Homilies: September 2011 Archives

Saint Jerome and Lectio Divina

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Jerome and the Monastic Path

Jerome, translator of the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible into Latin, the tongue of the common folk, was a lover of the poor Christ. He sang the praises of monastic solitude, saying that “monks do on earth what the angels do in heaven.” We owe to Jerome the theology that sees in monastic profession a kind of second baptism, washing away sin just like martyrdom. It is Jerome who teaches us that the martyrdom of the monastic life is won not by the struggles of continence alone, but by the choice of poverty, and by perseverance in the praise of God.

Jerome was baptized during his student days in Rome. After a first attempt at monastic living in the deserts of Syria, he went to Antioch and there was ordained a priest. With an almost obsessive passion, he devoted himself to the study of Hebrew and Greek. Tutored by none other than Saint Gregory Nazianzen in Constantinople, Jerome went on to Rome where Pope Saint Damasus charged him with the revision of the Latin Bible.

Crankiness and Sanctity

In Rome, Jerome never really got on with other clergy. He was not ambitious for ecclesiastical promotion. He was somewhat irascible, dipping his pen rather more often into vinegar than honey. Jerome loved nothing so much as good squabble, and argued bitterly and at great length with his critics and adversaries. He had little time for trivial niceties.

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Caravaggio's "Call of Matthew" is a meditatio on the lectio of today's Gospel. It gives rise to oratio and leads to contemplatio. I am amazed at Caravaggio's ability to depict in shadow and in light the struggle of the soul to escape the darkness of sin and the mysterious inbreaking of divine light. The artist's own struggles with the great human passions -- and with sin -- made him, in his own way, an evangelist of the mercy of God.

September 21
Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

The Inbreaking Light

On this feast of Saint Matthew, it is the Apostle and Evangelist himself who relates what happened the day Jesus passed by, saw him, and called him, saying, "Follow me" (Mt 9:9). I have been looking at Caravaggio's famous painting of the call of Saint Matthew. Caravaggio places the event inside a dark house. The only light comes from an open window just above the head of Christ; it illuminates the face of Matthew seated at his counting table. Matthew has the somewhat jaded fleshy face of a prosperous banker. He is well dressed and is wearing a kind of velvet cap.

The Three Stages of Life

To Matthew's right a young boy is seated; he too is fashionably dressed, sporting a white plume in his cap. (He looks like a younger version of Matthew.) To Matthew's left there is an old bespectacled man bent over the table and totally absorbed in counting his coins. Caravaggio is showing the three stages of life: youth, middle age, and old age. Matthew is seated between youth and old age. The youth depicts what Matthew once was: open, innocent, not yet crooked and corrupted. The old man counting his money depicts what Matthew risks becoming: a man in love with one thing only, his money.

The Luminous Face of Jesus

The Face of Jesus is in the light while all around Him there are shadows. In His eyes we see a divine intensity and the most poignant tenderness. Christ is extending his hand and pointing at Matthew. Matthew, clearly shocked and not quite believing what is happening to him, points to himself as if to say, "Me? Are you addressing me?" Caravaggio's painting is, in its own way, a marvelous homily on today's Gospel.

Your Story and Mine

The call of Matthew, as recounted in his Gospel and as portrayed in Caravaggio's painting, is more than the story of one man's experience of Jesus Christ over two thousand years ago. It is your story and mine. It concerns each one of us just as much as it concerns Saint Matthew, for the Lord Jesus says: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. . . . For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mt 9:12-13).

The Divine Physician

If you are sick in any way, if you are afflicted, burdened, wounded, broken, twisted, ailing or weak, then you have reason to rejoice. Christ the Divine Physician comes for you! For you was His Heart opened flowing with water and blood: water to cleanse you of sin, and blood that you may have new life, "and have it more abundantly" (Jn 10:10).

Balm, Food, and Drink

The Divine Physician comes to anoint you with His Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost is the healing balm of the Father and the Son spread over the wounds of the soul. And then, He nourishes you at the Holy Table of his Body and Blood. The Divine Physician would have you grow strong with the very strength of God, a strength that needs your weakness if it is to shine forth. "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9). The strength of Christ is displayed and illustrated in the weakness of those whom He calls.

The Past No Obstacle

Our Lord calls each of us today, just as he called Matthew out of that dark and dreary counting house to leave all and follow him into the light of day. The number of our years and the burden of our infirmities, are no obstacle. Our past, with its mistakes, failures, and sins, is no obstacle.

And He Rose

When Christ calls, the Holy Ghost urges us from within to rise up and follow him. It is a pity that the American lectionary uses the weak, "and he got up," instead of the splendidly significant, "and he rose" of the Revised Standard Version. (The Greek verb is the very one used to denote the resurrection of Christ.) Caravaggio shows Matthew just before his spiritual resurrection. He is still seated; he is in that moment of decision where disbelief wrestles with hope. In Matthew's case, hopes wins. There is a spiritual resurrection. Matthew rises and follows the Master with the luminous face.

Rescued by the Sacraments

We too rise to newness of life at the call of Christ, and follow Him not by running after Him with our feet, but by running after Him with desire of our heart. We come Him in the Sacrament of Penance; we come to Him in the Most Holy Eucharist; and in both sacraments we experience the mercy that rescues us from what we are in danger of becoming: empty shells clinging to pathetic little attachments, and incapable of seeing beyond them.

Equipped for Apostleship

What happens once we have experienced the call of Christ? We become apostles. We want to share with others what it is to see that Face and to be called by that Voice. To help us live out our apostleship, Our Lord equips us with the Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost and with a variety of other graces. This is what Saint Paul said in the First Reading: "And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers" (Eph 4:11).

A Variety of Gifts

Some of you have the precious gift of spending long moments before Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Others of you have the gift of bearing patiently with your infirmities. Others have the gift of a smile and a kind word. Still others have the gift of looking out for others, of being attentive and generous. All of these gifts build up the Body of Christ, the Church. God is a lavish giver! He wants to enrich us "with every spiritual blessing" (Eph 1:3). No one goes way from the Table of Divine Mercy without a gift.

The Newness of His Mercies

Be attentive today to the voice of the Merciful Christ and to the light that shines from His Holy Face. Study Caravaggio's painting of the Calling of Saint Matthew. Even if you first heard the voice of Christ forty or fifty or sixty years ago, today He calls you anew. His mercy is not given once and for all; Scripture says: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning" (Lam 3:22-23). The mercies of the Lord are ours in the adorable mysteries of his Sacred Body and Precious Blood. We, publicans and sinners, are welcomed at His Holy Table today. Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb.

In the Hand of His Providence

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We Are Blind and Blinkered

In today's Gospel, Our Lord Jesus Christ speaks with a touching simplicity. "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows" (Lk 12:6-7). Dame Julian of Norwich puts it this way: "I saw in truth that God does all things, however small they may be. And I saw that nothing happens by chance, but by the far-sighted wisdom of God. If it seems like chance to us, it is because we are blind and blinkered."

In the Hand of His Providence

Saint Francis de Sales taught the same doctrine: "Do not look forward to the mishaps of this life with anxiety, but await them with perfect confidence so that when they do occur, God, to whom you belong, will deliver you from them. He has kept you up to the present; remain securely in the hand of His providence, and He will help you in all situations. When you cannot walk, He will carry you. Do not think about what will happen tomorrow, for the same eternal Father who takes care of you today will look out for you tomorrow and always."

Fruits of the Holy Ghost

Once we have accepted that all things are in the hand of God, and that the great events of history, like the smallest details of our own lives, are willed or permitted by Him, we begin to experience an unassailable peace of heart. "In everything, says Saint Paul, God works for good with those who love Him" (Rom 8:28). Worry has never advanced the kingdom of heaven. Worry has never made anyone holy. Panic, fretting, and anxiety are not fruits of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost produces confidence in God, trust in His mercy, abandonment to His designs, surrender to His will and, always, peace.

Control

Again, Saint Francis de Sales has a word for people who have the need always to be in control: "When we let go of everything, our Lord takes care of all and manages all. If we hold back anything -- this shows a lack of trust in Him -- He lets us keep it. It is as if he said, 'You think yourself wise enough to handle this matter without me; I allow you to do so; you will see how you come out in the end.'" It is a sound observation of human psychology that the more one feels that the big things in one's life are spinning out of control, the more one grasps at the little things, trying desperately to control what one can.

Worry Impedes Thanksgiving

Nothing keeps us from full participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass -- Christ's Great Thanksgiving to the Father -- as much as a stubborn attachment to worry. Worry impedes thanksgiving. Saint Pio said, "Guard yourselves against anxiety and worries, because there is nothing worse in the way of perfection than agitations, worries and anxieties of soul."

Sursum Corda

The cry of the priest at the beginning of the Preface, Sursum corda, "All hearts on high!" --and the response of the people, Habemus ad Dominum, "We hold them towards the Lord!" is a way of proclaiming that all of history, and even the tiniest bits and scraps of our own lives, are part of a bigger plan. Nothing that befalls us can keep us from God; every little thing has Eucharistic potential. In all things there is a reason to give thanks.

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

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Glory in the Cross

"It is for us to glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ in whom is our health, life and Resurrection: through whom we have been saved and set free" (Introit). Celebrating today the mystery of the Cross, we fix our gaze not upon an instrument of torture and of shame but, rather, upon the Tree of Life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:2). We lift our eyes to the royal throne of the King of glory, the sign of the Son of Man that will appear in the heavens at the end of the age (Mt 24:30). To the eyes of faith, the Cross shines like the sun over the eastern horizon.

Santa Croce in Gerusalemme

In Rome, the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme is the scene of a solemn festival today. Pilgrims from all over the world will cross the threshold of the church established by Saint Helena; they will kneel before the wood of the True Cross. Great numbers of them will go to their confession. The relics of the True Cross will be carried in procession and placed upon the altar during Holy Mass.

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Everywhere in the Basilica of Santa Croce one sees the insignia of the holy and glorious Cross; it is painted, carved, and even woven into the cloth of the vestments. It is the life-giving and glorious Cross of Christ, studded with precious stones, and glimmering with the splendour of the stars. The arms of the Cross are thrown open wide to embrace the very limits of the cosmos. What did we sing at First Vespers? "Hail, O Cross! Brighter than all the stars! To the eyes of men thou art exceedingly lovely!" (Magnificat Antiphon I). The art in the basilica church cries out, over and over again, the essential relationship between altar and Cross. The altar is the bathed in the glory of the Cross.

The Visible Sign of God's Healing Mercy

Today's Divine Office and the Mass infuse in our souls an awe-inspiring awareness of the Cross as the visible sign of God's healing mercy, the cause of our indefectible and abiding joy. "The Royal Banners forward go; the Cross shines forth in mystic glow" (Vexilla Regis, Vespers). We sing in today's introit that the Cross of Christ is the source of health (salus), of life, and of Resurrection. The eyes of the Church are filled with the brightness of the Cross. She looks towards the wood of the Cross and is made radiant by the Resurrection. Look to the Cross, and be radiant; let your faces not be abashed (Ps 33:6)!

The Saving Wood

The wood by which Adam fell (Gn 3:12) is today the wood by which Adam is saved. The wood by which Noah, "his sons, his wife, and his son's wives" (Gn 6:14) were saved from the flood is today the wood by which joy has flooded the world. The wood by which Moses sweetened the bitter waters of Marah (Ex 15:25) is today the wood by which all the world's bitterness is made sweet.

Of Lepers and Monks

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Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
11 September 2011
Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle
Tulsa, Oklahoma

When Things are Not as They Seem

In the light of the Kingdom, things are rarely, if ever, what they seem to be. Outsiders on the inside; insiders on the outside. Failure, a triumph; and triumph, a failure. The wisdom of folly; and the folly of wisdom. The knowledge of the ignorant; and the ignorance of those who know.

Liturgy and Conversion

The light of the Kingdom shines where the Gospel is announced, and where the Cross is lifted up. What is the Sacred Liturgy, if not proclamation of the Gospel and exaltation of the mystery of the Cross? In the liturgy, the light of the Kingdom, the light refracted by the Beatitudes, reaches a density--an intensity--found nowhere else, at least, not on this side of the face-to-face in glory. The liturgy, for this reason, is always an experience of conversion.

Doing It Over Again

If we go into the liturgy with our customary and comfortable ways of seeing, doing, being, measuring, judging, and relating, and come out of the liturgy with the same set of securities unquestioned and intact, the liturgy profits us little. Why do we repeat the liturgy? Why do we need always to do it again? We do the liturgy over and over again so that our eyes--the eyes of spiritual insight--may, over time, adjust to the light of the Kingdom.

With Eyes Enlightened

Saint Paul alludes to this in his prayer for the Ephesians. "Having the eyes of your hearts enlightened . . . may you know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe" (Eph 1:18-19). The saints are those who, over time, come to live, and to see all things, habitually, in the light of the Kingdom.

The Ten Lepers

Nine of the lepers in today's Gospel are Jews--men of a respectable and conventional piety. They are not ignorant of the prescriptions of Leviticus 13. "When a man is afflicted with leprosy, he shall be brought to the priest; and the priest shall make an examination . . . . When raw flesh appears on him, he shall be unclean. . . . . But if the raw flesh turns again and is changed to white, then he shall come to the priest, and the priest shall examine him, and if the disease has turned white, then the priest shall pronounce the diseased person clean; he is clean" (Lev 13:10-17).

The Samaritan

One of the ten is a Samaritan. Even within the community of outcasts constituted by the ten lepers, the Samaritan is an outsider. "For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans" (Jn 4:9). As a Samaritan, his doctrine and piety are suspect to the nine others. Nevertheless, the bond forged by a suffering shared by all seems to have pre-empted the dictates of religious discrimination.

Crying Out to Jesus

Encountering Jesus, the ten lepers stand at a distance and, lifting up their voices, cry out, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us" (Lk 1713). Saint Luke makes it clear that the healing sought by the ten is worked by none other than Jesus. He sends them to the priests and, while on the way, they are made clean.

The Kingdom Revealed

Of the ten, only the Samaritan is sufficiently free within to step outside the ritual prescriptions of the Law. What has happened to him opens his eyes to the light of the Kingdom. In that light, it is impossible to go on with business as usual. The revelation of the Kingdom makes all else irrelevant. It is the treasure hidden in the field; it is the pearl of great price. It is that for which one is ready to risk all else.

Conversion

The inbreaking of the unexpected suspends all truck with routine. The encounter with Jesus has effected a shift in values. It imposes a conversatio morum, something that, for us Benedictines, is the object of a vow. Saint Luke tells us that the Samaritan, "when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice" (Lk 17:15). He "turned back" (Lk: 17:15). In this, we see the essence of conversion of life. The Samaritan breaks free of his old community, and looks toward the community of those who live in the light of the Kingdom, "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Christ" (2 Cor 4:6). Already, in turning back, "praising God with a loud voice" (Lk 17:15) he learns the language of the Kingdom, the native dialect of the Eucharist, that is, praise.

Naaman

You are familiar, I am sure, with the story of Naaman in the Second Book of Kings. Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, is another outsider who, in the end, gets it right. The key figures in the story of Naaman are not, I would suggest, Naaman and the prophet Elisha but, rather, the little people: "the little maid from the land of Israel" (2 K 5:2) who waited on Naaman's wife and, later in the story, "his servants" (2 K 5:13), more clearsighted than he. The little serving girl sees possibilities that Naaman, "a mighty man of valor" (2 K 5:1) does not see. Going to her mistress, she says, "Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy" (2 K 5:3). So too, do the servants see possibilities that Naaman does not. They come near and say, "My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much rather, then, when he says to you, 'Wash, and be clean'" (1 K 5:13)?

And the Little People

In both instances, glimmers of the Kingdom are perceived, however faintly, by those outside the conventional configurations of power. It is, of course, all to Naaman's credit that he heeds both the little maid and his servants. "His flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean" (2 K 5:14).

Praise and Adoration

The image of flesh like that "of a little child" is profoundly telling. In the light of the Kingdom, its meaning is transparent. "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven" (Mt 18:2). Again, the operative verb is "to turn." The Samaritan, cleansed of his leprosy, "turned back, praising God with a loud voice" (Lk 17:15). Naaman too, turns back "to the man of God, he and all his company, and he came and stood before him," and declares to Elisha that, "henceforth your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the Lord" (2 K 5:15, 17). In both instances, "turning back" is linked to thanksgiving, to the offering of worship, to praise and adoration.

Monks As Outcasts

From the beginning, monks have elected to live outside the conventional configurations of power, both ecclesiastical and secular. The Church is essentially eschatological, a community of outsiders in the world. Within the community of outsiders that is the Church, the fathers and mothers of the desert constituted yet another community of outsiders. The monastic heart suffers a certain affinity with the outcast, with the person who lives on the edge, with those who question "the done thing," with those who risk intoning "a new song" (Ps 97:1). This is the price of life in the light of the Kingdom.

Seeing Things Rightly

Happily, when the heart becomes dimsighted, and the feet begin to ache for the beaten path of a worldly wisdom, we can return to the Sacred Liturgy. Only there do we see things rightly. Jolted back into the astonishing light of the Kingdom, we too "turn back, praising God with loud voice" (Lk 17:15).


About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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