Joshua 24: 1-2a, 15-22
Psalm 34: 15-24
Ephesians 5: 21-23
John 6: 60-69
In 1891, after his retirement as Superior of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist and before he settled down to live at the Mission House on Temple Street in Boston, Father Benson traveled around the world to see those places he had long dreamed about. One was India and once there he made a pilgrimage to Indore, the city where Simeon O’Neill, his old friend and fellow pioneer in the religious life, had worked and died. Unlike Bombay or even Poona, where the Society had been involved in missionary work for many years, Indore had never had strong European presence. Father Benson’s local guide was a new Christian, an Indian who had known Father O’Neill well and had often heard him preach. Whether he had been a Muslim as all of Father O’Neill’s neighbors were or a Hindu the guide never revealed, but what he did confess to Father Benson was that although he had not converted to Christianity while Father O’Neill was alive, O’Neill’s teaching about Christ and Christianity haunted him for a long time, years after the missionary had died, until he knew, whatever the cost, he had to be a Christian, too. He was convinced that Christ had spoken to him repeatedly through the lips of this English monk.
Recently, in thumbing through a 19th century copy of the Cowley Evangelist, the Society’s early newsletter, looking for something else, I discovered perhaps the best account of Father O’Neill’s life in India. Until I read it I had assumed that O’Neill had lived as a solitary in India, a “quiet” missionary who witnessed to Christianity by example until he died a heroic death nursing the sick during an outbreak of cholera. I knew he had been able to live a life of Indian poverty because the Hindu Brahmin converted to Christianity and his brother in the Society, Nehemiah Goreh, had shown him how. But the article in the Cowley Evangelist, written by one of his former assistants did much to correct my assumptions and flesh out the record of his missionary work in Indore.
Father O’Neill arrived there in 1874 and immediately set about to replicate in Indore the life of the Mission House in Oxford. The schedule was much the same with the seven fold Divine Office, the daily Eucharist, teaching and study, preaching, and pastoral visits to the poor. There were always a small group of disciples with him. Some were Europeans, new members of the Society and missionary clergy, while others were Indian Christians seeking training for ordination. They lived in a two room Indian style house, very small, with one room on top of the other. Every day except Sunday they took their meals with an Indian family who lived in a small house behind them, sitting on the floor around a low table eating Indian style. They bathed at a public bath attached to a Hindu temple down the street. Each morning Father O’Neill taught classes on systematic theology and the New Testament, especially Paul’s letters and the Gospels. At one point for almost a year he also taught a daily class on Thomas Aquinas’ Summa, first reading a section in Latin, then translating it into English and explicating its theological questions. He communicated with the local population well because he was fluent in Hindi. Each week he and his assistants would preach on the downtown street corners, gathering large crowds, much as their brothers in the Society were doing in Boston. The non Christian population respected and revered Father O’Neill. And this was especially true of the city’s poor. When he first arrived in town he had made a point of getting to know those living in poverty, of whom there were many. He assigned his men each a section of the city and sent them out to find the ones who really needed help. These they fed, clothed, nursed, and cared for, giving special attention to lepers, whose lives were terribly difficult. Much of what went for the care of the poor came from what little financial means Father O’Neill had. The days of the men at the Mission House in Indore were long and demanding, yet it was a happy life. Father O’Neill spent his last eight years this way, truly a living sacrifice and dying there in 1882. He was 45 years old.
Sometimes Jesus’ teaching was obscure. Sometimes it was confusing and puzzling. Sometimes he would say things and then later in his teaching say other things that radically contradicted his earlier statements. And sometimes he was brutally offensive in the imagery he used. The Gospel lesson this morning is a good case in point. What we have today has been sliced from a larger teaching about the bread of Heaven. In it he tells his disciples first that those that eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life and he will raise them up at the last day. He goes on to say that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood abide in him and he in them. Then almost immediately he contradicts this teaching by saying that it is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless. Confusing? Offensive? If eating human flesh and drinking blood is revolting to us, it was doubly so for the Jews whose purity laws proscribed any contact with blood as defiling and unclean. In attempting to understand this teaching after overcoming one’s initial revulsion it would take effort to get his meaning. Most would be lost and go away empty. Those who persisted would eventually see that he was not really talking about the literal consumption of his flesh and blood, but that first and foremost he is Word and Spirit and it is by these that one can have eternal life.
Most people, and I place myself among them, think of the Eucharist when we hear the expression Bread of Heaven, but in the passage from John, Jesus clearly intends it to mean the Word that gives life. Sometimes it takes a long time feeding on this divine bread before we recognize its nourishment in our lives, are convicted by its truth and are changed by it. One of the Northern European mystics of the Middle Ages, Johannes Ruesbroeck, observed that the more we feed on Jesus the more we hunger to feed on Jesus and the more we feed on him the more he feeds on us.
Father O’Neill willingly spent his life in an obscure corner of India dispensing the bread of Heaven to all who were hungry. Whenever possible he took care of their physical hunger, but even more important he preached Christ’s transforming word that had the power to satisfy their spiritual hunger. Samuel Gopal, Father O’Neill’s Indian assistant said in his Remembrance of his longtime friend that “gentle” and “loving” were the two terms most generally used by his friends in speaking of him.
Gopal concluded, “Father O’Neill’s death, I am told, created a great sensation in the city, and everyone bewailed him. The poor lifted up their voices and wept. I come across some of my old friends among the poor occasionally, whenever I go to Indore, and they are always loud in their praises of their benefactor.”
No doubt there are many Indian Christians living today, who, though they may not know it, owe their faith to the life and ministry of Simeon Wilberforce O’Neill. It was his compelling witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ, choosing to live as the poor to did so that caused men and women who had never heard Christ’s teachings before to take them to heart and dedicate their lives to him. And their conversions influenced others to do so as well. This divine power once released flowed through the generations that followed. And this Christian legacy will be true of us as well. We will never know fully the impact the witness our community life and work has on others and will have on generations to come. But rest assured, it is so. My brothers, men of the moment, we have a goodly heritage and a wonderful responsibility. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
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