Homilies,  Sunday

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – 10 September 2023

Some of you would be aware that for many years of my life I lived as a Trappist monk.  Trappist life is a life lived in community, and most people would think of a monastery as a place of peace and tranquillity where Christian virtue was lived in its perfection.  However, of course, the reality is quite different.  A monastic community is really just like any other family:  ordinary people who struggle to make life together work with all the joys and pains we all know in regard to this. I recall the great response of one of the old Irish monks in the community, Br Gabriel, who used to reply to the question from guests as to whether any miracles had occurred at the monastery by saying, “The only miracle that has occurred here is that no one has been murdered!”

In fact, the community life at Tarrawarra Abbey in Victoria was extraordinarily warm and welcoming, and known for its relational character. Yet, as in any family, there were times of stress and misunderstanding.  The community was a group of men, each with their own complexities and baggage, and of course, from time to time, conflict would ensue between different monks.  I can never remember any physical altercation.  The most common way of expressing a level of conflict was rather through a tendency simply to stop speaking to one another.  Instead of being a sign of prayerful centredness, silence would then become a form of punishment meted out to the one who was the centre of disaffection.  Indeed, it would be curious to witness at times how people who lived so closely together could become so distant from one another through such a mechanism. I recall two monks not speaking to one another for over two years even though we lived in the same house.

The use of silence as a form of punishment of another, of course, was not unique to the monastery at those occasional times of inevitable fraternal stress.  It’s a common technique many of us use in our relationships with others.  We stop speaking to one another. We give the one with whom we are displeased the ‘cold shoulder.” We go out of our way to avoid one another.  We ignore the other, and take a rather perverse pleasure in letting them know that we are ignoring them.  

We punish the one who has hurt us through processes of exclusion.  We literally excommunicate them, i.e. we close the avenues of communication.

Indeed, what we can do in the ordinariness of our own relationships we extend into our social response to crime.  The punishment of crime is to lock people away.  The most severe punishment is to relegate a person to solitary confinement.  We cut off all communication. We isolate them, even though we have come to realise that nothing so fragments the personality as isolation.  In isolation there can be no healing, no true restoration. no real transformation of the crime that has been committed.  

It is precisely because exclusion presents as a dead-end to genuine healing, that many ancient peoples would adopt the complete opposite response to crimes committed against another in society.  Instead of isolating the one who had perpetrated a crime, instead of casting him to the edge of the society, they would actually bring them into the very centre of the life of the community.  It was at the centre of the community’s life, rather than at its edge, that it was envisaged that the one who had committed an offense might realise more fully the nature of their crime and therefore wish to make amends.

Jesus himself was not naive about the struggle involved in life together, whether it be in a family, or in a community, or in society generally.  He knew that there would be times of misunderstanding, or times when selfishness might predominate, or times when even our best efforts might get undone by needs of we might be only dimly aware.  Conflict between people is inevitable whatever their social situation.  It is not the possibility of conflict that is a problem for Jesus.  It is the way we respond to conflict with which he is concerned.

We can respond in a way that seeks to isolate the other, or indeed in a way that simply isolates myself.  From the perspective of the gospel, however, isolation is death.  Isolation renders us less receptive in life, harder of heart. It encloses us in ourself and ultimately entombs us in a fear which makes us more and more defensive, more rigid.   Going the way of isolation, using the processes of exclusion, will not, therefore, make us more human, or happier– even if it promises a perverse form of delight out of vengeance for a while.  It can’t make us happy in the long term, though, because we find our true selves not in isolation but only in communion with one another.  If isolation is death, communion with one another is life.  It is where we become fully ourselves, fully alive.  For in communion with one another, in a shared openness with one another, we live in receptivity and in a vulnerability with one another alone through which life flows most powerfully for us.

In the presence of the inevitable conflicts that emerge in our life together, the gospel presents us with a choice:  are we to go the way of exclusion, or are we go keep pressing forward towards that which might promise inclusion?  

The way of inclusion is not about adopting some naive approach to the difficulties that may be there before us.  It is not about ignoring conflict and the hurt that ensues in the midst of conflict.  It is not about being Pollyanna, and forgiving and forgetting that does not take into account the nature and the complexity of the hurt that I may be experiencing.  

It is a commitment, rather, to step back, to consider, and to wonder about those steps I might undertake to avoid going down the easier way of exclusion and to think through what might facilitate a new experience of inclusion, albeit with realism and not without pragmatism.

Our efforts to maintain the other who has hurt us in a bond of inclusion, albeit with realism and with carefully considered parameters, without reverting to our instinctive reaction to exclude the other, are what the gospel today affirms and encourages.  For is only in our work to cultivate the experience of communion with one another, and not in our tendencies to isolate one another, will we grow in the realisation of the way in which God’s own very life manifests itself in us.   

And this is the miracle that waits for each and every one of us to experience.

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