“This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).
“Straining forward;” “pressing on:” the third chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians lays out an ambitious course for the Christian life. Discipleship calls for us to lean into the future, to head in a direction, and the goal (in St. Paul’s terms) is the kingdom of God. The word “straining” that Paul uses here reminds us that this is demanding work; work that requires us to stretch ourselves, and to develop the spiritual musculature that will support our life in Christ. St. Paul talks elsewhere about putting on “the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:11), and though the metaphor is militant and refers to armature, the root idea is the same. In order to lean into the future, we need to be equipped (another idea from Paul), to be “built up” (Eph. 4:12) for the work.
Today we gather for an act of religious profession, a solemn consecration of Sister Hannah’s life, in a new way, to the work of “straining forward” and “pressing on.” In truth, by virtue of her baptism into Christ’s body the church she is already engaged in this work. She shares with us a common vocation, so when we speak of these things we speak from a common vocabulary of discipleship.
Yet the form of the Christian life that our sister Hannah is embracing in a new way today is noteworthy, and she merits our particular prayer. I am conscious that I am literally “preaching to the choir” today, the “monastic choir” that is; all of you know more about this life than I do. It has its pitfalls and its joys, like any other form of the Christian life; but some of these pitfalls and joys are particular to the religious life, properly so called. So, Sister Hannah will need our prayers in particular as she moves into this new chapter in her vocation as a Christian. The good news is that it will be a joy for us to pray for her in this new adventure.
There is another active verb in this passage from Philippians that we don’t want to leave out, and that is “forgetting,” as in “forgetting what lies behind” (Phil. 3:13). Here we must be careful to note exactly what it is that St. Paul is forgetting. He has not forgotten who he is; as he says a little earlier in the letter, “circumcised on the eight day, a member of the people of Israel” (Phil. 3:5). Nor had Paul forgotten the difficulties of his ministry. He has not forgotten the illness of Epaphroditus or the anxiety it caused him, as he also mentions in the letter (Phil. 2:28).
We know from other letters also that St. Paul was well able to remember and recount the particular challenges of his work. “Danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness… in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night… besides other things… under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:26-28). “Sleepless nights;” “daily pressure:” these have the ring of truth, don’t they? I think that Paul had a realistic sense of the difficulties of his ministry, without being overwhelmed by them.
None of these things have been forgotten, but Paul has come to regard all of it as “loss” so that he may “gain” Christ (Phil. 3:5, 8), as he says. The former things have been left behind, in the rear-view mirror and forgotten in that sense, for the sake of the “heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14), as it says in our reading.
So, Sister Hannah, in coming to this day you are not called to forget who you are, or to forget the joys or sorrows that have led you here, to embrace this life and this vocation today. As you move forward, you’ll continue to be aware of the challenges. God will lead you, however, to leave behind and forget whatever might hinder you from responding to the heavenly call. God will also supply you with all the gifts that are needed for the ministry that you have embraced. He will equip you and build you up through the power of the Holy Spirit, so that you may lean into the future that God is creating for you.
This will be an interior journey. You will share it with others, your sisters here in this community, and with other of God’s people with whom you minister. When St. Augustine and St. Monica came to share the mystical vision in Ostia, after his conversion, Augustine wrote later, “We had forgotten what we had left behind and were intent on what lay before us” (Conf. IX.10): an allusion to our text from Philippians. Joyfully and serenely, as Augustine tells the story, mother and son contemplated the future that God prepares for all his people. Let us press on, as St. Paul says, to make it our own, because Christ Jesus has already made us his own.