BROTHERS, BECAUSE YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN BY GOD FILLYOUR HEARTS WITH COMPASSION AND GOODNESS (Col. 3:12). These words of St Paul read in today's liturgy have a particular pertinence for the feast of the Holy Family. Only when we have in our hearts a profound sense of gratitude for all we have received from God through being chosen by Him will we consistently display the compassion and benevolence that makes daily life together a source of blessing and of personal strength. This text I have cited, however, is but a portion of Paul's description of the behavior that is appropriate for those who have been chosen by God and so are holy and beloved. Interestingly, he concludes from this affirmation of our having received God's special favor and love that we in turn are to support one another with love, acting with humility. He presumes this will not prove to be easy all the time for he expects that we shall have to exercise much patience and that there will be offenses given at times. Thus he adds we should be prompt to forgive one another. Just as we have received the mercy of God so we are expected to show ready mercy to those we live with most closely. By way of summing up this description of the behavior suited to those specially chosen by God and His beloved he concludes with the admonition to give the primacy to love which is the bond of perfection.
According to St. Paul, then, our vocation as Christians is the fruit of God's merciful love for us. This love is merciful precisely because it is gives freely and generously to us who have not deserved it. The result of this love he stresses here is the bond that unites us to Him and to one another in such a way that we create a community in which all are sustained by the kindness and ready goodness of its members. God's call and choice, in short, creates its own family, a family of believers who are joined to one another with a love that makes them brothers and sisters. From the earliest days of the Church it became the practice to refer to fellow Christians as brother and sister. We observe this usage already in the first speech St. Peter directed to the believers gathered in Jerusalem.
In those days Peter stood up among the brothers- there was a group of about 120 together- and said: Men, brothers, we must fulfill the Scriptures (Acts 1:15, 16).
Not much later, St. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, remarks that a brother or a sister [that is to say, any member of the community of believers] is not to be enslaved in these matters, for God has called us in peace (1Cor 7:15). These titles were not mere words; rather they reflected an underlying sense of a mutual, personal relatedness based on respect and love. This sense of being in a fraternal relationship with all the faithful was the fruit of a keen awareness that God's choice of each has made all Christ's followers truly a part of his household and so members of the same family.
This belief has never died out in the Church, though there have been periods and places where it was held with stronger or weaker conviction. There have always been men and women who employed this style of referring to their fellow religious with a consciousness that they held a special place in God's plan and so treated them with reverence and heart-felt affection. So universal was this conviction that the term brother became the normal designation of a baptized Christian. Later when religious life was established it was applied to the members of the communities that lived apart from society. By the time of St. Benedict, brother was the normal term for referring to a monk. Frater (brother) is one of the most frequently used words in the Rule for Monks. It occurs in a majority of chapters, from the Prologue to Chapter 71. The community is called a fraternity (fraternitas) in ch. 72. This was a term long employed in the Christian vocabulary. In the 300's, a Bishop writing in Greek spoke of the Church itself as a fraternity. Where the Church of Christ is, there is the fraternity of Christ (Titus of Bosra, cited in Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, p.30 s.v. adelphotes) St. Basil had used the same Greek equivalent of fraternitas about 200 years before Benedict in referring to the community of monks and nuns to whom he addressed his teachings on monastic life. He spoke of the community members not as monks, a term he seems to have deliberately avoided in his Rules, but as brothers, (cf. for instance Sermones ascetici.3 PG 31:876A; also Regulae Fusius Tractatae. XXVII PG 31: 988A).
All too readily it happens with spiritual insights that spread and become established that for many they cease to be a matter of personal conviction and experience, and become a mere formality. We have inherited this Christian tradition with its rich content that assures us of belonging to one another through being called by God to partake of His promise of a share in his kingdom. We must at times advert to the reality behind this term, brother, and reflect upon it if we are to assure that we remain sensitive to the basis for our brotherhood. Indeed, this is one of the functions of the contemplative life: to maintain the vitality of the basic spiritual realities and to remain sensitive to their foundation in the Blessed Trinity.
So much for the first phrase of St. Paul's text cited at the head of this conference, which you will recall is the following: BROTHERS, BECAUSE YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN BY GOD FILL YOUR HEARTS WITH COMPASSION AND GOODNESS. We are brothers because God has chosen us to belong to Him, as members of His community, which is destined to be eternal. More particularly, He has chosen us to be his children, a special kind of relationship within community. This more personal, intimate relatedness to God makes it incumbent upon us, as members of his family, to imitate his goodness. This entails more than putting up with the weaknesses of others; it means being disposed actively to benefit others upon all opportunities, taking initiatives that contribute to the welfare and progress of our brothers and sisters. This find of goodness is not felt as an obligation imposed from without, but, as St. Paul tells us in the text I referred to above, should be closely associated with a heartfelt compassion, that is to say, it is to be deeply rooted in our interior. The expression Paul uses here translated literally is bowels of mercy. Charity, he intends to convey to us, is not a superficial disposition but arises from the more profound depths of our being; nor is it frigid but warmly felt, and engages our deeper feelings when it is all it should be.
God is good, benignly disposed to all his creatures. He is ever inclined to be forgiving, helpful and merciful. Moreover, He remains benevolently disposed even to those who do evil, and who are alienated from Him. Jesus himself declared that this is the abiding attitude of his Father. This truth needs to be affirmed and witnessed to. It required to be revealed on the best of authority, for it is easily denied. Jesus taught it by word and example in various situations. He affirmed it even to the point of commanding that we are to love and do good to those who cannot repay us for our generosity; more, even to those who hate us, persecute and afflict us. To be perfect means to imitate the Father in heaven who makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall thus benefiting not only the virtuous but also the sinful. There are any number of times in life when it requires heroic faith to hold on to this belief about God and to act upon it in dealing with others. Only those who are truly penetrated by the spirit of the Gospel and elevated by the Spirit of holiness can accept this teaching and live it out in practice.
We need to be reminded time and again of this radical demand of Christ. Our self-centered nature assures that our inclination is quite contrary to such benevolence of heart. Even toward those whom we genuinely love we often have sufficient ambivalence that we feel disposed to act with pettiness, spite, jealousy and a spirit of revenge when they thwart us, even unwittingly. How readily parents wound their children without being aware of it because they need them to fulfill their own frustrated aspirations. Actually, to some extent all of us fall into this trap at times. Each of us has some measure of narcissism that causes us to feel everyone should bend to our will. Consideration for others must be learned. Unless we work long and hard at it we cannot we manage to root out such selfish reactions. Genuine benevolence to others is the fruit of a great labor over many years, and is possible only to divine grace that creates the good will and determination requisite for such a prolonged and laborious striving. All the efforts we make to develop such habits of mind and body as render us more humble, more willing to serve than to be served, more desirous of doing good than to be admired or appreciated are so many contributions to this great task of practicing a benevolence from the heart.
We here have lived with monks, a number of whom have died in the past couple years, who attained to a high level of this kind of service to the community. Anyone who observed them over a period of time discovered very quickly what gentleness, humility and goodness translated into in terms of practical cooperation and service. Probably most of us who look back upon our lives within the family circle can say as much for our mothers and, in their own way, for our fathers as well. How willingly mothers sacrifice their own preferences and comfort for the welfare of their children at all stages of their development. I spoke with a mother recently who, in order to pay for the education of her children, took on a second job at night, for her husband refuses to contribute to their needs. She is happy to do it, though it means renouncing any social life. Most fathers in this country manifest their dedication to the welfare of their family by their application to a daily work that assures the basic needs and education of their children. They commonly receive rather minimal recognition for their labors, and do not demand any.
Such self-sacrificing dedication is the expression of love and ardent desire. William of St. Thierry pointed out the irreplaceable importance of love as the basis for that understanding of God's ways which contributes so largely to perseverance in the monastic life to the end and so essential to maintaining a fervent community of brothers. He speaks of it in fervid tones in one of his later works.
O Love from whom all love takes its name, even that carnal and debased love! Holy and Sanctifying Love, chaste and making us chaste; vivifying life, open for us your holy canticle, reveal the mystery of your kiss and the sound of your gentle murmuring by which you charm with your virtue and the delights of your sweetness the hearts of your sons (Expose sur le Cantique des Cantiques, 25, S. Chr. 82, Paris 1962, 102).
As we ourselves seek to be faithful stewards of the gifts and opportunities that God gives us we become more conscious of the fact that it is a worthy achievement to live consistently faithful to one's commitments and duties we have assumed in life. All of us have the experience of finding ourselves in positions that we did not ask for but accepted in obedience, and then discovering it has obligations that seem to go counter to our real needs and certainly to our preferences. Others of us discover that the task or the vows we did freely assume present us with demands we had no idea would arise. Our decision to accept the bad as well as the good, to make the renunciations required without seeking to evade responsibilities, is the choice to grow in the spirit and is the way of holiness.
It is quite the normal experience to have to make sacrifices that we had not envisaged when we accepted a particular post or committed ourselves to live out vows we freely promised. How we react under such circumstances determines whether we live for self or for God and for the good of others. This happens in married life inevitably, sometimes placing one partner under heavy pressure. It happens in military service, in professional life, in religious life. Nobody escapes the challenge to cultivate a higher level of selflessness in order to prove faithful to commitments and to duty. Examples abound in all walks of life. The saints' lives abounded in such experiences that they accepted as opportunities to give themselves to God in greater depth of commitment. One abbot I know obeyed even when, against his will, his Father Immediate closed down his monastery and dispersed all the monks. Some years later he himself became abbot of the motherhouse. The parent of a handicapped child is confronted with a trial that tests fidelity and dedication. Those who remain faithful and accepting attain to high levels of selfless love in embracing the sacrifices required to care for their child.
Others make excuses, rationalize their decision to evade responsibilities they had freely undertaken and go their own way. There is nothing new in this way of acting; it is as inveterate as Adam and Eve and their son Cain. All of us have the temptation at times; it can seem so reasonable, and yet it is the breath of spiritual death so often. At some point if we are to realize our call to holiness of life, we have to stand and face the consequences of situations we have placed ourselves in and make the best of them out of a sense of duty, responsibility and loyalty. Indeed, there simply is no other way for these virtues to take deep root within us except by our practice of self-denial and constancy in the face of seemingly overwhelming demands. New life, unforeseen possibilities arise when we thus give ourselves, but at the time we make such choices commonly it seems we are sure to be losers. Regularly in the course of life after any major commitment we experience the limits involved in pursuing our course. The more noble the endeavor the greater the sacrifice of extraneous interests is required.
What is more of a trial however is to experience a serious lack that seemingly cannot be filled by available opportunities. It often happens that one feels he cannot get the opportunities he feels he needs in order to grow as he should in his chosen vocation, whether in religious life or marriage. The lack of opportunities for a more adequate education; in the active ministry the lack of time for prayer and solitude; limited opportunities for organized program of study or of technical training. It is not rare to encounter these and similar limits which seem to prevent one from realizing his or her potential. But then, after some time of remaining firm and faithful to commitments, it can happen that we gain insights into life and ourselves that enable us to discover ways of fulfilling our true needs that are at hand. In other cases, the individual comes to realize that he can attain his goal in ways he was incapable of envisaging prior to passing through such experiences of limits and poverty. In the spiritual life, in fact, it is precisely this lesson above all that everyone must learn: how limited and poor we are and how utterly in need of God's mercy and grace.
Jesus taught this way of lowliness. Before he taught it he lived it out in the Holy Family throughout he thirty hidden years of his infancy, childhood and early adult period. He learned it from observing and interacting with Mary and Joseph, as well as from his experience of the Father in prayer He chose it for himself and told us that he is the way, the truth and the life. He came to understand that it was the expression of a pure and selfless love. Later in his public life he stressed such humility as the only way to draw near to him and the Father. Into such hearts as have learned this lowliness he pours out his Holy Spirit. This is the one and only course that allows us to practice the goodness and compassion toward others that our Lord and his parents lived in their family and which St. Paul urges upon the faithful. On this day when we celebrate the memory of the Holy Family may we all renew our dedication to following their example on this path that leads through lowliness of spirit to the heights of charity and, in the end, to fullness of life promised to the children of God.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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