Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Brother James Michael Dowd
First Profession of Peter James Rostron - Friday, July 18, 2014
Good Morning. It is nothing less than a great honor and a tot
al joy to be standing before you today having the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you on the occasion of the First Profession of the Monastic Vow by our brother, James Rostron. In a few minutes we will all witness the taking of this vow by James, who will become known as Peter – more on that a bit later – in a ritual that is both incredibly simple and wondrously mystical all at the same time.
Brother Robert James and I have had the great gift of sharing the shepherding of James through the postulancy and the novitiate, my having done it for James' first year and a half, and Rob having led James in this last year. I know that this is a special day for both of us – and for the entire community, for James' family and friends and for all of those gathered here today to pray with us and to celebrate this special day.
But, in fact, I believe this is a special day for the entire Church, both that aspect of the Church which continues to labor here on earth for the Reign of God, and the Church Triumphant in heaven. Indeed, if I may be so bold, I believe this is a day in which all of Creation sings out with joy at the profession of this brother of ours into a vowed monastic life.
Now I will admit that what I have just said is a bold statement, even a grandiose one, but I also believe it is true. And there it is, once again, the combination of a simple vow meant, at this time, for only a year, and the incredibly mystical re- framing of an entire life. A re-framing of a life, James' life, into a whole new way of approaching every minute of every day.
And that is one of the reasons I love the first reading that James chose for this morning's Eucharist. The passage we read from Proverbs opens with: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” Well, as a matter of fact, James did hear the call of Wisdom and her voice led him to our doorsteps and throughout these last two and a half years, James has gained in understanding as he deepened his commitment to the monastic way. Listening to the voice of Wisdom all about him – in the liturgy, in his personal prayer, in his classes, in his work, in the experience of community, James, has demonstrated that he is willing and able to live out the first aspect of our vowed life, that of obedience.
To know James is to know that perhaps his most profound experience of God is to be wandering about God's Creation – hiking on a trail, kayaking on the river, climbing a mountain, camping at the latest “perfect spot” that he has found somewhere here in this beautiful river valley or in the surrounding mountains we call home.
And he does this even right outside our back door as when I once witnessed James practically give his life to save a spider. You think I'm kidding. But one day, I stepped outside for a breath of fresh air and looked down our driveway where I saw James wildly waving down a delivery truck – no – not any ordinary truck, but rather an eighteen wheeler - and practically throwing himself in front of it. After all the commotion I inquired what he was doing and James told me that he was attempting to stop the truck from running over this “really beautiful spider”. I was, which I'm often not, speechless and I'm quite sure, I was staring rather incredulously at him, when he simply said: “it was beautiful, it was really beautiful.” I realized very early on that to separate James from Creation would be to separate him from God, which would be the last thing a Novice Master should do.
You see, within Christianity, the monastic tradition is equated with the wisdom tradition and for that, we have many tools to help us grow in that wisdom. These tools include the vows themselves, the Divine Office, the Eucharist, lectio divina, the community, learning from the people we serve. All of these tools are meant to help us grow in the Wisdom that leads us to living more fully into the monastic way of life. And James has thrown himself into listening with the ear of his heart, as St. Benedict would have it, with all of these tools. The English word obedience is taken from the Latin root which means “to listen”.
But for James, it seems to me, it is God's Creation that is at the center of this Wisdom journey that he traverses, and I pray that he will continue to listen ever more deeply to her call. James' experience of listening to God is what ultimately helps him to understand that a spider is in fact, beautiful, really beautiful. It helps him to understand that a being that is so often rejected or even killed by most of us because we think it is gross or icky or just plain scary is a beautiful creature of God. This experience of creation is, though delightful for James, the labor of searching for God. It is important to note here, that the laboring to know God is at the center of the monastic experience. To be a monk is to fully engage in the search for God in all beings. And this is as much a part of our tradition as searching for God in lectio or in the Office. For example, in a letter to Henry Murdock, one of the early Cistercian abbots, St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote: “Believe me who has experience, you will find more laboring amongst the woods than you ever will amongst books. Woods and stones will teach you what you can never hear from any master.”
So here we have the towering figure of Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most learned men of the High Middle Ages, recommending, even urging, an influential abbot to get out of the library and to get into nature. A little less than a thousand years before Bernard wrote that letter, the Desert Fathers used to teach a three-fold approach to growing in Wisdom in the search for God, which they simply put as “flee, be still, be quiet”. These first monastics were fleeing the noise and the pollution and the overpopulation, and the craziness of the city to allow themselves the opportunity to be still and be quiet. And in doing that, they would begin working on searching for God within themselves by first observing how God was present in the Creation all about them in the desert.
To be clear here, this fleeing was not an escape from the world, rather it was a way of embracing the world which, as the ancients knew, began with Creation. To experience yourself as a part of that Creation, to listen to your own breathing, to the birds, the crickets, the breeze, the rain, is to take the first step of that Wisdom journey that James has been traveling.
That journey for you, James, began long before you ever heard of Holy Cross Monastery or even thought about monasticism. But it did lead you to our door. And what has been so exciting is to watch you take the second and third steps and many steps beyond that in your growth in Wisdom.
That growth lead you to choose the name Peter as the name in which you will be called in your monastic life. Now in our Order, it is our tradition that a novice is allowed to choose a name at the point of First Profession, but may keep his own name – whichever he prefers. For James, he preferred to take a name and that name, Peter, is very telling, particularly in the light of the Gospel passage that we heard just a few minutes ago.
When I asked James why he had chosen Peter, he said, in his characteristically humble way, “St. Peter just seemed to bumble along into faith, and that seemed a fitting model for me.” And, it is certainly true that many people over the centuries have viewed St. Peter in this way.
But for me, St. Peter is so much more than that – as are you James - and it is this passage from John's Gospel that best demonstrates this for me. The meeting between the Apostles and Christ that John is describing takes place, of course, after the Resurrection. St. Peter, we know, had denied Christ three times the night before his crucifixion, and now Jesus, asking Peter three times whether he loves him is, for me, one of the most poignant passages in all of Scripture.
First of all, it speaks to me of Christ, even though raised from the dead, in the fullness of his humanity. Clearly, the relationship between Jesus and Peter was intense from the very beginning. And for that to have been denied, could cut deeper, I would think, than the nails of the cross. It was a deep friendship and one in which Jesus saw in Peter things that Peter could not see in himself.
So, on the one hand, this asking of “do you love me?” is one friend seeking reconciliation with another. But on a deeper level it is doing what Christ always does with each of us – which is to call us more fully into our own conversion – a deepening of the faith experience – of the wisdom experience – that is another aspect of our vow – conversion to the monastic way of life.
When Peter answers in the affirmative three times that he does, indeed, love Jesus, Christ invites him once again to “follow me.” But with that invitation comes the forewarning that St. Peter will be martyred. And while Christ does not offer the crown of martyrdom to all of us, a life vowed to conversion is a form of martyrdom. At the moment you take this vow, Peter, you will be committing yourself to dying to yourself, dying to your will, dying to your needs, and in its place, you will be dedicating your life to living into putting others first, living into the Wisdom Journey, living into the deepening of your love for Christ, just as St. Peter did. Your way of acting, as St. Benedict teaches us in the Rule, will be different from the world's way; the love of Christ will come before all else. You will not act in anger, you will not nurse a grudge. You will rid your heart of all deceit. You will never give a hollow greeting of peace and you will never turn away when someone needs your love. And when you fail in one or more of these areas, you will pick yourself up and try again. Now try doing all that for even one day and you'll get a taste of martyrdom!
All this obedience and all this conversion leads, I sometimes think, to the third aspect of our vow, stability. Now over the centuries, stability may be the aspect of the vow that has received the most debate. Did Benedict mean stability to one monastery, one Order, one way of life? In the end, that question remains open. But what I think we can be sure of is that all that obedience and all that conversion can lead us to the kind of stability that St. Paul was talking about in his letter to the Philippians, which we also read this morning. In it, Paul suffered for the sake of Jesus, the loss of all things, meaning that he died to self regarding the surety, his righteousness as to the Law so that he could be found in Christ, through faith in Christ. And it is that foundation of faith in Christ that is our stability.
Peter, any one of our brothers who have lived the vowed life can tell you that so much happens over the course of your vowed life, so many changes, so many unexpected joys and sufferings, that it would be impossible to predict today what even tomorrow will bring. But know that your stability in Christ, your willingness to allow the Father by his grace to convert you day after day, and your openness to the Holy Spirit to listen and listen, and then listen some more is exactly why all of Creation – the entire universe - is singing with joy this day. You see, all of God's Creation and especially this community, know that you, Peter, like the spider, are beautiful, you are really beautiful and the Wisdom Journey that you are on is beautiful, really beautiful. And so, I don't think it is too grandiose to say that all Creation is singing out with joy this day, because one of their own is further committing themselves to Christ. Thank you, Brother Peter, for walking this Wisdom Journey with us. May God continue to bless you on this road of Wisdom, this road of Creation. Amen.