Remarks on the Occasion of Profession of Monastic Vows
Romans 8: 18-27 Luke 11:9-13
The early twentieth century British writer W. Sommerset Maugham was a keen observer of human behavior. He was particularly astute concerning motivations of the mystical kind. “I have an idea,” he said, “ that some men are born out of their due place…they have always a nostalgia for a home they know not…this sense sends men far and wide in search of something permanent…sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs.” (1)
The great St. Paul and my friend seem to me to have had that nostalgia, that longing, for a place they knew not. Each began life with a sure desire for God. Each followed life’s circuitous and astonishing path – an exploration of longing and discovery – to an end surprising and yet familiar.
Paul did not know that his dual identity as an educated Greek-speaking Jew and citizen of Rome uniquely suited him to God’s purpose in the plan of salvation. Our friend did not know that the longing in his heart would best be satisfied not in the canyons of Wall Street but in the monastic cloister.
Our reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans spoke of “eager longing”, that desire of the heart to see the face of God. It is possible for the world to provide a trysting place for that desire. But the trick is to find the place, the best container for next stage of the journey to God; fertile ground for the process to which we are drawn, to find the home we long for but do not know.
To live out of that longing, to live out of the desire for God, demands the virtue of hope. All creation groans in its steadfast clinging to the hope of salvation in our brother, Jesus Christ.
In a few minutes, after the vows of stability, conversion to the ways of monastic life, and obedience to that life are made, we will hear an ancient and plaintive plea. It is a prayer rooted in Paul’s expression of longing and hope. “I have done what you asked, according to your promise, do not disappoint me in my hope.” How do we sustain such hope, hope in what cannot be seen?
Prayer sustains our hope. Paul sees it this way too but he knows his failures in courage and assumes that we will have ours. So he consoles himself and us. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
The vows we hear spoken today, the solemn promise to follow the monk’s path of interior silence and solitude lived in community; the promise to be available for conversion of heart and generosity in service; that promise is made public today. In its wisdom, the Church makes it public so that the promise is known to us. In this way his promise becomes a mirror for our promises, every promise represented here; fidelity in marriage and relationship, dedication to nurturing children, the promises of the sacrament of ordination, perseverance in religious vows, faithfulness in honoring the true self, the mundane obligations of earning a living, or the duties of citizenship and service.
Neither our friend’s pledge here at this altar nor the ones we have made are easy to keep. “But the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
And Jesus, our Savior, whose promise is the source of our hope today – our Jesus assures – “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Oh, blessed assurance.
And before all things, the monk is a person of prayer – a praying presence before the throne of God. One who, in the words of Thomas Merton, is “like the trees which exist silently in the dark and by their vital presence purify the air.” (2)
Many today question the need for any life long promises. They find the promise of religious vows particularly confounding. They do not appreciate the transformation and the joyful liberation made possible by the promise and its fulfillment. Such freedom is what St. Paul described as “the liberty of the children of God.”
In that spirit of freedom, grounded in the love of Jesus - grounded in the Paschal Mystery of his life, death and resurrection - in that freedom, our friend, our brother, makes his pledge today.
Inspired by that love and with confidence in God’s Word, let us revisit our own promises. Let us enter into our deepest longing. Let us recommit to the journey on our way to a home we have not seen, trusting that the Holy Spirit will be our guide.
Today we can pray with the poet T.S. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning; ……..
Quick now, here, now, always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire.
And fire and the rose are one. (3)
(1) W. Sommerset Maugham, The Moon and Six Pence
(2) Merton, Thomas, The Basics of Monastic Spirituality
(3) Eliot, T.S., “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets