Mass Readings: Acts 4: 32-35; Philippians 4:4-9; John 17,: 20-26
The whole Church, not just our Cistercian Order or the larger Benedictine family, celebrates the feast of St. Benedict today. Because his monastic Rule influenced the entire continent of Europe during those desperate centuries called the “dark ages”, the Church honors Saint Benedict as the special patron of European peoples.
Yet this solemnity of Saint Benedict is in a particular way a special feasts for all monks and nuns who are Saint Benedict’s disciples, who professed vows according to his Rule. We are united in celebrating and thanking Almighty God for the blessing of our vocations with this holy man’s life and teaching. As Cistercian monks we have a singular share in this celebration. Our fathers of Citeaux left a flourishing abbey at Molesme in order to live more authentically Benedict’s teaching. We follow them today and are bound to that same commitment which our founders made more than nine hundred years ago.
Saint Benedict was a man who chose a life apart from the world’s preoccupations, first, living as a hermit and later as abbot of the monastery he founded atop Monte Cassino. Here was a man who never traveled farther in his life than central Italy; today however, he is called the father of a vast monastic family spread throughout the world. This is the work of the Lord; it is a marvel in our eyes.
This work of the Lord expresses itself especially by the attraction felt by so many of the laity in the Church today to Saint Benedict’s teaching. Benedict’s path to God is being rediscovered by many more men and women as a healing medicine, to counteract the noxious sickness infecting our contemporary world. The Rule he wrote for his followers is recognized by monastics and lay people alike as an authentic way of living the Gospel of Christ. As a consequence, those who commit their live to God in the monastery–under a Rule and an Abbot–bear an important responsibility to live faithfully what we have professed. Today if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts (Psalm 94). We serve as the concrete witnesses to St. Benedict’s evangelical way of life among our contemporaries.
The scripture readings chosen for today’s Mass remind us of that witness which God calls us to display to the world. Although we choose to dwell hidden and unknown within our monasteries, we demonstrate a community-centered life as described by the Acts of the Apostles, renouncing the claim to anything as my own. Such a renunciation is not about external objects alone–my car, my books, my money or even control over my own time or occupations. We seek to attain a total surrender of our own wills in conformity to God’s purpose for us. And we express this evangelical way of life by our efforts to live in mutual obedience in freedom of heart. Those precious final chapters of the Rule show us clearly the mind of St. Benedict, in this absolute requirement he asks of all who would be his disciples.
Pope Emeritus Benedict, before he resigned, had spoken of his patron saint in one of his Wednesday General Audiences. He referred to Saint Benedict as a model of self-renunciation demonstrating how we might overcome the fundamental temptation of every human being: the temptation to egotism. Rather than being self-absorbed, putting myself in the center of everything, I need to seek God at my center. The way of life we profess also offers a life true to spiritual peace, which St. Paul mentions in his Letter to the Philippians, a peace which no one but God could give. This is the peace for which so many souls today yearn and even pray. This is the peace in which a life of prayer can bring us to a real union with God. As Pope Benedict said, “Saint Benedict’s life was steeped in an atmosphere of prayer, the very foundation of his existence. Without prayer there is no experience of God.” To experience God is to know that communion with the Father which Jesus promised his apostles the night before he died: That they may be one, Father, as we are one.
As monks we aspire to this goal through the school of the Lord’s service, as Saint Benedict called the monastic community. He cautions us, “Do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, the entrance of which cannot but be narrow.” He repeats the Gospel’s teaching that we have to experience for ourselves what Christ suffered. That is the cure we must take for the amendment of our vices and the preservation of charity. Saint Benedict does not deny how hard and rugged that way is by which we journey to God. But once we have begun to follow Christ’s path, he promises that our hearts will expand and we will run the way of God’s commandments with a sweetness of love that is inexpressible.
My brothers, each of us has been called personally by God to enter this school of the Lord’s service, the school which our Cistercian fathers renamed the school of charity. I need to persevere in this school until my death. I must share in the sufferings of Christ. Then, Saint Benedict promises us, we shall have a share with Christ in his kingdom.
My last word to each of you is to keep always within your heart those words we each recited on the day of our solemn profession: Receive me, O Lord, according to your word and I shall live; let my hopes not be in vain.