Rev. Ken Smits' Homily in Celebration of Mary David Walgenbach's 50 Years of Monastic Profession

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The following homily was shared by Ken Smith, OFM, in celebration of Mary David Walgenbach’s 50th Jubilee celebration on May 26, 2011 at Holy Wisdom Monastery.

For those who may not know me, I am a Capuchin-Franciscan friar, I was a staff member at Holy Wisdom Monastery from 1994 to 2008. I was the regular Sunday presider and frequent homilist for 12 years.

Well, last Saturday passed calmly and the end of the world did not come. I knew it was the wrong date as soon as it was announced, because they picked a date before Mary David’s jubilee, an obvious mistake.

We heard the familiar and celebrated text of the Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew, given by Matthew as a kind of charter statement of the ministry of Jesus in announcing the coming of the reign of God. It is largely woven together from snippets of the Hebrew Bible as is so much of the story of Jesus. An interesting angle emerges when we look at the tense of some of the charter statements.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the reign of heaven.” It is all in the present tense. As Jesus said, the poor are always with us, throughout human history, as a present and urgent sign calling for the reign of God to come about now. As the very existence of the poor was a sign to early Christian communities, calling for a response, so it is a sign even to the present day, calling for a response as a mark of authentic Christian community, just as important as Baptism, as hearing the Word of God, as gathering for the breaking of the bread, as common prayer.

But when we look further into the beatitudes, the tense changes, and we are into eschatological futuring. Those who mourn will be comforted. The meek will inherit the earth. The merciful will receive mercy. The peacemakers will be called children of God. In other words, we are always leaning into these qualities of the reign of God, without ever attaining their complete realization. From the perspective of the beatitudes, Christian life is more about becoming than reaching a goal.

During my years of working and ministering with the Benedictine Women of Madison, I often saw them gather for – my term – futuring. They were trying to discern their future, step by step, with the help of staff, the Benedictine board, and others, and it was hard work. From this it is obvious that they did not know where they were going. Let me explain this in several ways.

In 1966, when Joanne was the prioress and Mary David was her assistant, they made the decision to close their girls’ school and become an ecumenical retreat center. Mary David would no longer play the flying nun giving horse riding lessons in a full habit. Did they have a clear blueprint of what an ecumenical retreat center would be and how it would function and flourish?  By no means. This was something new after the Second Vatican Council. But they leaned into the future with hope and trust that it would come about in some way. And it did come about.

In 1998, when they made the decision to become an ecumenical monastic community, did they have a detailed plan on how to accomplish this, or how to make their way as a  unique institution among the churches? Their path was unprecedented and risky. But step by step they accomplished this goal as a new path into the future.

Also in the late 1990’s, Mary David gathered up all her research on Benedictine Oblate groups, put it on my desk, and said: “Here, create an ecumenical Oblate movement.” And so began another new development, with the help of an advisory board, with constant overseeing by Mary David and the other sisters, and soon Jody Crowley Beers took over the leadership task. This movement has succeeded beyond all our dreams, and represents another authentic incarnation of the Benedictine heritage.

Finally, there came the project of building a new monastery according to the present and future needs of the monastic community. While other small religious communities were retrenching, this even smaller religious community expanded its personal and ministerial breathing space to the present dimensions of providing a center and home for all the communities associated with Holy Wisdom Monastery.

At the heart of all of this is the Rule of St. Benedict, from which we heard chapter 73 tonight, a way of life for all the ages for those who seek Christian virtue, spiritual growth, and Christian community. And it too is open-ended, just a start, to be supplemented by Scripture, by monastic writings, and the wisdom of every age. And the wisdom of a Rule continues among the Oblates, as each forms his or her own Rule as a standard for growth and accountability. So the wisdom of a rule of life continues in old and new ways.

To all of this Mary David has contributed her passion for social justice, her love of good liturgy, her wisdom and skills in discernment, and her talent for gathering people to help in the task. At the same time she has experienced difficulties and disappointment, especially when people, especially church authorities, refused to dialogue in an open way, or to consider new possibilities. But that has never diminished her determination or her long range vision. Beware a valiant woman discounted or rejected.

So, Mary David, we congratulate you on 50 years of religious life. But getting older comes about automatically. It is the deeds that shine forth like bright lights. And reaching 50 years in religious life is just another invitation to lean into the future, through dialogue and discernment, through living the Beatitudes of Jesus and the Rule of Benedict, through peering into that distant horizon with confidence and serenity.

We congratulate you. Ad multos annos.


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