Bearing Each Other’s Burdens; Clothing of Hưng Nguyễn

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The Toronto Oratory once again has the privilege of being entrusted with the formation and education of a novice for the Oratory-in-Formation in Brisbane, Australia.  Hưng Nguyễn, clothed as Br. John Henry on September 9th 2018, is presently making his canonical noviciate with us. Br. John Henry worked as an oral health practitioner before joining the Brisbane community, of which he is the fifth member to have entered into formation with us here in Toronto. In the noviciate he joins Br Jason Flammini, Br Alexander Griffiths, and Br Christopher Huynh, members of the Toronto community, and Br Joseph Rodrigues and Br Augustine Warnberg of the London Oratory.  Images from the clothing are followed by the address given on the occasion by the Provost of the Toronto Oratory, Very Revd. Jonathan Robinson.

Clothing of Brother John Henry

(September 9, 2018)

Father Faber in one of his talks to members of the London Oratory asks: “Why did I come here? Not to spend a lazy life, not to have pleasant companions, congenial duties, or a home without temptations…I came here,” he continues, “that I might love God fervently, and nothing but God – to rehearse now what I hope will be my blessed occupation in heaven for all eternity – to learn to mortify myself by continual mortifications and incessant prayer – to sanctify myself first of all, and then to try and save souls for Jesus.”

It would be easy to dismiss this passage as (characteristically for Fr. Faber) somewhat overheated, perhaps exaggerated, and overlook the fact that he is saying a number of very important things which apply not only to Br. John Henry, but to all of us. There are three points we can take from what he says:

1. We are here so that we might love God fervently;
2. The means of our doing this will be mortification and prayer;
3. The purpose of loving God fervently is to sanctify ourselves, and try to save souls for Jesus.

First of all, then, we are here so that we may be able to love God more fervently: to practice now, as Fr. Faber puts it, “what I hope will be my blessed occupation in heaven for all eternity.” We can understand this as a reminder that we have all come here so that we can love God more perfectly. We are supposed to be learning to love God with our mind, with our understanding, and with our will. This is not a question of moral obligation, or even of seeking our own happiness, but points to a life-long effort to love God for himself. It is not even a matter of developing a sense of gratitude for all God has done for us. The writer of the Cloud of Unknowing, in one of his shorter works, writes that even if a soul had never been shown kindness by God in this life, yet “seeing the loveliness of God in himself and its surpassing abundance, [he] would be ravished out of his mind so as to love God until his heart would break, so lovely and so desirable, so good and so glorious is he in himself.” We cannot do without love, and St. Philip knew that. Like all the great mystics of the Church he had learned to love God for himself. That is what we are supposed to be aiming at.

Secondly, the means by which we obtain some inkling of this love of God is through prayer and mortification.

My House Shall be Called a House of Prayer. There is no good just talking about prayer, or worse still criticizing others for not praying; and then not praying ourselves. Prayer takes many forms, but in and through all of them, there is at least the tacit affirmation of the reality of God. Without some awareness, at times admittedly very dim and bleak, of this reality of God, we will never persevere. Furthermore, we will never teach others the value of prayer unless we ourselves know something about it firsthand. There is a Latin tag: nemo dat quod non habet – no one can give to others what he himself does not possess. We have to give to others some sense of prayer as a living testimony to the reality of God – but how will we do that if we do not pray ourselves?

Then there is mortification. Mortification means trying to kill the aspects of our nature and conduct which are hostile to our doing and accepting the will of God. Part of this practice of mortification is what we do ourselves: things like fasting, and other forms of penance – including trying to keep the Rule: anything that involves saying no to ourselves in some way. Now, the characteristic form of mortification for an Oratorian is the mortifications imposed on him by living with others. It is not the active forms of penance that dominate our lives. In those active forms of penance, all too often, ‘the dear self’, as Kant called it, and as St. John of the Cross underlined with brutal accuracy, plays a subtle and sometimes not so subtle part. It is the penances we do not choose ourselves, and which are accepted by us as God’s instruments for our sanctification, that count most in our understanding, and practice of, mortification. These penances are less liable to be corrupted by self-will, and they matter most for us. We have no vows, we have chosen freely to accept a particular Oratory as the place of our growth in holiness – and that means to accept the suffering this entails as coming from the hand of God for our sanctification, but administered, sometimes very painfully, through the instrumentality of those closest to us. Bear ye one another’s burdens: yes, of course that means we must love and support our brothers in times of particular difficulty for them, but it also means: Bear generously and with a high-heart the burdens your brothers lay on you. If you are not willing at least to try to accept this mortification, then your own life will grow narrow, stale and bitter; and, in the end, this refusal to bear the cross of your community life will destroy not only your own happiness, but the happiness of your brothers as well.

Finally, the purpose of trying to love God fervently, the purpose of our prayer and mortification, is not merely our own sanctification, nor even only the sanctification of our own Oratory. The purpose of it all is, as Father Faber says, to try to save souls for Jesus. A common criticism of the contemplative life is that it is a selfish one But properly understood, the contemplative, by sharing in God’s own love, shares also in God’s love for the world he created and which he died to save. We look to share in God’s love, so that we can share it with others. But once again, nemo dat, quod non habet.