Community: We're on your side and at your side

By Father Albert Holtz, O.S.B. Saying your solemn "Yes!" in monastic vows means being welcomed into a community of believers who commit themselves to rooting for you and encouraging you all along your way.

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Image: "Let us lay aside every encumbrance of sin which clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies ahead” (Hebrews 12:1 ).

WHEN YOU'RE JUST STARTING OUT, you think your vows are only between you and God. As you go along, though, you discover the truth.

"Saint John the Baptist . . ."
". . . pray for us!"
"Saint Joseph. . ."
". . . pray for us!"
"Saint Peter and Saint Paul . . ."
". . . pray for us!"

The late morning sun is flooding into the abbey church, smudging the floor with the glowing blues and reds of the stained glass windows. Everyone is standing during the Litany of Saints except for one young monk who is lying face down in the middle of the sanctuary. He just professed his solemn vows as a Benedictine, publicly promising "stability and the reformation of my life and obedience according to the Rule of our Holy Father Benedict." He has just said his definitive yes to God's invitation and committed himself to search for God with us in the monastery for the rest of his life. I smile remember my own solemn vow ceremony.

"Saint Mary Magdalene . . ."
". . . pray for us!"
"Saint Stephen and Saint Lawrence . . ."
". . . pray for us!"
"Saint Agnes . . ."
". . . pray for us!"

When I was ordained at the age of 24 along with several other monks, it seemed to me that it was mostly about God and me. I hardly remember who else was there at the time. But each passing year shows me more convincingly that monastic life is just as much about my community and me as it is about God and me. Early on, I was blessed with classmates my own age who had the courage to pull me aside and point out some pretty glaring faults of mine that I didn't want to see. Then there were the older and wiser monks who had the patience and understanding to put up with my youthful brashness. By now the whole community has become essential to my journey by edifying me with their constant faithfulness to their vows, and making demands on me that move me toward patience and generosity.

Standing here as a witness for this young monk who is just beginning his life of solemn vows, I realize that I have to be a cheerleader for him the way others have been for me. I remember jogging around the lake in Branch Brook Park as a high school student during spring track practice. I was a terrible runner, but sometimes as I dragged myself along a voice would call out, "Okay, Holtzie, let's go!" or "Come on, just another half mile!" Coming from teammates running right alongside me, they were tremendously powerful words.

"Saint Basil . . ."
". . . pray for us!"
"Saint Augustine . . ."
". . . pray for us!"

If saying your solemn "Yes!" in monastic vows means being welcomed into a community of believers who commit themselves to helping you, then this Litany of the Saints adds an even deeper dimension. As you lie there, the church calls on the help of our ancestors in the family of faith.

"Holy Father Benedict . . ."
". . . pray for us!"
"Saint Bernard . . ."
". . . pray for us!"
"Saint Francis and Saint Dominic . . ."
". . . pray for us!"

This is a celebration of the "communion of saints," connecting us here on earth with our holy brothers and sisters who have gone before. I think of the image in chapter 12 of the Letter to the Hebrews: "Therefore, since we for our part are surrounded by this cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every encumbrance of sin which clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies ahead; let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who inspires and perfects our faith" (verses 1-2).

Here is the image of a great grandstand packed with saintly ancestors rooting for us and cheering us on, encouraging us to "run with perseverance." The people in the stands have run this race themselves and have earned their place in the ranks of those who encourage the rest of us.

I start to think of some of our own particular ancestors in the faith who made vows in this very church and lived their lives in this monastery: I remember Father Luke Mooseburger, who kept riding his bicycle around the city well past the age of 90 until the abbot made him stop. I think of the stories of Father Peter Petz and his wooden leg, and Father Damien Smith who went about teaching others who had to learn as he himself had had to learn to speak without a larynx. These stories, passed on from one generation to the next, are an important part of a monastery's identity and history.

Our community, then, has its own litany, our list of special cheerleaders:

"Father Eugene . . ."
". . . pray for us!"
"Brother Denis . . ."
". . . pray for us!"
"Father Celestine"
". . . pray for us!"

Will anyone look back at my story one day, I ask myself, and be able to find encouragement and inspiration in it?

"Saint Ignatius of Loyola . . ."
". . . pray for us!"
"Saint Vincent De Paul . . ."
". . . pray for us!"
"Saint John Bosco . . ."
". . . pray for us!"

We all hope to move on into the grandstand some day and join the cloud of witnesses watching, cheering, interceding for others.

"Saint Scholastica . . ."
". . . pray for us!"
"Saint Catherine of Siena . . ."
". . . pray for us!"
"Saint Teresa of Avila . . ."
". . . pray for us!"

But until we get to the finish line, we run buoyed up by the community of ancestors urging us on, and encouraged by the voices of brothers and sisters running beside us.

"All holy men and women . . ."
". . . pray for us!"

Excerpted from Downtown Monks: Sketches of God in the City by Albert Holtz. ©1999 by Ave Maria Press, P.O. Box 428, Notre Dame, Indiana, 46556, www.avemariapress.com. Used with permission of the publisher.

Father Albert Holtz, O.S.B. is a member of Newark Abbey, located in downtown Newark, New Jersey.

2003 © TrueQuest Communications

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