Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Wesley Borden, OHC
Sermon preached at the Initial Profession of the Monastic Vow by
the Brother Bernard Jean Delcourt - Friday 03 November 2006
Not long ago I had the great privilege to be present in South Africa as a new building was dedicated at our monastery there. It was an occasion of great celebration and an expression of great optimism. It was a day in which God's love flowed over all who were there.
As great as that day was, in a deep sense it pales next to this day. Buildings are lovely... But people are more than lovely. People are Godly. The only point in a monastic building, however modest or magnificent, is that it a place where a community lives. Today is not about a place to live, it is about life itself.
Normally this is the time for reflection on how the scripture readings we heard help us encounter the good news of Jesus. But I want to reflect on the living word rather than the written word. How might we encounter the good news of Jesus through this profession?
In a few moments Bernard will sign his vow, a commitment for one year. That vow calls for stability, obedience, and conversion of his life to the monastic way of life. The vow is not about arriving in "monk-dom" - wherever that may be... Its about traveling. Bernard will be vowing to keep growing. At some future date, if and when Bernard takes the life vow, it will be just the same - a vow of conversion, a vow to keep growing, a vow never to arrive.
This creates a mixed message. Today is of great symbolic importance, but in a practical sense very little unusual happens today. It is a day when Bernard, and all of us, will take some steps forward (and perhaps some steps backward) in our conversion of life. Not just monastics, but all of us. It is a day, in other words, like any other.
For years now Bernard has been exploring a call to life in the Order of the Holy Cross. He has been coming to the realization that God calls forth from him gifts that mean this vow will give him life.
For Bernard there will be glorious days ahead... there will be painful days ahead... some boring days ahead... average days... The monastic life is not an insulated, sheltered, easy life. St Benedict uses the term "battle" to refer to this life. I don't find the term battle very helpful. Modern weaponry has turned the nature of battles into something far more horrible and perverse than Benedict could have imagined. There is truly nothing horrible about the monastic way of life. Though some days it can be a bit perverse...
But it is a struggle - a struggle that does not end. Jesus may describe that struggle best when he says "Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence." That's a big enough struggle... but there's more... "Love others as well as you love yourself." Obviously this is not a unique monastic struggle. Jesus addresses it to everyone. All faithful people struggle to answer this call. In slightly different terms we might describe it as the struggle to become whole - whole with God and whole with God's creation.
In the popular romantic imagination, monasticism is a path that involves giving up many things. It is a path of stony silence, hard beds, grim food, and general deprivation. But as is always the case, romantic notions and reality have little in common. As you look around Holy Cross Monastery, its hard to find too many signs of deprivation.
Monastic life is not about giving things up. Monastic life, believe it or not, is about falling in love - falling in love with God and falling in love with God's creation, especially God's children. In order to make space to do this we do give some things up. Falling in love always means some sacrifice, some giving up. When Bernard takes the vow he will be saying that yesterday he fell in love, today he is falling in love, and tomorrow, with God's help, he will fall in love even further. You see what a joyful vow this is.
There are two other key words in the vow: Stability and obedience. Without them the vow is empty.
Without stability love has no meaning. It is just a superficial and occasional illness from which you can easily recover (OK - sometimes the recovery is not so easy...). Unstable love is also known by names such as infatuation, obsession, romance, lust. It can be a great deal of fun, but it is shallow and cheap. It lasts while the weather is fine, but evaporates when the weather turns foul. Stability allows love to endure through sickness and health, through sorrow and joy, through good times and bad. Only with stability can love become whole. This is true for all of us.
Without obedience Bernard would not be here at all this day. God calls and Bernard is obedient in answering. Saint Irenaeus says "the glory of God is the human person fully alive." I think this is God's call to Bernard and to all of us: "find a way to become fully alive."
In faithful obedience Bernard is finding a way, a vowed way within a monastic community, to become fully alive. Its not the best way, or the most holy way, or the deepest way to wholeness. Its just the way some of us are called. The witness of the vow is to call all of us in the direction of God's boundless, gracious love.
With deepest gratitude we give humble thanks that we can be part of the way and share the struggle with Bernard. And we bless him on his journey.