A Homily by Fr. Columba Stewart, OSB

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Responding to Sexual Misconduct at Saint John’s… Some years ago a few of us monks who work in Abbey liturgy were looking at the opening line of a favorite Lenten hymn. The text read: “Turn back, O man, foreswear thy foolish ways.” We wanted to make the language more gender-inclusive. One of my confreres piped up and said, “how about ‘Turn back… and forth?’” He was right: it’s more honest. How our lives are littered with false starts and broken promises. Even good intentions quickly fade or slowly wither. Jesus knew, just as we do, that talk is cheap. That was the fault of the second son in today’s gospel. He seemed like an eager-beaver when asked by Dad to work in the vineyard, but somehow didn’t manage to get there. Something came up, he didn’t feel like it, he was irritated that his brother said he wouldn’t go. Whatever. The difference between the brothers was not their words, but their follow-through.

Jesus told this story to chide the religious officials of his day for claiming superiority over tax collectors and prostitutes while missing the whole point of their own faith commitment. If we really believe in God, and really grasp what it means to owe life and strength and creativity and every virtue to God’s grace, we must learn to be frank about our own failure to act from that truth. This simple admission of failure and commitment to living differently is repentance. Repentance means change, change for the better, and change for spiritual reasons. It’s not simply about replacing bad habits with better ones. It’s about doing the right thing for the right reason. The son who changed his mind and went down to the vineyard after all did it because it was his father who asked him. He did it out of love. Repentance does not reckon advantage or crave recognition. To repent is to live differently because we love deeply. As T.S. Eliot write in Murder in the Cathedral, “the greatest treason:/ [is] to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Repentance brings the right deed and the right reason, right intention and right action, back into synch.

The call to repent can be urgent and “right now” or gently insistent over a long period of time. It can be quiet and easy to miss if we aren’t paying attention. Even when we are listening keenly we may not be certain of what Christ is demanding of us. However it comes, the call to change is always risky, for we never know what consequences our actions, even our good actions, will have. Doing the right thing brings no guarantee of reward or happiness. Even so, we do it. It may be a small matter that costs us little. Or, what is asked of us may be great, and the cost seem almost impossible to bear. Whether small or great, repentance changes the way we look at things. Not only do we see our past actions in a new way, but we see everything in a new way.

Our heaviest curse remains our inability to live fully in God’s image, loving God and one another freely and directly. Repentance is a step toward such freedom and directness. “I will no longer hide this.” Thus we begin to uncurl the grasp of sin upon our lives. St Benedict writes at the end of the Prologue of his Rule for Monks of the “heart expanded by the inexpressible delight of love.” Repentance-and its corollary, honesty– is how God eases the cramped heart open to his grace. This is important: we don’t grow in love by being nicer. We grow in love by being more honest about our sinfulness and narrow perceptions, about our judgments of one another, about the harm that results from our egotism and selfishness. The miracle of repentance is that shame is transmuted into humility, and humility is the doorkeeper for love. Someone who no longer has anything to hide can be a tremendous agent of healing for others, showing them that it’s OK to reveal themselves to the living God—and to one another.

Everyone here today knows from painful experience what it means to break a promise or compromise a commitment made in good faith. Such failure is always deeply embarrassing. Sometimes it is very destructive. All of the monks behind me this morning have professed vows that they know they cannot keep—not with total purity of intention, not with absolute purity of action. As many of you know, there is no such thing as a perfect marriage, either. The failure of some of my brothers to live their vows has been publicly exposed. Their failure has hurt other people and the Church, and they are deeply sorry. The rest of us grieve for their victims as well as for our brothers, while knowing our own infidelities all too well. For the Church, and for our monastery, this is a time of harsh but genuine grace.

None of us can claim perfect integrity; such is not possible in this life. All of us can, however, lay hold of the mercy of Christ, who alone can heal hearts that have been broken by abuse, by grief, by violence, or neglect, or war. Though the heart can be broken a hundred different ways, it can be truly healed only one way, and it is His life that we celebrate in this Eucharist. May we all approach this altar mindful that despite all that divides us, here we stand together as sinners, before the One who came to make us whole.]

Responding to Sexual Misconduct at Saint John’s
A Homily by Fr. Columba Stewart, OSB
Homecoming Sunday, Sept. 29, 2002

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