The Gift of our Whole Living
Ordinations, Installations & Professions. Fr Allan White preaches at Cambridge for the clothing of new novices for the English Province.
One thing has always struck me in the passage we have just heard from St Mark’s Gospel. Jesus was in the Temple and he was just watching people.
The poor widow who came to make her gift to the Temple treasury did not know she was being watched. In that respect her experience was very different from the one you will undergo as novices during this coming year.
You will be scrutinized, looked at, although probably a lot less obviously than you think. But then, you will also be looking at us; those whom it hopes to form also scrutinize a formation community. In a sense, we too are on trial. What will be tested is the authenticity of the call that you feel drawing you to our way of life, and also the authenticity of our way of living that life.
You might ask, is the way of life as you will find it here typical of our life in the rest of the province? The answer is no, not entirely in its details, but yes in its essentials. Some aspects of life in a formation community may seem studied – that is deliberate, and it is so that you do not miss the point. Some things, some features of life are underlined, just in case you fail to notice them or give them their proper place.
Some details of our life may seem petty, or difficult to understand at first, but all have their point and if you stay you will come to understand the point, if you do not, you will leave. Will you make a change in your life? If you do you might stay, if you cannot you will leave. Will you feel a sense of confinement? Yes, very probably.
Fidelity in small things is a real test of generosity and charity. It is easy to be generous where large demands are made and greater recognition and affirmation given to sacrifice. True heroism works on a smaller scale. If you can be generous in small things, attentive in small duties, then the larger things will take care of themselves.
Once again, at this stage of your life, you are placed in the unfamiliar position of learning, of apprenticeship. You are not learning to survive but to flourish. You will be learning not to find a niche or a platform but to see if this is your way to glory. What are you to learn? The ways of obedience, poverty and chastity.
Obedience begins in silence. We have to learn to be quiet. As fr Bede Jarrett used to pray:
O Lord teach me silence, for God does not shout.
In order to obey you have to learn to shut up, to listen. We listen to the word of God in prayer; we study it and drink from its wells. We have to learn to be alone. It is a certain kind of solitude, there is an eremitical strain in our life, we have the odd experience of being alone but together. It is a kind of gregarious solitude.
We sometimes find it difficult at first and fill that space with all kinds of defensive busynesses. Obedience means uncluttering your life so that you do not miss the call to worship. You cannot pray unless you can be quiet. Obedience means learning when to keep silent and when to speak. We are not obliged to say anything we want, to whomsoever we want, whenever we want.
The first call on our poverty will be our use of time. It is odd how many people can be generous with goods, which sometimes stems from a certain carelessness in their use, but who can be very stingy in their use of their time. If you stay you will lose all claim on your own time, you will be living in God’s time because it will all be used for his service. As the Irish say, when God made time he made plenty of it, it is his not yours. Poverty means that while you are here your time will not be your own.
We have to renounce a certain acquisitiveness about time, as we renounce a certain acquisitiveness about goods. You will have brought certain things with you, as time goes on you will realize that you do not need most of them, but the real test of poverty is the care of our common goods, our use of goods.
We can sometimes feel that what is mine is my own and what is common is mine too, but I am more careless about the common things. To be poor means to be generous with time, careful about what is common and generous in renouncing the desire to do everything our own way, it means learning from the wisdom of others, accepting that one cannot be right in every situation and giving up the desire always to have the last word.
You will also learn to live chastely with a different edge. That means to purify your desires, refine the question of what it is that you really want. Sometimes the fear of solitude or loneliness brings us to misrepresent the value of certain individuals, it brings us to regard them as means, rather than as individuals called through the same struggle to the fullness of self-giving.
Chastity should bring us to an honest measure of self-acceptance. It is sometimes hard to accept the measure of regard people can offer us, misled as we are by the strident claims on us of those affective deficits that we all suffer and which a dedicated life ruthlessly reveals. Chastity is part of the discipline of generosity. Through all these things we learn the discipline of generosity, we learn to be spontaneously good.
You are here to be holy. The only good Dominican is a holy Dominican. It is the only way we can be of use to our Lord who is all holy.
The widow in today’s gospel story is un-self- consciously good. That kind of generosity is only possible after a lifetime of giving, after decades of small acts of charity, small acts of fidelity, of obedience and self-renunciation. She has no idea she is being watched, what she does is not done for effect, she simple walks into the Temple makes her offering and goes out.
She puts in more than all of those who contribute to the Temple, because they contribute from their abundance, what is left over, what they think they can spare: she puts in her whole life, literally her whole living. In other words she has become an ikon of Christ, who puts his whole living, who gives himself for us. The Lord does not want what is left over, what we can spare, he wants it all, and our life is tailored to that presumption.
In this year you are entirely free. No one will force you to do anything. Certain things will be expected of you, a certain attitude will be expected, but it will not be demanded, it will not be exacted. The doors will not be locked. You may leave at any time. We do not stay in this life because we are forced or because we cannot do anything else, because like the unjust steward we are too old to work and to proud to beg: we stay freely.
If all that you feel is constraint, then this way of life will not be for you. If you suffocate rather than flourish, it will not be for you. Use your freedom wisely and leave, following that will of God, which called you here for a purpose, even if it is not to be forever.
We cannot be compelled to serve God, you cannot be forced to be self-giving. The widow was not forced, captivated by the generosity of God who gives himself for us. She responded with the only gift that was remotely worthy, her whole living. So, let the widow be your example as you join us on the way.
Having heard this, I now ask you do you still wish to be clothed in the habit of the friars of the Order of Preachers ?
May God who began this good work in you bring it to fulfillment, and let the Church say ‘Amen’.