Homilies - May 2014

Select a homily to read:
Third Sunday of Easter: May 4, 2014 by Fr. Joseph
Thursday of the Third Week of Easter: May 8, 2014 by Abbot James
Fourth Sunday of Easter: May 11, 2014 by Fr. Christopher
Talk: The Monastery and the World: May 15, 2014 by Abbot James
Solemn Profession of Br. Ignacio González: May 24, 2014 by Abbot James
Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 25, 2014 by Abbot James

Third Sunday of Easter

  • May 4, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Fr. Joseph

  • Download

It is a shame, but sometimes teachers try to gain popularity with students by coming out with bizarre ideas. One student came to me enthralled with a new prof because he started out class by declaring “There are no angels, and then he proceeded to demonstrate,” she said, “that there are no angels.” It’s not a laughing matter, but I laughed to myself: how on earth copuld you prove there are no angels? It seems it would be harder to demonstrate that angels don’t exist than that they do. Another example, touching closer on the Easter theme, a prof who had bizarre ideas about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection, told his students, “The real test of your faith is, if they were to find a tomb with Jesus’ bones, would you still believe in the resurrection?”—obviously suggesting that they should. I hasten to add that these were young, half-baked teachers, who didn’t deserve a hearing. A seasoned scholar such as Raymond Brown would reply, “Whether YOU would still believe is not relevant; the real question is, would the apostles have continued to believe?”

Today’s first reading helps us understand this. It is in some ways typical of the way St. Peter proclaimed the gospel, telling who Jesus was, the wonderful things He had done, His crucifixion, and the His resurrection. In one way, however, it is not typical because it is delivered in Jerusalem, and Peter can quote Psalm 16 (which was believed to have been written by David), “you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your holy one to see corruption” and he can continue “one can confidently say that David died and was buried and his tomb is in our midst to this day.” But he could go on to say of Jesus, “neither was He abandoned to the netherworld, neither did He see corruption. God raised this Jesus, of this we are all witnesses.” He could not have said this if Jesus’ body or bones were in a tomb or anywhere else. The empty tomb is the beginning of resurrection faith, as all four gospels attest.

It would be pointless to speculate much about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection. Someone asked me, “Since He had a body, how could He go through doors?” A simple answer would be that it isn’t said He went through doors, but that He appeared among them, even though the doors were locked. Luke and John are at pains to indicate Jesus had a real body—Luke by presenting Him as eating before the apostles, John as having Doubting Thomas touch His hands and side. There was, however, a real transformation. St. Paul compares it to the case of the seed that is sown and the plant that comes from it: “it is sown corruptible, it is raised incorruptible.” As in our Easter hymn, “Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain.”

Today’s gospel about the disciples on the road to Emmaus is among my favorite resurrection accounts. It resembles the others on many points. Jesus appears playful as they are kept from recognizing Him (remember Mary Magdalen: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”) With these disciples, He pretends to know nothing of what has happened, draws from them a somewhat inadequate explanation, “He was a prophet, mighty in deed and word.” When they seemed skeptical of the report of the women about His being alive, He reproaches them for their lack of understanding and asks, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah suffer these things and so enter into his glory?” And so He opened the Scriptures to them so that they would understand. “He opened the Scriptures to them” is a very apt term because there is no record of pre-Christian belief in a suffering and rising Messiah. The prophets did foretell future events, but normally only as related to events that the nation was immediately involved in. Christians often believe (and are taught!) that the OT clearly teaches about Jesus’ coming and the events of His life, but that is not true. The old procedure of using the OT for proof-texting is no longer possible according to the Pontifical Biblical Commission. This body, an instrument of Papal teaching, issued in recent years a document on the “Christian Use of the Old Testament.” It teaches that although the Christian is aware that the internal dynamism of the OT finds its goal in Jesus, this is a retrospective perception whose point of departure is not the OT texts as such but the events of the NT proclaimed by the apostolic preaching.

After instructing His disciples, Jesus again turns playful in pretending that he is going to continue traveling and needs to be persuaded to stay with them. Thanks to this we have that “Stay with us, Lord, for the day is almost over”—a poignant phrase we use often during Paschaltide. Jesus goes in with them, breaks bread and, in the breaking of the bread their eyes are opened and they recognize Him, but He disappears from their sight. They rush back to Jerusalem to share the glad news, only to hear: “The Lord is truly risen and has appeared to Simon.”

It is very important to note the statement, “They recognized Him in the breaking of the bread.” Here Luke attempts to summon up the vision of the Eucharist, in which, for his community and every community since then, Jesus is known in the breaking of the bread.

How much background goes into that simple statement! Certainly all those meals with Jesus they had experienced. And those meals in which Jesus welcomed sinners to table fellowship. And the multiplication of the loaves, when, in the Galilean countryside, He welcomed a huge crowd, nourished them first with His teaching, and then, unwilling to send them away weak and hungry, fed them miraculously with a few loaves and fishes. And most especially the Last Supper, when Jesus gave His body and blood under the signs of bread and wine and so instituted the Eucharist. All of this lies behind the words "their eyes were opened and they recognized him." This moment is so important to Luke that he repeats it. When they returned to Jerusalem they told the others "how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread."

And Luke tells the story in just this way because it is something that happened not just once but should happen every time the Christian community celebrates the Eucharist. Of course, it doesn't happen automatically. We have to come to the table with the same dispositions Jesus and His early followers had. If we recognize that among our table fellows are sinners, that our table fellowship in fact embraces countless people all over the globe, black and white and yellow, lepers and AIDs victims, our Holy Father and the women whose feet he washedmost importantly, those here present with us now; if we believe that Jesus is truly risen, that He has poured forth His Spirit upon us, and if we are willing to embrace all whom He embraces, then, but only then, will we know Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

Fr. Joseph Jensen
(Back to top)


Thursday of the Third Week of Easter

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

  • Download

The following homily was given at the opening mass of the Just Peace Symposium (read the news story here)

Both of today's readings are very rich, the first because of the magnificent way it illustrates how the members of the early Church mined the Hebrew scriptures to help them understand what had happened to Jesus, and the second reading, from John's Gospel, because of its clear statement of what is surely the most revered of all the sacraments, the Eucharist: "The bread that I will give is my Flesh for the life of the world" (Jn 6:51). This is so starkly put that some of the earliest opponents of the Church charged Christians with cannibalism, but it is one of our most precious truths. Even we might at times be tempted to water down the meaning of those words, but that should be resisted. When I was an undergraduate at Georgetown there was in residence a very fine theologian from England, Fr. Martin D'Arcy, who writes in one of his books that there have been attempts time and time again to speak of the Eucharist exclusively in terms of spiritual reality, but to do so, he said, "is to underrate all that Scripture has to say on the reality of Christ's living body and blood" (Facing the Truth, p. 50). As the great novelist and short-story writer Flannery O'Connor once said of the Eucharist in rather shocking but utterly honest words, "If it's just a symbol, to hell with it."

In the rest of this brief homily, all I want to do is show how our belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not some late medieval development, possibly encouraged by visionaries residing in cloistered convents, but rather goes right back to the early Church. One of the greatest saints of that era was St. Ignatius of Antioch, arrested around the year 100 in one of the Roman persecutions and taken by an escort of ten soldiers across Asia Minor to his death in the Coliseum in Rome. On the way, he wrote letters of both encouragement and admonition to various Christian communities in that part of the world, including one to the church at Smyrna (modern day Izmir, in Turkey). Like Flannery O'Connor, he pulled no punches, as when he wrote:

Let no one be under any delusion. There is judgment in store even for the hosts of heaven … if they have no faith in the blood of Christ. Let him who can, absorb this truth. High position is no excuse for pride; it is faith and love that are everything, and these must come before all else. Just look at those men who have perverted notions about the grace of Jesus Christ which has come down to us, and see how contrary to the mind of God they are. They have no care for love, no thought for the widow and orphan, none at all for the afflicted, the captive, the hungry or the thirsty. They even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Savior Jesus Christ, who suffered for our sins and whom the Father in his goodness afterwards raised up again. (To the Smyrnaeans, no. 6-7).

Two things in particular are especially noteworthy in what Ignatius said there: not only his full and utter acceptance of what Jesus says in the Fourth Gospel--"the bread that I will give is my Flesh for the life of the world"--but how intimately he relates that to the way we are called to act: caring for the widow and orphan, the afflicted and the captive, the hungry and the thirsty. To live this out is what later theologians called, in Latin, the res tantum, meaning the spiritual effect of the sacrament, which is nothing other than the fact of being bound to Christ and to one another in love. If we are really mindful of this truth and approach the sacrament in this spirit, we will put on more and more the mind of Christ. To conclude with one more sentence from Fr. D'Arcy, "Without the real presence, we would not be able to live by the divine life [even] as newborn infants feed at their mothers' breasts."

Abbot James Wiseman
(Back to top)


Fourth Sunday of Easter

  • May 11, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Fr. Joseph

  • Download

This fourth Sunday of Easter, traditional Good Shepherd Sunday, has also been designated as the 51st World Day of Payer for Vocations. Today’s gospel and other scriptures show the appropriateness of it joined with this Sunday. Mixing metaphors St. Matthew records that “when he (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’” Whether it is shepherding sheep or harvesting the crops, dedicated workers are needed for the sake of bringing in the number to be saved and keeping them safe in the body of Christ, the Church.

There is something puzzling in the gospel we just heard. The narrator records that “Although Jesus used this figure of speech (that is, about shepherds, the sheepfolds and their gatekeepers) the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.” How could the Pharisees, noted for their knowledge of their own people’s law, tradition and scripture, not understand him? They knew well the frequency of shepherd imagery in the book of psalms and the writings of the prophets. We just sang in the response the well-known 23d psalm ‘The Lord is my Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.” Psalm 74 begins “Why, O God, have you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture? Remember your flock, which you built of old, the tribe you redeemed as your inheritance.” In psalm 80, the psalmist pleads to the Lord: “O shepherd of Israel, hearken, O guide of the flock of Joseph! From your throne upon the cherubim, shine forth.…” There are so many more examples when you look for them.

The prophet Isaiah in the Book of Consolation urges a herald to cry out to cities of Judah: “Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God, who rules by his strong arm…. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock, in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.” Perhaps Jesus talk about the thieves and marauders who came before him reminded his hearers too closely of the prophet Ezekiel’s severe censure of the leaders of the Jews at the time of the Babylonian exile. He was told: “Prophesy against the shepherds of Israel…. Thus says the Lord God. Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! ….You have fed off their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered the fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured…. You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally.”

After those harsh words and more about their gross failures, the prophet continues: Therefore, shepherds, hear the word of the Lord…. I swear I am coming against these shepherds. I will claim my sheep from them… I will save my sheep, that they may no longer be food for their mouths…. I myself will look after and tend my sheep.”

With these scriptures and so many others that speak of the chosen people as sheep and the kings and elders of Israel as shepherds, I think Jesus’ hearers realized what he was claiming and found it too hard to accept. For the gospel continues with Jesus saying, “I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep…. I know my sheep and my sheep know me in the same way that the Father knows me and I know the Father…. The Father loves me for this: I lay down my life to take it up again.” These words caused a division among his hearers. Some thought him possessed, others that he was out of his mind and not worth listing to any more.

What about us? Hopefully we do understand what Jesus is trying to tell us. We heard at the end of the first reading from St. Peter’s letter: “… you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. Shepherding connotes actions like guarding, mentoring, guiding, providing for and protecting those in one’s care. We can see that richness in the metaphors of psalm 23, where the shepherd provides water and green pasture for his flock, is a guide who knows and leads them safely even through dark valleys. Then is a host who prepares a meal for his guests and offers them hospitality for the rest of their lives.

The Son of God incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth, fulfilled all of these roles in his earthly life and continues to do so now seated in glory. He also invites each of us to follow his example of self-emptying in order to rise to that new full life he promised to give. That is our task and goal within the particular vocation we are living, whether it be as married couples, single lay persons, priests or those in consecrated life. Pope Francis wrote that “every vocation…requires an exodus from oneself in order to center one’s life on Christ and on his Gospel.” He reminds us that “this ‘high standard of ordinary Christian living’ means sometimes going against the time and also encountering obstacles, outside ourselves and within ourselves.” Those are not sufficient reasons for holding back and discouragement. We should trust that God will generously bestow the grace we all need to persevere in being witnesses to the Good News of the gospel, that Jesus is both Lord and Savior of all who acknowledge him.

More than once in the good shepherd passages Jesus speaks of calling his sheep by name, and of their recognizing his voice and following him. They leave the sheltered safety of the sheepfold to follow him out into a world of hazards and dangers, trusting in his power to find those who go stray, heal the wounded, and drive off the predators.

In another place Jesus reminds us, “You did not choose me. I chose you to go forth and bear much fruit.” The seed has to die and split open in order to germinate, sprout, grow to maturity and bear its harvest. By prayer, praise, thanksgiving, and listening to the gentle still voice of the Spirit anyone who is game for the adventure can respond to Jesus calling out their name with, “Speak, Lord; your servant is listening,” and “here I am, Lord. I come to do your will.”

Jesus said that if he was lifted up he would draw all to himself. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, who has been lifted up on the cross and in his ascension. He it is who inspires and perfects your faith. Who can resist the attraction of such sacrificial love as he demonstrates by hanging there on the cross so that our sins can be forgiven and we can live in peace with God and one another? Praise God, vocations to priestly and consecrated life are growing again, and that in spite of the scandals of sexual and other abuses by pastors, teachers, and members of the flock. We still need to pray for healing and recovery for their victims, for forgiveness and for future protection to prevent it happening again.

I conclude with words from St. Benedict’s Prologue. “What, dear brothers and sisters, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us? See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life. Clothed then with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide, that we may deserve to see him who has called us into his kingdom.” To him with Father and Holy Spirit be praise, honor and worship beginning now and lasting forever, AMEN.

Fr. Christopher Wyvill
(Back to top)


Talk: The Monastery and the World

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

  • Download

The following talk was given to the monastic community

This will be my last conference of the school year, the next one being sometime in late summer. This evening I simply want to emphasize a few points that all of us know about but that are so important that it would be wrong not to keep alluding to them from time to time. Let me begin by referring to something that was in Tuesday morning's newspaper, not even on the first page, even though in my opinion it was far more momentous than the reporting from Ukraine that did receive a front-page headline. Two scientific studies have just been published that claim that it is inevitable that the West Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing into the sea, and that as this happens and the ice melts, ocean levels can be expected to rise an astounding twelve feet over the next couple hundred years. Now a selfish way of hearing that would be to think, well, at least we won't be alive when all of this happens, but if you reflect that a majority of the largest and most important cities in the world are basically at sea level--New York, Houston, Lagos, Cape Town, Mumbai, Calcutta, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Sydney, to name only a few--this seems to me an impending disaster of epic proportions. Whether the main cause is a natural cycle or greenhouse emissions, the effect is going to be enormous. This is a very good example of how relatively powerless we are, a way of highlighting the fact that we not only cannot do everything but that the things we can do often pale in comparison with the challenges that face humanity.

The humility that this engenders was reflected in something President Obama said a few months ago. Reflecting on his office and on all the men who have preceded him there, he said that all any of them can do is add a few paragraphs to the ongoing narrative of our nation's history. If this was said by someone who holds one of the most powerful positions on earth, how much greater humility must mark our own lives. The practical conclusion, however, is certainly not to do nothing but to do whatever we can to the best of our ability. Here are some thoughts on this from an interesting collection of essays by a number of leading writers on monastic life, many of them monks and nuns, but also some laypersons as well as a diocesan priest and a bishop. The book is titled A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century: Where Do We Go from Here? As you'd expect, there was considerable diversity in what the authors had to say. A few kept dwelling on the need to conserve the values that have been handed down to us from the past, while others emphasized the need to risk new forms and expressions of monastic living. There's no time or need to summarize such a lengthy work, but a few themes kept cropping up with some regularity, such as the contemplative dimension of our life, its communal dimension, and the way both of these can speak to the wider church and world.

As regards the first of those dimensions, Michael Casey wrote: "The communities that will survive in the future will be those that best form their members in handling the inevitable vicissitudes of the contemplative life. In the last analysis there is no other valid reason for embracing monastic life than to be formed according to its mystical tradition…. Monasteries without a strong contemplative ambience and orientation will struggle to stay alive. Those that survive will be so grounded in contemplation that they will not be shaken."1 As characteristics of what he believes contemplative life to be, he was quoted by another author in that book as saying that "Contemplation is the fruit of radical self-honesty and of kindness to others."2 What I like about that is its down-to-earth practicality. A wonderful specific example of how many years of living as a monk can lead to such kindness is something that Abbot Primate Notker Wolf said in a talk he gave recently at Collegeville and that is available on YouTube. It might surprise you to learn that his St. Ottilien Congregation has long sponsored a hospital in North Korea. When Abbot Notker was there about ten years ago to renegotiate the contract for that hospital, it was just a week after President Bush had named that country as one of three that formed a worldwide "axis of evil." When Notker met three officials one afternoon, including the mayor of the city where the hospital is located, he first thought, "What pitiable people," but he immediately thought something quite different: that they were children of God just as he was, and that they were just as beloved by God. That basic realization--bedrock Christian teaching but something that might not come naturally when dealing with persons in a country that does appear strange and threatening to much of the world--led him to relate to them in a very kind and friendly way. Later that evening, when about to have their evening meal, Abbot Notker said the mayor of the city came up to him and, with tears in his eyes, embraced him and said: "The rest of the world hates us, but you have come to help our poor people." And he added, "Please say grace before we eat." There may be no better example of what monastic contemplative life can do for a person. It does not, of course, come automatically simply by living in a monastery. Rather, it comes out of attentive participation in the liturgy and time faithfully spent in personal prayer and lectio divina, something that Abbot Notker has certainly done throughout his life.

That other theme, communal life, was especially prominent in the essay by Bishop Robert Morneau, an auxiliary bishop of Green Bay until his recent retirement. In a particularly fine paragraph, he wrote: "The communal nature of monasticism cannot be overemphasized, especially in a world culture that highlights individualism. Whether the activity is one of liturgy or work, of eating or [being on retreat], monks are in their life together.... The underlying attitude in this way of life must be that of sacrifice, a surrender of one's own particular will to the will of God and the community."3 Bishop Morneau insisted, however, that this kind of sacrifice or self-emptying is not of value only within the monastic community itself, for it can and should have an effect on the world outside the cloister. This was also pointed out by another author in the book who has visited here from time to time, Fr. Daniel Coughlin, who was for several years the chaplain of the House of Representatives. In a very personal essay, he said that when he was chaplain, it was his habit each morning to page through a picture book of the members of Congress that year. In his words: "This daily perspective provides me with a fresh approach to the day. As I have come to know more and more of [the members] personally, my prayer for them penetrates outward appearances. I see their effort to shape an informed and good conscience. I recognize the pressures they are under. I know of their high aspirations, hopes for the nation and the world. I have also felt their anguish expressed over problems and situations they cannot solve and the compromises they are required to make."4

Those are the kinds of persons that Abbot Primate Notker said we ourselves should be more concerned about and involved with, which is why we held the recent symposium on "just peace"--and in the very same room where Notker made that recommendation several years ago. Those of you who attended the symposium will, I think agree that we had a very vibrant and stimulating discussion, and I have since received some very appreciative emails from persons who attended, including Congressman McGovern and Lt. Gen. Talley. I'm confident that we can build on that success and continue to do our part in providing a spiritual resource for leaders in our government and, eventually, in the business community as well. But you can't fake things like that. We will appear to such persons to be a welcoming community only if we really are such, and we will be such only if we can be as kind and considerate to them as Abbot Notker was to those North Korean officials. These, at least, are some of the things we should be thinking about as we end this school year and enter the somewhat more leisurely period of the summer.

 

Abbot James Wiseman
(Back to top)

1 Michael Casey, OCSO, "Thoughts on Monasticism's Possible Futures," in A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century: Where Do We Go from Here?, ed. Patrick Hart, OCSO (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2006), 28.
2 Michael Casey, quoted by Gail Fitzpatrick, OCSO, "Enclosure: The Heart of the Matter," ibid., 155.
3 Robert Morneau, D.D., "Monasticism: A Poetic Perspective," ibid., 112.
4 Daniel Coughlin, "The Fruits of Monasticism: A View from Washington," ibid., 196.

Solemn Profession of Br. Ignacio González

  • May 24, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

  • Download

Today is unquestionably a very happy one for all of us, especially for our monastic community and for all the members of the González family, many of whom have traveled here from Texas for the occasion. But since we refer to the making of final vows as a "solemn profession," I want to begin this homily on a solemn and even sobering note. What Br. Ignacio is doing this morning, and what all of us who are in solemn vows have already done, seems to many people today as strange, imprudent, even foolhardy or impossible. Let me give a sad example relating to another kind of vow that traditionally is considered equally final and solemn, that of marriage.

About forty-five years ago, a man and woman approached Abbot Alban Boultwood and asked permission to hold their non-denominational wedding ceremony beneath the beautiful tree that overlooks our playing field. Abbot Alban was reluctant and even somewhat suspicious, but after further meetings with the couple and consultation with some monks here, he decided to grant their request. It was with considerable dismay that we subsequently found the ceremony featured in the weekly magazine of the Washington Post in an article that highlighted the fact that this couple had composed their own vows and that these gave each of them the right to have intimate relationships with other persons if either of them so desired. I have no idea how common this practice may have become, but it surely derives from a mindset that considers a permanent, faithful, exclusive commitment to be beyond what can reasonably be expected of persons today.

How totally different is what our entire Christian tradition asks and expects, whether the vows be ones to consecrated life, as in monasticism, or to marriage. At several key places in his monastic rule, St. Benedict speaks clearly and unabashedly of faithful perseverance. Thus, in the final sentence of the prologue to his rule, he writes: "Never departing from [God's] instruction but persevering in his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall by patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may also share in his kingdom" (Prologue, 50). Similarly, his chapter on receiving members into the community speaks of the newcomer's promising "perseverance in his stability" (RB 58.9), and in the longest chapter of the rule, the one on humility, Benedict says that if and when a monk meets with difficulties and contradictions, he is to endure it "without growing weary or running away, for Scripture say, 'Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved'" (RB 7.36).

The teaching is clear enough, but a person might still ask, "How can this be expected, given that I have no way of knowing just what lies ahead, no way of knowing what challenges, what difficulties, what other enticing opportunities might come my way?" Well, the short answer is that you cannot know, but that is no reason at all not to make the commitment. I once read a marvelous essay by my fellow Kentuckian Wendell Berry that focused on some very valuable points about the limitations of knowledge. Even though he was speaking primarily about marriage vows, what he said is every bit as true for the vows we will be witnessing today. Here are the key sentences:

I am proposing that knowledge, like everything else, has its place, and that we need urgently now to put it in its place. If we want to know and cannot help knowing, then let us learn as fully and accurately as we decently can. But let us at the same time abandon our superstitious beliefs about knowledge: that it is ever sufficient; that it can of itself solve problems;…

… It is simply true that we do not and cannot know enough to make any important decision. Of this dilemma, we can take marriage as an instance, for as a condition marriage reveals the insufficiency of knowledge, and as an institution it suggests the possibility that decisions can be informed in another way that is sufficient, or approximately so. I take it as an axiom that one cannot know enough to get married, any more than one can predict a surprise. The only people who possess information sufficient to their vows are widow and widowers--who do not know enough [if they wish] to remarry….

…And this is true of the other human connections. We can commit ourselves fully to anything--a place, a discipline, a life's work,… a community, a faith…--only in the same poverty of knowledge, the same ignorance of result,… the same final forsaking of other possibilities.1

Well, if knowledge--specifically knowledge about the future--is not sufficient, what can adequately inform our decisions? Berry suggests two things, with which I think we can all readily concur. One is the whole set of patterns of value and restraint that promote character and culture that have come down to us from the best of our kind, both living and dead, the persons whom the Letter to the Hebrews calls a vast "cloud of witnesses." This means that "we are not [and never will be] alone in the bewilderments of the human condition."2 Precisely for this reason today's ceremony includes a rather lengthy Litany of the Saints, included not because we want the ceremony to be of an appropriate, stately length but rather because the saints are among our most important supports and guides, not only interceding for us before the throne of God but also providing precious, irreplaceable models of how to act in good times and bad, in seasons of gladness and times of adversity. Such a saint was Br. Ignacio's own patron, Ignatius of Antioch, who fearlessly went to a martyr's death in the Roman Coliseum because of his great desire to be quickly and fully with his beloved Redeemer. Another and even greater model is Mary of Nazareth, of whom it is worth noting that today, May 24, is her traditional feast day under the title Mary, Help of Christians. This is, in fact, the patronal feast day of two monasteries of our own English Benedictine Congregation: Curzon Park Abbey of nuns in the city of Chester, and Buckfast Abbey, a community of monks in Devonshire. We join with them in calling on Mary's intercession for their communities as well as our own, and in particular for Br. Ignacio, who has always had a particularly strong devotion to Our Blessed Lady.

Beyond the intercession and example of even the greatest saints, we can also count on the support of God, the one who loves each one of us with an everlasting love. As a university chaplain recently wrote: "The good news is not that the Lord of love delivered us from difficulty and failure, but rather that he permitted, by his death and resurrection, our own entry into these experiences with hope. Herein lies the power we have to risk the impossible …. We are not condemned to a life of petty and possible dreams; rather, we are free to lift our sights to the humanly impossible and there to wager the accompaniment of God."3 This is the Lord who "is the shield of those who walk honestly" (Prov 2:7), as we heard in our reading from the Book of Proverbs, and who, as our second reading told us, has called us "out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Pet 2:9).

Along with such support, the second great reality that can inform and strengthen our decisions and promises is our love for the Lord, to whom each of us is called in his or her own way to make a firm and persevering commitment. Such love does not originate in ourselves, but is our grace-filled response to the one who loved us first, loved us into being, and who calls and commissions us to share that love with others. It is not too much to say that this is the distinctive commandment of our Christian faith, what Jesus himself called "a new commandment," namely, that we love one another as he has loved us, as we heard at the very beginning of today's Gospel (Jn 15:12). This word "love" gets bandied about so often, even in ways that are saccharine and superficial, that we must always recognize what down-to-earth, nitty-gritty demands it makes on us. St. Benedict is altogether clear about this when, near the very end of his rule, he writes that it requires "supporting with the greatest patience one another's weaknesses of body or behavior" and regularly pursuing "not what one judges better for himself but rather what he judges better for someone else" (RB 72.5,7). A couple months ago, in a talk I gave to our monastic community one evening, I quoted a contemporary abbot who spelled this out in still greater detail in words that I would like to repeat here. He said:

… My relationship to God is determined by the way I live with and treat those whom God in his providence has brought into my life. Incarnation is about reality, not romanticism or idealism. Those who are seeking God in their daily prayer and work are not angels, but people with ordinary flaws: the monk who forgets to return what he borrows, the one who tracks mud on a clean floor, the one who forgets liturgical assignments, the one who is never on time, the one who never signs up to help but is first in the food line. Somehow God in his providence has brought this motley group together for an eternal purpose, and how the brothers … treat one another now will determine their eternal destiny.4

This might not sound very elegant or inspiring, but it's a crucial part of monastic spirituality, and indeed of all Christian spirituality. There may be days, Br. Ignacio, when those inevitable challenges that St. Benedict calls by the strong Latin term opprobria might make you wonder what you were thinking of in making this solemn commitment. If and when that happens, if and when you might be the one who never got back what you lent to one of the brethren (who probably lost it in the meantime), when you might be the one who has to clean up the mess that another caused by his mindlessness or carelessness, when the quirks of this or that brother threaten to drive you batty, then be sure to think back on the verse from Psalm 119 that you will soon be singing on three successive tones, a verse that assures you of the Lord's ever-present support: Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum et vivam--"Sustain me, O Lord, according to your promise, and I shall live." Do count on that support all the days of your life here among us--support not only from the Lord but from your very imperfect brethren--for this is assuredly your way of preparing for the eternal life promised to all who commit themselves to the school of the Lord's service.

Abbot James Wiseman
(Back to top)

1 Wendell Berry, "People, Land, and Community," Sierra, Sept.-Oct. 1983, pp. 48-49.
2 Ibid., 49.
3 Donna Schaper, "Marriage: The Impossible Commitment," http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1243 (accessed May 18, 2014).
4 Jerome Kodell, OSB, "Mutual Obedience: My Brother's Need is the Voice of God," The American Benedictine Review 64:3 (December 2013), 410-11.

Sixth Sunday of Easter

  • May 25, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

  • Download

Those of us who have been raised as Catholics since childhood, or at least have been members of the Church for some years, are surely inclined to think that the way we understand the seven sacraments today is exactly like the way they were understood some two thousand years ago. For that reason, it may sound strange to have heard in today's first reading that when Peter and John were sent by the other apostles from Jerusalem to the city of Samaria after many had accepted the Good News preached there and been baptized, Peter and John laid hands on them and only then did they receive the Holy Spirit. St. Luke writes that up to that point the Holy Spirit had not come upon them, for "they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." If you are familiar with the baptismal rite, not just as it is found today but even for many centuries, you know that this rite already speaks of the Holy Spirit coming upon the newly baptized. The sacrament that we call "confirmation" was not originally understood to be the first time the Spirit descended upon a member of the Church. The very word "confirm" simply refers to the fact that although in the early Church the bishop was normally the one to preside at all the sacraments of initiation--baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist--on those occasions when for one reason or another some other minister performed the baptism (perhaps because the person to be baptized was in danger of death, or was living very far from the place where the bishop resided), the bishop would later "confirm" or "ratify" what the other minister had done by laying hands on the person who had been baptized. This laying on of hands was regularly understood as a prayerful way of calling down the Holy Spirit upon a person, and as the centuries passed this came to be the focus of the sacrament, even though it was understood that the Spirit was already given in a very real sense at baptism.

It's interesting to note that this question of "when" the Spirit is given does not normally even come up in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where the three sacraments of initiation are regularly given at one and the same time, even to infants. Liturgists today argue among themselves about whether we in the Western Church should separate confirmation from the other two sacraments of initiation by so many years, for baptism is regularly given to infants and confirmation to children in their early teens. There are good arguments on either side of this question, but my guess is that our Western custom is going to remain.

Rather than concern ourselves about that issue, it will surely be more helpful to reflect a bit on these three sacraments of initiation. I'll start with a fine reading that we monks heard at our Morning Prayer a couple weeks ago, from a late medieval Greek theologian named Nicolas Cabasilas. In his inspiriting work titled Life in Christ, he treats baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist in an order of ascending importance. After noting that Christ is present in each of the sacraments, he says that the first of them, baptism, "takes away the stain of sin and imprints [Christ's] own image on the baptized." However, he goes on, "we remain imperfect even after baptism … because we have not yet received the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are given in confirmation." Nicolas justifies this statement by referring to that very passage about Peter and John in Samaria that we heard in our first reading this morning. The way he writes might imply that with confirmation we do become perfect, but he goes on to deny that by pointing out that St. Paul was very severe toward the early Christian community at Corinth, whose members "had been filled with the Spirit" and yet were in many instances "guilty of envy, rivalry, contention, and other similar vices."

Proceeding to the Eucharist, Nicolas says something that is incredibly inspiring but that may sound too good to be true. Here's what he writes:

With the Eucharist, however, it is different. No such charge [as Paul leveled against the Corinthians] can be brought against those in whom the bread of life … has had its full effect and who have not brought to this feast any wrongful dispositions. If this sacrament is fully effective, it is quite impossible for it to allow the slightest imperfection to remain in those who receive it.

If you would know the reason for this, it is because through Communion … Christ dwells in us and we in him…. How blessed to have become the dwelling place of such a guest! We at once become spiritual in body and soul and in all our faculties because our soul is united to his soul, our body to his body, out blood to his blood. The consequence is that the higher prevails over the lower, the divine over the human. As Paul … writes, It is no longer I who live: it is Christ who lives in me.1

It would be hard to find a more beautiful and powerful statement of the power of this sacrament, although it is important to note that Nicolas does not say the effect is automatic. What is asked of us, he says, is that we not bring "to this feast any wrongful dispositions." Put more positively, it means approaching the sacrament with sentiments like those of Christ himself, whose self-giving should be reflected in the way we deal with others: being willing to forgive whenever anyone asks to be forgiven, even if this be seventy times seven times; remaining calm and patient when another is not moving as quickly as we would like (just think of the terrible, sometimes fatal, harm caused by the "road rage" of those who are impatient); and acting on the truth of something I read the other morning in a book of daily meditations. It went like this: "When you are overcome by self-doubt and self-criticism, the smallest bit of understanding, smile, or kindness from another person [makes all the difference]. Knowing that, let's offer those expressions to others as often as possible."2

 

Abbot James Wiseman
(Back to top)

1 Nicolas Cabasilas, Life in Christ, PG 582-83, in A Word in Season: Readings for the Liturgy of the Hours, III, new ed. (Villanova, PA: Augustinian Press, 2001), 205-6.
2 Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation: Daily Meditations for Men (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 146.