This morning in the Chapter room of Silverstream Priory, Mr Joseph DeCant, a native of Toledo, Ohio, received the habit of Saint Benedict and officially began his monastic journey, receiving the name Brother John Baptist. The noviciate of Silverstream now numbers four men (see the photo above) representing Denmark, Australia, Missouri, and Ohio. Father Prior gave the following sermon:
My dear son, last evening at Vespers we sang the Magnificat Antiphon for the holy Apostles Philip and James: one of the loveliest and one of the most comforting of the whole year:
Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many mansions. Alleluia, alleluia.
I took this liturgical word as the message Our Lord would have me address to you today. In the course of our conversations, you shared with me that you have learned that whenever God speaks to a soul, it is to encourage that soul. Yes, it is true. Our Lord comforts the weak man and gives strength to the weary man. You have searched long, dear Joseph, and in many places, leaving many things behind for the sake of the One Thing Necessary. You have been relentless in your search and if, overtaken by weariness along the way, you had only to open the ear of your heart to the words of the prophet Isaias:
It is he that giveth strength to the weary, and increaseth force and might to them that are not. Youths shall faint, and labour, and young men shall fall by infirmity. But they that hope in the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall take wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaias 40: 29–31)
After the prophet, our Lord Jesus Himself, the Divine Comforter, speaks these words:
Come to me, all you that labor, and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is sweet and my burden light. (Matthew 11:28–30)
Our Benedictine tradition, in one of the great consecratory prayers of solemn profession, repeats this saying of Our Lord and proposes it to the new monk on what is, in effect, the first day of a new life, that he might take it to heart and taste its sweetness. This is not to say, however, that a novice, or even a monk, will never feel troubled in his soul, nor does it mean that the man who feels troubled in his soul is somehow outside the will of God for him. Our Lord Himself was mortally troubled in Gethsemani. Saint Mark recounts Our Lord’s very words:
My soul is sorrowful even unto death; stay you here, and watch. And when he was gone forward a little, he fell flat on the ground; and he prayed, that if it might be, the hour might pass from him. And he saith: Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee: remove this chalice from me; but not what I will, but what thou wilt. (Mark 14:34–36)
Gethsemani — the name, the place, and the mystery — has been a constant in your life for a long time. Your pilgrimage to the Holy Land sealed this constant for you in a particular way. A man enters the monastery as Jesus entered Gethsemani: to watch and to pray; to wrestle with the powers of darkness; to persevere in prayer and, at length, to know the passage of the comforting Angel and the taste of the chalice drunk to the last drop. A man enters the monastery because he has understood that there is but one thing that he must do in life and this one thing is to follow the Lamb. A man enters the monastery drawn on by the fragrance of love: «Draw me: we will run after thee to the odour of thy ointments» (Canticle 1:3). The man who enters the monastery has left the city behind; he has crossed the Kidron valley, and entered into the place of the oil press.
Nothing renders a soul pliable in the hands of God and utterly subject to His action as does the humble acceptance of suffering, disappointment, loss, infirmity, pain, loneliness, fear, and helplessness.
[Jesus], in the days of his flesh, with a strong cry and tears, offering up prayers and supplications to him that was able to save him from death, was heard for his reverence. And whereas indeed he was the Son of God, he learned obedience by the things which he suffered: And being consummated, he became, to all that obey him, the cause of eternal salvation. (Hebrews 5:7–9)
This is the mystery of Gethsemani: there the Son of God learned obedience, probed its cost, and drank its bitter cup. You have come to this monastery, Joseph, for no other reason: to learn obedience by the things which you will suffer. Is this not the very language of Saint Benedict in Chapter 58 of the Holy Rule?
Let a senior, one who is skilled in gaining souls, be appointed over him to watch the novice with the utmost care, and to see whether he is truly seeking God, and is fervent in the Work of God, in obedience and in humiliations. Let all the hard and rugged paths by which we walk towards God be set before him.
The Lamb goes before you, Joseph, in order to open before you the way to follow Him in His surrender to the action of the Father, which action — know this and believe it firmly — culminates in the glory of the Resurrection and Ascension. Gethsemani was the beginning of Our Lord’s glorification. It is the mystery by which souls are brought to a simple and trusting acceptance of the Father’s work in them. The evangelists says nothing of the Virgin Mother during her Son’s bloody agony in the garden, but it is permitted, I think, to believe that while He suffered there, she, in her hidden place, kept watch and prayed. The prayer of the Mother of God is perpetual. At no moment, not even in your most shameful humiliations and sin, will she be far from you.
Gethsemani was and remains even now as necessary for the configuration of souls to the Lamb as is the Cross. When a soul feels crushed, forsaken, and utterly drained of its own life and resources, Christ descends to that soul, like the comforting Angel sent to Him in His own agony. He opens that soul to a divine infusion of grace by which the soul rises and ascends with Him to the altar of the Cross. There upon the altar of the Cross, in ara crucis as we sing in the Vespers hymn of Paschaltide, the soul consummates its immolation in Christ, with Christ, and through Christ. This happens, not by a flight of the imagination, but by the flight of faith by which a soul goes out of herself like an arrow shot in the dark and plants herself in God.
The monk who feels crushed, forsaken, and drained of all his resources, must not despair. Rather, he must begin to hope with a supernatural and triumphant hope, for such annihilation is for him, as it was for the Lamb, the beginning of glory. Why do I speak of these things to you today, dear Joseph? It is because a Benedictine Monk of Perpetual Adoration cannot adore the Lamb, nor eat the Flesh of the Lamb without sharing in the annihilation of the Lamb and, so, in the glory of the Lamb. There is no other way for those whom Our Lord calls not servants but friends.
The holy habit that you will receive says only this to you and to those who will see you clothed in it: «For to me, to live is Christ: and to die is gain» (Philippians 1:21). The holy habit says, here is a man who holds nothing dearer than Christ; here is a man who prefers the love of Christ to all else; here is a man who has staked his life on the Lamb of God. At certain seasons of your monastic journey, your path, dear son, will be rough with jagged rocks and thorns. You will, at certain hours, feel a burning thirst under the midday scorching heat. You will, on certain nights know darkness and cold. In all of these things, stop and be still. Listen for the voice of the Lamb, unmistakable in its sweetness, asking, «Lovest thou me?» Answer Him, again and again, as did Peter on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias: «Lord, thou knowest all things: thou knowest that I love thee». Do this, dear son, and you will arrive, as our father Saint Benedict says, «under God’s protection, at the lofty summits of doctrine and virtue» set forth on every page of the Holy Rule.