Given at the dedication of the Abbey Church, Stanbrook Abbey, Wass on 6 September 2015.
Every now and then, in my mind's eye or on TV, there appears the image of Stanbrook Abbey, in Worcestershire, of course. The sweeping drive, the majestic chapel, the forbidding parlours, the sun-kissed gardens and apparently endless central heating pipes, which didn't seem to carry much heat.
But now there is a new Stanbrook. It has emerged slowly, step by step, against so many odds, in such a remarkable location.
This is a remarkable journey and I am glad to be following in its footsteps, even if only for a day.
There is another remarkable journey we take note of today: the journey of Jacob, of which our First Reading is a part. Jacob has left his home. He was not only in trouble - from his brother Esau - but he was also in search, in search of a wife, a land, an inheritance. He was looking for his future. Like yours, his was a crucial search, the implications of which last for many generations.
In his dream Jacob senses that the fulfilment of all his hopes will come as gift of God. He is overwhelmed by that insight declaring: 'Truly, the Lord is in this place... This is nothing less than a house of God; this is the gate of heaven.'
Our Christian reading of this text has to be exact. We do not read it as giving us possession of a land or a place. We do not put our hope in any such possession, beautiful as this place is! Rather, we read this text, today especially, as pointing us beyond every particular place, pointing rather to the top of the ladder, 'reaching to heaven.' It is of that place that we sing 'How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord God of Hosts.'
Today we have dedicated this beautiful Abbey Church. It is to serve us as the lower rungs of Jacob's ladder, pointing us always beyond itself, even as the words, symbols and actions of this wonderful ceremony have instructed us. Today stands in lovely contrast to that day in March 2009 when we celebrated the last Mass in your former church. That church served as the focal point of the life of the community since its consecration, by Bishop Ullathorne on this day, 6th September, in 1871. On the long journey of Jacob's ladder, this is indeed a significant step.
The Rule of St Benedict speaks of the liturgy as the 'Opus Dei' and, I understand, uses that term only with regard to the liturgy. Liturgy is the work of God in two ways: what we do for God and, more importantly, what God does for us. In the Liturgy we proclaim the name of the Lord until he comes again. We stand in prayer, giving voice to the whole of creation as it acknowledges its creator and its hope. In the liturgy we come to be recreated, filled again and again with the Holy Spirit, through the death and resurrection of the Lord, made present again on this altar.
In the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman, given to us by St John, we are instructed about true worship. This, in fact, is the climax of his conversation with the woman. They have spoken of their bodily need for water, a conversation which opened up a vision of Living Water. They have spoken of the affairs of the heart, which led to an uncompromising facing of the truth. Now they come to the crux, that moment of true evangelisation, when the woman is brought face to face with Christ, the only one who brings us to true worship of the Father. At the end of these words of Jesus, which, we have just heard, this woman asks him about the Christ who is to come. In words which we did not hear just now, Jesus answers: 'I who am speaking to you, I am he.' This is the point of the whole conversation, the pattern of every effort of evangelisation: a true meeting with Christ. Christ is the truth in whom we must worship. He is the giver of the Spirit, who alone lifts up our frail flesh. He is the one whom we come to meet, day after day, here in this house of prayer.
Some of you, I am sure, will remember Brian Keenan, an Irish author who spent four and a half years as a hostage in Beirut, from 1986 to 1990. He wrote about his experience in a book called 'An Evil Cradling'. One passage has always remained in my mind. He describes how he envisaged his way out of his hell hole as a ladder, made up of all the acts of kindness and love that he had ever known. His Jacob's ladder sustained his spirit and strengthened him in his daily battle.
St Paul, in our Second Reading, takes us down a similar way of thought. He helps us to see that this place is truly the work of God. And it is the work of love. The strength, purpose, goodness, kindness, compassion and mercy to be found within this and every community of the Church comes only by God's grace. We may indeed be instruments: architects, builders, gardeners, authors, singers, all contributing to a living temple. But all, in the end, comes from the Lord and without his gift of love is only an empty gong or a clashing symbol.
And St Paul goes on to warn us that to destroy this work, this temple, is to risk the wrath of God. The context of this reading makes it clear that such destruction comes about through division within the community. Any introduction of division, he says, comes because someone thinks that they know better, that they are wise and that the life of the community is not. Division corrodes love, rotting the rungs of the ladder. Division splits the very structure, weakens the very fabric of the temple. Division is the stock in trade of the world and its consequences mark every age and, truth be told, every one of us.
So here is your challenge, laid out in the words of the Church. In speaking for this Year of Consecrated Life, Pope Francis has called to all religious communities in these words: 'The distinctive sign of consecrated life is prophecy... This is the prophecy that is needed right now: to be prophets who witness to how Jesus lived on this earth ... a religious must never abandon prophecy.' (Year of Consecrated Life II. 2) Pope St John Paul II was more explicit: 'the monastery is the prophetic place where creation becomes praise of God and the precept of concretely lived charity becomes the ideal of human coexistence; it is where the human being seeks God without limitation or impediment, becoming a reference point for all people, bearing them in its heart and helping them to seek God' (Orientate Lumen 9).
'The precept of concretely lived charity.' What a challenge! Only here, in this place of prayer, will you find the strength to rise to that challenge and to offer its pathway to all who come, all who enter here, all who reach out to for comfort and encouragement. Only in concretely lived charity will our seemingly endless capacity for division be overcome and the peace for which we all long be found. To this you are to be witnesses, prophets in our troubled world.
May the stones that we have anointed today be your strength. May the water we have blessed be your refreshment. May the candles we have lit be your light. May the saints whose relics we have honoured be your constant companions. May the white linen and beautiful flowers with which this altar, the sign of the very body of Christ, has been dressed be your inspiration that you may always serve him with joy and, in God’s good time, reach that final rung of the ladder and the heavenly home that awaits us all.