The following homily was preached on Sunday, March 6, 2016 (the fourth Sunday of Lent), at a service of Choral Evensong at the St. Louis Abbey, sung by the CSMSG choir as part of our continuing relationship with the monks of that Community. I officiated and preached, and we were all the grateful recipients of warm hospitality from the Abbot and brothers. “A good time was had by all!” I think this is one of the best things we do here at CSMSG, and I pray this relationship continues a long and happy one!
Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which giveth live to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
A friend of mine is a parish priest in Denver, Colorado. Just this weekend he returned from making a Lenten retreat at a nearby monastery. In the course of telling me how it went, he praised the quiet, the mountains, the hiking, the other guests; but most of all he appreciated the community and the life they led. He summed up his experience by saying, “I’m convinced it’s one of the most sacred and beautiful places on earth for me. Everything just feels right there.”
Everything just feels right there. His words resonate with me, and I suspect with a lot of people. There are places we go in life where everything just feels right. Monasteries seem especially able to communicate this. There is something fundamentally right about the work of God which is carried out here, something deeply beautiful about a community’s life ordered as a school of the Lord’s service. They are places which are resonant with the Spirit calling as deep to deep, where “the final revealing of the sons of God” often seems to be at the very brink. The church, the grounds, and most of all the members of the community themselves, impress themselves on the visitor as icons of the way things ought to be. I always find it remarkable how quickly visitors start to feel at home in a monastery, even on their very first visit; and I have to think that a large part of that is a response to the feeling that here, things are as they ought to be.
Of course, this side of heaven, things are rarely as they ought to be, even in a monastery. And in fact, the more things appear to be just as they ought, the more vigilant we must be, not to let evil and vice creep in unnoticed. Parishes are the same way, and families; cities and states and nations too. It is often very easy for a generous visitor to see a new country as the portrait of its own ideals. But its citizens can always tell a different story.
Why is it that visitors see the good, while citizens see all the rest? Are they simply deluded? I don’t think so. I think rather that there is simply something about being a guest in a place, that clears the vision and allows the good to shine through. Likewise, there is something about being a citizen of a place that highlights its weaknesses, its challenges, and the work that still has to be done.
Which of these aspects is the more true? The grace witnessed and experienced by the guest, or the mundane, ordinary life of the citizen? Probably a little of both. The English spiritual author G.K. Chesterton once observed that our “spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like [our] physical sight: [we] see two different pictures at once, and yet see all the better for that.”
The world wants to see contradiction and hypocrisy in the Church because so far we do not yet exhibit the holiness and perfect unity in love which our Lord promised and for which he prayed the night before his death. Likewise we can be dissatisfied with our vocations, wherever they may plant us, because it is much easier to see grace at work abroad than in the complicated and confusing humdrum of our own lives. The place where everything is as it ought to be, where “everything just feels right,” is very frequently somewhere else, somewhere farther on ahead of us, which we may visit from time to time but cannot yet call our own.
What, then, are we to do? How do we answer the world? How do we resolve our own contradictions? Where can we go to be finally and forever at home? Our lessons tonight suggest that the best answer to these questions is to be always at prayer.
All may not be right with the world or with ourselves, but in prayer we are moved by the Spirit into the presence of our heavenly Father, who is our eternal home. In prayer the two contradictory visions of our spiritual sight overlap, and we see in three dimensions. Our sin: not just our fall from glory, but also the occasion of our redemption. Heaven: not just a promise for the end of time, but also our strength and nourishment even now as the Spirit moves within us. Though the world about us fall to pieces; though we ourselves be racked by temptation, disquiet, and uncertainty; in prayer we are joined to Our Lord’s own eternal offering of himself to his Father, even as we are also joined to the Father’s gift of his Son for us and for all creation.
In prayer, we are always at home — even if we be thousands of miles away, even if we be separated from our families or broken from their fellowship. In prayer, the groaning of whatever suffering we experience in this present life is joined to the agony of Our Lord and the birth pangs of the Spirit. In prayer we begin to be made new. All might not be right with this world, with ourselves, with whatever place it is we are. Yet in prayer, however agonizing it might be for us, in prayer we are at home: everything is as it ought to be, we are on the doorstep of heaven, and the One who dwells there recognizes us for his own.
As Lent draws on towards Holy Week and the Paschal Mystery, let us resolve to be people of prayer: which is to say, let us be guests of heaven. Let us throw ourselves on Heaven’s hospitality. And so heaven’s Host will wash our feet, bind our wounds by his own, give us his peace which passeth all understanding, and feed us with his own Body and Blood. So we shall be both guests and citizens at once, heirs of his eternal life.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.