[I gave this homily on Saturday at the First Profession of Sister Mary Benedicta Chinwe Obiora, in the chapel of the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph, Lymington.]
Most of us here today are guests of the community. I just want to say to Sister Mary Benedicta and to all the community how happy we are to be here with you, and how grateful we are for the chance to witness this profound step you are taking.
We know what an incredible journey this has been for you – to arrive at this day of your First Profession. A geographical journey, from Nigeria to London, and from London to the New Forest, with one or two detours in between. A journey of faith, coming to know the Lord better, drawing closer to him. And above all it has been a journey of vocation, trying to listen to God’s call – his personal call to you, speaking to your heart, and speaking through so many people and events.
Abraham only had to travel a few hundred miles when he heard the call of the Lord, from Haran to the Holy Land. You have travelled many thousands of miles. But then he was travelling on a camel, not a 747; so we should give him some credit [Genesis 12].
A vocation to religious life is a mysterious thing. It’s full of paradoxes, of apparent contradictions. The Scripture readings of the Mass help us to understand them in the right way.
On the one hand, a religious vocation is always an unexpected call. It comes as a surprise. It startles and even shocks us. It’s not something we plan.
At the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary quite unexpectedly: ‘Hail, O highly favoured one. The Lord is with you’ [Luke 1:28]. That’s why she was so disturbed. She wasn’t sitting there on the edge of her seat, tapping her watch, thinking ‘When is he going to arrive then?’
This is why, in Mediaeval and Renaissance paintings, Mary is always doing something when the Angel comes: praying, reading, sewing, etc. One of my favourite modern images of the Annunciation depicts Mary hanging out the washing on a blustery afternoon, and the angel almost swoops down between the sheets – to her utter astonishment.
So a vocation is an unexpected call.
On the other hand, a religious vocation is a dream that lies hidden within the heart, because God always calls us to be the person that we long to be, the person we are made to be – even if we don’t quite realise or acknowledge it at the time. It’s his heart speaking to our heart.
This was the phrase of St Francis de Sales, which as we know became the motto of Blessed John Henry Newman: Heart speaks unto heart.
So you are listening to the call of God, and at the same time listening to its echo in your own heart: Who am I? What does God want of me? What do I really seek for myself? Ultimately, they will come together, if we keep listening and keep following.
Another paradox is to do with relationships. On the one hand, we seem to lose so much, to be going further and further away from those we love. This was part of Abraham’s experience, put so starkly in the command that God gave him: ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’ [Genesis 12:1].
And this is part of Sister Benedicta’s experience. To leave one’s family, one’s home, one’s country; to leave one’s work, one’s parish, one’s set of friends and companions. It’s hard.
But in the Letter to the Romans today, St Paul explains something very important about the spiritual journey. That the closer we come to Christ, the closer we come to others – even if we are separated by a great distance. And the more faithfully we live our own personal vocation, the more connected we will be in Christ’s body, which is the Church.
‘For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness’ [Romans 12:4-8].
We have different gifts, different vocations; but we are all united in the one body. Of course, at the emotional level, we miss people; we wish we could be with them, talking, touching. But at the deepest level of faith, of charity, never forget how close you are to those you love. There is no separation in Christ; and in a mysterious way, your vocation brings you closer to your family and friends, because you are rooted more firmly in the love that binds you together.
A final paradox is about obedience. You are certainly making a lot of promises today! I’ve read the Profession. You promise obedience to God, to Blessed Mary, to Blessed Dominic, to the Prioress, to her successors, to the Master of the Order of Preachers, according to the Rule of Blessed Augustine and the Constitutions of your Congregation. Lots of obeying! Plenty of people to listen to! You seem to be losing so much freedom.
But this isn’t really true. First, you are making this profession freely, you are embracing this life freely; just as Mary said Yes to the angel with absolute freedom.
And secondly, you are making this profession in order to have a deeper experience of the freedom that comes through religious life, and specifically through the life of the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph. You believe that there is something important for you here: the prayer, the love and example of your sisters, the apostolate, the way of St Dominic and St Catherine. You have discovered an inner freedom here, and you want to enter into it more fully.
It’s not a lifelong commitment, but it is nevertheless, for this important period in your life, a wholehearted commitment; so that you can experience with your whole heart, without reservation, the life of this community and this vocation.
When he called Abraham, God promised to bless him and to bless others through him. He makes that same promise to you today.
[Click here if you want to find out more about the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph]