“This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).
“Straining forward;” “pressing on:” the third chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians lays out an ambitious course for the Christian life. Discipleship calls for us to lean into the future, to head in a direction, and the goal (in St. Paul’s terms) is the kingdom of God. The word “straining” that Paul uses here reminds us that this is demanding work; work that requires us to stretch ourselves, and to develop the spiritual musculature that will support our life in Christ. St. Paul talks elsewhere about putting on “the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:11), and though the metaphor is militant and refers to armature, the root idea is the same. In order to lean into the future, we need to be equipped (another idea from Paul), to be “built up” (Eph. 4:12) for the work.
Today we gather for an act of religious profession, a solemn consecration of Sister Hannah’s life, in a new way, to the work of “straining forward” and “pressing on.” In truth, by virtue of her baptism into Christ’s body the church she is already engaged in this work. She shares with us a common vocation, so when we speak of these things we speak from a common vocabulary of discipleship.
Yet the form of the Christian life that our sister Hannah is embracing in a new way today is noteworthy, and she merits our particular prayer. I am conscious that I am literally “preaching to the choir” today, the “monastic choir” that is; all of you know more about this life than I do. It has its pitfalls and its joys, like any other form of the Christian life; but some of these pitfalls and joys are particular to the religious life, properly so called. So, Sister Hannah will need our prayers in particular as she moves into this new chapter in her vocation as a Christian. The good news is that it will be a joy for us to pray for her in this new adventure.
There is another active verb in this passage from Philippians that we don’t want to leave out, and that is “forgetting,” as in “forgetting what lies behind” (Phil. 3:13). Here we must be careful to note exactly what it is that St. Paul is forgetting. He has not forgotten who he is; as he says a little earlier in the letter, “circumcised on the eight day, a member of the people of Israel” (Phil. 3:5). Nor had Paul forgotten the difficulties of his ministry. He has not forgotten the illness of Epaphroditus or the anxiety it caused him, as he also mentions in the letter (Phil. 2:28).