Today was a very happy day in the life of our monastery as our novice, Brother Stephen Brian Lawson, professed his simple vows after completing a year of novitiate. We had a beautiful ceremony, great food, and perfect weather.
Abbot Matthew gave the following homily at the Mass:
Gospel Reading: Matthew 11:28-30
When I asked Br. Stephen whether or not he had any preference for Scripture readings at the Mass, he said that he preferred me to choose them. Then, in his best political posture he added, “but don’t forget, Abbot Matthew that there will be guests from Holyoke and they like things short”; a fact I already knew from other confreres from the Holy City. I assured him not to worry because the Gospel was one of the shortest possible of the choices. Then came the real message. ”And don’t forget, Abbot Matthew, I will be kneeling all through the homily.” To which I responded. “Is there something wrong with your knees?”
This is a very brief Gospel reading, but filled with wisdom for all of us here who profess to be disciples of Jesus, with a particular application for Br. Stephen who today professes his vows as a monk. First, ourselves, then Stephen.
To each of us Jesus issues three invitations. The first is simply “Come to me”. We know well from our personal experience that, in the words of a favorite monastic author, “coming to Jesus is the condition for finding relief. All we need to do is to choose to enter the sphere of his presence and the unnatural pressures borne down upon us by both the world and ourselves begin to dissipate. To the extent that we are far from Jesus, we are the source of our own greatest burdens.”(Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, p.714-5).
And while we believe this to be absolutely true, our typical response to this invitation of Jesus is that when we are really burdened we do come to him, but frequently only after having exhausted ourselves by beating our heads against the unyielding brick wall of reality. We are desperate and so we come. And, as Fr. Mark reminded us last Sunday, at times when we are not especially burdened, we “come and go” in our relationship with the Lord.
But, “Come to me” is only the first of three invitations offered by Jesus in this brief passage. The second is “Take my yoke upon you”
“In the same breath that the Lord invites us to come to him for refreshment and renewal, he makes us the gift of his yoke. He is telling us that, in some paradoxical manner, real rest and relief will come to us only if we accept this gift. Notice the necessity of freely embracing the gift. Jesus does not say that he will put his yoke upon us; rather he invites us to take his yoke upon ourselves.” (Merikakis, p. 718)
What is interesting about the word yoke, is that it presumes two. It is an instrument which connects or links together two oxen or mules, or in this case, two people, Christ and the disciple who freely chooses to place his neck into the other side of Christ’s yoke. While harnessed in this yoke together the two are side by side, moving in the same direction, sharing (not equally of course) the burden of pulling the plough of the Gospel behind them, “bearing together the burdens of others and so fulfilling the law of Christ”. Galatians 6:2
The difference between “coming” to Jesus and “taking on his yoke” is that by wearing that yoke with him, you cannot just come and go as you please. Sharing his yoke requires that you “stay with him”.
Then there is the third of the invitation, “Learn from me”.
Learning from him while yoked to him means that after a while we begin to anticipate the pattern of his ways. In the beginning, we may find ourselves chaffing under that yoke, our feet out of step with his stride, our eyes wandering from the vision before us, our energy and stamina no match for his, our minds questioning the decisions of him who is takes the lead in setting the direction and the pace. But by patience and humility, trust and fidelity we begin to “put on the mind of Christ” so that “in our minds we must be like Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5) and by our intimate closeness to him, we march in step to His rhythm and thus “grow to full maturity in him” Ephesians 4:13
Every Christian is challenged to accept Christ’s three invitations: to come to him, to stay with him and to learn from him; but each according to the gift of one’s own vocation.
Today, Br. Stephen, you are choosing to respond by embracing the monastic manner of life. It is interesting that in chapter 58, St. Benedict refers to the Rule as the “yoke” freely accepted. Speaking about a monk who is making his profession, he says, “From this day he is no longer free to shake from his neck the yoke of the Rule which, in the course of so prolonged a period of reflection, he was free either to reject or accept.” Rule of St. Benedict (RB) 58:15-16
The Rule may be the yoke, but the one to whom it yokes you is Christ, Christ, the ideal of the monk.
There is in our monastic tradition a threefold meaning to living under the yoke of the Rule, corresponding to the three invitations offered to us by the Lord in today’s Gospel: venite, tollite, discite, come, stay and learn.
The vow of obedience is our way of not only coming to Jesus, but coming to know the will of Jesus for our lives. For we believe that God reveals His will for us through the abbot and the Rule. This obedience is intimately connected with Christ as St. Benedict reminds us in more than one place in the Rule. It is for those “who hold nothing dearer than Christ” RB 5:2, and who desire to imitate the radical obedience of Christ to the Father’s will RB 7:31-32. Benedict summarizes its significance towards the end of the Rule by saying simply that –“it is by this way of obedience that we go to God.” RB 71:2.
Then there is the vow of stability which has to do with “staying”. Coming to the monastery may be a wonderful gesture of generosity to God, and an initially satisfying experience for one’s self. But staying there is another matter. The vow of stability yokes us to a particular place and collection of confreres and traditions in which we are challenged to seek and serve God, by bearing one another’s burdens along the way and allowing others to bear our own, all, of course with the help of Christ to whom and with whom we remain yoked. The staying refers not only to the geography of the monastery grounds, but to the inner geography of the heart, a centeredness, a mindfulness wherein we experience that “peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding”.Philippians 4:7 The staying also refers to stability in your commitment, that is, not to give in to the temptation to escape or resist when those “dura et aspera”, those hard and painful moments come. RB 58:8
The third of our vows is about learning. Conversatio Morum yokes us to that collection of traditions, customs and spiritual disciplines which little by little assist us in growing more comfortable with and more faithful to the Christ with whom we have yoked ourselves: prayer (public and personal), lectio divina, silence, work, fraternal charity, humility, patience, good zeal, fidelity to poverty and celibacy, unhesitating obedience and unfeigned love, in short, the whole of the Rule.
Br. Stephen, we are delighted that you have freely chosen to come, stay and learn in our community so that “the love of Christ may come before all else in your life.” RB 4:21 We pledge our support for you in the commitment you are making today and pray that all of us together may prefer nothing whatever to Christ so that he may lead us all together to life everlasting. RB 72: 11-12
To the parents of Br. Stephen, Susan and Frank Lawson, the band of brothers: Timmy, Daniel, Kevin, Kyle, Sam, Chad and Nathan; to Grandma Hines, the aunts and the relatives, it was in your family that Brian first learned about community, living together in peace. As I understand it, it was in part a matter of survival especially at mealtime, but also of learning sensitivity to the needs of others. It was you who generously fostered his growth as a person and as a Christian. We thank and congratulate you today. Be assured that his love for you will not be diminished by the vows he makes today but will be strengthened in gratitude and in depth. May the Lord bless you for your generosity. Amen.
Abbot Matthew Leavy, OSB