This is the text of the homily given by Abbot Mark Cooper, O.S.B. on the occasion of the Mass at which Bro. John Paul James, O.S.B. professed his solemn vows to the monastic community at Saint Anselm Abbey, on July 11, 2013, the Feast of Saint Benedict.
The Patriarch Abram had just defeated four enemy kings who had united against him. Though victorious, still he must have been concerned for the very survival of his clan in this new land. And just then the Lord came to Abram in a vision and foretold: “Fear not, Abram! I am your shield. I will make your reward very great.” But poor Abram had a very cramped vision of the possibilities before him. Thinking not of God’s power but only of his and his wife’s advanced age, he responded: “What good are your gifts if I am childless….one of my servants will be my heir.” [Genesis 15:3]
How often we dare to insult God’s promises by settling too cheaply for what we believe can or cannot be brought about in our lives. Abram could not even begin to dream that God wanted to solicit his “Yes” so as to bring about something that was infinitely larger than Abram, and ultimately even more grand than Abram’s vast future offspring.
For in contradiction to Abram, God conceived a plan, both wonderful, and magnificent in scope, a plan that would pull man back from the abyss that had become his abode. God desired to begin with Abram’s unconditional “Yes”.
God knew the heart of man, and he knew that only if man gave himself over to God’s care would he be able to find his way home. There was always only one possibility for man to be reconciled to a Father he had wronged. That was for man to deny his own will, and accept the will of the Creator.
Our gospel today, makes it clear that to say “Yes” to the will of the Creator, to God’s rule over us, means first of all that we not run after the things of the world, the things that end by consuming those whose faith is not strong. “Stop worrying over these things, Oh weak in faith. Your Father knows all that you need. Seek first his kingship over you, his way of holiness, and all these things will be given you besides.” [Matthew 6:33]
Isn’t this pronouncement of “Yes” to God’s rule, the step being taken today by Br. John Paul? A young man states through his vows to God that he desires, not his own way, nor the ways of the world, but God’s way of holiness, God’s kingship over him.
John Paul, in all the days that lie ahead, always look to Mary, the mother of our Savior, the perfect example of responding “Yes” to God’s kingship. Her “Be it done to me according to your will” [Luke 1:38], was her vow that wherever it might lead, whatever it might cost, no matter how much it might seem out of alignment with man’s wisdom, she wanted only to be guided by God’s will. For it was at the Annunciation that Mary received her unique role in the Church. She accepted her personal vocation with total trust and obedience in spite of its apparent impossibility. Mary allowed God’s plan of salvation to take possession of her very being, and she “rejoiced” in this reality.
John Paul, understand in your heart, and do not for a single day lose sight of the knowledge that when you vow your entire self to the Lord, He will see to it that your rightful needs are provided. That is His promise, and he will never turn from it. The Lord will not be outdone in generosity.
If you are willing to follow the Lord He will bring you to the Father by the surest path. Your path, like that of Mary, will have its share of trials, trials allotted, or permitted, by the Lord Himself. But know that God does not, indeed cannot, lead anyone astray, for He is the way, the truth, and the life. Your entire task consists in following Him. And how are you to follow your Lord in this monastic life? It can only be accomplished one choice at a time, one day at a time, every day affirming again, that you desire God’s kingship over you, His will and not your own will.
John Paul, while you were beginning your retreat for this profession nearly a week ago we read at table in our monastic dining room a wonderful and stirring description of your patron, John Paul II and his first trip as Pope to his homeland in Poland in 1979. He addressed a million congregants in Warsaw’s Victory Square at his first open-air Mass, saying the following: “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe…It is impossible without Christ to understand this nation with its past so full of splendor and also of terrible difficulties….I cry”, said the Pope, “from the depths of this Millennium…(Lord) let your spirit descend and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land.” And from one million throats arose a roar of approval. John Paul II’s Mass had an astounding effect, it made a transformative, many would say world-changing, impression.
The communist theories regarding reality and the place of man in the world had been preached, and broadcast, and embedded in the education of nearly two generations of Polish youth. But the message of Christ, the message of life, the message of forgiveness, the message of resurrection and salvation, obliterated in an instant the socialist teaching of 40 years and spoke directly and intimately to the heart of an entire people.
Ours is not likely to be a life of such drama, but we must remember that every time we choose Christ over ourselves, we push back the darkness from our lives, the lives of our families, our communities, indeed all those with whom we come in contact. The monastic life, well lived, is a bright beacon guiding others to Christ. If it seems a humble work, know that God can make of it a profound work, far beyond our capabilities, far beyond our imagining. For the last 1500 years monasteries all over the world have been as those stars that God pointed out to Abram saying: “…count them if you can.”
John Paul, may God nurture and guide your offering of self, may he make your offering a blessing to our monastic community and to all who look to this monastery as a sign of Christ’s life among us.
To Mr. and Mrs. James our community owes a profound “Thank You.” It was you who carried your infant son to the baptismal font where his life was incorporated into the life of Christ. In the final blessing of the baptismal rite these words are read: “May God bless the mother of this child. May He bless the father of this child, for he and his wife will be the first teachers of their child in the ways of faith. May they be also the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what they say and do, in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
You have been the best of teachers for you now see your son ready on his own to profess his deep faith in the Lord, to whom you introduced him by your own words and example and goodness. May the Lord abundantly bless you both for the gift you have provided His Church.