St. Elizabeth of Hungary
“The call of God,” observed our visionary founder, Richard Meux Benson, “is continuous, abiding, and progressive. Continuous, because […] the voice of the Spirit never ceases to call us into deeper union. Abiding, because the wisdom of God […] is absorbed into our hearts never to perish. Progressive, because God’s voice will come to us in the future ever new, […] bringing us gifts beyond what we know now.”
While he uses this language to address the earliest members of the SSJE concerning their monastic vocation, I believe his observation holds true for all Christians—indeed, all people—whether called to the monastic life or any other vocation. I also believe, however, that in some instances (if not many instances), the continuous, abiding, and progressive character of God’s call is a person’s life may not necessarily conform to the content of their individual desire.
Whatever the reason—be it the necessity of context or the lack of apparent opportunity—some of us may feel a deep tension between what we have always imagined our vocation to be and the actual shape of our vocational unfolding expressed in the concrete realities of life. I know this has been true for me at several junctures of my life; moments when my own longing did not seem to bear a resemblance to the facts of the life I was living. I’m reminded, particularly, of my rejection from doctoral study, or that “dream job” I thought I wanted at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, which was never offered to me. This incongruity even marked the first months of my postulancy here at SSJE, for I had not yet begun to shed the romantic associations I had with the life into which God had drawn me.
For this reason, Elizabeth of Hungary, thirteenth century princess of Hungary, whom the church remembers today, stands out to me as more than an example of the saintly life for which she came to be known. Yes, all of these aspects of her memory—her deep love of and daily service to the poor and sick, her alms giving, her patronage of hospitals and the Third Order Franciscans—are worthy of our admiration and praise. She was, indeed, as Fr. Kevin Estabrook describes her, “a holy woman, more concerned about the nobility of her soul, than her noble status in the world—more concerned with clothing her soul with virtue, than with the fine garments of a queen—a holy, virtuous woman, industrious in doing good works.” Here was a woman whose “treasure” was where her heart had been drawn—into union with God.
Yet, behind all of this great and heavenly treasure, stood a woman whose vocation did not seem to conform to her deeper desires. Necessity and custom had seen her betrothed from age 3, and while she and her husband enjoyed an unusually happy marriage before his untimely death, she nonetheless yearned to live a life given over to prayer and service in a community, such as the (then novel) Franciscans.
God comes to us where we are. God’s call meets us in the concrete realities of life. Not where we think we should be; but where we actually are. And if we hold our vocational aspirations lightly, I believe that, like Blessed Elizabeth of Hungary, our treasure too will be where our heart is.
 Richard Meux Benson, SSJE, Chapter 4, The Religious Vocation (London and Oxford: A. R. Mowbray and Co., 1939), 69—78.
 Note: the preacher mistakenly attributes this to a different author during the oral delivery of this homily.
One of the amazing things I find about Scripture is that the human emotions which underlie so much of life are so evident throughout its pages. It’s not hard to imagine the fear and confusion of Mary as she encounters the angel at the Annunciation, because it’s right there in the pages of Luke. We don’t need to dream up the pride of Peter as the Lord tries to wash his feet at the Last Supper, because it’s right there in John. We don’t need to read into the text the care of the centurion for his sick servant, because it’s right there in Matthew. And today we don’t need to wonder about the rich young man because it is right there in Mark:
When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
All of us know something of shock, so we have some hint as to how the young man felt when told to sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. All of us know something about attachment to things, that when something is lost, or broken, or goes missing, we know the grief that it causes. It doesn’t take much for me to dredge up the sadness, and loss, and frustration I still feel over one broken Christmas present from nearly 60 years ago, to know in part the grief the rich young man felt as he turned away from Jesus, in order to return to his precious possessions. It doesn’t take much to imagine this young man.
In May of this year I sat in a webinar on climate emergency organized by Episcopal clergy and lay leaders. I listened to Dr. Bette Hecox-Lea, an Episcopalian and marine biologist, speak words of unvarnished truth about how biosphere degradation has activated tipping points that, if left on course, will result in a massive extinction event. On behalf of the scientific community, she said plainly, “We do not know what will come after these points have tipped permanently, other than that the earth will become uninhabitable.” I wept tears of shocked but sober recognition as I absorbed information I have heard before, but this time, truly listened.[i]
Five months earlier, in January, I had brought my weight of grief and hope for the world to the silent winter woods at Emery House. I had left screens and books and words and even food behind me for a time. I found a lone hemlock tree, and dug a clearing in the snow beneath it until I could see and touch the body of the earth. I nestled my weary body against the cold, dark, moist soil and gazed up at the green branches sheltering me. I prayed as though my life and all life depended upon it. Time seemed to stop as I lay there, and as the drops of snow-melt mingled with my tears of gratitude, something happened. My flesh knew the earth from which it had come, and to which it would return; my bones knew that death would be only a door into the Creator’s heart; and my heart knew that while I am alive I am bound by Christ to love him in and through this Creation, from which we are not separate.
One of the things which fascinates me about the saints is that often those things for which they are most remembered and venerated, probably never happened. We keep today the feast of St. James and John the Apostles. As you know, James is remembered in parts of the Church as the one who first preached the Good News of the Gospel in Spain. It would appear that today only Spaniards believe this, for the earliest accounts of St. James’ travels to Spain only goes back to the seventh century. Truth, at least of the historical kind, seems to be unimportant when it comes to devotion to James, for even today his shrine in Spain continues to be one of the great places of pilgrimage in the Church.
According to that story, sometime after Pentecost, James travelled to Spain to preach the gospel. So far so good. But it gets better. While he was there, the Virgin appeared to him on the banks of the Ebro River, and commanded him to return to Jerusalem, where he faced his martyrdom. This apparition of Mary, known as Our Lady of the Pillar, is the first apparition of the Virgin, in a long series that includes Lourdes, Fatima, and Walsingham. But it gets better. Mary is presumed to have been living in Jerusalem at the time, so this was not so much an apparition, as it was an act of bilocation. Curiously, or not, some of the earliest archaeological evidence of devotion to Mary in Spain, dates to the fourth century, not far from where this apparition is said to have taken place. Another story of James’ martyrdom is that his accuser immediately repented and suffered the same fate as James. Following his death his body was transferred by to Spain, either by angels, or floating in a stone boat.
Do you remember the first rumblings about this Covid-19 virus you heard back in early 2020? What did it sound like to you when you started to hear warnings about a troublesome outbreak in a country far away? Depending on your profession, your news sources, your general level of awareness it probably took a while before the full reality set it. Even now mystery surrounds its origins and sadly there is no shortage of suspicion, blame, and contradictory information. Such is often the case with a prophetic voice. Dire warnings and croakings of doom are seldom heeded without hesitation and all too frequently caution is ignored until someone is directly impacted.
This has been true since the time of the prophet Amos, through to the time of John the Baptizer and, and continues to this very day. Why is it so hard to heed the prophet’s cry?
It reminds me a bit of earthquakes. I had been living in Los Angeles for a year before I encountered my first one. That day I was helping some friends fill up one of those big moving and storage pods. It had been a long day and near the end I hopped up on the pile to jam a few more things in the back corners. Then I felt my friends shaking the pod back and forth. Hey guys knock it off and help me. “It’s an earthquake, Todd.” Yeah, cute, stop making the earthquake and hand me another box. They were native Angelenos and knew exactly what was going on. A guy from Colorado like me had a hard time understanding what was happening. It didn’t compute to me that the actual ground was shaking. I still had my doubts until they started making calls to family saying, did you feel it? Yeah, we’re safe… I saw the news reports later in the day and I finally believed.
We’ve all done it before. I know I have. We’ve been presented with something to assemble, and merrily gone about it, with no regard to the instructions included in the box. When we have finished, it either doesn’t work as it should, it looks nothing like the box top, or we have some pieces left over. That’s happened to me over and over. I can’t be bothered to read the instructions; I don’t understand them; or I miss a few crucial steps. Some of us, it seems are just not wired to follow instructions, or read the manual.
Since Wednesday we have been reading our way through this portion of Matthew’s gospel. In a sense, it’s the instruction manual for discipleship.
We already know from the picture on the box what we have in our hands: Jesus … gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. That looks pretty cool, and kind of fun. And who wouldn’t want to be able to do that stuff? At first the instructions are simple enough. Step One: Be called. Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples. Steps Two through Six are equally easy to follow. ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfect? This sounds impossible. Remember one of your favorite teachers, whether a family member or in school, perhaps a coach. Imagine a favorite teacher saying: “Keep growing into more. You can do it.” How does it feel to hear that?
Today’s Gospel is the last in a series from Jesus:[i] You have heard it was said … but I say to you … .” With each one, Jesus invites beyond what has been already learned. You have heard: Don’t murder. But I say beware of your anger and insulting each other. You have heard: Don’t commit adultery. But I say beware of lust. Keep the spirit of the law. You have heard: Hate your enemy. But I say love your enemies.
Like a parent, teacher, coach, or one whom we admire, Jesus says: There’s more than the basic rules you already know. This is the way of adulthood.[ii] Keep on growing into further maturity, into an expansive spirit with integrity and mercy toward everyone, all the time. Scholar Dale Bruner writes the word translated as perfect is not about the height of accomplishment to which we reach up but rather the width of mercy, reaching out to embrace, and Bruner translates it as “perfectly mature.” [iii]
In the parallel passage in Luke, Jesus says: “be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.”[iv] The New English Bible puts Matthew’s line as “be all goodness, as your heavenly Father is all good.” Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. … Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
As a child, Jesus would never have said this about himself: “I am the good shepherd.” Jesus is saying this when he’s in his early 30s. But as a child, Jesus would never have thought of himself as “the good shepherd.” He was not a shepherd: good, bad, or indifferent. At least there’s no record in the scriptures that he ever kept sheep. It would never have occurred to him to think that he was “the good shepherd.” As a child, Jesus would have learned and prayed Psalm 23 in the same way that we have: “The Lord is my shepherd.”[i] The Lord was his shepherd. He would have known Psalm 78, about the good shepherding of God for his people: [The Lord] brought his people out like a flock; he led them like sheep through the wilderness.”[ii] The God whom Jesus called “Lord” was the good shepherd.[iii] In a land where sheep abound – their wool to make blankets and clothing; their meat for the daily diet – metaphors about sheep and shepherds would be in common parlance. In the scriptures, there are more than 300 references to sheep and shepherds. Jesus would have known about sheep, and the Lord being his shepherd, but he was no shepherd.
At a young age, Jesus would also have known that ancient Israel’s kings, beginning with King David, were known as shepherds of the nation. Clearly, Jesus was no such shepherd-king. He certainly did not appear royal. He grew up in Nazareth and the reputation was that nothing good could come out of Nazareth. We are not even sure if Jesus was employed. So what happened? When did Jesus’ sense of identity shift. Why did he come to understand himself as a shepherd, a good shepherd, and identify with the Good Shepherd? Why and how? We know some things for sure, and other influences we can conjecture. Just like for all the rest of us, many things influence us. A whole collage of things form, or deform, or reform the tapestry of our calling in life – our vocation. So it was for Jesus. Something evolved in his identifying with shepherds. What happened?
Occasion: Birthday Celebration of Isabella Stewart Gardner
Place: Chapel at the end of the Long Gallery, Gardner Museum
There are a number of words that we might use to describe Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose birthday we are celebrating today. We might use the word audacious. We could describe her as scandalous or provocative. We might call her stubborn. We could call her eccentric. We could certainly call her rich. I am sure that she was called these, and many others besides. But there is one word which we might not normally associate with her. That word is courageous.
I saw that word downstairs in the gallery where the works of one of the Museum’s artists in residence are exhibited several years ago. The works, a series of miniatures, included an excerpt from a letter written to Mrs. Gardner by her friend Matthew Stewart Prichard an art historian and one time assistant curator of the neighbouring MFA. In the letter to Mrs. Gardner, Prichard he wrote: Be generous, generosity is a symptom of courage. If you fear; you are selfish.
We are all here today, because of Mrs. Gardner’s courage. She had the courage to be generous and by her generosity both the Monastery in Cambridge and the Museum here on the Fenway continue to thrive as important cultural and religious centres in the Boston area. Without her generosity neither Museum nor Monastery would exist.
This spring we’ve watched as a pair of morning doves built a nest on the outdoor crucifix located in our cloister garden. Nestled on the shoulder of the crucified Jesus, the mother sat motionless on her eggs for days and days. At last the chicks emerged.
I had the extraordinary good fortune to be watching the nest this past Monday evening. The two chicks are now adolescents, about 2/3 the size of their adult parents and darker in coloring. They were sitting side by side in the nest, eagerly looking out on the world. Their mother appeared and, standing on the head of the crucified Jesus, she fed them. Then she flew off and perched nearby where she could keep a close eye on them.
You could tell there was something happening. The young birds began rocking back and forth in the nest, as if working up their courage to leave the warmth and security of the nest. Finally, one of them took the leap. It flapped wildly around the cloister, unable to control its flight, banging into the walls and ceiling until it finally fell stunned to the floor. The second one readied itself for its first flight, rocking in the nest before finally launching its body into the air. Like the first, it flapped wildly about, crashing into the ceiling and walls, and then landing on the floor. It waited for a bit, then took off again, this time successfully navigating its way through the arches and out into the garden.