The Feast of the Transfiguration | Solemn Profession of Fr John Vianney Hamill
First of all a warm or rather a hot and humid welcome to all. Dear Bishop Matano, Bishop Coffey, the priest friends of Fr JV from Philly, Fr JV’s mother and sister, friends, our employees, and last but not the least – dear brothers. When asked why he did not visit Rome, the famous English convert Msgr Ronald Knox answered “He who travels in the Barque of Peter had better not look too closely into the engine room” If everything is in free fall, when the Church herself is in freefall, when religious life is in free fall and the faith itself liquefying – why would someone want to keep that same faith in a contemplative monastery? There have got to be easier ways of making a living.
And yet today Fr JV will make solemn vows. Let’s assume we can rule out insanity. There must be something other than human prudence that has entered into the equation.
The Korean writer Han Kang puts into words something that is at work in Fr JV’s life and will be finalized today – we lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far, and take that perilous step out into the empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way.”
St John Paul II saw the Transfiguration as the icon of contemplative life. So the monk can claim no particular courage because the light from that holy mountain marks his life. It is imperious, it disrupts, it excavates an impassable chasm between us and the solid ground of the past. It leads the monk relentlessly up the path to the solitude and silence of the holy mountain – ever seeking the transfigured Christ in prayer.
The Transfiguration is a cosmic event. But it did not happen in outer space. It took place on a mountain in Galilee. And Jesus did not climb it alone. He took a community along with him. And this pattern repeats itself in every monastic vocation. The light comes to rest for the monk over a place, and over the community that lives in that place. Many people like visiting monasteries. They love the peace and silence. But they do not remain there for a lifetime. They can check out to go back to normal life. But for the monk, this is the place. This is the community. I will be the first to admit that this is very odd. This closure of options. It does not make sense. It scares people off. As usual, there is a paradox involved. I am reminded of what Robert Frost said ‘in order to be universal, poetry must be parochial’ We are transformed only by being limited. As in the transfiguration, so in our life – we are transformed by the limits of place and community. You are never without community when you come to Christ. St Benedict calls it a workshop, a school of the Lord’s service, and the Cistercians called it a school of charity. A school that is both reconfiguration and even sometimes a disfiguration. Living with others you did not choose as companions, means living by faith and not sight. It means being stretched beyond recognition. But it is the way to the pearl of great price, the unexpected Christ, hidden in the unexciting field of the community.
There is something else that happens on that mountain which we do not readily advert to. Hardly had the vision ended when Jesus began speaking to them about his impending death. The Transfiguration is always linked with the Cross. But the Cross is not something we like to see. The disciples liked the heavenly sound and light show. They slid past the cross, pretending they did not hear what Jesus said. But the Cross is ever present. You cannot leapfrog it to the resurrection. St John Paul calls monks (staurophoroi), that is Greek for cross bearers. But what is this cross? Today unlike in the 1950s, Trappist monasteries are no longer places of rugged, muscular penance. But the cross remains. In fact, it is everywhere. It is the overwhelming sense of the absence of God in our world. An insurmountable darkness and sense of loss ( as someone put it). It is everywhere. It lies over us like a funeral pall, a great weight of desolation. It is boredom, anguish, sadness, anxiety, desperation, despair. But we drown it out with our noise and our diversions. I do not think contemplatives are a particularly heroic bunch. However, our life has been designed to provide very few hiding places from this absence. How do you keep the faith in such desolate times? When, Ronald Knox says “It is possible to argue that the true business of faith is not to produce emotional conviction in us, but to teach us to do without it.” This is the unspectacular but real cross we must face head-on and shoulder. In these times especially to walk in the darkness, to always keep faith with the absence, to continue to walk with hope that the insurmountable loss is the presence of God for our times. All this borne not just for ourselves but as standing in the breach like Moses, for the sake of a world that has devised an infinite number of ways to hide from God.
This is the life that Fr John Vianney takes up today in a public way by solemn vows. It is the way of faith and not sight. Looking at it from the outside – it does not seem like a fun way of living. But it is the way to Life – not just in heaven but even here on earth. Our Constitutions say “The organization of the monastery is directed to bringing the monks into close union with Christ since it is only through the experience of personal love for the Lord Jesus that the specific gifts of the Cistercian vocation can flower. Only if the brothers prefer nothing whatever to Christ will they be happy to persevere in a life that is ordinary, obscure, and laborious.’ May Mary, always at the foot of the Cross, the Queen of Citeaux, be with Fr John Vianney, so that he may persevere till the very end.
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