Sunday Homily: Love of God, Love of the Stranger, and Love of Self

30stSUNDAY in ORDINARY TIME – A       October 29, 2017     br. Daniël
[Ex 22:20-26;  1Thess1:5c-10;  Mt 22:34-40]

   Jesus is involved in a series of debates with the Jewish religious leaders. As soon as the Pharisees learn that Jesus has silenced the Sadducees, one of them comes up with a new question: ‘Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?’ As a good Jew, Jesus begins by quoting the most fundamental one: ‘Love God with all your capacities, heart, soul and mind’. However, Jesus immediately attaches to this the commandment of love for the neighbor, as being one and the same with the commandment of love for God. Indeed, it is impossible to love God without loving the neighbor.
     The Evangelist Mark has a parallel text in which this story has an interesting epilogue. The same Pharisee who – according to Matthew – tries to put Jesus to the test, gets so deeply impressed by Jesus’ answer that he exclaims: ‘Exactly Master, you have said it very well!’ And Jesus, seeing that his interlocutor has opened his heart, replies: ‘You are not far from the Kingdom of God’.
     Not all Jewish Pharisees were as bad as our traditional picture suggests. Besides, in the Rabbinic tradition vivid debates with sophisticated questions about the Torah were quite normal. Usually, the intentions were not bad. The purpose was: challenging one another to penetrate into the unfathomable depth of the Sacred Text. However, this traditional game assumes an evil character when some are questioning Jesus just to find a pretext for sueing him and having him put to death. In such a case, religion becomes an aggressive hypocrisy aiming at destruction because of mere power. Nevertheless, we should correct the traditional picture of ‘the Pharisee’: in Mark we see that the dialogue is held in an atmosphere of mutual respect beyond separating boundaries.
     This brings us to the theme of respect, also concerning what seems to be strange in different religions and cultures. In the first reading we heard the commandment of respect towards the stranger, ‘for you were once strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt’. Without denying our Christian roots, love for the neighbor requires to open our hearts also for strangers. Not always easy, especially today, as our Christian faith is rapidly losing its influence upon society and other religions are playing a more important role, especially the Islam.
     However, Xenophobia is not the answer. Also the Islam, originally, is a tolerant religion, just like Christianity, in spite of all violence happening in its name. In the Koran, in fact, the second Soera says: ‘Those who adhere to the Jewish faith, as well as the Christians who believe in God and in the Last Day, who are acting by virtue, will have their reward from their Lord; they will have nothing to fear and will not be saddened’. And a little further, the same Koran even refers to the Covenant of God with the Israelites: ‘You shall serve God only. Be good for your parents, your relatives, the orphans and the needy’. Thus, two Islamitic passages that come very close to our readings of today: respect for the stranger and justice to those who cannot defend themselves.        

     But today’s Gospel also invites us to remain close to ourselves. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. We need a healthy amount of self-love to be able to love others. We should not just open our hearts for others and strangers without being in touch with our innermost self. ‘Know yourself’. A humble self-acceptance, as a fruit of sincere search for God, is a condition to make love possible for our neighbor. Love for God, our Creator, and love for the neighbor are the two sides of one and the same medal. A heart can be open for strangers only to the extent to which it is at home with itself. May this be for us the basis of an authentic religion, coming from a heart that includes all people – notwithstanding their origins – as children of one and the same God.
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Formal Reception of Sr Gertrude into the Cistercian (OCSO) Order


Today on this Solemnity of All Saints we have many things to be grateful for and to ponder.  We celebrate the anniversary of the foundation of this monastery and honor our two sisters, Godelieve and Veronique, who were part of the beginning of this monastery and continue to be faithful witnesses through their monastic calling, an inspiration for all of us.  And today also is an important moment for Redwoods as you Sr. Gertrude begin your probationary period….not a small step but one clearly of faith and of following the Divine calling in your life.

All Saints:  we honor today not the known saints but all the unknown ones, unknown yet they have paved a way before us….and what is this way?  They were human, just like us….they were seekers and they aspired to serve God…to serve God in and through their humanity, their broken humanity…just like us.  In my view sainthood is no extraordinary thing, although perhaps we could say it is ‘exceptional’.  Exceptional in this sense:  it is living one’s call to the end, offering each day the gift of one’s self, ready to take up one’s cross, carrying it with joy and not being pulled down by it or resentful of the personal baggage one is asked to bear and carry into life!  These unknown saints were faithful in carrying their cross, they were open to conversion…open to learning, learning especially how to love, like Christ, no matter their existential circumstances.  I use the word ‘exceptional’ because it parallels the message of Jesus: “Enter by the narrow gate for it is a narrow way that leads to life and few follow it”.  Let me stress this: the narrow way need not be exceptional, meaning only for a few, because with God all things are possible.  And ALL the saints today are bringing this message to us.

Sr Kathy with Sr Gertrude at today's ritual. 


Now dear Gertrude:  I offer first this text from Therese of Liseaux: 
“Leaning with nothing to lean on
Without light and in darkness
I go burning with love.
Of Love, I have had experience
Of the good, of the bad that it finds in me
It knows how to benefit (what power)
It changes my soul into itself”  (A Life of Love, p.208).
Both the good and the bad that Love finds in us…it knows how to benefit!   Love uses whatever it finds in us, even the stuff that we label ‘bad’, that needs healing and transformation.  All this Love uses and changes our soul into itself.  What hope this is for all of us!  To lean on nothing takes me back to Abbot Gerard’s conference at the General Chapter…leaning on nothing but Christ’s love….leaning on nothing paradoxically reveals the glory of God….And, it builds within us, over time, an inner strength capable to go forward, not afraid but assured that one is held by the power of God, which is God’s love….there is NO power greater than Love….this is evidenced in Jesus, through his death and resurrection…it is this Love that raised him from the dead, this Love that has brought his presence so close to us to sustain us on our pilgrimage.

Gertrude, you shared with me a text from Br. Christophe’s journal that was especially speaking to you during your retreat.  The context of Christophe’s words is that the brothers were gathered at chapter in the evening and discussing an appeal from the bishops to form small groups in times of trial, and Christophe poses the question ‘Who is available’? (Born From the Gaze of God, p.116).  Then his prayer reflection turns deep into these words: “I re-read Ruth’s promise to Naomi, and I would love to be able to live it in truth, in poverty: ‘Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God’.  To follow God: here” (p.116).  These words are powerful and very direct.  They express a commitment, they could well be part of a profession formula!  They are total in their offering: ‘Wherever you go I will go….wherever you live I will live…to follow God here…Gertrude, it is my sense that you are ready and willing to make this offering today as you respond to the flow of grace calling you!

We heard at First Vespers last evening the magnificent text from St. Symeon the New Theologian who tells us that these unknown saints form a single chain, a chain united by faith, works and love and this chain, so strong, it quickly can not be broken.  Is this not what this solemnity invites us to, to be part of this living chain of witnesses?  So let us not run away from this way of life, which needs be narrow, for only then can it expand into the sweetness of love, into the freedom of spirit to which our God calls each one of us.  Amen.



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Prayer as Listening

ART: IVAN MESTROVIC
Recently we received some conferences on prayer in the monastic tradition by Fr. Daniel Hombergen OCSO.  I was moved by Fr. Daniel’s reflections of Enzo Bianchi’s book, Why Pray, How to Pray especially the chapters On the subjects of The Initiative God takes in relationship,“ and “The germinating of authentic prayer where there is listening.”  Fr. Daniel differentiates two movements with our relationship to God.The first is the strong initiative taken by God in searching for humanity, calling us, questioning us, as well as asking us to listen and receive what God has shared with humankind from Genesis to Revelation.  The God who “first loved us” (1 Jn. 4 :19) speaks. God begins the dialogue with His people.  Enzo Bianchi states, “God has turned Himself towards human beings in order to enter into relationship with them, in order to open up dialogue with them which is directed toward communion” ( Why Pray? How to  Pray, p.24). “God reveals Himself as Word and makes of Israel a people who listen, even before making them a people of faith, unveiling to them their vocation: the call to listen” (p.25).

After God’s self- revelation throughout history human beings respond in faith, blessing, laudes, thanksgiving, adoration, supplication and the confession of one’s own sins (Why Pray, How to Pray, p.22-23). This second movement,  being incomplete, is the human person’s response to God, directed at love for God and the neighbor. This movement can be a distortion if our human attempt at prayer is limited to our own effort and if we believe we can pray solely by ourselves. “If human prayer, as the desire for God, presents an ascending movement of words toward heaven, listening on the other hand, is characterized by a descending movement, by a descent of the Word of God towards the human being; the one who truly prays, from Abraham  onwards (Gen. 12:1) is the one who listens, who opens his ears to God” ( Why Pray? How to Pray, p.25).

Authentic prayer germinates where there is listening; it is integral as it precedes our capacity to reply. We hear this most poignantly in the gospel readings for the feast of the Transfiguration, namely; “Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him’ ( Mk. 9:7, Mt. 17:2, Lk.9 :35).  “Speak Lord for your servant is listening” ( 1 Sam. 3 :9). This is the first act of prayer, which, unfortunately, we are tempted to reverse into “Listen, Lord, because your servant is speaking” (Why Pray? How to Pray, p. 26). Enzo Bianchi re-states, “Listening is already praying and should have absolute priority, as it acknowledges God as the One who takes initiative for our encounter with him” (p.26).  An example of a response to active listening in the Old Testament is 1 Kings 3 :9.  God asked Solomon what he wanted, the young Solomon replied, a “heart capable of listening,” not a docile heart.”  It pleased the Lord that Solomon asked for this (1Kings 3 :10).  St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans also says, “faith comes from listening.”

Enzo Bianchi cautions, “when one searches for formulas and gestures to give shape to prayer in which an individual is particularly in search of assurance  and satisfaction, prayer can degenerate into an expression of spiritual arrogance, a substitute for really performing God’s will" (Why Pray? How to Pray, p.27).  By being aware and attentive to the Word of God, namely listening, we will hear the Lord speaking ( Dt. 4 : 32-33 ) and loving ( Dt.7 : 7-8) for our God truly loves us!  Jesus when asked what the first commandment was replied, “Listen” knowing very well that it is from the capacity to listen that the capacity to know and love God and neighbor flow ( Mk. 12 : 29-31).  Enzo Bianchi notes then that the movement of Christian prayer is delineated:  from listening to faith, from faith to knowledge of God and from  knowledge to love, the ultimate response to God’s gratuitous love for us (p.27).

We, for our part, struggle to pray because in our lives we encounter the 8 vices or thoughts of gluttony, fornication, avarice, melancholy, anger, acedia, vainglory and pride of which both Cassian and Evagrius write about in the Conferences and Praktikos respectively.  To counter these negative thoughts, we have the example of Christ the Incarnate Word, namely, to cry out to our “Abba”, your will be done, not mine, and have mercy on me a sinner as we hear the tax collector say in Scripture. We are powerless over these vices in our lives and it is only by God’s grace and mercy that our thoughts may be purified by reaching out to our “Abba.” Hopefully our little mustard seed of faith in God and renunciation of the ways of the world will help us to convert distracting struggles into occasions of prayer so a greater self-knowledge and a pure heart can be created in our being.

Sr Ann-Marie, OCSO
As our listening deepens and matures we enter into the mystery of dialogue between the three persons of the Trinity. This communion of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is fed by reciprocal listening, as some of the Words of Jesus demonstrate: “I have made known to you everything I have learned (heard) from my Father” ( Jn. 15:15).  “When the Spirit of Truth comes…, he will not be speaking as from himself, but will say only what he has learned (heard)” ( Jn. 16:13).  “Father, thank you for hearing my prayer” ( Jn. 11 : 41) ( Why Pray, How to Pray,p.28).

The Father’s gift of Jesus to us provides an excellent model on how to be a daughter/son  by listening, in order to do the will of God, even in the times of suffering and struggles.  We know that love overcomes as we remember the Paschal Mystery, and that the Holy Spirit is given as gift to reassure us that God’s presence is always with us. The mystery of Love is incomprehensible, however let us foster a deep listening in our lives as we daily come to Christ in prayer and are nourished with his wisdom and love.









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Celebrating the Humility of St Bernard of Clairvaux


What would be a way to celebrate St. Bernard today in this 21st century?  Perhaps one way is to ponder:  what would he strive to be in the sight of God and what would he call his brother monks to be?  Or, what did Bernard so often refer to in his teaching, which forms the essential framework of his monastic theology?  It can be described, I believe, in one word: love, charity.  For Bernard, St. Benedict’s ‘school of the Lord’s service’, became the ‘schola caritatis’, the school of charity, the school of love.  He taught about this school of love in many different ways and it pervades all of his writings. 

“You will never have real mercy for the failings of another until you know and realize that you have the same failings in your soul…” (The Spiritual Teachings of Bernard of Clairvaux, John Sommerfeldt, p.89-90).  Without humility our love for our neighbor is weak and empathy is not possible.  Imagine: “Empathy is possible only to someone who is truly humble” (p.93).  Humility embraces the truth of our selves; it recognizes our own weaknesses.  When through the eye of the heart we see the failings of another, the first movement must be to return to our selves, this movement is already the beginning of a humble posture, for then we are better able to recognize that we have this same failing as well.  It is only when we have this connection first to our selves that can we reach out to the other in true compassion.  I wonder: can there be authentic love of one another without humility?  The truth of our selves first puts us on humble ground, then mercy, compassion freely flow to our neighbor.  Then we can truly be empathetic for the other.  Bernard underscores this in these words: “Look well first to your self, brother, sister, so you may know how to be compassionate with your neighbor” (p.93).

Holding this relation of humility and love of our neighbor, here is another nuance, in the words of John Sommerfeldt:  “The experience of one’s true self in love enables one to experience others in love” (p. 104).  And from Bernard in the Song of Songs: “…If you are to experience your neighbor as she is, you will actually experience her only as you do your self, for she is what you are” (p.104).  ‘She or he is what you are’:  again this is saying we are not so different from the sister or brother we are criticizing.  What would it feel like if we saw our sister or brother as we are?  The plain fact is that we are not living from our true self nor living from a humble posture when get caught in our negative criticisms and fail to exercise loving kindness toward our sister.  Bernard’s medicine is that experiencing our true self in love opens us to experience others in love. 

And finally, Bernard says, in this most radical statement, from the same passage in the Song of Songs: “The love that is open does not permit the refusal of some feeling, however small, to any person, even to one’s greatest enemy” (p.104-105).  ‘The love that is open’:  what makes our love ‘open’ and not closed in on itself?  I go back to Dom Thomas in the retreat he gave us: the abasement of Christ…that total self-emptying, kenosis, which enables love to flow live a stream, like a river…healing us and our neighbor.  Jesus on the cross with outstretched arms: he is totally open: on the cross is God’s love open to all, every person, even those who attacked him and put him on the cross.  And what of us?  Those daily ‘martyrdoms of the heart’, an ancient monastic metaphor that describes an essential dimension of the monastic ascesis.  Can we with the sisters and brothers we live with each day and the persons who cross the threshold of this monastery, can we say that our love is open, both individually and as a community?


This daily ascesis will be before each one of us as we face the usual irritations, reactions, one to another, the hurts and misunderstandings, our individual ways of controlling and pushing our own agenda and so on.  Will our love be open?  Will our love be open to help us find our true self rooted in a humble heart?  Will we take the first step back into our selves before responding in a conflict?  Will we trust enough the God who is always with us, whose Spirit is ready to breathe life and healing forth into a heart whose windows are open?  Let’s keep the window of our heart open, let’s keep our love open, always the first movement inward, to re-find our true self and then the movement outward toward our neighbor exercising the transforming power of God’s love, loving our sister as we have been first loved.
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