Keep death always before your eyes
A reflection for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
by Gabrielle Sinclair
“Keep death always before your eyes...” Rule of St. Benedict 4.47
What has this quirky quote from the wisdom literature of St. Benedict in the mid-fifth century got to do with the bread of life from today's Gospel? This quote comes from a rule for living, humbly followed in monasteries across the world for more than 1500 years, which has a few things to say about what constitutes fullness of life and the living bread we seek.
In the first reading today, Elijah is totally spent and depressed after battling with Jezebel and her rival religious practices, trying to do the will of God. Sadly though, the conflict has become all-consuming, and he has strayed from the sustenance of his own practices and longs to feel the presence of God again.
Psalm 34, in all its nourishing imagery, reminds us how much we need the presence of God to live free from fear and shame so that we may embrace the radiant joy of God's creation and the fullness of life. Similarly, Paul's encouragement to the Ephesians, with an eye on the day of redemption, is also a call to fullness of life through the imitation of Christ.
Though Elijah, exhausted, wants to be close to God and longs for death, this is not the focus of Benedict's advice to "keep death before your eyes". Rather, it is a call to be attentive to the fullness of life, to the present moment and invitation, offered and initiated before your birth, to be in relationship with your loving God.
The quote from Benedict mirrors the themes of our readings, reminding us of the power of presence. Exploring these reading through the Benedictine lens, we are urged to take nothing for granted, that each moment is steeped in the presence of God, if we are receptive. We ought to seek that fullness of life, that living bread, and not let life pass passively by, cherishing the potential entrusted to each of us.
Familiarity and busyness can blind or numb us to an awareness of Jesus’ presence in our every day. "As close as our breath, you are" is a line from a song by singer-songwriter, ministry legend, and friend Steve Angrisano. When about to leave the Holy Land after his first, but lightning-fast, visit, he was reminded by a Franciscan monk, before departing, that Jesus was with him always. His yearning for more than the taste of the closeness he had felt to Jesus' life could be tapped into by just holding up his hand to his face and feeling the breath hit his hand, the monk reminding him that Jesus was closer still.
What then does presence look like in action? Imagine for a moment what it would be like to be genuinely attentive to creation and to all with whom we are in a relationship, where we only take that which meets our needs and continue to toil so that everyone has what they require? Sounds utopian, sure, yet it works where each is committed to the whole and all are known to each other. We see communities who connect and support each other through death, struggle, and recently through COVID. It is these intimate relationships that bind us to and open the window to immersing ourselves in the joy of true presence. This, in turn, broadens our perspective on our own needs and ability to share the bread that is living, sustaining the body of Christ through relationships.
Our capacity to receive and be the living bread means drawing on that loving presence which is life for the world and the gift of each moment. We must tune our skills, though. St Benedict opens the prologue of his rule with the line, Listen and attend with the ear of the heart.
Benedictine listening is a full-body experience. To listen with the ear of the heart calls us into the present moment. The rhythm of our body anchoring us to the now. The type of listening to which Benedict refers requires the courage and vulnerability of truly showing up; it is the practice of presence. Compassionate deep listening with the ear of the heart is being attentive to the truth of the other, leaving the past behind and letting the future take care of itself.
The words of Jesus in John are just as easily directed to Elijah, to the Ephesians, or anyone discouraged by the complex problems of the world, which cannot simply be dispensed with through instant solutions. Jesus instead reminds us to remain present to the will of God and discern faithful paths that will ensure the fullness of life. We must remember the promise, that by responding to Jesus’ invitation to life, we will be drawn into the communion of the cosmos through the Father, our loving creator, who throws open the living bread reality of love beyond time, place, and body. "Live forever," you say? Yep, for all time.
On another note: Being an Aussie, it would be completely remiss of me not to alert you that in Australia this weekend, we are celebrating the feast of our first Aussie saint, Mary of the Cross MacKillop. The Gospel for her feast takes us to Matthew 6:25-34, with trust its central theme. Mary MacKillop's patience, wit, thrift, and dynamism founded in her trust and love of God drove her to seek education for the poor and stand against injustice for those whose voice society oppressed. Mary was attentive to God’s call in the reality of her time and responded in offering the living word, the living bread, to all she met.
The readings for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, are
1 Kings 19:4-8
Ephesians 4:30 – 5:2
Gabrielle Sinclair has worked in various ministry roles for over 20 years, including six years with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. Currently, she works in formation with Good Samaritan Education in the Good Samaritan Benedictine tradition. Her love of music and background in television and theatre production never fails to provide a creative lens to life's ever-changing paths. Gabrielle's many blessings include living in rural New South Wales, being married to Patrick, and their three young adult children, Baden, Niamh, and Fintan.