Homily given by Fr John Kenrick OP (Ephesians 1:1-14, John 15:8-17)
To what is it that we give witness as Christians, as religious, as Dominicans? In essence it is to the reality of God’s presence, the reality of God’s love for us all. The reality of God’s presence is not something obvious. Children can sometimes be mystified by our talk of God. One of my young nephews once asked me in church, ‘uncle if this is God’s house how is it that when we come here he is never at home?’
Atheism is a kind of intellectual immaturity that isn’t content with mystery; it is an attitude that says if God exists it must be possible to pin God down, to measure God in terms that we can understand. But as we get older and wiser, we realize that it is the other way round. We cannot possess God; it is God who possesses us. God is the mystery, in which we begin to find ourselves, discover who we truly are.
The other mistake of children is to notice everyone’s faults except their own. Children are always bearing tales about each other to parents or teachers. Maturity brings with it a greater wisdom. We cannot be in religious life for many years without discovering our own failings. As we get to know ourselves better we also become more understanding of each other’s weaknesses. Religious life is a particular way of growing in Christian maturity. The longer we spend in religious life, the greater the wisdom that we acquire. That wisdom comes from the experience of God’s mercy. We experience God’s mercy in all sorts of ways, but the most important way is the kindness and compassion, the understanding and forgiveness that we receive from each other.
Religious life is not the only way, but it is the way that God has chosen for us; and both readings today stress the fact that it is God who first chooses us.
The world outside can be very naive about religious life. Lay people often think that we spend all day doing nothing but praying and that religious life is all sweetness and joy, an escape from all the difficulties in the world. The reality is very different. We work very hard, often in unseen ways. We expect no reward and often that is what we get. And we have to face the same kind of problems that everyone else faces but without the support of a spouse or children.
But what we do have is each other. Every sister brings something special, something unique into religious life and God always finds a way to let those gifts flourish. So little by little we learn to appreciate each other, we learn to depend on each other; more than that, we learn to see each other in a new light, the light of grace. So a curious thing can happen as we advance in religious maturity. We become aware of God’s presence everywhere, everything becomes tinged with the sacred. We might not talk about it but we notice each other’s sufferings and we begin to share in them, we notice too the holiness that is quietly growing in our sisters. And sometimes we can think, ‘God what am I doing here? They are all so much better than me’.
That is why these jubilee celebrations are so important. Sometimes we need to hear the words, ‘well done faithful servant! Don’t worry. You’re doing great and you are growing in holiness, whatever you may think’. Today the Sisters are saying to the Jubilarians, ‘you really matter to us. in fact we wouldn’t be ourselves without you!’
There is a wonderful unity in the readings today and for me the central theme is that very first word ‘grace’. Charis, the greek word that St Paul uses for grace, can stand for all kinds of things. It means divine mercy, kindness, benevolence. But it can also mean more down to earth things like the material help that one Christian community gives to another. Grace is really as broad and multifaceted as divine love itself. And when Paul says ‘grace to you from God and Jesus Christ’ he knows that the same grace is working through him. We too, can wish each other grace, not only as God’s gift but also as our personal gift to each other -because all of us are channels of God’s grace.
In religious life too this grace comes in many forms. It is not just the things we give and the greetings we exchange at times like this, but also the daily grind, the things we accept with serenity and even the things we accept gritting our teeth and biting our tongues, the effort we make to accommodate each other, even the failings we forgive each other. All this is grace because of the fact that we are all of us equally needy recipients of divine love and mercy.
There is a lovely Jewish joke about ‘chutzpah’ which means a kind of shameless audacity. It is said that a man killed his parents and then pleaded for mercy on the -grounds that he was an orphan. Actually, this not a bad illustration of the human condition. We are all sinners and yet Jesus tells us that admitting our faults is the one qualification we need to receive God’s mercy. Jesus wants us to be audacious in the demands we make of God.
Today we remind ourselves that grace in present above all in perseverance, in being faithful religious year after year. Each year is another year of hidden glory. We Dominicans preach above all with our lives. When they were televising the royal wedding I was struck by the presence of two religious sisters sitting on the right of the royal couple. They were not Dominicans or even Catholics and yet the witness of those two religious women was very powerful. In the middle of all the pomp and ceremony these two simply dressed religious were a reminder of what real commitment is all about and that our hope lies not in what we achieve ourselves but in what God does through us.
Each year of religious life we are growing in wisdom; but as we advance in years we are actually growing younger and younger in the spirit, ever more like the God who is eternally young at heart.
I want to leave you with an image of community life that occurred to me in Caleruega. On my visits to Spain I have noticed that the Spanish do something unusual with those plane trees that provide a welcome shade from the sun. In English it is called ‘pleaching’. The trees are planted close together in avenues so that their branches reach out and touch. Then the branches of neighbouring trees are grafted together so that the trees are literally growing together. With some trees this happens quite naturally; if the branches of two trees keep rubbing together, the bark wears away and they start growing together, to form one living unity. Perhaps that is one way of seeing religious life; even the friction of religious life is a grace that binds us together so that grace can flow more freely.
Today we are giving thanks for six unique individuals, for their dedication, their hard work, the years of self-giving, above all the years of friendship and love. It is good to be reminded of the grace in our lives, of 50, 60 years of sheer grace. Today we thank God for all he has done for Clare, Leonie, Martina, Sheila, Dorothea and Geraldine. May grace continue to flow through you to us and to the communities you serve.