This morning, on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, Father Michael Joseph Houser was received as a novice of Silverstream Priory and clothed in the monastic habit. Father Houser’s monastic name is Br Hildebrand Maria; his new patron is Pope Saint Gregory VII (Hildebrand). Father Prior delivered the following sermon in Chapter:
My dear son, Father Michael, the liturgical providence of God rises for us each day even before the first glimmers of the sun on the eastern horizon. And so it was this morning. «Before you call upon Me», says the Word, «I will say unto you, Behold, I am here» (Prologue). In the stillness of this feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Word of God waited for you to bring to the Opus Dei your ear, and your heart, and your voice: «Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come: My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hollow places of the wall, shew me thy face, let thy voice sound in my ears» (Canticle 2:13–14). What are these words if not the very sentiments of the Heart of Jesus who, looking upon a certain rich young man, «loved him, and said to him: one thing is wanting unto thee: go, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.» (Mark 10:21)?
You are not the first rich young man — not even the first priest — upon whom Jesus has looked with a penetrating gaze, and loved. Monsignor Knox translates the passage this way: «Then Jesus fastened his eyes on him, and conceived a love for him» (Mark 10:21). I think of the young Dublin priest, Joseph Aloysius Marmion, whose memory His Eminence, Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke saw fit to honour in 2012 in the church of Sant’ Agata dei Goti, where the future Dom Columba Marmion was ordained a priest on June 16th, 1881. «Jesus fastened his eyes on him, and conceived a love for him». And so, Father Marmion left his priestly ministry in Dublin, his teaching at the Archdiocesan Seminary of Clonliffe, his preaching, and his care of souls, to seek in the cloister, under the Rule of Saint Benedict, the gaze that first sought him. Tibi dixit cor meum: Exquisivit te facies mea; faciem tuam, Domine, requiram. «My heart hath said to thee: My face hath sought thee: thy face, O Lord, will I still seek» (Psalm 26:8).
Even as a little boy, dear Father Michael, you sensed that Jesus had fastened his gaze upon you. You were magnetised by the Most Blessed Sacrament. Little Michael Joseph Houser was strangely and wonderfully aware of the eyes that were fastened upon him: the eyes of One concealed and yet revealed in the Sacred Host. «Then Jesus fastened his eyes on him, and conceived a love for him». The gaze of the Lamb has never left you, Father Michael, not even for a minute. And you, through the changes and challenges of your life in different circumstances and places — in Saint Louis, in Rome, and now here in County Meath — have always sought to meet the gaze of the Lamb.
You are well aware that when a priest comes to the monastery, he consents to the loss of many things, even of things excellent and cherished. «I count all things to be but loss for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but as dung, that I may gain Christ» (Philippians 3:8). Not only does the priest novice consent, as would any other novice, to the loss of freedom, of personal ownership, and of self–determination at many levels; the priest novice consents also to the loss of a certain standing in the hierarchical ranks. He becomes a little brother and takes his place as the last one of all in his new monastic family. Saint Benedict is explicit on this point:
If any one in priestly orders ask to be received into the Monastery, let not consent be too quickly granted him; but if he persist in his request, let him know that he will have to observe all the discipline of the Rule, and that nothing will be relaxed in his favour, according as it is written “Friend, wherefore art thou come?” Let him, nevertheless, be allowed to stand next the Abbot, to give the blessing, and to say Mass, if the Abbot bid him do so. Otherwise, let him presume to do nothing, knowing that he is subject to the discipline of the Rule; but rather let him give an example of humility to all. And if there be a question of any appointment, or other business in the Monastery, let him expect the position due to him according to the time of his entrance, and not that which was yielded to him out of reverence for the priesthood. (Chapter LX)
You could, dear Father Michael, have entered a well–established abbey with lofty vaults and vast gleaming cloisters, there to enjoy the security of a well–ordered liturgical life, a polished choir, and a finely honed conventual discipline. But you have instead come here to Silverstream, to a lowly monastery–in–the–making, obviously poor in many ways and, yet, by God’s mercy, rich in charity, and utterly reliant upon the grace of Christ. «And of his fulness we all have received, and grace for grace» (John 1:16).
I have a peculiar theory about men and monasteries. I think that the Providence of God, ruling all things mightily and sweetly, goes so far as to bring a particular monastery into existence because there are men for whom the monastic life would be impossible anywhere else. At some level, when a man chooses a monastery or, rather, when God presents a monastery with a new brother, the new brother, and the abbot, and the community recognise this and consent to it. When a man asks to receive the holy habit in a particular monastery, he is making an immense act of faith in the Providence of God:
Thou hast brought me, O Jesus, to this place, to this abbot and to this community, at this point in time and not a day sooner, because Thou hast fastened Thy eyes upon me and loved me from my mother’s womb. I praise thee for my wondrous fashioning, for all the wonders of thy creation. Of my soul thou hast full knowledge, and this mortal frame had no mysteries for thee, who didst contrive it in secret, devise its pattern, there in the dark recesses of the earth. All my acts thy eyes have seen, all are set down already in thy record; my days were numbered before ever they came to be. (Psalm 138:14–16)
The changes taking place today — clothing in the holy habit and the conferral of a new name – are but the outward signs of your consent to something recognised «through a glass in a dark manner» (1 Corinthians 13:12), and already desired: «things no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart conceived, the welcome God has prepared for those who love him. « (1 Corinthians 2:9). If, at any time, you should falter or grow faint in «the hard and rugged paths by which we walk towards God « (Chapter 58), despair not of the mercy of God; «it is new every morning» (Lamentations 3:23).
One last thing: when Bernadette was interrogated about seeing the Immaculate Mother of God, she answered with the most disarming simplicity, Je regardais tant que je pouvais, which I should like to translate, «I looked and looked as much as I could». You too, dear son, look and look at Mary as much as you can. Every time you look at Mary, you will discover, perhaps to your surprise, that Mary has been looking at you with an indescribable purity and tenderness. Ecce tu pulchra es, amica mea! ecce tu pulchra es! Oculi tui columbarum; «Behold thou art fair, O my love, behold thou art fair, thy eyes are as those of doves» (Canticle 1:14). Never does the Immaculate Mother of God look upon a monk without, at the same time, communicating to his soul, almost imperceptibly, a fresh infusion of sweetness and of hope. This intimate exchange with Mary is one of the secrets of the purest monastic joy, «and this joy no man shall take from you» (John 16:22). «Forsake her not, and she shall keep thee: love her, and she shall preserve thee (Proverbs 4:6), together with our father Saint Benedict and with all the saints, «unto the day of Christ Jesus» (Philippians 1:6).