The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
The name ‘Montepulciano’ makes me think of wine because when I was in my early teens I remember touring the vineyards of Tuscany with my parents, and being told that the wine from the town of Montepulciano, the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was especially fine – not that I was allowed to taste any of it! And today we celebrate and honour another fine vintage from that town, dating to the 13th-century: Saint Agnes of Montepulciano.
At the age of just 9, St Agnes entered a convent in Montepulciano. In fact, she’d been begging her parents to allow her to become a nun since the age of 6. This is a recurring theme in the life of many saintly nuns. They all knew from a very young age that they would only find happiness in giving their lives entirely to Christ. In this way, St Agnes lived up to her name: innocent and pure as a lamb, giving her whole life as a sacrificial offering to God.
However, we probably wonder what it is that enables such a young person to dedicate her life to God. If we live according to the flesh, seeing things from a worldly perspective, then the religious life, and especially the hidden contemplative life of a cloistered nun like St Agnes doesn’t make sense. But as the Lord says: “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail”. So, it is the Spirit who inspires the religious vocation and gives it life and meaning. It is as though one were intoxicated with love for Jesus Christ, drunk on the new wine of the Gospel. Just as wine gives one boldness or folly, so the saint who is filled with the Spirit, as Agnes was from her youth, is emboldened to live a life of heroic virtue, a life of prayer that seems like a folly to the world.
In the convent, Agnes lived a life of ardent prayer that was an expression of her love for the world. And this is the heart of the contemplative vocation and its beauty: a humble withdrawal into prayer because of one’s Christ-like love for the salvation of souls and of the world. Hence, St Catherine of Siena wrote concerning today’s saint: “She had a taste and a hunger for souls. She was always assiduous at keeping vigil in prayer. There is no other way of acquiring the virtue of humility, because there is no humility without charity; the one nourishes the other”.
The Montepulciano wine is said to have a strong bouquet of violets, and I might allude to the witnesses who said that violets, roses and lilies blossomed about St Agnes’ feet as she prayed. But, the wine is also one that matures beautifully, aging from a good young wine into a truly fine and noble vintage. Might I suggest, not too cheekily I hope, that this is reflected in St Agnes’ life too? Because, I was amazed to discover that the convent she entered at the age of 9 was a kind of primitive Franciscan convent, and at 15 she was called (with papal approval) to set up and head a new Franciscan convent in Proceno. She was prioress there for 20 years. But in 1306 she had a vision. The Lord called her to establish a new house in Montepulciano itself, but it was to be a Dominican convent. Thus, this young wine of Montepulciano, as it were, first laid down in the cellars of the Franciscans matured into a saintly Dominican vintage. St Agnes would live out the last 11 years of her life as a Dominican, and so today, our Order honours her.
May she pray for our Dominican nuns, that a new monastery might be established in our Province, and for the Order worldwide. And may she pray, too, for us, the holy Church of Christ.
Today we’re faced with one of the most challenging responses of the apostles: they rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name” (Acts 5:41). Can we say the same? Would we rejoice to suffer insults, shame, humiliation etc for the sake of Jesus? Or do we try our best to avoid even being known as Christians, unwilling to suffer the ridicule and awkward questions that this could bring down upon us? But, we know that so many of our brothers and sisters around the world do indeed suffer terribly for bearing the name of Christ – in Pakistan, in Egypt, in Iraq and Syria, and in Nigeria, China, and Libya. Yet, in a quiet humble way, it seems that they bear their suffering with profound faith; with joyful hope in the vindication that comes through Christ’s resurrection.
But why is there such persecution, such antagonism between the world and the Christian disciple? Perhaps the best reflection on this can be found in Chesterton’s biography of St Thomas Aquinas. Chesterton said, “The saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age. Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need”.
What our world needs is truth, but not an absolute truth that controls and that is used as a weapon; not an excuse for fundamentalist violence. Rather, the Truth we Christians believe in is a person, the God-Man who suffered and died for us. The truth is that we are loved, which means that Someone was willing to die for us, chose to sacrifice himself for our good and eternal happiness, so that we might live. The question, then, is, are we “worthy” of suffering and dying with Christ, of co-operating with him in the healing of our world, of being what the people need? This worthiness to mount the Cross with Christ and to proclaim the truth doesn’t come from a perceived superiority to others. Not at all. On the contrary, it can only come from humility; from emptying ourselves of our pride and need for worldly affirmation and praise; from being open to God’s grace so that we can share the mind of Christ who was “humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross” (cf Phil 2:5-8).
And if we are faithful to Christ in this way, and we bear witness to his sacrificial love, suffering with him for the love of our peers and contemporaries, then we can expect to be dishonoured and persecuted as Christ was. For “a servant is not greater than the Master” (John 15:20b). But, if so, then we can also be confident that we shall share in his glory. For Jesus promises: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you…Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Mt 5:11f).
In recent days, the virtue of humility has been mentioned frequently, especially with regard to Pope Francis and his patron saint, Francis of Assisi. And today, as the Pope officially began his ministry, we celebrate the Solemnity of the saint of humility, St Joseph. So, let us look to his example, and consider what, really, is humility?
St Joseph’s humility is shown in his openness to the angel’s word and his willingness to do as the angel told him. Through the humility of faith, St Joseph was willing to change his plans, ideas and behaviour so as to accommodate God’s revelation, God’s loving plan for him. So often we struggle to believe, to trust in God’s Word and teaching; we hang on to our intellectual pride. But with humility, which recognizes our human limitations, not least the limits of our poor reasoning and intellect, we open ourselves to be taught by Him who is Truth; we come closer to God.
St Joseph’s humility is also shown in his silence. He doesn’t say a word in the Gospels, but he listens, observes, learns. Our noisy, Media-led world adulates humility but does not seem to know what it is. For humility is found in silence, in a pondering, patient, chaste silence which includes admitting that oftentimes we just do not know. But from this humility comes an openness to Truth, to the mystery of another person, and above all, the mystery of God. As St Thomas says: “We cannot know the essence of God”, but what we can say about God is first given to us by the divine Word, we’re taught by Another, enlightened by divine revelation. A humble openness to Truth, as such, is the basis of all science and also of theology, of a brave and committed friendship with God through faith and reason. In such silence, St Joseph cradled and gazed upon the face of God in the Christ Child.
Our world is full of questions but in fact it lacks this silent and receptive humility that is necessary if we’re to hear a genuine honest answer. For the temptation of our modern communications-driven world is for us to always try and give quick answers, snappy judgements, and people expect analysis and commentary on everything. So, this morning on the BBC’s coverage of the papal Mass in Rome, one commentator said: “Nobody knows what to expect from this pontificate”, and the next moment, the group of commentators in the BBC studio had ready answers, speculations and opinions, pontificating on what the Supreme Pontiff should do… But we could all do well to emulate St Joseph’s humble silence, especially in the face of ignorance.
However, as St Joseph also shows us, humility doesn’t mean false modesty or mere agnosticism or simple passivity. This strong fatherly saint also acts with prudence and wisdom and uses the gifts he has from God. This, too, is humility: that we recognize what God has given us and act accordingly. As a Church this means we have a duty to preach the Truth of the Gospel which we’ve been taught, to speak up for those who are persecuted and oppressed, poor and marginalized, and to love them. By preaching Christ and being his Body on earth, we love our world, we love one another, and indeed we love God’s Word. Can preaching the truth be arrogance, as some say? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin put it this way: “the fact that we have greater abilities than another does not mean that we are greater in God’s eyes… but only that we have greater responsibilities. Thinking about how much we can do in comparison to what we have done… serves as a corrective against pride and arrogance”. And there’s no arguing that there is still so much we can do to become more truly like the One whom we preach and serve: Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that he accepted death on a Cross.
Like St Joseph, may we fix our gaze on Christ, and may St Joseph pray for us, and for our Holy Father, Francis.
Several things might have struck us about our new Holy Father last night. Firstly, he chose his papal name in honour of St Francis of Assisi, a universally popular saint who appeals to Christians and non-Christians alike. A saint renowned for his love of holy poverty, simplicity and austerity of life, humility and a zeal for re-building Christ’s Church. And the man who appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s seemed to have these qualities. He, the first Jesuit pope appeared in the simple white papal cassock – said to have been modelled on the white Dominican habit – bearing the name Francis. And he spoke simply, prayerfully, and then bowed in humility before the crowds to receive their – our – blessing before he, in turn, blessed us. Simplicity, humility, prayerfulness. Are these not qualities we associate with St Francis, which is why he is so loved?
But, it seems to me, the reason why we are drawn to such qualities is because of who they point to ultimately: our God. These works, so to speak, bear witness to Jesus Christ, who in humility bowed down to earth and was born of the Virgin Mary; our God who shares our poverty, our sufferings, and our alienation; Emmanuel, God-with-us. As the works that Christ does bears witness to the truth, to who God truly is, so, the works that we do as Christians bears witness to Christ, testifies that God is love and mercy. Moses learns this by first having to be merciful and compassionate himself, pleading with God for clemency. It seems that only when we ourselves have learnt these ‘works’ of humility, mercy and love, which reflect God’s true glory, then we can understand who God is, and, as his witnesses, attract others to him.
Hence, the work of rebuilding the Church, of restoring God’s glory to his Mystical Body, of witnessing to Christ and the saving truth of the Gospel does not belong to Pope Francis alone, or to saints like St Francis, but to each of us. And it begins with each of us learning, as Moses did, to be merciful and compassionate, interceding, praying, for others – much as Christ does, interceding at the right hand of the Father for us sinners. Simplicity, humility, prayerfulness are to be our virtues, too and Pope Francis led the way for us last night.
For, surely, one reason why so many people do not believe in Christ is because I – we – are often such poor witnesses? So, in this Year of Faith, the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, has exhorted us all, as Christ’s Church, to undertake an “authentic conversion” to the person of Jesus Christ so that we can be better witnesses. We can have no better model of radical conversion to Christ than St Francis, who (as Pope Benedict XVI has said) “simply wanted, through the word of God and the presence of the Lord [in the Eucharist], to renew the People of God, to call them back to listening to the word and to literal obedience to Christ”.
Now the Holy Spirit has raised up another Francis. May he renew God’s People in the same way. Perhaps we have one little indication of how Pope Francis will act. St Francis of Assisi famously tore his rich garments, and left them at the feet of his merchant father as a sign of worldly renunciation. So, too, Pope Francis, in his letter for the start of Lent this year, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, has referred to the tearing of garments, or, more properly of our hearts. His words raise a challenge for us individually and as a Church:
“Rend your heart, not the clothing of artificial penance without [an eternal] future.
Rend your heart, not the clothing of technical fasting of compliance that [only serves to keep us] satisfied.
Rend your heart, not the clothing of egotistical and superficial prayer that does not reach the inmost part of [your] life to allow it to be touched by God.
Rend your heart, that we may say with the Psalmist: ’We have sinned.’
Rend your hearts, open your hearts, because only with [such a] heart can we allow the entry of the merciful love of the Father, who loves us and heals us… Changing our way of living is both a sign and fruit of a torn heart, reconciled by a love that overwhelms us”.
Rend your hearts to experience, in serene and silent prayer, the gentle tenderness of God.
Rend your hearts to hear the echo of so many torn lives, so that indifference [to suffering] does not paralyze us… Rend your hearts to be able to love with the love with which we are beloved, to console with the consolation with which we are consoled, and to share what we have received”.
Today we celebrate a much-loved saint who learnt from the Christ Child the way of littleness, to become “the least” as Christ exhorts us in the Gospel, and, so, she became one of the greatest saints of our modern times.
Born in 1873, Thérèse Martin desired from the age of 14 to become a nun and sought special permission from Pope Leo XIII to enter the Carmelite convent at Lisieux. She entered the convent in 1887 and within a decade she would be dead from pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of just 24. Accustomed in her childhood to visiting the French city of Le Mans which is famed for motor racing, St Thérèse raced to holiness along her little way. She was canonized just 27 years after her death in 1924, and she was declared the patroness of France, patroness of Missions, and finally, a Doctor of the Church in 1997.
What is her appeal? St Thérèse’s way to holiness is called the “little way”, a humble simple child-like way that is full of trust in God. Let her speak for herself: “We live in an age of inventions. We need no longer climb laboriously up flights of stairs; in well-to-do houses there are lifts. And I was determined to find a lift to carry me to Jesus, for I was far too small to climb the steep stairs of perfection. So I sought in holy Scripture some idea of what this life I wanted would be, and I read these words: ‘Whosoever is a little one, come to me.’ It is your arms, Jesus, that are the lift to carry me to heaven. And so there is no need for me to grow up: I must stay little and become less and less”.
Thus, Thérèse articulated the saint’s utter dependence of God’s mercy, grace and goodness. Her life was not without anxiety, sadness and deep pain, but she entrusted everything to God as a child trusts in her loving father. This is her first lesson to us in holiness.
Secondly, she did not aspire to great heroic acts. She just desired to do the ordinary little things of life, the mundane daily tasks, with great love. Again, in her own words: “Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.” In her charming autobiography, for example, she mentions how she would smile kindly and serve especially those sisters she found difficult. So, St Thérèse abandoned herself to God’s will, to being filled with his love. Thus she who was least became great, and so can we too, if we make her prayer of self-offering ours.
“Jesus, I am too little to perform great actions, and my own folly is this: to trust that Your Love will accept me as a victim”. Amen.
It is tempting to think of monastic life, rapt in song and liturgical splendour, as angelic. And yet, it is vital to resist this. Man is a creature of the earth – that is what adam (in Genesis) means. And the monk is very much a creature of the earth. He works with his hands, and tills the earth. He lives with other people, and so is constantly reminded of his own human failings, and that of others! But above all, he is called to a life of humility, which comes from the word humus, meaning ‘earth’. And so, at the start of his monastic life, a man prostrates himself and clings to the earth, from which he is raised up as a new man, with a new name. His whole monastic life, in which he is schooled in humility, involves learning to be more truly a man of the earth, more fully human as Jesus Christ is. And for the monk, as for every one human person, there are two great temptations that we face.
The first is to seek to be angelic, and so, to think that we can ignore our bodily and biological limitations through the human will and the power of science so as to become übermensch. Hence, governments and societies challenge the natural law and ignore its limitations, they strive to re-define marriage and family, and to control human fertility, life and death. In this way, Man, like the first Adam grasps at what is properly God’s prerogative and gift. Closer to home, perhaps, we may judge others, and so usurp that divine right that God promises to give at the end to his faithful disciples. The second temptation, on the other hand, is to become like Cain, who behaved not so much like a rational human being but more like an irrational beast with irrepressible urges, powerless to control his pleasure-seeking desires, and giving in to passion, greed, and violence. I think at some level we can all recognize these inclinations towards the angelic or bestial in ourselves.
But we are called to be Man, and the monastic life arose to confront these dehumanizing temptations. Thus, the Rule of St Benedict called the monk, and every Christian too, I would say, to daily “battle under the Lord Christ, the true King”. Our weapons in this spiritual battle are twofold: humility and obedience.
My ‘CTS New Daily Missal’ provides a helpful summary of the tradition concerning who we celebrate today: “St Mark (died c.75), the author of the Gospel bearing his name, is often identified with the young man who ran away when the Lord was arrested. His Gospel gives the teaching and memoirs of St Peter. He joined St Paul and St Barnabas on their first missionary journey and later became St Paul’s secretary in Rome. He is thought to have established the Church in Alexandria, and to have died a martyr there”.
Except that, like the other evangelists, exactly who St Mark was is rather difficult to pin down. It’s like a detective investigation trying to track down the historical evangelist, and the traditional account of Mark’s identity is now thought to be a conflation of several different New Testament figures called Mark.
But this is not new. In fact, the evangelists’ identities have been debated since the second century, yet it seemed unimportant to some of the Church Fathers such as St Irenaeus just who the person of Mark was. Hippolytus of Rome, however, rather tantalizingly refers to him as ‘Mark the stumpy-fingered’. It is widely accepted that Mark’s gospel was written in Rome, and Hippolytus’ mention of a Mark with a specific physical attribute suggests that the author of Mark’s gospel was known and remembered by the Christians in Rome. But what mattered most was not who Mark was but what he wrote, and although he need not have been an eyewitness to Christ’s life, his source must have been, otherwise the early Christians would not have accepted his writings as an authentic witness to Christ’s life, and disseminated it so quickly. From the second century, the Church Father Papias asserted that Mark’s source was no less than St Peter, first bishop of the Roman Church, and there is little reason for us to disbelieve this important apostolic basis for St Mark’s Gospel.
Father Leon Dehon, founder of the Priestly Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Congregatio Sacerdotorum a Sacro Corde Iesu) also known as the Dehonians, celebrating Holy Mass. According to former privilege granted to the missionaries in China,