Last week I gave a retreat to twenty Religious Missionaries of St. Dominic. They were founded by the Spanish Province of the Holy Rosary - a province dedicated to missionary work, especially in Asia. Nowadays, the vast majority of them are Filipinas - some 2,400 of them, at least! The twenty I met work in the diocese of Corpus Christi, TX, and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. I was honored to be invited to preach at the 50th anniversary of profession of two of the sisters, Sr. Maria Soledad and Sr. Helen. Both of them are close to 70, but you'd never know from their appearance, attitude or energy! It was a blessing to spend time with these dedicated missionaries.
Here's the homily:
Fifty years is a long time.
Just for perspective, when Sr. Helen and Sr. Soledad made their religious profession a few months apart, I was in diapers, I had no teeth, and my biggest accomplishment was drooling. It won’t be long before those characteristics describe me again. Sisters, what were you thinking fifty years ago when you professed vows of obedience and chastity and poverty?
I imagine over the last fifty years once in a while you might have asked yourself that very question! Throughout the history of the Dominican Order, there have been men and women who have joined over the objections of well-intentioned parents, siblings and friends. Sometimes entering religious life has seemed like the waste of a life, or the equivalent of running off and joining the circus – sought as an escape from the realities of life. Obedience could be thought of as an escape from personal responsibility and decision-making. Poverty – at least as it’s sometimes lived - could be a step up for someone from a poor family, and not having to worry about personal finances and healthcare isn’t a bad deal. And given that marriages are not always happy, and that children and spouse are a lot of work, celibate chastity could be an expression of selfishness. In a complex, chaotic world, the routines of religious life: prayer, work, study, and community could seem to offer a safe, simple, predictable life.
But Sr. Soledad and Sr. Helen, what were you seeking fifty years ago? And what have you found? I hope you entered the Religious Missionaries of St. Dominic seeking adventure. Perhaps you thought of going to China, or, later, to Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, or Korea. Or perhaps you dreamed of following in the footsteps of St. Dominic – not just on pilgrimage in Europe, but in the age-old, but ever-new mission of preaching the Good News of Jesus to those who would never imagine a God filled with such love for us. But, perhaps now, after fifty years, you understand that the greatest adventure of religious life is the adventure of every Christian life. It is the adventure of a pilgrimage of the soul – and this is the most difficult, exhausting, yet exhilarating adventure any of us can embark upon.
The vows you professed fifty years ago are meant to expand you, stretch you, like taffy is pulled again and again, and becomes easier to pull with each tug. And not only easier to pull, but thinner and thinner, until it seems as though there’s almost nothing left. Of course, the vows aren’t ends in themselves: to be poor for poverty’s sake makes as much sense as being chaste or obedient for the hell of it. Why then, did you make these vows, which seem so contrary to human happiness?
St. Paul’s life gives us a great explanation. While still a zealous Pharisee, he had a startling, unexpected encounter with the risen and ascended Jesus that threw his entire reality into a new perspective. He left everything he knew to pursue Jesus, and eventually grew so close to Him that he could exclaim, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me!” Here is the spiritual source of the vow of poverty – St. Paul’s claim, “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” It was because he knew Christ, that everything else became unnecessary. There was no great loss in giving up his trust in following the law, or the stability of a home, the love of a spouse, or even the high regard of other people. No, he says, “For Christ’s sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” Such is the nature of a soul being stretched, that has tasted something so good that what used to delight is seen as utterly unappetizing. So, too, we choose the vowed life in the first place because we’ve somehow glimpsed there’s something more to life. The vows direct us to Someone, and their keeping becomes easier the closer we are to Him. St. Paul lived a vow of poverty without the vow. He had no desire for possessions, because he experienced himself already as the possession of another.
And that is precisely what our vow of chastity is about. St. Paul in another place tells us that we “have been purchased, and at a price.” Sr. Helen and Sr. Soledad, your life as celibate women is utter foolishness to most of the world. Fifty years ago, how many young girls daydreamed about a lover who would give himself completely to them, who would want no one else but them? You discovered Him, in the crucified Christ, who suffered and died to redeem you; who, like a swashbuckling hero, freed you from slavery to sin and won you for himself. You can say to this lover, “set me like a seal on your heart,” for his love is sterner than death, who loved you to his death. Deep waters will not quench his love for you, and, in fact, the waters of your baptism sealed you in that love, and He gave you His Spirit to enkindle devotion for Him in your heart. Your chastity is foolishness – horrible suffering – if you have not been ravished by Love himself. And if you have experienced His love, then you will act all the more foolishly for his sake, and suffer until you are completely in his possession.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus assures all who are his disciples of his love. He asks us to “remain” in his love, just as he “remains” in His Father’s love. But this “remaining” can sound passive, like remaining in traffic on a clogged LA freeway. The Son “remains” in the Father’s love as he eternally returns to his Father all that he has received from him; nothing held back for himself, everything gratefully received is joyfully returned. That is why “remaining” in Jesus’ love is linked to obedience – and why your vow of obedience can be a powerful witness to the world. Everything you have and are, you have received from God through Christ. Therefore, remain in his love, as Jesus remains in his Father’s love, by giving yourself to him completely, gratefully; daring to hold nothing back - now, that’s an adventure!
Jesus calls us his friends, because he has told us and shown us with his life, all that we need to know about the Father. The Father forgives us, his prodigal children; heals us – even if 90% of the time we don’t offer him thanks; has counted every hair on our heads [which in my case isn’t terribly impressive]; exorcises are demons – and all of these are manifestations of his love. All of these are reasons for us to live in joy, no matter what our circumstances. Your vow of obedience simply makes explicit what every disciple is to live. Jesus asks each of us to remain in His love by giving ourselves over completely to him and making His will our own. You have become a sign of this abandonment of will through your vow of obedience to the Gospel and to your superiors for fifty years. It is seldom easy, but is another way in which we invite ourselves to be stretched, “thinned,” so that Jesus can be seen more clearly through our human flesh. And just as Jesus’ greatest act of love for His Father and us led to his deepest agony on the cross, so, too, your obedience, particularly when it was most painful, most meaningless, has been accepted by the Father as part of the world’s ongoing redemption.
The most grand accomplishments in human terms are seldom the most spiritually fruitful. The saints of the Church include folks who were essentially invisible during their lifetime. Who would’ve suspected anything great from young, tuberculine-filled nun from a Carmel in Lisieux, or a mixed-race barber named Martin de Porres? Perhaps, after fifty years in the Dominicans, there’s a temptation to look back, to ask, “what have I done? What have I accomplished?” But Jesus warns us against examining the furrow that we’ve plowed, precisely because we might mistakenly think the work is our own; that the fruit was produced by us.
So keep looking ahead – the adventure’s not over, by any means. You’re both in great health, thanks be to God, and there are great deeds yet to be done, if you ask the Father in Jesus’ name – i.e., if you rely completely on Jesus, and strive to make his will your own. What souls will benefit from your ministry; from the reparation you make through your prayer, through the slights you endure, the disappointments you calmly face? In the years ahead, as your bodies falter, and your minds gradually fail, whose hearts might be opened to grace through your acceptance of these indignities, when that is all that is left to you? Yes, there is undoubtedly more stretching ahead for each of you. But becoming thinner allows the light of Jesus to pass through so much more powerfully. So renew your vows again; promise obedience, poverty, chastity until you undertake the final adventure. Show us how to live; and teach us how to die to ourselves so Jesus’ joy can live in us, until death makes our joy complete.