The following is the text of the sermon that Brother Aiden Owen, Holy Cross Monastery, Episcopal Diocese of New York, preached at the General Convention Eucharist on July 11, 2018.
In the name of the one God who is lover, beloved, and love overflowing. (Amen.)
What do you desire?
That’s the first question you’re asked when you’re received as a postulant in a monastic community, and you’re asked that question again when you receive the habit as a novice, and you’re asked it again when you make the three-fold Benedictine vow of obedience, stability, and conversion of life to the monastic way.
The question of desire drives the Benedictine Way, and, indeed the Christian Way. In his Rule for monks, Benedict gives a very simple and a very challenging answer: prefer nothing whatever to Christ.
You see, Benedict knew that, contrary to the image of monasticism in popular culture as a dour and serious life, the monastic life is really a love affair. For fifteen hundred years Benedict’s rule has provided a structure and a context for pursuing the deepest longing of the heart for wholeness and unity in God. The Christian mystical tradition calls this search the pursuit of “purity of heart,” though we might more accurately describe it as “unity of heart,” which is to say the uniting of our entire being—body, mind, spirit, heart—centered in love on the one who is Love itself.
Monastic communities have always been spacious places in a crowded world. That space was certainly what drew me to Benedictine life. My whole life I had been driven by a longing so deep and powerful that I couldn’t find a name for it. This longing was a burning secret at the center of my life. And every context in which I found myself was simply too small to hold it, or to hold me.
When I came to Holy Cross, where I’m now a monk, my intuition told me that I had finally found a place with enough space for that longing. It was certainly one of the few places I had found where people nodded their heads knowingly when I mentioned this deep desire without a name. I dare you to try talking about longing at coffee hour, and see what kind of stares you get.
I remember Andrew, in particular, he was an old Scottish monk with a wicked sense of humor, who would sit with me on my visits to the monastery. He looked me right in the eyes, he looked deep in my heart as only those who have lived the life of faith for decades can do, and he said, “I love you.” And as the tears streamed down my face, he said, in voice that told me he understood, “Yes, it hurts to be loved.”
It does hurt to be loved. And it also hurts to love. Which is probably one reason so many of us avoid loving as fully, deeply, and freely as Jesus calls us to do. In this world that is so often small-minded, bitter, and violent—and increasingly so—we harden our hearts to keep them from breaking. But it’s only the broken heart that has enough space to love as we ought. And it is only by breaking that our hearts turn from stone to flesh.
Monastic life participates, right here and now, in eternity. That is the secret to its spaciousness. In the hallowing of the everyday, Benedict’s rule points toward the holiness of the incarnate life in which, as he points out, the tools of the kitchen or the garden are as precious as the vessels of the altar. With eternity as its context, there is enough space for the whole of one’s life to emerge.
How different that process is from the process of education, identity-building, and success in contemporary society and even in the Church today. In Benedictine life you don’t “become someone.” You don’t “make it.” Instead, over a lifetime, you surrender to God’s desire to stitch back together the fragments of your life, so that, what once seemed maimed, ugly, or shameful becomes, through the persistent and loving movement of God, beautiful, whole, and holy.
The Benedictine vision of the Christian life, in fact, asserts that it is precisely these parts of ourselves we would most like to deny that are the gateways to holiness. We are not to jettison the shameful inner fragments, nor to exile or erase them, as if we even could. No, we are to allow God, in the context of our community life, to heal and transform those parts so that even they carry nourishing blood throughout the body.
If this movement toward wholeness is true on the individual level, how much truer it is for the community. For Benedictines, salvation is never individual. It is always communal. Each member of the monastic community is essential to the health of the whole body, each has his or her unique contribution to make. When a brother or sister is in need of a physician, the community provides one, which may include disciplinary action, but always with the goal not of punishing or shaming but of healing, transforming, and integrating that brother or sister back into the body of the community, where their flourishing is our flourishing.
None of us can or will be saved in isolation. It’s all of us or none of us. Because love is never finally satisfied. As any monk or any lover will tell you, the more your desire is fulfilled, the deeper that desire becomes. It has no limit, because, ultimately, our desire is to be in total union with the one who made and sustains us, the one whose Love is our true name and our true nature.
The more I live the monastic and the Christian life, the more fully I am convinced that no one and nothing is beyond God’s love. And that no matter how dark the times in which we live, God is still working, through each of us, to break the world’s heart open so that it can become a heart of flesh.
This is a challenging vision in the times in which we live. The forces of evil swirl around us and they seem to tighten rather than loosen their hold. And yet, even— probably especially—when evil seems strongest, we are called all the more to allow our hearts to break open, and to love without reservation.
I do understand the impulse to defeat and to vanquish evil. But such violent impulses are actually a part of evil’s grip on us. Although we can and we must resist evil, we can never destroy it. Such is not within our power. Rather, we are called to bear witness to the one who can heal and integrate evil, to the one who can break evil open, and turn even the stoniest heart to flesh. We are called to point the way, through our own fleshy hearts, to the one who can transform and convert evil into good, so that, at the end, even Lucifer will bear God’s light again.
James Stephens puts this idea beautifully in his poem “The Fullness of Time,”
On a rusty iron throne
Past the furthest star of space
I saw Satan sit alone,
Old and haggard was his face;
For his work was done and he
Rested in eternity.
And to him from out the sun
Came his father and his friend
Saying, now the work is done
Enmity is at an end:
And he guided Satan to
Paradises that he knew.
Gabriel without a frown,
Uriel without a spear,
Raphael came singing down
Welcoming their ancient peer,
And they seated him beside
One who had been crucified.
There is nothing and no one who does not, ultimately, belong to God. There is no part of us, individually or collectively, that is beyond the reach of God’s healing and reconciling love. And if we follow the deep desires of our heart, if we prefer nothing whatever to Christ and allow Christ’s love to break and fill our hearts, who knows what kind of spacious sanctuary we may become?