May 10, 2015 – 6th Sunday of Easter
I was 70 miles down the road in Indiana earlier this week at the St. Meinrad Archabbey—a community of Roman Catholic Benedictine monks. I was there with a group pastors and we were working on a 6-month stretch of sermon texts and preaching. The monastic community gathers five times a day to pray together. A number of us from our group walked over to the Archabbey church to pray with the brothers in the evening.
As I watched the brothers, some youngish, some quite old, file in and out of the sanctuary, I thought about the vow of stability they had each taken to remain in that place and with that community for the rest of their life. One of the promises that Benedictines make is a promise of stability: “to limit oneself voluntarily to one place with one group of people for the rest of one’s life.” Given all the ways that life and circumstances change, it seems like such a old fashioned—and perhaps near impossible—thing to do—to make such a vow.
After we’d been at St. Meinrad’s for a day and a half, a few of us went over to the community of Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand. There we met Sister Christine who gave us a tour of the community’s beautiful church. She said she had been part of the Sister’s of St. Benedict in Ferdinand for sixty years. She said this while we were looking out a window at the cemetery where the sisters are buried. The year she arrived in Ferdinand, the markers on the graves changed from iron crosses to granite block markers. She told us about that change and then said, “Every woman whose grave has a granite marker is someone I have known in this community.”
I thought about the vow of stability Sister Christine had made and all the changes she had seen, all the people she had seen come and go, in those sixty years.
Most of us are not going to stay in the same place for the rest of our lives. We leave one place to go to school. We leave another because of a relationship. We leave another because of work. We leave another because of boredom or adventure or disappointment or a search for something better.
Very few of us stay in one place. Even religious sisters and brothers don’t always stay in the same place. They may move to a different city where there is another community of their order. They may take an assignment to teach or heal or preach in another country. And certainly women and men leave monastic orders altogether.
Esther de Waal in her book Seeking God, writes about the Rule of St. Benedict for ordinary Christians. The Rule was written 1500 years ago by St. Benedict as he formed a monastic community in Italy. It has endured all these generations since as the way that Benedictine communities seek to live their lives together and their lives with God. So Esther de Waal looks at the Rule and wonders how it might be a guide for the spiritual life of those of us who seek to follow Christ but are not taking up orders in monastic communities.
In reflecting on the vow of stability, she acknowledges that staying in one geographic place will be mostly impossible but the vow of stability can be about a stability of internal space; a stability of the heart. She quotes Metropolitan Anthony Bloom who was a bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and a well-known writer on prayer and the Christian life. Bloom says this about stability: “You will find stability at the moment when you discover that God is everywhere, that you do not need to seek [God] elsewhere, that [God] is here…It is important to recognize that it is useless to seek God somewhere else…This is important because it is only at the moment that you recognize this that you can truly find the fullness of the Kingdom of God in all its richness within you; that God is present in every situation and every place.”
de Waal reminds us that this kind of stability, this kind of awareness, of God being present in every situation and in every place, is not easy and takes perseverance to develop. She acknowledges that Bloom was a monk and a bishop, with years of practicing this; “most of us are beginners,” she says. “Yet we can admit the principle that underlies his understanding of stability…He has found his centre [sic] of gravity”; he has found the place in which his life is rooted. Not a physical place but a spiritual space where God is found.
I’m thinking about all this as we hear Jesus say, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” That word “abide” also carries the meaning of staying in place, enduring, holding out. “Abide” gets translated as “remain” (Common English Bible) or “stay joined” (Contemporary English Version) and in The Message “live in me” and “make your home in me.” I like that one particularly: Make your home…in Jesus, the incarnate God, the Word made flesh.
We hear a similar thing in 1 John: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (4.16b)
Abide, remain, stay joined, live in, make your home in love. Which is making a home in God, who is love.
How do we make a home in God? How do we abide in Christ? How do we cultivate a life that is rooted in God who is present in every situation and in every place?
The first thing is to desire such a life. Or to desire to desire it. And then there are practices, disciples, that people who have longed to know God’s presence have engaged for generations: prayer—the kind that talks to God and the kind that listens; reading scripture—both for learning about God and for being formed by God; participation in the sacraments that awaken us to God’s grace; being part of a community of others who long to know God’s presence so that we can be encouraged and challenged—and where we can support others and be supported ourselves.
Now we liberal protestants sometimes get a little nervous when people start talking about making a home in God, dwelling in Christ, living a life of prayer and contemplation. “When are we going to get to the action?” we say. “Shouldn’t we be doing something to demonstrate, to live-out, to embody the love of God in the world?” Yes, of course. And that’s what Jesus says: “Those who abide in me and I in them will bear fruit…I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” And the writer of 1 John says, “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
Love, in the bible, is not a feeling or a concept. Love is an action. “To know the God of love is to live the love of God. If our lives do not reflect the love of God, then truly, we do not know the love of God, we are not abiding, we are not making a home in God. One writer says it this way, “There is no love of God if there is not love of neighbor.” You can’t separate a life of devotion to God from a life of service to others. Love is a virtue, a “disciplined habit…that, like all the virtues, can be perfected only over a lifetime” says another writer.
Gail O’Day, who writes on the gospel of John says the language of “bearing fruit” that Jesus uses is a “way to speak about the works of love that are required of Jesus’ followers…To bear fruit—that is, do works of love—is the tangible sign of discipleship.” The works of love are not required in the way of we have to do them in order to be loved and accepted by God. The works of love, bearing fruit, is what follows—it is the outcome—of making a home in God, of abiding in Jesus. It is what happens when we are remaining connected to the vine that is Christ.
The Benedictine motto is (in Latin) “Ora et labora”; “prayer and labor” or “prayer and work.” The two are linked and the “ora” (prayer) is always first in the phrase. Benedict envisioned a balanced life of prayer and work with each nourishing the other.
Esther de Waal writes, “If prayer and love mean anything at all they mean entering into a dialogue with God. The essential starting point for this must be that we on our part are ready to listen, open and attentive to the [Living] Word” of God who is Christ. In this listening, openness and attentiveness we learn to abide, to remain, to make a home in Christ and we begin to discover God’s presence in every situation and every place. And it is out of this abiding, this intimate knowing and being known by God that we love our sisters and brothers. “And in this way our whole life will become prayer in action.” Making a home in Love, we love others.
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1. http://www.thedome.org/about/rule-of-st-benedict/the-importance-of-community-life/, accessed 9 May 2015.
2. quoted in Esther de Waal, Seeking God – The Way of St. Benedict, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001), 65.
3. de Waal, 63.
4. “John 15.1-8 – Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 473.
5. Feasting 1 John 4.7-21 theological perspective, 468.6. Claudia Highbaugh, “1 John 4.7-21 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 470.
7. David C. Cunningham, “John 15.9-17 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 500.
8. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 757-758.
9. de Waal, 146.
10. Ibid., 153.