A Reflection Before Priestly Ordination
by frater Louis Levi Hager, O.Praem.
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13).
My whole life has in one way or another revolved around the desires that make up the very core of this single verse. Sometimes intentionally, but most times unknowingly, I found that the direction of my life was set by the principles which form the bold application of this verse. For a man is wont to give of himself for the sake of those around him. A great man is wont to sacrifice his very life for the same. Though far from being a great man by natural inclinations, nevertheless, the good Lord fashions those He wills into fitting instruments for the unfolding of His grace: Observe, He does not choose the good; but those, whom He has chosen, He makes good: And I have ordained you that you should go, and bring forth fruit (Augustine, Catena, 15, lec. 4). And so I can confess with joy that He has worked in me the grandest of desires from my earliest of memories:
Have you ever loved someone so much that you wished you could bear all their sufferings so as to wipe away even one of their tears? For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son (Jn 3:16). Have you ever grieved the separation of a friend so much that you would break all the rules to bridge that gap? …Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel (which means, God with us) (Is 7:14; Mt 1:23). Have you ever desired with the greater part of your energies to give to those closest to you the best of gifts so as to prove to them your love? …For the LORD God is a sun and shield; He bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the LORD withhold from those who walk uprightly (Ps 84:11). To sacrifice, to mediate and intercede for, and to give—these are the true desires of every priest.
It is no coincidence that God has worked such like desires in my soul over these past nearly eight years in the monastery, as well as over the course of my youth. These kinds of desires direct a man to make of himself and of his life a total sacrifice, something that approaches as close as possible the life that Christ lived while He walked this earth. And by the reality of my solemn religious profession I have already touched upon the satisfaction of these desires for self-sacrifice and self-offering in a real way: Thus man himself, consecrated in the name of God, and vowed to God, is a sacrifice in so far as he dies to the world that he may live to God (Augustine, City of God, 10.6).
But God now wants more from me than the offering of my solemn profession. Here I stand on the brink of forever—You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek (Ps 110:4)—and I look back at the nearly eight years of life lived in fraternal community, a life of working, praying, eating, dying, adoring, sighing, and pursing of all things virtuous within the halls of the sweet shelter of the Rule of Our Holy Father Saint Augustine, a life of brothers with but one mind and one heart on our way to God (Augustine, Regula, 1.2). Peering out over these countless moments of grace given within the context of brothers, side by side, fighting the good fight, I turn now to what lies ahead: the ordination to the sacred priesthood of Christ. What bountiful graces are yet to unfold? So I am here at the great solemn step that ends an epoch and begins a new one. But throughout the change there is at least this one continuous desire at work: to be a sacrifice:
The soul itself become[s] a sacrifice when it offers itself to God, in order that, being inflamed by the fire of His love, it may receive of His beauty and become pleasing to Him, losing the shape of earthly desire, and being remolded in the image of permanent loveliness (Augustine, City of God, 10.6).
I have asked this of God time and again, begging from Him the grace to give back to Him what He has so generously given me. My life thus far in the monastery, within the canonry of St.Michael’s in Orange, and every moment that purposefully led up to my entrance into the Abbey has been one of asking. Now the good Lord has laid forth His reply to this plea, to give at last the answer for me, as though saying:
“I have called you My son, and you shall indeed be the sacrifice for My people. I have called you into the grand orchestration of My saving work. You shall be another Christ to My people, dwelling among them as My instrument of mercy. For you shall be in Christ, for Christ, and with Christ at the service of all men” (Benedict XVI, G.A., 24 June 2009).
Because of this generosity of the Father, the prayer of a little boy is heard and granted beyond comprehension and beyond natural capabilities—it is a strange thing that the One Who made our nature has also given as He wishes a desire beyond its powers—and that child will soon say with the utmost confidence: It is not I who live but Christ Who lives in me. And insofar as this is true, he has become what he always wanted, the scapegoat, the redeeming victim, the bridge between friends and their ultimate desires, the sacrifice. And so here at the end of many things, but truly at the beginning of everything, by the grace of God, and only through His continued favor, I can say that I am about to prove the greatest act of love I am capable of: to lay down my life for my friends.
The priest at the moment of the consecration of the sacred species, when the bread and wine substantially change into the true Body and Blood of Christ, speaks in a curious way. It proves that he is not merely the dispenser of the sacrament but the one who offers up the holocaust personally: this is my Body…this is my Blood…he is then at that moment acting in persona Christi; he is the victim, the offering, the sacrifice laid up upon the altar as a sweet smelling gift to the Father for the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of the world. At that moment, when those words are on my lips, the childhood dream of a very little boy will come true. I will be the sacrifice that my friends deserve, the bridge that will lead them to heaven, and the one who will immolate upon the altar that Spotless Lamb, Who in turn will be for them the Giver of every good gift (Augustine, Regula, 8.2).
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Being born in Southern California and growing up in the Orange County area meant that, among other reasons, I knew about St. Michael’s Abbey and had certain dedicated exposure to its vibrant liturgical life many years before I chose to enter as a seminarian. In fact, my family has been connected to the Abbey since before I was even born! Having been taught grade-school Catechism by a Norbertine, and growing up each summer at the seminarian apostolate (St. Michael’s Summer Camp) were natural steps that led me to enter the Abbey. In many ways, I am a sort of contemporary counterpart to the classic medieval peasant/farm boy who would enter the monastery just down the road from where he lived his whole life. It has been nearly eight years since my entrance into the Abbey and by the grace of God I am very happy to accept His calling to be a priest alongside the many edifying and inspiring white-clad canons I now call brothers and confreres. May the Good Lord bring to completion the good work He has begun in me.
Those who trust in him, the faithful shall abide with him in love because grace and mercy are with his holy ones and his care is with his elect.’ Words from the first reading from the book of wisdom on this day the 2nd of November, the commemoration of all the faithful departed, all souls day.
Even as his health declined, Fr. Leo continued to orient his life to the service of the altar, recognizing in the Holy Eucharist the source of every grace and heavenly blessing. At that moment, I knew that I, too, wanted to be a Norbertine priest, “lifting high the Holy Eucharist over the miseries and errors of this world.”
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