Sermon preached at the Life Profession of Br. Dennis Gibbs, CDL, and Sr. Greta Ronningen, CDL Church of Our Saviour, San Gabriel, California November 1, 2014
I begin with a quote from Father Dan Ward, a Benedictine monk of St. John's Abbey, Collegeville:
“Monastic life is not a static life of perfection...but a journey of coming to recognize human weaknesses and then depending upon God's mercy and help to grow into a tender, understanding and gentle person. Thus, monastic commitment is not a commitment to be instantly perfect, but a commitment to seek God and grow into perfection. This is why a monastic makes monastic profession rather than takes vows. Vows are a state of existence in which a person promises to live now: poverty, chastity, and obedience. If the person does not keep one of the vows, the person transgresses the vow and fails. But with monastic profession, a person promises to be on a constant journey of seeking God .... The journey is not complete on the day of profession, but on the day of death. A monastic fails in monastic life when the person stops seeking, when the person stops growing, when the person stops depending upon God for loving kindness and merciful forgiveness.”
I believe that we can all identify with this. Though he is talking about monastics, what Fr. Ward says is equally applicable to all Christians, indeed to all human beings. Life is, as we all know, a continuing journey, and the narrative is not complete until we die. And it is true that for monastics the journey differs somewhat from that of other people, perhaps a bit more focused, perhaps a bit more dramatic. But the goal or end or purpose is the same: to become, as Fr. Ward says, a tender, understanding and gentle person, able to recognize at once our own human weaknesses and our total dependence on God's mercy.
The distinction that Fr. Ward makes—that between taking vows and making profession —may be a bit technical, but it is worth considering. Vows are all or nothing, at least as commonly understood. You either fulfill them or not, you either observe them or not. But the monastic tradition speaks of making profession, of standing for something, of committing oneself to a process, the end or outcome of which we cannot clearly see. Perhaps that is why the Church now speaks more readily of a baptismal covenant rather than baptismal vows. The word “covenant”—like the word “profession”—carries with it the expectation that we are bound together in and through relationships, relationships that will change us, transform us, and take us to places and into situations that we could not for the world have imagined.
Today's reading from the First Letter of John for this glorious feast of All Saints reminds us of this deep truth. First there is that primal relationship which expresses perhaps the deepest truth about any of us: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” But then the author goes on to say: “Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” Which is to say, our future is open, and by embracing this reality, we too are open to we know not what. The future is all in God's hands, and so are we. But the author also adds: “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” All that we know is that we will be or become like God, and that is knowledge enough.
So it is with you, Br. Dennis. And so it is with you, Sr. Greta. The road you profess to follow today until the end of your lives is a road that will lead you to you know not where. But what we do know and what you profess today is that you will become like God. And as Christians we can say more: you will become like God as seen and met in Jesus Christ. And if you abandon yourself to this quest, you will become like Jesus and like those whom Jesus describes in those new commandments that we call the Beatitudes. You will be blessed, you will be happy, even as you become poor in spirit, meek, compassionate, hungry and thirsty for justice and righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, perhaps even persecuted or reviled for the sake of truth, for the sake of love.
As Christians we may also confidently say: you will fail, you will fall short. You will find that your best efforts are not quite good enough. You will find that there is still something of the unredeemed in you, that your love can grow cold, you patience can wear thin, your vision can become clouded. And you will be disappointed by your community and by your Church and by the society in which you live and labor. And your recourse and your one refuge and hope will be the love and mercy of God and the holy gift we have from God to forgive ourselves and each other and to begin anew. Every day. Always.
So today you claim that incredible journey for yourselves. But you claim it not only for yourselves. You also claim it for the Church and for the world.
Some thirty plus years ago, the great scholar of religion Raimundo Panikkar who lived and taught in Southern California, wrote a book called Blessed Simplicity. The Monk as Universal Archetype. In it, he says:
“By monk, monachos, I understand that person who aspires to reach the ultimate goal in life with all of his being by renouncing all that is not necessary to it, i.e., by concentrating on this one single and unique goal.
And that goal is to attain interior simplicity of heart and mind, not primarily by renunciation, though that is the tool, but by integration, but becoming single-minded, single-hearted, possessed of a unified and unifying vision which can see the presence and power of God, of ultimate reality, in all things. You are, both of you, possessed by that desire, else you would not be here today. And so it is for your own profoundly human and holy integration that you take this step, that your profess this covenant journey deeper and deeper into your life in Christ.
But you do it also for all of us here today...and in fact, for all the Church and for all humanity. For all people share, as it were, that same desire. We might say, as Panikkar does, that all people have within themselves an inner monk or nun, a deep-seated yearning for that blessed simplicity that brings you here today. They share in that longing for ultimate integration and singleness of heart and mind and soul which is our birthright and God's promise to all God's children.
In one sense, this is the archetype: a universally shared human desire and basic human structure. But in another sense, both of you are now archetypes, reminding each other and all of us of that inner God quest which, if we are honest, will not let us go, no matter how much we may sometimes wish it would. In your monastic profession, undertaken for your own salvation, you become living reminders and tokens of the longing for God that burns in every human heart, a longing that will ultimately lead all to final integration.
Greta, Dennis...God has brought you to this day. And God will not disappoint you in your hope, though he may well take you along some very interesting pathways and to some apparent dead ends. But always remember: it is a journey, one which begins today and ends with death. And it is a journey to be made together...with your nascent Community of Divine Love, with your parish and diocese, with your colleagues and clients at work, with strangers and even, perhaps especially, with enemies.
In his Rule for monasteries, St. Benedict speaks of this journey. And though he sometimes refers to it as a race, towards the very end of his Rule he speaks of it more communally. He says, “Let us prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.” All together—that the key. It is now less a race and more a pilgrimage. And as we know from any real pilgrimage, the goal is not to get there first but to get there together. “Let us prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.” And so he will, he will. That's his promise. That's his desire. That's his hope...for you and me and all of us. What a journey.
So sister, brother: let us begin.
Bother Robert Sevensky, OHC