Last weekend, a small group from the Cathedral spent some time on retreat at the Cistercian Abbey of Rougemont, in Montérégie. Rougemont is known as the capital of apples, and we were able to enjoy the vast orchards surrounding the Abbey and which provide income for the community, as well as enter the silence and join in the round of regular prayer of the monks.
Many of us had brought expectations of renewal in prayer through liturgy, music and beauty, as well as some rest, and this setting provided the right backdrop to refresh our souls and bring the prayers of the cathedral too.
Spending time with religious communities is always a great reminder of the essentials of the Christian life, a model which we can aim to adapt once we are back in our own settings. The early monastics sought to provide a community framework for the search for God which we all aspire to.
Following the Benedictine way, the principles of Rougemont Abbey are those of ‘A school of the Lord’s service’, in the words of St Benedict, a place where prayer, work, study and recreation are held in balance to provide an insight into the heart of God.
Rougemont was founded by the French Cistercian order in the early 20th century and belongs to a branch of the Benedictine tradition which was strongly influenced and reformed by Bernard of Clairvaux – a man who, like St Francis, whom we remembered earlier this year, came from an aristocratic family. His deep faith and zeal for God influenced many of his generation and beyond. All but one of his family members eventually joined the order, and he had a major influence on the church of his time through his teaching and writings. He was made a saint 23 years after his death, and eventually named a Doctor of the Church.
The word saint is of course a word which implies for most of us a holiness so high as to be unattainable. The saints are example for us to emulate, but their feats of faith may sometimes make us feel unworthy of the task.
Bernard is one of many holy men and women whose names are remembered in the calendar of the churches and who provide us with great examples of a Christian life lived to its fullest in the pursuit of the kingdom of God, even if it sometimes meant to the death.
Theologian and religious Joan D. Chittister writes: “For centuries the church has confronted the human community with role models of greatness. We call them saints when what we really often mean to say is ‘icon,’ ‘star,’ ‘hero,’ ones so possessed by an internal vision of divine goodness that they give us a glimpse of the face of God in the center of the human. They give us a taste of the possibilities of greatness in ourselves.”
Saints can therefore strengthen our own resolve to live in faith, but they may also sometimes discourage us in our efforts, when we feel we fall short of what God might be expecting from us, and when we realise that we might never be able to be as good, as faithful, as self-sacrificial as they have been.
Seeing a religious community at work and prayer is a great reminder that even saints are grounded in the reality of life – there can be no spirituality in a vacuum, without preparing food or washing the dishes, or having to deal with cantankerous guests. There can be no time made for God if there is not a schedule, there can be no vision of the divine without contemplating the world around us, there can be no divine praises without the singing of psalms, there can be no loving God without loving all God’s people.
Our Gospel reading today is so well-known that it might be easy to gloss over and give it the attention it deserves, and that is true especially of each command in vv.27-31. At first hand, they do look as if they are making the same sort of demand on us and the fact that they are all counter-intuitive encourages this. In the beginning of the section, we hear Jesus turn upside down the values of the world so that for those who follow him, so that curses such as poverty, rejection, and injustice, turn out to be blessings; and blessings such as wealth and status become curses that cut us off from God.
So, we begin at the beginning. “Love your enemies.” How is this possible? It does not, after all, say “Behave lovingly,” which most of us could probably manage at a push. It just says “Love”. We know enough stories of unrequited love, when one loves someone who does not reciprocate, to know that attachment cannot simply be created like this. Love normally either happens, or it doesn’t, it can’t simply be conjured up. How can we love our enemies?
We might wonder: Is Jesus being unreasonable? Obviously, that is not an answer that Christians can accept. Or, is God the Father unrealistic in putting such extreme words into the mouth of his Son. That will not do either. Or is there simply something wrong with us?
Perhaps in the end, the difficulty can lie only in the words themselves — more specifically, with the word “love”.
We are used to hearing that there are different kinds of love in the Bible. In English, we need work-around words to distinguish love for God from love for our life-partner or children, our work, or our favourite book or music. The love-word used here refers specifically to Christian love (agape). But, even when we know this, we cannot “solve” the problem; for we still do not know how it is possible for us to evoke true Christian love in ourselves.
The answer is right in front of us, in the passage itself — although, when we read it as a simple list of “aims and objectives for Christian people”, that answer is hard to spot.
But if you think of ”love your enemies” as the objective for the Christian learner: then what follows are the course materials that are needed to get there.
We cannot make ourselves love people even when they are nice, or kind, or generous. Making ourselves love our enemies is impossible unless we act on the other instructions. Doing good to those who hate us is a practical step. It does not depend on an emotion, but on human resolve and commitment. Blessing those who curse, and praying for abusers, is practical, too. It can liberate us from cycles of wrong and retaliation, and from other people’s agendas. Perhaps their enmity and abuse comes from a place of pain. But it is their problem; it does not have to be ours, too — although we must also consider the possibility that some fault lies in us.
Turning the other cheek, and giving more of our stuff to people who take from us, are also ways of loving others. Instead of doing emotional gymnastics, we must live the values that we aspire to, until they catch light in us. The flame may not be especially bright or hot. But imperfect love is still better than no love at all.
On this feast of All Saints, think about the people who are the saints in your lives, by the way in which they –through their commitment to prayer, their active involvement in issues of social justice big or small, from the feeding of the poor and dispossessed to caring for the sick, the prisoner, and the marginalised; their involvement in changing the unjust structures of society or their passionate care for creation and the sustainability of our planet in these times of climate crisis. These saints may be highly visible, or they may be quietly going on about their lives, doing the work of God’s love in the way that they are able. These saints are all around you and are sitting in this Cathedral today. Look around you and be amazed and encouraged.
Because the good news is that this feast of All Saints helps us celebrate this innumerable cloud of witnesses that surrounds us, encourages us, intercedes for us and cheers us on as we too run the race set before us.
Bernard of Clairvaux and all the saints of old did not set out to win a title, they set out in faith to love people in the manner of Jesus Christ, whether this love was reciprocated or not.
The feast of All Saints is for all of us too, with all our resolves and frailties, as we day by day seek to model our lives on the one who gave his life for us, as we seek to discern our own part in God’s redeeming plan for God’s creation in the here and now.
On this feast of All Saints, may we then rejoice at the knowledge of all those saints, known or unknown, near and far, and ask God that our own lives may be truly blessed but also a blessing to all.