I was moved by the homily of Fr. Michael Kennedy, SJ, given Thursday morning. He was speaking on the theme of ‘life’, that walking in the presence of God is walking in the presence of the living. He said the God of love does not want victims: by being a victim we don’t dwell in the land of the living and God’s invitation through his Son is to unconditional forgiveness, unconditional love. I was already preparing my chapter talk on specific verses of the Prologue of St. Benedict’s Rule and I was struck by the similarity of what Fr. Michael was saying and these verses of the Prologue as translated by Sr. Aquinata Bockmann: “Therefore the days of our life are a gift to us as a period of grace for the correction of our mistakes, as the Apostle says: ‘Do you not know that the patience of God would lead you to repentance?’ For the good Lord says: ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the sinner, but rather that he turn back and live.’ Since we have thus asked the Lord, brothers, about the one dwelling in his tent, we have heard the precept for dwelling there, may we fulfill the obligations of one dwelling there” (verses 36-39, A Listening Community, p.63). This translation by Sr. Aquinata is fresh and it underlines the reality that God desires life…that grace will not be wanting…that the days of our life are a gift…and a gift in the reality of grace….And this grace is there to transform, to heal, to support, to give hope, to open us to the amazing experience of forgiveness.
According to Sr. Aquinata, Benedict is aware that we are all sinners and that we will have to deal with our sins and mistakes throughout our entire lives (p.64). Thus, she writes, “it is never superfluous to use the Jesus prayer: ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner’”(p.64). She also states that along with this description of the human person as a “sinner”, still we are “called and loved by God” (p.64). Reflected in these specific verses of the Prologue we find these images of God: God is patient, God is magnanimous…the arms and heart of God are open…waiting to receive us back, no matter what. In Paul’s epistle for today the Lord says to him ‘My grace is sufficient for you…’ God’s grace is sufficient, each day, and to repeat what Benedict says: these days are a period of grace for the ‘correction of our mistakes’, for repentance, for turning back from a reaction and living. These verses of the Prologue put before us two contraries: grace and sin with the all-encompassing reality being grace. We are never to forget, even though we don’t ‘feel’ it, that grace, sufficient grace is ever-present to correct our mistakes. So, dear sisters, what is it then that holds us back from looking at the reality of our mistakes and taking the necessary steps to correct our ways, to repent and live?
M. Maureen last week spoke of ‘alternations of experience’ in St. Bernard. In continuity with St. Bernard, she helped to translate this notion into our lives today. We all have experienced the alternation of Divine ‘presence and absence’ even though we ‘know’, our faith ‘knows’ we are always dwelling in Christ…‘in the One in whom we live and move and have our being’. What the conditions are around the experience of ‘absence’ vary a lot and I do think they sometimes relate to our need of self-knowledge and conversion. In other words, there is the felt sense of ‘absence’ because God is inviting us ever again to a change of heart, to a softening of our heart into mercy and compassion. ‘The days of our life’ are a gift and still Benedict is aware that each day we need ‘correction of our mistakes,’ where emotional reactions come forth that ask a surrendered heart, a heart ready to let go so that grace can lift us out of our defensiveness before another, help us to own our murmuring thoughts and die to them, to be aware of our ‘bruised ego’ reactions (an expression that M. Maureen used last week) in a conflict situation. I think we can easily fall into a victim posture or a blaming posture in those small little conflicts with one another. Remaining in the victim or blaming posture leads nowhere. ‘To dwell in the tent of the Lord’, ‘to walk in the land of the living’ means that with grace we turn and truly see the truth of ourselves in the present moment. There is no life or freedom in being either a victim or in blaming.
Alternations of experience: this is part of what it means to be human…‘presence and absence, consolation and desolation’…What is it that helps us receive the grace that is always present? In this section of the Rule, it is the move towards repentance…in this step of conversion we turn to the spiritual attitude and disposition that reflects our desire to become one with Christ and to become more like him in mind and heart…that attitude as described in our Constitutions and referred to by M. Maureen last week is “a humble docility born of faith, hope and love, making the sister eager to learn…” (Cst 46.1). The earlier verses of the Prologue describe the monastic as a ‘listener’ and these present verses are just preceding the verses which speak of ‘establishing a school of the Lord’s service’…St. Bernard will change this phrase to ‘establishing a school of charity, a school of love’…here in these verses we are sinners…but with the spiritual attitude of ‘humble docility’, eager to learn about ourselves…eager to grow and to change our egocentric ways, we are helping to build up this school of charity for one another and for all who cross the threshold of this monastery.
Let us remember each day that the love of God for each one of us is always present through grace and in his Spirit. I conclude with these words of Jean Vanier that we heard at our vigil: “Humanity seems more prepared to live in conflict, behind barriers and defense mechanisms…than to change and receive new love” (Jesus the Gift of Love, p.50).