The Ceremony of Transfer of Stability for Sr. Anne Elizabeth Sweet, O.C.S.O. at Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Is 61:1-4, 8b-10; Heb 11: 1-2, 8-16, 12: 1-2; Mk 10:24b-30.]
There is a very symbolic moment in today’s ceremony when Sr. Anne will be clothed in the white Cistercian cowl. The cowl will be taken from the altar and Mother Gail will put it on Sr. Anne.
I suspect this ritual was in Sister’s mind when she chose the first reading. The prophet Isaiah has reference to being wrapped in garments of salvation.
As I was thinking about this, it came to me that Sr. Anne is being clothed. She is not clothing herself. I think it is fitting that the significant people in her life are here this morning to witness this event. Her mother — the first to clothe her and care for her, members of her Benedictine community who gave her the religious habit, and finally her Cistercian community in the person of the Abbess, clothing her in the white cowl.
When you clothe someone, I think it implies you will care for them. A mother clothes an infant and cares for her. The Benedictine community gave Sister an exceptional opportunity to learn Sacred Scripture and now her Cistercian community has taken on the responsibilities of her education in the school of charity.
Now all of these actions, especially the one today, symbolize our being clothed with Christ. Putting on the new person, being conformed to Christ and taking on the mission of Christ. Our Cistercian founders wanted to be poor with the poor Christ, not just for the sake of poverty, but they understood this as a way of coming closer to Christ, a way of identifying with him. In wearing the cowl of a monk they were saying what monks have said since the time of Anthony: we embrace our human condition because Jesus emptied Himself and took the form of a slave.
Our cowl has this twofold symbolism. It is a garment of salvation, a wedding garment, a festal attire. And it is a garment of the penitent, it is shaped in the form of a cross, it conforms us to the sufferings of Christ.
There is a phrase that comes up in the document we call the “Little Exordium,” an account of how Citeaux was founded. I think it is a principle all monks and nuns can follow. “. . . Cistercian monks should pursue the etymology of their name.”In other words if we stick close to the word monk and live like a monk we will not wander far from our roots. But, as you know, the word has many meanings. I think there are twenty pages in RB 80 on the word monk.
I would like to take two of these meanings and join them with the second and third readings of our liturgy this morning.
First of all, the word monos means one: united, complete, unified, whole. This is the fullness Jesus talks about after the great renunciation of leaving all things: the hundredfold. The symbolism of the cowl here refers to the union of Christ and Sr. Anne. In our Cistercian tradition it is the Bride and the Bridegroom. Bernard says, “Although none of us would dare to call ourselves the Bride of Christ, nevertheless we are members of the Church which rightly boasts the title and the reality it signifies.”No one can live the monastic life very long without tasting some of this hundredfold.
Another meaning of the word monk is similar yet different: one, alone, single, solitary, separated, and even isolated. Monastic life brings these experiences also. The desert. Our second reading from Hebrews says it well, of our ancestors: “They were only strangers and nomads on earth. People who use such terms about themselves make it quite plain they are in search of a homeland.”
Living like this as strangers in search of a home makes us vulnerable and insecure. Putting on the monastic cowl is embracing this side of life. The struggles, the dura et aspera. To be poor with the poor Christ has many meanings.
Sr. Anne, you are not changing course in the middle of your journey. You are simply moving from one Benedictine family tradition to another. As St. Benedict says, we go all together into eternal life.And we will one day be numbered with those who “died before receiving any of the things promised, but they saw them in the distance.” We live with the certainly of faith and with the insecurity of faith — only faith can prove the existence of realities unseen.