Neh 8.1-3,5-6,8-10; 1 Cor 12.12-31a; Lk 4.14-21
God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, and third teachers…and in that order! So those of us who are or have been teachers know our place. We are third in the list. But in fact those of us who belong to religious orders know very well that we are called to be all three: apostles, prophets, and teachers.
For apostles are those who are sent. Prophets are those who are inspired to have insights into what God is up to. Teachers are those who have good news to share. And we in religious orders are called to be all three.
We are often sent, under the vow of obedience, in a system which is made possible by the vows of chastity and poverty. It is all very practical and sensible. It creates the freedom to move around, if need be from one hemisphere to another - and back again, several times even, not to mention the possibility of being sent into unknown territory like the islands of the pacific.
Poverty and celibacy make for a mobility that cannot and should not be expected of people with vocations different from ours. We can move, very quickly if need be, and we can live on the smell of an oil rag if we have to - in order to get things done. Obedience means we are sent for the Lord, with a commission and with authority - not for ourselves, or even for the well being of the order, but for others. So we are called to be apostles.
We are also called to be prophets. The spirit of the Lord is upon us to bring good news to the poor. The vow of poverty links us with those who are poor, with those who are aware of their need for God, with those whose values are different. We all share the desire to seek the will of God, and together we take responsibility for what we decide to do. But often it is the visionary who draws our attention to real needs in the world, and to the way our resources might best be used to meet those needs. You need to be a visionary to see that it is time to move a school to a new site, or to increase the size of a school to make it viable, to pull down old buildings and build better ones, or that it is time to hoik off and help found a new work in the Solomons.
Mind you, historically it has not been much fun being a prophet. Prophets, because they are visionaries, are always out of step with everyone else, at least at first - until other people catch up. Amos was, Jeremiah was - and they suffered for it. Sand there was Jesus, of course. There is a burden about being a prophet, and part of that burden is being compelled to proclaim the vision - which can be awkward for everybody else, and a jolly nuisance for superiors. But there it is; we are called to be prophets, those who seek to discern the will of God.
And we are called to be teachers. The visionary needs to be able to communicate. The vision has to be shared. That is what leadership is about. That is what teaching is about. Here is good news for the poor and all who are on the margins of our society. We are called to bring good news, to release by education those who are kept captive by ignorance, to open to the wonders of God’s world the eyes of those who cannot see them, to set free those who are kept oppressed by lack of opportunity to learn or by lack of worthwhile role models. This we do and have done in our institutions, in our schools, in our novice training, and in chapters, but I suspect we do it most in the way we live our lives, in the way we live out our lives in poverty, celibacy and obedience.
On Wednesdays I work in a charity shop in North Brixton. In the holidays mothers bring the kids in, sometimes to kit them out, often just because it is somewhere to go. The children sometimes want to help, as did a little girl not so long ago. She chatted away while she rearranged things in a display cabinet and plaited the hair of a Barbie doll - which made it look even worse, would you believe. Then suddenly she went round the other side of the counter, rested her arms on it and her head on her arms, - like so - and the conversation took a sudden and different turn: ‘How old are you?’ she asked. ‘How old do you think I am’ I replied. Pause. ‘Are you 21?’ ‘I’m a little older than 21’. Another pause. ‘In fact I’m nearly 70’. Her eyes widened a little, her jaw locked in an open position - and the little chatterbox was silenced. 70 made no sense to her at all; she could not comprehend it.
70 years. 70 years of poverty, chastity and obedience. I feel like the little girl, unable to comprehend, but awed by it. To be 70 years old is nothing really; just a matter of survival, moving one foot after the other, keeping out of trouble or at least making sure you don’t get caught. But 70 years of religious life is another thing altogether. That requires stamina, the stamina of a tomboy, perhaps. It requires sacrifice, and a lively sense of the ridiculous. It requires courage and a deep confidence in God. It requires that practice of the presence of God such that you are aware of his presence both when things are going well, and when people are impossible and events tragic. It requires an understanding of belonging, of belonging to the Body of Christ, with all its various parts, and to its local manifestation, the community, the kind of belonging that sometimes puts you at odds with others and especially with superiors, and yet keeps you loyal in spite of it all.
So dear Sr. Athletica, we salute you and we thank God for you. We thank God for the privilege of working with you and knowing you. You are an inspiration to us all who struggle with the life of poverty, chastity and obedience, and with you we thank God that he has called us to be apostles, prophets and teachers, with all its perils, and with all its fun.
Jonathan Ewer SSM
CSC Chaplain General