July 11, 2007

Homily given on the Solemnity of St. Benedict at the National Pastoral Musicians Convention

Archabbot Justin DuVall, O.S.B., presides at Mass on July 11 at the National Pastoral Musicians Convention in Indianapolis. More coverage of the event appears in the July 20, 2007 issue of The Criterion. (Photo by Mike Krokos)

Archabbot Justin DuVall, O.S.B., presides at Mass on July 11 at the National Pastoral Musicians Convention in Indianapolis. More coverage of the event appears in the July 20, 2007 issue of The Criterion. (Photo by Mike Krokos)

By Archabbot Justin DuVall, O.S.B.
  • Proverbs 2.1-9
  • Colossians 3.12-17
  • Matthew 19.27-29

Without too much of a strain, we can almost hear the faint whine in Peter’s voice as he put his question to Jesus.  “We have given up everything and followed you.  What will there be for us?”  As is often the case, Peter says out loud what we say to ourselves in the privacy of our own hearts.  As disciples of Jesus we have committed ourselves to the Christian life, of which sacrifice—while not the whole picture—is an essential part.  The blessed abbot Benedict, whom the Church commemorates today, placed this radical preference of the Christian life squarely at the heart of the monastic life when he told his monks that they are to “prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (RB 72.11).  For every Christian, the heartfelt desire to follow Christ means that he is to have first place in whatever we do, in word or in deed.  We know this is to be true for us.  Yet, still, the little voice way in the dark corner of our heart continues to whisper, “What’s in it for me?”  Peter’s question is our question as well.

Jesus had an answer to Peter’s question.  “Everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.”  Jesus’ answer holds out the promise of a better life than the one his disciples gave up in order to follow him.  Of course, the trade is a little vague:  “a hundred times more” leaves a lot to the imagination, and “eternal life” is tougher to picture than the endless aisles of goodies at Wal-Mart.  But only a fool trades down.  Every choice closes off options.  Some here have given up possibilities for the future when they married, because they fell in love with another person without whom the future itself seemed impossible.  Others have chosen to set the course of their freedom down the path of obedience to a life of service in the Church.  And still others among us have walked away from a lifestyle that no longer brought a sense of satisfaction, literally leaving behind houses, cars, careers, colleagues, and even disposable income.  But whatever we may have traded in, we did it because we believed there was something better to be gained.  And we have learned that the promise for which we traded doesn’t always have an immediate payoff.  Part of the “hundred times more” of Jesus’ promise is growth in a wisdom that understands those dimensions of life hidden from mere bargain hunters.  Our continued trust in the Lord’s promise gives us a share in that wisdom that comes from God, a wisdom that the author of Proverbs promised would allow us to understand righteousness and justice, and honesty, and every good path.  The market value of these things may not be tremendous, but they appeal to those who know that a price tag is not the only gauge of value in this world.  Growing in wisdom allows us to know the love of God for us in Christ, and in turn to love one another in Christ, no matter what we have given up in exchange.  It’s only natural to wonder what we will get for what we’ve given up.  Peter wondered the same thing when he put his question to Jesus, and Jesus had an answer for Peter.  “A hundred times more—and eternal life to boot.”  The promise of something better: that’s what a disciple gets.

But there are days—even for disciples—when Jesus’ promise begins to fade into the darkness, like the smile of the Cheshire cat.  Despite Jesus’ promise, Peter and the other disciples still had their illusions of grandeur, not content to wait for the age to come to sit on those thrones of judgment.  For Judas, the jingle-jangle of thirty pieces of silver tipped the scale against some future throne; and Peter readily traded his seat for a good slice of ear from the High Priest’s servant.  Yet we can’t be too harsh in judging them, since we ourselves aren’t home-free from the temptation to take back what we once so freely gave up.  Opportunities of the moment press in on us, luring us to lust for some tangible trade-in for what we’ve given up.  Human nature never fades away from us.  In our struggle to be faithful disciples, we all discover little ways of “recup-ing” our losses, even if on a small scale.  If we wish to follow Jesus, then we'd better have a good grasp of what it is we're really up against.  We face the wayward desires of the human heart because we remain wounded even in our love for God.  The letter to the Colossians takes our wounded condition seriously, urging us to “let the peace of Christ control [our] hearts, the peace into which [we] were also called in one Body.”  We’re not alone in our struggles.  United in the love of Christ, we draw our strength from the Lord, and from his mighty power.  And we need it.  Even as good Christians, our wounded human nature remains.  When opportunities of the present moment press in on us, then they challenge us to be true to what we promised.  The grace of God allows us to recognize those wayward desires for what they are: forgeries of happiness.  Those are the times when, even as Jesus’ promise of something better fades in the distance, the true nature of our struggle comes into sharper focus.  We get right in line with Peter and the other disciples, who continued to face their own impatience with the promise of something better to come.

 Still, even in the midst of struggles, Jesus’ promise brings rewards in the present.  Peter and the other disciples did grow in their love of God because they allowed the power of the Gospel to touch them at their core.  Their willingness to have their minds totally overhauled gave them a new life, one in which the promise of “a hundred times more” began to pay some dividends already in the present.  It may not have been what they originally hoped for, but they did allow the Spirit of God to show them the world through the patterns of grace, and that sight changed their desires.  There is a famous incident in the life of St. Benedict that well illustrates this transforming experience.  One night, keeping his customary vigil, Benedict stood at the window of his room in a tower of his monastery.  Suddenly, a brightness that outshone the light of the sun shattered the deep darkness of the night.  Benedict himself later reported that during this vision he saw the whole of creation gathered up into a single ray of the sun.  It wasn’t a pantheistic vision in which he saw God diffused in all of creation; rather, he saw all of creation unified in God.  In a single instant time collapsed into eternity, and in a single-hearted vision both the source and the goal of the whole of creation was downloaded into his own soul.  The promise of the Gospel was delivered in all its splendor.  While we may not be given such an overwhelming vision, surely the same Spirit gives us those occasional glimpses of the rewards that “the eye has not seen nor ear heard.”  This gift of God is the undivided source of all our unity, catching us up into a river of communion, cool in its consolation, crystal clear in its source, shimmering in its eternal beauty, racing to the vast ocean that draws it on.  It’s that promise of what awaits us that puts in our hearts here and now the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs of gratitude by which we give thanks to God the Father through Jesus Christ—los salmos, himnos y cánticos espirituales por los cuales damos gracias a Dios Padre, por medio de Cristo.  The Christian life aims to widen our hearts to the fullest extent of their capacity, making them capable of satisfaction by nothing less than God.  As wonderful as the things of this world can be, they are pale glimpses of “what eye has not seen nor ear heard, the things God has prepared for those who love him.”  St. Benedict urges his monks to “hasten to do now what will profit us for eternity” (RB Prol. 44).  If we pay attention to his advice, then all the way to heaven becomes heaven, and our desire becomes single-hearted.  The present has its rewards, and Jesus’ promise to his disciples retracts from the distant future, rewarding us now with the delight of an undivided heart that possesses all things because it is possessed by God.  There is no greater reward; it silences the self-centered whine; it stretches our hearts a hundred times wider, both now and for the world to come.

Brothers and sisters, the voice of Christ reaches a diversity of people, as is evident among us here this evening.  God’s gifts are many.  But beyond all our diversity, our unity lies in Christ, who calls us all to live his Gospel with a single-hearted love.  Not everyone in this assembly is a monk; not everyone needs to be.  Nevertheless, all of us can learn from the wisdom of the Blessed Abbot Benedict, whose memory we celebrate today.  Like all of us, he, too, strove to live the paradox of the Gospel, that in giving our life away, we gain it.  For his monks—and for all of us as well this evening—his words about Christ reflect the wisdom of an undivided heart: "Never swerving from [the Lord’s] instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching … until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may also deserve to share in his Kingdom.  Amen." (RB Prol. 49-50)

Indianapolis, Indiana

11 July 2007

More coverage of the event appears in the July 20, 2007 issue of The Criterion.

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