Homily preached at the Solemn Profession of Br Placid Mavura’s Solemn Profession, Monastery of Christ the Word, Zimbabwe, 25 January 2014, by Abbot Cuthbert Madden.
Dear Brother Placid, Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We have just heard eighteen life changing words: “I ask for perseverance in God’s Service and in this monastic community all the days of my life.” All of the monks here have uttered these words – and each one of us continues to do his best to live in accordance with the vows we have taken. Today, dear brother, you too are committing yourself into the hands of God – and that is a courageous and very wonderful thing to do.
You are making your vows on the Feast of the Conversion of the Apostle Paul and so I want to reflect on what you are doing in the light of St Paul and his life.
In the first reading the evangelist Luke tells us of the early life of St Paul. He tried to live a good life as an observant Jew. He was so devoted to the Jewish way of life that he began to persecute Christians. He was deeply involved in the stoning of St Stephen. And then, quite suddenly, on the road to Damascus everything changed. Paul encountered Christ, the living, risen Christ, and he was changed for ever. “Conversion means a willingness to see the truth of things and conform one’s conduct to it” (A Sertillanges). Paul encountered the truth in Christ and having encountered Christ he modelled the remainder of his life according to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. In the course of your life dear Bother Placid you have come to the conclusion that what Jesus Christ loved and taught is true – and you have further come to the conclusion that you can model your life according to the Gospel in the monastic family at Christ the Word. In other words, you have experienced your moments of deep inner conversion. Not so dramatic as the conversion of St Paul perhaps but a conversion from one way of living and thinking to a different way of behaving all the same. You have seen the truth of things and now you are modelling your life according to that truth.
You have now lived among us for seven years: in the course of those years you have seen that monks are very human – with human strengths and human weaknesses. You have seen that the exterior life we live is not very exciting: a simple repetitive pattern of prayer and work. This is the monastic way of life as it has existed since the time of Anthony of Egypt in the late third and early fourth centuries. It is still the monastic way of life today. In the course of your years with us you have read not only the Gospel but also the letters of St Paul and I want to remind you of what St Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians.
He said that Christ sent him to preach the Good News and that at the heart of the Gospel there stood the Cross: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Here are we preaching a crucified Christ; to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called... a Christ who is the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor 1.23-24).
Christians over the centuries have tried to express these words in a way of life. This is what you will try to do when you take your monastic vows. You will commit yourself for the rest of your life to live in a way which will seem to be madness to very many who live around you.
St Benedict and his later followers, especially the Cistercian monk St Bernard, teach us that the message of the Cross is humility; the wisdom of God is Truth and the Power of God is life. Let me, for a few moments, explain what this means for us.
St Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians that Jesus Christ, the Second person of the Trinity, the Son of God “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil 2.6-8). We seek to imitate Jesus Christ. If we are to imitate Jesus we must become humble as Jesus is humble. Benedictine monks should not seek power, or influence, or wealth: we should seek to make Jesus visible to those around us. That means that we must learn to become humble – and a key way in which we become humble is in our obedience to the Gospel which is made flesh in our obedience to our Abbot and our brethren. Here in Christ the Word your obedience is made flesh in your obedience to your Prior and your brethren – and their obedience is made flesh in the same way.
The Wisdom of God is Truth. Discovering truth is not easy. In the first place we need to discover the truth about ourselves: we need to see the ways in which Jesus Christ acts within us and we need to see the ways in which we block the action of Christ in our life. All of us do both. This is especially the case when we are young and somewhat at the mercy of our enthusiasms and passions. We discover the truth about ourselves by holding up the Scriptures to act as a mirror in which we can see ourselves clearly.
This is why we monks place such a strong emphasis on the daily reading and praying of the sacred Scriptures, on lectio divina. If you want to know the truth, you must begin by discovering the truth about yourself and this you will do if you open your mind and heart to Christ as your see him and hear him in the Scriptures.
The Power of God is life. Every human being desires life – but equally we soon learn that we cannot control life. No matter how much power we might amass; no matter what wealth we might acquire – we human beings cannot control life. If we seek free an abundant life we must let go and find life in the service of the Gospel and of other people – then we find life.
Dear Brother Placid monasteries attract people seeking God. It is particularly in the service of hospitality and in the day to day service of the brethren that you will find life.
To summarise what I have been saying, dear Brother, it is in the imitation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ that you will learn humility that you will encounter Truth and you will discover abundant life, and blessed happiness.
In a few moment dear Brother Placid, we will return to the formal words of this liturgy of Solemn Profession. Before we do, however, I want to remind you of the content of the vows which you are going to take.
First of all I want to remind you that these vows are life long. You lived for four years in the monastery without taking vows, and then you have lived for a further three years as a vowed monk. With these vows today your commitments will become life long.
Secondly, I want to remind you that by taking the vow of stability you will be taking your leave of your family and your tribe to become a member of this monastic community. In this community we respect our families, and we respect the tribe – but family and tribe do not determine our future. You will remember that successive Popes, answering the pleas of the Bishops of Africa, have stated that one role of religious life here in Africa is to demonstrate to all men and women of good will that everyone, of whatever tribe or language or nation can live together in peace if only they love Christ above all else, and become like Him in word and deed.
Thirdly, I want to remind you that you are committing yourself to the monastic way of life: to a life of prayer, a life of frugality in which you will possess nothing of your own, a life of celibate chastity. All of these aspects of our life you are embracing in imitation of Christ because you seek God, God above all, God alone – for it is only God who can give us peace.
Lastly I remind you that in promising obedience you promise that you will obey me and my successors; and the superiors who I may, from time to time, appoint here in the monastery of Christ the Word. This obedience, willing given, as Christ obeyed his Father, will earn the same reward that the Father bestowed upon his Beloved Son.
Dear Brother Placid: I have said enough. I invite you now, if you are ready and willing to take your vows, to stand and come before me; so that I may receive your self-offering to God in the name of the Church.