February 23, 2014 M. Rebecca
Lev 19:1-2, 17-18; 1 Cor 3:16-23;Mt 5:38-48
Today’s readings are calling us to seek holiness. “Be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy”. Since Vatican II, the Church has repeatedly spoken of this “universal call to holiness”. However, “to be holy” is not one of the top 10 ways I would personally use to describe my call or my desire. A call to love, a call to be like Christ, a call to make known God’s love to others…yes!...but a call to be holy leaves me a little uncomfortable. I remember sending a spiritual book to a friend. It was called “Holiness” by Donald Nichols. When she opened the package in front of her friend, she saw the title “Holiness” and quickly stuffed it back in the envelope so her friend wouldn’t see it. How did this desire for holiness become embarrassing? How does one even decide when or if a person is holy? What does it mean to be holy?
M Teresa gives us a hint when she said, (quote) “Holiness is not a luxury for the few; it is not just for some people. It is meant for you, for me, and for all of us…because if we learn to love, we learn to be holy.” So to be holy is to love. Love is a universal call. But last week when we spoke about Dante’s Inferno, we realize that not just any love is holy. There were many great lovers and passionate people in Dante’s Inferno. Rather it is an “ordered love” – a love that has God as our highest love and all other loves fall underneath this divine attraction. We are called to be holy like the Lord our God is holy. We are called to love as Jesus Christ loves. Our first reading from Leviticus calls all of us to love our neighbor as our self but the gospel now adds that we are to love our enemies as well. But this kind of love would not be possible w/o heeding the first part of Jesus’ greatest commandment: To love God with all our heart, mind, and soul.
Then there is Thomas Merton, who was a Cistercian monk and famous writer from our monastery in KY, who said “To become a saint (or to be holy) means to become who we truly are”. He says “The problem of holiness is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and discovering my true self.” If we define who we are by what we do, then we can be sure we are not on the right track of discovering our true self. Our vocation goes well beyond what we are called to do. More important, it describes the persons they are called to BE. St Paul tells us that we are the temple of God – we carry God within us – and that is what makes us holy. If we live out of our true self, the deeper core where Christ is, we are assured that we will be like Him and that is what it means to be holy…to be love…for God is Holy; God is love. So holiness consists in being what God wants us to be. When we discover that, everything we do will be holy.
Our Christian faith tells us that our whole purpose and meaning of life is to love God – and to love others for His sake. All Christians are called to a 2 fold pathway towards God: intimacy with Christ and imitation of Christ…or as our Rule repeats over and over: prayer and good works. Both are necessary for a vocation and devotion to God. To love God one must know Him - and to know God is to love Him. This intimacy of knowing and loving is the focus of our monastic life.
Vocation discernment is not so much about responding to God’s call but to God’s love. That is why our call is not a one-time decision but a daily, life-long process – because love requires us to say ‘yes’ every day.
St Bernard and our early Cistercian Fathers called the monastery a “school of charity”. Our monastery is a place where we learn charity…where we learn how to love and to be loved. St Bernard said often that we are created for love – and for offering ourselves to God in self surrender. Mary’s fiat contains both this love and this self-giving to God. It is a call to intimacy with Christ that leads to imitation of Christ. To do this we must first know our self – know the good that lives in us and know God’s love for us.
Our monastic life is so designed that everything in it is to contribute to the monk’s growth in intimate friendship with God. That is why we are people of prayer. Intimacy grows through our quiet prayer with inner silence, in our lectio divina where we let the Word speak to us and respond with open hearts, and in our liturgy where we communally hear and respond to the Word and are graced by God’s presence there in our prayer of praise, intercession, and gratitude.
In the mystery of our friendship with God, charity cannot help but grow too. God loves us and we want to respond by letting God love through us. Hence our whole life is a surrender to God’s action as we repeat with St Paul “All I want is to know Christ”! The “school of charity” teaches us that love is continually calling us out of our self – a dying to self. Our life’s goal is not about self-fulfillment, but rather about self-transcendence (Casey).
Another aspect of our monastic life that brings us to holiness (and sometimes “unholiness”!) is our life in community. Living in community with others who are of like mind - seeking God with all their heart, mind, and soul - is the greatest blessing for me personally in my monastic life but it is also the most challenging. It is a place where I learn to know myself in humility and thus to understand others with compassion and through that to experience God in contemplation.
St Benedict, who wrote our Rule in the 6th century, set down with such simplicity criteria for the newcomer to the monastery – the most important aspect to look for is if they “truly seek God”. It is a more complicated question than first appears. However, the fact that some of you are here on a vocation weekend already confirms the fact that you as well as all of us in this room…truly seek God.
St Therese wrote: “Holiness is more the fruit of receptivity than the zeal and practice of virtues”. This brings us back to the idea that holiness is not so much what we do but rather a way of being. Monks don’t need to make a big splash but live “hidden in Christ” in humble fidelity. Therese’s Little Way reminds us that “The way of becoming holy is through fidelity in little things” (such as a smile or picking up a pin out of love). St Bernard spoke often of the importance of putting attention and intention into all that we do. This is prayer and union with Christ. We desire love to be our source, guide, and goal in all our actions and intentions – this is ceaseless prayer. This is when intimacy and imitation become one.
St Therese, in her own monastic life, came to an insight that gave meaning to her whole life when she discovered: “My vocation is Love”. So I would like to end with a line St Therese wrote in her own self-offering oblation to God. It can also be our prayer this day: “Jesus, I want to be holy, but I feel my powerlessness and ask you, my God, to be yourself my holiness.”