Laetare Sunday – Solemn Profession of Br. Nicholas Koenig

[Scripture Readings: 1 Sam 16:1b, 6-7,10-13a; Ps 23; Eph 5:8-14; Jn 9:1-41]

Br. Nicholas, you have chosen this Fourth Sunday of Lent for the solemn moment and defining act of your monastic profession. This choice of days gives us a key to how you understand your monastic vocation and your becoming a member of this venerable community of monks.

It is Laetare Sunday. Laetare means “be joyful.” It is an imperative. You are saying you want us to be joyful for you and for this community, and we readily take your invitation. We are joyful indeed, even if tears or heartache on the part of some betray another emotion. But mixed emotions is also part of the message you are giving by your choice of Laetare Sunday. You are giving us the bitter and the sweet together. What could be more mixed, more ambiguous, than the coming together of joy today with the annual celebration of the passion of the Christ just two weeks from today? Joy today, and then the agonizing unfolding of Holy Week, the self-emptying of the Christ in love-to-the-end, his betrayal, his passion, his abandonment, his horrible death, his burial. And yet, Laetare. Be joyful, indeed. You present us, Br. Nicholas, with painfully mixed emotions, with deep ambiguities, with paradoxes, and we are permitted to say that all this chiaroscuro, this blending of the dark and the light, is a window you are opening to us to your heart on this magnificent day.

It is the same, it seems, with the text you chose for the cover of our booklet this morning. This text confesses hope, yet it comes from the book of Lamentations. You are inviting us, maybe, into your experience of God and of God’s way with you: is it that only out of situations of loss, of lament, of failure, even of disgrace, that the virtue of theological hope takes purchase on our lives and on our souls? Even in your relatively short life you have known loss, you have had reason to lament, and there, you are telling us, you have discovered hope.

The image of the stark cross and featureless crucified above that text puts these words on the lips of the one who in his own disgrace could say “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.” “These things I remember, therefore will I hope.” Your words, Nicholas? But also Christ’s words. Or do you feel that that one on that cross is really you, and the cross itself Christ, you hanging on him? The man born blind in the gospel, is that you, too? The spittle, the clay, the “let-there-be-light” of his coming to see: monastic profession is a new creation, a second baptism, a loss of the old and behold, there is something new. Touchingly, disturbingly, even his family find themselves suddenly to one side: “This is our son. We knew him a certain way. How he has become what he is, we do not know.” Now healed after his encounter with the Christ, he says in response to the question of who he is, “I am!” But this is dark blasphemy; it is also luminously true: God alone is “I am”; Jesus is “I am”; but those hanging on Jesus in their shame, conformed to him through their lament, in their disappointment, are “I am” too. “Therefore,” as you say, “will I hope.”

Isn’t this “I will hope, because ‘I am’” the whole story of Easter and the entire gospel message? Isn’t this “Therefore will I hope” the meaning and life of a monk? In a moment you will do what monks have done since the first one did it in the presence of Saint Benedict: three times you will cry out, “Receive me, O Lord, according to your word, and I shall live; do not disappoint me in my hope.” We, your brothers, will echo your cry, you leading us in a renewal of our own rebirth and monastic awakening.

Br. Nicholas, we have heard Saint Paul’s summons,
Awake, O sleeper, arise from the dead,
and Christ shall give you light.
”(Eph 5:14).
you have responded to it in Saint Benedict’s version,
Let us get up, then: it is high time for us to arise from sleep.
Let us open our eyes to the deifying light”(RB Pro 8; Rom 13:11).

May you always remember these things, Br. Nicholas. Remembering, you will hope, and hope does not disappoint. The Russian Staretz Soloane could go so far as to say, “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.” One of our own brothers, in a conversation with him yesterday, gave me his version of that: “I tell Jesus,” he said, ‘I don’t mind going to hell; just let me love you there.’” May it be so for you, Br. Nicholas. We indeed rejoice with you, and with your loving family, and are grateful to you and to them for the gift you are to us.