From the Prioress

Oblate Commitment
October 26, 2019

October 26, 2019

It’s always so good for us to be together on this Community Weekend in October when we welcome new oblate initiates and enjoy all the oblates that are able to be present. To say that we appreciate your support and commitment to the oblate way of life is an understatement. Your love for the Rule of Benedict and the living of the Gospel are a blessing on this path we walk together and I thank you for that.

In addition, it was a blessing for us to experience together the inspiring presentations from Teresa Maya. I have heard Teresa speak a number of times at LCWR regional and national events and I was very happy that she was able to share her wisdom with us in person.

In this evening’s reflection, I would like to share wisdom I learned from another gifted author and lecturer. Michael Casey, the popular Cistercian monk, writer and speaker and his most recent book, Balaam’s Donkey, are my inspiration.

First, a note about the book title.

In the Book of Numbers there is the story of a prophet named Balaam who was summoned by King Balak to curse the Israelites for the price of a hefty sum of money. At one point in the story God comes to Balaam at night to tell him to set off on his donkey–and speak, not the words King Balak gave, but rather, the words God gives: “Do not curse the Israelites; the Israelites are a blessed people.” Balaam set off reluctantly. On the trip an Angel of God appears in his path, but only the donkey sees the angel. Balaam’s spiritual blindness prevented him from seeing the Angel of God and hearing the message that he was obeying God in his mind but not in his heart. Finally, the donkey, after being punished by Balaam for his unwillingness to move forward, is permitted by God to speak to Balaam. Balaam’s eyes are opened; he sees and listens to the Angel of God and takes God’s word to heart.
Casey writes that he chose the title for his book of 365 short, daily reflections because Balaam’s donkey proves that God uses unusual ways to communicate messages. Casey says, “I have always thought that the donkey-prophet is the perfect image for preaching homilies for they often unknowingly transmit a word that transcends their own competence and understanding.”

Now, with that being said, the homily from Balaam’s Donkey that I want to share with you is titled “Sartre.” In this short reflection Casey talks about the importance of community and being centered on God—being part of the Communion of Saints because we are centered on God. Casey quotes Jean-Paul Sartre’s well-known saying, “Hell is other people” and gives his own response to it: “Without God, other people are hell, but with God, other people are heaven.” Casey explains that life and participation in the human community becomes “impoverished when God is banished.”

Casey goes on to speak of a sociologist friend’s study on the alternative communities—intentional communities—which were formed in the 1970s. His friend found that almost none of the alternative/ intentional communities survived, including the one the friend himself had founded. After reflecting on this, the friend told Casey that if he were to set up another intentional community he would found it on the model of religious community. The friend recognized religious communities as human communities that have more than good intentions. Religious communities have a vision, ideals, a direction that is greater than simply good intentions, and first and foremost, God at the center.

Keeping this in mind, it is not much of a leap to look at the Gospel we just heard and come to understand that the Pharisee saw himself as a well-intentioned person: he is not a thief, nor a rogue, not an adulterer or even a collector of taxes. He fasts and gives part of his income away. To him this is commendable. However, in the Gospel story, Jesus presents a different scenario. Being well-intentioned is not enough—for individuals or for communities. The tax collector, who stood off at a distance and humbled himself by acknowledging his humanness and recognizing his need for God, was by far the one who would be exalted. As Jesus said ever so clearly: “Whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The Pharisee, who recites his better-than-others list, who fails to see his need for God, who does not acknowledge the human weakness that establishes his membership in the human community, has missed the point that Casey spells out: the call to community, interaction with human beings, admits us into the communion of saints—“Without God, other people are hell, but with God, other people are heaven.” Humble dependence on God and honest commitment to and in human community is what guides us to the fullness of life. Community is where humility and glory touch (Henri Nouwen).

In closing, I urge you to be on watch for the Balaam Donkeys—those who see what we can’t see and who hear what we can’t hear—those who remind us that God uses unusual ways to communicate with us. Treat them fairly with justice and mercy, kindness and love. Listen to them; let your eyes see and your ears hear God’s word.

And as for the Pharisee and the tax collector—the Pharisee was well-intentioned but he was centered on himself. The Word that comes to us is clear: Follow the example of the tax collector: Be humble and, above all else, be centered on God.

Sister Anne Wambach, OSB, the twenty-first prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania is a native of Philadelphia. She moved to Mount St. Benedict Monastery in 1992 to respond to a desire to experience the monastic way of life. Previously a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Chestnut Hill, Sister Anne began the formal transfer process to the Erie Benedictines in 1993 and made her monastic profession in 1997.

Sister Anne has served the people of the Diocese of Erie as a teacher at St. Gregory's School in North East, Pa., from 1992-1995, and at the Neighborhood Art House in Erie, beginning as program director in 1995 and as executive director since 2005. She served on the Monastic Council from 2006-2010.