The real paradigm shift

How shall this be, for I know not man?

When Our Lady hears the angel’s words, telling her she is to have a son, this is her only question. How can it be for I know not man? Those words ring out with all the clarity of a pure, vibrant voice, amidst the din of yesterday’s and today’s sensual cacophony. They inaugurate a new era for humanity. They set the tone for a true paradigm shift. They are words which open the doors of monasteries and transform from the inside the creatures made in the image and likeness of God.

Indeed, those words tell us two things. First of all, that Mary has no intention of being intimate with any man whatsoever, reserving her heart and her body for God alone. Secondly, and more importantly they tell us that such was God’s plan, to enter the world through a virgin, to be a virgin Himself, and to invite legions of souls, men and women, to forego the natural attractions of the senses, the natural and good gratification of the desire to procreate and leave behind part of oneself in the children brought into the world.

How shall this be, for I know not man?

Mary’s words tell us that a new way of being mother and father has entered the world. Henceforth, one may choose to become the bride of Christ, to give birth to souls, and to be a sign that eternity has entered time. 

But let’s listen to a saint, Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “To love Christ is undivided love in chastity. Chastity is not just not getting married, not to have a family. Chastity is that undivided love, ‘no one and nothing’. And for that we need the freedom of poverty, and we must all be able to experience the joy of that freedom; having nothing, having no one, we can then love Christ with undivided love. And if we really understand that we belong to Jesus, that He has called us by our name, then obedience is natural. A total surrender: He can do with us what He wants, when He wants, whatever he wants. He can cut us to pieces, yet every single piece is only His. We belong so totally to Him that He can use us without consulting us; and so, to be able to love Christ with undivided love in chastity, we need that total surrender. And now service, our wholehearted service, whatever work has been entrusted to us by obedience, is the fruit of that Chastity, the fruit of that undivided love for Christ. That is why, for a priest who has made that total surrender to God, who is completely free, completely free to love Christ with undivided love in chastity, the work that he does is his love for Christ in action. The Precious Blood is in his hand, the Living Bread he can break and give to all who are hungry for God. Therefore, his chastity, how chaste it must be; his purity, how pure it must be; his virginity, how virgin it must be, to be able to love Christ with undivided love through freedom of poverty in total surrender, in obedience and in wholehearted service”.

A sublime program, one which should not fail to inspire us, but which has its challenges. How can we persevere? Let’s listen to another modern saint, St JoseMaria Escriva: “And what is the secret of perseverance? Love, Fall in love, and you will not leave Him”.

On her glorious feast day, may Mary Immaculate inspire many souls with this desire to belong to Jesus alone, to fall in love, and to love to the end.

God needs no numbers

My eyes are always towards the Lord, for He it is who delivers my feet from the snare. For I am alone and poor (Ps 24).

The loneliness of the servant of the Lord is a theme that is quite frequent in Holy Scripture. The common experience of the prophets was that they had a mission to accomplish alone. When God intervenes in history, it is usually through one man who changes the course of history. But that one man is often rejected, persecuted, sometimes put to death. 

In chapter 63 of Isaiah, the Messiah is presented to us under the traits of a warrior who must fight alone. “I have trodden the winepress alone, and of the Gentiles there is not a man with me: I have trampled on them in my indignation, and have trodden them down in my wrath, and their blood is sprinkled upon my garments, and I have stained all my apparel. For the day of vengeance is in my heart, the year of my redemption is come. I looked about, and there was none to help: I sought, and there was none to give aid: and my own arm hath saved for me, and my indignation itself hath helped me” (Is 63:3-5).

As for the psalmist, in today’s Introit he insists that he is not only poor but alone - unicus sum. And in other psalms he must act “singulariter”, that is to say, alone. 

So let us not be surprised if we find ourselves alone with a mission that seems impossible. God never does anything with numbers. He does not need numbers. All he needs is Himself and a soul, just one, that is open to the task God wants to give. 

Time and time again in history, God’s people is saved or reformed thanks to the zeal of one man or one woman, a soul that has no care for its reputation or its comfort, a soul that is ready to take up the cross and die. With that soul, God can transform all things.

So let us, to use St Ignatius’ expression, give greater proof of our love and distinguish ourselves in whatever concerns the service of the Eternal King and the Lord of all, not only offering ourselves entirely for the work, but acting against our sensuality and carnal and worldly love, making offerings of greater value and of more importance.

If we do, then we will be following the apostle’s pressing recommendations in today’s epistle; we will be imitators of God, the God who took flesh and offered Himself as an oblation, a sweet-smelling sacrifice for the salvation of the world.

The wisdom of St Gregory

This Lent I am reading again part of St Gregory's Morals on Job. I thought I would share a few of his words of wisdom on this Friday in Lent. The saint wonders why God allowed the holy man Job to be so afflicted with evils while the ungodly prosper. Hear his answer and pay particular attention to the role of eternal retribution, both for the good and the evil:

“While blessed Job is undergoing such losses in his substance, and grieving over the death of so many children whereby he is smitten, while he is suffering such numberless wounds, while he scrapes the running humour with a potsherd, whilst, running down in a state of corruption, he sat himself upon a dunghill, it is good to consider how it is that Almighty God, as though in unconcern, afflicts so grievously those, whom He looks upon as so dear to Him for all eternity

“But, now, while I view the wounds and the torments of blessed Job, I suddenly call back my mind's eye to John (the Baptist), and I reflect not without the greatest astonishment, that he, being filled with the Spirit of prophecy within his mother's womb, and who, if I may say so, before his birth, was born again, he that was the friend of the Bridegroom, [John 3, 29] he than whom none hath arisen greater among those born of women, [Matt. 11, 11] he that was so great a Prophet, that he was even more than a Prophet, he is cast into prison by wicked men, and beheaded, for the dancing of a damsel, and a man of such severe virtue dies for the merriment of the vile!  Do we imagine there was aught in his life which that most contemptible death was to wipe off?  When, then, did he sin even in meat, whose food was but locusts and wild honey?  How did he offend even by the quality of his clothing, the covering of whose body was of camel's hair?  How could he transgress in his behaviour, who never went out from the desert?  How did the guilt of a talkative tongue defile him, who was parted far from mankind?  When did even a fault of silence attach to him, who so vehemently charged those that came to him?  O generation, of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? [Matt. 3, 7]  

“How is it then, that Job is distinguished above other men by the testimony of God, and yet by his plagues is brought down even to a dunghill?  How is it that John is commended by the voice of God, and yet for the words of a drunkard suffers death as the prize of dancing?  How is it, that Almighty God so utterly disregards in this present state of being those whom He chose so exaltedly before the worlds, saving this, which is plain to the religious sense of the faithful, that it is for this reason He thus presses them below, because He sees how to recompense them on high?  And He casts them down without to the level of things contemptible, because He leads them on within to the height of things incomprehensible.  From hence then let everyone collect what those will have to suffer There, that are condemned by Him, if here He thus torments those whom He loves, or how they shall be smitten, who are destined to be convicted at the Judgment, if their life is sunk so low, who are commended by witness of the Judge Himself.” 

Taken from St Gregory, Morals on Job, Book 3, 11.

Fear not

Fear not, Joseph, Son of David. Fear not to take Mary your betrothed wife into you home. Fear not, for what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. Fear not, for you will be as father to this child. Fear not, for you will give Him the Name above all names, the name that will be loved and adored to the ends of the earth until the end of time. Fear not, for God is here.

The words of God realise what they express. When God speaks to a soul in turmoil: “fear not”, then that soul ceases to fear. Just as, at the dawn of creation, God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light, so when God says to a soul, “Fear not”, that soul no longer fears.

The presence of God is enough of itself to remove all fear. Who could be afraid when conscious of the loving protection of the Almighty? This is all the more necessary when one receives a mission from God. God calls us to perform a task, to go on a mission, to stand up for the truth, to lead others. He sometimes gives tasks that are nearly impossible, as He did to Joseph when He put him into the impossible situation of figuring out what was going on with Mary. St Jerome says it well when he writes that Joseph resolved to bury in silence the mystery he did not understand. An impossible situation that only humility could resolve. Fear not, Joseph.

And so it is with us. We each have a mission. None of our missions will ever come anywhere near the dignity of Joseph’s. Joseph is the only man on earth whom the Son of God looked up to. God  Himself called Joseph “Papa”. It is only with emotion and trembling that we can become conscious of that awesome reality. The sanctity of Joseph should make our head spin, so far does he tower over us in grandeur. And yet, we all have our mission, a mission that we alone can perform, that will remain eternally undone if we do not perform it. Whatever it might be, let’s make sure that we do not fear. Let us ask St Joseph to help us hear those divine words: “fear not; go forward, I am with you. And if I am with you, what is there to fear”?

The patriarch Joseph had reason to fear. His brothers wanted to kill him. His master’s wife falsely accused him and he found himself in prison though innocent. But when we read the story through its happy ending, we know he had no reason to fear. God was with him in those darkest hours of his life, and those hours are precisely the ones which helped him grow in holiness, that is, in humility, and become the great patriarch we look up to in admiration.

St Joseph had reason to fear. His wife is pregnant, and he is not the father. His wife tells him nothing, leaves him in the dark. In that dark hour, Joseph makes the wrong decision. He thinks he has to leave, but God wants him to stay. When we look back and read the story through its happy ending, we know that he had nothing to fear, not even from his mistake made in good faith. God guides and blesses the humble soul who is always ready to change course when the divine will becomes clear, when the word is spoken through those who speak to us on God’s behalf. It is consoling to know that the saints were sometimes mistaken. After much prayer and discernment one can still be mistaken. It remains that the hallmark of the holy soul is the capacity to acknowledge that it can be wrong, and the readiness to adjust its position. God blesses the humble.

God wanted Joseph to stay. At other times, God wants us to move on. There is a time for staying and a time for going. “May the Lord bless your coming in and your going out”, says the psalm. Is not life composed of such goings and comings, of doors opening and others closing? Through it all, all that really matters is that we are seeking the Face of the Living God. Joseph was one of those seekers of God, who really want to see God. Quite unexpectedly he would be the first, with Our Lady, to see God in the face of a newborn Babe. He would see Him a short time later in the paths of the exile into Egypt, and still later in an unexpected three day runaway of the Divine Adolescent. In all things, Joseph sought the face of the Living God. May we, like him, be among those who not only seek, but also find; those who know that the path of God leads to the Cross, or rather through the Cross, to the Resurrection.

Transfiguration and religious life

There are a number of affinities between the Transfiguration of Our Lord and monastic life. In his apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata, John Paul II used this event as a sort of paradigm for religious life in general. 

In it we see the Lord taking a few chosen disciples, singling them out for an event that would not be shown to all. He invites them to leave the crowd, to go into solitude, to climb a mountain. Those who have been to Mt Tabor in the Holy Land know that it takes some solid effort to reach the top of that mountain. Finding Christ in solitude always does. There is first the effort to get away, to leave behind all the distractions of the world. Then there is the effort to persevere in ascending the steep path, letting Jesus take the lead always.

We know from St Luke that when Our Lord reached the top of the mountain, he began to pray. The apostles were accustomed to such prayers of our Lord. These could last a while. The apostles tried to imitate Him. But, weak men that they were, they soon dozed off into sleep. They were awaken by an unexpected phenomenon: Jesus is still there, in the position of prayer, but he is not the same. Now he seems to be enveloped in light, he seems to be light. His face shines bright like the sun. His garments themselves become white as the light. 

That alone was a sight to hold the apostles in ecstasy. But there was something else: two men are with him, Moses and Elijah, speaking with Him. Once again we can thank St Luke for informing us of the subject of their conversation: they were speaking of His “exodus”, His going out of this life, that is, His passion. The mysterious words referring to the passion at the very moment of His manifestation of glory are not without a profound lesson. They remind us that, as long as we are in this mortal life, we must prepare ourselves for labour and suffering, whatever might be the consolations received. Such consolations are given to strengthen us and prepare us for the battles which lie ahead. 

We might ask ourselves: what exactly could they have said? For my part, I sense that Moses reminded the Lord of all the types that prefigured the Messiah in the Old Covenant, going back to the dawn of ages, with the murder of Abel, the sacrifice of Isaac, the paschal lamb, to name just a few. Elijah was there to remind Him of all the prophecies referring to His passion and also that the prophets always had to suffer at the hands of those they were sent to.

If you have seen Fr Angelico’s fresco portraying this event, you will remember that he depicts Our Lord standing in glory with arms outstretched, in the position of the crucifixion. A constant theme in Christian meditation, one that we will find in just a few weeks time on the paschal candle: the Eternal Light shines, but marked with the wounds of the passion. The Lamb is glorified, but seen as  it were immolated.

How could one express more clearly the fact that the way to glory is that of the cross? If we will be one with Christ in glory, we must be one with Him in suffering. If we wish to rise glorious with Him on the last day, we must accept to be sown into the ground and die, we must accept persecution. All those who wish to live in a godly way in Christ Jesus must undergo persecution. If we wish to follow the Lamb of God, we must know that He is heading towards Calvary, but Calvary is not the end, it’s only a stop on the road, the real goal is Easter, the eternal Pasch, to which we aspire and for which we were made.


Under the shadow of His wings

On this first Sunday of Lent, we enter the desert with our beloved Saviour and we take up the arms of our spiritual combat: solitude, silence, fasting. Holy Lent is a time when we intensify our longing for God and our struggle against the powers of darkness. Doing so exposes us more than is the custom to the onslaught of the evil one. It is undoubtedly for this reason that, from the earliest times, the psalm that sets the tone for Lent is psalm 90, the psalm of refuge under the shadow of the Most High. 

Our spiritual Mother, Holy Church, knows only too well how weak we are, how easily we can be dissuaded from doing good, how fearful we can be of the future. The words of this psalm, which our holy Father St Benedict puts on our lips every night at Compline, should give us great security and peace.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, "My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.

The snare of the fowler reminds us of those treacherous temptations the Enemy of our human nature hides stealthily under the mask of passing beauty, false riches, fake glamour or even apparent good. The Christian soul, and in particular, the monk, must be wary at all times, lest he find himself held captive by the fowler of souls. The deadly pestilence is everything which comes from sin or leads to it; it is the temptations, the impurity, the slander, the opposition to which all good servants of Christ are exposed. Let us never forget those words of St Paul: “All those who wish to live piously in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution”, and again, “All abandoned me”. In the midst of all these trials however, 

“he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.” 

The pinion reminds us of the bird that shelters its young under its wing. The young bird is secure there. It feels the maternal protection and it has confidence. But like the bird’s pinion, our shelter can sometimes feel rather feeble. In the eyes of the world, our place of refuge might seem insignificant, and yet we know that it is in reality a mighty shield and buckler and even an impregnable fortress, because it is God Himself who is our surety and safety.

We will then no longer fear the terror of night or day, nor that of noonday, that is, the acedia which tempts all souls who seek to serve the Lord with patience and perseverance. We may see many fall or turn away from the right path, we know that we are secure, because our shelter is the Most High Himself. We find ourselves in abscondito faciei, hidden in His presence, far from the troubles of men.

Then it is that with St Paul we may be found worthy of our ministry even in afflictions and hardships. We may be treated as impostors, and yet we will be true; we may be considered good as dead, but we shall live; we may be punished, but not overcome; we may look sorrowful, yet we shall always be rejoicing; poor we may be, yet making many rich; we may have nothing, and yet we will possess all things, for ours is the treasure of the universe, the Sacred Heart of God Incarnate who by dying destroyed our death and by rising restored our life.

Love puts up with it

Holy Mother Church has been warming us up. Two weeks ago on Septuagesima Sunday she reminded us of the seriousness of life: “Many are called but few are chosen…. Run to win!” Last week we read the parable of the sower with its sober reminder that the seed, in order to grow, must fall on good ground that is cultivated and kept, lest it be overrun by the weeds of earthly desires. Today, along with the prophecy of Our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection, we are treated to the Hymn to Charity from St Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians. 

It would seem that, as we prepare to enter the arena of Lenten restrictions, our good Mother the Church wants us ever to keep in mind that, whatever penance or self-denial we might impose upon ourselves, we must never forget the very heart of the New Law, which is love for God and neighbour. This is all the more important when we know by experience that giving up certain things requires effort and can cause stress. When that happens we need to remind ourselves that in the end, the only thing that we will really be judged upon is our love. Do I love God? Do I prefer the love of Christ to all things? Do I show true love and compassion for neighbour, this neighbour who is right here at my side and who is perhaps getting on my nerves? Let us never forget that, in the end, we will be judged on our love.

St Paul’s profound teaching on charity, in the 13th Chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians, has intrigued commentators for centuries by its amazing precision in describing the attributes of true Christian love. It would be fastidious in a homily to enumerate them, but we can have a glance at a few of them.

Love does not insist on its own way; it is disinterested; it knows how to put aside its own views. St Benedict tells us that one of the instruments of good works is to seek not what is useful for self but what is useful for others. Especially in community life, this can be hard, but it is the hallmark of true fraternal love.

Love is not irritable or resentful. It does not become exasperated, whatever it might have to endure. It always has the gaze of one who seeks the true good of the other because the other is created in the image of God. In the world one can often encounter a certain manifested esteem or respect without which life together is impossible. But that is not Christian charity. Christian charity loves the other for himself because the other is destined to see God. Christian charity loves the other because Christ loved that other to the pont of shedding the last drop of his blood for him. That’s the bottom line.

Love bears all things. It – to quote a modern exegete – puts up with everything for a limitless duration; it waits patiently not only because it deals patiently with the loved one but also because it recognises that the right timing plays a huge part in securing the welfare, the true welfare, that is to say, the eternal salvation of the other. 

In the end that is what love is about, and that love is offered to us in the Most Holy Eucharist. Let us approach then with faith and trust that, nourished by this heavenly bread, we can learn how to love, even unto death.

The sower went out to sow his seed

This Gospel always reminds me of the Meditation on the Three Classes or Groups of Men in the Spiritual Exercises. To refresh our memories, the meditation is situated in the middle of the Second Week when the retreatant is on the verge of making his discernment concerning the choice of a state of life. He has just meditated on the Two Standards, the one of Christ and the other of Satan, and his intellect has been enlightened to understand the tactics of the enemy who seeks to lead him from Christ by means of worldly attachments. He has also understood that following Christ means detaching himself from all that is created. If the Two Standards brought light to his mind, the Three Classes is designed to bring strength to his will. 

The first class of men hear the word, they receive it with joy, they are filled with enthusiasm about it, they speak of it to others, they might even lay the foundations for some great work for God and His kingdom, but the fact of the matter is that time goes by, and they do nothing. When the hour of death comes, they are empty-handed: the seed sown by the Son of God was eaten up by the birds of the air, the distractions that prevented the soul from allowing that seed to take root and grow.

The second class go a bit further. They have a strong desire to put their good thoughts into practice. But there is one little problem – they are attached to a number of things or people whom they do not want to give up. And so they start bargaining with the Lord, as it were. They are most happy to do anything the Lord might ask, to go anywhere they might be sent, but only as long as… only if they can retain what is so dear to their heart. They don’t succeed in breaking the bonds, leaving themselves and their petty interests. They spend their whole lives trying to convince themselves that they are good people who are doing all they can, but when the hour of death comes, they perceive with horror that their basket is empty – they have no fruit to offer the Lord, their whole life was a vain illusion.

The third class really get it. And they get it because they have let their hearts be seduced by the Divine Sower. They have weeded out their garden, painstakingly pulling up all the sinful habits and unhealthy, worldly attachments; they have broken the bonds with loved ones, loved places, loved things; they have allowed the Divine Gardener to till the soil, to rip into it with the sharp blade of the plow, overturning illusory facades, burying them deep in the ground where they die; they have accepted the divine fertiliser, the grace that comes through the sacraments of the Church and frequent prayer. Everything is ready for the seed. The sun and the rain come, and that seed rises and bears much fruit.

With Lent just 10 days off, Holy Mother Church wants us to understand on this Sunday that there is work that needs to be done in our soul so that the upcoming 40-day fast – understood as a time of giving up a bit of food and practicing a few other penances, but fundamentally a time of detachment from all created things – can bring us real conversion and help us set out on an entirely new path. If only we will accept to let God do His work and cooperate with Him as He seeks to make us perfect, we will see things change in and around us for the better.

The example of the Doctor of the Gentiles, the great St Paul, whose autobiographic notes are presented in today’s epistle, cannot fail to touch us. How right Our Lord was when He told Ananias: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my Name”. Yes indeed, St Paul became a great saint because he accepted to walk with the crucified Saviour whose grace was not received vain, but was welcomed in a good and wholesome heart, and bore fruit through patience, producing the marvels of sanctity. So will He do in us if only we let Him…

Run to win

Each year on Septuagesima Sunday, we are are treated to a summary, as it were, of our entire faith. After the joyful celebration of Christmas and Epiphany, we now find ourselves plunged back into, to quote today's Introit: "the wails of death and the sorrows of hell". The psalm De Profundis is also there to give expression to our prayer in the Tractus: “Out of the depths have I cried to Thee, O Lord, hear my prayer".  At Matins this morning we read the account of Creation and we have thus set foot upon a kind of bridge that will take us all the way to the Paschal Vigil at which time we will recover the joyful chant of the Lord’s canticle, the Alleluia, left aside today as we consider the havoc our sins have wrought in God's beautiful world.

St Augustine reminded us this morning that, because of the sin of our first parents, original sin, the entire human race, "massa damnata”, was hurled headlong into pain, death and hell. These thoughts are of a nature to inspire us with the wholesome attitude of one in need. And how can we fail to see how appropriately they apply to the present situation of the world and the Church, as the folly of sin seems to establish its throne even in the Holy Place?

With that background we can understand the choice of today’s Gospel. The landowner who goes out to hire men to work in his vineyard is the Lord who, in every age of humanity, continues to invite those who will avoid eternal damnation and win an everlasting reward, to roll up their sleeves, to leave behind their petty interests and comfortable surroundings in order to labour in the heat of day to produce the good wine of divine love. But we are all disabled by original sin, and that is why we need the energetic appeal of the Lord: “Go into my vineyard, and I will pay you what is just!” 

But, we might ask, what is really at stake? The final words of the Gospel lay it out with great clarity: “ Some of those who are last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen”. It’s a serious struggle we are placed in, and the outcome is not at all certain. Nor was it certain for the Jews whom St Paul mentions in the epistle. All of them came out of Egypt with Moses, all of them were baptised, but God was not pleased with most of them. Actually with a few exceptions, they will all leave their bones in the desert, they will not attain to the promised land. Is it any surprise that the Fathers of the Church have all read the “ Many are called but few are chosen” to mean precisely what it says, namely that of all the mass of souls called to eternal life (all of them), few comparatively will arrive at the goal? St Paul, as a good coach, goads us on even more with the reminder that even though everyone runs in the race, only one is the winner. And he adds: Run so as to win! 

What is this race we are engaged in? It is the race towards eternal life. The stakes are high, very high indeed, and we must not lose sight of the real goal. If one loses an earthly contest it's not the end of the world. There may be other chances, and if not, well, it's not something that is required for happiness. But if we miss eternal happiness, then the only solution is eternal despair and damnation. That is the great reminder of Septuagesima Sunday.

At the same time the Lord and the Apostle both incite us to prepare for the combat. Lent is just around the corner, and with the growing evil in the world and in the Church, so must grow the fervour of our prayers and the seriousness of our sacrifices.

We need also remind ourselves that there are other players, invisible ones, in this race. I mean the wicked enemy himself, Satan and his satellites. They spare no effort to overthrow God’s church and bring souls to hell. Let us ever be mindful of this. In his angelus address of 28 April 1994, Pope John Paul II said:

"May prayer strengthen us for the spiritual battle of which we are told in the Letter to the Ephesians: “Drew strength from the Lord and from His mighty power” (Eph 6:10). It is this same battle to which the Book of Revelation refers, recalling before our eyes the image of Saint Michael the Archangel (cf. Revelation 12:7). Pope Leo XIII certainly had a very vivid vision of this scene when, at the end of the last century, he introduced a special prayer to St Michael throughout the Church. Even if this prayer is no longer recited at the end of every Mass, I ask everyone to remember it and to recite it to obtain help in the battle against forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world”.

And a few years before that, he had pronounced these stern words:

"We must prepare ourselves to suffer great trials before long, such as will demand of us a disposition to give up even life, and a total dedication to Christ and for Christ… With your and my prayer it is possible to mitigate this tribulation, but it is no longer possible to avert it, because only thus can the Church be effectively renewed. How many times has the renewal of the Church sprung from blood! This time too, it will not be otherwise. We must be strong and prepared, and trust in Christ and His Mother, and be very, very assiduous in praying the Rosary” (Pope John Paul II, November 1980).

May the Mother of God hold us all under her immaculate mantle, may she protect us from the wiles of the enemy, and make us win the victory, the unfading crown of glory which is the beatific vision to which we are called. 

Let us run so as to win!


Simeon and the spiritual life

Candlemas 2019

 

The feast of the Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of Our Lady puts before our eyes the touching figure of the old man Simeon. St Luke tells us that he had received from the Holy Spirit the assurance that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. As a God-fearing Jew who had read and meditated the numerous prophecies concerning the coming of the Anointed One, many of which were startlingly precise in predicting the time of the Messiah's coming (see in particular Daniel, ch 9), Simeon knew that he was living in the age during which He might actually come. He had also meditated at length on the wretched state of his people, handed over to pagan control for too long, direly in need of the Saviour. So he prayed, and he prayed. He apparently had developed a profound degree of union with the Holy Spirit who communicated with him.

When Mary and Joseph bring the Infant Lord to the Temple, Simeon is pushed by the Holy Spirit to go there. And lo and behold, he finds himself in the presence of the longed-for Messiah! For the moment he is just a babe. But Simeon is a man of prayer, and men of prayer are humble. And so Simeon has no difficulty in recognising the Saviour under the humble traits of infancy. He takes Him in his arms, he blesses God, and rejoices in the delightful moments during which he is able to cuddle the Babe whom all nations were longing for.

Simeon, in his longing for God, and in his patience in waiting for Him, is the image of the faithful soul who truly seeks to be united with the Lord. Prayer, and lots of it, had deepened the well in his heart, had increased his capacity for God. With Simeon, God used a tactic He often uses with souls who truly seek Him. He makes him wait, and a very long time, for a treasure it is worth waiting for. 

St Augustine, in his commentary on psalm 83, writes: "Desiderium differtur, ut crescat, crescit, ut capiat. Non enim parvum aliquid daturus est Deus desideranti, aut parum exercendus est ad capacitatem tanti boni. Non aliquid Deus quod fecit daturus est, sed seipsum qui fecit omnia. Ad capiendum Deum exercere, quod semper habiturus es, diu desidera". Which we could translate this way: “The fulfilment of desire is differed so that it might grow; it grows so that it might take hold of what it longs for. God is not to give some small object to those who long for Him; and therefore one is not to be tried only a little in order to become capable of perceiving such a great good. God is not going to give something of what He made, but Himself who made all things. To become capable of God exert yourself; what you are to have forever, desire it for a long time”.

These amazing words have always inspired me. They were a veritable lifeline during some very difficult years of my life. They gave me consolation when there was none. Wait for the Lord, wait for Him a very long time. Wait for Him like holy Simeon, and even as death approaches, never for a moment doubt that He who has promised will come through.

In the lives of individuals, in the lives of communities, in the life of the Church, there are of necessity times of trial. The most valuable secret to have, and which Simeon reveals to us is this: wait for the Lord. And the most important virtue is this: Patience. "Patience obtains all things", says St Teresa, for God alone suffices, and if you are waiting for Him, it is because He is already there, but it is still dark. Soon, the sun will rise, and the light, symbolised by the candles we bless and carry today, will rise in our hearts.

Our Lady of Cana

Homily for the patronal feast of Notre Dame Priory

I am often asked why our community is dedicated to Our Lady of Cana. Cana in fact is usually associated with marriage preparation, and that is indeed very fitting. Who could be a more fitting patroness of married persons than the Immaculate Virgin who asked Our Lord to intervene and help a newly-wed couple who found themselves in an embarrassing situation?

But why do monks look to Cana as an inspiration?  The first reason is that it is to Our Lady of Cana that we prayed for many years to give us monks. We asked her to intervene with her Son and tell her “They have no monks”. She heard our prayer, she asked the Lord, He heard her prayer, and the monastery was finally founded.

But there is another, more profound reason for this choice. St Augustine summarises it in a homily on the event. He says, referring to those who dedicate their virginity or chastity to Christ, “non sunt sine nuptiis”, they are not without nuptials. Indeed, how could they be when consecrated life has no deeper meaning than to anticipate the eternal nuptials of the soul with God in eternal bliss. This is why we were created; this is the vocation of every human being: being taken up into the intimacy of the Triune God. God creates us out of nothing in order to introduce us into His very Life. That, by the way, is the very reason He created marriage in the first place. Human marriage came into existence only in order to mirror the eternal union of God with His creatures. Creation is all about nuptials. That is why first chapters of Genesis reach their climax with the marriage of Adam and Eve. “They will two in one flesh”. The soul is destined to become one with God in an intimacy of much deeper intensity than that of the most successful human couple. This is also why the book of Apocalypse concludes with the marriage feast of the Lamb, when God’s plan will at last be realised, and all the elect will enter into the eternal nuptial chamber in which the torrent of pure and divinely inebriating heavenly wine will be given them to drink forever. Lost in the ocean of love, the elect will swim forever with overflowing joy that they will never be able to express, and that they will never lose.

This is also why Our Lord’s first miracle takes place at a wedding. And that is why the miracle is that of transforming water into wine. For the best images of the eternal life of communion with God that we have in this world are similar to the difference between water and a delicious wine. Those who seek their joy in forbidden pleasures are drinking mud and slime; those who enjoy according to God’s plan the healthy pleasures of this life are drinking water; those who renounce both those kinds of pleasure to anticipate the eternal nuptials are drinking wine, not just any wine, but the most delicious wine there is, that wine which is given to us in the Most Holy Eucharist, and which is the very life of God. But, as St Bernard says, “solus expertus potest credere”, only the one who has experienced it can really know what it means.

As we honour Our Lady of Cana on this day, let us ask Her for the secret. She knew the depth of God’s love; that love was her very life, that is why from a tender age she vowed her virginity to God. Mary never wanted to belong to anyone but God, and her virginal espousals with Joseph were possible only because she, like Joseph no doubt, had achieved such a profound level of loving union with God that the union never ran the risk of being a screen cutting off from God, but was only an incentive to greater love for Him.

Let us ask her, let us ask St Joseph, let us ask St Mary of the Cross and St Regina, for the grace to penetrate deeper into the mystery of that nuptial union to which we are called in monastic life. For years we have been praying: Tell Jesus “they have no monks”. In more recent times, we have prayed, tell Jesus “they have no land or no monastery", etc. but I think we need to continue to ask her to tell Jesus “they have no monks". They have no monks!  It takes time to make a monk. It takes years for the wannabe monk to really become a monk, to embrace his vocation with all due intensity.

The Eternal Bridegroom is here, calling us, goading us on, asking us to progress ever deeper into the ways of mystical love. Let us never disappoint Him, but move forward with great courage and generosity.

If ever in our religious life we get the impression we are drinking only water, let us turn to Mary Immaculate and beg her for the delicious wine of divine love. It’s all there my brothers, my sons, peace and perseverance in monastic life are there for the asking. All you need is to love. Love, and then do as you please, for all you will want to do is to prove your love for the Divine Lover of our souls. To Him be glory forever and to Our Lady of Cana, Queen of our monastery, be honour and praise now and for all eternity. Amen.

Clothing of Br Francisco Maria

Dear Israel,

Some years ago now, like the Magi, you saw a star and you  have come to worship and offer gifts to the Lord. You heard what you perceive to be a call from the Lord Christ, the Infant God, and, after searching in other parts, you set out on this arduous path that led you from Western Australia here to Tasmania. You arrived over nine months ago to test your vocation, and after a number of difficulties, you have asked to be clothed with the habit of St Benedict and begin your formal time as a novice lay brother.

This feast is certainly an auspicious one on which to be clothed with the habit. The star evokes the call to religious life. It is often seen at first from a great distance. A journey is required before one can reach the longed-for goal, and many perils and obstacles lie in the way. Let’s enumerate some of them.

There is first and foremost the difficulty involved in seeing the star. This requires effort, for only those see the stars who are prepared to sacrifice of their sleep to go out into the night and look up. Each night God deploys before the eyes of humanity the marvels of His creation, but most people prefer the comfort of their worldly pleasures, and they never rise to the task of lifting up their minds and hearts to eternity. They do not even see the star.

Second, there is the reading of the sign, for the star is only a sign - it’s meaning is not self-evident. The Magi saw the star, they observed it, they studied the Scriptures to know what it meant, and they came to the conclusion that if God was sending His anointed one to us and showing us the path to get there, then we must go to meet Him right there where He is revealing Himself. They do not calculate the time and expense involved – it probably took a few months and cost them a fortune –, they leave behind families and friends and set out on a journey they know will bring much fatigue. So many refuse the time and effort involved in seeking God like the Magi, and so they never find Him.

Third, the journey itself is long and is sown with dangers: the path has to be discovered, wrong paths avoided, obstacles overcome, precautions must be taken to assure success. Legions of souls, filled with good desires, never follow through with them because of the effort involved.

Fourth, the Magi know that this journey will lead them to a foreign country. Coming to Judea at a time when the local king was not a Jew was not without peril. It demanded courage. How many fail to heed God’s call for fear of what men might say or do to them. 

Fifth, when the Magi arrive in Jerusalem, they are subjected to a terrible trial of faith: the beloved star vanishes, leaving them without a guide, opening for them the temptation to think that it was all an illusion. But in that circumstance, they take the means at their disposal: they go and ask the legitimate authority what to do. And God, who blesses humble obedience, provides them with the exact answer they need. So many accept to follow God and obey as long as they can see and understand. If they find themselves in the dark and cannot read events for themselves, they abandon everything and run away.

Finally, as the Magi leave the trouble of Jerusalem, the star reappears, their hearts overflow with ineffable joy, and this is only the prelude to greater joys to come. For when they adore the Divine Babe, we can be sure that He, from His tiny Divine Heart, poured forth into theirs a bliss that only those can know who have experienced it. It is something like what the psalmist referred to when he said:  Thou hast made known to me the ways of life, thou shalt fill me with joy with thy countenance: at thy right hand are delights even to the end (Ps 15:11). 

Contemplating this mystery a few saints come to mind. There is first of all the Poverello of Assisi, the great St Francis, to whom according to tradition, we owe the tradition of the holy crib in our churches. St Francis’ love for nature and capacity to see God in nature should inspire you in your life as a lay brother. Or again, St Anthony of Padua, a native of Portugal, who was gratified with visions of the Infant Jesus, in reward for his angelic purity. Closer to us, we can consider that God, who became a child, prefers to manifest Himself to children. He did so in particular in Fatima, again Portugal, where Saints Francisco and Jacinta along with their cousin Sr Lucia were privileged to behold the Mother of God in glory. Lucia would write: ”Our Lady opened her hands for the first time, communicating to us a light so intense that, as it streamed from her hands, its rays penetrated our hearts and the innermost depths of our soul, making us see ourselves in God, who was that light, more clearly than we see ourselves in the best of mirrors”. Francisco would later say, referring to the immense joy he experienced in this encounter: "I loved seeing the Angel, but I loved still more seeing Our Lady. What I loved most of all was to see Our Lord in that light from Our Lady which penetrated our hearts. I love God so much! But He is very sad because of so many sins! We must never commit any sins again.” That little boy, at such a tender age, understood the superiority of the contemplative experience, and for the rest of his short life he would be entirely intent on what God wanted him to become. 

Coming back to the Magi, after paying their respects to the newborn king, they disappear from Sacred Writ, no more mention is made of them. They take back with them the sweetness of the experience, but they retain it in their hearts to contemplate and adore. Francisco and Jacinto Marto, after having been gratified with the vision of glory made manifest in Mary Immaculate, disappear from this world, going to contemplate the Light of God in its very source in Heaven. In the same way, a contemplative soul receives God’s grace as a lover’s secret; he bears it in his heart, where the Word of God hollows out in him an abyss of silence, leading evermore to intense communion, prelude to eternal life.

Such is my wish for you on this day, my son, that you may ever seek the countenance of the Living God and come to experience more and more the sweetness of the Divine visit. But remember that, like the Magi, you are on a journey, you have not arrived at the goal. This is just the beginning, and many trials lie before you, up hills, down valleys, over crag and torrent. May the kindly light guide your every step and lead you to the longed for vision of His glory.

Christmas Day Mass Homily

Last night we left off asking the Newborn King for the grace to become the apostles of His Sacred Heart. Christmas has always been the inspiration for follies of love. To see God incarnate in a Babe, a Babe so full of tenderness, a Babe without defense, a Babe to which the human heart can only surrender itself in gratitude, this has been the source of so many efforts at purifying and evangelising the world. And what is the secret to those follies of love? As with any love, it is nourished by presence. 

A pious author remarks that there were three kinds of people in and around Bethlehem at the time of our Saviour’s birth. Most of them were indifferent. They may or may not have heard of the extraordinary event, they may or may not have made an effort to find out more and even go and see, but in the end they could not be shaken out of their lethargy, their attachment to worldly things, and their hearts remained cold. Even so today, such is the lot of the great number of human beings. The birth of Jesus, when it is known, is not appreciated, it is left aside as an odd event that is inexplicable and unworthy of our time.

A second category of people were those who were made aware of it because they truly sought God, their hearts were righteous and God wanted to reward them. Those hard-working shepherds had the visit of an angel and heard the heavenly praise. The Magi, in their longing for the coming Messiah, were given to see His star and make the long journey to worship Him. Both these groups, and perhaps there were others, represent those persons who truly believe in Christ and give Him His due in terms of faith and adoration. They go to Mass, receive the sacraments, and practice the works of mercy. The grace of God is at work in them, and they will save their souls if they persevere.

A third category is very limited in number. It is composed of only two people that we know of: Our Blessed Lady and St Joseph. They are privy to the whole mystery; they serve it directly and unreservedly; their time with the Lord is not limited to occasional visits and Sunday Mass. They are with Him all the time; they have direct and unlimited access to His Person; they can spend as much time with Him as they wish. These are religious souls, those who are blessed to live their lives in the shadow of a cloister, who answer the call of frequent bells to sing His praises, who live in the same house with His Eucharistic Presence, continuation on earth of the mystery of Bethlehem.  They vow their lives to Him and are ever ready to further His interests.

More often than not, it is from this category of persons that God chooses the souls whom He destines to change the world. They are, as it were, at His entire disposal, and having them so close to Him, affords Him the leisure to warm their hearts, to set them ablaze with unending love, a love which manifests itself in fraternal charity for those other souls privileged to share such a life, and apostolic charity for all the souls who are in need of salvation, who are far from God, who are in sin and in danger of eternal loss. 

Lord Jesus, Infant Saviour, through the intercession of Thy Holy Mother and St Joseph, inspire us on this day with an ever more fervent gratitude for the gift of our vocation, and with a burning love for Thee, for all thine interests, and for the souls whom Thou didst come to save. May this little community grow day by day in its love for Thee, and may it draw ever greater numbers of souls to Thy most Sacred Heart. And so that this might be possible, give to each of us a profound love for each other, for that love is the sign, the only sign at which the world will know that we are Thy disciples.

Christmas Midnight Mass Homily

It is one of those marvellous aspects of the mysteries of our faith, the unmistakable mark of God’s presence in our history, that they contain in themselves and at first sight, the remedy for all human ills, the recipe for the restoration of all things. The crib and the cross, without explanation and by the very fact that they happened, speak volumes. Is that not the reason for which we never tire of contemplating the touching scene of Bethlehem? 

At the centre of it all: the Child. The Babe. The Innocent. The Speechless. The Pure. The Omnipotent Word does not speak. Or rather He speaks by not speaking. And what does He say?

The Child lying between Mary and Joseph offer us two essential lessons, lessons we could say designed for our very age, but in reality destined for every age. The very sight of the babe is a remedy for one of the major ills of our time. The babe by his just being there reminds us that the union of the sexes has a finality. God made man and woman to be fruitful, and this reality constitutes a continual, silent, but firm and relentless condemnation of the madness of modern unbridled lust which tears apart hearts, destroys families, and kills bodies. The babe has always been a sign of love, but love that gives and sacrifices. Without the babe, love turns into brutality; it weakens, corrupts and poisons.

As so many powers that be remain intent on promoting so-called reproductive rights (understand the right to lust and to the right to kill the fruit of lust), the new birth of Christ the Lord comes as a salutary condemnation of all forms of lust, and as an unshakable hope that all things can be restored.

Of course, in the Babe of Bethlehem, there is much more, for as the world seeks to drown itself in pleasure without its fruit, we know through faith that this Babe is given as the fruit of life without the the pleasure of conception. The Christ Child, surrounded by Mary the Ever Virgin and Joseph her most Chaste Spouse, radiates purity, chastity. He smiles upon us with our past sins, and our broken lives, and assures us that with His grace all things are possible. Christmas is there to remind us that, yes, purity will prevail in our world, for it prevails today in those who embrace it with the heart of a child.

And that brings us to the second great lesson of this night. The Babe in the manger teaches, without words, the great monastic virtue par excellence: humility. Baffled, the world looks on: the Eternal God stoops to become a helpless babe; the Almighty abandons His might to become weak; the One who commands the choirs of angels obeys a poor human creature. The Infant God in the crib is the ultimate condemnation of human pride, and there is no appeal. God has spoken once, and He will not change: Unless you become as little children, you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven.

This Christmas, let us go to the Crib with great longing. Let us lay down there all our fears, all our impurities, all our pride. Let us beg for the grace to become docile, to abandon all ambition, to turn over control of our life to One who knows better, to the One who looks after the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, and who loves us as his own children.

Jesus, meek and humble of heart, from Thy crib in Bethlehem, let the light of Thy tiny countenance shine upon us, heal us, invigorate us, and having led us through the purifying fires of humiliation and chastity, may it raise us up and make us the apostles Thy divine heart longs to have on this earth.

Judge not before the time

On this last Sunday of Advent, as the nova nativitas of Our Blessed Lord looms mighty before us, Holy Mother Church invites us to prepare for judgment. Indeed, in the mind of the Church, preparation for Christmas is preparation for the Second Coming of the Lord, it is preparation for death. If we are ready to die, we will be ready for the graces God wants to give us this Christmas.

And how do we prepare for death? St John the Baptist has been telling us for weeks now to repent, to perform works worthy of penance, to mortify our passions, to practice charity. Today, we are also given to listen to the apostle St Paul who tells the Corinthians that, as minister of Christ he cares little for the judgment men might pronounce upon him. He was sent by Christ and he answers to Christ, not to men. 

But the apostle goes further and tells us that he cannot judge himself either. What does that signify? St Paul is here trying to get across the amazing capacity the human conscience has of hiding things from itself. The path to hell is paved with good intentions. The Holy Father reminded us of that just a couple days ago. St Paul is clear that it is not because we might consider ourselves just, that we are so. It is so easy to blind ourselves to reality, to adapt reality to our way of seeing things. 

It is perhaps for this very reason that God gave His Church a visible structure. It is easy to point the finger at others, especially when they in visible positions of authority. And God knows superiors can fail in their duties. St Paul reminds us that a minister of Christ must be found faithful, the understanding being that this is not automatic.

But his severe injunction to refrain from judging places us before an unavoidable reality: we do not know what goes on in the hearts of others. We do not even know what goes on in our own heart! How could we be judge of others?

For sure, objective actions and words demand to be assessed. If something is wrong, it is wrong; if something is evil, it is evil. Period. But when it comes to the internal dispositions of souls, that is a domain where we have no entrance. God alone judges consciences and souls. 

In the sermon on the mount, the Lord was clear: “Judge not and you will not be judged”. If we want to have a lenient and merciful judgment, we have at our fingertips a sure way of success: refrain from judging others in this life.

True, it is sometimes very hard not to judge someone’s intentions when there are repeated actions or words that seem to confirm our intuition. And that is where we need to be very attentive: the most gifted and insightful of persons can only go by what he sees and hears: he does not know what goes on in the heart, and therefore cannot pass judgment.

As we prepare now to go to Bethlehem once again to adore the Infant King, let us divest ourselves of all rash judgment on others, whoever they might be and whatever suffering or scandal they might cause. We do not know what they are dealing with, we cannot read their intentions. The Infant God is their judge as He is our judge. May He find us humble, poor and meek. If He does, then we might be among those privileged souls who, like the shepherds, are unexpectedly given to see and hear what so many prophets and kings desired to see and hear, but did not.

God reveals Himself to the humble. Only to the humble.

Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto Thine.

Clothing of Br John Baptist Mary


Father Henry,

How fitting it is that you petition to enter the monastery as a novice during this holy season of Advent, the time of the year during which, more than others, we are focused on the coming of Our Lord, waiting anxiously for His arrival, beseeching Him to return without delay, to save us and bring us into His Kingdom.

What is monastic life if it is not the peaceful, laborious anticipation of the Lord’s coming? The monk leaves the world behind, renouncing all that it has to offer; he hands over His life, in faith, to the Son of God. Henceforth, his only hope is in God, and the rest of his days will be a vigilant exercise in making way for the Saviour when He returns at the end of time to judge the living and dead.

Our supreme model in this expectation is Mary Immaculate, the wise and prudent Virgin who epitomises the entire Old Testament as the type of the just and holy soul who longs for the Messiah and by her prayers in some way hastens the hour of his arrival. 

Today we honour her under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The words of great tenderness she spoke to St Juan Diego in 1531 on the hill of Tepeyac are addressed to you today: “Listen and understand, my little son. There is nothing to frighten and distress you. Do not let your heart be troubled, and let nothing upset you. Is it not I, your Mother, who am here? Are you not under my mantle? Are you not in the fold of my arms?” Today, dear Brother, you don her white habit for the first time, and proclaim by your entrance into this community that you entrust your vocation to her maternal care. 

This time of Advent is also marked by other figures who help us prepare for the coming of the Lord: the prophets, especially Isaiah, are continually referred to by the Church in her liturgy. Isaiah tells us of the special call he received from God even before he was born: From my mother’s womb he hath been mindful of my name. And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword: in the shadow of his hand he hath protected me, and hath made me as a chosen arrow: in his quiver he hath hidden me (Is 49:1-2). He too it is who tells us in such dramatic terms of the renewal that will be brought to the earth in the days of the Messiah: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness the paths of our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough ways plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh together shall see, that the mouth of the Lord hath spoken” (Is 40:3-5).

Centuries later, the voice crying out these words in the desert of Judea would take flesh in the man who bring to an end the long line of prophets, and to whom it would be given to not only announce the Messiah, but also to point him out and show Him to the people. Though born into a priestly family, John, from his tenderest years, retires to the desert. He lives a life of the strictest penance, hidden from the world. He thus proves himself worthy of the vocation he has received from divine providence of being both prophet and martyr, shedding His blood for the truth that was coming into the world.

The Baptist has always been a great inspiration to monks, who have looked to him as the model of the secluded, penitential life. But apostles and preachers have also placed themselves under the patronage of this hero who did not refrain, at the cost of his own life, from reproaching even the king for his vices. His long preparation in the desert is the model for all those whom God calls to share the Word with others: one must first practice silence before preaching; one must first mortify the flesh before teaching others the moral law.

John leads souls to Christ and then steps aside. Once the Lord of all has come into the world, he disappears from the scene, and he does so with joy: He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth Him, rejoiceth with joy because of the bridegroom's voice. This my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase: but I must decrease (Jn 3:29-30).

As you knock at the door of the monastery today, let these pre-eminent figures inspire you. With Our Lady, Isaiah, John the Baptist, without forgetting the touching example of the virgin martyr St Lucy, whose very name evokes the eternal light which enlightens every man who comes into the world, let your only passion be to imitate Christ in the sacrifice of self, in serving the designs of the Eternal Father and putting yourself at His disposal, in asking for the grace of the Holy Spirit to have penetrating insight into the mysteries of Holy Scripture, so that you may always find there the path that opens the way to the Blessed Trinity, for you and for all the souls you might help along the way.b

Homily at Mass of Simple Professions for Brothers Bede, Gregory and Joseph

8 December 2018, Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady

Your Grace, Reverend Fathers, Brothers in St Benedict, Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

“Today, the rod has sprung up out of the root of Jesse; today, Mary is conceived without sin; today, by her, the head of the ancient serpent is crushed”.

Such are the words which the Church sings on this day. In the very act of her conception, from the first moment of her existence, Mary crushes the head of the ancient serpent, that is to say, the devil. In the conception of the Virgin, Almighty God exerts His omnipotent power to ward off, by anticipation of the merits of the Redeemer, all stain of sin in that little babe in the womb of St Anne. Unlike her Son’s, her conception came about in a natural way, but God intervened in such a marvelous way to preserve her from the stain of sin which had tainted all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve from the first ages of humanity and had submerged our race into the mire of sin, violence and death. It is because the Most Holy Trinity took pity on our race that He decided to step in, to put an end to evil, to introduce into the world grace, light and love. And it all begins here. The Conception of the Virgin is the beginning of our salvation, for it is the first step towards the preparation of Mary for the ineffable grace of the Divine Maternity: this tiny baby girl is destined to become the Mother of God, the Mother of the Eternal Creator. She will one day offer to Him the hospitality of her own womb, and she will bring into a dark world the Eternal Light, Jesus Christ Our Lord.

What more appropriate day to celebrate the grace of monastic profession? Indeed, how else can we describe what is about to take place here today than by calling it a Divine intervention. Each one of you, my dear Brothers who are about to pronounce your first vows, has been the object, the direct beneficiary of a very special and unique Divine intervention. Had not God stepped into your life, you would not be here today. Had not the Lord of all things knocked at the door of your heart, you would never have had an inkling as to what monastic life is about. 

God stepped into your lives. He came to you, amazingly, in the midst of a world in which one constantly sees and hears the deafening sound of dissipation and the sad spectacle of greediness, a world in which the attraction of the triple concupiscence, that is the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, becomes day by day more imperative. The world you were born into is a world that has lost touch with God, and having lost touch with God it has lost touch with itself; it is a world that is abandoned to its own devices, or rather, to its own vices, and therefore can only propose recipes for destruction. Only God, the True God, the Triune God, the God who manifested Himself in Jesus Christ, could have made His voice heard in the midst of such cacophony. And he has left his mark upon you.

With a promising career at his finger tips, the young Benedict of Norcia too was about to set foot into the world; he pulled back and went to hide himself in the solitude of Subiaco, there to pray, to weep for the sins of the world and do penance, awaiting the hour of God. Like him, you have decided to set out on a path that seems foolishness to the world. You could have everything in the world; pleasure and freedom, personal satisfaction and gratification of every kind was within your grasp. And yet, you chose to give it all up, to turn your back on the world and walk resolutely in the footsteps of Jesus.

Our world bears much ressemblance to the one Benedict was born into: general corruption of morals, troubled political scene, the menace of the collapse of the existing social order. We find ourselves at a turning point in history. In many ways perhaps, our world is even worse off than Benedict’s. The ills of modern man are such that the most fundamental truths of our nature are denied with impunity and sins against our God-given nature are protected by law. There is no longer any doubt now that the world has turned its back on God. 

But the answer that Benedict found is the same one that you have come to understand through prayer: to save the world, we must renounce the world. We must first descend deep down into the purifying fires of solitude and self-denial; only then can we rise as new men transformed by divine grace and become part of the reconstruction of the future.

In a few moments, you will pronounce what are called the vows of religion. A vow is a sacred promise made to God; it is a privileged way of binding oneself to God. Just as a man and a woman who wish to found a family, vow to each other their lifelong fidelity, so you have chosen to vow yourselves to Jesus Christ. You do so using the very words of St Benedict, by vowing “stability, conversion of ways, and obedience”. 

Stability reminds us that our promise to God is not something abstract, it is concrete, it is here and now in this particular community with these particular brothers and this particular superior. Such a vow is diametrically opposed to the virtual culture in which one is continually passing from one new fad to another, seeking endlessly and never finding, because always seeking the wrong things or the right things in the wrong place. Stability focuses the monk on God, here and now, in these circumstances, for humans are all too good at imagining another place, another person, another career where all will, so we persuade ourselves, be well. By the vow of stability, you reverse the maxim and affirm that the grass is always greenest right there where you are. God, to whom you entrust your life, knows your needs, and He provides for them from day to day, through the father of the monastery who henceforth looks after you as his sons. Never forget that the stability of the monk places you irrevocably in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. There you will always find peace, courage, patience, and every other virtue.

Conversion of ways, in the mind of St Benedict, is a vow which obliges the monk to tend to perfection by living the conventual life which includes poverty and chastity. You are giving up a lot — a wife, children, a career. Is it possible, some might ask? Once again we go back to the Divine intervention. When God took our flesh and walked this earth in the Person of Jesus Christ, having been born of a Virgin, He lived a virginal life, He took no wife, He begot no children. He thus initiated a paradigm shift — the only one possible in Christianity and which therefore excludes all others: henceforth among the children of men God chooses some to manifest to the world the primacy of eternity in which there is no more marrying and begetting, for all the elect are united with God in the eternal nuptials they were created for. By your vow of chastity, you will proclaim to the world the salutary truth it does not want to hear: chastity is possible, it is fulfilling, it is the true sign of Christ and His Church, the seal of God’s presence among us. We are not abandoned to our whims, we can rise above the most powerful attractions of our fallen nature, we can become saints. That is a tremendous act of faith. It affirms the power of the crucified and risen Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, to transform us. God has stepped into your lives, He has intervened, He has called, and you have heeded the summons.

The third Benedictine vow is that terrible one which causes modern man to tremble even more: obedience. How can a man give up his freedom? How can he accept to hand over his life and trust the judgment of another man? How can he allow another to decide for him? By now you know the answer to that question: God has stepped into our history. Jesus lived a life of obedience to Mary and Joseph, to His teachers and guides. His food was to do the will of His Eternal Father. But does not everyone have to obey? We must all live by rules, for otherwise life in common would be impossible. But religious obedience is something else. It is the act by which a man hands over his entire future, his entire life, trusting that God, who has called and who has given authority to those who stand in his stead, will not allow a truly humble soul to be led astray. Religious obedience can be hard. It was hard for Jesus, who, as St Paul tells us, “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”. But the cross, as we know, leads to the glory of the resurrection. God blesses the humble and obedient soul.

And so, my dear sons, as you take these first vows under the vigilance of the Church who has in her wisdom imposed a certain number of years before one can make them definitive, turn your gaze to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. For over a year now, you have worn her livery, the white habit which honours her virginity. You have begun to experience the sweetness of holding her hand in times of temptation and trial, you know that she will not fail you. Remain always under her immaculate mantle, hold tight to her hand, and tell her often to make sure that, even if at certain times you want to let go, she will not let you go. Like the child who foolishly wants to run away to danger, but is held back by the firm grip of its mother, so may she always hold you tight and close to Jesus. There, you will find perseverance and will tread the path that leads, through the cross to the glory of the resurrection. Such is my prayer for you on this day.

Your Grace, Archbishop Julian, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you once again publicly for allowing this monastic adventure in Tasmania to begin. May these young professed Benedictine monks be only the first of many who will serve the Lord in this archdiocese for decades, and even centuries to come.  And may they contribute to making this island an oasis of peace, in which God is praised and souls are saved.

And all of you who are here present, and who perhaps are witnessing for the first time a ceremony of monastic vows, let yourselves be astonished at what is taking place here. God steps into our world today, and proves that He is still God. Yes, in the 21st century, at the ends of the earth, while the world pretends that God is dead, you are witnesses that He is truly alive, He has not forsaken our world, He chooses your own sons, your own brothers and friends, to be the living channels of His grace, that grace which is waiting to touch your own heart. As you go away today, never forget that. God is here, He loves us, He wants to save us. All we have to do is let ourselves be loved. Amen.

Flee to the mountain

Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.

Today’s Gospel, on this last Sunday of the liturgical year, brings before our eyes the revealed spectacle of the end of the world. Even science tells us that there will one day be a disruption of the harmony that now reigns in our solar system: the world as we know it cannot, for natural reasons, go on forever. But Divine Revelation tells us something very different: God will intervene to put an end to the natural cycle that He Himself created. Why will He do this? He will do it because creation will have fulfilled the role He gave it, it will have reached its finality. When? When the number of the elect, the souls to be saved and to spend eternity in Heaven with God face to face, has been completed. Then, there will no longer be any reason for the universe to continue, and so it will be transformed into the new Jerusalem, the eternal city of God with all the elect taking part in the eternal feast of God’s kingdom and all the damned excluded forever, tormented eternally in the purely vindictive flames of hell.

When will all this come to pass? We do not know. The Lord gives us signs: wars, pestilence, intriguing solar incidents unknown in ages past. Although these have never been absent from history, the final days of the world will see an increase in them, such that the world has never seen the like, and which make men shrivel away for fear of what is happening. Our Lord’s words are designed to keep us on our guard, that we might always be ready. Each generation can say in all truth that the end has come, for two very real reasons: the first is that the end of time comes for each of us at our death —which is very close—, for then it is that our time of testing is over and our eternal salvation or damnation is determined; the second is that at each moment, the return of the Lord is indeed possible. At the hour you least expect it, the Son of Man will come, like a thief in the night

But more importantly perhaps, today’s Gospel also gives us, from the very mouth of Our Lord, some specific instructions on what to do, and what not to do, in those last days, in order to prepare for them. Let’s dwell upon two of them.

Many will come in my name, there will be many false Christs and false prophets. Do not be fooled by false Christs and false prophets, people coming in the name of Christ but distorting His doctrine. This recommendation seems written for this very period in history, in which so many, while continuing to bear the name of Catholic, are promoting an understanding of the faith which is nothing short of its total dissolution. Any teaching that contradicts in any way the teaching handed down by Tradition, or that proclaims to be a new path to a new understanding of the faith and moral practices that are at odds with those of Tradition or put them in brackets, must be rejected: it is an attempt of Satan to lead souls away from Christ. This deception reaches its climax when error or depravity comes from those in the Church responsible for teaching the faith in all its purity; it is the abomination of the desolation, the substitution of man for God, it is the worship of man, it is the rotten fruit of the heresy of modernism, the principle tenet of which, as Pope St Pius X pointed out with amazing clarity, is the distorted belief that whatever comes from inside of me is good, the crooked conviction that religion is about what makes me feel good about myself. This is truly the abomination when it continues to hide itself under the name of Catholicism, using its vocabulary but subtly changing its meaning. We must not let ourselves be deceived, but must stand firm with Christ, with the apostles, with the defined dogma and ever relevant moral practices of the Church. 

The second recommendation of Our Lord that we can reflect upon this morning is: Let them flee to the mountains. We know from the oration for the feast of St Catherine of Alexandria which is today, 25 November, that the mountain is none other than Christ Himself. To flee to the mountain means therefore to take refuge in the Life of Christ, living like Him, studying Him, becoming more and more like Him. Like the apostles, we must climb with Him the mount of the Transfiguration where we will see Him radiant with glory, but mysteriously covered with the opprobrium of the Passion, the Lamb of God in glory, and yet, as the Apocalypse tells us, “as it were slain” (Ap 5:6). We must, with St John of the Cross, whom we honoured yesterday, climb the steep ascent of Mt Carmel, the path of which is strewn with rocks and thorns, lined with precipices and deviant paths that lead away from Christ and back down to the valley of death and perdition. 

To climb that mountain means to leave behind the pleasures of the world: the leisures, the food and drink, the flesh, the independence, the proud conviction that we know what is best. Just as for the mountain climber, listening to the guide and obeying him become vital, whereas ignoring him means running the terrible risk of being led astray by the deceptions of the Enemy. This is all the more important when we consider, as St John of the Cross teaches us, that at a certain stage of the spiritual life, the path, which was clear at the start, is no longer evident. Only obedience to a trusted and sure guide can keep us from being lost. As the prophet Isaiah warned:  Thy ears shall hear the word of one admonishing thee behind thy back: This is the way, walk ye in it: and go not aside neither to the right hand, nor to the left (Is 30:21).

And so let us go forward, let us march, let us not heed the pricks of the thorns, the loss of worldly and futile comforts, let us generously give all to Christ Our Lord, holding nothing back, certain that, in the words of St Paul, we will be filled with the knowledge of the will of God, in all wisdom and spiritual understanding: that we may walk worthy of God, in all things pleasing, being fruitful in every good work in Christ Jesus, for even though the universe as we know it will pass away, His words remain forever.

Thoughts of peace

“My thoughts are thoughts of peace”. Holy Mother Church puts these words on our lips and repeats them over and over again as we reach the end of the liturgical year. Salvation begins with the peace which the angels sang over Bethlehem, and it ends with the eternal reign of the Prince of Peace.

The thoughts of the wicked, on the other hand, are ever of trouble and turmoil. “Worried, they toss like the sea which cannot rest” (Jer 49:23). They know not the secret of peace which the prophet Isaiah revealed: “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust your strength lies” (Is 30:15).

The worst thing about the wicked is that not only do they have no rest, but they allow no rest to others. In today’s Gospel, it is in the peace of night, while the just enjoy God’s rest, that the enemy, who knows not sleep or rest, sows his evil seed in the Church of God. Evil is contagious, it seeks to infect all, it cannot tolerate to see souls enjoying the good things of God, it must upset and unsettle all those who seek to serve the Lord.

And so it is in every age. So it is today. False doctrines which corrupt lives and end by precipitating into the roaring waves of a filthy chaos are sown amongst God-fearing Christians. We think we have arrived at a certain level of peace, and lo and behold, we awake to find that what we had worked so hard for is compromised. Like the servants in today’s Gospel, we would instinctively reach to pull out the weeds, to eliminate all the evildoers, to establish a Church of the pure only, of which, of course, we would be part.

But today, as yesterday, the Lord holds us back, for He is merciful. He wants to give the wicked time to repent, and He wants to make use of them to increase the merits of the just. We must wait patiently for the time of the harvest, that is, the end of the world, when all justice will be fulfilled, when good deeds will be rewarded and evil ones punished, when the just will be removed from the midst of the wicked by the Angels and placed in the heavenly granary, in which there is never any want or need, while the evil-doers are sent to burn forever in a fire that is never extinguished. It’s all about letting God do justice, and not seeking to substitute ours for His.

St Paul gives us a rule of conduct which is appropriate in every age: “Put on… heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do”. The evil seek to harm, the just always seek to help, to “help all men” as St Ignatius has Our Lord say in the meditation on the Two Standards. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” (Col 3:12-17). “Man is created to praise”, says St Ignatius. As monks, we are privileged to do just that eight times a day, and by so doing we are working for the salvation of souls, even of those who at the moment are God’s enemies, but who may become His friends.

So let us not give up or grow weary. The grace of God can change everything, and that grace is made manifest in a life surrendered to love of God and love of neighbour. “Above all things put on love, that is, the bond of perfection… And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.”

Why are you fearful?

Why are you fearful, O ye of little faith? There is something astounding in these words. The apostles are with Our Lord in a boat tossed around by waves to the point that they are about to capsize. Their lives are in danger. They turn to the One they know will not fail. They wake Him; He calms the sea, and saves the day.

Perhaps the apostles were expecting to hear some form of congratulation from the Lord: “well done, my friends. In your hour of trial, you did the right thing, you prayed to me with insistence, and I heard you”. Instead, they receive a gentle reproach: Why are you fearful, O ye of little faith?

I suspect that we, like the apostles, are not a little baffled by these words. Did not the apostles actually manifest a great faith when they woke the Lord, knowing full well that He would mend the situation?

Yes, they did, but the implication of the Lord’s words is that there is a way of deeper, greater faith.

There are times in our lives, individually, or collectively, when we feel that our little boat is about to be submerged in the waves of temptation, of conflict, of despair. So much that we had worked for is compromised; we are about to fall, to fail, to give up, to lose all hope. In those moments, we can lose heart and succumb to the Evil One. We then become his prey. 

But in those moments there are two other attitudes, virtuous ones. We can increase our prayers, storm Heaven, make extra sacrifices, cry out with all our might to the Lord, so that He will intervene and change hearts, resolving a situation which seems desperate.

But there is another attitude one can have, and that is to accept in peace what is happening, trusting, in silent prayer and with unshakeable patience that the Lord is in control. He is in our little bark, but He is asleep. Rather, He seems to be asleep, but we know through faith, that He is keeping watch. 

Such is the lesson, I think, of our Lord’s reproach to the apostles. It is as if to say: you, my close friends, you cannot afford to be like everyone else who runs to me, clamouring for help every time there is some trouble on the horizon. You, my close friends, my apostles, you must have absolute confidence in me, for your trials will be great. There will be many times when your little boat will be on the point of capsizing, but never forget, I am there. Even though I sleep, I keep watch, for I love you. “It is good to wait in silence for the salvation of God” (Lam 3:26).

St Therese of the Child Jesus understood this when she wrote the following stanza in her  poem”Living on Love”:

Living on Love, when Jesus is sleeping,
Is rest on stormy seas.
Oh ! Lord, don’t fear that I’ll wake you.
I’m waiting in peace for Heaven’s shore…
Faith will soon tear its veil.
My hope is to see you one day.
Charity swells and pushes my sail :
I live on Love !…