Homily of Fr. Jos Moons, SJ
St. Thomas Feast, Sint Jan de Doper Kerk
Dear sisters and brothers,
In spite of all the learning that is gathered here this morning, I dare to say that, when it comes to living well – as humans, and as Christians – we’re all beginners. We’re all very much learning how it works.
1. Now the word “learning” can mean different things. One of them is, “to get it wrong”. (Don’t worry, my next point will be more positive!) Getting it wrong is very much the common thread running through today’s readings. The rulers get it wrong [= first reading]. They’re into sacrifices that are purely liturgical, only liturgical. The liturgy scholars in our midst would certainly deplore such a separation between real life and liturgy. So does Adonai, God in heaven. He’s sick and tired of all the festivals and the blood of bulls and goats; he rather prefers the sacrifice of helping out the vulnerable. In the gospel it is not much better. This time the scribes and pharisees get it wrong. The pope would say: they live self-referential lives that circle around themselves, around how they appear. Jesus wants no appearances but service. The lives of his followers should circle around others than themselves.
So, people in the past have got it wrong. I think we get it wrong still. From time to time, we too circle around ourselves without much service of others. Hence my suggestion that, with all our learning, we remain beginners.
2. Now learning also has a much more positive meaning. We’re learning it, that is, we’re trying and we’re progressing in the right direction. That’s also a common thread – not in today’s readings, but today’s topic, religious life, and in our history. For example, Augustine learnt where to find God, namely, in his interior. In the Confessions he famously confesses, “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new” – that beauty, that’s God. He goes on to say that he was blind, a fool, seeking God outside, in the beauty of things, but God was inside all along.
After Augustine, the learning did not stop. Benedict found out that it’s good to live together, in a community, with a rhythm of work and prayer. Some centuries later, Saint Francis and Saint Clare found God in simplicity. They discovered a form of live – or, a form of life was revealed to them – that centered around brother- and sisterhood, the poor and vulnerable, nature. Around the same time, the Dominicans opted for a much more learned form of ministry: it was about conversation, discussion. And so on, and so forth. (I’ll skip the Jesuits!)
Interestingly, this learning often happened in contrast with the context at that time. Franciscan and Clara wanted to be an alternative for a money-focused church, for example. Therefore, the learning process is an ongoing one. In different time periods we need different things.
Interestingly, too, there is a clear variety between the forms of life themselves. While Dominicans prefer cities, Benedictines are typically found on the countryside, away from the city. So, our learning can go in various directions. It’s also different because people are different. I’m a Jesuit, and though I appreciate greatly the Franciscans, I would find it really difficult to be one myself. And vice versa, probably.
3. Brothers, sisters, I guess the point of my homily is that it’s OK to be learning. Or even, that it’s a good sign to be learning. There’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of in learning. Benedict describes his Rule as meant for beginners. A willingness to learn comes with humility about oneself and an openness to renewal. It requires flexibility. Sometimes we don’t want to learn, because we know. That’s one of the pitfalls of the synodal process that we’re in at this moment, and one of our lives in general. What I propose today is another attitude, another truth: We have been learning all the time, and we are learning still.
May the Lord bless us to be humble and eager beginners.