Given at Syon House at the Ecumenical Celebration of the 600th Anniversary of Foundation of Syon Abbey on 19 July 2015.
This is a most remarkable, celebration: different Christian communities, united in one voice to praise and thank God for the foundation of a Catholic monastery 600 years ago, Syon Abbey! It’s a marvellous testimony to how you, the Christians of Isleworth and Brentford, have worked together joyfully to make today’s historic service possible. Thank you.
Thank you also to His Grace, the Duke of Northumberland, for so kindly allowing our act of worship to take place here today. His generous hospitality is greatly appreciated.
We have already heard something of the story of Syon Abbey. Let us ponder it a little more. How remarkable it is that a 14th century Swedish woman from a noble family, married at 14 and mother to eight children, St Bridget, whose feast we celebrate next Thursday, founded such a ground-breaking religious community; that, though from a privileged class, she lived simply, according to the spirit of St Francis of Assisi; that after her husband’s death she devoted herself even more fully to a life of simplicity and prayer; that she heard the Lord calling her to found the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, popularly known as the Bridgettines, whose monasteries were of monks and nuns together. Maybe every woman here knows that the head of these joint communities was the Abbess, not the Abbot: when it came to temporal matters, she was boss!
Then, not long after its foundation, the Order’s existence, including that of Syon, was threatened when Pope Martin V decreed that all double monasteries should separate. But one of Syon’s first monks, Thomas Fishbourne persuaded the Pope to exempt Syon, and other Bridgettine monasteries, from this edict. The Order and Syon flourished, doing much to make Jesus Christ known and loved, and as St Paul says, so ‘build up the body of Christ’
Syon survived the decree of the Pope, but not that of Henry VIII. Did Syon’s dissolution mark the end of its spiritual mission? No. That’s the wonder of spiritual treasures: they survive material destruction! Our spiritual heritage is far more powerful than the material goods we may leave behind.
Syon’s mission survives not just because a Bridgettine community returned to England (and there remain three nuns today who can trace their religious roots back to Syon and one of them, Sister Anne, is here today, the first time a Syon Bridgettine sister has been on this site since the 1538) but because the virtues of the Syon monastic community continue to inspire us. In this we are so helped by the Bridgettine sisters who have come to be with us today from Maryvale, in Birmingham, from Ivor Heath and from Holywell, whose Order was founded by the ‘second Bridget’, Blessed Mother Elizabeth Hesselblad in 1911, in order to continue the work of the first St Bridget in hospitality and ecumenism. Syon’s witness to the Gospel still helps us all heed St Paul’s plea: “Lead a life worthy of your vocation”.
What is our vocation? What do these fine and courageous sisters tell us. First, that we are all called to be proclaimers of the Gospel of Jesus; second that we are to be people whose lives are rooted in prayer and thirdly that we are to seek constantly for unity between all Christians.
Sharing our faith with others has profound roots: it is to share that joy born from our relationship with Jesus, to share the joy of salvation because “those who accept Jesus’ offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew” (EG 1). To use Pope Francis’ favourite description for us: we are ‘missionary disciples’: disciples because we are focussed on Jesus, missionary because we share his mission.
Pope Francis also constantly reminds us that this joy of knowing and loving Jesus is the primary reason for this work of evangelisation. He says: “What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?” (EG 264)
This is one of the great lessons we learn from the nuns and monks of Syon Abbey: their enduring witness to the wonderful effect of letting Jesus’ love touch us. They show us that when his love fills human hearts, a love that is at once both human and divine, it makes our hearts overflow with the longing that others, too, should be come to know and rejoice in that same love.
I hope we will all set out from here with a fresh sense of mission: that we are called to invite others to know the joy and freedom of our faith. But there is something we must remember. This mission has to be rooted, always, in prayer.
This is so true of the prayer by which we ask God for all that we need, for all that is needed by those we love, for all that is needed in our world. This is intercessory prayer, a prayer that should be constantly on our lips, full of trusting confidence. This prayer prompts us also to reach out to those for whom we pray and to take up all the tasks of evangelisation. Listen again to Pope Francis: “When evangelisers rise from prayer, their hearts are more open; freed of self-absorption…desirous of doing good and sharing their lives with others” (EG 283). When we pray ardently to our heavenly Father for others, then our hearts long more and more to proclaim him as “Father of all, through all and within all”.
The sisters also teach us that contemplative prayer is essential too. No contemplation, no evangelisation. The contemplation of Christ crucified moved St Bridget to found an order which has helped countless people to know and love Jesus as Lord. If we are to be effective evangelisers, then we too require a contemplative dimension in our own prayer. St Bridget would ask us to first stand at the foot of the Cross, with Mary, Mother of Jesus, to whom Bridget and the Bridgettines have such tender devotion. With Mary we gaze lovingly upon our crucified Lord only to grow in the utter conviction that He is risen; and so with Mary rejoice in God our Saviour. Filled with joy, we gladly go forth announcing Jesus as the one Hope to whom all are called.
The contemplation of Jesus crucified and risen, which inspires us to go out and spread the joy of the Gospel, draws us into the very mystery of the Holy Trinity. It is from this inner life of God that our mission arises, finds its shape, its purpose, its energy. And that same mystery is the source of our unity. And this is the third lesson we draw from our celebration today.
Again, Pope Francis: “The credibility of the Christian message would be much greater if Christians could overcome their divisions…We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face” (EG 244).
Yes, our divisions are painful. Yet from his heart, the Father sends us out in the power of the Holy Spirit, as sharers in the very mission of his Incarnate Son to enable all hearts to cry out as one in Jesus: “Abba Father”. So let our hearts be wide open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit that bind us together: his gifts of peace and humility and gentleness, patiently supporting each other in love. Then, encouraged by the example of St Bridget and Syon Abbey, we will be fit for our great mission, to the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.