THE SHEEP HEAR THE VOICE OF THE SHEPHERD. HE CALLS THEM BY NAME, FOR THEY KNOW HIS VOICE.These words of today's Gospel are well chosen for this occasion when our Brother Lawrence publicly promises to live the monastic vows in this community for life. Monastic vows are a response given freely in faith to the great shepherd of our soul, as St. Peter calls the Lord Jesus. The good shepherd calls his sheep by name. His voice makes itself heard by the ears of the heart by those who know him. This truth is brought out well by the practice of the Eastern Church. In the Byzantine liturgy the man who is about to receive the monastic habit stands in the presence of his abbot who speaks to him as follows.
Open the ears of your heart, brother, to hear the voice of the Lord saying to you "Come to me all you who labor and are burdened" with sins, "and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart." Know that our Lord is present, along with his mother, worthy of all praise, his holy angels all his saints and that he listens with attentive ears to the words you pronounce (J. Goar, Euchalogion, 383).
You are making your vows today, my brother, in the presence of the Lord, his Blessed Mother and the saints. It is he to whom you vow yourself for the rest of your life. Jesus had first invited you by his words, spoken with love. His words were first recorded in the Gospel and later taken up and elaborated upon by the holy monks who lived by them and passed them on to the Church who treasures them as the foundation of her teaching on monastic life. The Holy Spirit has enabled you to listen from the center of your being, with the ears of the heart. In doing so you enter into an intimate dialogue with him, hearing in his voice the one who knows you as no other can. His invitation offers you the opportunity to know him better, eventually to know as you are known by him. Just as you are to listen to him from the heart, so also he is now present. He listens to the vows you pronounce; they are addressed to him in the first place. Your vows are made to the Lord, not to the abbot. Your abbot receives them only as a witness and a sign that the church ratifies and blesses your response to the Lord who calls you.
A little further on in this same Byzantine rite, the abbot gives a second instruction which refers to the life-long vows as a testament that you make with Christ. Today you enter into a new agreement with your Savior, a contract which binds you to him in a special way for life. This is your last will and testament made in favor of the one who will claim your very self when your course is completed. It also binds him to you in a new way, and gives you assurance of his more particular love and care. All Christians are united with Christ by a pact, in fact, that is for life and that finds its fulfillment only at the second coming of our Lord. Monastic profession is a re newal and intensification of that first testament which is concluded by receiving this sacrament. Accordingly, in the Byzantine rite for receiving the great habit, monastic profession is designated a second baptism, in that it is a remission of all sins and confers on the newly professed the grace by which he is a child of light (cf. op. cit. , 408). The first baptism had already be stowed these favors; profession renews and intensifies them.
The texts we heard in today's mass from the Acts and from the First Epistle of Peter speak of the need for conversion from sin and from living according to the values of a world alienated from God. Monastic profession is the fruit of such a conversion. The vows are a formal expression of the decision to turn away from the ambitions and pleasures of this world and to set one's heart on pleasing the Lord in all things. Such a conversion is begun in a single act of choice and as sent to God's will. However, this conversion is but a beginning of a movement that engages the person in its entirety The whole of the Christian life is a process of return to God. The first step of that return is often more dramatic and evident as the believer takes faith seriously enough to turn away from sin and the world that is stranger to God. But until the very end of our journey on earth we must continue our advance on the path that leads to the Kingdom of God. The whole of life is a continuing conversion; the pronouncing of monastic vows represents a particularly significant turning point in that journey. You have chosen a truly good and blessed work, the Byzantine abbot tells the new monk, and goes on to add, but only if you see it through to the end. The text adds the admonition that we must honor our commitment even in the face of suffering and never make light of our promise by returning to what we have renounced. We can hardly do better than cite the words of this venerable rite of profession as we conclude our re flection on the significance of this occasion.
Transfer all your love to heavenly things, and avoid altogether turning back to what is behind.... No one is worthy of the kingdom of heaven who puts his hand to the plow and looks back. It is no small danger for you to promise what the things we have been speaking of and to make light of your promise, or if you re turn to your previous life (loc. cit.).
In today's society such absolute choice of a life-long commitment is not popular. But it is a generous response to what Jesus taught in the Gospel. Both of these facts make witness it all the more meaningful and significant. Without such fidelity to the Gospel the Church would grow feeble and her light would pale in the darkness of our times. There is no better contribution you can make to the spiritual good of people today than to vow yourself to God. May he grant you the grace to persevere faithfully to the end in living out with joy the vows you are about to pronounce at this altar.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
© Abbey of the Genesee
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