Homilies - September 2014

Select a homily to read:
Twenty-Fifth Sunday of the Year: September 21, 2014 by Fr. Boniface Von Nell
St. Basil the Great – Conference One: September 25, 2014 by Abbot James Wiseman
Twenty-Sixth Sunday of the Year: September 28, 2014 by Fr. Peter Weigand

Twenty-Fifth Sunday of the Year

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” The parable of the workers in the vineyard is a good example of Jesus’ teaching. The parable tells a simple story; it shows ordinary people in everyday situations. The narrative provokes the hearer to take sides, to adopt the position of one of the persons or group in the narrative, to express the reactions to the circumstances described. These reactions allow Jesus to react in his turn. He then says, “You think so. Well, you are mistaken.” His hearers see themselves directly affected by his teaching. This is why, even when we know a parable by heart, it does not stop asking questions. Finally, the parables show us that Jesus knew how to announce the good news of salvation without ordinarily trying to offend his hearers, yet without in the least watering down the demands of the gospel.i Jesus was a master at the art.

This parable follows on the heels of the story of Jesus and the “young man” with “many possessions.” In calling the young man, Jesus asked him to sell his many possession, give the money to the poor and follow him. “When he heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions” (Mat 19:22). After Jesus commented how riches can be an obstacle to entering the kingdom, Peter, the businessman, raises a question. He and the other disciples have left everything to follow Jesus. Quite frankly, what is the payoff?2

In apocalyptic language (“when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones” Mat 19:28), Jesus assures Peter and the disciples that God’s work will bring them to a happiness and fulfillment beyond human expectation. If Peter and the disciples are worrying about a poor payoff, Jesus assures them with a vision of glorious recompense. Peter’s attitude and the need for the assurance of a reward does not fit well with laboring in the Lord’s vineyard. The parable of the workers in the vineyard tries to point out the problem and correct it.3

The way in which the master of the vineyard orders payment of the workers is surprising. Normally we would not begin with the last and finish with the first. The latter, seeing that each of these late comers received a silver coin – the agreed upon wage for a whole day’s work – could only expect to get at least four times as much. But no, the master gives them each one silver coin, in spite of their having borne the heat and work of the full day. “It’s not fair. It’s even scandalous to be treated in this way.”4 And I dare say that in our hearts we agree.

Our picture of God is influenced in some way by how we ordinarily look at things and that is why, as we hear this gospel, we are tempted to react and share in the grumbling of the laborers who have worked in the vineyard since early morning. In human terms it does seem unfair that after working hard all day in the hot sun they got the same pay for their efforts as those who were given work at five o’clock. After all, these last had been standing around idle all day.5

But this is a parable about the kingdom not social equality. We understand that. Yet it does not make us accept as evident the teaching of the parable. Other questions arise precisely because we are speaking of the kingdom of heaven. Did not God himself enjoined upon us the requirements of justice and the payment of a just salary when he gave human beings the Law? On the day of judgment will he exercise an arbitrary power based on his good pleasure? The words put in the mouth of the landowner show that these questions are not relevant.6

By giving the workers the salary agreed upon, the master in no way wrongs the first-hired. In any case, they do not argue this point. But they grumble because those who were hired last are given as much as they. And this is why the master reproaches them, reminding them that they received what was due them. They are envious because the master is generous. Those who were called to the vineyard at dawn were hired because the master is good. Through kindness, he offered them a silver coin for their work. Therefore, they should not only be grateful to him, but also be glad that others were called later and now receive the same pay. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is to be seen in the same light as that of the prodigal son and his older brother (Luke 15:11-32). In both cases, Jesus condemns those who do not accept God’s goodness or are unwilling to share it with others.7

There is no room in the kingdom for the pursuit of a better salary. All we are and all that we have comes from God’s generosity and not our own accomplishment. We are given a share in God’s goods in God’s very life out of God’s sheer love for and generosity towards us. Our work in God’s service – in the vineyard in which every Christian is engaged, arises out of our relationship to God which is one of love. “Everything I have is yours,” says God to us (Luke 15:31). We can only be overwhelmed by such love and generosity and when others also benefit by it even at the last moment. Our labor in the Landowner’s vineyard long or short leads to a share in the life of God himself. God himself is the silver coin of payment.8

Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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1 Days of the Lord: The Liturgical Year, v.4, Ordinary Time, Year A (Collegeville, Minn, Liturgical Press, 1992) 196
2 John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, v. A (Collegeville, Minn, Liturgical Press, 2004) 279
3 John Shea, 279
4 Days of the Lord, 197
5 Desmond Knowles, Voicing a Thought on Sunday (Dublin, Columbia Press, 1991) 106
6 Days of the Lord 197
7 Days of the Lord 197
8 Days of the Lord 198

St. Basil the Great – Conference One

  • Sept. 25, 2014
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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Influential monastic writers of our day such as Michael Casey have sometimes stated that reading is so integral a part of Benedictine life that any candidate who is averse to such activity would doubtfully even have a monastic vocation. We all know that St. Benedict prescribed several hours of what he called lectio divina each day, and even though he certainly gave pride of place to the reading of Scripture, he just as certainly didn’t limit a monk’s reading to that, for at the end of his Rule he names several other works that monks should read, such as Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences and the Lives of the early monks. It’s noteworthy, however, that he doesn’t actually name Cassian, possibly because the latter was somewhat “under a cloud” in the Latin Church for having taken what many considered a position significantly different from that of St. Augustine on the topic of grace. In fact, the only author named by Benedict in that final chapter is St. Basil, who still today remains the great legislator of monasticism for the Eastern Church. That Basil might have something important to say to us is brought out very forcefully in a very recent edition of his Rule produced by an Australian scholar, Anna Silvas. She concludes her Introduction in the following words:

We are now in a period not unlike Basil’s in some respects. There is much confusion in the life of the Church, which seems not a little lost in the galloping moral and spiritual rootlessness of liberal western society…. Vast is the spiritual need of the twenty-first century, but who or what will capture this ground?... For Christians in such a situation, a way forward, a vision that affords a humble but liberating hope is needed. Basil’s extensive teachings on how to take the narrow way of the life of Christ bear witness to a great constructive experiment in his own stressful times: the formation of austere, loving and practical Gospel communities of consecrated men and women that show what the doctrine and mission of Christ in this world might really look like, once we have given up the attempt to ‘inculturate’ ourselves in a secularist culture and allow our hearts and minds to be pierced again by a truly transcendent hope. Perhaps contemplating Basil’s achievement and that of his family and friends in the late fourth century can provide something of a therapeía for our jaded spirits in this age and an invitation for the future.1

Obviously there is no way that anyone could convey much of the richness of Basil’s accomplishment in a single talk, but I do think it would be worthwhile to treat his writings on monasticism in a number of conferences during the course of this year, though I don’t expect every single one of my more-or-less monthly conferences to be on him. Tonight I only want to give a bit of background, without saying very much about his Rule itself. Perhaps the most important point is that he came to be the great legislator he was only because of a genuine conversion from a rather worldly way of life, and that this conversion was brought about largely by the example and persuasion of some members of his own family, above all his older sister, Macrina.

Although we associate Basil mostly with the region of Cappadocia and especially with its capital, Caesarea, where he eventually became bishop, he went there for the first time only for what we might call “middle school.” He and the rest of his siblings were born much farther north, in the region of Pontus, quite near the Black Sea, and it was there that Macrina and her widowed mother Emmelia had established a community of female ascetics on the family estate at Annisa, near the spot where the Iris River joins the Lycus. Eventually this community expanded to a form of monastic life that is unusual from our perspective but was not at all unheard of in the fourth century, namely, a community of women, men, and children all living in one large complex, with the men living in one part under the direction of Macrina’s brother Peter, the women in another part with Macrina as their superior, and the children in still a third part under the direction of selected adults. They would come together regularly for common prayer, which (as with us) consisted largely of the chanting of psalms, and their work included working in the fields to grow their food and doing such domestic chores as weaving and cleaning or repairing the buildings. Their ideal was explicitly that of the early Christian community at Jerusalem as described by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, as when he writes in chapter two: “All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people” (Acts 2:44-47).

As this enterprise was taking root, Basil, having finished his schooling in Caesarea, had gone on to Athens and was intent on attaining a prestigious career as a rhetorician. We don’t know for sure exactly what led him to leave Athens and return to Pontus, but it was quite likely the death of his younger brother, Naukratios, in a hunting accident. While staying with his grieving family, Basil began to reflect on the things that really matter in life and resolved to turn away from pursuing fame and wealth. Convinced that he ought to live as a monk, he traveled to Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia to learn firsthand how monks lived in those parts of the world, and he then returned to his native region, not, however, to join his sister’s fledgling monastic community at Annisa but by going some distance away with a few like-minded persons to live a much looser kind of monastic life that in Egypt had been known by the Coptic term sarabaite, the kind of life his brother Naukratios had been living before his sudden death. At the time, this word sarabaite did not have the strongly negative connotation that it has in Benedict’s Rule, but it was nevertheless a life not carefully ordered by anything resembling a real monastic rule. By now Basil was already in demand as a kind of spiritual father and so began to formulate his teaching about monastic life in replies to actual questions put to him by various ascetics in Pontus. These were taken down by stenographers and formed the basis of what later came to be called “the short rules” or, more recently and perhaps more accurately, “the shorter responses.”

In the year 362, Basil left that monastic retreat to go south to Caesarea, where he was soon ordained a priest by Bishop Eusebius of that city. Here he resumed a monastic way of life, but now one in a rather different, more ordered form. But just as a couple centuries later Benedict left Subiaco because of the envy of a neighboring cleric, Basil was apparently treated very unjustly by the bishop. He was strongly supported by his own monks, but rather than cause a schism in the church there, he left Caesarea and returned to Pontus. Like his siblings Macrina and Peter, Basil now fully embraced a cenobitic life rather than the sarabaitic one that had characterized his earlier stay in Pontus. His ideal, like that of Macrina and Peter, became that of the early Christians in Jerusalem.

If it had not been for this change, St. Benedict would never have revered Basil and his writings the way he did, nor would we cenobites have all that much to learn from him. As it is, however, the monastic writings of St. Basil have a tremendous amount to teach and inspire us. There’s no time to go into them in any details this evening, for I like to keep these conferences relatively short. I would only emphasize that the very beginning of the so-called Longer Responses is just like the beginning of Benedict’s Tools of Good Works, with the emphasis squarely on love of God and love of neighbor as the foundation of every monastic life. Here is just a bit of Basil’s heartfelt reflections on the love of God:

Having received a command to love God, we possess the capacity to love implanted at the moment we were first constituted by God…. For we are by nature enamoured of the beautiful, and we [naturally] show affection toward our friends and kin, and spontaneously display every goodwill toward our benefactors. Now what is more wonderful that the divine beauty, what thought more alluring than the splendour of God? … Yet such beauty is not visible to fleshly eyes; it is comprehended only by the soul and the mind. Whenever it illumined any of the saints it left embedded in them an intolerable sting of yearning till, chafing at this present life, they said, “When shall I enter and appear before the face of God?” and again, “to depart and to be with Christ would be far better.”

…Now if we naturally incline to good will and affection for our benefactors, what discourse can describe worthily the gifts of God, which are so many as to be innumerable? Let us pass over in silence the daily risings of the sun, the circuits of the moon, the changes of the seasons. But there is something we cannot pass over even if we wished, … for [our Lord] took on our infirmities and bore our weaknesses, and was wounded for us, that by his bruises we might be healed…. What return, then, shall we make to the Lord for all that he has given to us? Yet he is so generous and tender that he does not seek any recompense but is content simply to be loved in return for all that he has given.2

It would be very wrong to think that Basil stops there, for he also has very pertinent and inspiring things to say about love of our neighbor, but that—and much more—can wait for future conferences. For now, let’s simply reflect on how much in accord all this is with the sentiments of Benedict’s Prologue, as when he writes: “The Lord assures us in his love, ‘I do not wish the death of the sinner but that he turn back to me and live” (RB, Prologue 38). So much of our psalmody is made up of psalms of praise, and for nothing ought we praise our God more than for the love with which he has first loved us.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Anna M. Silvas, The Asketikon of St Basil the Great (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 149.
2 Basil, Asketikon, Longer Response 2, in Silvas, pp. 162-71 passim (translation slightly amended).

Twenty-Sixth Sunday of the Year

If we understand today’s liturgical readings—turning away from our wickedness, taking the form of a slave as Jesus did, and believing in Christ as the tax collectors and prostitutes did in today’s Gospel—we too can enter the Kingdom of God. But more importantly, we do not want the last words of this Gospel apply to us: “Yet even when you saw all these things, you did not later change your minds and believe in Him.”

Perhaps we must begin again? When we turn to prayer during family crises or a natural disaster like an earthquake or hurricane, or when we turn to God when all seems to go up in flames as in the wildfires of California, we become one with suffering humanity. In a real sense, these crises in life make us more human. It seems to me that one is human only with others; the only humanity is really co-humanity. The co-humanity must be found between black and white, poor and rich, or between Union and Rebel troops embracing each after the Civil War, or today between Israelis and Palestinians, between Iraqi citizens and American soldiers, or on the level of our students—the same co-humanity must be found between a rebellious teenage son, who says ‘yes’ but really does nothing, and his parents. Or even in a monastery, between a monk and his abbot or between brother monks.

All of this co-humanity, love between father and son, mother and daughter, love of neighbor, all demanded by the teaching of Christ, seems to become easier when death strikes a family member—the immediate family, as well as friends and distant relatives, all reunite to share in the same suffering, the same hope.

Likewise, on the world level, crises like the earthquakes in Chile, China, or Turkey, or hurricanes in the Philippines or Mexico, or an Ebola epidemic in Africa, make us human only when we respond to humanity's cries.

For a Catholic, the most perfect prayer to make us one with all humanity is the Eucharist. Again it seems to me that in a real sense the true substance to be consecrated each day at the altar is the world's suffering during that day—the wheat (the bread) symbolizing what creation and humanity succeed in yielding each moment, the wine (the Blood) what creation and humanity cause to be lost in exhaustion and suffering each moment. As we celebrate the Mass, we have the manifestation of Christ’s body and blood—a manifestation bestowed upon us by the hands that sow the seed, the hands that reap the harvest, the hands that mill the grain, the hands that knead the dough, the hands that consecrate the bread, and most importantly, the hands that receive the Host. This great and universal Host should be prepared and handled in a spirit of adoration, for all of these hands are manifestations of Christ’s presence here and now, bearing humanity to eternal salvation.

The Offertory Prayer for last Friday proclaims this thought very well:

“Look with favor on our supplications, O Lord,
and in your kindness, accept these, your servants’ offerings,
that what each has offered to the honor of your name
may serve the salvation of all.”

And so here we are today, the end of September 2014, and we are well aware of Christ’s teaching that we should “Love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…And love your neighbor as yourself.” In fulfilling both of these commands, we become truly more human, firstly by acknowledging that we are not God and that we are totally dependent upon the God Who Is; and secondly by recognizing our neighbor as our self; and thirdly by rendering the things that belong to God to God and the things that belong to our neighbor to our neighbor, whoever he or she might be.

As Saint Vincent DePaul, the universal patron of all works of charity and whose feast was yesterday, said, “The poor are our teachers.” We know that the God of mercy has sent His Only Begotten Son to preach the Gospel to the poor. We pray that this same God will continue to inspire us with a love for all those in need.

A few years ago, Saint John Paul II said, “The whole tradition of the Church bears witness to the option or love of preference for the poor,” which “is demanded by the present moment and above all by the very dignity of the human person, the indestructible image of God the Creator, which is identical in each one of us.”

Pope Francis too has influenced the world with his simple message of mercy, service, and renewal, which has spread to every corner of the world. Through his gentle demeanor, selfless actions, and welcoming call for service to others, Pope Francis has captured the attention of a world longing for an authentic message of hope—we must hear what he has to say: “Crossing the threshold of faith is acting, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit present in the Church; it is a sense of urgency to think of something new, to contribute something new, to create something new, kneading into life ‘the new leaven of justice and holiness’." (1 Cor 5:8). Pope Francis' deep wisdom reminds us that the Church must move beyond its own walls and joyfully bring God's mercy to wherever suffering, division, or injustice exists. We have to become citizens of the world by answering God’s call for evangelization, bringing justice and peace to all humanity.

So as we sit here in this abbey chapel, let us have the courage to go forth, becoming one with all humanity as we journey ever closer to God.

Fr. Peter Weigand
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