“Sustain me, O Lord, as you have promised.”
A Sermon for the
Weekday Eucharist at 11:30 a.m.
July 10, 2019
The Feast of Saint Benedict,
Patron of Western Monaticism
Trinity Episcopal Church
In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
On the eleventh day of July at the Eucharist to commemorate the Solemnity of Holy Father, Saint Benedict of Nursia, the Patron of Western Monasticism, the monk who is to make his Solemn Profession of Vows kneels before the Archabbot of Saint Vincent in front of the altar in the Archabbey Basilica. He places his hands in those of the Archabbot and “in the presence of his Father in Christ and the monks of that community,” he professes to God the Solemn Monastic Vows—binding for life—of stability, of obedience (according the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict and the laws proper to the American Cassinese Congregation) and of conversion of life.
He then goes to the altar with the Archabbot and, after both sign the vows formulary, it is laid on the altar to symbolize the offering of the Vows to God.
Afterwards the now Solemnly Professed Choir Monk returns to stand in front of the altar. With the Community standing in unity with him, he holds up both hands to God and sings the Suscipe: “Sustain me, O Lord, as you have promised that I may live. And disappoint me not in my hope.” This song of offering and commitment is sung three times, each time on a slightly higher note.
The notion that God is the one who sustains the “one who is truly seeking God,” is at the very heart of the understanding of the monastic vocation. It is derived from the personal experience of Benedict who dwelt in solitude in the cave until he was called forth to serve others as a guide and to lead them on the path that leads to God.
This is the foundation on which Benedict founded the “School of the Lord’s Service,” as he described the monasteries which he founded. But above all, it is in the actual quest-for-God that the monastic calling is upheld and sustained.
Benedict was unique in the practical way that he explained how God could be sought and found. Deeply impacted by the experience of the Prophet Elijah, that first “Man of God,”—who, following his greatest success found himself on the run from the evil Queen Jezebel (who had hired hit men to bring him in “dead or alive”),—hid out in a cave. Frightened for his life and shivering in that cave, Elijah discovered that God could not be found in dramatic external events like tornadoes, earthquakes and infernos. No, Elijah powerfully found God in quiet peace and solitude.
Benedict suggests that God may be found in community, in prayer, in quiet solitude, in work, in generous and loving hospitality and in service to others. Each of these elements offer an opportunity to become aware of the loving presence of God. Unless one is focused and knows where and how to search, God’s subtle and gracious presence could be missed. The quest-for-God requires discipline, focus, and—asculta,” that one learn to “listen.”
Of all these elements, though, the most surprising might be “work.” As then, many today regard work as a “necessary evil.” As a popular song puts it “we work hard for our money.” In a society in which so many do not have a reliable employment which pays a living wage, work can be viewed as something which one is “forced to do to endure” in order to “just get by”—to “survive.” I recall, for instance, my Grandfather Cook telling me, when I complained about hoeing tobacco in the hot Summer sun, that it “was the punishment that Adam and Eve had brought upon us for sinning against God.”
Benedict, though, had a far more hopeful and optimistic view. For him work was something which should be joyous and fulfilling. One should be able to use talents, gifts, and abilities to be artistic and creative in producing something of beauty and value. He even goes so far as to suggest that an ordinary implement like, for instance, a hoe which a gardener uses (or a farm boy in the mountains uses in a tobacco field) should be treated with the same respect that is given to the chalice on the altar. And if one is able to produce a surplus, it can then be used to share with those in need “so that in all things God may be glorified.”
In the Prologue to the Holy Rule, Benedict encourages us: “Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”
On this feast of Saint Benedict, Patron of Western Monasticism, may we have the grace to seek and to find God. May God bring to completion the work we undertake to empower the Jesus Movement.
As we “progress on the road which leads to salvation” in this faith community, may God indeed sustain us in our call —as God has promised to faithfully do.