Homilies - September 2015

Select a homily to read:
Twenty-Third Sunday of the Year: September 6, 2015 by Fr. Christopher Wyvill
Twenty-Fourth Sunday of the Year:
September 13, 2015 by Fr. Philip Simo
Talk: Keeping our Vision Before Us: September 17, 2015 by Abbot James Wiseman
Twenty-Fifth Sunday of the Year: September 20, 2015 by Fr. Boniface Von Nell
Twenty-Sixth Sunday of the Year: September 27, 2015 by Abbot James Wiseman

Twenty-Third Sunday of the Year

  • September 6, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Fr. Christopher

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Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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Twenty-Fourth Sunday of the Year

  • Sept 13, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Fr. Philip

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Fr. Philip Simo
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Talk: Keeping our Vision Before Us

  • Sept 17, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Abbot James

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

I’d like to begin this talk with a reference to the first President Bush, who I think will receive generally high marks from historians but who will also be remembered for something that may have prevented him from being an even better president.  When he first ran for that office, in a campaign that he won, many of his supporters were concerned that he seemed unwilling or unable to articulate clearly his fundamental beliefs.  One anecdote summed it up.  In January of 1987, when he was vice-president under Ronald Reagan and already making remote preparations for the presidential campaign the following year, he asked a friend to help him identify some of the key issues that would arise. The friend suggested that he go alone to Camp David for a few days to figure out where he wanted to take the country.  With some exasperation, he replied:  “Oh, the vision thing.”  The friend’s advice did not impress him.  Although Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988, many pundits think that this attitude about “vision” (or lack thereof) was a definite factor in his loss to Bill Clinton four years later.  Bush’s bio on the official U.S. Senate website includes this stark sentence: “Bush...suffered from his lack of what he called ‘the vision thing,’ a clarity of ideas and principles that could shape public opinion and influence Congress.”   That phrase “the vision thing” is now used as a shorthand description of any politician’s failure to incorporate a coherent vision when campaigning.

To make the same point in a positive way, though in a context far less momentous, consider the following account from the early days of Southwest Airlines, which has grown from being a regional puddle-jumper to one of the four largest airlines in the country.  A man named Herb Kelleher, the firm’s longest-serving CEO, once told someone:  “I can teach you the secret of running this airline in 30 seconds.  This is it:  We are the low-cost airline.  Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company’s future as well as I can.  Here’s an example.  A woman named Tracy comes into your office saying that her survey indicates that the passengers might enjoy a light entrée on the Houston to Las Vegas flight.  All we have been offering is peanuts, and she thinks a nice chicken Caesar salad would be popular.  So how should you reply to her suggestion?”  Kelleher’s acquaintance stammered for a moment, so Kelleher responded himself:  “You say this: ‘Tracy, will adding that chicken Caesar salad make us the low-fare airline from Houston to Las Vegas?  Because if it doesn’t help us become the unchallenged low-fare airline, we’re not serving any damn chicken salad.’”  That man knew what his airline was all about.  Southwest wasn’t trying to be all things to all people—after all, some persons might well prefer to pay for a more expensive flight on another carrier so as to enjoy a nice meal along the way—but Southwest carved out a special niche, acquired a certain identity, that has been a major factor in its becoming so successful. 

You can probably guess my next point, a transition to our own monastery.  Last school year we worked on some tweaking of what we had originally called our “Statement of Commitment” and now call our “Mission Statement.”  It is not very long, and is readily available on our website, the very first item in the drop-down menu under the button called “About Us.”  It’s worth looking at from time to time to help us all stay focused, for it encapsulates our vision of who we are and want to be.  To refresh your memory, here’s how it reads:

We, the monks of St. Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, D.C., have answered God’s call to the following of Jesus Christ within the tradition of Benedictine monasticism as found in the Catholic Church.  As part of this tradition we strive to seek God in all things.  We do this principally

- through prayer, which we offer both in common and in solitude and which issues from an attentive listening to the Lord addressing us, above all in the Scriptures;

- through a life together which is marked by simplicity, celibacy, obedience, stability in this one community, and loving service to one another;

- and through work, especially in education, spiritual guidance, hospitality, and pastoral work,  by which we seek to share with others the love and knowledge of God and of his creation which we have received.


Just like that airline, this won’t be exactly what everyone is looking for.  Some vocations inquirers will want a more active congregation, perhaps an order that doesn’t have a vow of stability, while others might want something more secluded, along the lines of the Trappists or Carthusians.  But we have something that is very good here, certainly a way of life that a number of men would be able to live in a way that is of genuine service to God and to our fellow human beings.  Just as orthodox Jews keep certain verses from the Torah in phylacteries and wear these while praying, we would do well to keep these lines from our mission statement close to our own minds and hearts, both in order that we might clearly know who we are and what we stand for and also to ensure that our identity will be clear to others.  It was pointed out several times at General Chapter that this issue of identity could hardly be overemphasized.

Abbot James Wiseman
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Twenty-Fifth Sunday of the Year

My parents were immigrants from Germany. My mother worked as a waitress and a cook in Germany before emigrating. After her arrival here, she continued to work as a domestic until she got married. During the depression, my father and my mother went as a live in team as cook and man servant. When I was a child we would often entertain immigrants who were still working as servants: gardeners, maids, and cooks. I loved the stories my parents would tell about their days as servants. Some were hilariously funny, some would be of irascible masters. No matter what their reaction, however, I realized that they understood that they were there to serve. In some ways this attitude colored their whole lives. I remember parties I would have for close friends. My mother would always supply a cooked meal around midnight for my friends, and my father would help her. Even though my parents knew my friends very well, they would insist on staying in the kitchen during the party and during the meal, happy to just stay there and serve. I would try to make them come out and join us, but I finally gave up, because I realized that they were happier in their chosen role. It was not that they felt less in the presence of my friends; it was just that their chosen role made them happier. Today others have followed the Irish, German and Italian immigrants as well as African Americans to do the physical service many in our society feel is beneath them.

Our Gospel tells us that Jesus was traveling through Galilee spending time alone with his disciples in order to teach them. This time his journey would lead him to Jerusalem, to death, and to resurrection. The disciples could not grasp that their Teacher would be put to death. He was, after all, the Messiah and with that should logically come victory, fame, and honor. Their reasoning was that of the world. This was shown by the discussion they had on the road to Capernaum, a discussion, it seems, they had several times in the course of their association with Jesus. They were slow learners. They would come to full understanding only after the resurrection.

It was necessary to get them back on the right track at once. If they were to be disciples of Jesus, they would have to put on the mind of Christ. Once more Jesus turned their reasoning upside down. The reasoning of the world told them, as it tells us, that it is success, fame, power, wealth, comfort, aggression, and aggrandizement of self that are important. Jesus would tell them that what the world teaches them leads only to impoverishment and death. It is only when we recognize our poverty, our lowliness, before God and spend ourselves in the service of others that we become truly successful and wealthy. When we possess God, or more accurately when we are totally possessed by God, we are blessed with truly unsurpassable wealth and happiness. We become like God, whose love is totally self giving, continually going outwards, continually serving us. That love was made manifest in Christ Jesus: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, he emptied himself and took the form of a slave…obediently accepting even death, death on a cross (Phil 2, 2:6-7, 8)!” In his whole ministry, Jesus put us ahead of his own well-being. His death was a final act of selfless surrender, of ministry, of service for our sakes.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus called a child to himself. A child in that society had no rights, no privileges, and no honor. Jesus identified himself with this child. He told his disciples that his followers must conduct themselves as he did, and rejoice at being seen as lowly persons, as servants to their brothers and sisters, and to the world. Here we can hear the echo of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor…the reign of God is theirs; blessed are the sorrowing; they shall be consoled; Blessed are the lowly; they shall inherit the land…(Matthew 5:3-5).” This is the only road to happiness, to self-fulfillment, to peace, to the Kingdom of God.

Our second reading tells us that when we refuse to walk this road we are headed for destruction. It is in following our passions, when we make ourselves the center of the universe, that we as individuals and as community become the agents of our own and the world’s destruction. From our unredeemed hearts arise dishonesty, enmity, envy, murder, war, and all the terrors with which we have become only too familiar. It is only in following the logic of Jesus, that we, and the world in which we live, can find true happiness, peace and joy. It is then that we walk in the way of God.

At the last meal Jesus would celebrate with his disciples, none of them was willing to wash the feet of those present. That was the work of the lowliest slave. It was Jesus who stood up, picked up a towel and washed the feet of his disciples, startling them out of their complacency and selfishness. Once again, by his own example, he would teach them on the eve of his death, that the way of discipleship must be the way of a servant, of lowliness: “…if I washed your feet—I who am Teacher and Lord—then you must wash each other’s feet…as I have done, so you must do. (Jhn:13:14,15).”

With a Christ-like attitude, every work in which we find ourselves is a work of service. We are stewards only of the many gifts God entrusts to us and which God intends to be used in his service. Meeting the needs of others means being present to others in many different ways.1

Christ’s teaching is not meant to be a formula for worldly success. It involves drudgery and ingratitude. We, the baptized are called to continue Christ’s work of service so that Jesus can give his love to others through us. We all have opportunities to serve those around us: a mother doing her best in rearing her children properly, a home helper who puts his/her heart and soul into caring for an elderly patient, a man or woman teaching students or working in an office. The occasions are limitless. To be a disciple means being open to what God asks of us at any given moment, even in very small things like putting away the dishes or making the coffee.2 By putting on the mind of Christ in the service of others we become transfigured in Christ and even in this life begin to know the peace and joy of the kingdom.

Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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1 “Desmond Knowles, Voicing a thought on Sunday (Dublin, Columba Press, 1997) 234

1Desmond Knowles,, 234-235

Twenty-Sixth Sunday of the Year

  • Sept 27, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Abbot James

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It’s often said—rightly said--that Catholicism is a “both/and” faith, always ready to recognize the complementary nature of truths that some other traditions might separate in such a way as to accept one and dismiss the other. I say this at the beginning of my homily because what I am going to say could possibly appear instead as an “either/or,” so emphasizing one point as apparently to overlook or even deny another.

Our first reading gives us Moses’ defense of two persons, Eldad and Medad, who were outside of what one might call an “in-group” but nevertheless received the spirit of prophecy, to the delight of Moses even though it troubled his aide Joshua. Similarly, in the Gospel reading Jesus came to the defense of a man who was doing a good deed but whom the disciple John wanted to prevent because he was not one of Jesus’ direct followers. Jesus’ words, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” could well be taken as justifying all that leaders of the Church have been doing in recent decades to work with those of other faith traditions in order to promote peace and justice in the world. Although Pope John Paul II was strongly criticized by some of his own advisors for meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dalai Lama, and more than 150 other religious leaders from many different traditions to pray for peace at Assisi in 1986, most people praised him for this initiative, which he repeated in 1993, and by now that kind of collaboration is largely non-controversial. What I want to do this morning is go farther and ask whether there is any point in widening the net to include not just those who, in Jesus’ words, are “not against us” but also those who really are in some way opposed to us. To put it most bluntly, can we learn anything at all even from militant atheists?

To take this out of the realm of generalities, what about the man who is probably the best-known atheist today, Richard Dawkins, who has a professorial chair for the public understanding of science at Oxford University? Does he have anything at all to say about religion that is worth hearing? In a recent memoir covering the first three or four decades of his life, Dawkins gives various reasons for his unbelief. Some of them, in my opinion, can be rather easily dismissed. For example, he writes that when he was nine years old he learned from his mother that there are many religions besides Christianity and that they all teach different, even contradictory, things, so, he writes, “why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up?”1 But in fact our Church teaches clearly that it is not a matter of dismissing all other traditions as simply wrong, all of them merely contradicting both the Catholic faith and each other, but rather, in the language of the Second Vatican Council, of recognizing the rays of truth that are to be found in all the great religious traditions and seeking to appropriate whatever is of value in them and compatible with our own faith. Many adherents of other religions understandably hold the same position with regard to their own tradition.

As a second reason for his unbelief, Dawkins writes that he “became increasingly aware that Darwinian evolution was a powerfully available alternative to [a] creator god as an explanation of the beauty and apparent design of life.”2 This objection would hold water only if one put divine action and natural causality on the same level or plane, in such a way that the more one becomes able to explain something by natural causes, the more God recedes into the background. That is a trap into which some Christian thinkers have fallen, but not those who are most astute and most familiar with the best of our theological tradition, going all the way back to great thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas. They see that what is often called God’s primary causality is on a totally different level from the secondary causes examined in the natural sciences.

The third reason that Dawkins gives may sound trivial, but I think it may be the most powerful, even though the specific example he offers is from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer rather than from something specifically Catholic. He writes that when he was at a boarding school for his secondary education, “I was especially incensed by the hypocrisy of the ‘General Confession’ in which we mumbled in chorus that we were ‘miserable offenders’. The very fact that the exact words were written down to be repeated the following week, and the week after and for the rest of our lives (and had been so repeated ever since 1662), sent a clear signal that we had no intention of being anything other than miserable offenders in the future. Indeed, the obsession with ‘sin’ … is one of the nastiest aspects of Christianity.”3

Those words remind me of something that an acquaintance of mine said some months ago, even though he did not utter it with anything like the vehemence of Dawkins. My acquaintance is a layperson who attends daily Mass, prays some of the Liturgy of the Hours every day, and is diligent about doing his professional work as thoroughly and as faithfully as possible. He is certainly not in any sense a candidate for potential canonization, but he told me that he feels very uneasy when, in reciting the Confiteor at the beginning of Mass, he has to say time and time again that he has “greatly sinned” and has indeed done so not only through his fault, but through his “most grievous fault.” He is so intent on sincerely trying to follow God’s will in all things day after day that he just doesn’t think that he has “greatly sinned.” This doesn’t bother him in any oppressive way, but it certainly does not make him feel closer to God.

A far more poignant instance of what can happen to a person when sin or sinfulness is greatly emphasized appeared in a book we read in the refectory a while back. It was an autobiography written by a man whom I had the privilege of knowing in the final years of his life. William Johnston was a Jesuit from Ireland who spent most of his life at Sophia University in Tokyo and who wrote some fine books on Christian spirituality as found in such classics as The Cloud of Unknowing and the works of Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. In the early part of his autobiography Fr. Johnston recounts with great honesty how, when he was just fourteen years old, he was so overwhelmed by fear of hell because of the sexual thoughts or desires that naturally came to him in early adolescence that once, while crossing the Irish Sea with his mother during World War II, he kept imagining that he heard a German torpedo sizzling through the water to sink the boat and send him straight to hell. He writes that he was “overcome with terror,… became violently sick, and vomited on the floor” of the cabin.4 To whatever extent that is an example of what is sometimes called “Catholic guilt,” one can only say that it is not in accord with the way God wants any of us to live.

We also read how some of the greatest saints considered themselves the worst of sinners. This is often explained by the fact that their unusually vivid awareness of the holiness of God made even their slightest failings seem like enormous crimes, but it could also be that a pervasive overemphasis on universal human sinfulness affected them more than most persons. Back in the early seventeenth century, there was a holy nun of our English Benedictine Congregation named Dame Gertrude More, a distant relative of St. Thomas More. Some of her devotions were published after her death, and while there is much that is laudable and of enduring value in them, there are also parts that I think should strike all of us as excessive, as when she writes: “Take pity, O Lord, take pity on me, a most miserable sinner, doing things worthy of blame and worthily suffering for the same…. If I ponder the evil which I daily commit, that which I endure [in sickness] is nothing in comparison with it, that which I have done being much more grievous than my affliction.”5

There are certainly things that all of us do wrong and for which we should be sorry and ask forgiveness, but there is surely much in our spiritual tradition that is extreme in this regard. It all comes down to the question of whether human beings are fundamentally good or fundamentally bad. Does original sin or original blessing have the upper hand? It’s very possible that when a person does something wrong, perhaps by seriously offending another person, and is then forgiven, the offender will conclude, “I’m bad, but you forgive me all the same. I’m no good, but even so you are so good that you forgive me.” But surely what should happen is that the forgiveness extended to a person will awaken a sense of that person’s own goodness, which has been partially damaged by the way he or she treated another.

In my opinion, an indication that most persons, deep down, are basically good was pointed out in a reading we heard a couple weeks ago at the beginning of night prayer, Compline. The author wrote as follows:

Until September 11, 2001, we had no sample of any size to tell us what people are like when they face certain death. Now, however, we know, thanks to dozens of cell phone calls,… what men and women do in these last seconds of their lives.

They forget themselves as they think of those they love, their spouses and children, their parents and friends. They do not complain or bemoan their fate. Neither do they pray for miraculous deliverance or even for the forgiveness of their sins….

They just want to tell others how much they love them, that they want them to be safe,… that their last will and their true testament is one of utter concern for those they cherish …

The flaming towers and the skies were not filled with business travelers or tourists that last morning but with lovers, some laying down their lives for their friends, but all of them at their best, drawn fully out of themselves so that we see them as they really were all the time.6

Words like that are not only inspiring but encouraging. To return in conclusion to what I said at the beginning of this homily, yes, all of this may appear one-sided and even naïve, so I hasten to add that I do not deny that truly grievous sins have been and are being committed in our world, do not deny that the sacrament of penance or reconciliation is a great gift, do not deny that a person may develop so lax a conscience as to be quite unaware of ways in which he or she falls far short of what God asks of them, and do not deny that the sins of greed or the sexual abuse of children that Pope Francis has inveighed against have done massive harm to society and to the Church. But none of that is the whole truth, and we ought never let a sense of sin lead to the kind of terror that afflicted young Billy Johnston. One might indeed say that if left totally to ourselves, we would be nothing but sin and darkness, but in fact we are not left to ourselves, and through our union with Christ we may say, “You, Lord, are my light, my holiness, my heaven. You never tempt any of us beyond our strength, and with the help of your grace we may live lives ever more in accord with your will.” Great saints of the early Church like Athanasius of Alexandria and Basil of Caesarea said that Christ became one of us so that we might come to share in his own nature. That’s a glorious calling, and through his grace it is possible to live that way, so beautifully summed in a verse of a hymn by Charles Wesley we sometimes sing and with which I will conclude this homily:

Heavenly Father, Life divine,
Change my nature into thine!
Move and spread throughout my soul,
Actuate and fill the whole!
Be it I no longer now
Living in the flesh, but thou.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1Richard Dawkins, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 140.
2 Ibid., 142.
3 Ibid., 140.
4 William Johnston, Mystical Journey: An Autobiography (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2006), 18-19.
5 Dame Gertrude More, ed. Dom H. Lane Fox, The Holy Practices of a Divine Lover (n.p., n.d.), 32.
6 Eugene Kennedy, 9-11: Meditations at the Center of the World, in A Maryknoll Book of Inspiration (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 275.