A sign of self-giving


Fr Damian Howard SJ

Homily given by Fr Damian Howard SJ on the occasion of the First Vows of Jacques St Laurent SJ, 27th February 2018.

When we asked Jacques to choose some scripture texts for today’s Mass, he took the plain old readings of the second week of Lent. He knew instinctively that we don’t put words into God’s mouth; the Word of God is to be submitted to.

As it happens, this Lenten Gospel shines a piercing light on the commitment we have gathered to hear Jacques make. There is a delightful sign in it of Jesus’ awareness of that common human worry: “am I getting my money’s worth?” If you have ever been to an oriental bazaar, you’ll know that it is a place that can make you anxious; it does me, that’s for sure, with its bargaining and unlikely promises of a good deal. Are the weights and measures fixed in favour of the merchants? Is the produce diluted or fake? Are the prices hideously inflated for the foreign tourist? (The answer is always yes…)

What makes all this relevant is that Jesus is preaching a message of mercy; it’s the very heart of the Gospel message. His new community is going to be gathered around the experience of mercy. Mutual forgiveness is central to what it means to be Christian. But being merciful feels like losing out, doesn’t it? That’s the problem: it can feel like giving up what is due to me. “If I forgive this person, what’s in it for me?” We’re back to the market place.

Jesus’s answer is so beautiful. He is manifestly aware of how we think: “don’t worry, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. God won’t con you. Mercy is a good deal, maybe even a sound investment.”

Why is that good to hear today? Because Jacques’s vows are very obviously a giving up of something: his independence, his right to make his own decisions, to have a career that suits him, to settle down and have a family and to enter into an exclusive loving and intimate relationship. Note, these are all good things! And believe me, some days he’s going to get out of bed to pray at the start of a new day and that very same question will come to him: what do I get out of this life? And at that moment, he will need to hear again the promise the Lord makes today: don’t worry, it will be more than worth it. Your generosity will be matched. The weights you put on the scale are the ones that will be used. There’ll be no cheating.

But that just raises another question, doesn’t it: which weights are you using?

It’s a question that brings us to the very essence of religious life itself. If you look at Christian history, you’ll see many examples of small numbers of Jesus’ followers, like the apostles themselves, sensing a call to give up everything, even their families, to dedicate their lives fully to the new life of the Gospel. Are these people better than everyone else? No: but their purpose is to remind us all of something. As Pope Paul VI wrote in 1971: “Without this concrete sign there would be a danger that the charity which animates the entire Church would grow cold, that the salvific paradox of the Gospel would be blunted, and that the ‘salt’ of faith would lose its savour”.

Religious life is a sign of total self-giving. Both those things are vitally important: sign and total self-giving.

Total self-giving is who God is. And we are invited, all of us Christians, to participate in this God who gives Himself totally: “Be Compassionate as your Father is compassionate”. Married people do so in one particular way; they are signs too. It’s just that most of the time their total self-giving is not very visible. Most self-giving, you have to admit, is invisible. Biting your tongue. Being patient with a maddeningly slow process of healing. Taking on yet one more burden…

But the point about religious is that they are visible signs of self-giving. They publicly commit to holding nothing back for themselves. They go anywhere, do anything, love anyone. Is that really possible? Not really, to be honest. Only for God. Only for human beings when God has perfected them. In that sense, religious give us a little snapshot of our final destination: that universal communion to which we are all heading. We are a foretaste of what God’s completed project will be like. The future already visiting the present.

So, the measure to use is nothing less than total. But already I sense another question… and it’s a really good one. It’s all very well setting yourself up as a beautiful sign. But that’s fraught with risk. Signs need to correspond to reality. They need to be coherent. If what we say and what we do don’t fit then the sign is worse than useless. It will lead people astray.

Clerics with double lives, gluttonous, wine-bibbing monks, nuns who are bitter and cruel, and worse… these are part of Christian history too. And Jesus foresaw it all. That stuff creeps up on you, it’s a constant struggle, and getting all self-righteous and Pharisaic is no help whatsoever. The only way to become a true sign of self-giving is to let God get to work on you in the most profound way possible, root and branch transformation. And that means lots of prayer and lots of community life.

But there is an even bigger danger than becoming a sign that misleads. It’s when we give up trying to be a sign at all. You see that when the Gospel of Mercy becomes pale and insipid, when we sound as though it means that God is easy-going and undemanding, endlessly indulgent of our sins. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this distorted Gospel the message of “cheap grace”, the “preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

Let me make this personal. I remember when I was a young priest hearing a schoolgirl’s confession. And, at the end, I said to her: “just remember that God loves you!” I thought that was a helpful thing to say. But her response shook me: “Everyone says that – but I’ve heard it all before. So what?” At the time I thought it was a sad reflection on her that God’s love meant so little. But lately I have come to wonder: what was she picking up about the mediocrity of my own religious life that made my words so flavourless? Maybe the measure I was using wasn’t quite as total as it ought to have been…

Cheap grace we can do without. Religious life is the Church’s secret weapon: it’s there to keep the Gospel message salty, the very challenge of it to preserve the tang of faith. “Jacques St Laurent SJ” must never be a sign that anything goes for the God of Mercy, but a sign, rather, that a life devoted exclusively to this God is surprisingly fruitful. It changes you, it moulds you, it makes you different. Living out his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, he will point to a compelling but invisible presence at the centre of his being which is able to absorb all his attention, to satisfy his heart and to be the stuff of his dreams. And yes, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be poured out into his lap.

Damian Howard SJ
Manresa House Chapel