Homily — Sr. Rhonda’s First Profession — September 25, 2013
Today is a very special day in the life of Sr. Rhonda and of this Community; it is also the Feast of St. Sergius whom, until this past week, I knew nothing about except that he had been an Abbot and founder of a religious community in the 14th Century. I’d like to share a little of what I have learned about St. Sergius.
According to one author St. Sergius is the most loved of all the Russian saints, 2nd only to the Virgin Mary, especially in Northern Russia. In another book I read, he is described as a ‘peasant saint’ (in character if not by origin) — simple, humble, grave, gentle and neighbourly. [These words might describe Rhonda except for the word “grave”; her joy has a tendency to bubble up to the surface in giggles or gentle laughter, especially when doing exercises in the therapeutic pool at St. John’s Rehab. The last few week or so she’s had difficulty keeping her feet on the ground.] St. Sergius has been compared to St. Francis in his love of nature, a rather wild kind of nature compared to that of Italy. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that he once fed his last piece of bread to a bear who was hungry, and thereafter he and the bear became friends.
St. Sergius lived during the time when Russia was occupied by the Mongol Tartars; he and his parents & brothers were driven from their home in Moscow so they moved into the forest north of Moscow and started farming there. After his parents’ death, Sergius, at the age of 20, went deeper into the forest about 45 miles NE of Moscow to seek spiritual solitude. He convinced his older brother Stefan to join him and together they built their individual cells and a small chapel. [According to Jane deVyver,] “he lived a very austere ascetic life, marked by extreme poverty, hard physical labor, and profound humility and simplicity.” This was too much for Stefan who returned to the monastery where he had been living before joining Sergius. For some years Sergius lived a solitary and extremely austere life, keeping long vigils in his tiny chapel. However, as so often happens with hermits or mystics who try to live a solitary life, others learned of this holy man, were attracted by his life, and began making their own cells close by. By 1354 a number of other monks were living the communal life with Sergius although they soon learned that living the communal life was much more difficult than living as hermits. It was only the selfless conduct of St. Sergius that held them together. Thus began the monastery of the Holy Trinity — to whom Sergius was devoted — the first of approx. 40 monasteries founded by him and his disciples, “in the most impracticable places”.
Sergius was perhaps best known for his humility. He only became a priest and abbot of his community after continued persuasion by his monks and much later when the Metropolitan of Moscow & principal bishop of the Russian Church asked him to be his successor, he flatly refused saying: “Who am I but a sinner and the least of men.”Sometime after the death of St. Sergius, his original wooden church of the Holy Trinity burnt down and was replaced in 1422 by a white stone church for which Andrei Rublev did much of the iconographic work, including his most famous Holy Trinity icon which you see in front of the altar.
The readings for today were well chosen for St. Sergius. The first reading from Sirach talks about seeking wisdom, rising early to seek the Lord, opening one’s mouth in prayer and asking pardon for one’s sins. These are important qualities for all monastics — well, some might disagree with me about “rising early” to seek the Lord but Sr. Rhonda is an early riser. What is true is that as Sisters, prayer is our primary vocation. We believe that our ministry must be upheld, informed and permeated by prayer. The most essential aspect of our daily personal prayer is listening, opening ourselves to God to discern God’s will for us both individually and corporately. Prayer is not intended to make us feel comfortable (although there will be times of consolation). Prayer is meant to challenge us and open us to God’s transforming love and, as you know, being transformed is not comfortable. As monastics, we keep trying to open ourselves to what God is calling us to be in the depths of our being. Discernment never ends. Today God might be challenging me to be more patient or more understand- ing; tomorrow something may happen which is challenging me to be more forgiving, and next month I may feel called to let go of resentment or of controlling others or of some other weakness God has uncovered in me.
The desire for wisdom and a deeper relationship with God involves journeying more deeply into ourselves — seeking the true Self which God created us to be without any of the masks we’ve all learned to wear to protect ourselves from being hurt by others. We have no idea where that journey is going to take us. Just as St. Sergius moved out into the deep forest 45 miles NE of Moscow to seek God and found an area of wilderness, extreme poverty, and frightening creatures, so when we seek a deeper relationship with God and with ourselves, we too may find wilderness, inner poverty, and demons that we would rather run away from. But the only way to deal with those inner demons or fears is to face them in a safe place.
We may feel inadequate, believing that we have nothing to give: “Why would God call me to this life?” We will definitely be challenged by the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, in different ways at different times. Poverty will mean something different to each one us. Is it giving up my freedom to travel or to buy a Starbucks coffee whenever I feel like it or to take someone out for a meal? Am I ready to give up a one-on-one relationship with someone and thus be open to “to love the world for the sake of Christ”. Am I willing to be obedient to the needs of my Sisters and to the leadership of this community, especially when I’d prefer to do something my own way. It is easy to see the vows only from a negative point of view, but the vows also free us to be the people God is calling us to be and to use our gifts to serve others and one another.
For the last few weeks I’ve been reading a book entitled The Emergent Christ by Ilia Delio. In her chapter entitled “the Inner Universe” she writes about the poverty of being:
“Poverty is not so much about want or need; it is about relationship. Poverty impels us to reflect on our lives from the position of weakness, dependency, and vulnerability. It impels us to empty our pockets—not of money—but the pockets of our hearts, minds, wills—those places where we store up things for ourselves and isolate ourselves from real relationship with others. Poverty calls us to be vulnerable, open, and receptive to others, to allow others into our lives, and to be free enough to enter into the lives of others.” (p. 124)
“On the level of human relationships poverty allows us to be open to one another, to receive and share with one another. Poverty is the basis of personhood because it involves kenosis or self-emptying. Only care for one another truly humanizes life.” (p. 126)
This is what each of us is called to as Christians and it is seldom easy. In Ps 34 appointed for today, the psalmist says, “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (vs 1) and (vs 4), “I sought the Lord and he answered me and delivered me from my fears.” St. Sergius was first and foremost a man of prayer; that is what attracted others to join him. And prayer is about relationship — relationship with God — which in turn enables one to have good relationships with others. The essence of prayer and love is “presence”, that is, taking time to be fully present to God or towhomever we are with. It’s about seeking to uplift others and draw the best out of them. Love does not worry about success but about being the best one can be. This is a challenge in whatever work one does and it is the challenge Sr. Rhonda experiences on a daily basis in her ministry in the Guest House. Some days, when everything is going well it may seem easy. But there will be other times when someone is being demanding or critical or a pain in the neck. Then, all she or we can offer is loving, compassionate presence.
The Gospel reading for today sums up the Christian life and the life of a monastic: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Sr. Rhonda has found her treasure in seeking this deeper relationship with God and offering herself to God through service to God’s people; God has responded by giving her “more than she can ask or imagine”. May God bless you, Rhonda, as you continue your journey in the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine.