Homily for Sunday, January 15, 2017Published:
Brother Gregory Marshall, O.S.B.
January 15, 2017
We have, Brother Gregory, at last arrived at the day of your solemn profession, when you wish to make the words of our Holy Father Benedict at the conclusion of the Prologue to his Rule once and for all your own: “Never serving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom.” By happy coincidence you are making your profession on the day we commemorate the first two disciples of St. Benedict, whose names are known to us, Sts. Maur and Placid. May they, and all other who have gone before us on this way, be your examples, your intercessors and your companions.
You have, of course, reached this day only with the help of many others. First of all, we – and you especially – owe an inestimable debt of gratitude to your family whom we are happy to have with us today, and especially to your mother and father. Our community is most grateful to you, Mr. and Mrs. Marshall and Joseph. We have your son and brother, Andrew, as our Brother Gregory first and foremost of all because of you; and we have reason to suspect that at times you were called upon to exercise significant amounts of patience and love. We owe likewise a significant debt of gratitude to Father Bill, who brought you into communion with the Catholic Church and who has, likewise with great skill and patience, encouraged you on your way and has come to celebrate with you and with our community today. It may, of course, a case of “seeing is believing” on his part. Special thanks are likewise due to Father Elias and Brother Tobiah, who have been entrusted with the important responsibility of forming you and others in our monastic way of life, and thanks are due as well to our monks in formation, who through you and for you have come to a more profound appreciation of these aforementioned words of St. Benedict: “We shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ.”
By happy coincidence again, the readings from Sacred Scripture assigned by the church to this Sunday prove uniquely apt for this celebration. As we learn through our cultivation of lectio divina, we are not to return continually only to those passages which are our favorites, which perhaps comfort rather than challenge us. Instead, we are to be open to the Word of God as it is addressed to us in its fullness, for our instruction and correction.
The response for the Psalm today is especially fitting for the occasion: Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will. You have indeed come to this day when you wish to bind yourself irrevocably to do God’s will. It has not been an easy journey, and has taken many turns and involved many flights from that will. But something has continued to draw you: to Baptism, to communion with the Catholic Church. Jim Day brought you one day, now a good number of years ago, to Belmont Abbey, and here you continued to return – and to run away. But four years ago you returned for one final time and, at last, with the help of many brothers, faced the pain and fear that comes with not running. And now we have arrived at this day.
But days of arrival are also days of new departures. For this day is only a beginning. For the words: I come to do your will, so noble and beauty are yet terrible, for God’s will demands a response that St. Benedict tells us must be neither “cringing or sluggish or half-hearted, but free from any grumbling or any reaction of unwillingness.” These words I come to do your will are indeed attractive to us, and we are generally willing to give something to them – but they demand we give all, and that terrifies us. You have spent a good part of your life running from that prospect of giving all, as have we all at various points in our lives, finding a variety of escapes in order to forget and not listen. But the inevitable unhappiness and total misery that brings make it unavoidably clear that it is only by letting go at last to those last things we want to hold onto for ourselves and giving in totally to God’s will that we will find any lasting happiness and peace. And so you have arrived at today, and the difficult path of a lifetime of conversion is set to begin. Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will. Truly making these words your own will demand far more sacrifice and difficulty that you have yet experienced. For God’s will demands our entire self without reservation, so that we may be reformed entirely anew in the image of the one who created us. You will learn the dire import of the Lord’s words: From one to whom much has been entrusted, much will be required. You will continually have to learn and relearn the sacrifice and discipline and patience that authentic love requires. We, your confreres, will give you infinite opportunities to do so.
You are, in the Apostle’s words to us today, called to be holy. And this is not just for yourself. It is for the salvation of the world. The words of the prophet, addressed once long ago to the People of Israel are directed today to you and to each of us here: I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. Everyone baptized in Christ is sent to make God’s salvation known. You are committing yourself to the prayer, life and work of this abbey which, for one hundred and forty years has been building up the church in North Carolina, for monastic life, as any Christian life, must be evangelical. The monastery evangelizes by the witness of its very existence and life. By its very existence the monastery challenges the larger church community and the greater human community with its message that the Lord is God and Him alone are we to serve, and challenges people to consider the meaning and purpose of their life and their ordering of priorities. Through a life dedicated totally to seeking God in prayer, and by forming a community of men of the most varied ages, backgrounds, temperaments, personalities and weaknesses held in unity by the grace of Jesus Christ, the monastery strives to live the Great Commandment: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind…you shall love your neighbor as yourself. By fidelity to the vows you are about to profess and by ceaselessly striving for holiness of life, you are to bring the light of God’s salvation to others, to us, your confreres, first; and then with us, to all who come.
Finally, the words of John the Baptist in today’s gospel sum up for us succinctly the entire meaning and purpose of our monastic life: Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God. The entire way of life Our Holy Father Benedict has outlined for us in his Rule is centered on Jesus Christ, the Savior who takes away the sin of the world and brings us back to his Father in the power of the Spirit. At the very beginning of his Rule, Saint Benedict challenges us to return to Him from whom we have departed through the sloth of disobedience by taking up the “strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord.” In that obedience, he instructs us to imitate the Lord, “of whom the Apostle says: He became obedient even to death,” and urges us to “conform to the saying of the Lord: I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. He challenges us to see Jesus Christ in those who are vulnerable, needy and weak; that is, in the guests who present themselves, especially the poor and pilgrims, in the sick, in the abbot. According to his Rule, We are to be so perfected in humility by the grace of Jesus Christ that we “will quickly arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear”, so that the virtue we once labored to acquire with difficulty we “will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue.” His final words in his Rule to us, his sons, are: “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”
And so, if you are willing to entrust your life from this day forward without reservation or holding back to the boundless love and mercy of Jesus Christ, he will by his grace save you from your self-absorption and give you his own strength to obey what he commands, so that conformed by Christ and through Christ to the image of Christ, the Father will come to share with you that fullness of eternal life and love which he has always shared with His beloved Son from all eternity. If, therefore, trusting in the grace of Jesus Christ alone, you are willing to commit your life from now until your death to monastic life in this community according to the Rule of our blessed Father Benedict, I ask you to come forward and state your intention before God and His saints, and His holy people gathered here.
+ + +