The clothing ceremony begins with the Postulant requesting “the mercy of God and of the Order.” In Response the Abbot offers his exhortation to the candidate about to assume the responsibilities of the Novitiate. This morning Abbot Robert Barnes exhorted Br. Aelred Joseph:
You have asked for mercy, the mercy of God and of the Order. You have experienced the mercy of God in may ways during your lifetime and have learned that God’s mercy may not always resemble what we expect mercy to feel like. That’s not unique to you: we’re all in the same boat. Saint Paul had to insist to his recent converts that they needed to thank God for all things. They needed to remember that God’s mercy arrives in many shapes and sizes and not only as we expect it or as what we have asked for. And yet, Saint Paul teaches us that we are called to be thankful for everything.
We ponder the mystery of that and, in time as we mellow somewhat and grow a bit in wisdom, we begin doing what Saint Paul exhorted us. Perhaps we understand no better but we learn to trust God’s love for us, growing in assurance of God’s certain love as God, who is true love, becomes more real to us. Our struggle to be thankful to God assists the gradual transformation of our wills. Transformation of heart and will is, of course, the great challenge for any Christian who would follow Jesus closely, for anyone who believes in God, however they understand the One who called them into being. This is the great mystery of divine love.
Did not your chosen patron, St. Joseph, have to wrestle with this very mystery? And not only once! Didn’t he struggle over and over again in his life, precisely because he was so committed to God’s unique purpose for him? He struggled as his forebear, King David, had to struggle, sinner that he indeed was! He had to struggle as Abraham, the father of us all, demonstrated in his own long life. They rejoiced to be called “friend” by God and “beloved”; nonetheless they had to struggle greatly to remain faithful to that marvelous grace. And we all struggle, we who desire as they did, to share in God’s friendship.
That brings us now to the other part of your request: the mercy of our Order. That indicates the ancient Monastic Order which still remains a precious part of Christ’s Church, an integral member of his Body. In particular you are asking for this nine-hundred year old Cistercian Order, that particular expression of the Benedictine vocation, a form of monasticism leading us, by the school of charity, to what St. Benedict promises us. I mean specifically, to run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts expanded by the unspeakable sweetness of love. As proof of this assurance, our holy Father Benedict, we have the examples of our Cistercian Fathers, Robert, Alberic and Stephen, Bernard, Guerric and your chosen namesake, Aelred of Rievaulx. By their own lives and their words, we can hope that for us, too, God’s mercy will bear fruit. Be we can only hope that if we live as they have shown us how to live.
The mercy of the order, then, is no little thing, as you read clearly in that Mirror of Charity which Saint Aelred wrote and holds up for our reflection. It is in the Mirror of Charity that you will see the mercy of God. Saint Bernard first taught that great principle; Saint Aelred and Blessed Guerric complement Bernard, clearly expanding that practice of charity. But where now is this school of charity to be found, to lead us deeper into God’s mercy? That place can only be right here, this monastery, this concrete community, these particular men who are your brothers. You have not chosen them nor have they chosen you; it is a divine choice, not a human calculation, that brings us together. Such as we are and such as you are, we are all seeking to practice God’s mercy, however imperfectly that turns out! And for this grace of God to you, Aelred Joseph, you are called to thank God. Here you will discover God’s love for you, as present in your brothers’ goodness as in their sinfulness–surprising as that may be. We are all but striving to do as you yourself seek to do.