Festal Evensong in Commemoration of Gundulf
Preacher: The Abbot of Bec
8 March 2008, 15:15 (Gundulf, Bishop and Monk (1024-1108))
Proverbs 3, 1-12 1 Thessalonians 5, 16-24
It is a great privilege for me to have been invited by the Dean of Rochester to preach in the very Quire of the saintly Bishop Gundulf.
It is therefore with deep emotion that I shall speak to the sons and daughters of my elder brother Gundulf, who is only just a few years older than I am, yet who is, just like me, the son of Herluin, the disciple of Lanfranc and the brother of Anselm.
I feel as a young uncle who has come to exhort his more mature and more experienced nephews and nieces, asking them to forgive him for his French imperfections.
Thank you also to Karine Chaumont for translating this homily.
In “The Life of Gundulf”, the author, a monk from Rochester, repeatedly stresses the affinity between the saintly bishop and both Mary and Martha. Gundulf is being depicted there as an artful administrator, a great builder and a tactful diplomat – as Martha, entirely dedicated to his mission. However, the worries of his ministry do not distract him from the habit of continuous prayer, which Herluin taught him at Bec, his spiritual birthplace. Frequently he withdraws from the world, pleading the care of his horses, even, in order to deceive those who would try to interrupt his meditation. As Mary Magdalene, whom he reveres, he sheds abundant tears of compunction, lets the liturgy penetrate his soul, and tends the poor and the sick in whom he sees Christ himself.
Now, we would be tempted to set one vocation against the other: the active life on one side, the contemplative life on the other! Not both combined!
But Gundulf incarnated both sisters, and does not seem to be torn apart between the two. Is he, then, the embodiment of an exceptional vocation? He is not!
When St Paul invites the Christians in Thessalonica to “pray without ceasing”, he speaks to all of them, without distinction. In the first Letter to the Corinthians, he urges the people to fulfil their family duties and their professional obligations as if they were not married or did not have a job.
He does not ask them to avoid their duties, but to fulfil them with an eye to their meeting with God in eternity.
What strikes us in Gundulf is that he is one. His many, demanding activities seem to be the fruit of his intimacy with God while, at the same time, they reach full maturity in prayer, as Gundulf commits them to God, the source of all grace.
Should we be surprised at the coexistence, within Gundulf, of Martha and Mary? At Benedict’s school, he learnt to discern what is pleasant to God; he let the Spirit work in him, as Christ himself did out of obedience; and “everything he did or said, then, would be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, as he gave thanks through Him to God the Father.” (Colossians 3, 17)
When such a communion with Christ is reached, the border between action and contemplation gets blurred: prayer becomes in itself a commitment, and all activity becomes prayer.
The life experience of the blessed Gundulf is akin, therefore, to that of St Paul, who says: “with Christ, I have been crucified, so that it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
This testimony offers more than an example to follow, it is a true inheritance that we must keep and nurture. Our faith is the fruit of what Gundulf has sown; the gift of his communion with Christ in continuous prayer flows within us as the blood of a father would in his children’s veins.
This is the way shown to us by Gundulf, our father in the faith. At Gundulf’s school, we need not have the fear of being unproductive: he was himself a great administrator and a surprising organiser. Nor should we fear the loss of our relationships, or fear to become unsensitive to the world’s beauties: Gundulf maintained lasting relationships, with Saint-Anselm in particular, but also with Archbishop Lanfranc, who used to teach him at Bec.
Living in Christ, therefore, does not merely consist in finding a harmonious balance between prayer times and times of activity. Rather, it is always about giving ear to His Word, wherever we may be and whatever we may be doing. The times of intimacy we have with God are in no way detrimental to our activities but, on the contrary, initiate them and nourish them.
How much time we dedicate to it is of little relevance. This must be adapted to everyone’s abilities: “to do it all for God’s glory”, here is what first matters to every disciple of Jesus, whatever their vocation in the church may be.
Here lies Gundulf’s teaching: he remains a monk while serving the Church at Rochester as a Bishop. Here is probably his legacy also: if we all seek to live in Christ, to be made whole by His love, how much more will we bear the seeds of unity for the baptised people of God, nowadays divided?
Gundulf would not, could not, imagine such a situation in which Christ’s body is scattered. But the Grace he has received and nurtured, the Grace that he has bequeathed to us, is the rock on which the unity of Christ’s members can ultimately be built. For us, as Gundulf’s children, it is our mission. May God help us to follow in the steps of the blessed bishop, our father in the faith!