Given at the Abbatial Blessing of the Rt Rev Dominic Taylor OSB at Ealing Abbey on 28th September 2019
Leadership today is a challenging vocation! This is true not only in the Church but, as we all know, in public and political life, too. So today we do well to pray earnestly for Abbot Dominic as he receives the Abbatial Blessing and is solemnly enthroned.
At the heart of our prayer is the key challenge he faces. We have prayed that 'by his deeds and teaching he may guide the hearts of his brothers'. Not an easy task!
But it is so important. Let me explain.
In 1994 I took part in a Synod of Bishops, in Rome, on the theme of consecrated life. In preparation, I invited the religious women and men of this area of North London to come together in order to offer me some insight and guidance. Other people were present at the meeting, too. One young person stood and said that she, and many of her age, looked to religious women and men for an example, an inspiration, on how to live in community. Indeed, she said that they looked to the religious for reassurance that it was even possible to live in community because, in her view, so many people in society had given up any attempt to live healthily in any form of community. 'Everyone is simply doing their own thing', she said.
Her challenge is no less relevant today. Indeed, it is increasingly a sharp challenge, not least in recent times, with division of opinion, harshness of debate, a readiness to condemn and little in our world to encourage gracious forgiveness.
So, dear Abbot Dominic, we are looking to you and to your community to show us a way!
What have you got to help you? Well, the promises you will shortly make in front of us all outline the shape of your leadership of this community. You will work in and through the Rule of St Benedict, a source of such wisdom. You will work in and through the personal example you give, personal integrity. You will give a care to your brethren that is rooted in their spiritual reality and quest, recognising that we are citizens not just of this world. You will be prudent in the use of material goods, giving special emphasis to the needs of the poor and the stranger at your gate. You will work within the context of the Church and its search for visible unity under the leadership of the Pope.
It strikes me that here is a list of qualities that has such a wider application for viable community life: the respectful observance of a structure and wisdom that offers fundamental stability, the need for personal integrity, a vision of society that goes beyond the material and the immediate, the importance of offering care, with some priority given to the poor and the stranger at the gate, a striving for an overall unity rather than the exploiting of division. These are much needed today.
Dear Abbot Dominic, dear Fathers, building community requires a positive commitment from every member of that community. One of the opposites of that commitment, and among the most difficult things to overcome, is the power of refusal. That is a power that every member possesses. It can consist in a silent withdrawal of cooperation; it can consist of the drip-drip of negative comment, sometimes amounting to direct criticism but often no more than the repeating of gossip, which serves only to corrode trust; and the power of refusal can also consist in the outright rejection of every proposal other than of a single point of view.
I think we all recognise these traits of behaviour, in our own communities, and much more widely.
In the same way, we can all acknowledge what is required if trust is to be built, retained or, as is needed, re-established.
Recently I was part of a study day in which the essential factors of rebuilding trust were put before us. First comes a readiness to admit our past mistakes and accept the due consequences of them. This is painful, as we all know. Yet it is essential. So too is the importance of doing what we say we will do, not forgetting or neglecting an undertaking that we have given. And this must go hand in hand with not giving undertakings, or reasons for hope, that we know we cannot deliver. Humility underpins every one of these challenges: a humility which accepts failure, which acknowledges need, which welcomes outside help and assistance. How simple to say, how difficult to live!
But all of this is not our work alone. That is why we pray, without ceasing, for our society, for our families and communities, for this monastic community at this moment of new beginning.
The first reading, from the Book of Proverbs, (Prov 2:1-9), fills out our prayer: we pray for practical discernment, for wisdom, as we try to work out what the next steps are to be, in engaging with all the detail of daily routines and being ready to respond to the 'promptings of the Holy Spirit'. It calls on us to be 'tuning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to truth'.
We take courage from the Gospel, too, and strive to stand ready, every day, to greet the Lord as he comes. He will come to us in many facets of our lives, in each and every person whom we meet. Most difficultly he will come to us in those we know best, whose measure we believe we have and from whom we expect no surprises, no gift of God. But we must stand ready.
But the reading I like best is the one from St Paul in which he exhorts us to 'let the message of Christ find a home in you' (Colossians 3:16). Indeed, it is the message of Christ, and his message alone, that can lift us out of the mess we make. He is the one who shows us the way: in humility, in compassion, in forgiveness, in new life. He is the one who shows us how futile it is to cling to a sense that we are self-sufficient, when in fact we depend on each other and ultimately on his gifts. He is the one who shows us the truth of our condition, and the truth of the love of God who comes to lift us up, at great price, the price of the Blood of Jesus. Today we must learn again that there is a pathway for us out of the maze of our flawed humanity, into a new light and hope. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
And, as a final word, St Paul insists that, as we make a home for him in our hearts, our lives will be marked by singing! He says: 'With gratitude in your hearts sings psalms and hymns and inspired songs to God' (Colossians 3:16). How true of this community! May your singing, every day, be moments in which your hearts are opened again to his presence, and to the gracious guidance of your Abbot through whom, without doubt, the Lord will want to guide you into his ways of peace.