ought build on it according to our own best insights, even if that means disagreeing with those who have labored to give us the best education possible.

There is, of course, much more to Anselm's thought, much that I haven't even alluded to, and that includes some things that I and others find unappealing, such as what strikes most modern ears as really excessive self-abasement in some of his prayers. But the traits that continue to attract and challenge even the greatest minds of today are the ones I have dwelt on in this talk: his assimilation of the best that had been handed down to him from the past, especially in the fields of theology and philosophy, and his remarkable ability to use that as a foundation to formulate some of the most creative works that have ever been penned. If the founding members of our monastic community were fortunate to have him as their patron and model, the same can surely be said of us. May each of us do what we can to bring forth from our own mental and spiritual storerooms "both the new and the old."

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Dan Cohn-Sherbok, "The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish View," in Resurrection Reconsidered, ed. G. D'Costa Oxford: Oneworld, 1996), 198.
2 R.W. Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), 65.

3 Ibid., 120.
4 Ibid., 121.


Funeral of Fr. Patrick Granfield

  • April 30, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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Some of you gathered here this morning were colleagues of Fr. Patrick for many years at Catholic University and have read books and articles that he wrote, perhaps including his very first article, a short piece about a saintly Benedictine monk of nineteenth-century Italy, Blessed Placid Riccardi. I think that the example given by that beatus--especially his deep prayer life joined with a fervent pastoral commitment--helped serve as a model for Patrick during the following sixty years of his own life.

That pastoral commitment was, of course, exercised primarily through his work as a theologian--not just as the author of articles and books or as a classroom lecturer, but also as someone devoted to his students, meticulously helping them craft their master's theses and doctoral dissertations in the best way possible. I well recall that last spring, shortly before the annual alumni days at Theological College, I got an email from a former student who was coming to the reunion from Europe and who asked in particular if I could arrange for him to meet Fr. Patrick, who had meant so much to him during his student days here in Washington. Many other former students surely had a similar, lasting gratitude for this gentle, thoughtful man. I dare say that the distinguished awards he had received from the Catholic Theological Society of America and from Catholic University did not mean as much to him as the knowledge that he had played such a major role in helping form future priests and scholars.

Our first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, speaks of the righteous as persons who had undergone one or another kind of trial or chastisement, but (it goes on to say) "they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself. As gold in the furnace he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself" (Wis 3:5-6). Similarly, our second reading, from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, speaks of "the sufferings of the present time," but it, too, assures us that "they are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed to us" (Rom 8:18). By referring to such passages, I don't mean to imply that Fr. Patrick's life was one of excruciating or constant suffering, but there is no doubt that he did experience something of that, perhaps more than most of us. I was only a young monk in simple vows when, at a visitation about forty-five years ago, he and brother David were told by the monk who was then abbot president of our congregation that they should live outside the monastery for a period of time. I never really understood what was behind this, but I do know that it took them both by surprise. Fr. Patrick was then the junior master of Br. Peter and myself, and I remember his calling us to his room and saying how much he and his brother had been taken aback by this directive.

Similarly, I do not know all the reasons that led the two brothers eventually to request special permission from the Vatican to remain living outside, even though they continued to be listed as members of our community in the official roster. Of the few papers by Fr. Patrick that I have come across in recent days, one was a rather telling summary, in his own handwriting, of his conversation with a later abbot president, who said to him about ten years ago, "Your departure from the abbey was not your fault." I sense that Patrick wrote those words down verbatim because they meant a lot to him and, I hope, did something to relieve whatever he may have felt of what the Book of Wisdom calls chastisement.

There is also no doubt that he suffered greatly, both physically and emotionally, after the automobile accident that eventually led to the death of his brother David in 2010 and that brought significant physical pain to Patrick himself, as did an illness that required major surgery a couple years later. Beyond those trials, living alone, without his brother, over the past four years may have been the hardest blow of all--even though Patrick knew that he would have been most welcome to return to live here in the monastery at any time.

The Church rightly says that the homily at a funeral should not be a eulogy, so those who may want to learn more about Fr. Patrick's many scholarly accomplishments could read the bibliographical and biographical essays that his brother David and their mutual friend Peter Phan wrote about him in a Festschrift that was edited by Peter fourteen years ago. In closing this homily, I would simply like to quote a single sentence from Patrick's excellent book The Limits of the Papacy, a sentence that Peter rightly singles out as best capturing Patrick's feelings about the Church and his responsibility in writing about it. Patrick said: "What is important is that all members of the Church be open to Christ, who through his Spirit '… adorns it with his fruits and leads it to all truth and to perfect union in communion and ministry.'"1 What I find most striking about that sentence is that this superb ecclesiologist, the Reverend Professor Patrick Granfield, well understood that ultimately the Church is not about itself but about Christ, and that only by being open to Christ can one be a faithful member of the Church. That kind of openness is what we saw in the good thief in this morning's Gospel, in his words: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom," along with the gracious reply, "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Lk 23:42-43). We pray that Patrick has received a similarly gracious promise from the Lord whom he faithfully served for so many decades, and that his own openness to Christ may be an example for all of us.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Patrick Granfield, quoted by Peter Phan, "Patrick Granfield: A Biographical Essay," in The Gift of the Church: A Textbook on Ecclesiology in Honor of Patrick Granfield, O.S.B., ed. Peter Phan (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 467. The final part of that sentence is a quotation from Vatican II's Lumen Gentium, no. 4.