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Homily at Mass
End of Oblate Weekend
Monday, July 31st 2012
Dear Sisters and Brothers how great is our enthusiasm when we first set out upon some good path by the grace of God. So it is with the Christian life; so it is with monastic life; so it is with oblation.
The story is told by the Desert Fathers of the monk who was a hard worker who appeared to his spiritual Father to be becoming crushed by his work – so he observed him closely to see what was happening and how this was coming about. He also prayed that he might be enlightened spiritually as to what was going on.
Very soon as he observed him he saw that all the time a dark little demon was at his side as he worked, urging him on. Whenever he rested or slowed in pace the little demon would frenetically goad him into excessive work and action and so it was by day and by night so that he was unable to pray or do anything useful and would indeed soon fall ill.
The spiritual Father prayed more and then approached the monk and the monk who up until then whose eyes had been unable to see the little demon – his eyes were opened and he saw the trap into which he had fallen and by God’s grace was restored to health.
So it is with zealous Christians and monks and Oblates too – especially the zealous aspirant. The devil seeing that he cannot attack that zeal goads it to an inhuman excess to break the will and spirit. Prayer going out the window the trap is closed and to quote the first reading – like the loincloth we become ‘good for nothing’.
Recently I’ve had aspirant Oblates devouring spiritual books, men and women full of zeal, voracious for prayer, for the Divine Office, usually the whole office and perhaps the monastic office, spending long periods in lectio and every other practice and devotion they come across. Being in the middle of their lives they often have children and sometimes dependent parents in old age, demanding work with unreasonable hours etc, etc. Finally I get a letter saying that Oblation is just too much. Their commitments and duties are just so great that they have no time left for Oblation.
I then think of the little demon and the misplaced zeal that drives to distraction and says Oblation is just ‘one more darn thing’ – the straw etc.
On the contrary our Oblate life is our whole life – not the holy bits. We cannot opt out of life – God’s gift.
Oblation is like the mustard seed or the leaven that grows and grows till the whole is transformed, but the mustard seed needs the rest of the world to grow in and the leaven, the yeast needs all that flour and dough.
Oblation, as also monastic life, as also Christian life, is the whole transformed reality, transformed world, transformed life. The essential ‘bit’, the mustard or the leaven, is worse than useless on its own. Oblate life is life with a capital L, Life transformed in Christ. If we’ve no time for this transformed life we have no time for Christ. Christ is the life of our souls as Blessed Columba Marmion said. Christ came with the leaven of the one thing necessary without which we do not grow; indeed without Christ we cannot rise. Let us not be afraid to expose the dough of our life to Christ’s leaven by our Oblation, our self-offering which we renew today.
OBLATE WEEKEND PLUSCARDEN ABBEY, 3OTH JULY -2ND AUGUST
This was a weekend that was mainly for Pluscarden Oblates. The aim was twofold: 1) for our oblates to renew their spiritual bond with the monastery and also with one another; 2) to receive some special input.
Communal meals in the marquee with grace before and after, and participation in the liturgy, were fundamental to this Oblate Synaxis.
By the opening Friday evening, over 50 Oblates had foregathered. First on the programme was a DVD, in which Fr Anselm Atkinson, Superior of St Mary's Monastery, Petersham, Massachussetts, USA, Monk of Pluscarden Abbey, and Visitor of the English Province of our Congregation, gave a talk specially made for the event. His measured pace, calm assurance and thoroughness made it a monastic "conference" par excellence. Concentrating on our areas of greatest ignorance, e.g. Central and North America, he acquainted us with our wider monastic family, ranging from monasteries in the heart of village life to monasteries in the desert or the city, from monasteries with ageing communities to those overflowing with youth and giving retreats for groups of thousands!
The following day, after Terce, Mass and coffee, Fr Abbot gave an opening Address in the marquee. He took us as Oblates on a pilgrimage to the wellsprings of our Christian, Catholic, Oblate life: namely, our sharing in the prophetic, priestly and kingly life of Christ. This is a gift conferred on us by the post-baptismal anointing, touched on in many texts of the Old and New Testaments and articulated repeatedly in the teaching of Vatican II, the Popes and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Once fully realised and personally appropriated, it can give a profound coherence, energy and richness to our Christian life as members of the Church After lively contributions from those attending, we prayed Sext with the monks and then lunched together as oblates.
After None came a talk from the Cellarer of our monastery, Br Michael, on monastic work. Salutary were his opening remarks reminding us that while most connect the life of a monk with the liturgy , prayer and sacred reading, the largest amount of time in the Rule is given over to work. So a consideration of it is primary to an understanding of monastic (and oblate) life. Referring to St Benedict's Rule Br Michael emphasised how moderate and wise it is, making sensible allowances for differences of aptitude and temperament. The kinds of work undertaken at Pluscarden, its changing patterns, and its relationship with the rest of our life were all touched upon. This topic of work led on to another lively discussion.
After Compline, there was a return to the screen -to watch recordings of the Solemn opening Mass at Pluscarden in 1948 and another programme, of Swedish production, of a not much later vintage. For me the key moments of this were of the late Br. Andrew being interviewed beside a pile of rubble which was to be rebuilt into enclosure wall and the interviewer heavy with gloom saying it would take ages, and Br Andrew replying nonchalantly, leaning on his spade, "a few months". Then again the gloomy interviewer stressing the solemnity and slog of monastic life, and Br Andrew with his rich burr saying emphatically and glowingly, "It's all joy".
On Sunday, 1 st August, two of our postulant oblates became novices while everyone else prepared for Mass. Fr Abbot presided at the Conventual Mass. The Gospel was of the rich fool with his bigger and better barns, suddenly called to judgment. The homily ended referring to the memorable words of St. Basil: "The poor rich fool! God was so good to him. His harvests, his wealth - it was all a gift of God. He didn't see that. If only, instead of hugging it all to himself, he had passed the gift on. God was loving him so that he would love others. ' Are you short of barns?' asks St. Basil. ' You will find them in the empty stomachs of the poor. , Every gift we have, material or otherwise, every gift is for giving on. And then it won't be 'vanity of vanities' .And the breath of eternal life will be in us."
There followed an enlightening and enthusiastic talk on the Liturgy of the Day from Fr Benedict, ending with a moving testimony to the all-sufficiency of Christ, present for us in the Eucharist.
In the afternoon, Fr Stuart Chalmers, parish priest of St. Ninian' s, Inverness, and oblate of Pluscarden, spoke memorably on the key theme of conscience. He ended thus: "This paper has attempted to present a moral theory of conscience which sees virtue and grace in the context of a life of holiness as both a remedy for fragmentation in moral theory and an environment in which the Christian conscience can flourish. However, such flourishing does not preclude all error. We will never reach perfection in this life, and so our moral judgements will still be subject to some extent to the drama of temptation and human frailty. Nonetheless, this does not diminish the honesty of our desire to live holy lives. In answering the call to holiness every day we are expressing our desire to follow the Lord, and to allow him to mould us, so that we may truly live in love, a 'love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith , (I TimI:5)."
After tea, there was an opportunity for Confession, followed by Vespers, Benediction, and later Supper and Compline. Then we were gripped for an hour and ten minutes by a DVD, prepared specially for us over months of effort by Dr. Gabriele Heitfeld-Panther, Cistercian Oblate and long-time friend of Pluscarden. To quote the sleeve, "My film takes the viewer on an interesting trip showing various ways of monastic life. It gives an insight into monastic life above all from this side of the monastery walls; the latter point will be surprising for many people. The focus is on how Oblates and lay Cistercians live (with parallels for us); these are people who live in the spirit of Saint Benedict in their normal everyday surroundings. They speak and give us an insight into their everyday life. ..In particular the film is centred on the personal witness of a Cistercian Secular Oblate of the Cistercian Monastery of Langwaden." This is a very prayerful creation, much recommended.
On the final Monday morning, the closing Mass of the Oblate Weekend was celebrated by Fr Martin. All the oblates present renewed their oblations. Fr Martin and Br Michael then dep~rted immediately to a meeting at Kornelimunster Abbey in Germany, leaving Fr Abbot saying our farewells over a final cup of coffee together in the marquee.
This Oblate Weekend, a "Spiritual Retreat", "the Oblate Show" (as Fr. Anselm, our Visitor, called it), the "Oblate Jolly" (as an Oblate who wants to remain anonymous dubbed it), was deemed by all a joyful, uplifting and fraternal union together in the Lord. Thanks be to God