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Thinking Out Loud

Where the Broken are Healed

by Michael Jinkins | May 24, 2016


A preaching professor once told me that each of us really has just one sermon that is truly our own. A few weeks ago, I was chatting about this subject with seminary trustee and friend Mark Goodman-Morris on a glorious Sunday morning in Northern California.

I was there to teach Sunday school in the church, Portola Valley Presbyterian Church, near San Francisco, where Mark and Cheryl Goodman-Morris have served as co-pastors for the majority of their ministries. Both are graduates of Louisville Seminary, and both retired on Easter Sunday. The very morning I was there, in fact, Cheryl was preaching her farewell sermon. It was one of the most stunning - I'm tempted to say one of the most miraculous - sermons I've ever witnessed. The music, dramatics and gospel proclamation were unforgettable.

So, Mark and I were standing outside the education building just before Sunday school talking about preaching and this idea that we all really have just one sermon that is truly ours.

And I said to him, "You know, I really think I've got two sermons: ‘God is really big,’ and ‘We should be kind to each other’.”

Now, I am a textual preacher, not a topical one. I was a lectionary preacher during the thirteen years I was a pastor. And in these subsequent twenty-three years during which I have either taught or provided leadership in Presbyterian seminaries, I most often have preached from texts about God's calling of us. Vocational sermons. But, if I went back through the files of printed sermons that have accumulated in boxes over the years, despite the texts on which I was preaching, I am pretty sure that most of my sermons would get around to saying either: "God is really big" or "We should be kind to each other."

God is indeed big. God is really big, bigger than we can imagine, so big that the same God who creates whole universes and multiverses and holds them in existence can manage to fit into our hearts. And when God is in our hearts, God makes us kind.

That's it. That's all I've got.

I've written a lot lately about how big God is, so today I'm going to touch on my other sermon: "We should be kind to each other."

Recently, I related this conversation with Mark Goodman-Morris to my spiritual director, Father Paul, and he said that it sounds like I am beginning to strip away the inessentials from my faith. He is probably being kind by not adding that this is what old guys do. But it is. Or it can be.

Someone I have been reading again lately is an "old guy," in almost every sense of the phrase: Aelred of Rievaulx. I've written a blog about him before. But recently I returned to him, quite by accident (if you believe in accidents!), and I was struck again by how his life serves as a sort of lived sermon on the theme, "We should be kind to each other." It so happened (as "accidents" go) that while I was at Gethsemani Abbey for a post-Easter silent retreat some weeks back, I decided to read the Penguin Classics title, The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, edited and translated by Pauline Matarasso (1993). It is one of those books I've been meaning to read for years but just hadn't gotten around to. It was worth the wait because it reminded me that Aelred of Rievaulx was one of the gentlest and most gracious souls ever to walk this earth. And he held a position of leadership.

Aelred, a native of Northumberland and once a member of King David of Scotland's household, served as abbot of Rievaulx Abbey in northeastern Yorkshire (England) from 1147 till his death almost twenty years later. He wrote books of history and spiritual guidance, and he traveled extensively as a diplomat, in addition to serving as an abbot. He did all of this despite suffering from debilitating illnesses throughout most of his adult life (apparently, high on the list of his maladies was crippling rheumatoid arthritis). Although he never seemed to have stopped working, traveling (all over Europe by horseback or on foot) and suffering, he retained a remarkable spirit of gentleness, kindness and grace.

When I began reading Aelred seriously, I promised I would visit Rievaulx Abbey. And last summer Debbie and I spent a day at Rievaulx. There's so much to see.

The abbey was once massive. It was one of the most impressive and beautiful abbeys in all of Europe. Built in the twelfth century, in the heyday of Cistercian expansion, it was devastated during the dissolution of abbeys under King Henry VIII of England. But its ruins remain among the most elegant structures you will see anywhere in the world. Its Gothic arches, columns and massive stone walls rise up in a lush valley like the bleached skeleton of a once proud beast.

There was one building above all others I longed to see, though it is so small you could walk right past it without noticing: Abbot Aelred's hut. This small building, really just two little rooms, was built for Aelred when he became too sick to attend regularly to the "Honorarium," the daily routine of prayer services marking the progression of each day for Cistercian monks.

From that little hut of stone, which stood between the infirmary and the chapel, and quite near the chapter house, Aelred, often in physical agony, would conduct the affairs of the abbey, listen to disputes between monks, pray, counsel, provide spiritual direction, write and teach. The ruins of the hut still stand. You can make them out quite clearly and walk among the low walls. Something drew me to stand in the "rooms" (or what's left of them) where Aelred lived, served and died.

What is it that attracts me most to Aelred? Just this: If ever there was a patron saint for those whose only two sermons are "God is really big" and "We should be kind to each other," Aelred is our saint.

This is especially true when it comes to the sermon about kindness. And the story that best exemplifies Aelred's kindness concerns a monk who would have made most abbots pull out their tonsured hair. Walter Daniel, a monk while Aelred was abbot of Rievaulx, tells the story in his biography of Aelred. [The Life of Aelred of Rievaulx (Collegeville: Cistercian Publications, 1994]

Many people made their way to monasteries, especially Cistercian monasteries, during the twelfth century, and many did not successfully make the transition from secular to monastic life. You come across their stories often in contemporary documents.

Usually, the people who tried but failed to live the monastic life are portrayed as hopelessly fallen, lost, even damned. But Aelred simply could not bring himself to condemn those who tried and failed to become monks.

We see this especially in the case of a young man who came to Aelred's abbey, and departed from it, over and over again. In fact, it almost seems as though whenever this monk was in the monastery, he was pining for a secular life. The other monks had really given up on him. Probably most of the other monks gave up on him the first time he backslid. Not Aelred.

Each time this monk returned to secular life, Aelred prayed for his return to the monastery. Each time he returned, Aelred played the role of the father in the story of the prodigal son, welcoming the prodigal home again with tears, embraces and prayers of thanksgiving. It seems clear that some monks had begun to think that it was their father-abbot who was prodigal, at least with regard to his mercy.

The relationship endured, apparently for years, until, at last, this wayward monk returned desperately ill from a journey he had undertaken on behalf of the abbey. Aelred had a premonition that the monk had returned to die.

As the monk came within the walls of the abbey, Aelred greeted him saying that he would soon enter into lasting glory. The monk didn't catch Aelred's meaning, and was already talking again about renouncing the monastery for the secular world even before he could take off his traveling cloak. Nonetheless Aelred treated the monk with grace and gentleness. Within hours of his return, the monk fell ill. And Aelred, consistent in his love, attended the dying monk and prayed for him for hours, despite his own infirmities. At last the man died, his head resting in Aelred's hands, the abbot interceding with Saint Benedict to pray for him as he was received by God.

In other words, this unfaithful monk died in the ideal pose that every faithful monk longed for at death. Prayed into heaven by his abbot and St. Benedict! This was galling to the "faithful" monks, the monks who never strayed.

What perhaps scandalized the other monks most was that Aelred seemed always to worry more about the troublesome than the faithful. And there were a lot of troublesome sorts. Rievaulx, during Aelred's time, had become something of a refuge for all sorts of people who might not otherwise have entered a monastery. In response to a monk who questioned Aelred's approach to "discipline," and who demanded that errant souls should be punished, Aelred said:

“No, brother, no; do not kill the soul for which Christ died, nor drive away the glory from this house [the abbey]. Remember that we too are sojourners as were all our fathers, and the supreme and singular glory of Rievaulx is this: that it teaches us above all else forbearance with the weak and compassion for others in their necessities. And this is our conscientious conviction, that this house is holy inasmuch as it begets for its God children who are peacemakers. All, weak and strong alike, should find in Rievaulx a place of peace, and there, like fish in the vastness of the sea enjoy the blissful and limitless quietude of love. ..." (Daniel, The Life of Aelred, 159)

Commenting on what Aelred did for his abbey, his chronicler, Walter Daniel, wrote that "this man turned Rievaulx into a veritable stronghold for the comfort and support of the weak. ... What person was so crushed and scorned but found there a haven of quietness? Whoever came to Rievaulx crippled in spirit and did not find in Aelred a loving father ...? When was anyone expelled from that house on account of physical or moral frailty ...?" (Daniel, The Life of Aelred, 159)

For Aelred, his abbey was the Church of Jesus Christ in miniature. Its mission was to be a place where the sick and broken could be healed.

Not a bad understanding of the church. And, surely, one that still deserves a try.

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