Dear brothers, it’s a pity that the Western Church relegates one of the great solemnities of Our Lord and His Blessed Mother to the status of a mere feast, so unfortunately tonight we won’t be able to celebrate First Vespers of the Presentation and Purification, the culmination of the Christmas Season, the fortieth day of Christmas, as we welcome you into the Community as novices. This is a very special day for you and for us.
In Britain today, of course, it’s a very brave man who embarks on such a venture as joining a religious community and especially, I would say, a rather precarious monastery of Benedictine monks. You really are stepping out in faith, placing yourselves in God’s hands and trusting in his Divine Providence. You have left everything to follow Jesus in the monastic life as it is lived today according to the Rule of St Benedict and the Constitutions of the English Benedictine Congregation. That term “to leave everything” is no turn of romanticism. It’s not a euphemism for “to leave what you don’t mind leaving but hang on to what really matters to you”. The Gospel tells us that when Jesus called his disciples to follow him, they left everything, their parents and families, their homes and belongings, their work and independence. In leaving the world to enter a monastery, you must do the same. Unlike Lot’s wife, you must never look back.
The taking of the habit and the wearing of it day in day out is a very strong symbol and reminder of what you have done. Now tonight you make no promises. The novitiate will prepare you to take vows at the appropriate time. By becoming a novice you are expressing the desire to give it a try. So far you have heard the voice of the Lord calling you and you have responded by going through a period of postulancy. In this rite of clothing you are saying to God and to the Belmont Community, “I’ve thought about it seriously and I really do believe that God is calling me to this way of life, a life of prayer and work, a life of sacrifice and self-giving, a life of service to the Church in the context of the search for God. Trust me as I trust you.” In return, we the Belmont Community are saying to you, “So far so good. Now show us that you really mean it. Obedience, humility, silence, work, prayer, fidelity to the Office, lectio and mental prayer, patience and love of the brethren: these are the virtues and good works you are to cultivate in the novitiate. From what we have seen so far, we think you mean it, but now you have to prove it.”
They always tell us that our school days are the happiest days of our life and that’s certainly true for some. I would hope that for a monk the novitiate is the happiest, the best time of his life. So try to live your novitiate to the full, making the most of each day and each moment. In a way it’s like an extended holiday or a sabbatical, a year you can dedicate almost entirely to God and to deepening your relationship and friendship with him. Of course, you’ll still have to fulfil all your duties in choir, in the refectory, looking after the sick and so on, but essentially it’s a privileged period in your life the like of which is unlikely ever to return once it’s over. Whatever your thoughts and worries about the past, whatever your anxieties or hopes for the future, cast them aside, fix your gaze on the present and really enjoy it.
For a very good reason the soon-to-be-beatified Venerable John Paul II chose the Feast of the Presentation to be a special day for all religious. I would like to think that you two are like Simeon, upright and devout men, men who look forward to the comforting of Israel (in a way your vocation is, in Christ, to comfort the Church), men on whom the Holy Spirit rests. In gifting you with a monastic vocation, the Father, through Our Lady, has placed the Christ Child in your arms for you to hold, love, serve, worship and adore. With Simeon you can pray, “Now, Lord, let your servant go in peace, just as you promised; because my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all the nations to see, a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.”
In tonight’s reading from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 12, we were urged to present our bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” We are to “be conformed not to this world”, but rather “transformed by the renewing of our minds”, so that we can “discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect”. Although St Paul is rarely put forward as a master of the monastic life, I believe that in those short phrases he sums up eloquently and succinctly what our life is all about. What is the search for God but allowing ourselves to be transformed by grace through prayer and all that makes up our daily work? What is contemplation (one aspect though not the entire thing) but discerning what is the will of God, as in prayer we keep silent that he might speak to us? And what is the goal of the monastic life but to become a living sacrifice for God and for our brethren, a sacrifice of pure and unbounded love, a sacrifice that is holy and acceptable to God? We ask to become one with - and so live to the full - that perfect sacrifice of Christ, which we celebrate and in which we participate in the Eucharist, our daily Conventual Mass.
Dear brothers, may the Lord who has called you thus far continue to call you each day and may you always hear his voice. Finally, our God is the God of joy. Life in a monastery is supposed to be fun so, apart from the occasional tear, make sure you enjoy it. And remember, one of the signs of holiness is being a source of joy to others. I wish you both every joy and blessing in the monastic life as monks of Belmont. Amen.