Sermon preached at the Society of St. John the Evangelist

January 8, 2005

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
January 8, 2005

Readings: Isaiah 44: 1-8, Psalm 92, 1 John 5:1-13, John 20:1-9

It is a great joy and privilege to preside at this celebration. I am grateful for the opportunity to acknowledge on behalf of many – Brother Paul’s Community, his family represented by his niece and nephew Barbara and Henry, and the friends past and present whose lives he has so deeply touched – I am grateful to acknowledge and celebrate the gift God has given us in him, in the fullness of his humanity and his disponibilite´ to the divine mystery of life in all its complexity and paradoxicalness.

Tomorrow we will celebrate the Baptism of Jesus: that moment when Jesus finds himself impelled to submit to baptism at the hand of John, and in so doing discovers who he is and is called to be as God’s beloved. It seems appropriate, therefore, to put our celebration of Paul Wessinger’s 90 years of living into the larger frame of the baptismal journey.

Jesus’ response to knowing of his belovedness is a radical availability to God’s will, God’s loving desire – an availability which involves struggle, confrontation with demons, great cost and above all intense prayer. This response of availability marks Brother Paul’s life as well, and is at the heart of the baptismal journey, a journey we all share.

“My food,” Jesus tells his disciples at the beginning of John’s gospel, “is to do the will of the one who sent me and to accomplish his work.” God’s work accomplished in Christ, of drawing all things to himself in one vast gesture of all embracing love, admits no abstraction, no distancing of Jesus from the flesh and blood realities of daily life. He was not exempt from the vagaries of the human condition in all its contractions, and the continual interplay of light and darkness in the habits of our minds and hearts. Here the Cross stands as God’s stark declaration that there can be no flight to some safe realm of self-protection from pain and suffering in the “now of this mortal life.” There was no flight for Jesus, and there is no flight for us who have been baptized into his death and resurrection.

And here is the great paradox: it is by facing into and passing through the narrow door of suffering so very present in the events, choices, and relinquishments which confront each one of us that we discover what St. Paul describes as the “glorious liberty that belongs to the children of God.” This liberty, this freedom is the fruit of knowing that we are loved. We are loved not in the hope of some yet-to-be realized state of perfection, but just as we are right now, just as we are with all our quirks and eccentricities, the various thorns in our flesh. Christ’s reply to Paul’s plea to be delivered from the source of his shame and imperfection was a resounding No! “My grace is all you need. For my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Christ’s words were not just for St. Paul; they are for us as well. Through the circumstances in which we find ourselves called to live the mystery of our baptismal identification with Christ, we will be stripped of our illusions, our certitudes and our sense of self-sufficiency. We will find ourselves in a place of confusion and unknowing. We may be tempted to cry out as did Jesus in Gethsemane, “Take this cup away from me.”

And yet, if we are able to yield our present suffering up to the strange and inscrutable ways of God’s loving desire, we may find ourselves overtaken by a consolation of heart. If we are able to situate our suffering within Christ’s own for the sake of his body the Church, though our situation may not be changed, our interior relationship to it is profoundly altered. Instead of being oppressed and constricted and weighed down by resentment or self-pity we find ourselves in a place of interior freedom transfigured by an overwhelming sense of compassion. This compassion catches us up in its liberating embrace, and at the same time extends itself outward toward others and to the world around us. Such is the nature of joy: the joy of Jesus who yearns for intimate companionship with each one of us – the intimate relationship of a vine to its branches, “…so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy – (that is our joy) – may be complete, full, overflowing with abundance.”

The baptismal journey each one of us is called to make takes many forms, one of which is dubiously called “the religious life,” suggesting either that other forms of discipleship are not religious or that the religious life engages only selected dimensions of our humanity – the “better,” and more public aspects of who we are. Of course, any who have embraced this mode of responding to the gospel know that every aspect of who we are, even those aspects of ourselves we would rather ignore or hold at bay, are dragged into the consuming and transforming fire of the divine agape. This divine love is fierce and unrelenting. It knows no bounds. It excludes no thorn in our flesh, how ever much we may feel its shame or be resentful of its presence.

This brings me back to Brother Paul, a man I first encountered some fifty years ago when I was a teenager on a summer visit to the monastery. I have just described our baptismal journey, our living of the paschal mystery in the givenness of who we are mediated by the circumstances of our lives. This undertaking has engaged our brother for most of his long life, and made him for so many of us a source of wisdom and blessing. Perhaps because he has had to confront his own demons and befriend them he is unafraid of the demons brought to him by those seeking his counsel and encouragement.

I think today’s psalm is particularly apt: “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar of Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap.”

Paul’s decision in 1945 to be planted in the house of the Lord – this monastic brotherhood – has not been without great personal cost, yet it has produced a flourishing which has blessed and continues to bless countless women and men who seek him out and ask for a word of wisdom, encouragement or absolution. What is amazing, and clearly the consequence of grace – the source of all human flourishing – is that the older Paul gets the more green and full of the sap of interior freedom and youthfulness of spirit he becomes. In him we are confronted by the paradox of an aging body indwelt by increasing interior strength made manifest in a disconcerting spontaneity, graced iconoclasm and impatient clearness about the true heart of the gospel and the lineaments of Christ’s risen body, the church.

In our first reading, God addresses his servant Israel promising to pour his spirit and blessing upon Israel’s offspring. Here I am put in mind of the ministry of oversight and care, the ministry of service that Paul exercised as Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist during a transitional time in the life of the church. This unsettled season affected the Community deeply, both causing several brothers to leave and at the same time opening the way for a recognition of the feminine in the mystery of God’s self-disclosure and in the life and ordained ministry of the church.

A new generation of younger brothers entered the Society during Paul’s time as Superior. In a very real sense they became his spiritual offspring and were encouraged to explore the question of monastic renewal in a changing church, and what it means to grow up in all ways into Christ within the fiery furnace of a community of celibate men called to love one another. This exploration continues to this day and will doubtless continue into the future.

Our reading from John’s gospel speaks of love. The fact that this Society of St. John the Evangelist stands under the prayer and patronage of the one traditionally identified as the “one whom Jesus loved” places the mystery of love at the center of this Community’s life. This “one whom Jesus loved,” in the eagerness of love, outruns Peter. And in the reticence of love he looks into the tomb but declines to enter. In the power and force of love – the deathless love of the risen Christ – the beloved disciple sees and believes beyond his ability to comprehend or to reason.

Love as an abstraction is one thing, but love experienced concretely, in relationship to others is, as Dorothy Day used to say quoting Dostoyevsky, “a harsh and dreadful thing.” It is costly and all-demanding. It is painful and purifying. Above all it is the work of God in us. We experience the love of God and then radiate it out in loving the children of God – one’s brothers and sisters. We love because God loves us and because, as St. Paul tells us, “the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Love is not primarily an emotion. It is not incidental or optional. Love belongs to the structure of reality. It is the life of the Trinity operative in us who, through baptism, have been born of God and declared children of God. It is a way of seeing accurately without bias, without ego neediness. To love is to see as God sees. It is to have the mind and heart of Christ.

This coming to maturity, this knowing as we are known in the fullness of God’s love, is a life’s journey. We therefore need companions: older brothers and sisters who deeply live the mystery of the divine agapé and can serve as exemplars and ministers of encouragement. Such has been the role of Brother Paul in my own life, and the lives of many others, some of whom are here today.

The pattern of life Paul has lived for the past 60 years is not what most would call reasonable in the world’s view or easy to comprehend. However, as a response to love, a love revealed in the Word made flesh – as a response to a love which embraces all things and continues to reveal itself in fresh and provocative ways, it makes perfect sense.

Paul, my dear brother, our exemplar and our friend, may the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you, continue to direct and uphold you in the service of Christ and his kingdom.

Amen.