Friday, October 26, 2007

Baptism and Solemn Vows: Chapter Conference Oct 25

In our current table reading at the Monastery, Our Lady and the Church by Hugo Rahner, we have reached the point where he makes the comparison between the Annunciation and Pentecost. In both scenes, we have the presence of Mary and the Holy Spirit at the conception, as it were, of the Body of Christ, first in the Incarnation of the Word of God, and the second at the birth of His Mystical Body the Church. I would like to suggest a third parallel to this, the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. Mary is not present in this episode, but we still have the descent of the Holy Spirit and the birth—in this case the rebirth—of Jesus Christ from the womb of the waters.

In each case, we have the meeting place of the finite and infinite, the temporal and the eternal, God entering the world and transforming it. We see moreover that it is by a word of command that God accomplishes His will, and it is by obedience reception of this Word that God is able to work with humanity. What I would like to do in these next conferences is to examine our vows in the light of this reality of baptism, as illuminated by these instances of the birth of Christ. I think this will also be a good preparation for Advent and Christmas. In saying this, let me again say what I said last week, that our vows are a deepening and an activation of the grace of baptism and confirmation. If our baptism corresponds to the death and resurrection of Christ, and therefore to His enactment of this reality in the waters of the Jordan, our confirmation corresponds to the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and the mission of the Apostles. When we are called to follow Christ as monks, we not only undergo a death to the world and a rising in the cloister, we also receive gifts of the Holy Spirit that equip us with the grace we need for mission. In our case, our mission is to model the early Church, with constant prayer and communal unity of heart, mind and pocketbook. We are to be, in the wonderful words of Pope John Paul II, the living memory of the gospel. We live the resurrection here and now. That we do not everyday exude the joy that this would entail should not discourage or scandalize us; rather it should be evidence that we with the whole Church experience the birth pangs of the New World Order in our very bodies, and that we must strive for ever deeper conversion to Christ, with Mary, Jesus and the Apostles as our models, and the Holy Spirit as our guide.

We should keep in mind constantly through these meditations that our baptism effects the birth of Jesus Christ in our hearts, so that it is no longer we who live 'but Christ lives in us'. The goal of allowing God entrance into our hearts and thus into our world trumps any intermediate goals and offers for us the baffling wisdom of the Cross that is an absurdity to worldly wisdom, as we shall see.

I think it will be easiest to begin an examination of the vows with obedience. Sometimes, we imagine that obedience of the type modeled by Mary would be easy, since the word of command came from an angel. If an angel spoke to me, surely I’d obey. Of course, Manasseh and Gideon give counter witness, and indeed Zechariah, in parallel to Mary didn’t fare so well in this case either. In the case of Jesus, we know that His Father’s will was His food, that he learned obedience by what He suffered, and that He did whatever His Father told Him. God the Father’s pronouncement to Him at the Baptism of His status as beloved Son was an indication that He was the Messiah, the Suffering Servant of the Lord, depicted in the Psalms and in Isaiah. Jesus, obedient to this commissioning by the Holy Spirit, immediately went into combat with the devil and then went about curing and forgiving.

The scene at Pentecost gives us an interesting twist on this theme of obedience. Now, the voice no longer comes from an angel or from God the Father, but from the Apostles themselves. “What then shall we do?” asks the crowd, to which Peter replies, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” This twist, while a scandalous new version of the Incarnation should actually be a comfort for us. The voices of angels are not foolproof, since Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light. On the other hand, the voice of the Church is trustworthy. In our vow of obedience, of course, we promise obedience to our abbot, and St. Benedict links this obedience back to the commissioning of the Apostles, quoting in chapter 5, the teaching of our Lord, “Whoever listens to you listens to me.” The obedience given to a superior is given to God.

We might object that it would be easier if we had an abbot or superior who was clearly holy or gave us commands that seemed more just and so on. This, of course, risks putting us at odds with God’s choice of a superior for us. Actually, this makes us sarabaites, since whatever we think is good we call holy. We partake in a sense, in the rebellion of Korah, who questioned whether God couldn’t speak through others besides Moses and Aaron. I think that this is the point of this long section in Institutes IV, in which Cassian gives us these completely outrageous examples of obedience. If the old monks could respond to such questionable commands, surely we can make an effort to do these merely distasteful to us personally, or even merely unwise. As I posed the situation earlier, what takes precedence: giving birth to Christ in our hearts or stressing over money spent unwisely? While we should offer advice when asked, I think it is clear that the two goals are incommensurate, and so we should offer advice with detachment with regard to its implementation.

Obviously, direct commands from the abbot must be obeyed without delay. If we don’t have an express command from the abbot, it is worthwhile asking what we should do. This direct desire for obedience is the desire to bring Christ to birth in us, as Christ was conceived in Mary, in the Jordan and in the Early Church on Pentecost. If we can’t get a direct command out of the abbot, or our Junior Master, we always have the Customary, the Constitutions and the Rule. We can meditate on Chapters 4-7 in the Rule and on the good zeal of monks, or read Cassian and Basil or Holy Scripture.

I would like to end with one last observation about Mary as a model of obedience. How did she know that she was facing a good angel, how did she find the resources to say ‘yes’ when the angel approached? How did she manage to do this when Zechariah failed so badly?

We get an insight into Mary’s personality when, from time to time in Luke’s gospel, he tells us that she ‘ponders’ things in her heart. That is to say that she takes the time to learn to understand the events and circumstances of her life from the perspective of God’s unfolding plan for her and for creation. In order to do this, she must be well-steeped in divine Law. Indeed, Church tradition often depicts her reading Scripture and praying. There is also a rabbinical tradition that tries to demonstrate that Abraham was chosen because even before his call, he sought to do God’s will, at least as it is known through the manifestation of His ‘eternal power and deity…clearly perceived in the things that have been made’ [Rom. 1: 19-20]. Thus, it is possible that God called others but only Abraham heard because he sought righteousness.

If we find that the superior has to tell us what to do often and we find it hard, or if we wait around wondering what he intends, it is possible that we are not laying enough of the groundwork in our lectio and prayer. If we meditate on God’s Word and ponder the real circumstances of life in our monastery in our hearts, we will spontaneously seek to do the will of the father of the community. We will try to anticipate what he needs and wants before he has to ask, and certainly before he has to command it.

We should of course be seeking to anticipate the needs of each of our brothers, but I believe that it is important to start with the abbot or other superiors because of our innate tendency to favor the brothers we like. We might spend a good deal of time listening to what one brother has to say and be dismissive of another, but only be aware of the kindliness we show and ignorant of the stumbling block we put in front of another. By the nature of his task, the superior sees the whole picture, and so if often aware of circumstances that others are not, some circumstances of which he might prefer not to divulge, especially if they would embarrass a brother. If we make our focus doing God’s will by assisting the whole community in obedience to the abbot, then I believe that we will naturally begin to see this bigger picture and seek to be fair-minded and charitable to all of the brothers, maybe even sympathize with the fact that some brothers need more charity and patience than others, and these are the ones we tend to shy away from or complain about.

Most importantly in this, let us recall the mystical significance of this obedience, which is to give birth to Christ in our hearts. The extent to which we allow this to take place is the extent to which we are obedience to the Spirit’s promptings and mission, to make Christ present to the world in a fraternity of charity, healing and forgiveness.

Next week, we will look first at the vow of stability and then the various aspects of conversatio morum.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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