Homily at Mass to celebrate 10th anniversary of the Margaret Beaufort Institute, 26 June 2004
posted on 26 June 2004
Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor:
Dear friends and supporters of the Margaret Beaufort institute,
Our readings today capture both the mission and the challenge of the teacher, when it comes to matters of faith. That is something that many of us will appreciate whether as parent, teacher, lecturer, spiritual director, theologian, even bishop. They have been chosen specially for our Mass of celebration today because they tell us something about what the Institute is striving to achieve in our midst and in its service to the Christian/Catholic community.
Poor St Paul writing only 30 or so years after the death of Christ is deeply concerned to warn Timothy of the dangers of false teaching. That warning has a curiously modern, or perhaps I should say post-modern, feel about it: 'The time is sure to come, he says, when far from being content with sound teaching people will be avid for the latest novelty and collect themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes: and then instead of listening to the truth they will turn to myths'.
His recommendation to Timothy in dealing with this situation is interesting: 'Refute falsehood, correct error, call to obedience' he thunders. But then immediately tempers this rather stern command by adding 'but do all with patience and with the intention of teaching'. St Paul puts his finger on the dilemma for teachers and preachers, and for the theologians who provide much of the intellectual rigour in our teaching. How do we approach truth, how do we discern and then present its inner workings in such a way that we are not inadvertently lead into error or lead others into error? And how do we ensure that our search for knowledge, and our thirst for truth does not tip into aridity and lack of compassion? To have a real feel for truth one has to have compassion. Without it our reasoning can become bitter and uncaring, devoid of the wisdom of our Teacher Jesus Christ whose love for truth was a manifestation of His love for God the Father. Our truth is in Him and with Him. And being in Him and For Him it is at the service of our fellow women and men. If we crush the bruised reed….then we can be sure that somewhere along the way we have strayed from the path that Jesus trod. It may require of us great humility to retrace our steps, like the Prodigal Son, to discover where we went astray.
Teachers, preachers, and theologians must, in our tradition, be people of humility whose gifts are honed for service, and not honour. Mary Ward put it rather well in 1617 in a conference to her sisters: 'if you seek knowledge for itself it is unprofitable, though pleasing and delusion. Love truth, seek knowledge, not for themselves but for the end they bring you to, which is God, then you will be happy and able to profit yourselves and others. Without it you will never be anything. Seek it for Him who is truth'…
I have always admired St Benedict's advice to abbots in his Rule 'Let him temper all things that the strong may still have something to strive after and the weak may not draw back in alarm'. The bishops' recent teaching document on Catholic moral teaching Cherishing Life is structured around the prophet Micah's exhortation 'Act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly with your God'. Yes we must correct error and refute falsehood, but we must show first that we love truth, and we must be quicker to acknowledge our own failure than those of others. The journey into truth is a long, and for most of us, a halting and apparently intermittent one. As John Donne puts it 'On a huge hill, cragged and steep, Truth stands and he that will reach her, about must and about must go'. It is a response as much from the heart as from the head. Knowledge can help us, but ultimately it is understanding that breaks through the barriers of selfishness, greed and fear which hold us back. And understanding is a gift of the Spirit.
As in our first reading 'and so I prayed and understanding was given me; I entreated and the Spirit of Wisdom came to me: I esteemed her more than sceptres and thrones… may god grace me to speak as he would wish'.
We do not believe, in the final analysis, that our own thought alone can reveal to us the meaning of our lives. We believe that only God can reveal this to us. And he does so in the intimacy of our hearts. However we are called to use all our gifts to work with Him to this end, and to work for Him and for each other in giving life to His word. Spreading the Good News of God is something we are called to. God graces each with gifts to achieve this mission. Today we celebrate in particular the gifts of discernment, of scholarship, of learning, of teaching, of encouragement, of ministry and especially of women.
When Mary and Joseph return to find Jesus astounding the theologians in the Temple with his wit and erudition, and he suggests that they should have guessed where he would be 'they did not understand what he meant'. Mary must have been worried out of her mind, and Jesus' explanation of what he was doing will not have done much to reassure her. Mary's reaction is illuminating for those of us who do not always understand what is being told us in the name of our faith: she 'stored these things in her heart'. Mary was not one for argument. However she stayed the course and she reflected deeply on everything that was given to her by God until little by little things found their place in her understanding. We honour her above all women. Not only was she the Mother of our Saviour; she was the one who pondered in her heart the most disturbing revelations, and came to understand what it was that God was asking. There are times, particularly times of great stress and distress, when the best, and sometimes only thing, we can do is nothing more than reflect quietly and wait hopefully and expectantly on the Lord. Often these are the moments and times of grace in our lives when we hand ourselves over to the Lord and ask him to increase our understanding.
'and so I prayed and understanding was given me; I entreated and the Spirit of Wisdom came to me'.