Sunday, July 11, 2021

On This Solemnity of Saint Benedict

I grew up in a world of deals, connections, bargaining, and tit for tat, a world of duty and obligations. And whether you were buying furniture, a transistor radio, or an ear of corn it was who you knew. It went something like this. My Dad would call Louie who knew Freddy who would give us a deal and then once we got to the store my mum would look at my dad and then one would eventually say, “Freddy is that the best you can do for us?” It was a very loaded question because Freddy was the next-door neighbor of Louie who was cousin to Angelo, my mother’s brother-in-law. A lot was at stake. Freddy knew it. There were obligations; they owed you something because you’d done something nice for them or someone close to them. It was unspoken but understood. You were connected. 

For my parents and their generation, this balance of deals and obligations and connectedness overflowed into the world of religion. Perhaps it wasn’t as explicit but awfully similar - you made deals with God, with the saints, with Our Lady. You brought her flowers or made a donation if your prayer was answered. Or sometimes you lit the candle or made the donation beforehand, so the saint would feel obligated. There were rules, protocols after all. It only made sense that it all worked in heaven as it did on earth. And so it was that one of my aunts once sewed a new set of clothes for the statue of the Infant of Prague. She had no choice really; he had given her what she had asked for. She was obligated. And I can still hear my mother walking around the house when she lost something, muttering, “C’mon St. Anthony!” And he had better be listening.

Perhaps it’s not the world we live in; perhaps we’re more sophisticated. And so, when I hear Peter’s words, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us? What’s in it for us?” I’m a bit embarrassed for him. After all my parents, probably like yours, for all their bargaining and balances also taught me something else - bottom line, you love because you love. You want the return, the response but you don’t stop loving or doing good if it doesn’t come. You do the right thing. But curiously enough, Jesus doesn’t chide Peter for his question. He responds graciously, promises him, promises us a hundredfold, everything - thrones, preeminence for each of them, a marvelous overwhelming return for all that we have given Him.

The message seems clear then: God notices; notices what we’ve given, notices what we suffer in secret; understands all that we long to offer or have tried to offer, even our very selves. He is tremendously aware of the gift- all you do, your hidden hardships. This is a God who deeply desires to be known and loved; a God who wants to engage us. Jesus notices; he notices and is grateful. “Everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name,” he says, “will receive a hundred times more and will inherit eternal life.”  He promises that God will respond, that he will reciprocate. “Rest assured,” says he. “You will receive a hundred times more.” God will not be outdone in his generosity. We can afford to give everything because Jesus has promised that the return will be more than we could ever hope or dream for. There will be something for us. Dare we say - God is obligated to us? Not because of any merit of ours but because God is God; God is love.

So it is that in the Prologue to his Rule, St. Benedict reminds us that the Lord is always waiting for us to respond to Him day by day, minute by minute. And there’s a wonderful throw-away line: “Therefore the days of this life have been given us as a time of truce for the correction of our faults.” It seems God has made a deal with us. We’ve been given some extra time. And such a tremendous, loving deal demands our response. Something big is at stake; we are constrained by bonds of love and deep affection. What shall we do? Benedict tells us: “Run! Race along the way of the Lord’s commandments, your heart swelling with the unspeakable sweetness of love. Give. Love. Surrender.” Through God’s mercy and grace, the grace of our monastic vocations, our lives have been given back to us. We still have the time we need to make our return to the Lord, to start over, do deeds of love. It is here in the monastery, that we get to do constantly what perhaps most people only get to do once - on their deathbed -surrender once and for all. Here in this school of the Lord’s service, we get to do it over and over. Small wonder Benedict says we should live each day as if it were our last; it’s for freedom’s sake. So we can let go, unclench, breathe deep, and simply die with Jesus - over and over again each day. The constant ringing of the bells is the incessant reminder that there’s still time to start again, time to hand everything over to Him.

The hundredfold is ours. God has spoken His Word to us as to the lost son’s older brother, “You are always with me. All I have is yours.” Jesus is himself this message of the Father’s deep love. Christ Jesus our Lord, our Love, our only Hope is Himself the hundredfold he promises. He has pressed himself to us, to our humanity in its shabbiness, and breathed new life into us. In his passion and resurrection, he has healed and refreshed, renewed and transformed it all.

And so, if, as Benedict exhorts us, we are to prefer absolutely nothing to Christ, it is because He has first of all preferred absolutely nothing at all to each of us, accepting even death, death on a cross for our sake. We are invited to lose everything in order to gain everything. Jesus himself is the everything. God has made a deal we would be foolish to ignore. This is the marvelous exchange. It is Jesus himself who is the gift given to us a hundred times over; He who will always, always be for us as mother and father, lover, child, and true home. Beyond our wildest dreams, the love of the Father for the Son in the Spirit is now ours.

Our part of the deal is openness to the reality of our real brokenness and neediness and at the same time to our belovedness. This is emptiness matched by Christ’s promise to give us Himself in total self-surrender. For our emptiness is not nothing; it is a place for Him. We can only wonder and rejoice and notice God noticing us, longing for us.

At this table, he will hand himself over to us this morning. Our part of the deal bottom line is to say, “Amen. Yes. Yes.” In the bread and wine, we will share Jesus gives us the hundredfold. Love gives Himself. And here in this Holy Communion, he completes the surrender of his body on the cross, that self-offering which embodies the total self-gift that is the triune God. God is this loving gift of self-surrender. His love is limitless, and His coming to us once again will “displace our emptiness.”

This ancient statue of Saint Benedict was brought from the monastery of Our Lady of the Valley in Rhode Island at the time of Spencer's founding. Photograph by Brother Daniel. Homily by one of our monks.