To Prefer Nothing to Christ – The Mission of the English Benedictine Congregation

Homily, Third Sunday of Lent

Homily delivered by D. Gregory Havill, OSB

On the last page of your Mass brochure today you will see a picture of Moses and the burning bush. Notice that his feet are uncovered.

In our first Reading today we hear the Lord speaking to Moses from the burning bush. He tells Moses to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. Why is this particular place sacred? It is holy because it is the place of encounter between Moses and his Creator.

And from the burning bush, God pronounced his own name. By doing this He made an encounter possible. He created the possibility of our calling upon him, of a relationship with him.

I’d like to make a comparison between Moses’ sacred place on Mt. Horeb and the little plot of ground described by Jesus in his parable of today’s Gospel. In the Gospel parable, the owner of an orchard wants to cut down a non-producing fig tree. But his gardener asks permission to cultivate the ground at its base and fertilize it. Perhaps it will bear fruit in the future. The tree, on its little plot of ground, its little piece of creation, gets one last chance.

A friend of mine once faced a similar situation. A Benedictine nun, she was the leader of a small group of nuns sent to Italy to restore monastic life to an abandoned monastery, San Vincenzo al Volturno.

One of her tasks was to deal with an ancient, neglected olive orchard belonging to the monastery. Her original plan had been to remove the orchard altogether because the trees were very old and apparently unproductive. But she had been told by a horticulturist, that the trees could survive and even become productive if they were attended to properly.

In order to accomplish this, the hardworking nuns were doing exactly the same task as the gardener in today’s gospel. Rather than cutting them down, they were tilling the ground at the base of each tree and sprinkling the upturned earth with a small amount of fertilizer, providing the nourishment no longer supplied by the soil. The annual winter rains, they hoped, would do the rest.

In 1991, she invited me to visit and I accepted, along with seven friends. In addition to getting to see my friend again after several years, I thought that tending olive trees would be a peaceful and picturesque way to spend a week in central Italy.

But when we arrived and saw the orchard we were appalled. It consisted of about 70 ancient, gnarled, half dead trees with grotesque, oversized trunks; mere bushes really, branches distorted and broken, struggling to stay alive in bleak, desolate ground.

Saving the orchard, we learned, meant having to turn up the soil in a 20 foot circle around each tree. The rock-hard, compacted earth could only be attacked with a pickaxe. The resulting clods had to be broken up with iron mallets resulting in something resembling dusty, sandy soil. After a very strenuous week, all of us, the whole group, had finished only one tree.

In our Gospel, Jesus presents the efforts of the kindly gardener as an example of the mercy of God who is patient and allows all of us time in which to repent. But he also presses us hard on the urgent need to start to change our way of life straight away in order not to miss the opportunities he offers us.

In Lent we ask God to help us understand which particular way each of us should change, to mark a turning point in our life, correcting some aspect of our way of praying, acting or working, and especially of our relationship with others. Our souls, unmoored by sin from their properly divine origin, are left powerless and incapable of realizing their supernatural end. Even the natural virtues are beyond our reach most of the time.

This point was not lost on my Benedictine friend. Referring to this very parable, she told us that she had come to realize that the trees in her orchard had for hundreds of years been experiencing the same kind of slow death as a soul strangled by sin.

She was determined to save them.

In fact, she took the similarity one step further. She compared the exhausting work of breaking up the compacted soil to the demanding labor of repentance required of a soul trapped in a state of rebellion against God.

As the week progressed, she told us that she considered our work as our offering of a portion of creation to God. She considered our efforts as a sign of our own self offering. The very violence of the work was a reminder to her and us that realignment with God always involves a painful reordering of the self, in other words, a sacrifice.

What was begun with the burning bush in the desert of Horeb was accomplished on the burning bush of the cross. It is continued every day in our Eucharist. Here we encounter God in the Person of his Son who nourishes us with his body and blood. In this way we join our sacrifice to his, and all things become possible for us.

Six years after our visit, my friend sent us a photograph of the very tree we had worked on in her orchard. The transformation astounded us. The old tree was thick with leafs and loaded with olives. Both ancient branches and new ones were so laden with fruit that they had to be propped up with wooden staves.

The soil we had worked so intensely, that little patch of creation, had truly been for us a place of encounter with our Creator and that olive tree became for us our burning bush.

Grace Brings Joy, Fourth Sunday of Advent, 20 December 2015

Homily delivered in Portsmouth Abbey Church by the Right Reverend Paul Stonham, Abbot of Belmont Abbey in England, on 20 December 2015, Fourth Sunday of Advent.

We love to visit friends and relations, especially when there’s something to celebrate, or they have a particular need or are unwell. We want to give a helping hand. As soon as Mary heard at her own Annunciation that Elizabeth was with child—an old relative, more like a favorite aunt than a cousin—she rushes to the hill country of Judah to visit her. We know that until that moment Elizabeth had hidden away, almost ashamed of becoming pregnant in her old age, albeit through God’s intervention.

Today’s short Gospel passage is the story of that Visitation, a meeting or encounter that takes place. You’ll remember Mary was already full of Grace before she conceived Jesus through the overshadowing of the Most High and the working of the Holy Spirit: “gratia plena” was the greeting of the Angel (possibly referring to her Immaculate Conception). As soon as Elizabeth encounters Mary, as soon as she hears her voice, the child in her womb leaps for joy, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit: first John the Baptist, then his mother. Now that leaping for joy—that freedom from sin and death and damnation—comes through the liberating power of God incarnate, the Word made Flesh, in Mary’s womb. Long before Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, before the Ascension and Pentecost, the Spirit already was being outpoured in the lives of John the Baptist and Elizabeth. SALVATION HAS COME.

Grace brings joy. When Mary encounters Elizabeth, grace and mercy [we are now in the Jubilee of Mercy] are bestowed, because Mary, the Virgin Mother, our gracious Lady, always brings with her not only her own special grace but also Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us, Light and Life of the world.

“Blessed art thou”—words we pray daily in the Hail Mary. Blessed are you, O Mary, for having believed that what was promised to you by the Lord has been fulfilled. The faith of Mary—her willingness to accept God’s plan and contribute to it. Mary’s fiat, “Be it done unto me according to your word”, will later be echoed in her words at the marriage feast of Cana: “Do whatever he tells you”. This is Mary’s legacy to the Church, and to each one of us: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Today on the last Sunday of Advent, thanks for the Visitation. Let us pray that our own daily encounter with Christ and his Blessed Mother will cause us to leap for joy and be filled with grace. Today we will receive Christ in Holy Communion—he comes to visit us. But in the silence of our hearts, no matter where we are or what we’re doing, if we but open the door of our hearts to him, he will enter our lives and bring salvation. Praised be his Name.

Learning God, Homily on the Third Sunday of Advent, 13 December 2015

Advent, Sunday 3 12-13-15

In today’s Gospel we hear of all manner of people asking John the Baptist the question: “What are we to do?”

Having heard his message of repentance and having perhaps been baptized by him, the soldier, the tax collector and others seek specific instructions on how to live their own particular lives.

John responds with reference each to his own individual situation. This is important.

In a recently published book titled Prefer Nothing to Christ, which describes the monastic mission of this community and its congregation, a central principle is that a person’s calling in life is always God’s initiative, his gift. It is up to us freely to accept its divine-human economy as a personal relationship with God, a path of discipleship.

Likewise, John’s followers are seeking discipleship; one that is fully human but originates with the divine, with God’s love.

Recently Pope Francis inaugurated a Jubilee Year of Mercy. During this year the Church will especially highlight God’s mercy toward us and how we may, in turn, practice mercy among ourselves.

The divine-human economy is very clearly seen with regard to mercy. On the one hand, divine mercy, God’s benevolence, always involves the forgiveness of sins. On the other, human mercy, our acts of kindness toward one another, invariably implies some form of feeding the hungry. Hunger, of course, may be experienced in many ways: physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually…

For example, members of our kitchen staff feed us when we are physically hungry. The monastic community, when it leads us in payer, provides for our spiritual longing. Our teachers satisfy our appetite for things intellectual.

In every case, through years of training, study or formation, they act as examples for us of persons who have embraced the gift of God that is their unique calling and done their best, with his help, to perfect themselves in it. In turn they offer to the students of this school nothing less than the gift of themselves.

This parallels God’s own greatest mercy to us: his Son’s self-gift to the Father for our sakes. In a few minutes this will go far beyond “parallel”, though, as we actually enter into the Eucharist, the salvific act of Jesus, who, in his divinity forgives our sins, and through his humanity feeds us.

The divine-human economy subsisting as a Person – God-made-man who invites us to join him in his salvific work. In the Eucharist we enfold our human acts of mercy in that of God. In this way he makes us capable of being born anew as Christ-for-others, able to participate in bringing Christ to birth in others – the Christmas mystery.

Though few of them would put it in exactly these words, your teachers do this for you every day.

It was Benedictine monks who, in the very early centuries of the Church, first convinced the world that study could be a way to God. Your excellent education here at Portsmouth Abbey School is based on monastic life and lies on this direct line of descent. It is ordered from beginning to end toward your eternal life and advances beyond secular studies toward the exhilaration of your discovery of your own unique calling and mission in life.

That is the joy God intends for you. It is expressed in today, Gaudete Sunday’s, first two magnificent readings: “Rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all.”

In recent years the habit has grown among you to thank your teacher as you leave the classroom. You do well to do this.

Here are the beautiful words of Blessed John Henry Newman:

“God has created me to do Him some definite service;

He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.

I have my mission.

Somehow I am necessary for his purposes, as necessary in my place as any Archangel.

If, indeed, I fail, He can raise another in my place.

Yet I have my part in his great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of relationship between persons.

He has not created me for nothing.

Whatever, wherever I am, He will never throw me away.

I trust Him.

I shall do good, I shall do His work in my own place, even while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.”


Portsmouth Abbey School, Penance Service Address



Given by Dr. Blake Billings, Portsmouth Abbey School

I would like to try to say something about this cross. I have reflected on it probably for the last 40 years or so. Whether I have been sitting in this church or not, the image of this cross is hard to forget.

I have often thought of this cross as expressing the glory of God, and so it does in a way. The glistening rays emanate out into a kind of infinite space. They fill this holy space with an awesome sense of presence. So I was surprised, and almost offended, when I heard someone speak of it as a kind of spider’s web. No, that’s not right!  Spider’s web? First I found this to be a failure to grasp the higher significance of this mystical portrayal of Christ’s death.  But then I thought about it some more. There is the Christ, indeed suspended, trapped in some sort of wire web.

Well, then an interpretation struck me that actually fit really well with the sense of a web. And it seems appropriate to speak of it now, in connection with the sacrament of penance.

To my mind came a crazy and surprising thought about those gleaming, expansive, ethereal wires. They represent our sin. Our sin? How could I think that? How could I look at these beautiful illuminations, forming this unique and beautiful expanse, and see that it represents the ugliness that is my sin? Simply this: it does not represent for me what I do when I sin. It represents what Christ does when I sin. It is what Christ does to my sin: turning it from something ugly into something beautiful. Turning it from the expression of what is darkest in my own spirit, into the glorious love that emanates from His.

The wires, our sins: they come in from every direction and hold him on the cross. There are two points that pierce his hands, and four that shape a crown that pierces his head. There are in fact seven points of connection I notice on the cross, which leads me to the seven deadly sins. Wrath and envy, in their many manifestations as resentment of others, grudges held, insults thrown, or violence done. Sloth and Lust, with their allowance for self-serving indulgence, or the use of others to suit one’s own purposes. Greed and Gluttony, which seek to take as much as possible, never learning that enough is in fact more than enough. These sins all come at Him, they pierce Him, but He takes them on: he binds them in Himself.

And these six points seem drawn together in a seventh point – the point that plunges into the depths at the bottom of the cross. This one is Pride, the cardinal of sins. It points, like an arrowhead, to the altar. But now I think of how that low point becomes a counterpoint: it points to the sacrifice of Christ’s death. It directs me to the supreme reversal of sin, the point that opens up the possibility that my sins may be changed. It directs me to His supreme humility on the cross – by which God transforms the ugliness of my pride into the beauty of His response, His self-giving love.

Well maybe this is all too abstract. But, despite this abstraction, I want to say something simple: I think we can begin to identify with Christ, trapped in that web. We may be trapped in the web that is our own sin. But He allows Himself to be trapped there with us, trapped by us. He wants to take on our sin, because He loves us – that IS the expression of His love.

So this may surprise, but when I look at that cross, I think that that’s how I feel when I’m touched by God. That’s how I feel when I begin to believe in the love that can pull me out of the ugliness of the web that I make. That’s how I feel when I experience the beauty of the web he gathers and transforms. And because that is how I feel after confession. That is how I feel when I encounter the forgiveness of God. It requires that I allow Him to transform me, to take my sin. And so it requires me to die to myself, in humility, and confess things that are ugly. But then God takes it into his forgiveness, and it becomes transformed, miraculously, into a thing of beauty.

There is one thing about this sculpture that does not convince me entirely, and that is its name. It is called Trinity. Fair enough. But I think I would rather call it Redemption. Or Reconciliation. Or Forgiveness. Or maybe we could just call it “Love.”



Homily on the Feast of Gregory the Great, 3 September 2015

Homily by Fr. Gregory Havill, OSB

Today is the feast of St. Gregory the Great, the patron saint of this monastery and, incidentally, of this monk.

During the sixth century, a time of tremendous religious and political upheaval, St. Gregory was senator then prefect of Rome, then in succession monk, cardinal and pope. aaaaaaaEngland owes her conversion to him, and so does Spain. He is called “Great” because of his contribution in the areas of moral and ascetical theology, ecclesiastical administration, monasticism, the social mission of the church, liturgy and chant – which even bears his name.

At a time when other church leaders were giving themselves ever bigger and fancier titles, this spiritual giant, one of the greatest popes that the Church has ever known, humbly referred to himself as “servant of the servants of God”

I had a grandmother who would have appreciated this unusual title. St. Gregory thought allegorically and so did she. My grandmother was a Geologist and travelled quite a bit. Occasionally I travelled with her to dig sites or quarries. Her professional colleagues enjoyed seeing me with her: a little boy with his little rock hammer and little cloth specimen bag.

She would give my address to other geologists who would mail me carefully labelled specimens. I enjoyed sending them rock samples in return.  She would tell friends: “People send him rocks from all over the country and he sends back rocks from all over the front driveway”.  Gregory would have enjoyed that comparison.

She often wrote me letters describing her travels. Each letter ended with some allegorical observation. One I can recall was: “Every stone has a story to tell, Jeffrey, even as you and I”. Her ability to draw such correlations – in this case a neat descriptive semblance between me and a rock – was, to me, a true sign of her profundity. I felt her to be the most wonderful person who ever lived. She represented the very wisdom of life. She was my Cliff Hobbins.

Later in life, during my college years I came across writings that reminded me strongly of her. They were the commentaries of St. Gregory the Great on the scriptures, in particular his homilies on Ezekiel and Job.

What struck me was that Gregory’s language, loaded with analogies, triggered ongoing and deepening insights for me. One favorite example of mine was his description of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the soul as light pervading a house.

Allegorical writing such as his – typically Patristic – is not intended to provide novel theological insights but rather to put the reader ever more deeply in touch with transcendent mystery. St. Gregory’s concern was to direct his reader in a perfectly, orthodox manner, toward the reality of that which never changes and has no limit – the mystery of God.

According to legend, it was while preaching his homilies on the book of Ezekiel, that the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove was seen whispering in Gregory’s ear. The legend finds justification in his remarkable ability to enkindle in his hearers the fire of spiritual devotion and longing.

I found that this deeply moving spiritual reading – a part of my lectio divina – inspired me in a way very similar to the words and example of my grandmother, years before, as she introduced me to the wonders of the natural world.

In fact, Gregory tells us that he drew all of his doctrine and practice from his own lectio divina. His insights were not the result of scriptural study and research. Rather they grew out of his listening – prayerful listening to the Word of God and finding his grace and presence vibrant and alive in every line, on every page of scripture

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples in today’s gospel. The Church, ever faithful to Christ, will always ask “Who is Jesus?” This is the question that continues to animate the heart of any seeking Christian. It is in this earnest search that we can discover how fruitful is the patristic method of finding Christ on every page of sacred scripture, as we will soon encounter him in the sacrament of the altar.

It is in agreement with this attitude that St. Benedict tells us that every page of the Bible, every word of God, is a complete and sure guide to the way a human life should be led.

In St Gregory’s words:  “In the measure that we truly desire him, we find him”.

Understanding the Generosity of the Eucharist: Homily on the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 16 August 2015

Homily delivered by Fr. Gregory Havill, OSB


As a college student, one of the questions I was asked on my scholarship form was the amount of money I estimated I would require for personal needs each semester. My family was quite poor. We were in the habit of making the very most of every dollar we had. I wrote the frugal amount my parents and I had determined for me, and submitted it during my interview with the college’s Dean of Men. Without batting an eye, he crossed out my estimate, tripled it and wrote the new, far higher sum in its place.

I was stunned. Instantly, a financial consideration based purely upon need, had become a gift. The effect of this on me was profound. When I got over the shock, I found that my fears at entering the new and unfamiliar world of college had been replaced with a quiet sense of security.

In today’s Gospel Jesus does something similar for his hearers as had been done for me. He responds to poverty with tremendous generosity. Unfortunately, not everyone accepted his gift.

Today’s Gospel is the fourth in a series of five gospels for consecutive Sundays taken from John. In them Jesus promises the Eucharist. Offering his very flesh for the life of the world, he says: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”

In each of these five accounts, his incredibly gracious words and actions are misunderstood or rejected by many. Today, for instance, we read of arguments breaking out. Some in the crowd ask: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

In the first gospel of this series, three weeks ago, we saw Jesus feed thousands of people with only five loaves of barley bread. He does so with astounding compassion. He provides far more than even this huge crowd could eat. When all had had their fill, there remain twelve baskets of fragments.

In today’s gospel he does the same thing. But this time with words, not with bread. He speaks some of the most wonderful and challenging things we will ever hear from him. He offers the riches of a breathtaking vision of salvation; the unsparingly bounteous offer of his own self for the sake of our redemption: “Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me” He continues, telling them clearly and simply that if they do not eat his flesh and drink his blood, they have no life in them. In doing so, he addresses himself directly to their poverty of faith and imagination.

Powerful words. But there is nothing aggressive about his refusal to water down or soften the dramatic truth he speaks. He is simply offering the entire gift, pure and immense. His promising words are wealth, given so plentifully and so abundantly that impoverished humanity, as we see, can barely accept them: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him on the last day”.

This is all wonderfully prefigured centuries before in today’s first reading. In it we hear of the Wisdom of God offering her bounty.  “Wisdom has spread her table. She has sent out her maidens; she calls from the heights out over the city: ‘…Come, eat of my food and drink of the wine I have mixed! Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding’”.

The crowd in today’s gospel quarrel. They do this because they refuse to accept what they don’t understand. Their foolishness is precisely their refusal to admit that they are being asked to advance in understanding. How often do we find ourselves in the very same state – limiting our faith to what we already think we know or what can be explained to us.

In each of the five gospels in this series it is easy to recognize various forms of the sinful poverty of our fallen humanity. But, even more, in each case we rejoice in the Lord’s invariable response; his infinite love and superabundant generosity in the gift of himself. In fact, in each of the five accounts the expression of bounty seems to increase in intensity. Next week, the last gospel in the series, the Father himself gets involved directly – stay tuned!

In his benevolence our Lord forces nothing. His gift does not eliminate our free will. We have a key part to play, if we will. And that is clearly stated by St. Paul in today’s second reading: “ …do not continue in ignorance, but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.”

As we approach the altar today, we know that we can never fully comprehend the mystery of the Eucharist. But we can and ought to advance in understanding. That is hardly the result of quarreling. Rather, it is the fruit of a loving consideration of his words.

Following the example of our Lady, we ponder his words and deeds in our hearts, gratefully returning his love as best we can. And we have confidence that in receiving him in his word, in his flesh and blood, he gladly leads us into an ever deepening understanding of his will for us: the very sharing in his actual divinity.

Can we even begin to imagine what that must mean?

Feast of All Saints – 2014

Brother Gregory Havill, newly ordained deacon, preached his first sermon in our Church on November 1, 2014.


The beatitudes we just heard in today’s Gospel are among the best known verses in Scripture. Over the centuries volumes have been written on each one.

On this feast of All Saints I’d like to draw your attention to the one that says: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” Commenting on this Beatitude, Saint John Cassian, ‘way back in the fourth century, pointed out that the immediate goal of life is purity of heart, and its ultimate goal is nothing less than the vision of God face to face.

So, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”

But what is it, that “pure heart”?  It has often been described as a heart springing forth from a single great love without duplicity of any kind.

Now, because we are created in the image and likeness of God, and because grace builds on nature, we can see many examples of a pure heart on both the levels of nature and of the spirit. And considering it on the natural level is a good way to approach an appreciation of it in the realm of the spiritual.  So let’s first look at an instance from familiar experience.

We are normally born with natural abilities to perform acts such as walking, singing, speaking, drawing, and reading.  At a young age we feel quite free to do all of them.  But as we grow, most of us stop doing some of them such as singing and drawing.  As the years pass “I don’t” becomes “I can’t”.  We hear it all the time: “I can’t sing, I can’t draw”, etc.  In fact we can.

Each year we bring students on Pilgrimage to Rome. A very important part of their experience is drawing.  This is because psychologically when we draw something, we actively assume it internally.  By the act of drawing we take the subject into ourselves in a deep way and it becomes a part of us.  Few people suspect how profoundly this internal assimilation, triggered by the act of drawing, changes and deepens our perception.

But what about “I can’t draw”?  How do we confront this mind-set?  We don’t. Instead, we do an end run around it. One classic answer, used in teaching the literary as well as the visual arts, is what is commonly called the three “M’”s: media, model and message.

In other words, given the proper tools (media), a subject that is compellingly interesting (a model), and something urgent to communicate (a message), everyone not only can draw, they will draw.

So on the first day, only hours after arriving in Rome, our students find themselves in the Piazza di San Pietro with familiar sketchbooks, familiar pens, and less than five minutes of instruction, drawing the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica, an interesting subject if ever there was one.  Familiar media, a compelling subject and their message?  “Wow! Look where I am!”

Not one of them can’t draw.  The issue never even comes up.  How did that happen? Were doubts and impediments removed?  Yes.  But in an indirect way.  Students were simply given the three essentials and impediments became irrelevant.

It seems like a paradox, but as they concentrate and become totally absorbed on one thing alone, their drawing, and forgetting about themselves completely, they act just like themselves, uniquely and individually. And their drawings show it. From the very beginning each student has a style of drawing that is as individual as a signature.

On a purely natural level and with regard to this particular task, they have become pure of heart. In other words, with hearts free of all the little “objections” and “qualifications” that usually prevent progress, they are possessed of the humility no longer to get in their own way. And it really is humility in the true sense of the word:  being and acting as simply who one is, shorn of all useless pretence.

Now, these kinds of experiences are usually very moving. But they are a lot more than that. They are a foretaste of something far greater. They are, in fact, sign-posts directing us toward divine life.

Here is where the Beatitudes, in their full, spiritual nature, enter the picture.

Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.  Not blessed are the pure of heart for they shall draw well.  Now, we know what purity of heart is: a heart springing forth from a single great love without duplicity. And we have described it in the experience of students in Rome.

But obviously now the final, ultimate goal, “to see God” is something far more, to say the least.

So, on a spiritual level –  purity of heart – how can that work?  It works because of the Incarnation.

The Incarnation: it is exactly this astonishing idea that God would take on human flesh that represents the revolutionary, unprecedented and scandalous element of the Gospel. This event, the coming of Divine Life, grace building on nature, into the world destroyed nothing except the power of evil, but rather redirected everything toward himself.

Now, grace builds on nature as we have seen. “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God”.  So, for those seeking purity of heart in order that they might come to see God, the essentials, three M’s, must still be there, and we can expect to find them, but in new and unexpected ways.

For instance the media.

The media of drawing are pencil and sketchbook. What is the medium of redemption? It is grace. Divine life. The participation in the very being of God offered to us by Christ, who is God made man.

The seven sacraments, in particular the Eucharist which we are about to celebrate, are the seven ways he made available to us for our sharing in his divine life. He accomplished this for us by his sacrifice on the cross. In effect he opened for us a six-lane highway back to God. One in which, rather than getting out of our own way, we now pray for the humility to get out of God’s way. We might say we let him do the drawing. What does he draw? He draws us anew every day so long as we let him. Do impediments need to be removed? Sure. There is even a sacrament for that. It’s called Confession.

What about the model, the subject?

The model is now Christ himself. A man like us in all things but sin.  As we progress in the life of grace we come to be like him.  While we once created drawings, images in a sketchbook, we now permit ourselves to be drawn by him, re-created in his image.  We become an alter Christus.  Another Christ. Through charity and love we may become Christ for others, and we come to see Christ in them. For this to happen, again, it is not so necessary that we get out of our own way so much as that we progressively learn how to step out of his way. To let him more and more take the lead in our lives.

And the Message?

Well, the message is the living Word of God, who, in fact, is a divine Person, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Christ himself.

In the Gospels and in the sacraments, we meet God face to face in Jesus Christ who invites us to become perfect like him. How?  By permitting him, as we have seen, to con-form us to himself, making us the persons we are meant to be.  Simply becoming ourselves under his guidance gives us a pure heart and makes us immensely attractive to God. And, what is more, he gives us the capacity to be expressions of him, of his Word, of his message now become our own, to others in all we say and do.

Today on this feast of All Saints, we celebrate countless others who have gone before us and done exactly this, each in his or her own unique way.

They can, and will, show us the way, if we only ask in Christ.

Church Assemblies

One of our practices at Portsmouth is for the students to plan and run a church assembly most Thursdays during the school year.  It starts with the singing of the Pater Noster in Latin, a brief reading from Scripture or The Rule of St. Benedict, a talk by a sixth former (our term for twelfth grader or senior) and then a final prayer.

Last Thursday Ann Gallagher ’13 was the speaker, and I think you all will like what she had to say.  We really have some outstanding young people at this School.

Church Assembly Talk, 5/2/2013

Walk in the front door of my home. For you, the scene is probably utter chaos. For me, this is normal.

Many of you know that I am from a large family. I have thirteen brothers and sisters – we are exactly seven boys and seven girls in total. On a usual day, you’ll find both my parents and about eight kids living at home. What is it like? That’s a difficult question, simply because the chaos is so routine for me, that it is hard for me to recognize how unique my childhood has been.

I wake up in the morning to the sounds of laughter and running feet above my head. From my shared bedroom in the basement, I can count on my younger sisters to act as a trustworthy alarm clock around 7:00 a.m. every day. Sometimes I complain that I can’t sleep in past 7, even on vacations. But when I climb out of bed to join my younger siblings for breakfast, I listen to their amusing stories of first and second-grade drama and I know that I wouldn’t miss that for any amount of extra sleep.

The conversation begins there – at the breakfast table with Kevin, Joseph, Bridget, and Clare. And it doesn’t end until everyone is sound asleep that night. Without a television at home, I spend nearly all of my time with my siblings in conversation. If there is anything about my family that I appreciate most, it is the typical night at home, in discussions about anything you could imagine. Every evening, we gravitate into one room, filling the chairs and couches, and overflowing by sitting around on the floor. It might be Christmas Eve while fourteen of us relax at home, or just a Tuesday night during the school term. I love to sit there for hours as we share the news in our lives, laugh over memories, and debate the news, politics, and even philosophy! With so many people, and nearly always a different group of siblings home every day, our conversations are never the same. My sister Theresa and I still do our homework at the kitchen table where we can listen and contribute to these discussions.

When I think about why these hours with my siblings are so special to me, I realize, it’s because it is in these conversations that I begin to appreciate how much each of my brothers and sisters enriches my life. It’s clear that they all have different gifts that they share with me. You would imagine that with so many siblings, it would be hard for me to recognize which person is missing in a crowd of ten people. But actually, the opposite is true. Every one of my siblings contributes opinions so unique that, in our conversations, it is very noticeable which sibling is not present just by sensing whose opinion is missing!

My siblings each have something special to share not only with me, but with the world around them. Stephen is an architect, Mary, a mother and an editor, William, an marine engineer, Robert, a carpenter and a lieutenant in the Navy, John, a mechanical engineer, Eileen, a teacher, Patrick, perhaps one day a doctor. And I could make some guesses as to what five of my younger siblings will be doing years from now. My parents have given each of us the opportunity to discover and pursue these talents and interests and to share them with the world around us.

My parents also gave that very same opportunity to my sister Katharine. In 2000, before she was born, Katharine was diagnosed with trisomy-18. This genetic disease is caused by the presence of an extra chromosome. Like children with Down Syndrome, who possess an third 21st chromosome, my sister had an extra 18th chromosome. But unlike Downs children, those with Trisomy-18 seldom survive long enough to reach birth. And if they do, their lives rarely last more than a few days. My parents and the doctors understood this long before Katherine was born. I was only five years old at the time. But years after, it seemed strange to me that the only memories I have of the days preceding her birth, and of her funeral and burial one week later, are not upsetting or even very sad ones.

I have spoken much with my parents since then, and have discovered that they had already learned from their experience with their ten children, what I have already shared with you. Despite the natural suffering that they and my older siblings endured, they also experienced a profound joy mixed with their sorrow. This was because they had already recognized that each of their sons and daughters possessed a unique vocation. For that reason, they decided to allow Katharine the opportunity to pursue her own. And it was for that reason, that her birth and her death actually strengthened the joy and faith in my family.

Because my mother chose to give Katharine life, despite the fact that she knew it would be short and that it would be a difficult, painful experience, my family rejoiced to receive a new sister, and Katharine rejoiced in the ability to pursue her vocation. She became a part of our family, and I can recall when she entered the church as well, as my Uncle, Father Timothy, administered Baptism and Confirmation. She shared four days on earth with my family before she was called to heaven. Again, my memory of that day is not a completely sorrowful one. My father assured me that my sister was going to be with God and was going to act as an intercessor for our family. That was, and still is, her vocation. She could not have pursued that vocation if my mother had not chosen to give her life and bring her into my family and into the church. Years later, I learned that throughout the whole service, no one in the family shed tears. We were, and still are, confident that Katharine actively lives her vocation in heaven as an advocate for my family.

The memory of my sister and her short lifetime does give joy to my family, simply because my parents allowed her to live. They accepted her life and the understanding that God willed that life to be short. She is an example for me, just as my other brothers and sisters are, that each of us has a unique vocation and are placed here on earth to discover and pursue that calling. Now, whenever I join my brothers and sisters in that crowded room at home, late every night, I am always moved by a deep gratitude for the gifts that every one of my siblings shares with me. I am always aware of Katharine’s presence among us, and she too, enriches our lives. It is incredible to experience the profound extent to which one life, no matter how deformed and dependent on others, can touch so many people.

Thank You.

Portsmouth Institute

As many of our followers know, we have an annual conference called The Portsmouth Institute here — this year’s topic is “Catholicism and the American Experience”, and will be held from June 7-9. We are pleased that Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, will be joining other speakers at the Conference including Peter Steinfels, George Weigel, Roger Kimball and Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence. Professor George will give a talk titled “Religious Liberty and the Human Good.”

Please consider coming to the conference.  You can get full details at or contact Cindy Waterman at 401 643-1244 or