We recently heard from a dear friend and newly ordained priest, who, within his homily for the Vigil of Pentecost, gave a wonderful explanation of the cloister separation in our chapel. Father graciously permitted me to copy this from his blog. Although he has made the Archdiocese of Louisville his home, he is a native of Owensboro. Father, we look forward to when you can offer Mass here at the monastery!
Following is my homily for the Pentecost Vigil Mass, which has a different set of readings than the Mass on the day of Pentecost…
As part of my seminary formation, one of the things that the Church requires of us is that we take what is called a “canonical retreat.” Canon Law, the law of the Church, requires that we take a five-day retreat in order to prayerfully prepare, in a more intense way, both for our Diaconate Ordination and our Priesthood Ordination. For each one I chose to go to the Passionist monastery of cloistered nuns in the Diocese of Owensboro, where I am originally from. I highly recommend this monastery to all of you. Their chapel has a unique feature that is especially relevant for the feast of Pentecost that we celebrate today.
It was most often the case before the Second Vatican Council that if a religious order was cloistered – meaning that they devoted their entire lives to praying in one place, as the heart of the surrounding diocese – then their privacy was strongly guarded so that they could be single-minded in their prayer and not be distracted by the things of the world. This would often mean that when the nuns were in chapel with other laypeople, they would be set apart by a screen or a wall with a type of window. After the council this type of separation was kept in place but relaxed so that the People of God, consecrated religious and laity, could pray better together as one Body of Christ.
In the Passionist monastery, the nuns are set apart by a water channel with about a two-foot stone boundary that runs from the steps of the sanctuary all the way down the center aisle of the chapel to the entryway that has a waist-high holy water font. In this way, the laity pray on one side of the channel and the nuns on the other and both are still in view of each other. What makes this water channel so beautiful is that it maintains the cloister that the nuns require but it also gives deep meaning to the chapel and the liturgies that are celebrated there. Ultimately, it is a symbol of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit who are often symbolized by water in Holy Scripture.
Jesus, as St. John’s Gospel tells us, stood up and exclaimed to all the people, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. As Scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me.'” And John explains, “He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive.” For Jesus, timing is everything. This happened on the last day of the Jews’ great seven-day celebration called, The Festival of Booths. During this annual liturgical celebration, pilgrims who came to Jerusalem would live in huts made of branches that they called “booths.” One of the major rituals of the week would consist of the high priest drawing water from the Pool of Siloam, carrying it in procession into the Temple and then pouring it on the stone altar of sacrifice to commemorate the time in which the Lord God provided for his people during their Exodus journey through the desert by making water flow from a rock. It is against the backdrop of this celebration that Jesus stands up and exclaims that he is the source of spiritual water and that it is he who satisfies all that we thirst for.
Plus, Jesus and the people both knew that the name for the pool that the priest drew water from, “Siloam,” means “Sent.” By connecting himself to that pool, Jesus helps them to know that as the Source of Life, he will send them Life Itself in the form of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost
Everything that water means for the body, now has meaning for our soul. Just as water cleanses the body, gives us strength, and refreshes us, so the Living Water of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, cleanses our souls of sin in Baptism and Reconciliation, gives us strength in Confirmation, and refreshes us in the Eucharist and the Anointing of the Sick. The Holy Spirit is active in all seven of the sacraments constantly forming and transforming us as the New People of God as we wander in our Exodus journey through the desert of this life to the Promised Land of Heaven.
How are we doing on this journey? At times are we a “stiff-necked” people, doubting that the Lord can provide for us or rebelling against his commands? If we see ourselves as God’s chosen people, bound to Him by a covenant, with the goal of following Him faithfully in this life so that we can be happy with Him forever in the next, then we can give our lives a proper context. We can ask ourselves, “Am I faithfully keeping my covenant with God? Do I avail myself generously of all that the Holy Spirit provides me through the Church in order to stay faithful to God? Or am I not content with these and turn to other things to satisfy my deepest thirsts?” It can be helpful, in trying to live as faithful Catholics day-by-day, to see ourselves as that Old Testament people and seeing the Holy Spirit as the giver of all that they needed and all that we need today.
Our first reading began to describe how God forged the covenant with his people; it was done amid the majesty of Mt. Sinai, amid thunder and lightning, heavy clouds, loud trumpet blasts, columns of smoke and fire, and earthquakes. This was done in order to show His people that his might and power exceeds that of all the other pagan gods. God is the One, True, God of Power and Might. This was also done to show them the great significance of what they were being brought into, what it means to be the chosen people of such a powerful God.
The Lord said to His People, then and now: “If you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” Our covenant with God wasn’t forged amid fire and lightening, rather, it was forged at our Baptism amid the fire and light of our Baptismal candle and the fire and light infused in our souls by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Holy Water.
Just like the water channel in the Passionist monastery, we are sent through the Church to be transformed and to transform the world around us. Just like the water from the Pool of Siloam, we are Sent as God’s People with the aid of all that the Holy Spirit gives us. With His grace, we become more and more God’s special possession. In fact, we become, as Moses foretold, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.
As a people set apart, for all the world to see, as an example to the world of how they should live and what they are capable of with God as their Father, we must ask ourselves today: As one member of the entire Body of Christ… As one Catholic in the whole universal Catholic Church… How am I serving the larger body? How am I portraying the Catholic Church to the world around me? Do I make the life of a Catholic one that others would want to follow so that they too can be helped by the graces given to me through the Church? Does my life cause others to want to be one with Christ too? Do I act in a priestly way – and this question is for all of us. Do I make sacrifices for other people? Do I offer up my sufferings to God? Do I pray for my family and friends? In these ways we all, ordained or not, can become the holy nation that God wants us to be.
All of his would be a heavy yoke, burdensome, and impossible if we were formed as God’s people and then sent forth to rely on our own power. But, neither God nor the Church gives us responsibilities and then leaves us to our own devices. Rather, we have been given the power of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son and with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.
It is this same Holy Spirit, who spoke from all time through the prophets and through the Church today, who is our help, our advocate, our guide. He is the one who makes the yoke and the burden of the life of holiness, the life of a Catholic Christian, easy and light. He makes life as a child of God one of joyfulness, happiness, peacefulness, and calmness. Does this describe our lives today?
The Holy Spirit comes to each of us in His own way. But we can find hope in knowing that the Holy Spirit has indeed come to all of us. At this Vigil Mass we anticipate and long for Him to come again in our lives. This is His desire too. We have only to acknowledge and remember the great things He has already done for us, plead for Him to come again and again, be willing to receive Him, and then be willing to live according to Him. The Holy Spirit will even help us ask. For as St. Paul says, “the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought.” How happy the Lord will be to look down upon his people and see in each one of us rivers of living water flowing forth in a life of holiness and a world transformed by His Power in us.