An extreme gift
The Homily of Fr Damian Howard SJ for Luke Taylor’s Vows Mass on 21st December 2018, Feast of St Peter Canisius.
With Christmas so close, I assume that we have all been busy buying presents for friends and family. Which is either a great pleasure or, if you are like me, a trial like no other. I remember when I was young an elderly uncle who used to come and stay at Christmas and who would always buy me an Airfix model of a ship or an aeroplane. And I dreaded this because not only did I not enjoy assembling plastic models, I was also no good at it either. I would get glue all over the place and stick the wrong bits together with catastrophic results. The thing is it that the moment would always come when I’d ask for my uncle’s help and then he’d take over, and spend the rest of the Christmas period merrily putting my present together.
I felt doubly guilty – for not liking the present and then for making my poor old uncle put everything right. Now that I know a little more about human motivation, I can see a bit more clearly what was actually going on: my uncle hadn’t really bought the gift for me at all. The dreaded model was always meant for himself. Which really is the worst crime you can commit against the art of giving.
In giving mood
We are all gathered here today because Luke is in giving mood. He wants to give his liberty, his heart and mind, his time and energy to God in an exclusive and, frankly, rather extreme way. You might even say he wants to give himself. Just notice how easily someone in Luke’s position, a generous and noble-hearted person, might end up giving God something that God wasn’t asking for. It’s not unusual during the years of noviceship for a man to work out that God is not asking him to be a Jesuit but rather to get married or to live out a life of service in a quite different sort of life.
Luke has been tested very thoroughly, as much as anyone could be, and although the path has not always been smooth, the tug of the Spirit has been surprisingly consistent, suggesting that God really is interested in seeing Luke live his life as a Jesuit.
If you think that makes God sound rather acquisitive then you need another crucial part of the story. Because the only reason Luke intuits with delight and joy that God is asking of him the costly gift of himself is that God has already shown Himself to be the very best of gift-givers. In a real and personal way, Jesus Christ gave Himself for Luke’s sake and Luke knows that to be the case. As a Jesuit novice he has spent many months allowing himself to be moved and stirred by the love of Christ; and the result, as you see today, is that he wants to kneel before the Lord and offer himself in return.
Radical and permanent self-giving
Saint Ignatius, our Founder, wrote a stunningly beautiful prayer which is in many ways the climax of his Spiritual Exercises. And its final sentence captures the very heart of all this: “You have given all to me; now I return it.” It’s not an heroic self-immolation which is going on here but a circle of gift, a mutual self-giving.
Of course, this radical and permanent self-giving comes with its own risk: it can all too easily be taken back. I don’t want to feed your imagination but there are all sorts of ways of withdrawing the gift made so joyfully among us today. The vow of obedience, for instance, is a commitment to go wherever you are sent. It is, though, possible to so manoeuvre things that you end up going where you want – or more usually not going where you don’t want. Today’s vows are not a one-off. They have to be remade every day. Some days, most days, Luke won’t even notice. But there’ll be some when he will have to sit down and pray because the cost of the gift will just have registered in a new and unexpected way.
The point is that it is not so much a contract as a full-blown relationship that Luke is getting into. I am so pleased that the first reading is from the Song of Songs, that extraordinary book of the Old Testament in which the relationship between God and His people is imagined as that of two young lovers. Although Jesuits haven’t traditionally explored nuptial imagery in their spirituality – Luke probably doesn’t think of himself as getting married to Jesus – nevertheless that way of thinking about our religious life as one of passion and mutual self-gift is very much part of our way. And just as with nuptial love, if Luke’s relationship to God is going to be more than a one-night stand, it will have to grow over time, to be grounded in real experiences with the Lord, most of them utterly delightful, some hard.
St Peter Canisius – a fine companion
If that is going to be fruitful, and we pray that it will be, then Luke will be helped on his way by the saints who have trodden this path before him. In making his profession on the feast of St Peter Canisius, Luke has found a fine companion, one who might even be, if you’ll pardon the pun, tailormade to inspire and encourage him.
St Peter Canisius was from the first generation of Jesuits. Like Luke, he lived an international life: born in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, but spending most of his adult life in Germany, Italy and Central Europe. He was frequently on the road, an exemplar of St Ignatius’ vision of the Jesuit as a restless man permanently on mission. And he wasn’t just cosmopolitan in the rather derogatory sense that that word has taken on recently; no, he was a man who could put down deep roots into the local soil with great ease, enabling him to found a number of influential and fruitful institutions, not least the University of Innsbruck which still has a strong Jesuit connection today.
Canisius also resembles Luke in being something of an intellectual. He is one of only two Jesuits to have been made a Doctor of the Church. His theological treatises were hugely popular in their day and read by many thousands. His catechism was the first of the genre in the history of the Catholic Church. And he was an active participant in the Council of Trent, earning for himself a reputation as a key promoter of the Counterreformation.
More even than these characteristics, my guess is that Luke will value St Peter Canisius’ ecumenical credentials. Canisius had a good teacher of ecumenical understanding in St Pierre Favre. Both of them always approached Christians of other denominations with absolute respect and a desire to understand their position. For them, the language of polemic, the strategy of demonising the other, were deeply injurious to the pursuit of love and truth. They held that you could only hope to change people by modelling the love of God. Canisius criticised those who preferred a more confrontational approach by saying: “With words like these, we don’t cure patients, we make them incurable.” He had enormous admiration for the good heartedness and honesty of many of the German Christians he came across. In an age in which the path of polemic and division seems to be the one more travelled, that gentle approach is more needed than ever.
The promise of a fruitful new life
St Peter was also deeply Marian in devotion and it is fitting that our Gospel today is the story of the Visitation as recorded by St Luke. Canisius was a frequent visitor to the Holy House in Loreto and the author of De Maria Virgine incomparibile, the most important defence of the cult of the Virgin written in Reformation times. In his writings, he put the stress on the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption because both pointed to the purity and incorruptibility of Mary. He was also responsible for the phrase in the Hail Mary: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners”.
But I can’t help thinking that it is today’s Gospel of the Visitation which is our best guide to what is happening today. It holds up for us a powerfully evocative picture of a spiritual encounter, the meeting of the newly pregnant Virgin Mary with her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. The scene points away from the externals of their meeting towards something hidden, something deeply interior which promises a fruitful new life, evoked by the dancing, the leaping of the child in the womb when he senses the nearness of the Incarnate Word. On this shortest day of the year, let’s feel our way, perhaps darkly, towards the invisible reality at work in this celebration, to sense Luke’s spontaneous response to the invisible presence of His Lord and the extraordinary joy that brings.