Heart Speaks to Heart – Br. James Koester
Life Profession of Nicholas Bartoli SSJE
Exodus 33: 7 – 11
Psalm 139: 1 – 12
1 John 4: 7 – 12
John 15: 9 – 19
If truth be told, I am more than a little surprised to be here today. Indeed, I am more than a little surprised that any of us are here today. I am actually most surprised that Nicholas is here today!
There was a time, not all that long ago in the scheme of things, that I was convinced that this life profession of our Brother Nicholas, would never happen. And I am not the only one. I think Nicholas was even more convinced that it would never happen! He was so convinced in fact, that he went around telling Brothers individually, that he was leaving the community!
In the midst of all of this, I tried to convince Nicholas that leaving, at least leaving when he was thinking about doing so, was not a good idea. But in case you didn’t know, Nicholas has a stubborn streak in him as wide as the Brooklyn Bridge! What saved the day was a conversation he had with a good friend of ours. In the course of that brief conversation, our friend put a couple of questions to Nicholas. In less than an hour Nicholas’ mind was changed as whole new possibilities opened up. A little more than a year later, here we are. Here we are to witness, and support, and encourage Nicholas as he makes his life profession in our Society, promising to God and before the whole company of heaven and in the presence of this congregation … that [he] will live in life-long observance of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, according to the Rule of this Society.
So friend, if you are out there, we owe you our profound thanks, because if it weren’t for your intervention, today’s profession would not be happening! (Although, there may be days in the future we blame you that it has happened!)
If the words Nicholas is about to utter don’t astound you, they should. They should.… before the whole company of heaven and in the presence of this congregation … I promise to Almighty God, … that I will live in life-long observance of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, according to the Rule of this Society.
For some of you, the words poverty, celibacy, and obediencemight be the words that catch you, and make you uncomfortable. For others, such as me, the shocker is life-long. How on earth, I think, can anyone promise to do anything for a day, or even a week, never mind a lifetime. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, so how can I commit myself to doing something, anything, and especially a promise to live in poverty, celibacy, and obedience, for the rest of my life?
We say as much in our Rule of Life.
The life profession of a brother inspires us with awe as well as joy; we wonder at the risk of such an irrevocable choice… Only by depending on God for the grace of perseverance, fixing ourselves by faith in God’s unwavering commitment to us, can we risk taking vows which bind us forever. A life profession will be a special opportunity to renew our confidence that grace will not fail us. “If what you have heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father.”
It is no wonder then, that all of us come here to witness Nicholas make his life profession, filled with a mixture of emotions. We are amazed by his courage. We are filled with wonder at the risk. We are overflowing with joy. We are silenced with awe. But at the heart of these emotions, is an abiding truth. For the vows that Nicholas is making today, are not taken in isolation. They are made in communion, because they are a declaration of love. As Nicholas stands here, he is not alone. He stands here not simply surrounded by his Brothers in the community. He stands here not only supported by you his family and many friends. He stands here before the very throne of God, as he says I promise to Almighty God.
The declaration that Nicholas is making today by his vows, is a declaration of faith, and hope, and love, and trust to none other than God’s very being, and like Moses of old, Nicholas speaks with his Godface to face, as one speaks to a friend.
We say in our Rule that [for] us no honor exists that could be greater than Jesus calling us his friends. The more we enter into the fullness of our friendship with him, the more he will move us to be friends for one another, and to cherish friendship itself as a means of grace. The forging of bonds between us that would make us ready to lay down our lives for one another is a powerful witness to the reality of our risen life in Christ. In an alienating world, where so many are frustrated and wounded in their quest for intimacy, we can bear life-giving testimony to the graces of friendship as men who know by experience its demands, its limitations and its rewards.
It is Nicholas’ friendship with God which lies at the heart of all we are doing today. Without that friendship at its core, today’s act would be the act of a madman. But we who have lived with Nicholas for six years, and you who have known him even longer, know that he is not crazy (well not much at least). Instead, we know him to be a passionate friend of God.
Nicholas tells me that he learned how to be God’s friend from his father Angelo. It was his father who showed him that silence, and solitude, and contemplation, had meaning and purpose by allowing things to blossom in a place of stillness. He tells me that from his mother Phyllis, he learned how to be the hands of Christ, and the importance of service to others, coming back into the world from that place of solitude, and sharing what had been experienced during those times. From his father we find the source of Nicholas’ love of contemplation, and from his mother, his desire to serve. And therein lies the seed of Nicholas’ monastic vocation, planted in him by the two people who knew and loved him most.
It is because of this friendship with God, that what we are doing today is not done in isolation, as Nicholas pledges himself to God. Such a pledge, rooted in friendship, bears fruit in grace given and received.
Father Benson, our Founder, put it this way, writing to the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, who was himself opposed to members of our community taking vows of any kind: I know your Lordship considers vows unsuited to the English character, and dangerous under our circumstances…. But spiritual life is not of nature nor of time, but of grace… The blessedness of a vow consists in the faith that God will give special gifts as a covenant to those who thus definitely give up some possible future of earthly enjoyment for Him. Were we living in a condition of merely natural religion, I should quite assent…. Reason rejects a devoted existence. Faith seeks to give up natural possibilities for divine promises. Reason only knows what we give up and the possibility of a change of desire. Faith knows to Whom we give ourselves up, and the greatness of blessing which [God] will bestow…
For Father Benson, vows were not merely a contact whereby one person agreed to do one thing, if the other agreed to do another. For Father Benson, the vows were a sign and form of covenant, entered into, not by the party of the first part, with the party of the second part, but by two friends, companions, even lovers. That is what we are witnessing today: a covenant between lovers.
In witnessing this covenant between God and Nicholas, we are allowed to glimpse, if just for a moment, into an act of great intimacy, whereby we are shown that the desire of Nicholas’ heart is God, and the desire of God’s heart, is Nicholas. As heart speaks here to heart, we see not what Nicholas is giving up, but the One whom he is embracing, and we hear the promise of the greatness of blessing which God will bestowon Nicholas.
Nicholas told me the other day that he has no idea what the future will hold, but that in order to be faithful to God today, he must take this step. That sounds like love to me. He also told me that he can’t imagine being happier than he is right now. That too sounds like love to me. And when you are in love, there is only one thing to do, embrace your beloved with all your heart, and soul, and body.
Nicholas, like you, none of us knows what the future will hold. What we Brothers do know, is that Father Benson was so right, God will [indeed] give special gifts as a covenant to those who … definitely give up some possible future of earthly enjoyment for Him….
Today is a wonderful day. It’s a wonderful day for all of us who love Nicholas and who are allowed to witness his very real and very deep happiness. But it is an especially wonderful day for Nicholas as he unites himself to his beloved God.
Nicholas, today you are embarking on a wonderful adventure. May the special gifts of God, of which Father Benson speaks, fill your heart and life to overflowing, today and always.
SSJE, Rule of Life, Life Profession,chapter 39, page 79
Exodus 33: 11
Op cit, The Graces of Friendship, chapter 42, page 84
Woodgate, MV, Father Benson of Cowley, page 69
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Wonderful news. Very good talk. Brother Nicholas was the first brother we met on our first visit to the monastery. Best wishes to all