The Installation and Blessing of a New Prioress: Sister Hannah, CSM
The institution and blessing of a new prioress is an occasion of great joy for this community and for its friends, associates, and oblates—as well as an occasion, I would guess, of some anxiety for Sr. Hannah and her sisters. So it must have been for Peter and Andrew, James and John, when Jesus called them from their fishing nets. “Follow me!” is the word Jesus throws out, with a stronger net than any they had ever handled—a net that would pull these men towards him for life, for death, for ever. How wonderful to be called by Jesus in this singular way. How elating! How scary! Aside from the promise that from now on they would be fishing for people (whatever that meant), these brand-new disciples could have no real sense of what lay ahead for them. It was really unchartered territory.
This is not quite unchartered territory for you, Sr. Hannah. After all, you have lived in this community for many years, and your sisters recognize you now as their senior sister—a designation that has more to do with spiritual and other gifts than with chronological age. You have lived faithfully under another faithful prioress, Sr. Madeleine Mary, and you have learned from her words and example and even (as we all learn from our elders) from her mistakes. You have learned, and will continue to draw wisdom, from the centuries of monastic life and witness that have gone before you. Jesus, speaking through your sisters, believes you are ready for this call to follow him in this new way. You have been following Jesus for a very long time, and you know that you can trust him now, too, as you begin this new chapter together.
Today is designated as Religious Life Sunday in the Episcopal Church, an occasion to hold before the Church the distinctive witness of monastic and religious communities. All Christians, of course, live into their baptisms—their deep union with Christ in his death and resurrection—not in the abstract but in the day-to-day, flesh and blood ways they engage in their particular and manifold vocations. Married people live Christ one way; single people another way; and vowed religious still another way. And even then, religious communities across the church shows a marvelous diversity, according to the distinct charisms and vision of their founders. Some communities, often enclosed, give themselves up largely to prayer and contemplation, glorifying God and pleading for this world in intercession; still others are mostly engaged in active service outside their walls; and still others embody a “mixed life,” striving to blend a rich life of prayer and fidelity to communal recitation of the offices with service to the Church and world. The Community of St. Mary, taking its inspiration from the Rule of St. Benedict, is of this third type, I think.
Yet one charism or gift of the Holy Spirit is essential to them all, and this is the greatest gift—the gift of charity or love. Love is the hallmark of God’s presence and power, and in religious life (as no doubt in all Christian life) this love is shown above all in the relations of community members to one another. Only from that heart of love beating within the community itself can any authentic love be shown to others beyond it. No doubt this is what so distressed St. Paul about the reports he heard from “Chloe’s people.” The Corinthian church had degenerated into factions, rival parties, each with their own slogans and leaders: “I’m for Apollos,” “We belong to Paul,” or-- the coup de grace--“We belong to Christ.”
Factions and cliques, and the vice of party spirit undermine the gospel. Paul goes on to explain that his own self-presentation is not that of a charismatic leader: he doesn’t preach the gospel, he reminds them, with words that might bowl them over with eloquent wisdom. Because, he explains, such self-display would put him at the center of attention and loyalty rather than Christ—and Christ crucified, at that—for Christ crucified manifests the true power and wisdom of God. The connection here between a community’s loving regard for one another, leadership grounded in Christ, and the wisdom of the cross is subtle but real. Love within any community will quickly collapse into sentimentality, then slide into cynicism, without the strong tonic of the cross. Christian love requires self-abnegation, and the higher one travels up a hierarchy, the deeper must be the self-sacrifice, putting the common good before one’s personal preferences. Hence in the Blessing of a New Prioress, she is first assured of her community’s election to leadership, and in the next breath, the officiant prays that she will be a “good servant,” following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. She takes on the heavy responsibility of guiding the community with wisdom, vision, and patience, and “sensitive listening” is specifically named. Attentive listening always requires us to place our own agenda aside, at least for a while, to enter with imagination and sympathy into the concern of the other.
In any healthy community, of course, there will be differences of opinion and perspective; and in a mature, self-confident community such an airing of views, when needed and called upon at the right moment, can enrich common decision making. This only becomes a threat to communal harmony if we are unwilling to grant good faith on the part of those with whom we may disagree or if we harbor resentments when we don’t get our way. And so St. Benedict counsels his own community, “Prefer nothing to the love of Christ.”
And herein lies the distinctive witness of religious life: it is emphatically centered in Christ. Psalm 27 speaks of the overpowering attraction towards God: “You speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, Lord, will I seek.” (v. 11). We find the face of Christ along with others in the household of the Church; and for vowed religious, that household is focused with searing intensity in the monastic community: “One thing I have asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. To behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” (vv. 5-6). The love of each member for our Lord is the never-failing wellspring of love by which they may offer kindness, forgiveness, and patience to each other in the daily rub of community living. The obvious sacrifices of living the vowed life of obedience, celibate chastity, and the relinquishment of personal property, holding all material things in common—such sacrifices are possible only because one has fallen in love with Jesus, and heard the call, “Follow me!” to mean this life with this particular community. When a monastic community loves Jesus and, in that love, love one another, they become a magnet. People are simply drawn to them, want to be near them, hope to discover their secret of joy. I think this is one reason monastics were the great evangelists of northern Europe in the early Middle Ages. People saw in their communal life what gospel living looked like, and it was immensely attractive. Sewanee, an Episcopal foundation from its earliest days, is a natural home for an Episcopal monastic community. Here in Sewanee we should see something of the variety of possible vocations in the Church sustaining and reinforcing one another. We pray that you, the Community of St. Mary, will flourish in your life together and attract new sisters. The Epiphany season we are now in focuses on mission, on “proclaiming the good news of [Christ’s] salvation” as our Collect says, “that we and the whole world may perceive his marvelous works.” Sr. Hannah, may you and this Community heed Christ’s call and be his light, so that all of us may shine with you the radiance of his life.