Homilies - January 2014

Select a homily to read:
Solemnity of Mary and Simple Profession of Br. Bernard Marra: January 1, 2014 by Abbot James
Epiphany: January 5, 2014 by Abbot James
Talk on Humility for Faculty In-Service Day: January 6, 2014 by Abbot James
Talk: A Good Funeral: January 9, 2014 by Abbot James
Baptism of the Lord: January 12, 2014 by Fr. Gabriel
Second Sunday of the Year: January 19, 2014 by Fr. Joseph
Third Sunday of the Year: January 26, 2014 by Fr. Christopher

Solemnity of Mary and Simple Profession of Br. Bernard Marra

  • January 1, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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Since the liturgy is so much a part of the Benedictine life to which you, Br. Bernard, are making profession this morning, I would like to begin this homily with a few comments about the history of today’s feast. Younger Catholics today know it only as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, for this has been its designation for the past 45 years, ever since the revision of the liturgical calendar by Pope Paul VI in 1969, but for the seven years before that it was called simply the Octave Day of Christmas, while from 1570 until 1962 it was the feast of Christ’s circumcision, and in still earlier times the first day of January was celebrated in Rome as a feast of Mary. The most recent change is therefore a revival of what had been Roman liturgical practice from the seventh century until the late Middle Ages. This is exactly the point that Pope Paul made in naming the octave day of Christmas the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. He wrote:

In the revised ordering of the Christmas period … the attention of all should be directed towards the restored Solemnity of Mary, the holy Mother of God. This celebration, placed on January 1 in conformity with the ancient … liturgy of the city of Rome, is meant to commemorate the part played by Mary in this mystery of salvation.1

What Pope Paul there referred to as “the part played by Mary” could hardly be overemphasized. Historians of Christian doctrine sometimes point out that the earliest Christian heresy, so forcefully opposed by St. Irenaeus back in the second century, was what we call docetism, that is, the teaching that Jesus only appeared to be human but was not really so. Three centuries after Irenaeus, when Mary was declared to be the God-bearer, theotokos, at the Council of Ephesus, one major point of that dogma was not Mariological but Christological: After all, if Mary, certainly a fully human being, gave birth to the incarnate Son of God, then that Son was himself truly human. So, too, today’s solemnity is at least as much about Christ Jesus as about his mother.

Those of us who grew up familiar with this teaching from catechism classes or CCD, and who still accept it but without giving it much thought, may not realize the power that the doctrine can have for persons who at one point left the Church or were never Christians to start with. A very poignant essay was recently co-authored by a young couple who had given up on Christianity in their teens and had begun dabbling in other religions and even in atheism. Here are their reflections about what drew them back to the Church:

[What] makes the truths of Christianity and the person of Jesus Christ stand out from the religions of the world or rise above the void of atheism … [is] that Christianity is not first and foremost about a God who is infinitely mighty and radically separate from us. Christianity is about a God who “stoops,” an all-powerful Creator who loves humanity so much that He chooses to become human. Whatever this suggests about God, it tells us even more about what it means to be human…. The Incarnation — God’s response to our sin — tells us that we don’t need to reject our humanity to become holy… God reminds us of our own goodness, our own enough-ness, by choosing to become one of us…. This is not a religion that makes people look up and feel small, but rather look to one’s neighbor and remember a God who infinitely loves and values each human being.2

This is precisely the point made centuries ago by your patron, Brother Bernard, the great doctor of the Church St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In one of his Christmas sermons he said:

[Christ] came in the flesh so that at least he might make himself manifest to our earthly minds, so that when this humanity of his appeared, his kindness might also be acknowledged. Where the humanity of God appears, his kindness can no longer be hidden. In what way, indeed, could he have better commended his kindness than by assuming my flesh?... The lesser he has made himself in his humanity, the greater has he shown himself in kindness. The more he humbles himself on my account, the more powerfully he engages my love. “The kindness and humanity of God our Savior appeared,” says the Apostle. The humanity of God shows the greatness of his kindness, and he who added humanity to the name of God gave great proof of this kindness.3

It need only be added that the rule to which you are making profession today is fully in accord with this teaching about Christ, whom St. Benedict actually names about twenty times in his rule, from the opening verses where he speaks of our doing battle “for the true King, Christ the Lord” (Prologue 3) to the very end of the 73rd and final chapter, where the saint reminds us that it is with Christ’s help that we are to keep what he calls “this little rule that we have written for beginners” (RB 73.8). Of course, we ought not assume that the reference to beginners means that the teaching is watered down, as one might water down mathematics or reading material for children in kindergarten or the first grade. The Benedictine rule is demanding enough, as our holy founder acknowledges when he says, again in the Prologue, that the way that leads to salvation is bound to be narrow at the outset. Any of us who have lived according to the rule, and to the still more basic rule that is the Gospel itself, know well enough the demands of discipleship. Among these are the demands named in chapter 72 of the Rule, such practices as “supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior” (RB 72.5) and consistently pursuing “not what one judges better for oneself, but instead what one judges better for someone else” (RB 72.7). But there are blessings awaiting those who persevere along this way, for Benedict promises that they will eventually find themselves acting in a Godly manner “no longer out of fear of hell but out of love for Christ, good habit, and delight in virtue” (RB 7.69). This is the trajectory that we wish for you, Brother Bernard. May the grace of the Eucharist, the most fitting setting for anyone’s profession, be with you today and for all days to come until you arrive at that greatest of all blessings, eternal life with the One who so graciously stooped down to us in our humanity so as to make us to some degree sharers in his divinity.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus, no. 5.
2 Jordan Denari and Chris Duffner, “Dreaming With Isaiah: How a baby brought us back to the Church,” http://bustedhalo.com/features/dreaming-with-isaiah (accessed Dec. 27, 2013).
3 St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Christmas sermon, http://texanglican.blogspot.com/2004/12/st-bernard-on-incarnation.html (accessed Dec. 27, 2013).

Epiphany

  • January 1, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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The solemnity of the Epiphany usually falls on the first Sunday of January and so regularly coincides with our oblate Sunday, but this particular oblate Sunday is quite special because we will be having nearly a dozen men and women making their oblation right after this homily. This may be the most oblations we have ever had at any one time. I therefore want to reflect not only on today’s feast but also on the oblate vocation.

In addition to the rather obvious point that the first reading, the responsorial psalm, and the Gospel all refer to gift-giving (with gifts of gold and frankincense being specifically named in both the reading from Isaiah and the Gospel), there is something else that these two readings and the psalm have in common: the theme of journeying. Addressing the city of Jerusalem itself, Isaiah says: “Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you: your sons come from afar, and your daughters in the arms of their nurses.” Next came the responsorial psalm, which spoke of kings journeying from afar: from Tarshish and the Isles, from Arabia and Seba, and of course the Magi in the Gospel are said to have come “from the east” and then to have journeyed back home by a different route.

All of this is definitely related to Benedictine life, whether to monks and nuns living in monasteries or to oblates affiliated with a particular house. To be sure, a specific Benedictine vow is stability, which seems to imply remaining in one place, but there is much in St. Benedict’s Rule that also speaks of movement, even rapid movement. Four times in the Prologue, Benedict uses the word “run,” first of all when he quotes a verse from the Fourth Gospel (“Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death may not overtake you.”), next when he urges us to “run [to the kingdom] by doing good deeds,” thirdly when he says that we must “run and do now what will profit us forever,” and finally when he assures us that “as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

All of these references to running are metaphors for ongoing conversion, for never standing still in one’s spiritual life, for always getting up again whenever we have fallen. But the really crucial point is that we are never meant to do this all by ourselves, which is just the opposite of the kind of running portrayed in a song some of you may have heard, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” Its final stanza goes like this:

Run over stiles across fields,
Turn to look at who’s on your heels.
Way ahead of the field
The line is getting nearer
But do you want the glory that goes?
You reach the final stretch,
Ideals are just a trace,
You feel like throwing the race,
It’s all so futile

In that rather dispiriting, even depressing song, running is all about competition, getting ahead of others who are “on your heels,” only to realize that there’s not much point to such a race after all, for even if you win, you’re still all alone, perhaps more so than ever because of the envy of those whom you beat.

Quite the contrary is the kind of running that Benedictines are called to do, for it is marked by mutual support and is memorably summarized by St. Benedict’s petition at the end of chapter 72 of his Rule, where he prays that Christ “bring us all together to everlasting life.” A few years ago a woman in England wrote precisely of this when explaining why being an oblate meant so much to her. She said: “My first experience of the community was marked by the feeling of peace, tranquility and acceptance. I felt that I had come home…. My continued involvement with the community on the journey of aspiring novice and full oblate has been one of discovery with support and comfort, secure in the knowledge that there is mutual support, love and assistance because we are all on the same journey.”1 A rather similar comment was made by a woman who is an oblate of a monastery in Tucson, Arizona. In her words, “[My husband and I] live two miles from a community of Benedictine sisters who receive visitors with a clear, uncomplicated look into the eyes and an easy embrace. The sisters welcome the public to attend their sunlit, soprano liturgies, and their hospitality helps to heal the loneliness of many who must make their way in an isolating, individualistic culture…. With other oblates, I am made whole in Christ because my Benedictine hosts take me and love me as I am.”2

I trust that our own oblates could say the same thing. I have certainly sensed the spirit of mutual support among you, in such signs as expressions of deep concern for those who have been ill or of obvious rejoicing that some among your group were able to attend the international congress in Rome several months ago. In the same way, I have been inspired by the various kinds of support you have given to our monastic community, including work on our grounds, in the sacristy, and in the library, as well as driving members of the monastic community to doctor’s appointments or to airports. All of this enhances our understanding that we are indeed one body in Christ, to use a phrase of St. Paul from today’s second reading. May all of us grow in this sense of oneness, especially those oblates whom I now invite to come forward here before the lectern to recite your formula of oblation, which you will then sign at the altar and which will remain there during Mass as a fitting sign of your dedication to God and to the Benedictine way of life.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Quoted by Benedict Gaughan, “Being Part of the Benedictine Family,” The Oblate Life, ed. Gervase Holdaway, OSB (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008), 40.
2Rachel Srubas, “To Assemble an Oblate Collage,” in The Oblate Life, 52.

Talk on Humility for Faculty In-Service Day

  • January 6, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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You have probably heard that in the Middle Ages, certain prominent teachers were given titles such as doctor angelicus or angelic doctor, ascribed to St. Thomas Aquinas, or doctor subtilis, granted to Blessed Duns Scotus because of the subtle and penetrating nature of his thought. Our own patron, St. Benedict, lived long before such titles were regularly bestowed on influential writers, but if any were to be given him, I think doctor humilis or perhaps doctor humilitatis, teacher of humility, would be the most appropriate, not least because chapter seven of his monastic rule, the chapter on humility, is the longest of all. Humility is rightly seen as one of the distinctive marks of Benedictine spirituality, but it would be entirely wrong to think that there is something altogether original in what Benedict writes. Unlike later religious founders like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic, or St. Ignatius of Loyola, Benedict did not initiate some new path. He was much more a transmitter than an innovator, someone who simply wanted to pass on to his own generation the wisdom that he found in the monastic tradition of the preceding two and a half centuries and, even more basically, the wisdom he found in Scripture itself. Indeed, if we wanted to call anyone the doctor humilitatis, the title would best be applied to the one who tells us in the Gospel, “Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart” and whose parables often end with the phrase, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, while whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Indeed, Jesus’ teaching about humility was often referred to by some of the early monks and nuns of the Egyptian desert whose teaching greatly influenced Benedict. One of those desert women, Amma Syncletica, left us this precious saying: “Because humility is good and salutary, the Lord clothed himself in it while fulfilling the work of salvation of humanity, for he says, ‘Learn from me, for I am [meek] and humble of heart.’ Notice who it is who is speaking. Learn his lesson perfectly. Let humility become for you the beginning and end of virtues. He means a humble heart, for he refers not to appearance alone, but to the inner person.”1 There is also much about humility in the man who is often called the father of Christian monasticism, St. Anthony of Egypt. What is attributed to him in the life written by St. Athanasius may not be exact quotations, but we also have some letters written by Anthony himself, in one of which he writes these striking words: “Except through humility in your whole heart and mind and spirit and soul and body, you will not be able to inherit the Kingdom of God.”ii Jesus’ teaching was also referred to by that very influential fifth-century monastic author John Cassian, some of whose lengthy reflections about humility were taken over verbatim by Benedict.

Against this background we can more easily understand why Benedict wrote so much about humility in his Rule, saying at one point that it is only through this virtue that we will attain eternal union with God, that heavenly exaltation, exaltationem caelestem, that ought to be the aim of every human being. What, then, is humility, why it is necessary, how is it best acquired, and what are its most important effects? These are the four questions around which I will order the rest of my reflections this morning.

The best short definition of humility, as noted by St. Teresa of Avila and other spiritual masters, is that it is truth, that is, accepting the truth about ourselves. I think this can best be put in terms of ever-increasing maturity. It doesn’t take a child psychologist to tell us that an infant inevitably thinks that the whole world revolves around himself or herself. After all, all the infant has to do is cry and it gets fed, or gets its diaper changed, or gets comforted by mommy after a fall. There’s nothing wrong with such a feeling in the very young, but genuine maturity means coming to terms with the fact that the world does not revolve around oneself, that other people have similar needs and feelings, and that the noblest people, the ones whom we honor generation after generation, are those who were precisely the least self-centered, those who truly tried to serve others, whether that be in the realm of religion or politics or education or any other field of human endeavor. To recognize our true standing, with all of our strengths and weaknesses, and to acknowledge that the good within us ultimately comes from God, is genuine humility. That’s why St. Teresa and others could briefly define humility as truth. This should readily elicit from us a desire to surrender ourselves to God and so allow God to reform in us whatever we may have done to efface the divine image according to which we were created. This, then, is the short answer: humility is truth.

A somewhat longer answer, expanding on this, comes from a remarkable Benedictine of the nineteenth century, William Bernard Ullathorne, whose autobiographical reflections have been our table reading for the past couple of months. In addition to that book, titled From Cabin Boy to Archbishop, Ullathrone also wrote a book called The Groundwork of the Christian Virtues, a work entirely on the subject of humility. In it he gave this longer definition of humility: “Humility is the interior, spiritual, sacrificial action through which, with the profoundest veneration and gratitude, we offer to God the being and life we have received from Him, with the desire and the prayer that we may die to ourselves and live to Him; that we may be wholly changed and transformed into His likeness ….”3

This raises, however, the question of what to make of something like St. Benedict’s seventh step of humility, which, he says, “is that one not only admits with his tongue but is also convinced in his heart that he is inferior to all and of less value, humbling himself and saying with the Prophet: ‘I am truly a worm, not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people.’” It cannot be denied that a number of persons whom we revere as great saints made statements along these lines, calling themselves the worst of sinners. This is usually—and probably correctly—explained by saying that the closer the great saints came to recognize the holiness of God, the greater their own failings and shortcomings seemed to be. If one can readily make such a statement about oneself, fine, but I think there is a danger in striving to feel that way. Far more wholesome, in my opinion, is something once written Fr. Edward Leen, a fine spiritual writer in the first half of the last century, who said that humility “has nothing to do with self-depreciation. It is not thinking little of oneself, it is rather not thinking of oneself at all.”4 I like that a lot. Among other things, it means that we ought not go around comparing ourselves with others at all, not thinking of ourselves as better than some or worse than others. As we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2).

Having said something about what humility is, I turn next to its necessity. This is something that I don’t think could be proven by strictly rational means. If a person is incurably self-centered, as a few sports stars or media personalities or tycoons seem to be, it may be unpleasant to be around them, but nothing I could say would likely convince them to live in a different way. But if someone is already intent on living in accord with God’s will, then there are some striking things that have been said by holy men and women that could well strengthen our desire to be humble and dampen our pride. Within the Catholic tradition, you are no doubt aware that it usually takes a good many years before anyone could be officially declared a saint. A number of steps are involved, detailed in a fascinating book called Making Saints by Kenneth Woodward, the former religion editor of Newsweek magazine. In the early Christian centuries, saints were usually determined by acclamation, spontaneously expressed by those who knew the person while he or she was alive. Most recently, we saw this at the funeral of Pope John Paul II, when the large crowd started shouting Santo subito: sainthood right away. However, even in that case, the canonical procedures were generally followed, ones that date back to the time of the eighteenth century pope Benedict XIV. In his great work on the canonization of saints, that pope specified that the very first step to be taken in investigating the virtues of the person proposed for canonization is this: whether humility had been practiced in a heroic degree, for if that is lacking, he said that everything else must fail as a matter of course.

In earlier times, other important teachers made a similar point. One of the great monastic legislators who preceded St. Benedict was St. Basil the Great, whose ascetical writings are still the basic rule for monks and nuns of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In one of his sermons, Basil said that of all God’s precepts, “the first is humility, the parent of every virtue, giving birth to all good things in abundance.” 5 His contemporary St. Jerome, whom we honor for his skillful translation of much of the Bible into Latin, said in one of his letters, “Hold nothing more excellent than humility, nothing more lovely. It is the preserver and chief guardian of all the virtues. Nothing else whatsoever can be so pleasing to God, or even to humans, than to be great in merit of life and little through one’s humility.”6 Jerome’s contemporary and occasional antagonist, St. Augustine of Hippo, said point blank: “No one reaches the kingdom of heaven except by humility,”7 while the theologian who, after St. Paul and St. Augustine, has surely had the greatest influence on the Western Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, wrote in his Summa Theologiae that humility is the foundational virtue for a spiritual life inasmuch as it is the counterweight to pride, the most basic sin. In Thomas’s words, “In other sins, one turns from God through ignorance or weakness or the desire of some other good, but pride has an aversion to God from unwillingness to be subject to God or to his rule. As Boethius says, ‘All vices fly from God, but pride alone rises in opposition to God. For this reason, [as we read in the Letter of James], God resists the proud [but gives grace to the humble’].”8

If you now have a general understanding of what humility is and if you agree that it is necessary, you will be interested in my third question: How is it to be acquired? St. Basil once wrote that merely thinking about it or any other virtue is not enough. In his words, “[Humility] is gained [not only] by reflecting in the first place on the Lord’s command, ‘Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart,’ … [but also by] giving yourself with a steady and determined will to the exercise of humility in whatever you are doing. For what is true of the arts is true of this virtue: thinking will not gain it without practice.” 9Such practice might well mean that whenever we feel slighted, whenever some embarrassing or humiliating thing happens to us, we really try not to feel resentful, being convinced that even if such things are not positively willed by God, they are nevertheless permitted to happen to us, leaving us the freedom to react in a spirit of either acceptance or resentment. Only the former spirit would be a sign of true humility.

In addition, I like something that one of Cardinal Newman’s contemporaries, Frederick Faber, once wrote. Although Faber was in many respects far inferior to Newman as a thinker, he did have many good things to say, including his point that the interconnection among various virtues means that practicing one that can be exercised in a rather specific, obvious way will simultaneously increase another that might not be so easily practiced in and of itself. Here is what he said in one of his spiritual conferences: “It would be foolish to say that humility is an easy virtue. The very lowest degree of it is a difficult height to climb. But this much may be said for kindness, that it is the easiest road to humility, and infallible as well as easy: and is not humility just what we want, … just what will break down barriers and give us free course on our way to God?”10

Thirdly, I’d like to recount some advice that was once given by a Benedictine monk, Bernard Sause, who was a monk of St. Benedict Abbey in Atchison, Kansas and wrote a number of books in the middle of the last century. What he had to say about humility was directed primarily to fellow monks, but it is also relevant for persons in all walks of life. If at first hearing it sounds a bit dispiriting, I think you’ll agree that he speaks the truth, and the truth is always liberating. It goes like this:

[One] need think only of the extremely small contribution [one’s] work makes to the life of the Church—even the hundreds of millions in the Church … today…. In fact, it is not even necessary to tax the imagination with such worldwide reflections. In the relatively brief history of this country, of this diocese, of this abbey, men of learning, zeal, willingness, men whose efforts manifestly enjoyed the blessing of God, men of unusual goodness and talent, have passed to their reward,—and are already forgotten by their followers. But their work is not forgotten before God. A century from now the truly humble work of today’s monks will have lost none of its value,—for in being offered to God, it takes on something of the timelessness of all that is of the divine economy.12

Fr. Sause’s point sounds somewhat similar to that of Shelley’s great poem Ozymandias, with the huge difference that the poem implies that the work done by that Egyptian pharaoh ultimately went all for naught, while Fr. Sause’s point is that even if our good works are forgotten by later generations, they have an eternal value in the eyes of God.

Finally, what are the effects of being truly humble? Some have written that this virtue leads to a felt sense of divine consolation, but I think St. Teresa of Avila put it better when she wrote the following in her major work, The Interior Castle: “When a soul is truly humble, even if God does not bestow consolations, I am persuaded that He will always give it such peace and conformity [to His will] that it will be happier than are others with all their [sensible] joys.”13 Equally valuable is something I once read in a book by that same Edward Leen whom I mentioned earlier. His point is that a really humble person is could never feel humiliated. That may sound counterintuitive, but it does make sense. Those who are humble, he writes, “look upon nothing that happens to them as undeserved: they look upon it as being the logical outcome of things as they are [in a fallen world]. Pursuing order and justice themselves, they are not bitter when they encounter disorder and injustice in their milieu.”13 And a bit later he adds that “nothing can harm or impair that dignity that belongs to us as children of God. On the contrary, all unjust ill-treatment serves but to enhance [that dignity], for it but serves to develop the divine in us. Hence, if we are really humble, esteeming only what is of God, and not esteeming what is of self, we can never be humiliated. Our Lord suffered untold humiliations but never felt humiliated; in the midst of all He endured, He maintained His divine calm, dignity, and majesty.”14

I consider this a very important point. All of us will at times feel we were treated unfairly, and in truly major matters we may well have the right to seek vindication. In many cases, however, it is far better not to make much of the treatment we have received, not to go around complaining or murmuring—a practice that St. Benedict often inveighs against. In a key section of his chapter on humility, Benedict writes: “The fourth step of humility is that in this obedience under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions, one’s heart quietly embraces suffering and endures it without weakening or seeking escape…. In truth, those who are patient amid hardships and unjust treatment are fulfilling the Lord’s command: ‘When struck on one check, they turn the other; when deprived of their coat, they offer their cloak also; when pressed into service for one mile, they go two.’ With the Apostle Paul, they bear with ‘false brothers, endure persecution, and bless those who curse them’” (RB 7:35-36a & 42-43). I don’t deny that this is not the way of what the Scriptures often call “the world,” but it is the way of Christ and of the saints, and it ultimately leads to an unshakable peace and joy. It seems appropriate, therefore, to conclude this talk with the traditional short prayer: “Jesus meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto Thine.”

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Life of Syncletica, in Essential Monastic Wisdom: Writings on the Contemplative Life, ed. Hugh Feiss, OSB (San Francisco: Harper, 1999), 93-94.
2 Anthony, Letters, in Essential Monastic Wisdom, 91.
3 William Bernard Ullathorne, The Groundwork of the Christian Virtues (London: Burns & Oates, n.d., dedication dated Apr. 10, 1882), 106.
4 Edward Leen, C.S.Sp., In the Likeness of Christ (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1936), 190.
5 Basil the Great, Sermon on the Renunciation of the World.
6 Jerome, Letter to Celanus.
7 Augustine, Lib. de Salut., ch. 32.
8 Thomas Aquinas, S.T., II-II, q. 162, art. 6.
9 Basil the Great, Short Rules, q. 198.
10 Frederick Faber, Spiritual Conferences (Baltimore: John Murphy Co., n.d., preface dated Dec. 8, 1858), 32.
11 Bernard Sause, O.S.B., The School of the Lord’s Service, vol. 1 (St. Meinrad, IN: Grail, 1948), 219.
12 Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 3.1.5.
13 Leen, 189.
14 Ibid., 193.

Talk: A Good Funeral

  • January 1, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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

The final line of tomorrow first reading at Mass, from the First Letter of John, is the quite familiar verse: "I write these things to you so that you may know that you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God." "Have"--present tense, and not "will have." This has, of course, an entirely orthodox and important meaning: in some very real sense, what awaits a genuine disciple of Christ after death is not totally and completely different from what the disciple already enjoys here on earth. As I hope to show, however, there is also prevalent today an understanding of this verse that represents a rather stark and harmful deviation from the earliest Christian understanding of death. If this seems like an unusual topic for a conference when we are still in Christmastide, I can only say that it was suggested to me by a very interesting book review that I came across recently in The Christian Century.1

I'll begin with a personal anecdote. About a month ago I got a somewhat frantic call from the director of a funeral home in a nearby suburb asking if I could possibly officiate at a service there the next day. The deceased woman had once been an active member of a local parish but had then lived in North Carolina for several decades, only to move back to this part of the country when her husband died and she became so frail that she could no longer take care of herself, so she lived more or less homebound with a daughter's family and no longer had a connection with any parish in our archdiocese. The funeral director had tried in vain to find a priest available for a service and was almost out of possibilities when he phoned here. I was able and willing to help. When I arrived at the funeral home the next morning, a lot of people were already there, milling around and conversing. The coffin was closed and off to the side, with no one seemingly even aware of its presence. During the ceremony, the two daughters and one son asked me to say some prayers, after which about eight persons spoke about their memories of the woman who had died, most of them telling funny stories about her various idiosyncrasies. In my opinion, only the final speaker, an adult granddaughter, had anything really worthwhile to say. We then drove some distance to a cemetery for a brief ceremony at the graveside.

I say this not to criticize the family of the deceased but to point out that this kind of service is becoming more and more common and that it does have some regrettable aspects. Before pointing them out, consider what was a fairly standard funeral in the early Church. The body of the deceased would be washed, clothed in garments representing baptism, and then taken in procession to a church, where the congregation would recite various prayers, listen to readings from Scripture, and hear a homily from the celebrant, who would celebrate the Eucharist either there or at the gravesite. The latter would normally be so near the church that the body of the deceased could be taken in a further procession to the cemetery, where more prayers would be said before the coffin was lowered into the grave. The whole point was to allow the faithful, with a mixture of grief and joyful hope, to accompany a brother or sister to the place of union with God, the funeral being the last phase of a lifelong journey toward God. Happily we are still able to retain most of this here at the abbey since our monastic cemetery is within walking distance, just like the cemeteries still to be seen in the churchyards of many rural parishes both in this country and abroad.

This is obviously quite different from what has become the norm in many denominations, where there is often a memorial service rather than a funeral, a highly personalized service with the focus not on a minister but on a number of speakers who regularly tell humorous stories about the person who had died, all of this leading to what Thomas Long, a professor of homiletics at a school of theology in Atlanta, calls not a way of accompanying the dead in their migrating to God but rather a way of helping the living move from sorrow to stability.2

In asking why the change has come about, Professor Long suggests two major reasons: First, the horrible carnage of the Civil War, by far the mostly deadly of any war our country has ever been engaged in, led many Americans to redefine or even reject their faith in a benevolent and responsive God: How could a loving, merciful God permit such slaughter? The notion of heaven was not altogether abandoned, but was revised and domesticated to be a place much like earth. As one late-nineteenth century devotional essay put it, the dead "will at last discover ... that while on earth, without knowing it, they had already been living in heaven." This is what I referred to earlier as an impoverished understanding of what even now having eternal life should mean for a follower of Christ.

A second reason, which probably can't be helped because of space restrictions within cities, is that most cemeteries are now located at a considerable distance from churches rather than in an adjacent churchyard. The regrettable effect is that a previously unified ritual is now usually divided into two discrete parts: the funeral in the church, and burial at some very different location, often done later in a private ceremony so that those present at the funeral need not drive some miles to the cemetery. As a result, the funeral service itself is no longer clearly a journey from the church to the place of burial but simply a stationary event in a particular building.

As I said already, we here at the abbey have the wonderful advantage of having our own cemetery nearby. It allows us, among other things, more easily to keep in mind St. Benedict's injunction to keep death daily before our eyes. We do so in other ways as well, such as the remembrance of each deceased member of our community on the anniversary of his death, as we did yesterday for Fr. Columba both at Mass and with the material that Fr. Michael posted on our bulletin board. If nothing else, these reflections might help us all be mindful that at every Eucharist there is an important commemoration of the dead. If, beyond that, it leads any of us to pray from time to time in our cemetery itself, I think that would be a very appropriate practice.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 William H. Willimon, "The body in question," a review of The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), The Christian Century, Oct. 30, 2013, pp. 36-37.
2 Thomas G. Long, "The Good Funeral," The Christian Century, Oct. 6, 2009, p. 20. All further references to Long's points are from this article, which runs from pp. 20-25.

Baptism of the Lord

  • January 12, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Fr. Gabriel

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       “All beginnings are hard.”  So begins a novel by Chaim Potok called “In the Beginning.”  David remembers his mother saying this when he was very ill as a child.  His mother had fallen while he was in her arms. This gave him a deviated septum and the resultant infections and high fevers. “You will get well; all beginnings are hard.”  He remembers his rabbinic teacher saying so when he was frustrated with a lesson.  “People have spent their lives on this material; you expect to master it all at once?  All beginnings are hard.”  When David becomes a teacher, he says it as a semester begins.  “I will try to shake all that you believe in, so that you gain a new and stronger understanding.  All beginnings are hard.  Especially a beginning that you make yourself.  That is the hardest of all.”

            Much of David’s story is painful and difficult.  He becomes a scholar of Jewish origins using the historical critical method in a secular university.  His family sees this as a betrayal of their ancestral faith. It is the 1940’s when the horror of the Holocaust is fresh, when David’s grandparents are among the dead. So he has the anguish of being misunderstood. Following his call means losing family acceptance.

The beginning of St Benedict’s rule announces a hard beginning. “We hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.” Your heart sinks for the words indicate quite otherwise. He continues, “Do not be daunted by fear and run away. It is bound to be hard at the beginning.”

            What does that say about the middle and the end? I believe that Jesus’ baptism was a hard beginning. It meant leaving the security of his family and community behind. It meant setting out on a project that would be misunderstood. It meant stepping out of the water, rising from the depths of the self, in order to follow God’s leading.

There was little to go on except the voice from heaven saying, “you are precious and beloved.” He had to figure out what to do next. Go into the desert, wrestle with his demons. Choose companions. Speak to the Nazareth synagogue, inspire and upset the people. Begin the journey to Jerusalem. That seems the crucial task: to choose a path and stick to it. Either refusing the deflections, or twisting back a sidetrack to re-commit yourself to the original mission.

The voice of God, heard at baptism, repeats its message from time to time. That happens at the transfiguration. Instead of going down into the water, Jesus goes up Mount Tabor, to a place where he can take the long view. The long view re-connects him with his forebears, represented by Moses and Elijah. The long view bathes him in light, which is usually obscured by clouds of difficulty. The long view attunes his ear to re-hear the message, “you are precious and beloved.” It gives enough to be going on with; it empowers Jesus to continue the trek.

Sometimes when we need the voice of God, it does not make itself audible. This is what the Gethsemane story shows. Jesus has reached Jerusalem, his chosen destination, but now he has some second-thoughts. Can he really face it, can he really go through with it? He asks that he be excused from drinking the cup, the cup of his destiny, the cup he started filling with the water of his baptism. And God seems silent. Yet by pressing the question, almost to an annoying degree, he eventually “hears” an answer. The story only implies it, but it goes something like this. “You are precious and beloved. I will be with you in the difficulty. Do not view it as deadly but as an opportunity and a challenge. It will lead to something even if it does not look that way. It will be a beginning.”

This gives Jesus the confidence, assurance, and dignity, to meets his adversaries. He actually triumphs over their cruelty and violence. That is one way of viewing the resurrection. It has practical implications for the way we meet our hardships, difficulties, and dead-ends. We could consider the possibility of a way through, to look for the new beginning God is giving, even if it is difficult.

Thus there is a strong line of connection from coming up out of the water to coming down the mountain to leaving the garden. Each of them involves God offering a possibility and Jesus taking him up on it. This is a pattern we might try.

But all beginnings are hard. At a significant point in David’s story he visits Bergen-Belsen. This is hard to do, but he is drawn there. He is very aware of the cup his people had to drink. “I walked along the paved paths between massive stone walls on which were written, here rest 2000 dead; here rest 2500 dead; here rest 5000 dead, April 1945. On and on the inscriptions go. The day had darkened. There was only the silence. But then I “heard” voices: my teacher, my father, my dead uncle who had been a scholar too. They discuss my call and my choice. There is some perplexity, yet the three voices come to some understanding, some agreement. My uncle says, ‘David, look at me.’ Here is the past. Never forget the past as you nourish the present.’ I opened my eyes and found myself alone. I said the mourner’s kaddish, then walked back between the graves and drove away.”

This is a good scene to ponder for its associations with today’s stories, the supernatural voices from the other side being heard, the place of trouble and death being transformed into a place of possibility.

The difficulty of the beginning is not removed but it is given meaning, and that is enough. It is a model for what each of us may do with our experiences at Jordan, at Mount Tabor, at Gethsemane. We hear the voice, which gives us strength to come up from the water, to come down from the mountain, to leave Gethsemane. Knowing we are precious and beloved, the power of God goes with us.

Fr. Gabriel Myers
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Third Sunday of the Year

  • January 26, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Fr. Christopher

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On the Ordinary Sundays of this year, Cycle A, the gospels are from St. Matthew’s account of the life of Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham. After his temptation in the desert, Jesus goes to the Jordan to be baptized by John. Today we heard that Jesus leaves the Jordan area after the imprisonment of John and travels to the northwestern territory of Galilee where he grew up.

Galilee is where the land assigned by Joshua to the tribes of Zebulun and Napthali, descendants of sons of Jacob, border on pagan lands. Isaiah described them in his time as a place where people were walking in darkness and gloom, upon whom a light has shone bringing them great joy. In the verses that follow that light turns out to be his announcement of the birth of a royal son, a Prince of Peace, whose dominion, he prophesied, would be vast, sustained by judgment and justice, forever peaceful. No earthly king could fulfill such a role perfectly. It had to wait for the coming of the Son of God, God of God, Light from Light, true God from true God. He came into the world so that the glory he has from before the world began could shine on it, drawing people from the realm of darkness into his wonderful light. His is that abiding light that no darkness can overcome.

Back to Galilee. It is there that Jesus goes public with his mission. He starts with John’s proclamation, “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.” There he chose his first disciples, the pairs of brothers, Peter and Andrew, James and John, fisherman. “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men. At once they left their nets and followed him.” It may not have happened as abruptly as that. Yet the more they heard and saw how he taught in the synagogues and cured every disease and illness of the people, the more they must have been drawn to leave their families and their fishing, to follow him wherever he went, do whatever he asked of them.

We know their story. They did not always understand his teachings, his claims about where he came from and the way he would accomplish his mission by his predictions of his passion. Yet they witnessed his power over the forces of nature, over demons and illnesses, even over death itself. At his command a storm becomes calm. “Who is this that the wind and the sea obey him?” He says to a paralytic “your sins are forgiven.” But only God can forgive sin.” He says to demons possessing a man, “come out of him” and the man is restored to normal life. He claims to know God intimately, to be sent by him to be Savior of the world. One of his most challenging claims that turned some away was “if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” “This sort of talk is hard to endure. How can anyone take it seriously?”

Some thought this carpenter’s son was a charlatan or self-deluded maniac. Can anything good come from Galilee? He was a threat to the handed down traditions. He did not observe the law of the Sabbath rest, he associated with outcasts, touched diseased people without regard to ritual cleanliness. Fanatics always draw a few followers they supposed. To be his disciple one had to be willing to be a fool for Christ. Paul reminds us that the wisdom of God is foolishness to the worldly wise, especially the reality of the cross and Jesus crucified. God’s ways are certainly not our ways, especially as God asks the Son to take on our human nature and endure that terrible passion and death.

The preaching of a suffering Messiah and his resurrection from the dead into glory is foolishness to the gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews. To those who believe they are life-giving truths. They light up the darkness of our minds as we try to come to grips with the brokenness of the world we live in. Why does someone go shoot six year olds in their school? Why do members of Muslim sects keep killing one another? Why do priests and brothers, uncles and coaches abuse the youngsters in their charge? Why does greed block any sense of compassion for the poor, or neglect to provide safety in buildings that collapse and kill a thousand women and children? The list goes on and on.

We are two thousand years and more from Isaiah and Jesus’ time. What can we take away today from pondering on the Word? The verses from the opening hymn speak of the light of truth that radiates from the hallowed pages of scripture. The church received these scriptures as a gift and she still lifts up its light to shine on the world. The author concludes the hymn with a verse praying that the Savior make the Church itself a lamp to the nations, a light to guide wandering pilgrims on their path until they meet God face to face.

‘The Church’ can remain an abstraction until we identify with it as members of the body of Christ. He said to his apostles “You are the light of the world, the salt of the earth.” Well, we can only shine a healing, freeing light on others when that light is a reflection of the light on the face of Jesus that Paul speaks of. The psalms and the prayers of the church often ask that God shed the light of his face on us. God has already done that by giving us the Beloved Son as our Savior. So it is right to sing, “the Lord is my light and my salvation.” He is the one who said, “he who sees me see the Father.”

Just as the face of Moses shone with the glory of God whom he met face to face on the mountain, so those who acknowledge Jesus as Son of God and their Lord can sing: “This little light of mine, I am going to let it shine. Won’t hid it under a bushel, I am going to let it shine; won’t let Satan put it out, I am going to let it shine; everywhere I go, I am going to let it shine.” So in spite of the dark forces and gloom in communities and nations, in individuals, that we read and hear about every day, let’s believe that all together it will never extinguish the light of Jesus that has come into our very world. So “take courage, be stouthearted and trust in the Lord.” To him with the Father and the Spirit be honor, glory, praise and obedience now and forever. AMEN.

Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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Second Sunday of the Year

  • January 19, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Fr. Joseph

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Although last Sunday, the Baptism of the Lord, was officially the end of the Epiphany season, this "second Sunday of the Year" continues the Epiphany theme. Last Sunday we had Matthew's version of the baptism of Jesus; today’s gospel continues with John the Baptist’s witness to Jesus. He testifies that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, that He ranks ahead of John and was before him, that He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, and that He is the Son of God—all that in one short gospel!

Today’s first reading from Second Isaiah goes very well with the gospel. It is one of the songs (poems) of the so-called “Suffering Servant”—that mysterious figure who so wonderfully prefigures the career of Jesus. The first of these songs begins, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased. Upon him I have put my spirit.” It goes on to indicate the mission given him by the Lord; he has been called “to bring Jacob back to him and Israel be gathered to him.” Yet this is too little for the Servant: He is to be made a light to the nations, “that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

There is so much richness in reading these songs in the light of what Jesus accomplished. The Jews had thought they alone were God’s chosen people, but here we see that God’s plan of redemption is far broader, reaching even “to the ends of the earth.” So there was preparation for the call of the Gentiles, but apparently not quite enough. When Peter, in the Acts of the Apostles, was proclaiming the word to Cornelius and companions, those with Peter were astounded that the Holy Spirit came upon them, just as it had upon the apostles on that first Pentecost. When other Jewish Christians learned of it, they exclaimed with surprise: “So God has granted life-giving repentance to the Gentiles, too!” Today’s first reading also echoes the commission Jesus gives His apostles to be His “witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”

John the Baptist’s reference to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” leads us in two directions. First, this is a reference to the Paschal Lamb, whose blood marked the Israelites and spared them from death when the Egyptian first-born were struck. In John’s passion narrative, the soldiers break the legs of the two thieves crucified with Jesus in order to hasten death. As Jesus' body hangs on the cross, the soldiers come to break His legs, but when they see He is already dead, they do not. This, John says, comes about so that the Scripture passage might be fulfilled: "Not a bone of it shall be broken"--which of course is not foretold by any of the prophets, but occurs only in the instructions, the rubrics, for the preparation of the paschal lamb, “you shall not break any of its bones.”

The other direction we see is in the last of the “Suffering Servant” passages; it identifies the Servant as a sinless sufferer, unjustly put to death for the sins of others, just as Jesus was. Mysteriously, the onlookers know that “he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity”; those for whom the Servant dies “had all gone astray like sheep, all following our own way, But the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all.” As Jesus did not defend Himself before His accusers, so the Servant, “Though harshly treated, submitted and did not open his mouth; like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth.”

So the Baptist’s identification of Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” points both to the Suffering Servant and to the Paschal Lamb. Matthew very clearly identifies Jesus as the Servant. He quotes Jesus as saying: “whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant .... Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And Mark reports the same. John is not so explicit, but Jesus’ action at the Last Supper, i.e., when He washed the feet of His disciples, speaks volumes. If they had been playing charades, He could not have more clearly identified Himself as servant. And after the foot-washing He tells His disciples, “You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model, so that just as I have done for you, you should also do.”

In the context of Second Isaiah, the Servant is probably a personification of Israel—as suggested in the first reading: “You are my servant,/ in you, Israel, I show my glory.” What the prophet saw in vision, Jesus carried out in reality: the role of the Servant Israel devolved upon Him; in His death and resurrection Jesus was Servant Israel and fulfilled the Servant’s mission.

Yet we know that mission is not yet completed: countless people have not yet received the gospel; countless others have formally embraced it but do not live according to its dictates. The completion of the Servant's mission now devolves upon the new Israel, i.e., on us who claim the name of Christian. Do we take this mission seriously? Recently Our Holy Father Pope Francis issued an exhortation on “The Joy of the Gospel.” It has made quite an impact. While we rejoice to hear it the subject of talk shows and editorials, while we applaud all he says concerning help for the poor and his rejection of “trickle-down economics,” do we take it seriously? In it the Holy Father insists that we should all be actively involved in proclaiming the gospel, that we must not think of the Church’s mission as adequately discharged because there are missionary societies whose function is to spread the word; we are called upon as individuals to do it, too. In the movie about the Pope our community saw Thursday night, Pope Francis is shown as actually doing do a great of foot-washing, both before and since becoming Pope. I don’t suggest we can do so much of that, literally, but we can accept role of servant to all. No one could watch that movie without realizing how great is the love the Pope showed to all—and clearly, he was loved in return. We need to be outgoing to all and above all, show the love and interest he obviously felt and manifested.

Fr. Joseph Jensen
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