Today’s first reading was also read in this church on Saturday, January 1, 2000. I remember it well because that was the mass at which I took my solemn vows. I remember it vividly because the lector at that mass left out the crucial last sentence. He left out, “Here I am, send me!”
Fast forward 19 years, and I find myself smiling condescendingly on that young monk who would dare make such a demand of God. And there have been times when I questioned the wisdom of the decision I made that day. Knowing how hard the life of a prophet can be, why would anyone volunteer for it?
Well, it happens that today’s Gospel reading also played a large part in my discernment of my vocation. At a crucial moment during my novitiate, when I was certain this monastery was not for me, I had a very vivid daydream. This is not in itself unusual. I spend most of my life daydreaming. But on this occasion, I had been reading about the call of Peter; and I imagined that I too was on the beach that day at Gennesaret. I too was packing up my fishing nets and tackle, when I looked up the beach, and…there was Jesus. He was walking along the shore in my direction. He was choosing his apostles.
So on he came. He was walking toward me. As he drew closer, I could see the determination in his eyes…and he was walking straight toward me. He came closer. Closer. And just as he got to my boat, he stopped, turned around, and chose THE GUY IN THE BOAT NEXT TO ME. Then walked away.
Was this a sign that I was not called to the priesthood? Had I felt relieved, I’d say yes; But instead, I became quite convinced of the opposite. I rebooted the daydream and ran after Jesus calling out, “Wait! Wait! You forgot me! Choose me! Here I am, send me!”
Now, this has been a hard few years to be a priest—a hard few years to be a Catholic. And…well…the last week has been the hardest yet for the Abbey Family. But I knew when I signed up that we might have a hard go of it. I was told that we were likely to lose men. I was warned that the life of a Christian was not easy, and that I would find myself on the front lines of a war for souls. I was told that every soldier, when he comes face-to face with the enemy, questions his decision to fight; but a good soldier knows that, for the sake of his brothers-in-arms, he must stand his ground.
I was sharing this with some students on Wednesday. One of them said, “The monks may be the Green Berets of the Church…but this is like Blackhawk Down or something.” It sure feels like that. But you know, there were guys who deliberately parachuted into that fight. Knowing the odds, they deliberately put themselves in harms way. They wanted to be there. And I believe those men were heroes.
Well, here we all are, monks, priests, and laypeople alike--in the thick of it. The pressure is unbearable, the enemy has us surrounded, and some of us are very discouraged. Some have run away. And some have simply cracked under the pressure of it.
But I told my students, and I’ve told my brother monks, and I can surely speak for many of us here today when I say: there is nowhere in the world I would rather be right now. You all parachuted in this Sunday, and we are grateful.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about Winston Churchill. Not a great theologian, and probably not a saint, but a great soul nonetheless. A steadfast soul. A soul who, when it looked like his people were likely to lose heart, gave a speech which steeled their resolve. And I find myself reciting his words in a new context:
"I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat…we should prepare ourselves for hard and heavy tidings. And I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemy.
…And when we see the originality of malice, the ingenuity of aggression, which our enemy displays, we may certainly prepare ourselves for every kind of brutal and treacherous maneuver…but at the same time, I hope, with a steady eye.
…For even though many have fallen or may fall into the grip of the enemy and all the odious apparatus of his rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength…we shall defend our home, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landings, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
To put it in more biblical terms, “Do not be afraid; from now on you’ll be catching men."