Saint Agnes

Isaiah 8:23-9:3
Psalm 27:1-14
1 Corinthians 1:10-17
Matthew 4:12-23

The Call to Religious Life

Now when he heard that John had been arrested ... From that time Jesus
began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

This morning we read St. Matthew's account of the call of the Twelve, whom Jesus will later name Apostles. Immediately, details stand out. The first four — Andrew and Peter, John and James — are two pairs of brothers. Next, we see that they respond immediately, dropping everything, and follow him. Finally, we note a suggestion, which later proves to be true, that they are being called to leave the lives they knew in order to enter a whole new kind of world. There is no hint that John and James take an orderly leave of their father — that they might cry upon each other's shoulders, or make plans for their next meeting or send a message to their mother or wives. No, they simply walk away from their nets, failing to put put away even their tools. That is, they are not receiving a job offer but rather a vocation, a calling, a new life. As Elijah tells Elisha, who wants only to kiss his mother and father goodbye, "What! Have I offered you the mantle of a prophet and you turn away?! The one who sets his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of Heaven!" Yes, Jesus calls brothers to be His Disciples, but this is surely a new kind of brotherhood.

When I first began thinking about the Catholic priesthood as a sophomore in high school, as a possible future for myself, I discovered that there were two kinds of priests, regular clergy (priests who lived under a regulum, or rule) and secular clergy (priests working for a diocese). Do you note the contrasting verbs? Priests who lived under and priests who worked for. I learned that regular priests lived under vows of poverty; they could never own anything. And they lived under obedience; they were not really free agents. Others would make decisions for them.

Secular priests, by contrast, could accumulate wealth and buy things, and they were free to make their own decisions ... within reason as any professional must be ruled by the propriety of appearances. "Well, I thought to myself, maybe I'll just go half way." But as I grew older I realized that it is very hard to live in the world, breathe its worldly air, hear its worldly sentences, think its worldly thoughts, and live constantly amidst its worldly images. To live this worldly existence and to enter authentic spiritual life as a disciple of Jesus Christ? It would be easier to complete a serious spiritual retreat at Club Med. To the high school mind, this paradox was nearly invisible because a young man will ask, "What do I have to do?" But to the mature soul, the implications were obvious, and the question becomes, "What must I be?" Jesus does not invite his Disciples to become ministry workers, or to choose a new living. but rather a new life.

This past week, a sister of our religious house, who has been living as a vowed religious for more than fifty years, told me that she must be constantly vigilant concerning the images, thoughts, or even words she permits to enter her interior. This is not easy when you consider the subject matter and words that seem to come up in public conversation these days. As a chaplain, university professor, and parish priest, young people asked me what I had against R-rated movies. Or to put it in their language, "What's with that?!" The answer is simpler than the tangle of thoughts that posed the question: because once I etch my soul with a single violent or pornographic image, my memory will never be able to erase it. No matter what I do, it is in there now, and I will never be able to get it out. And now I have given the Evil One another advantage over me, for this little movie could "replay" when I least want it to. Here at the Hermitage we have no television, no radio, no newspapers, for a religious house ought to breathe heavenly oxygen. So we practice the Franciscan spirituality of hard work, read edifying books, share our hopes and prayers, and found our lives before and upon the consecrated Altar that stands at the center of our house.

As we turn back to the Disciples we realize that the daily life Jesus prepared for them was what we would now call "religious formation." A sister of our house told me that her novitiate in the convent lasted three years, and so will the formation of the Disciples. They were to live into intentional poverty. They would practice a certain social distance, not waving or nodding in each new town they entered, but maintaining their personal sovereignty. They were to be careful concerning the company they kept. They were to seek the most virtuous home in any village in which to lodge, and if the blessing they offered that house were not returned, they must leave immediately shaking the dust of that place off of them. They were to be equally careful of the company they entertained in their thoughts. For even a wandering imagination can convict you of adultery. They were to be constantly vigilant of that last, great opponent, the ego, for only if one were truly last and least could he or she hope to become a citizen of Heaven. Finally, the Disciple should strive to shed his adult character, casting if off like a discolored snake skin, and reclaim the wonder and innocence of childhood. This was His charge to them. And it continues to be the charge placed before every novice religious sister or brother aspiring to religious life today.

When one seeks to attain excellence in athletics, typically a role model is chosen, often a hall-of-famer. When one seeks to be valorous in the context of military service, typically one selects a heroic figure to emulate. Who then are the champions a religious ought to emulate? They are the smallest and weakest and least influential among us. Consider St. Agnes, whose feast day we celebrated yesterday. She was a twelve-year-old who simply was faithful to her purity. (Her name means purity.) She did not achieve any great athletic feat; she was not awarded the Medal of Honor. She was simply pure and true. As St. Paul reminded us in the related lections, "But God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong." And we learn something more about the Sixth Beatitude: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."

I can hear my students ask, "But didn't Jesus hang with prostitutes and rebels?" Jesus was a minister whose compassion reached everyone. He wept over the very people who hated Him and who would betray Him. The point of His dining with tax collectors and prostitutes is that no one was beyond the embrace of His moral healing, not even the most despised among the social classes. But these were not the ones amongst whom He lived and prayed and slept. Certainly, if a penitent man or woman sought holiness, then, yes, they might join in day to day closeness with Him.

Let us step back a few paces and ask, But why does Jesus lead the Disciples into this particular formation? Why not prepare them for lives of service? In fact, my former department head, Prof. Daniel Sheridan, began each class he taught for thirty years by asking the students if they loved God. Invariably, they would answer by pointing to their acts of service. But service is not loving God. Jesus heals and comforts and even raises from the dead because these are the signs of the Kingdom of God drawing near. Near to God is wholeness. And His friends love each other as an outcome of their love for Him.

Jesus leads His Disciples into this particular formation because it leads to holiness, which is God's own character and life. Sometimes, I wonder if we really understand that most caricatured of all statements from the Bible: "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!" This sentence, appearing in so many cartoons and jokes (I wince to think of it), does not mean, "You better shape up because the big audit is coming!" Far from it. It means that a very great and rare event is about to take place. John the Baptist, the greatest of all prophets at his birth, has prepared the way. You are the generation who will live to see it. Soon God will be dwelling among His beloved people. He is the Holy One; to commune with Him, to have relationship with Him, you too must become holy. The English word repent attempts to translate the Greek word Μετανοετε, which means "make a U-turn." It is a divine command, and like all divine commands, there are no exceptions nor courts of appeal. But who does not want to make a U-turn when they are headed in the wrong direction?!

The command is not intended for His benefit. It is intended for ours. This U-turn will lead to complete and transcendent freedom — freed from competition with others, freed from desires that enslave the soul, freed from the anxieties associated with ego, freed from fears of illness or death, freed from concerns about popularity or approval or social status. Free at last! Most important, this command will lead to that highest beatitude, which is friendship with Him.

The Disciples' program of formation itself, though, is rigorous to be sure. And this helps us to understand the flinty character of Jesus Himself. He was a man of deep compassion, but He was also the sternest prophet we encounter in the Holy Bible. When sending His Apostles into the world, He tells them that wherever they are not welcomed, "It shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomor'rah than for that town." The whole town! We do not have time this morning to make a compendium of Jesus' flinty rebukes, but I assure you, it is a long one.

Yes, Jesus was clear-eyed and flinty, and we cannot doubt that He called Twelve men into a mission that would result in mortal persecution and death. Doesn't He challenge them to drink from the bitter cup of His passion and to be baptized into the bloody baptism of his crucifixion? He knew what would be ahead for these men whom He loved. Upon hearing this, a stranger to Christianity might instantly say, "What sort of monster is this Jesus?! To intentionally call married men away from their families & lives in order to face marytrdom?" But such a statement fails to see the world as it really is.

To many of us, our everyday lives are everything — our world, the fullness of our existence. Yet, our little circle of daily activity, all over the earth we might say, is a transitory illusion and a brief one at that. Even the things we think we know turn out to be uncertain. The reality is, we are surrounded by infinite and eternal Heaven, in and through and under and over everything we hear and see. From time to time people report of that greater life "breaking in" as they encounter a loved one who had died or perhaps an angel or even the Lord Jesus. Upwards of 100,000 people, including public officials, scientists, and atheists, attest to seeing His Mother in a sublime display of Heavenly splendor on October 13, 1917.

The Holy Ones and saints and all those in the greater life are able to see us. They are able to pray for us before the face of God. They see the broken, dusky, and violent place we call the world ... compared to the beauty and light of Heaven. And they know something that we tend to put out of our minds: all of us here in this world are headed for death, and there is no one who is not on this solemn train. We do not know which train stop will be ours. In 1995, when I received a terminal diagnosis, I realized that I was dying anyway. I was simply getting off at the next stop instead of further down the line. Does it really matter?

Jesus does not hand his Disciples a death sentence. They were already born with that. What He hands them is the most wonderful opportunity in the world, which is to be near to Him, Who is Paradise. And this is the simplest statement of religious life — to truly and constantly seek holiness and therefore to love holiness and, most of all, to love the Holy One.

I had the privilege of being present for the ordination of several men to the sacred priesthood, twenty or so years ago, where I witnessed something remarkable, which was to hear the mother of one of the ordinands speak. She shared a few heart-warming stories about her boy. She told us how proud she was that he had given his life to the priesthood. And, then, she pointed up to her left at the great Crossing Rood that hung in the Cathedral and said, "But what mother wants to see her son start down a road that ends there?!" In one burst of brilliant light, she had summed up the totality of life. For there is our Lord, hanging upon the Cross for us. Who will be with Him, and who will not? And I saw not one Cross, but three, on a hill far, far away. The whole world, who does not want Him, hung together on one cross, and the world that loves Him hung upon the other. The ones on the left do not want to die, .... but they must as we all must die. On his right are those who do not care .... about anything ... except to love Him. And to these He says, "Be not afraid, for I tell you this day you shall be with Me in Paradise."

In Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.