Investiture Reflection - June 22, 2019.
If, like me, you’ve grown up using the standard Catholic vocabulary, you are no stranger to the word “order.” We’re all familiar with “Religious Orders,” Holy Orders,” and whatnot, and we use the terms without giving them much thought. So you can imagine my surprise the other day, when our president, Michael Grace, asked me to offer a few thoughts on the “Order” of Malta, to realize I had altogether no idea what the term meant – this in spite of being a member of the Dominican Order for fifty years, the Order of Malta for fifteen or so, and a priest in Holy Orders for forty five years.
I felt pretty dumb, to be sure, but then I remembered that my eighth-grade teacher used to say, “knowledge isn’t so much knowing an answer as knowing where to find an answer.” So, I turned to our Catechism, which – when it deals with Holy Orders – asks, “Why is this sacrament called ‘Orders’?”
The text replies,
The word ordo in Roman antiquity designated an established civil body, especially a governing body. Ordinatio (“ordination”) means incorporation into an ordo. In the Church there are established bodies which Tradition, not without a basis in Sacred Scripture, has since ancient times called… (“orders”). And so the liturgy speaks of the…[order of bishops, the order of priests, the order of deacons]. Other groups also receive this name…catechumens, virgins, spouses, widows… (CCC, 1537)
The text goes on to say that incorporation into one of these groups “was accomplished by a rite called ordinatio (‘ordination’), a religious and liturgical act which was a consecration, a blessing or a sacrament.” (CCC, 1538)
Were you thinking of this yesterday when you promised “always to bear witness to the Catholic faith…to obey the Constitution, the Statutes, and Rule of the Order, and to fulfill with fidelity and diligence whatever the Order and [your] superiors impose on [you]”?
Even if you were not considering this ceremony a form of ordination, your incorporation into the Order of Malta, as the Catechism states, was accomplished and made certain by a blessing. Whether you had this in mind yesterday, your promise and the subsequent blessing made you members of a religious order.
While doing my spiritual reading the other day, I ran across this observation
The divine Spirit is a Spirit of organization. Before He can create the Holy Church, He must first create the Church. He must become the soul of this body, stimulate its functions, establish a subordination of parts, and send coursing throughout a unifying principle of government, which theologians call Orders. The election of Matthias in the Cenacle serves as the first sign of this role of the Paraclete, and the hierarchy is its perpetual manifestation. Holy Orders is a social grace, a collective gift of God, from which a host of others proceeds. (What Jesus Saw from the Cross, Ch. 4, “The Upper Room”)
I’ll have more to say about Holy Orders in a moment, but for now let me remark that an “order” – any order – is an organization, a group of individuals God has called to share some common, identifying characteristic. Members of the Order of Malta share a commitment to the defense and growth of the Catholic faith, and to service of the poor and sick in our midst. But these apostolic endeavors are a result – an outward, visible sign of something more basic, and that is your desire to share with one another your lives, your talents, and the spiritual gifts that make you who you are.
I cannot speak for you, of course, but this idea of participation in a community is absolutely essential to what we understand as a religious order. When I was considering my priestly vocation a hundred or so years ago, I immediately dismissed the thought of becoming a diocesan priest. I am an only child, and although I’d seen many diocesan priests whom I admired, the thought of living and working by myself was altogether unappealing.
On the other hand, I attended a Dominican high school, and saw that while my teachers might not always have agreed with one another – indeed, they might not always liked one another – they were held together by a commitment to something beyond themselves. And so it is with you. This may not be something that immediately comes to mind when you pack for the Pilgrimage to Lourdes, but it is the reason for your packing. Anyone can be a volunteer; when you prepared for Lourdes, you chose to embrace two hundred other individuals and embark on a common enterprise. And you did this – and, once again, you might not have considered it at the time – in obedience to the wishes, and according to the directions of your religious superiors.
Think about yesterday’s Investiture ceremony. Did you realize yesterday that you were making a commitment of obedience to those in charge of the Western Association? This is a giving up of your will – your wanting to do it your way – to fulfill the vision of someone else. Even if your vision might have some advantages over that of your superior.
I am, as I say, an only child, and one of my Dominican brothers once asked my mother whether I had been hard to raise. She replied, “No, he was very obedient; he always did whatever I told him – right before he did whatever it was he had in mind to begin with.” This is the attitude you bade farewell to yesterday.
I suspect we all know that members of religious communities take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience – at least we speak of their taking these three vows. I can only speak for my Dominican community, but the vow we profess is that of obedience. Thomas Aquinas observes that obedience is the primary gift we can offer God, because we value nothing more than liberty. Poverty and chastity are included when we Dominicans offer our obedience, but obedience is the overarching commitment.
Yielding the independence of our will is the first act of obedience. This frees us from ambition and opens our hearts to a spirit of humility, in which we are willing to yield our place, our desires, and our wishes to those of others. This results in a spirit of unity and communion, and enables us more easily to embrace and cultivate a spirit of self-denial. If these seem odd results to receive from a promise of obedience, we should remember that our promise is a promise made to God, and should be an expression of our love for God and our willingness to embrace the will of God who commands us to love one another as we love ourselves.
The Vatican document Perfectae Caritatis describes traditional religious communities, but it makes a powerful observation about the contribution you have to make for the world’s salvation
Realizing that they are contributing to building up the body of Christ according to God's plan, [members of religious communities] should use both the forces of their intellect and will and the gifts of nature and grace to execute the commands and fulfill the duties entrusted to them. In this way religious obedience, far from lessening the dignity of the human person, by extending the freedom of the sons of God, leads it to maturity. (Perfectae Caritatis, 14)
Here we ought to mention that citizens enjoy any number of rights, and religious obedience does nothing to weaken or interfere with our exercise of those rights. In fact, obedience encourages us to be more faithful to our duties as citizens.
I have no idea to what extent you studied the words you proclaimed at yesterday’s Investiture before the ceremony. I know we paid no attention to them when I came to my investiture. And that was a great pity, because what you promise in the ceremony is nothing less than expressing your willingness to help establish – here and now – God’s Kingdom on earth.
When I began my reflection, I mentioned an author who spoke of the Holy Spirit’s becoming the soul of the Church, sent to “stimulate its functions, establish a subordination of parts, and send coursing throughout a unifying principle of government.” As you progress on your pilgrimage in the Order of Malta you will come to realize just how attentive the Spirit was to His task when our order was established.
At the beginning of my reflection I also mentioned the ordination rites for priests and deacons. Obviously, these are directed to those chosen for sacramental ministry in the Church, but when I attended the ordination of two of my Dominican brothers a couple of weeks ago, I was struck by the universal character – the universal challenge – of the ordination rite. I borrowed a copy of the ritual and discovered I’d not misheard: the questions posed those approaching Holy Orders are equally valid for anyone embracing life in the Order of Malta.
When candidates for deacons present themselves, the ordaining bishop asks:
“Do you resolve to discharge [your] office with humble charity, to assist the priestly Order and benefit the Christian people?”
“Do you resolve to hold fast to the mystery of faith…and proclaim this faith in word and deed according to the Gospel and the Church’s tradition?”
“Do you resolve to maintain and deepen the spirit of prayer that is proper to your way of life?”
The bishop asks candidates for the priesthood:
“Do you resolve to implore God’s mercy upon the people entrusted to your care by observing the command to pray without ceasing?”
“Do you resolve to be united more closely every day to Christ the High Priest, who offered himself to the Father as a pure sacrifice, and with him to consecrate yourself to God for the salvation of all?”
The prayers that conclude these questions reflect what we observed earlier, that incorporation into one of the orders in the Church “was accomplished by a religious and liturgical act which was a consecration, a blessing or a sacrament.” You did not receive a sacrament yesterday, but that in no way diminishes the value of your commitment, or of the blessing that acknowledged it. Listen to the prayer for the ordination of deacons:
May there abound in them every Gospel virtue:
concern for the sick and poor, unassuming authority,
the purity of innocence,
and the observance of spiritual discipline.
These words might have been taken from the prayer of the Order of Malta! Which merely demonstrates that no matter how we may be situated, our choosing to embrace a decision to follow Christ more closely means we have committed ourselves to seek a deeper relation with God in prayer, and to see the face of Jesus more clearly in those we encounter.
This is precisely what St. Paul told us a week ago, at Pentecost, when he said,
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit; there are different forms of serviced but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.
You’ve invited a Dominican to reflect with you today, so you shouldn’t be surprised if I suggest that while reason and study have identified the what of our commitment to the Order of Malta, we may find the how by looking to Mary, whose life and example offer us counsel, consolation and hope.
Sin claims no part in the nature of the Son of God, so our faith (reasonably) teaches that the human Jesus was like us in all things but sin. This is not the case with the Virgin Mary. She was like us in all things, including our need to be delivered from sin. And our faith teaches that God’s gift of Baptism after our birth echoes the special gift God gave Mary before she was conceived.
Christ’s Resurrection shows us what we can look forward to; Mary’s Assumption demonstrates that the everlasting life of heaven is, indeed, a promise we can trust. Mary embodies all the virtuous hope of God’s people in the Old Testament, and her Magnificat is a triumphant sermon on God’s mercy: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Lk 1.52). Mary’s Assumption fulfills these words, and – as in the prayers we have considered – extends a powerful invitation to follow her example of humility.
After the Annunciation, the gospel tells us that Mary “arose and went with haste” to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth. When I was in high school I went sailing one afternoon with one of my classmates. We managed to overturn the boat and had to be rescued by the Coast Guard, but we had a good time, nonetheless. When I came home, I asked my folks whether they had ever sailed. My mother said no, and my dad said he had, and added, “in my opinion, sailing is the best way to travel – if you didn’t care when – or even if – you arrive at your destination.”
I should probably add that my father loved race cars, and set a speed record at Bonneville, so he wasn’t, perhaps, the person to ask this question, but that doesn’t make much difference. The dictionary defines “haste” as “celerity of motion,” or “swiftness,” so there is no question that Mary made her journey speedily. If you’ve been to the Holy Land and seen the site of the Annunciation – a mere cave – you can’t doubt the Mary would leave the place “in haste.” But the dictionary also defines haste as “dispatch” or “urgency,” which takes haste out of the realm of mere speed and gives it a certain intention. Mary undoubtedly made the journey as quickly as she could — who wouldn’t? – but she also made it with a certain determination and purpose.
In the “Purgatory” of Dante’s Divine Comedy, every soul is spurred toward heaven with an appropriate passage from Scripture. Those atoning for sins of laziness cry out the words from the gospel: "Mary ran with haste unto the mountain." "Swift, swift," they cry, “lest time be lost by little love.”
We commonly think of laziness as putting off things we ought to do, but this procrastination is only a symptom of laziness. Laziness is a vice opposed to the virtue of charity. It's a growing cold where we ought to be warm and going slowly where we ought to make haste. Mary is the model for our active life by showing us the necessity for haste – speed united with purpose – lest time be lost by little love.
But she is also the example of our contemplative life of silence and peace. In his Apostolic Letter on the Rosary, Pope St. John Paul II wrote that at the birth of Christ “her eyes were able to gaze tenderly on the face of her Son.” Thereafter, she never failed “to contemplate the face of Christ.” (10)
It’s possible, I think, to construct psychological profiles for many of the individuals in the New Testament, but whenever we encounter Mary, I, at least, get the feeling she has just turned away her face. And I am convinced this is precisely what the evangelists want us to feel, because whenever we encounter Mary in the gospel story, we find nothing so personal about her that we cannot put ourselves in her place.
Mary is the one individual present at every moment in the life of Jesus and the early Church, so when we find her in the gospel we are supposed to see ourselves, frightened at the enormity of what God asks of us, perhaps, but nonetheless confident that we have been blessed.
Much of our Old Testament is an absolute cacophony. Voices raised in prayer, love, sorrow, anger, but – most often – recrimination. “Why couldn’t you leave us slaves in Egypt?” “Why did you bring us out into this desert to die?” “What are we going to drink?” “What’s this? When are we going to have something decent to eat?”
When God punished our pre-historic ancestors for their pride, the Book of Genesis tells us he confused their speech. Three or four thousand years later, when the poet Dryden wished to characterize our later ancestors in the Old Testament, he used an adjective for noise to describe their decadence: “God’s murmurous people, whom, debauched with ease, no king could govern, nor no God could please.” In both cases, a Babel of sound, competing for attention, and demanding to be heard.
Now, for just a moment, compare this hell of noise to every picture we have ever seen of the Annunciation. No voices raised, no noise at all, really. Just two individuals, facing one another and carrying on a conversation that will change the course of history.
Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All…Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
So, faithful Virgin, yields himself to lie…
Immensity, cloistered in thy dear womb.
What a wealth that word “cloistered” conjures up – a world where nothing goes to waste, and every single word and action bears fruit. A world where our lives change because the only voice we hear is God’s, and the only word we say is “yes.”
When I was a student at our seminary in Berkeley, I fell under the spell of a magnificently eccentric Lutheran professor, who taught our course in the History of Christianity. He once told us a story, attributed to Martin Luther, of a man who refused to kneel before the Eucharist.
One day the devil appeared and knocked the man to the ground. He said, “You refuse to kneel in the presence of God who became man for you? Have you any idea what I would have done had he become an angel for me?”
We imagine the sin of the angels to be a sin of Pride. Luther’s story suggests it may have been a sin of Envy – sadness at the good fortune of another. Mary’s encounter with Gabriel reminds us how very much we have won, and how very much those fallen angels have lost.
There’s a poem by Rilke that expresses perfectly how we must allow Mary to be our guide.
It did not scare her that he entered
But that he was so utterly present…
That his gaze and hers, looking up to him collided. As if everything outside had become empty….
A contemporary writer, a member of one of our Dominican parishes, echoes this
Mary was not blessed because she gave birth. She gave birth because she was blessed: blessed to be chosen by God and more blessed still to have the pure faith to respond with an unreserved “yes” to God’s call….
Last week we celebrated a feast to honor Mary as Mother of the Church. In the gospel reading for the feast we find Mary at the foot of the cross. At the Annunciation, she could not have known all her “fiat” would entail, but she never withdrew her acceptance of the angel’s invitation. At Calvary, when Jesus hangs before her on the cross, she realizes, at last, just how immense was her “yes.”
Mary is the new Eve, given us to be our Mother, Mother of the Church, Mother of the Order of Malta. We beg her intercession whenever we offer the Prayer of the Order. With her we must stand before the cross, but with her we share the immense promise that if we are willing to unite our will with that of her and her Son, we may look forward to sharing their everlasting life. One way we do this is by surrendering to the challenge and promise of the Order of Malta.
– Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.