Feast of the Visitation

Scripture Readings: Rom. 12:9-16; Luke 1:39-56.

It is a rare community that doesn’t have those who don’t conform to all its standards.  They are those who are not in step with the majority, those who have fallen through the cracks, and those who can’t fully participate in the central values of a group or society.  We call them “marginal.”  Our monastic communities used to be fertile ground for generating marginal characters, real giants of the idiosyncratic.  Who today can go shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Fr. Edmund Holmes who would shuffle off in his own direction and give guests personal readings from “Holmes’ Poems”?  Or with Br. Gerard who was resigned to the fact that a prophet is never recognized or accepted by his own family?

Society as a whole always seems to have its marginalized – the poor or those troubled by illness, those who cannot enjoy even modest social benefits.  Pope Francis constantly urges us to move out to the margins, to the peripheries, with human compassion and solidarity. 

Luke’s gospel is noted for its attention to the poor and marginalized.  He counterpoises the powers of the political and religious establishment with the preference of God for those without power: the poor, women, the disenfranchised, those unjustly treated.  It was to an unsavory bunch of shepherds that the angels announced the good news of joy and peace.  It is easy to forget that Elizabeth and Mary had both fallen into social disgrace.  Elizabeth, in a social spotlight as the wife of Zechariah, but plainly under a shadowy curse as barren into her old age.  Mary, pregnant out of wedlock and a candidate for divorce and ostracism.

There is something a little baffling to our ways of thinking in God’s choice to use the marginal as his instruments in working out His plan of salvation.  He uses the smallest and the weakest.  It can seem to be simply a show of power, to make sure we know that HE is the agent, that He is the BOSS.  Our role then is to slip into the shadows, to withdraw, not to get in the way, to unravel the baskets we had woven during the day, to passively wait for grace to take over.  This even seems to be the picture Benedict presents to us in his Rule. In the prologue he writes: These people fear the Lord and do not become elated over their good deeds; they judge it is the Lord’s power, not their own, that brings about the good in them.  They praise the Lord working in them and say with the Prophet: Not to us, Lord, not to us give the glory but to your name alone.  In just this way Paul the Apostle refused to take credit for the power of his preaching.  He declared, By God’s grace I am what I am.  And in case you weren’t paying attention, in the 42nd and 43rd instruments of good works, he says: If you notice something good in yourself, give credit to God, not to yourself, but be certain that the evil you commit is always your own and yours to acknowledge.  There seems to be a huge disconnect between what we do and what God is doing.  No wonder we see the “margins” as unfriendly to human worth and esteem.  A place for those who have failed to find any level of human achievement.

We tend to see the margins as the empty space between the text on a page and NOTHING.  The margin is a warning that real life is about to end.  But there is another way of looking at margins:  they are the space between two spheres of reality.  They are the most apt places for real exchange to occur.  The margins give space for something new to happen: margins of error and margins of grace.  There is the remarkable phrase of Elizabeth: how does it happen to me?  This parallels Mary’s statement: how can this be since I know not man? How does it happen as the realization of wonder at something awesome and divine occurring within the matrix of human reality and life?  The realization that the human has now been invested with the care and interest of God.  This goes entirely beyond all laws of congruence or compensation.  The human is now attuned to the movement of the Spirit of God and this raises it to a level that power and possession could never attain.  The margin is not a space to be avoided, but a space to step into.  It is a space where life is shared with God and where God shares his life with us.  The essence of joy is sharing life.  “Come, share my joy.”  The hungry are filled, the lowly are raised, and the weak are protected.  The marginal can know the joy of self-forgetfulness.  The ascesis of monastic life nudges us toward those margins and boundaries where we can let go of the status and possessions that thwart our capacity for sharing and joy and wonder:  how does it happen to me?  The ways of humility, obedience and dispossession cleanse us of that conceit of mind that can no longer wonder, but only calculate.  Like Mary, we set out in hope and joy to be surprised by what God is doing in our lives.


Feast of the Visitation

[Scripture Readings: Zeph 3:14-18a; Lk 1:39-56]

In an article published quite recently, in the Journal of Medical Ethics an Italian physician, Dr. Alberto Giubilini, invites us to consider the following scenario: You are a person, along with many other people today, who believe that abortion is justified in the case where an unborn child is found to have Down's Syndrome. You have just given birth to a baby, and discovered, your baby has Down's Syndrome. You had no idea she was afflicted by this disease, and only learned of it after the baby was delivered. Now, if you were to dispassionately and objectively assess the facts of this case, why would not the same arguments that justified killing the fetus in the womb not remain valid a few minutes later when the baby was outside the womb? Giubilini goes on to say, in his article, he will argue that when circumstances occur after the birth of a baby such that they would have justified abortion before the baby was delivered, killing the newborn, or what he calls: “after birth abortion” is morally justified and should be permissible in the view of medical ethics and civil law.

Dr. Guibilini's article, published in February, and posted on the Journal of Medical Ethics website, has, as you might expect, evoked vehement reactions. Comments to the article are posted beneath it and I didn't read one that was positive. The article may have been published for its shock value and will very likely be spurned by the medical profession or simply ignored. I would not have mentioned it except in relation to one of the comments posted by a visitor to the website, which I found astute and very encouraging and which I offer to help us celebrate another visit: the Visitation of Mary, to her cousin Elizabeth.

The person commenting on Guibilini's article acknowledges the logical consistency of his argument, but goes on to say: whenever a line of reasoning leads logically to a conclusion that is obviously morally abhorrent, you have a responsibility to question the premises on which that argument is based. In other words, concluding by a logical argument, that it is morally permissible to kill a new born child, an instinctive revulsion awakened by the conclusion requires that you go back and re-examine the premises upon which you are arguing. In the end, any ethical theory that leads to that grotesque conclusion must be called into question and ultimately rejected. And so, regarding the proposal that it might be o.k. to introduce the practice of “after birth abortion”, there really is no need to spend twenty minutes studying the logical arguments offered by an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics. The immorality of the conclusion is evident; something we grasp, spontaneously and viscerally. Something is very wrong with the doctor's premises.

The truth of this insight is demonstrated by the fact that Nazi soldiers indicted for crimes against humanity during the Holocaust, were unable to use the convoluted ethical theories of Adolf Hitler to justify their actions. The killing of millions of Jews and plunging the world into war were so clearly and decidedly immoral that there was no need at Nuremburg for judges to study the ethical theories that attempted to justify it. Nor did the soldiers insistence that they were simply following orders win them anybody's sympathy. They should have known better. They were ordered to kill innocent people in a way contrary to morality. They should have known that the ethical code of their superiors was flawed. The visitor to the website concludes by saying: let's be honest: the conclusion of Dr. Guibilini's argument that babies have no moral worth is profoundly immoral. If it appears to be justified by rational arguments, this simply means one or more of the premises he is arguing from is false.

This comment posted by a visitor to a website was for me a grace filled visit;something like Mary's visit to Elizabeth related in this morning's gospel. We read that, at the very sound of Mary's greeting, the baby in Elizabeth's womb leaped for joy. Here is cause for celebration and real rejoicing for us today – imagine: so manifest; so powerful is the presence of the Author of Life, hidden in Mary's womb, that the child in Elizabeth's womb instinctively and instantly recognizes Him, inspiring Elizabeth to burst into a song of praise.

It is cause for joy on this Feast of the Visitation, this truth pointed to by an anonymous visitor to a website: that there is inside each one of us a “baby” – a living, passionate, instinct that spontaneously recognizes and celebrates life and truth. This gives us hope that in a world growing more and more complex and amidst the confusion of warring ideologies and falsehoods, God has impregnated each of us with a seed of truth; a voice inside us like the voice of the precursor who, encountering Truth, even though it still be hidden in a woman's womb, instantly recognizes, adores and proclaims it.

May Elizabeth's seed come to fruition in each of us today by our prayerful commemoration of this feast and may it guide us to all Truth and to life that never ends.

Feast of the Visitation

[Scripture Readings: Zeph 3:14-18a; Lk 1:39-56 ]

A loving mother liked to sing lullabies to her children at bed time. But one evening she overheard her five year old son saying to his younger sister, “If you pretend you’re asleep, she’ll stop singing.

Wouldn’t it be nice if that worked for homilies, too? Just fall asleep and the homilist will stop. But it doesn’t work, not even if you really are falling asleep! I know, because I have trouble staying awake and it hasn’t stopped a single homily yet.

Today we celebrate the feast of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. In our love for Mary, the Mother of God, we cannot let this feast pass by without a word of rejoicing. My source for a word of joy this morning is from the severe champion of our Cistercian Strict Observance, the austere Abbé de Rancé. In one of his letters he wrote a beautiful meditation on the Visitation and sent it to his friend, Mother Louise, superior of the Visitation convent at Tours.

He writes, (and I paraphrase): Today we honor Mary with Jesus hidden in her womb, producing grace in the heart of Elizabeth and in the heart of John cloistered in her womb. There is not a single grace which has not come to us from Jesus visiting us and giving us his very self, hidden now in the womb of the Church as he was once hidden in the womb of Mary. All the graces we receive are given in such a way that each of us owes our salvation to the prayers of others, beginning with Mary.

This, then, is a special day to remember our call to be a community of prayer for one another. Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth initiated the mystery of Jesus hidden and dwelling within each of us, spreading grace all around us. And this in turn obliges us to honor everyone else with a special reverence quite different from the usual acts of courtesy and politeness proper to society at large.

This feast reminds us of our dependence on others because our very salvation is bound up with their prayers, with their union with Jesus. Others play a part in the graces we receive from God. We receive these graces by their help. For no one in the Church is sufficient unto oneself; no one can say that he or she has no need of others. So, we ought to consider them not only as our sisters and brothers, but also as our mothers: for by their assistance we enter into and possess the life of grace, and without them we cannot have life in Christ.

Our dependency should impress on us a deep respect for others, a fear of giving them scandal, a dread of harming or afflicting them, because this will also afflict Jesus Christ who is within them, just as Jesus was hidden in the womb of Mary. When we afflict others, we afflict and offend Jesus.

By honoring Jesus hidden in the womb of Mary at the Visitation, we celebrate the mystery of grace flowing from the cloistered Christ in the womb of Mary, and through her to all the faithful, and then through all the Christian faithful in such a way that each of us is a mother and a child of all the others.

In this feast we remind ourselves of the gratitude we owe to Christ and Mary, and to the members of his Mystical Body, the Church, for our vocations to marriage or to virginity in the religious life. Our call to be contemplatives and intercessors makes all of us both mother and child of one another until Christ is fully formed in the whole communion of saints.

Now, a question. Do you think that Mary, as a loving mother, liked to sing lullabies to her child, Jesus, at bed time? I think she did, and I bet he wished she would never stop.

Feast of the Visitation

[Scripture Readings: Zeph 3:14-18a, Lk 1:39-56]

Reading the gospel for this feast of the Visitation, when we celebrate Mary’s joyful anticipation of the birth of Jesus, I was distracted by thoughts of my cousin Missy whose beloved little girl Ella recently died in her mother’s womb, only a month or so before she was to enter the world. Missy, because of certain health problems, had been told by doctors she was at risk for a difficult pregnancy—but for nearly eight months, all had gone well in what looked like a perfectly normal pregnancy. Then, one day, visiting the doctor for a routine checkup, he was unable to pick up Ella’s heartbeat and shortly discovered the little girl had inexplicably died in her mother’s womb. Ella’s death has been devastating to her parents who after eight months of reassuring signs had allowed themselves to believe they would soon be holding in their arms a beautiful baby girl. They were very, very excited, and then—quite suddenly, she was gone. Praying for my cousin in these recent weeks, I thought to myself: Missy was at risk not because of a prior health condition. Missy was at risk because she had allowed events to make her hopeful; allowed herself to trust that everything was going to work out after all. Hope—puts you at risk . . . Hope in a future we can’t control, puts us all at risk.

One could say that Missy’s hope as a young mother; much of her hope for a happy future was riding on the birth of that little girl. Ella, was, in a real sense, the embodiment of her mother’s hope, as Jesus, conceived in the womb of Mary was her hope; the fruit of a whole life time of prayer and expectation of God’s salvation. This hope of Mary finds expression in the Magnificat we just heard proclaimed; and the deep question for me, the question raised by Missy herself in a note she wrote me recently is: Where does hope go, after a child dies in her mother’s womb? What becomes of a young mother’s hope after it dies in the very place in which it was conceived?

Mary’s child did not die in the womb, but one could fairly say, her child’s great task in life; the purpose for which he was born; his mission—did, in fact, die in the womb, when it’s founder was indicted as a criminal, tortured, stripped naked, ridiculed, crucified and buried in an obscure grave. In Jesus’ disgraceful execution, Christianity as a movement died a premature and miserable death, it’s adherents scattered, utterly discouraged, and in hiding. If the child didn’t die in the womb, then his mission in life did . . . but then, and here is the miracle, having died in the womb, that mission was raised up by God’s almighty power, and by a love sterner than death, Christianity rose and lived again, and being raised from the dead, became a movement a thousand times more vibrant and alive and widespread than anything it had ever promised to be in Jesus’ lifetime.

Another question I struggle with: In the mysterious process of little Ella’s conception and gestation in the womb, during which time, her mother became more and more excited; more and more hopeful, did Ella herself also conceive a hope to live and enjoy life in this world? Could it be that, in the mystery of the shared life between a young mother and the child in her womb, something of the mother’s excitement, her joy, anticipation and hope
was communicated to the child just awakening to life in her body? Had Ella herself begun to experience some wordless stirring of anticipation of life in this world; communicated to her from her mother’s heart, whose quickening rhythms were so audible to her in the womb?

And when death came to little Ella; when that spark of anticipation lit in her tiny heart flickered, dimmed and went out only days before her eyes opened on to the light of this world, should not an event like this have marked, for all of us, the end of hope? Does not such a tragedy extinguish the meaning of all beginnings? Why, in light of Ella’s fate, should any of us still have any hope in anything? Why should my nephew Sean these days be so hopeful and excited about starting art school in Savannah Georgia? Why should the monks of New Melleray be so excited and so hopeful about the abundant harvest of young enthusiastic candidates God has gifted us with in recent months? Why should Missy, Ellas’ mother, be talking about trying again to conceive, in hope of giving birth to a child.

Hope endures. The question is how; how does hope endure; where does it go, when it dies in a mother’s womb? Does the sheer persistence of human hope manifesting itself all around us, reveal something of an answer to this question? What happens to hope when death occurs in the very place where life is conceived? Is it possible that little Ella was herself a kind of seed planted in her mother’s womb. Maybe, in little Ella, a seed was planted; a seed of hope whose flourishing is even today evident in human hearts all around us and which is not vanquished by Ella’s death.

On this feast of the Visitation, Mary’s joy is a sign for us of the redemption accomplished for us in Jesus Christ; the redemption of our bodies and the vanquishing of death in which all our dashed hopes are raised up and brought to life again. For those with eyes to see, little Ella, too is a sign of this redemption. We grieve for Ella—but she waits for us; waits in hope of our coming to the knowledge she now enjoys. In the presence of the God who is not God of the dead but of the living, for whom all are alive, Ella waits for us; keeping for us and for the proper time, the secret we long to know; the secret of that glorious end promised us in Jesus Christ toward whom all the hope of human hearts draws us—together.

Feast of the Visitation

[Scripture Readings: Zeph. 3:14-18a; Lk. 1: 39-56]

Fr. NeilWhen Proba, a wealthy Roman matron, asked St. Augustine what she should pray for, his answer was straightforward: Pray for happiness. Everyone wants to be happy. I doubt that any of us would argue with that; nevertheless happiness can be an elusive goal. It is not a feeling that we can conjure up at will. To a large extent it depends on our circumstances and the people around us. When it comes, we cannot simply hang on to it to prevent it from leaving. Perhaps this is why St. Augustine is saying that we should pray for it. What we are longing for is an experience that goes deeper and is more permanent than what frequently passes for happiness in advertisements and the entertainment media. I don’t think it is simply playing with words to say that the happiness that St. Augustine is referring to is joy understood in the biblical sense.

This theme is pervasive in this morning’s readings and they can guide us along the way to finding joy. The foundation for joy is the realization that God is in our midst. He came to Israel to take away judgment and remove fear. In her joy Mary came to Elizabeth carrying God in her womb, and at Mary’s greeting Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and the infant John in her womb leaped for joy. There is a mutuality about joy. We receive it from another and it contains an imperative that when we receive it, we sense a need to share it with others. We cannot be joyful by ourselves. We cannot be joyful as long as we try to be self-sufficient and maintain our independence from one another.

The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth
The joy of the Holy Spirit belongs to the humble; those who know and acknowledge their lowliness, their hunger, their need for God’s mercy. Joy does not depend on circumstances, because it comes from faith and hope in God’s fidelity to his promises. It can rejoice in the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promise, trusting that God will bring his promise to completion in his time and in his way. Joy does not deny suffering. It supported Mary as she followed her son from Bethlehem to Calvary.

The barrier to joy is fear. Faith and hope bring us to the perfect love that casts out fear. True, our faith and our hope are weak, our love is not yet perfect and we have our fears. Accordingly, our joy is not yet complete. Nevertheless God is in our midst. He comes to us in his word. He comes to us in his body and blood. We are all called to follow Mary’s example and be ambassadors of Christ and share Christ with one another. We have the means to joy at hand. Let us follow St. Augustine’s advice and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us along the way to joy.