Foolishness for God

Fr. Abbot's homily in thanksgiving for members of the Abbot's Circle.

There is a curious tradition in Christian writing – and writing about Christians – that describes love for Christ as foolishness, as we have heard a few moments ago.  Today the liturgy celebrates the feast of all the Norbertine saints and the saints of other orders who follow what we call the canonical life, that is clerics living in common, celebrating solemnly the prayer of the Church, its liturgy, undertaking the priestly charge of the care of souls, the cura animorum, in their daily apostolic work, in all its varied forms.  You, as members of the Abbot’s Circle, are very much essential to and indeed part of this our canonical life here at St. Michael’s Abbey.  And for all the saints we honor today over our 9 centuries history and for you and us - dare we say or hope - saints in training- being considered foolish by the world, the secular order, well that’s part and parcel of who we are.

The first reading we have heard proclaimed as the word of the Lord Himself is take from the words of St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, who twice mentions that what the world considers foolish, God considers wise, and vice-versa. Paul is describing why the gospel message he preaches seems so foolish to so many people.  Now for me, in considering what the sacred scriptures provides for our nourishment today, I discovered something new to me or something maybe I heard once upon a time long ago, 55 years ago when I studied Elements of Biblical Greek, and forgot.  My pre-homily research for today revealed to me or reminded me that Foolish," (as St Paul uses the word) or "folly," comes from the same Greek word used to form terms such as moron. It's not merely that the world sees the gospel as odd, or unusual. The citizens of the secular world, the city of Man as opposed to the City of God, see the Gospel we try to live by and sees ourselves as stupid—as idiotic – as even worse moronic.

St Francis of Assisi, it is widely written, was regarded as a fool by his contemporaries. St. John of the Cross’s poetry conveys the extent to which love for Christ consumes the heart and, in a sense, distorts worldly reason.

More modern writers — Erasmus and Dostoyevsky, for example — speak of holiness in these similar terms, as foolishness, as folly, as madness.  So certainly all the men and women Norbertines, and all the members of the other varied institutes which make up Canonical Order know something of this experience, even if it was only an inner voice whispering at one or another moment, to one or another of them “Am I crazy?” or “I must be crazy.”

I stand here in your company, in this beautiful Church, in Southern California, of all places, and at this moment in history, of all times, I cannot help but wonder if – actually hope – pray - that we are truly part of that long, and, in the minds of the great ones of even today, a seriously foolish story!  That is Christ’s story of which part and parcel is what the contemporary secular mindset considers to be of a foolish – moronic – idiotic character. We pray that being here all together in this place today represents fidelity to that Gospel story, our story over 900 years in the making, of those who walked and now seek to walk in the footsteps of our holy founder and father, St Norbert, his first followers, all the holy men and women who followed him and his way and prioritized love — above the conventional wisdom of the world, above their own self interest — all for the Glory of God.

Now, none of this means to suggest that we can ignore prudence. God gave us judgment for a reason.  But foolishness for God does mean that we need occasionally to fight against our very American inclination to pragmatism, our desire to control our own destiny and forge our own fate. We do not, we cannot, know the full impact of love, and the extent to which God can act through it.

St. Norbert could not possibly have known that his legacy would span oceans. His successors could not possibly have imagined the spiritual and cultural reform the Norbertine order would effect. And of course speaking of foolishness – for many of a relatively recent earlier generation, who could have imagined that the 7 Hungarian priests-refugees fleeing Communism, who arrived in our country in debt, literally without a penny to their name, could reestablish not only community life in a setting quite different from their Central European, Austro-Hungarian culture, but planted the roots and nurtured those roots which gave rise to the place we all stand in today.

At first glance, the founders of our community, Abbot Ladislas Parker and his six confreres, could not possibly have imagined that their heroism and sacrifice would one day result in this beautiful church, in this growing community.  But here we are.  Now on second thought maybe Abbot Ladislas did imagine that.  He said to me, once we had embarked on the adventure of finding a new place for a new abbey, appropos of nothing at the time, “Eugene, I support what you, the younger generation, I support what you are doing, building a new abbey.”  Now I was happy to hear that but wasn’t sure and still am unsure why he said it then.  Maybe he had some inkling of what was coming.  Perhaps he was anticipating the verdict of the two independent companies, each of which from their careful analysis, estimated independently that we would be able to raise at most about $65-70 million dollars, at most, toward our great dream, our daring vision.  Maybe even then, from his own experience, he knew the occupational hazard of giving to the Norbertines in the wider regional ecclesiastical context, with some, one or another, critics saying “Why are you helping them?”  I think the Norbertine saints, we honor today, must have appreciated that what the Norbertines of St Michael’s Abbey started a decade or so into a new century needed big help and they provided it according to their station in the life of the Mystical Body, and they provided it in part, we can say, in those gathered here, in the congregation we find ourselves part of today.

For, you, too, yourselves are answers to our prayers and the inspiration of the all the Holy ones, the Virgin Mary, her spouse St Joseph, holy canons and canonesses regular, down through the centuries.

You too, as well as those you represent in a way –in a so important way-, the others of the nearly 1700 members (from 15 countries and 47 states) of the Abbot’s Circle - so many of them like you, engaged in an act of faith, that echoes the words of Abbot Parker “I support what you are doing here.”. Some of the fruit of your support, your generosity and your prayer is around you: this beautiful church, the beautiful campus here in the hills, the growing ranks of seminarians and priests.

But most of the good you are actually supporting – this will remain hidden from you and many maybe even most of us, until the day of the Lord’s coming, his return, his judgment, which we pray of confidently in the Eucharistic prayer saying “As we look forward to his second coming.”  This good is far reaching and so varied:  the indescribable healing offered in the sacrament of confession, the consolation and calming presence of Christ brought to deathbeds, the sound teaching and courageous example offered at times to a world, part of which is do deeply mired in confusion and sin. It is a moment of reflection and even conversion that occurs when someone encounters a video or a kernel or more of spiritual wisdom of confreres writ-ings online or in a bookstore. And, indeed, it is the example of consecrated men, priests following the Gospel mandate heard in today’s Gospel, (Sell what you have and come follow me) that will touch hearts of the next gener-ation of young men inspiring them to lay down their lives for Christ.

On this Feast of All Norbertine Saints, I want to thank you for helping to form, God willing, a generation of Norbertine Saints. I want to thank you for living foolishly, acting out of love and not counting the cost.  And in the meantime we pray especially today to the Norbertine saints who have gone before us in these nine past centuries, the Norbertine Saints who, for 900 years, have acted foolishly for love of God. May we dare to hope and faith-fully pray that in 900 years’ time, Norbertines reflect similarly on the foolish work, that was carried out in this church, this place, all the places to which they have been called and to every apostolate they have been sent. Amen

This homily was given by Fr. Abbot at the first annual mass for Abbot’s Circle donors in thanksgiving for their support in the groundbreaking work which the Abbot's Circle is doing in the digital realm.

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