Saturday, January 18, 2014

Brother Rock, of his own Violation

Sermon for the Confession of St. Peter
January 18th, 2014
delivered at the Winter Convocation of The Brotherhood of Saint Gregory
The Chapel of the Stigmata
Mt. Alvernia Retreat Center, Wappingers Falls, New York

Among the great blessings of my childhood and youth were trips to rural Gloucestershire to visit my English grandparents. Even now, simply reflecting on it brings back the scent of freshly cut sweet pea blossoms on the kitchen table, the yeasty smell of the pantry where my grandfather fermented homemade wine, and his aftershave scenting the little office beyond, cluttered as it was with papers, books, and the typewriter where he tried his hand at writing for many years.

Above his desk was a little wooden plaque that read:

“Engage brain before opening mouth.”

You might think for a moment I will be relating St. Peter today to my grandfather — a self-made and largely self-educated man, a man of simple trade, and yet amongst the wisest people I knew growing up.

But, no, I would better relate my grandmother to Peter. For our beloved Rona, to say it was to think it. She was the positive antithesis of that delightful little sign in my grandfather’s office, which is probably why it remained in his office and nowhere else in the house, and you can only imagine the fascinating relationship they cultivated for over fifty years of marriage!

My grandmother had married well below her station. To employ a bit of British understatement, her family that included a captain in the Royal Navy was not at all amused when their daughter found herself backed by love to marry into trade — namely, the floristry trade. But that she did, and so without the roadmap of family sanction, she and Stanley built a life and started a family together around his floristry business in London. They in turn found themselves backed by geopolitical forces far beyond their control into lessons of survival and perseverance through the war years.

They narrowly escaped death on at least one occasion when a German shell leveled their little shop. Gathering stubborn resolve for survival from that experience, Rona learned how to deal effectively with annoyed customers, difficult characters, and guide anxious brides and grieving families to the right floral design. All the while, she and her husband worked grueling hours, rising in the dark to gather fresh flowers for the day from the market, working late into the night to prepare for weddings, funerals, holidays, and every need for a bit of beauty that came in the door, and raising two children. Years later, as Stanley watched his professional colleagues drop dead of exhaustion in their early fifties, he and Rona decided to sell their business and purchase an old hunting lodge in the West Midlands. There, Stanley was determined to slow their pace of life, pick up gardening, and become a published writer.

But Rona, with no roadmap yet again, found herself backed onto a new, unexpected path, and so she began to teach. And she started writing about flower arranging, too, and was quickly published. By the time her first American grandson was born, she had become the primary breadwinner of the household, having built her little floristry school into an internationally recognized training ground for aspiring and experienced florists alike, all based in the studio she had designed and built.

In the seasons I would visit, we would sit together for tea and fine cheese, and Rona would still always speak her mind. Didn’t matter if it was politics, the beautiful garden she and Stanley cultivated, religion, church gossip, music, neighbors, or the weather. She articulated a strongly held thought about almost everything. And so Stanley would sometimes say in exasperation, if for no other reason than to end the volley of unsolicited opinion:

“Yes, dear, you could be right.”

Following his death, she told me on at least one occasion with a laugh that she learned early on not to be bashful about having the last word. And hers was a one-liner worthy of the Dowager Countess of Grantham:

“Not only could I be right,” she would sometimes respond to her husband, “I bloody well am!”

Rona lasted into her nineties, impetuous and opinionated as ever, and in many respects more successful business-wise than her more careful and studied husband had been. She was never the charmer that the self-made gentleman Stanley was, but at least you always knew where you stood with her. Her mottos included an honest wage for an honest day’s work and making a commitment to “keep the tide coming in.” A cousin even noticed that one of Rona’s books made a cameo appearance in the opening credits of the BBC comedy, Keeping Up Appearances. Her floristry school was taken over by a colleague and continued to flourish after she moved to the States to live with my parents.

Rona’s other favorite expression, which to this day I find myself using on occasion, was always about so-and-so undertaking something “of his own violation.”

Now that’s Peter in a nutshell, isn’t it? Always impetuous, always undertaking actions “of his own violation.”

Peter finds himself backed into dropping his nets at the seashore, abandons the familiar life of fishing for an uncertain future following this strange yet alluring, itinerant teacher. Peter jumps out of the boat to walk on the water. Peter is ready to enshrine Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the mountaintop and is answered by more than awkward silence. And Peter, today we remember, boldly calls Jesus Messiah and Son of the living God, and suddenly in a truly inspired moment for once, finds himself in the right. Then, before the sound of his confession fades in his own ears, he is handed the keys to the kingdom and is named in an instant of affectionate word play, “Brother Rock” if you will, a first stone for the foundation of the Church.

Yet we have good reason to doubt Peter knew precisely what he had really said or what any of this really meant. A scant few verses later, he will attempt to block Jesus from turning towards Jerusalem, and his Lord and Master will be vexed enough to call his first disciple Satan. Clearly, divine inspiration or no, “Brother Rock” had yet again opened his mouth without engaging his brain.

And it will go on. After promising not to, he will betray Jesus three times during the Passion. He will be skeptical when reports of the Resurrection are brought to him. Even after witnessing the Resurrection himself, he will clothe himself with embarrassment and jump impetuously into the water yet again, and yet still be befuddled when the arisen Christ commands him to feed his sheep. On the way to fulfilling this charge, he will argue vociferously with Paul, struggle with intractable disputes of his little community, and learn through mis-steps and unexpected visions that God still has yet even more to reveal. Nevertheless, he will still successfully lead the first Christian community in spreading the Gospel in word and deed: healing the sick, sharing the Spirit, organizing and exhorting, testifying boldly before powers and principalities, and even bursting the shackles of prison.

This week, in our own way, we Gregorians have recounted the uncertain footsteps and impetuosity of Peter as he discovered his walk with Christ. We have spent time with minds and hearts buried together in our Rule and governing documents, recounting how our Founder began this community “of his own violation” as Rona would say, and how he and subsequent companions on the way jumped impetuously and dangerously into the water, went off on tangents, said and started things they didn’t quite understand at the time. . . or simply didn’t understand at all, and yet found God inspiring, leading, and revealing things they had never imagined.

But then, that’s true of all of us, isn’t it? It’s one reason why we gathered here again to talk about humility, being broken open again and again for Jesus to plant seeds in us, and about the virtues of traveling light and allowing Christ to open our eyes. It’s why we spent time this week endeavoring to understand ourselves better, both as a community and as individual brothers.

Yet we are like many ancient tribes and like Peter himself, in that we are really walking backwards – not forwards – into the future. The ancients understood that hindsight is truly the only way we see, and so it is the future, not the past, that is behind us. Now, we might be tempted to see our evolving governing documents in particular as some kind of roadmap, some pathway forward, but they are really only lessons from experiences of the past, helping us —at best — to keep our footing while we walk backwards – or, perhaps a bit more accurately – to gather a bit of confidence and hope that we will more than survive when we, like Rona and like Peter, find ourselves backed by love and life into a future that we can only best describe as unexpected and unplanned.

The philosopher and prophet of our modern media age, Marshall McLuhan, coined the familiar phrase  “the medium is the message” and the term “global village.” He also said, gathering up this ancient wisdom, “We look at the present through a rear view mirror; we walk backwards into the future.”

And, yes, it is always dangerous to walk backwards: no constitution or customary or amount of self-awareness will make religious life safe. My brothers, we are called to remain unsafe and impetuous at times, just as Peter was; to proclaim Jesus Messiah and Son of God, and not know what the hell we are talking about some of the time or even much of the time; to undertake ministries and tasks “of our own violation”; and, indeed, to open our mouth sometimes or often without engaging our brains; to risk offering the gift of the Spirit working in us despite ourselves.

And it is this risk that continues to allow the kingdom to unfold among us and through us for the sake of those we serve, so that perhaps in the final analysis, we can with Peter learn finally to become the media and the message for Christ in this global village of ours. We might in the process show in word and deed that not only could Peter be right, he (bloody well!) is right that Jesus is indeed Messiah, the Son of of the living God:

Christ at work for the redemption of a whole fragile, tender, beloved world.

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