Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Profession, Sr. Kathleen O’Neill

[Scripture Readings: 1 Cor 13:1-13, Mt 6:19-21, 25-33]

These opening remarks have nothing to do with today’s celebration but I could not pass up the opportunity to point out a proof text from today’s Gospel for the institution of monsignors. In the olden days in theology class we used to study the Scripture text that was used to prove a dogma of the faith. Most are quite clear like the Incarnation or the Resurrection. Some are a little less clear like the Immaculate Conception”Hail full or grace” from Lk. 1:28. The proof text taken from today’s Gospel that shows Christ instituted monsignors is, “Learn a lesson from the way wild flowers grow. They do not work; they do not spin. Yet I assure you, not even Solomon in all his splendor is not arrayed like one of these.(Mt. 6:28-29)

Now to more serious thoughts. One of my favorite poems of William Butler Yeats is entitled, “The Wild Swans at Coole“. Coole was a private estate with a nice lake that one of Yeat’s friends owned. He would go there every year for a little rest.
The poem begins:

The trees are in their autumn beauty
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count….

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old.
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

Sr. Kathleen this poem applies to you more than you may think. First of all I can see from you’re the way you live that you still have passion for the monastic life and you are still involved in the great battle of self conquest. This is also true for the sisters preparing to celebrate their 50th at the end of the summer. They might not be as nimble of foot as you but the fire still burns in their hearts.

After 25 years I am sure you know that the battle with self is a losing battle. It seems like there is an inverse proportion between our passion for self conquest and the years we are professed. There comes a point when we say, “O the heck with it!” and hand it all over to God.

Yeats creates an atmosphere of utter calm and stillness and beauty in the opening stanza of this poem as only he can do, “Under the October twilight the water mirrors the still sky.” His heart is sore at the beauty of the swans paddling along lover by lover in the cold companionable streams. It is so easy to picture this in your mind, the lake, the sky, the October twilight, the swans two by two gliding along in serene majesty.

But wait, something is wrong. The message is not as serene as we think. Did you notice how many swans he counted? Nine and fifty. If fifty nine swans are paddling along lover by lover it means one swan is alone. Since Yeats does not tell us why there were 59 swans we can do our own interpretation. You Sr. Kathleen, and you my sisters and all religious, are the 59th swan going through life without a visible partner. We do, like the swans, belong to a community, but we do not have a marriage partner. We do however, have a partner. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he says right at the opening: “… God it was who called you to partnership with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.(1 Cor. 1:9)

Sr. Kathleen, you have been called to give your life totally to Christ in a relationship, a partnership, a communion, a kononia that will not be evident in this life. All we see is Sr. Kathleen paddling along by herself! We do not see the exchange of love—the transformation that takes place in the secret of her soul. Christ is the inner reality of her existence.

I think it is fortuitous that Sr. Kathleen’s sister Margaret and her husband Kyle will be renewing their marriage vows today also. The great orthodox theologian, Paul Evdokimov, has a book on marriage entitled, “The Sacrament of Love.” In it he writes,”…marriage includes within itself the monastic state, that is why the latter is not a sacrament.(Page 68). Here is the way I understand this statement. A sacrament is a visible sign for all to see. The primary visible sign in the sacrament of matrimony is the relationship of the couple. There love does not have to be the romance of beginners to be visible. It is shown to all by the mutual respect, the honor, the loyalty they have for each other. One of Dorothy Day’s favorite quotes was, “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Married couples in their love for one another image for us the love God has for each of us. This is the invisible part of the sacrament of marriage. None of us has seen God but we do see loving married couples making visible God’s love.

A professed religious must do the same thing but without having a visible partner, or spouse. Her spouse is Jesus who is invisible. Today we are celebrating Sr. Kathleen’s twenty-five years of living with the absent presence of God.

Chapter 13 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was chosen today for the simple reason it fits both married couples and religious—in fact all single people too. The chapter is called the more excellent way—it is a peon of love. Every human being wants to love and be loved. If we succeed at everything else but have no love in us we have failed at life. Conversely if we have failed at everything but have a loving heart we have succeed at life’s most important achievement. Love alone endures—we will not need to take faith and hope into eternity but love crosses over with us into that new life. It is the one treasure that will not wear out with time and will grow in eternity, because God is love.

Having said this I need to return to Dorothy Day’s comment: “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” To prove this just meditates on today’s first reading. “Love is patient; it is kind, not jealous, never rude, not self seeking, not prone to anger. There is no limits to love’s forbearance, to its trust, its hope, its power to endure.” If after reading this you can say, “Yes, that is me“. Then more power to you;I think most of us will say, “O Lord have mercy on me.” Failure is not the issue here, it is desire.

John Chrysostom said, “The one who loves has another self.” That self has yet to be fully revealed in us. It is in the process of becoming. Twenty-five years may seem like a long time but in the eyes of eternity it is a blink of the eye lid. We look forward, Sr. Kathleen, to that second blink when we all gather to celebrate your 50th!