Rorate Caeli

Fontgombault Sermon - "The Lord's hidden life in the workshop of Saint Joseph"

At today's Mass, a novice pronounced his first vows at the Abbey of Our Lady of Fontgombault, which is why the Abbot deals with both the Feast and aspects of monastic life.

Working monks - Fontfroide Abbey

Sermon of the Right Reverend Dom Jean Pateau
Father Abbot of Our Lady of Fontgombault
(Fontgombault, May 1st, 2015)

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
My dearly beloved Sons,
and most especially you, who are going to take your religious vows,

On this first day in the month of May, the month of Mary, under the Patronage of St. Joseph the Worker, you are going to consecrate your life to the Lord, as you wish to become ever more son in the Son.

In two verses in a row, today’s Gospel mentions a double fatherhood for Christ. The Heavenly Father’s voice is heard to assert: “Thou art my beloved Son”; whereas for people He was the son of Joseph. This double fatherhood, which is recalled when Jesus begins His public life, reminds us also of the episode of the finding in the Temple. St. Joseph and Mary desperately seek their child, and they eventually find Him in the Temple among the doctors. Mary cries out: “Behold! Thy father and I have sought Thee sorrowing.” (Lk 2:48)

Jesus’ answer, the very first words from His mouth that the Holy Writ tells us of, bears witness that to Him there is another fatherhood, that of His Father in Heaven: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Lk 2:49)

Would there not be in this answer, whereas Jesus is barely twelve year old, the seeds of a conflict between the foster father, St. Joseph, who by virtue of his responsibility is entitled to claim authority upon the Holy Family, and the Heavenly Father, “my Father”, Whose will Jesus has come to do? Let us ponder on these years of hidden life, and especially on those years that begin with the finding of Jesus in the Temple, and will end up with the beginning of the public life.

First of all, we have in common with Jesus a double sonship. Baptism has made us adopted sons of God, sons in the Son. Previous to that, the love of our parents had already given us to be sons according to the flesh. As Jesus, each Christian, and even more so each monk, should be ready, according to God’s calling, to disappear from the eyes of the world, and sometimes even from his family’s eyes, to devote himself to his Heavenly Father’s business.

A second reason urges the monk to ponder on the Lord’s hidden life in the workshop of St. Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth. In his Rule, St. Benedict considers the precinct of the monastery as a workshop, where one wields the tools of spiritual craftsmanship (Rule, conclusion of chap. 4). Could not the Nazareth workshop teach us some lessons as to how to work in a workshop? He who would seek in the Gospel a handbook on the tools of a carpenter at the beginning of the Christian era, he who would seek to unravel the dovetailing secrets of the holy carpenter, is bound to be disappointed: he will find none of that.

There are but a few verses, yet of a great richness, that tell of the almost twenty years of hidden life. After noticing that Joseph and Mary did not understand the answer of the Child Jesus, the Evangelist adds that the Child was obedient to His parents, and that He increased in wisdom, and stature, and grace, with God and men. As to Mary, she treasured all these things in her heart (cf. Lk 2:51-52).

Are we to understand the obedience of Jesus to St. Joseph and Mary as a new turn in His life after His misdemeanour in the Temple? Would the Child during the years of His hidden life no longer have been about His Heavenly Father’s business? Nothing similar emerges from the Gospel. In point of fact, after the episode in the Temple, Mary and Joseph themselves were renewed in their attentiveness to the Father’s business, as they made themselves all the more servants of God’s design, and achieved more perfectly their vocation. The life in the Holy Family was harmony.

To be about the Heavenly Father’s business when you choose monastic life, means to impose on your family a material separation. It means to impose on your parents according to the flesh a vocation that is akin to that of Mary and St. Joseph: to make God’s design their own in a total gift of their child. The family, which at first sight might seem divided, finds itself back more deeply united as it generously fosters God’s will on one of its members.

As Mary did, all of us should treasure such hours of grace as this morning’s hours in our hearts, hours that are impossible to understand in the eyes of men, in the eyes of those who saw in Jesus but the son of Joseph. Today, the Lord tells you: “Thou art my beloved son.”

The monastery is a workshop. As in Nazareth, it is a workshop where God is served first, even more so, where God only is served. Mary and Joseph experienced the sufferings, the difficulties entailed when we accept God’s design in our lives. God turns up without warning and asks of us what we would have preferred not to give. Are we not sometimes tempted to ask, as Mary and Joseph did: “Why hast Thou done so to us?”

Mary and Joseph relinquished the caravan that was coming back to Nazareth and they went to the Temple in Jerusalem. The monk relinquishes the caravan of life in the world in order to go to God’s house. But is that the sole caravan that he should relinquish? It is not enough to go to God’s house, the monk must also remain and work in this workshop. Alternative routes, diversions, errors in the itinerary, sometimes bad guides, will not fail to beg the favour of the monk. To follow the path of obedience, poverty, and conversion of manners, is to follow a harsh and rugged path. It is not easy to remain about one’s Father’s business. The monk will say to the Lord: “Why hast Thou done so to me?” — “Didst thou not want, thou also, to be about the business of My Father, Who is also thy Father?”

Let us imitate Mary and Joseph’s simplicity and abandonment. Let us ask their intercession for our future professed monk. Following their example, let us tread the paths of God ever more generously, as we ponder ceaselessly in our hearts the benefits of His inexhaustible mercy.