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Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears.
As this is a special sort of homily, I thought I would try something different as a beginning but now I am having doubts.
Friends, is OK: I am sure we are all here because we are friends with Sister and therefore we are friends with one another.
But Romans – in an ecumenical gathering and with the unusual links between Communions in this place, Romans is a risky appellation to use.
And countrymen? Coming from someone who has abandoned the land of his birth and now cheers for the Welsh dragon rather than the English lion and thinks that no longer Latin but Welsh is the iaith y Nefoed, the language of heaven, that really is a bit much!
But, never mind, let’s go on and continue to quote, or rather misquote, the Bard.
I come to bury Angela, not to praise her.
When Sister asked me to preach on this wonderful anniversary she said I was one person she could think of that had known her throughout the long journey to today. And I feared that I should be expected to detail step by step all that has occurred in these 40 years and longer: from the moment I persuaded her to join the Anglican Society pilgrimage from Leeds to Walsingham and she experienced the fullness, though then strangeness, of the Catholic life. But I like to think that even then she began to experience what Fr Hoey called, ‘trembling on the edge of eternity’.
I was terrified at this prospect of being her chronicler. It reminded me of a eulogy given at a funeral of a member of Cor Meibion Abertawe by a relative. It went on for almost half an hour and when it was finished the chorister sitting next to me said, ‘The only thing she didn’t tell us was the colour of his pyjamas’. I needed a different approach. After all, I don’t even know if nuns wear pyjamas!
So rather than spend my time praising Sister Mary Angela I shall bury her, or rather go behind what she has done and what has been done by the Almighty in and through her and look at the heart of the religious life which these 40 years have been her dwelling place. And it is perhaps useful to note here that at her Profession retreat she had before her words from Dom Columba Marmion: "Each day I place myself on the Paten with the Host, to be taken up, blessed, broken and given to be eaten up by all with whom I come in contact” so perhaps we may say she has already assented to this burying of self in the Host on the Paten.
In a rather simplified view of history – and that’s the kind of view of history you get from someone who got a 2ii – the religious life came into being when the Church was in danger of settling into an easy existence; no longer a persecuted minority but the official religion of the empire. It was so easy to become nominal.
So, the red martyrdom of the age past was replaced or rather reinforced by the white martyrdom of the religious life. By the observance of the Evangelical Counsels men and women reminded their brothers and sisters in Christ of the real cost of discipleship.
Let us then look at these counsels by which Sister, like so many others, has lived and see their relevance for the religious life and indeed the whole Christian life today. Often, they are portrayed as being negative, giving things up, abandoning the norm. Fr Gilbert Shaw has a vision of the whole of creation swirling round in the wrong direction and the purpose of the Christian life and above all of the Religious Life is to get things moving in the proper, clockwise direction. So we need to see the Evangelical Counsels rather as embracing the true norm, prophetically calling the Church back to the true meaning of life.
So, poverty. Let’s be honest, many of the poor to be found in bundles of rags or cardboard shelters in our towns and cities would laugh at the idea that life in a convent or monastery is poverty. There is shelter, food, a place to sleep and warmth – though Sister Alma might not agree about the last!
But that just shows how we must look at the true nature of poverty, not negatively rejecting things and possessions but rather rejecting their insidious power over us. To live in this world, to minister in whatever way God calls us, we need to have possessions. We need shelter, food, warmth. But we must have possessions held in trust from God and not be ourselves possessed and held captive by those things.
The religious, and indeed the Christian, ‘should seek poverty of spirit, a humble mind, the mind of Christ, with complete trust in the heavenly Father’.
How good that our holy Mother the Church as we begin each Sunday asks us to recite:
Though He was in the form of God,
Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.
He emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant,
being born in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form,
He humbled himself and became obedient unto death,
even death on a Cross.
Therefore, God has highly exalted Him
and bestowed on Him the Name which is above every name,
That at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Thus, in our pursuit of poverty we are guided to the self-emptying of Christ. True poverty consists in that kenosis, self-emptying, learning to have much or little and whatever we have giving thanks to God through Jesus Christ.
Chastity is of all the counsels the one most likely to be seen in a negative light. How can it be right to ‘give up’ what everyone thinks of as their right, a loving relationship of two, the gift of children?
My guide to this precept comes from the Manual of the Associates of CSWG
‘The aim of chastity is so to re-direct and purify all the “energies of relationship” – the desires, feelings, emotions arising from the perceptions of the exterior senses, the memory, the imagination and the natural instincts and appetites – and submit their use to God that they be re-united with the divine energies of the Holy Spirt for His creative work.’
Clearly, those who are called to the religious life or any form of consecrated celibacy do this in a particular way. But equally clearly this redirection and purification is something in which all must participate.
The CSWG Rule says:
‘Chastity represents the way of affirmation in Christian life; the human creative energies can be brought into fruitful union with the energies of the Holy Spirit, where the will of man has become united with the will of God through prayer.’
As with poverty we need to see chastity as a sharing in the life of our Blessed Lord, entering into His eternal Charity, letting that Love flow from His Sacred Heart through our restored and purified hearts to the Church and the world, which so desperately need to find Love.
To quote St Columbanus from the 6/7th century:
"Beloved Saviour, show Yourself to us who beg a glimpse of You. Let us know You, let us love You, let us love only You, let us desire You alone, let us spend our days and nights meditating on You alone, let us always be thinking of You. … Let that love fill us and possess us, let it overwhelm our senses until we can love nothing but You, for you are eternal. Give us that love that all the waters of the sea, the earth, the sky cannot extinguish: as it is written, love that no flood can quench, no torrents drown"
And obedience. Again, it is a positive surrendering of the Will and every act of obedience is an expression of faith in the providence of God, who ‘in everything as we know, co-operates for good with those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.’ The whole of Christian life from start to finish must be directed by the obedience of faith, that His Kingdom come, His Will be done, on earth as in heaven.
Over the 40 years we are celebrating Sister Mary Angela has expressed her obedience to various superiors. But now, in a sort of parable of what must eventually happen to us all, she has no one to obey, no one to tell her what must be done, but all her obedience is focused on the true fount of authority, Jesus Christ.
And there we have it again: see how these Counsels with their various emphases in the end always turn into a total submission to, absorption by, Jesus Christ.
Earlier, I said that the religious life, lived so faithfully by Sister Mary Angela for 40 years, is prophetic. The Church cannot be true to itself without the Religious – not for what they do, their various charisms – but simply to call and remind us all of our true vocation.
It is not a higher or better calling any more than priesthood is higher or better. There can be no higher calling than that which we all share through our initiation in to the life of Christ, our baptism and our sharing in the Eucharist. But priests and laity need these beacons, these lighthouses, to shine out and proclaim the true nature of our calling.
At the beginning, we buried Angela; but here, as always at God’s altar, we are celebrating the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, so we cannot leave her in the tomb she must rise as her Lord is Risen. We need to celebrate that wonderful message of ‘Restored to Life’. And we need to give great thanks on this wonderful day.
But thanks for what? For her achievement?
Not really. I remember on significant anniversaries in my priestly life people saying things to me like, Well done. What an achievement. But it was not something I had done, or some success that I had created. It was more about what God had done in me and through me.
We are profoundly grateful, Sister, that through all these years you have remained faithful to those vows you made and allowed God to act through you to proclaim the reality of the Religious Life and indeed the Christian Life.
God is great. God is good, He uses the poor weak earthly material that we are to do great things.
And how fitting that this Eucharistic celebration, this great thanksgiving Mass should take place here at Mary’s Shrine, where in some way it could be said to have begun. And in Our Lady of Walsingham we find the perfect representation of that poverty, chastity and obedience for which we long.
And in the end, we need to remember it is not rules or counsels that are at the heart of what we are about, but a person, the one person who matters more than all: Mary’s blessed Son, Jesus Christ.
Sister will be familiar with the story of Fr Robert, founding Father of CSWG, who on his death bed called out ‘I shed it, I shed it, all that is not Jesus, I shed it.’
These forty years for which we do indeed give thanks have been your opportunity to live out, through the Evangelical Counsels, that shedding of all that is not Jesus.
No doubt for you, as for all of us, there is more to be done so we make his death bed cry our own cry while we live and say
All for Jesus, all for Jesus
This the Church’s song shall be,
Till at last the flock is gathered
One in Love and one in Thee.
All for Jesus! Amen!