Monnica is remembered as a saint mostly because of the fervency of her prayer. She had a challenging family life. Both husband and son at various times led remarkably dissolute lives that probably called abundantly on the gifts of people like those in this room. Eventually she gave up pleading with them to change their ways and worked on her own spiritual life instead. She probably could have written a prequel to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, especially for codependents.
Lo and behold, after years her husband moderated his wild living and became a Christian in 370. Her son, whom the world knows as Augustine of Hippo, lived an equally disreputable life. He sailed off to Rome some years later, sneaking out of town so he could go alone, without his mother. Never mind – she followed, apparently wanting to go visit her friend Ambrose in Milan. Eventually Ambrose baptized Augustine, who then swore off the marriage his mother had planned for him. She died outside of Rome as they were preparing to return to North Africa, content to be buried there, far from home. She told her son her anxiety was at an end now that he had become a Christian, “My God has granted this in a way more than I had hoped. For I see you despising this world’s success to become his servant.” It took a few years longer than she anticipated.
Her fervor in prayer was remarkable. Some would note that often what the faithful pray for most earnestly – and what preachers preach about – is what they most seek in their own lives. Sam Portaro surmises that Monnica’s urgent prayer for her family’s conversion was in part a desire for greater confidence in her own relationship with God. Whether that was her conscious intent or not, she found both.
Now, I believe the group gathered here is often earnest in prayer or at least pleading. And what of the private prayers of chancellors – what do you pray for so urgently? Somehow I don’t think it is a quiet telephone or a day without email. Most of the chancellors I know cherish a knotty legal challenge, and many of you enjoy the rounds of earnest pleadings in court and out. You wouldn’t be doing this work if you hated conflict and difference. Where do those gifts of yours come from? Are they related to your mothers’ prayers?
There is some wonderful irony in that passage from Judges about a woman’s prayer for a child. She’s told to abstain from wine and strong drink, and when her son is born, to dedicate him to God as a nazirite. In modern Hebrew it means a monk, but here it means Samson isn’t supposed to shave, cut his hair, or drink wine or other strong drink, because “he’ll be working for God from birth until he dies.” The last part might describe a chancellor’s lot, but I don’t think there are many nazirites here.
Yet the dedication of chancellors is indeed legendary. Nearly every one I’ve ever met has entered into this ministry with full and complete commitment. The work of chancellors is like more formal religious work – you pray and plead, ask urgently for what is needed, and wait for judgment, sometimes for years. Some of you have taken on people and projects that seem hopeless or irredeemable. As Jesus says in today’s gospel, “you may have pain now, but I’ll see you again, and then you will rejoice, and no one can take that away.” If you ask appropriately, you will be answered; ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
I think your greatest gift as chancellors is related to asking appropriately. That has something to do with the perspective you can offer to bishops and diocesan leaders who are afflicted with urgent need to make decisions. I have seen you reframe a thorny difficulty, expand the view, offer constructive hope – and when it’s done with godly intent, there is no greater gift. That kind of expansive perspective operates at many levels, and it is usually undergirded by a non-anxious and unreactive reflectiveness in the face of a surprising development or an embarrassing crisis. You bring technical knowledge to bear in building a framework for reflection and decision-making. It becomes a holy container for the collaborative exercise of leadership, a co-creative act of transformation.
Those opportunities come in multiple forms. Developing a decision-tree or weighing alternatives in response to property challenges gives more space for wisdom to operate. Encouraging truth-telling in the face of sexual misconduct becomes an important first step in the process of healing and resurrection. Assessing what is urgent and what might benefit from a little benign neglect permits far more appropriate and pastoral intervention. All of those kinds of counsel are gifts that draw forth creativity. They result from faithful experience, and trust that God will do a new thing in the midst of crisis. They can be deeply hopeful, and hope-engendering, responses, when freely given, without over-attachment to the results.
Your ability and willingness to share that gift grows out of deep hope and yearning. May that yearning never cease until you are ready to lay it down with the same confidence and lack of anxiety Monica expressed as she lay on her deathbed in a foreign land: “Nothing is far from God, and I need have no fear that he will not know where to find me, when he comes to raise me to life at the end of the world.”
You are a blessing, and you will continue to bless as you stay rooted in your own God-given hopefulness. And you will keep a whole lot of bishops out of deeper trouble! Thanks be to God for your earnest and unceasing prayer and pleading!