Homilies - June 2014

Select a homily to read:
Pentecost: June 8, 2014 by Abbot James
The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity: June 15, 2014 by Fr. Gabriel
The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (at Caldwell Community): June 15, 2014 by Abbot James

Pentecost

  • June 8, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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In one of my courses in our abbey school I regularly show the students a film that includes a segment about a gathering of Christian women in a large stadium Iowa, an assembly intended to give them a stronger sense of how they could live as followers of Christ in a more zealous and vibrant way. At one point in the film, an interviewer asks one of the women if she feels changed at the end of her week there. She answers: “Oh yes, and that’s just what I wanted. I came here wanting to be changed!”

That’s the same kind of change we heard about in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, about the first Christian Pentecost. Here we find a group of men who probably should not even be called “disciples” at this point, men who for the past seven weeks had been anything but bold. The Fourth Gospel tells us that on the evening of the first Easter Sunday, the Eleven were together in a room with the door locked “for fear of the Jews” (Jn 20:19). How changed they were after Pentecost--now truly disciples, ready and indeed eager to proclaim the Good News come what may, courageous to face the physical martyrdom that eventually took the life of almost all of them. The reason for the change is clear. As St. Luke writes in the Acts of the Apostles, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4). That is surely one of the most powerful accounts in the entire Bible of what it means to be inspired or, perhaps more exactly phrased, to be “inspirited.”

Now this is something we should want for ourselves as well. The practical questions facing us are basically two: What is an inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and how can we best recognize it? For starters, let’s hear what one of the most respected and sound doctors of the Church had to say on the subject. St. Francis de Sales, in his classic work Introduction to the Devout Life, writes: “By inspirations we mean all those interior attractions, motions, acts of self-reproach and remorse, lights and concepts that God works in us and predisposes our hearts by his blessings, fatherly care, and love in order to awaken, stimulate, urge, and attract us to holy virtues, heavenly love, and good resolutions--in short, to everything that sends us on our way to our everlasting welfare.”1 That is clear enough, and indeed one of the great virtues of Francis de Sales is the lucidity with which he discusses all that is involved in living a holy and devout life. He goes on to say that normally such an inspiration coming to a well-disposed person will result in a definite sense of joy or delight. In his words, “Even if the inspiration lasted throughout our whole life, we would be completely unacceptable to God if we took no joy in it,” for “although this delight is as yet not complete consent, yet it is a kind of predisposition to it.”2 All this is reminiscent of some things that St. Benedict writes about in his Rule, such as when he says that after a monk has climbed all twelve steps of the ladder of humility he will “arrive at that perfect love of God that casts out fear” and will follow the teachings of the Gospel not out of fear of punishment but “out of love for Christ, good habit, and delight in virtue” (RB 7.67,70).

I think we are naturally drawn to agree with that. A truly virtuous person will normally experience a sense of contentment or consolation in wanting to do the right thing, in conduct or behavior that reflects those attitudes and dispositions that St. Paul calls the fruit of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). There is lurking, however, a dangerous misunderstanding if one were to conclude that living according to the Gospel, following the example and teaching of Christ, will always and everywhere be marked by a sensible feeling of delight. Let me give an example of what I mean.

As our monks know, we recently made a few changes in our community’s liturgical calendar so as to include the feast days of some American saints. Among these additions is one that I expect few persons have heard of up till now, St. Marianne Cope, a Franciscan sister of Syracuse, New York who spent much of her life working among lepers in the Hawaiian Islands just like the better-known St. Damien. Certain parts of her life story illustrate very well what is meant by following the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, along with the fact that such following can at times be humanly speaking quite unpleasant and distasteful. The way she and some of her fellow sisters ended up in Hawaii could rightly be called inspired. A priest named Fr. Leonor had already approached various communities of religious sisters in our country seeking volunteers to work among the lepers on those islands, but had met with nothing but refusals. Very different was the response of Mother Marianne and some of her sisters. After the priest had gone on from Syracuse to Dayton, Ohio, Marianne wrote to him in these words: “I am hungry for the work and I wish with all my heart to be one of the ones … whose privilege it will be to sacrifice themselves for the salvation … of the poor islanders…. I am not afraid of any disease, hence it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned lepers.”3

It is significant she uses the very word “delight” that we find in the works of St. Benedict and St. Francis de Sales. Assuredly she was open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in readily agreeing to undertake this work, and indeed she came to love the lepers, especially the children, whose physical and spiritual needs she met to the best of her ability. It would be wrong, however, to assume that such love was always marked by delight in the normal sense of that word. Even after five years of working with the lepers, she never overcame a natural repugnance. In her own words, “I suffer when I go to church. The smell and the sight of lepers everywhere is disagreeable…. How glad I was to get outside to breathe again the fresh, clean air. We met many of our old patients outside. All were anxious to shake hands--something that makes me shudder--yet we did it.”4

That last phrase--“yet we did it”--is the crucial one, the one that sets off someone like St. Marianne Cope from those who might feel drawn to that degree of self-giving but don’t have the courage to follow through and persevere. Even if we might fall short of the heroic virtue that we find in the disciples on the first Christian Pentecost or in saints like Marianne Cope and Damien de Veuster, let us at least recognize that we, too, are constantly receiving inspirations--or what we might call “inspiritations”--to follow the Lord Jesus ever more closely. To cooperate with those inspirations even in small matters is not insignificant in the eyes of the one who said, “Whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple--amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward” (Mt 10:42). It is also the teaching of all the great spiritual masters that doing even small acts of kindness regularly disposes us to begin doing even more. As we continue our celebration of the Eucharist on this great feast of Pentecost, let us seriously pray for the grace to respond ever more generously to the same Spirit that came down on the disciples in the form of tongues of fire, so that our hearts, too, may be enkindled to an ever brighter flame of love and care for all those among whom we live and work.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, part 2, sec. 18.
2 Ibid.
3 Mother Marianne Cope, quoted by Sr. Mary Laurence Hanley, O.S.F. and O.A. Bushnell, A Song of Pilgrimage and Exile: The Life and Spirit of Mother Marianne of Molokai (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1980), 72.
4 Ibid., 348.

 

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

  • June 15, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Fr. Gabriel

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When three strangers visit Abraham’s tent at the oak of Mamre, they foretell the birth of Isaac while eating the meal prepared by Sarah. So it gradually dawns on her husband that these are no ordinary strangers. He cannot distinguish among their identities. But we see them as Father, Son, and Spirit.

When Moses is tending sheep in the wilderness, he sees the burning bush. He goes closer and is told to take off his shoes. It is obvious to us that the fire is the Holy Spirit. The voice is the Word of God, which John’s gospel equates with the second person of the Trinity. The Father may be the bush itself, without beginning or end. Or is he the holy ground, to be knelt on, not walked over? A famous theologian called God “the ground of being.”

When David dances as the ark of the covenant is brought into Jerusalem, he himself represents the Father, who is the true king of Israel. In medieval thinking the ark of the covenant represented Mary as carrier of the divine savior. And the Holy Spirit? Well, he, or perhaps she, is the dance, the action itself. We might think of the famous blue Matisse painting of women holding hands and dancing ecstatically in a circle. The Holy Spirit draws us into the life of the trinity, where we join in their dance. We are meant to belong there and to enjoy it.

Fun, isn’t it, to figure out these clever puzzles? The New Testament is easier. It is still a mystery, but in more obvious ways the trinity is there.

But it is not really something to spot, as in a child’s game of hidden pictures. Not something to analyze as we do a work of literature. It’s not even a something. We have to say “it” or “they,” but no pronoun can stand in for what they are, what it is. More important than what it is, is what it does. The trinity’s characteristic action is to reach down and sweep us up, to enfold us in its perfection and joy.

Nicodemus eventually figures this out. No character in scripture is more fully exposed to the trinitarian nature of God; perhaps no character has the subtlety of mind to appreciate it. That is why today’s gospel gives us the conclusion of what Jesus told him. Nicodemus was the first to hear that God intends not to condemn but to save, that believing brings eternal life. He is given an avalanche of insights. The Son must be lifted up as the serpent in the wilderness was lifted up. The Spirit is like the wind which blows where it will; you cannot pin it down.

As I see it, the three persons of God are mirrored by three stages of Nicodemus’s growth.

The first stage is the visit by night. We connect with Nicodemus’s fear of being seen, his internal darkness, the risk in approaching a renegade. Nicodemus is a teacher in Israel, but does not know the first thing about spiritual reality. His willingness to admit this is very touching. “How can an old man re-enter the womb and be born again?” Jesus is maddeningly evasive. He speaks in riddles. If Nicodemus went away irritated, it would be understandable.

Stage two. Nicodemus keeps watching, from a distance. He must have felt uneasy, as many people do, who lead a double life. Representing the establishment, he was toying with a threat to the establishment. He did not instantly convert. But when his colleagues discuss how to dispose of this nasty problem called Jesus, Nicodemus advises caution. He could go that far, even if he could not commit, at least not yet.

Stage three. When his colleagues push through the crucifixion, Nicodemus does come forward, in an amazing and beautiful way. He leaves the darkness of his initial visit and enters the full blaze of understanding. It is an action of utter purity. One that we might envy, from an adult life that is usually a matter of compromise. When Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for the body of Jesus, Nicodemus is there too. He is Joseph’s silent partner in reverence. In pictures we see Nicodemus behind the cross at the top of the ladder, carefully letting down the shroud to Joseph, who has the privilege of taking the sacred body in his arms. Even behind the cross, Nicodemus is making a reckless statement of the sort of belief that saves. He brings one hundred pounds of precious spice to anoint the body of Jesus—he goes for broke. Together he and Joseph put him into the tomb from which Jesus will burst forth on the third day.

You can see the room in which Nicodemus first met Jesus as the chamber of his soul. It is a place of turmoil and darkness. Over time this room expands and opens until it becomes the garden tomb. It becomes a light and airy space that frees and liberates. It is not only for Jesus. It is the incubation space from which Nicodemus bursts forth. Every Christian is meant to burst from the tomb as he does. To die, to rise, to experience glorification. To seeking, to consider, to step forward. These are the trinitarian patterns for our lives

The patterns are mysterious, easier to describe than to experience, easier to recognize in hindsight. They are gift of course, but there are things we can do to cultivate them. We want to feel the Father’s power, as Jesus did; we want to be ignited by the Spirit’s breath, as Jesus was. We want to be drawn up into that great dance of the Godhead. It is less important to know what the Trinity is, than to know what it does, and how we join it.

Fr. Gabriel Myers
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The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

  • June 15, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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The following homily was given by Abbot James at the Caldwell Community on the CUA campus.

The readings for today’s feast of the Most Holy Trinity, unlike those for Years B and C, are surely among the shortest in the entire Lectionary. The second reading has only three verses from Second Corinthians, and there are likewise only three verses from John’s Gospel. All three readings, however, are really well-chosen for this feast. The reason one could honestly say this stems from a point Cardinal Walter Kasper makes in his recent book Mercy, namely, that the doctrine of the Trinity results from careful reflection on the meaning of the basic New Testament statement that God is love, for we hear references to this truth in all three of our readings. The Gospel began with that oft-quoted verse, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Our second reading, from the conclusion of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, assures his readers that if we live in such a way as to show we have been converted from evil ways and are now living in peace and agreement with one another, then “the God of love and peace will be with [us]” (2 Cor13:11). And the reading from the Book of Exodus, even if it doesn’t actually use the word “love,” makes the equivalent point by speaking of the Lord as “a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity” (Exod 34:6).

The very doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that the love God has for us is ultimately a reflection of the love that marks the inner life of God. As Cardinal Kasper writes, “The doctrine of the Trinity is not polytheism in disguise. It firmly holds that the one and only God is no solitary and dead God, but rather that God … is life and love.”1 Indeed, St. Augustine and many other theologians and spiritual masters speak of the Holy Spirit as the bond of love uniting Father and Son. And that love, St. Paul tells us in the fifth chapter of Romans, has been poured out into our own hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. It would not be at all an exaggeration to say that it is by passing that love on to others that we most clearly show by our actions that we are genuine followers of Christ Jesus, and one of the best ways we can do this is by coming to the aid of those who are in need. St. Augustine never tired of making this point by his frequent references to the parable of the sheep and goats in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. In fact, Aloysius Fitzgerald, who taught here at Catholic University for many years, once calculated that Augustine referred to that particular Gospel passage more than 275 times in his various sermons and treatises—an astounding number, but one that shows in an emphatic way how central the works of mercy should be in the life of a Christian.

It goes without saying that many of that parable’s “least brothers and sisters” may not be very congenial. Mother Teresa of Calcutta recognized this very clearly in one of her prayers, which began with these words: “Lord, may I see you today and every day in the person of the sick and, while caring for them, may I serve you. Even if you hide in the inconspicuous disguise of an irascible, demanding, or intransigent person, may I recognize you and say: ‘Jesus, my patient, how good it is to serve you.’”2 This inevitably reminds me of a passage in the Rule of St. Benedict according to which I try to live, for in his chapter on the care of the sick, Benedict writes: “Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may be served as Christ…. Let the sick on their part bear in mind that they are served out of honor for God, and let them not by their excessive demands distress their brothers who serve them. Still, sick brothers must be patiently borne with, because serving them leads to a greater reward” (RB 36.1,4-5).

Even if persons in need do not selfishly make excessive demands on those who try to help them, such care can still be very demanding. Let me illustrate this by referring to the life of one of the recently canonized saints, St. Marianne Cope (whom I recently mentioned in another homily before a different congregation). She is as yet not very well known, but she should be, at least by us Americans, since she was a Franciscan sister of Syracuse, New York. At a time in the nineteenth century when many religious communities had begged off from sending any of their members to work among the lepers in Hawaii, Marianne and others from the community of which she was superior readily agreed to go. Once on Molokai, where Damien de Veuster had already been working, Mother Marianne truly came to love the lepers, especially the children, whose physical and spiritual needs she met to the best of her ability. It would be wrong, however, to assume that such love was always easy or marked by anything like delight in the normal sense of that word. Even after five years of working with the lepers, she never overcame a natural repugnance. In her own words, “I suffer when I go to church. The smell and the sight of lepers everywhere is disagreeable…. How glad I was to get outside to breathe again the fresh, clean air. We met many of our old patients outside. All were anxious to shake hands--something that makes me shudder--yet we did it.”3

That last phrase--“yet we did it”--is the crucial one, the one that sets off someone like St. Marianne Cope from those who might feel drawn to that degree of self-giving but don’t have the courage to follow through and persevere. Even if we might not really have the opportunity to do quite remarkable acts of charity such as we find in men and women like Marianne Cope and Damien de Veuster, we should recognize that there are many other things that might be within our ambit. Here’s an example closer to home. At our abbey school, we have had for several years now a program called the Appalachian Service Project. This past week, seventeen of our students, plus one of the teachers and several school parents, have been in West Virginia helping some families renovate their homes. This is the largest number so far to take part in the project, and ideally it will continue to grow--a very specific, concrete way to be of help to persons in need.

To cooperate with those inspirations even in quite small matters is not insignificant in the eyes of the one who said, “Whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple--amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward” (Mt 10:42). It is also the teaching of all the great spiritual masters that doing even small acts of kindness regularly disposes us to begin doing even more. Our Prayer over the Gifts for this feast of the Most Holy Trinity will have us praying that God may bless and sanctify the offering of our service and by it “make of us an eternal offering to you.” There is surely no more concise statement of what it means to be a follower of Christ--to be someone who makes of his or her life an eternal offering to God. The way we concretize this is going to be evident in the way we treat one another, especially those least of Christ’s brothers and sisters who are hungry, thirsty, sick, or imprisoned. There is absolutely no limit to the possible ways any of us can do this. Through our celebration of the Eucharist this morning, through our reception of the sacramental body and blood of Christ, may we leave this chapel more determined than ever to live the Gospel in specific, even creative, ways.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Walter Kasper, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, trans. William Madges (New York: Paulist, 2013), 92.
2 Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Worte der Liebe, quoted by Walter Kasper, ibid., 149.
3 Mother Marianne Cope, quoted by Sr. Mary Laurence Hanley, O.S.F. and O.A. Bushnell, A Song of Pilgrimage and Exile: The Life and Spirit of Mother Marianne of Molokai (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1980), 348.