All through the month of November we remember and pray for our dead, but on November 6th each year we sort of repeat All Souls’ Day Mass again specifically for our deceased Camaldolese monks and nuns, and especially for those who lived and died here at new Camaldoli. The readings that day (Phil 3:3-8a; Lk 15:1-10) were not chosen for our commemoration, but I decided to go with them anyway, because there is a theme that abides from Jesus’ earthly ministry through to his heavenly ministry, if you can call it that, that is carried especially in the gospel that day, about the shepherd who leaves the 99 and goes after the one lost, and about the woman who rejoices when she found her lost coin. Thus there shall be greater rejoicing in heaven over a repentant sinner than over the righteous!
It was an undeniable and absolutely essential, nay, the central part of Jesus’ ministry to go after the lost sheep. Even when he says in the Gospel of Matthew that he was sent ‘only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’,[i] and tells his disciples too to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, I don’t think the accent is on the “house of Israel”; it’s on the “lost.” Go after the lost sheep, not the fat and sassy or the well-fed ones with widened phylacteries (ermine capes, jeweled gloves) and places of honor––the 99 righteous. As Paul tells us in the reading from Philippians, All of this––being circumcised, tribe of Benjamin, Hebrew parentage, Pharisee––is loss (as my favorite song has it), worthless refuse to me. First of all, we are blessed if we are one of the lost, one of the poor, one of the little ones! This is the theme of the Beatitudes, no? And then, go after the other lost ones! Go after the prostitutes and the tax collectors, and the lepers and the poor. This is what the Holy Father is trying to do with the Synod on the Family. He’s not trying to change dogma or doctrine: he wants to seek out the lost ones, the divorced and separated, gay people—and welcome them. They are like sheep without a shepherd, and if we don’t minister to them, someone will and that someone may be a wolf! Don’t focus on bishops and politicians; don’t stop at the Ladies’ Sodality and the Men’s Club, and stop climbing the social ecclesial ladder. If there is anything that Pope Francis loathes it’s the idea of a church (or a community!) closed in on itself. Climb back down the ladder (the ladder of humility) and associate with others at the bottom rung. Jesus introduces us to the God who does not want the sinner to die but to turn to me and live.[ii] (Saint Benedict quotes that line from Ezekiel, by the way, with a particular sense of urgency at the end of the Prologue to the Rule).
And somehow this abides even after death. Jesus says the same thing three times in the Gospel of John, “I have not lost any of those you gave me,” the most poignant time perhaps was during his priestly prayer just before the Last Supper––‘As long as I was with them… I kept careful watch, and not one of them was lost’[iii]; then as he was getting arrested, he tells the temple police to let his apostles go, and John tells us that this was to fulfill what he had said, ‘I have not lost one of those you gave me.’[iv] But the most poignant time for our purposes today, is earlier yet in the Gospel of John, in the middle of the Bread of Life discourse, when he says ‘It is the will of him who sent me that I should lose nothing of what he has given me; rather, that I should raise it up on the last day.’[v] So this abides even in death!
We have this strange particular belief that what was accomplished in Jesus, in the Christ event, is going to have an impact on our own passage from this life-as-we-know-it, that, whatever marvelous mysterious thing this means to you, Jesus has cleared the way; Jesus will be there to accompany us to the bosom of his Abba; Jesus’ life, death and mostly resurrection has shown us that the death of this physical body is not the end of the story. We are the ones now that the Father has given Jesus to care for, and he will not let us get lost, in life nor in death.
I of course was thinking about Chapter 4 of the Rule, too, on “The Tools for Good Works.” “Live in fear of judgment day, have a great horror of hell.” There’s the “fear and trembling” we heard about earlier in the Letter to the Philippians.[vi] Saint Benedict doesn’t end there; he says later in the steps of humility that what we once did out of fear and dread we will do “out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue.”[vii] But maybe it’s okay to start out with a little fear. I find that the older I get, the more urgent it feels to me. More than that though, Benedict urges, “Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire. Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” This was another little piece of advice that Richard Rohr gave us in the Male Rite of Initiation, the second of the great five truths: first of all, “Life is hard!”; second, “You are going to die!” That puts things in perspective. And so, and so what? Benedict says, and so “Keep careful watch over all you do, aware the God’s gaze is upon you, wherever you may be.” Somehow this is what we do here in a monastic community, build a place where we are all living as if we were going to die tomorrow. That’s why we observe all the other tools for good works; that’s why we’re moderate in our speech and we guard our lips from saying anything harmful or deceptive; that’s why we engage in holy reading and prayer; that’s why we work and treat all the tools of the monastery as if they were vessels for the altar; and especially that’s why we live our life of charity and mutual obedience. Because God’s gaze is on us, and I want to be doing every moment what I would want to be doing at that moment when I die.
I think one of the most beautiful aspects of our life is our care for each other, through sickness, old age and death. I remember how sweet it was to take care of Bro Philip when I was a postulant, and to learn from my brothers how to care for him and keep watch over him as he died. The same with Joseph and Anthony, as with Romuald and Bernard. That’s why we don’t live by ourselves in the woods somewhere: we belong to a band of brothers. And what is even more moving is to think that after I’m gone, someone here is still going to remember my name, maybe tell some quirky stories about me and remember to pray for me, and maybe ask me to pray for him. In some way the lines blur already between this life and the next, between heaven and earth, both when we are living as if we were ready to die, and when we realize that we are still surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, the monks and nuns who have gone before us and who, with Jesus, have shown the way. Christ gave us to each other, and maybe we too look around us one day up and down the choir and say:“I have not lost any of those you gave me.”