Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist
Scripture Readings: Is 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Lk 1:57-66, 80 at Mississippi Abbey
John the Baptist called the people to repentance and to renew their covenant relationship with God. Consecrated life is a response to that call. As we saw before, consecrated life is for mission, not for self-preservation. Mission is about doing, but it is also about being. It is the imitation of Christ, keeping alive the way of life that He embraced.
Religious Orders continue the presence of Christ in the world by their mission. For many it is to preach or to care for the sick, or to teach youth. Our Cistercian mission is one of conversion: prayer and kenosis. By a life of prayer we continue the presence in His contemplation on the mountain. We prolong this part of His way of acting and being in the world. We ring the bell five minutes before Office to call the sisters to prayer. We ring it again to tell the world around us that we are praying for them.
And we continue His presence by kenosis. Life in community is a form of apostolate. The mission of life in community is not to do something; it is not to make candy or caskets or clean the house. Through self-emptying the mission is to be reunited, to experience life together as an incidence of “where two or three are gathered” in His name they experience His presence. Having a single heart and soul turned toward God is the reason for our being here.
Pope St. John Paul II, in Vita Consecrata, cited the gospel story of the expensive perfume being “wasted” on Christ at Bethany as a symbol of the kenosis of consecrated life. He wrote: “Most people today are puzzled and ask ‘What is the point of consecrated life?’ The precious ointment poured out as an act of pure love, and thus transcending all utilitarian considerations, is a sign of unbounded generosity as expressed in a life spent in loving and serving the Lord in order to surrender ourselves to His person and His mystical body. From such a life poured out without reserve there spreads a fragrance which fills the whole house.” (104) We are aware that we do that awkwardly. That is the reason our way of life is grounded on humility.
In grounding his Rule on the steps of humility, St. Benedict is putting principles before personalities. A key aspect of humility is that it is “thinking of yourself less.” The spiritual substance of such self-forgetfulness is sacrifice; it is subordinating personal aims to the common good. The common good is given in Benedict’s Rule as a set of principles –starting points- for living the gospel way of life. These principles are shared. They connect us as a community of shared values for which we share affection. Living by shared principles we can be secure in our relationships.
That they are shared is very important. I do not put my principles before your personality. In monastic life we are asked to prefer authentic values –values that are pervasive, enduring and deep- to mere personal satisfaction. Sometimes authentic values are satisfying, but often enough they are not. When virtues such as honesty, respect, and fidelity are not appealing we must act from principles. If I act according to my principles I put distance between self and others. I act contrary to the mission of community to act with a single heart and soul in the service of God, who is love. I must instead put our principles before my personality.
This is the mindset John the Baptist is urging us to adopt. It will prepare us to hear the message of Jesus when He says, “Repent and believe in the Good News!” It is this placing of communal principles before individual personalities that makes consecrated life a sign to others of the presence of the self-giving Christ.