Comment

Nuns and monks are an immense blessing to the Church

Nuns watch Pope Francis' installation Mass (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

On Monday February 2, the religious of Scotland were invited to mark the Year of Consecrated Life  with a Mass and meal at the Gillis Centre, Edinburgh. The Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Leo Cushley, presided, with the bishops of Motherwell, Paisley, Dunkeld and Aberdeen, and many religious priests concelebrating. Religious of many Congregations were represented. As a bishop who is a religious,  Bishop Hugh Gilbert was invited to preach. Here is the text, which can also be found on the diocese website.

It’s a privilege to be invited to preach on this occasion. It’s also a challenge. What to say and how? Consecrated life is such a rich, complex, sometimes heavy reality. So many issues cluster around it, so many roads run out from it. There’s so much history, so much present, so much, please God, to come. There’s so much theology and so much context. There are such strengths and weaknesses, so many opportunities and threats. There is never lack of controversy. There are so many ways a homily could go.

Well, when all else fails, there’s always the word of God, there’s always the liturgy. It was St John Paul who chose this feast for the annual World Day of Consecrated Life, beginning in 1997. It has been indicated as a light for us who are consecrated. The feast, by its nature, is an epiphany. It’s the last of that series of epiphanies which light up our winter: the birth of Jesus, his showing to the magi, his baptism, the sign of Cana. It is an epiphany for us. “The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, John Paul II said, is an eloquent icon of the total offering of one’s life.” And also of the light that offering can be and can kindle in others.
So, when I thought of the feast, something did light up for me. First something general, then three particulars.

First of all, there is this play with light. Light, from Genesis on, is one of the great biblical and Christian concepts, symbols. Concretely, there are the candles. Our Mass began with this lucernarium, a fore-glimpse of the Easter Vigil. The light is Christ, but it becomes ours. He is the light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel and we catch light from him. We become light in the Lord. It is a baptismal symbol first of all, but it evokes our profession also. How many good ‘lucifers’, light-bearers, we have known and know among our brothers and sisters! There’s a monastic saying: ‘young monks look holy, but they’re not; middle-aged monks don’t look holy, and they aren’t; old monks don’t look holy, but they are’.

But sometimes, at the beginning or the middle or the end, being and appearance really coincide. The light is there and the light shines out. I feel immensely blessed by so many of the monks and nuns I have known. I have been warmed and clarified by the light they carry. We’ve all had this experience. Sometimes the light’s known only to God and a handful of brothers or sisters; sometimes it’s set on a lampstand for the Church and beyond. But it is there. ‘A candle burns at the expense of its own substance’, said the German Jesuit Alfred Delp – and so do these folk. But what light they give!

And here’s a symbol within the symbol. This blessing and procession of candles is owed to a consecrated woman – one Hicelia. She is perhaps best described as an abbess. She lived in Palestine in the 5th century and according to St Cyril of Scythopolis “led the way” in establishing this ceremony. What a future it would have! It would be taken up by the different Eastern liturgies, then spread to Rome, and from there to the West, and from the West to the whole world. The intuition and initiative of one woman having a wide and continuing impact: it is a kind of parallel and parable of the development of religious life in the Church. A diffusion of light.

There’s an idea very dear to Tolkien: we can’t choose the time and place in which we live, nor the historical circumstances that shape our lives. These are allotted us. We should not murmur at them. Our task, in our allotted span, is to refuse the evil and choose the good; to make that basic choice and give our lives that direction. ‘If we would escape the pains of hell and reach eternal life, says St Benedict, then we must – while there is still time, while we are in this body and can fulfil all these things by the light of this life – hasten to do now what may profit us for eternity.’ Yes, to choose the light. To receive it again and again from the risen Christ, from our founders, from the prophets and saints, from the teaching of the Church, allow it to enlighten us and hand it on and around. To join the stream of light that flows through the centuries. This is our vocation surely as Christians consecrated to the Lord by vow.

And what might this mean when we come to particulars?

I’d like to follow those two light-bearers, Mary and Joseph, through today’s Gospel. A first thing that comes to mind is how permeated they are by Scripture, by the word of the Lord. How careful Luke is to highlight their obedience to the law of the Lord: to the prescriptions of Exodus and Leviticus. Five times he does this. ‘Your word is a lamp for my steps.’ It is that word that has turned their steps to the Temple. And then there is Simeon who comes by virtue of a revelation to see the comforting of Israel, the fulfilling of the Isaian hopes. And inspired by the Spirit he will speak words of God himself. He will give what will become a prayer, a canticle for the people of the New Covenant. And Anna too is a prophet. She brings her own word. So Mary and Joseph make the transition from the Old Covenant to the New. And this event becomes part of the content of the New Testament and wholly a word of God.

If we are to fulfil our vocation as light, Scripture is of the essence. Vatican II pointed us there so strongly. ‘The ultimate norm of the religious life is the following of Christ as it is put before us in the Gospel’, said Perfectae Caritatis. And again, ‘In the first place, let them have the sacred scriptures at hand daily, so that they might learn ‘the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus’ by reading and meditating on the divine scriptures’. I think nothing can keep the home fires of the heart burning more brightly than this daily contact with the Word. But there is more. Shouldn’t we align ourselves with our founders and foundresses in their own turning to Scripture. I think we are loyal to them if we do this, if in a sense we look beyond them, if with them we lift our eyes to the mountains which, as St Augustine says, are the Scriptures. We could say that John Paul II proposed this very path: in Vita Consecrata he chose the Gospel of the Transfiguration as the icon to inspire us, and in instituting this World Day pointed to the Gospel of today. The primary inspiration for the religious life has always been biblical. Think of the call of Ss Anthony the Great and Francis of Assisi.

Think of St Dominic who practically knew the Gospel of Matthew and the Letter of Paul by heart. It has been both sayings and figures who have done the inspiring. How formative have been the stories and paradigms of Abraham, Elijah, Mary, the apostles, the early Christian community, and above all the Lord himself, the supremely chaste, poor and obedient one! I remember a striking saying of a Benedictine abbot: ‘It is the task of monks to keep the Psalms alive in the Church.’ We can broaden it: ‘It’s a task of the consecrated to keep Scripture alive in the Church.’ We need to read our Rules and Constitutions as a kind of practical exegesis of the Word. This lets the air in. It undoes the knots that occasionally entangle us. It makes us agents of unity instead of defenders of our corners.

And I think if we live our life in this light of the Word, then we become a lived exegesis – in our weaknesses as well as our strengths. If we make his word our home, if Mary-like we ponder it, then, dare I say it, we will recover the inspirational poetry of our lives. And we and our communities will be words of God, not meaningless cries. The French have this expressive word for an envoy, an ambassador: porte-parole. We will be bearers of light if we carry, bear, the word.

A second particular. ‘And Simeon said to Mary his mother: “You see this child: he is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected – and a sword will pierce your own soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.”’ And so on the horizon of her life, and in his measure of Joseph’s, there rises the mystery of the Cross. Mary had already received knowledge of Jesus from the angel of the Annunciation. And now she receives a second annunciation, different in tone. It’s the first to suggest a rejection, to portray him as a sign of contradiction, with a sword waiting for her own heart. This is the trailer for the Lord’s death and resurrection and Mary’s participation in it. Today she is drawn into the Paschal mystery alongside her Son, as she will be in every other Gospel episode concerning her.

There is a striking passage in Vita Consecrata: ‘From the first centuries of the Church, men and women have felt called to imitate the Incarnate Word who took on the condition of a servant. They have sought to follow him by living in a particularly radical way, through monastic profession, the demands flowing from baptismal participation in the Paschal Mystery of his Death and Resurrection. In this way, by becoming bearers of the Cross (staurophoroi), they have striven to become bearers of the Spirit (pneumatophoroi), authentically spiritual men and women, capable of endowing history with hidden fruitfulness by unceasing praise and intercession, by spiritual counsels and works of charity’.

If we are to be bearers of light, it will be in the measure we are bearers of the single but two-fold mystery of Cross and Resurrection.

This can guide us past possible pit-falls. There is a false seriousness we need to avoid. Far better to be practicioners of what’s been called ‘evangelical light-heartedness’. ‘Where there are religious, there is joy’ quotes Pope Francis – and laughter and fun. At the same time, there is a superficiality to be avoided: the uncritical espousal of every fashionable cause. It has often struck me that most of the sayings of the Lord that have inspired the consecrated life – the words to the rich young man, the answer to Peter’s ‘What about us, Lord? We have left everything and followed you’, the disclosure of celibacy, the clearest calls to renunciation – occur after the Lord has set his face towards Jerusalem. They are spoken en route to the Cross, to the giving of his life as a ransom for many. The Cross is our cause. And the Cross is the door to the Resurrection and Pentecost. It’s along that stretch of the way of salvation that we live our consecrated lives. That’s the Newtonian ‘gravity’ of our lives. That’s their pole. It is the Paschal Mystery we have eyes for and are drawn to. We’re meaningless and empty and tasteless outside it, fit only to be trodden underfoot. And if we are sent to the young or the sick or the marginalised or the trafficked, or whoever, it can only be for that very reason, because they too are in this mystery and we want to go with them through it on the way to salvation.

Yes, if we are to be bearers of light, it will be so far as Paul-like, Mary-like, we are ‘always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies’ (2 Cor 4:10). Think of St Francis.

‘When they had done everything the Law of the Lord required, they went back to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. Meanwhile the child grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom and God’s favour rested on him.’ So the Gospel ends.

When Mary and Joseph emerged from their encounter with Simeon and Anna, I think the world must have looked to them different. I wonder if the Temple – for all its ancestral holiness – now seemed less in their eyes. Their eyes had changed. Surely they had a new awareness that they carried in their arms the holy One, the deliverance of Jerusalem and Israel’s comforting, light and glory for Jew and Gentile – something immense. Surely their respective parenthoods now seemed to them most awesome. This fatherhood and motherhood went beyond the Child in himself. He was born of the virgin to be born – or rejected – in a people. He had acquired a new depth now. He was not just a great king rallying his troops from outside. He was to be the decisive factor in the inner drama of every human being, of what Simeon calls their ‘thoughts’ and ‘hearts’.

What’s prophetically present here is the mystical Body of Christ. And carrying such a One, they were content to go back to the margins, to the peripheries, to obscure Nazareth, to Galilee of the Gentiles, and there put themselves afresh at the service of the maturing child. I think that rather like the disciples after the cloud and the voice on Tabor, Mary and Joseph now ‘saw Jesus only’. But they saw him everywhere. And they saw their mission with a new simple clarity. It was theirs to tend this divine mustard seed planted by the Father in the soil of the world.

Once again, we may find ourselves in the wake of Joseph and Mary. There aren’t, in the end, many missions. There is only one: to serve the mysterious growth of the body of Christ in the world, to be stimulators of his ‘rising’ – and please God never of his ‘falling’ – in the thoughts and hearts of men and women. To tend this seed, in each and everyone entrusted to us. To protect it / them from the weeds, to water with prayer, to guide to the sunshine of God, to grow with them to full stature. So that Christ grows and fills the whole world. So that the world is no longer merely a setting for desecration after desecration, but consecrated in him.

So that there are in the world those ‘alternative spaces’ of which Pope Francis speaks, places lit and warmed by Christ. He is all we have and he is enough. I remember Fr Cantalamessa addressing abbots on the Benedictine theme of ‘preferring nothing to the love of Christ’; it was a plea to us not to lose our Christo-centricity in the midst of inter-religious dialogue or wherever. There was a gentle reminder to the same effect in the recent Report after the Visitation of some American sisters. ‘Let us not lose sight of Jesus’ (Heb 12:2). ‘Christ be our light!’ Mary is the Deipara, the God-bearer, and the word ‘bear’ also means produce, give birth to. It will be in the measure we bear Jesus in this sense that we will be bearers of the light. ‘Sadness’, Pope Francis has said, ‘comes from not being a father or mother’. Let us be bearers and foster-ers of Christ, Christ destined to rise in hearts and thoughts.

I’ve tried to follow Mary and Joseph through today’s Gospel. I think theirs was a journey sustained by the Word. It was a journey into the Paschal mystery. It was a journey to a deeper, more expansive parenthood. And so, thanks to them – bearers of the Word, of the Pasch, of Christ – Christ’s light had a home in the world, and ‘the darkness could not overcome it’ (Jn 1:5).