AUGUST 8, 2004, 19TH SUNDAY
HOMILY: Luke 12: 32-48
BLESSED IS THOSE SERVANTS WHOM THE LORD FINDS ALERT AND WATCHING WHEN HE COMES. The need to remain watchful and to be to answer for one’s life is the lesson that Jesus inculcates in today’s Gospel. It is a teaching to which he evidently gave considerable importance for he repeated a number of times. Obviously he considered it advice that was badly needed by his followers.
All three of the Synoptic Gospels record his concern to warn his disciples to keep alert, to watch over themselves with careful attention. The Lord points out that the world is a dangerous place; burglars break in at night unexpectedly. More importantly, as Jesus knew very well, the human heart is subject to deception. Our own desires give false color to behavior that gratifies for a moment and leaves us isolated in our guilt. It requires much effort to come to know clearly what leads to our true good. Jesus knew well the words of Jeremiah the prophet: “More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? (17:9)” How many there are who stray by errors of choice and judgment, under the influence of some deceptive feeling or thought that reveals its emptiness after doing its damage. On another occasion Jesus used a vivid image to convey the same message that we must take care to be prepared at all times. He compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast. Only those young women who have prepared oil in their lamps are ready to enter for the banquet when the bridegroom suddenly appears.
The apostles took up this concern of our Lord, having learned by experience how necessary it is to keep guard over the heart. Peter in particular remembered well how the Lord in the garden of Gethsemane had told him and the other two disciples with him to “Remain here and watch with me” (Mt 26:38). Years later in his letter to the Churches, Peter warned the faithful: “Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, strong in faith.“ (1P5:8).
The early Christians took this message to heart. Many of them made it a practice to rise in the night to watch and pray so as to be ready for the Lord whenever he came. The first founders of monasticism in Egypt continued and developed this practice even further. They established a regular vigil during the night hours in which they prayed and meditated on the psalms. St. Benedict incorporated this vigil in his arrangement for the office. To make sure that it was observed with due care and given the prominence he considered it deserved, he laid out detailed instructions as to the form it should follow. After completing the prescribed common vigil, the individual monk is to continue his watch by remaining in silence, attentive to the Lord, avoiding all unnecessary speech. By thus beginning every day, the monk lives in an environment that favors the constant memory of God that St. Basil teaches is the purpose of withdrawing from the activities of the secular world.
As subsequent generations of monks lived out this program the understanding of ways to preserve this state of watchfulness developed further. A spiritual doctrine that stressed what was called “guarding of the heart” was elaborated and became prominent in the world of Byzantine monastic life. In more recent times this teaching that stressed contemplative prayer and a disciplined watching of the thoughts and desires of the heart has become known in the West and spread throughout the world. It is now widely practiced, with appropriate modifications, by many persons living in the world as well as by religious. This way of prayer harmonizes easily with the Cistercian spirituality that was taught by St. Bernard and our founders, and offers insights as to how to practice it more effectively.
May we dedicate our self to this “work of the heart”, which is the chief task of those who live the monastic way. And may we bring the whole of our life into accord with the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel so that we will be watchful and ready when he comes to open for us the door that give entry to the great banquet, prepared by the Father in heaven.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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