In early times, the daily Chapter was a traditional feature of the monastic timetable. The monks left church at the end of the office of Prime and processed to a room near by, where a portion, or "chapter," of the Rule was read and the abbot commented upon it. It was also the natural occasion for announcements to be made affecting the life of the community and for a blessing to be given upon the day's work. Soon the room itself came to be called "the Chapter Room, or House" or simply "Chapter." Even today some form of this practice exists in many monasteries, including our own. Each month this page will feature a chapter talk given to the Community, as well as news and features. We hope you will visit us regularly.


25 September 2015

Golden Jubilee of Sr Anne-Marie O’Keeffe


The lost sheep,  the ninety-nine and the Good Shepherd


The three parables in Luke 16 about the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, according to St Ambrose, reveal to us the divine remedy for the human condition that comes from the Trinity, the Father representing God the Father, the Shepherd Christ and the woman the Church.


          The parable of the lost sheep has a cosmic as well as a personal significance.  It is a striking image of the Fall, whereby man asserted his autonomy with dreadful consequences for the race, and of the Incarnation and Redemption.  The Son is sent, with His glad argreement, to lift up and carry back the fallen human race to its true home.  This is done at great cost to our Redeemer, the great Shepherd of the sheep; it displays the patience of God and His incomprehensible concern for ungrateful man.  Charles Péguy, the French writer, sees it poetically and not without truth, as God’s perception of His profound responsibility for His creature.  God, he says, has put Himself in need of His creature and, in a sense, given him power over the divine Heart.  “He lacks us, He lacks His creature.  He who is everything needs him who is nothing” (The Portal of the Mystery of Hope).  Lastly, the parable reveals the endless rejoicing in heaven among the angels and saints at man’s reconciliation with God.


          To recall the words of the short parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness (Mt 18:12 has “on the mountains”) and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it?  And when he has found it, he lays it on his own shoulders, rejoicing.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:1-7).


          It seems permissible to identify with all three protagonists in this parable about redemption: that is, the lost sheep; then with the ninety-nine left in the desert or on the mountains: thirdly, even with the Shepherd, since we are, by grace, sharers in the divine nature.  Each member of Christ’s Body has been rescued from original sin and redeemed by the saving death of Our Lord, through our baptism lived out in faith, hope and charity.  Whether we have always been safely inside the sheepfold of the Church or wandering outside, we have all been and still are being carried on the shoulders of the Redeemer.  In this parable, Our Lord is addressing the situation where the sheep, that is the soul, has been responsible for its plight, whether by a deliberate, wrong choice or by a more or less culpable mistake.  In some way, it has failed to recognise the sheepfold fully for what it is: the place where God dwells.  It has perhaps resisted the courteous requirements of the Shepherd, misunderstanding that these keep it in the truth.  Here is Adam’s sin again: the desire for independence from God; and as in Adam’s case, the result is immeasurable loss, exclusion from the happiness of the Kingdom and, ultimately, moral and spiritual helplessness.  The further the sheep strays, the less capable it is of return.  The further from the source, the more it hungers and thirsts, without hope of being fed and watered.  The greener pasture which once beckoned now seems dry and barren, even threatening and harmful.  What can the sheep do?  Almost nothing.  It can, however, bleat – and the more loudly and plaintively, the better the chance of being heard.  It also looks in the direction from which it hopes help will come.  According to St Bernard, the Christian soul in any difficulty turns its eyes to Mary.  Respice stellam.  Voca Mariam.  Look at the star; call upon Mary.


          The admission of neediness even works to the soul’s advantage.  As the Cloud of Unknowing puts it: “When you feel that you are completely powerless … cower down … and reckon that it is ridiculous to fight any longer.  In this way you surrender to God while you are in the hands of your enemies and feeling that you have been overcome for ever.  Please pay special heed to this suggestion, for I think if you try it out it will dissolve your opposition.”  The reason is simple.  It shows “true knowledge and experience of the self”: in other words, humility.  “And this humility causes God Himself to come down in His might and avenge you of your enemies and take you up and fondly dry your spiritual eyes – just as a father would towards his child, who had been about to die in the jaws of wild boar or mad, devouring bears!”  The repentant and softened heart lays claim on the compassion of the Shepherd.  Mourning is turned into rejoicing.  Says Ambrose: “Let us rejoice that the sheep that had strayed in Adam is lifted on Christ.  The shoulders of Christ are the arms of the Cross.  There I laid down my sins.  I rested on the neck of that noble yoke.”


          Humility, then, is the sheep’s salvation.  May we also hear an echo in the parable of the Lamb of the sacrifice, the ram caught in the thicket, which is substituted for Isaac and symbolises Christ himself?  He allows Himself to become the lost sheep, as it were, of the heavenly Father, who did not abandon Him but raised Him up from the dead and welcomed Him into glory.  It might be added that He also accepts our endurance of our own personal frailty as a sacrifice pleasing to Him and as a collaboration in His redemptive work.  Graciously, it becomes, in His merciful eyes, a meritorious trial, not a matter for blame.


          What of the ninety-nine who need no repentance?  In the context of the parable, this seems to be an example of irony and a tilt at the complacent or rigorist.  They exist in every age.  The elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a case in point.  The first thing to note, then, is that every kind of ostracism or narrowness of view is not the mark of the Christian.  Their absence in the repentant sinner is his or her saving grace.  Our Lord makes it clear on more than one occasion that a forgiven person is likely to be a grateful person, one whose love flows spontaneously and unselfconsciously.  He or she has even a certain advantage over those who never strayed; for humility is the only possible attitude to take.  St Gregory remarks that the man who has turned back in battle but repents and goes on to pursue the enemy bravely gives the leader more joy than the stolidly faithful ranks who never take any risks.  Yet it is also Gregory who sees more deeply into this question of the fidelity of the group, who, after all, may not experience, necessarily, feelings of self-satisfaction or resentment.  The target of the parable’s irony is not the group as such, but a certain group attitude.  Repented sin and error are not, after all, the only teachers of humility; one has only to think of a saint like Thérèse of Lisieux.  The righteous person, who has the gift of compunction, is especially close to God, suggests Gregory.  He writes: “We may gather what great joy it causes to God when the just man humbly mourns, if it produces joy in heaven when the unrighteous by repentance condemns the evil he has done.”


          While the just ninety-nine who mourn for sin can represent the whole assembly of the redeemed, this special kind of mourning seems to me the prerogative of a monastic house.  By our vocation, we put ourselves on the same level as the sinner, the lapsed and the lost.  By our penance and sacrifice, we stand in for them, so to speak, and plead for them with the Shepherd of us all.  We accept to be left by Him in the desert or on the mountain, both places of exacting encounter with God, so that souls may be brought back to the Church and that its measure may become full.  The just ninety-nine are those who await the Shepherd’s return in triumph, often with only the star of faith to give them sufficient light.  To make the sheepfold attractive to the strayed, they seek to keep alive the gospel values of love, obedience, praise, peace and innocence of life.  They find the Lord’s presence, in union with their brothers and sisters through the world, in the breaking of the Bread of the word and in the Holy Eucharist.  These are the pastures the sheep always craved, perhaps without knowing it.  But the values have to be nurtured by prayer, lectio divina and work.  These three indispensable elements of our life are closely linked.  We pray and contemplate in our work, not only in the sense that we pray while working, but also because the essence of such work is the self-donation which is the heart of all prayer.  Fr Jean-Marie Cattaui, speaking of Vera, the sister and protector of Raïssa Maritain, says: “By dint of being Martha and believing herself to be no-one but Martha, she has become Mary.  For the work she does creates around her the silence of love.”  Work done with love, for love, is true eloquence.


          When we serve in joy and when we rejoice in the good, we share in the life of the Good Shepherd.  St Ambrose has a splendid passage, in his commentary on Ps 118/119, on the extraordinary attitude of Jesus, and therefore of the Father, to the wandering sheep.  This passage brings together in a synthesis the Shepherd’s will to save, the sheep’s will to be saved and the good will of the rest of the flock, “to think and to do what is right” (cf Collect of the First Week of Lent, Feria V).  The sheep speaks: “Come then, Lord Jesus, seek your servant, seek your weary sheep.  …  Come without dogs … without the hireling, who did not know how to enter through the door … for a long time I am awaiting your coming.  For I know that you will come: ‘For I have not forgotten your commandments.’  Come not with a rod, but with love and mildness of spirit.  Do not hesitate to leave your ninety-nine on the mountains; because the ravening wolves cannot raid those settled on the mountains.  …  Seek me; because I search for you.  Seek me, find me, lift me up, carry me (Suscipe me …).  You are able to find the one you seek.  In kindness lift him up, when you have found him, and when lifted up, place him on your shoulders.  The burden taken in loving kindness will not be wearisome.  …  I still hope for healing.  Come, Lord, for you alone are able to recall the wandering sheep.  And those whom you leave for a while will not be saddened, for they too will rejoice at the sinner’s return.  Come and bring salvation to earth; joy to heaven.”


          When we sing the Suscipe at our Profession, at a Jubilee, at any time, we pray to be lifted up and accepted and brought to salvation.  We know, writes Benedict XVI, that Christ truly “accepts us, draws us up to himself, into himself, and in communion with him, we learn God’s will” (Jesus of Nazareth, Volume I).  He is the Lamb, who is also the Shepherd, leading those who have learned his will by the quiet springs “whose water is life” (cf Rev 7:17).

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