May 8, 2022, Fourth Sunday of Easter
Madeline Contorno, OSB, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, AL.
A casual visitor to our monastery chapel may not notice the stained-glass window of the “Good Shepherd” located among the lower tier of chapel windows. But this “Good Shepherd” window has always comforted me, depicting Jesus as deeply compassionate, willing to take the lost sheep upon his shoulders, ready to lay down his life for his flock.
St. Benedict highlights Christ as Good Shepherd in the Holy Rule, writing in chapter 27, “Let them follow the loving example of the Good Shepherd who, leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the mountains, went to seek the one that had gone astray. So great was his compassion for its weakness that he mercifully placed it on his sacred shoulders and thus carried it back to the fold (cf. Luke 15:5).” Most important for any monastery, Benedict implies, is a deep well of compassion exemplified by the leadership and by the sisters for one another.
This Fourth Week of Easter is “Good Shepherd Sunday” in every lectionary cycle, the differing Gospel passages highlighting various aspects of the well-loved image. This year’s Gospel is short but penetrating, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life” (John 10: 27-28). The second reading from Revelation echoes the same theme, but mixes images paradoxically, “For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them, and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev.7:17). Christ is both the Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd who comforts his people.
This loving image sparks a question: How does a shepherd know the sheep of his flock? The thought came to me: in much the same way as sisters in a monastery know one another, with the intimate familiarity that many years of community life can offer.
We come to know a sister’s characteristic step, particular expression, distinctive way to laugh or smile or read in choir. We come to know the sister who loves to garden, the sister who is first to volunteer, and the sister who rarely shares her opinions. We come to know that recognizable voice and tone and inflection that each sister uniquely shares.
With faithfulness and compassion, we become known and deeply loved in our weaknesses and in our strengths, in our sinfulness and in our giftedness. As a shepherd knows and loves his sheep, so in community we are known and loved. In the crucible of community life, we discover our true names and our true identities. We become God’s people, the sheep of God’s flock.
And how do sheep identify the voice of their shepherd? Among the many voices that claim our attention in a world of streaming devices, internet, and cable news, it is the voice of the Good Shepherd that calls us to become more authentically ourselves, that schools us in the service of others. It is the voice that leads us from the dark valleys to verdant pastures where a eucharistic table is set before us. It is the voice of the One who came that we “might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
This Easter season, how am I called to shepherd someone lost or hurting? What voices are jockeying for my attention and what voice do I actually follow?
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Sister Madeline Contorno, OSB, is a Benedictine Sister of Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, AL. A Golden Jubilarian this year, she has ministered as religious educator, grief counselor, hospice chaplain, and diocesan Renew coordinator. For the last 20 years she has been a pastoral associate in parishes in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. She has served her community in several capacities as vocation director, community secretary, member of monastic council, chapter delegate.