Some Points for Reflection
Planning long-term back some months ago to provide enough time for all the briefings in Rome before I take up residence in Kyiv led me to schedule in time for my annual retreat in the fervent hope that all my appointments would fit into my first days in Rome leaving me the balance of time for spiritual exercises. Thanks be to God, it worked out nicely!
For most years of my life as a priest I have been blessed with the opportunity to make a genuine canonical retreat with a real live director. I really think we owe such to ourselves and need to fight for days in a block without interruptions for spiritual, let us say, retooling. Group retreats with a director can really be great and I am profoundly grateful for the individual directed retreats I have experienced as well. This year I have the time and a marvelous space, even if written resources will have to provide the direction.
What follow are some thoughts gleaned anecdotally from these days, which don’t necessarily give away the theme of my retreat or even the substance of what may be the essential of these days. I gladly share what for me is encouraging and directive (Stella Maris, ora pro nobis!) and might help someone else chart a course to safe harbor.
September 16: Cornelius, Pope and Martyr, and Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr
(a brief excerpt from the Office of Readings, from a letter by Saint Cyprian)
“Divine providence has now prepared us. God’s merciful design has warned us that the day of our own struggle, our own contest, is at hand. By that shared love which binds us closely together, we are doing all we can to exhort our congregation, to give ourselves unceasingly to fastings, vigils, and prayers in common. These are the heavenly weapons which give us the strength to stand firm and endure; these are the spiritual defenses, the God-given armaments that protect us.”
Youthful exposure to the lives of different saints and lessons from Church History have pointed out to me that for a long time Mother Church’s canonical saints who are proposed for the veneration and emulation of the faithful, those with a privileged reputation for intercessory power in the post-apostolic age were generally martyrs. Facit: “red” is the liturgical color of all but one Apostle and of most contemporaries among those who had walked with the Lord or immediately followed that generation of saints. Their whole-hearted response to Jesus’ personal invitation “Come follow me” led them almost without exception to Calvary. I remember learning as a boy that by way of exception or change/development the saint of the day of my episcopal ordination, St. Martin of Tours, is the first example of a canonical saint who had not shed his blood for Christ.
This passage just quoted from Saint Cyprian proffers a most significant insight regarding martyrs and the terms of their supreme sacrifice, a characteristic verified time and again in the acts of their martyrdom as transcribed in the courts by the various imperial officials of Rome both near and far. They did not die alone, in the sense that the Christian community really helped prepare them by accompanying them through their Gethsemane, often though not necessarily with a more alert participation than Peter, James and John had offered to our Blessed Lord in His agony in the garden. “By that shared love which binds us closely together, we are doing all we can to exhort our congregation, to give ourselves unceasingly to fastings, vigils, and prayers in common.”
Later centuries of saintly heroes and heroines, not necessarily martyrs but certainly heroic in their virtue, in their love for Christ, would know the same. Spiritual exercises, a retreat, constitute a privileged Gethsemane experience and not without dialogue or exchange, mutual exhortation. What better locus could the Christian life have than in the garden, in this place of watching and praying with the Lord?
September 17: Robert Bellarmine, Bishop and Doctor
(an excerpt from a treatise On the Ascent of the Mind to God by Saint Robert Bellarmine)
“May you consider truly good whatever leads to your goal and truly evil whatever makes you fall away from it. Prosperity and adversity, wealth and poverty, health and sickness, honors and humiliations, life and death, in the mind of the wise man, are not to be sought for their own sake, nor avoided for their own sake. But if they contribute to the glory of God and your eternal happiness, then they are good and should be sought. If they detract from this, they are evil and must be avoided.”
In this sense, almost by way of a corrective, I’m going to cling to St. Robert Bellarmine in preference to Blessed Angela of Foligno. She and not only she describes a Christian life as lived in the midst of Christ’s Passion; pain and grief are the high road for her and seemingly with little room for the discernment alluded to by St. Robert, no doubt under the inspiration of the saintly founder of the Jesuits and his spiritual exercises. I will not, we should not nor can we withdraw ourselves from the consummatum est of the Cross. This little quote from St. Robert, however, just like the riches which are ours in the letters of St. Paul would or certainly could take us on our particular life’s journey beyond the delimitations of the Garden and the hill of Calvary with all the Stations in between (sometimes many more than fourteen).
You are free to judge whether or not with my choice of Robert over Angela I am not balking like Simon of Cyrene; that if I were to surrender and shoulder the Wood at Jesus’ side all else would fall away and I would find my full and proper context of life for here and now and forever. Viva, Angela! You decide!
In either case, I am convinced that spiritual exercises, a retreat, can or ought to be for many of us a different garden experience, something like the days St. Augustine and his brother spent in Ostia with their mother, St. Monica, to rest and prepare for their sea voyage, as the great saint and doctor of the Church recounts in his Confessions:
“I believe that you, Lord, caused all this to happen in your own mysterious ways. And so the two of us, all alone, were enjoying a very pleasant conversation, forgetting the past and pushing on to what is ahead. We were asking one another in the presence of the Truth – for you are the Truth – what it would be like to share the eternal life enjoyed by the saints, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, which has not even entered into the heart of man. We desired with all our hearts to drink from the streams of your heavenly fountain, the fountain of life.”
Saint Robert Bellarmine assures us that we will never tire of loving and praising God. I have no problem believing or assenting to his words; experientially I know what he is getting at from the humble experience of my own life encounters with those in the world whom I consider hands-down to be the most God-like people (read: holy, living saints if you will) and whom I can say I love for who they are and always have been for me in my life (proximately or by way of example from afar). I think that needs to be said because the scandal or tragedy of our day (its secular sterility, its Godlessness, really its dullness) makes my words less than obvious, yes, obscure. That is so from our context (noisy, distracted and worldly), from knowing how more people than just “the other half” lives, and factually, pointing all around, from having to concede just how little even we love, we, the baptized, the chosen?, the pusillus grex.
September 18, 2011, 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Since last evening and beyond I have been captivated by the generous landowner of today’s Gospel almost relentlessly pursuing the reluctant day laborers, “You too come into my vineyard and I will pay you what is just!” None of those laborers comes off very well… Truth to be told, I suppose, in your life and in mine our call is not to gird on a sword and come out to slay giants and dragons. The Lord invites us to honest work at His behest. There’s much to do in a vineyard.
Not long ago, at home, a layman was speaking to me with admiration of a smaller and lesser known Franciscan reform group, maybe fifteen in all who live in the same city, unshod (rain or snow). When there is less than what we would call “nothing” in the house they go out and beg a little peanut butter and bread from the neighborhood. The question we stuck upon in our reflection on this group was the fact that short of suicide this kind of witness of radical poverty cannot be a solitary and spontaneous witness: there is something communitarian which as component and context must go beyond the little band of poverelli at least for peanut butter as support or encouragement for them in their calling to follow Christ in His Temptation and His Fast. This something, which is at least interpersonal if not communitarian, can take its Scriptural inspiration from that Old Testament widow with her son who risked a small cake for the prophet Elijah when he begged it and was rewarded with a flour jar and an oil jug which never emptied and kept the threesome from starvation until rain returned to the land (another day’s peanut butter and bread!).
St. Teresa of Avila generally had to negotiate with towns around Spain for the placement of her reform monasteries, assuring the willingness of someone in a given neighborhood to materially carry the sisters and their prayer and sacrifice. Gethsemane! St. Cyprian, if even for just our one phrase, is indeed worthy of the title of Doctor of the Church. “By that shared love which binds us closely together, we are doing all we can to exhort our congregation, to give ourselves unceasingly to fastings, vigils, and prayers in common.” Martyrdom, Christian witness has its context as gift to the other and to the Church. Importantly for me in this reflection, martyrdom, heroic virtue is somehow sustained by the community which benefits from it as well. What else could we mean by the expression “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”? I hope I am saying something more than “no man is an island”.
Forty years ago, in my days as a student, folks still lived in the center of Rome and both the faith and a viral sort of anti-clericalism could meet you on any street corner; exchanges were real and interpersonal, for better or for worse (I think my size and a winning smile kept me from getting spit upon). Walking the center today you don’t encounter residents; the locals who drive in from the suburbs now have commercial interests (shops, boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants) and are on their best behavior; the searching glances of today which meet yours with good will are foreign to the city and come from pilgrims from every corner of the globe. I mention this because we usually and almost exclusively speak of the endangered Christian presence in the Middle East. The fight of the last decades to keep the Christian community as a vital minority presence in the Holy Land and elsewhere in the Middle East both because we belong there and for the sake of a pilgrimage which encounters, sustains and is sustained in a real, live exchange with people like the woman I met years ago in Bethlehem who told me that when people ask her what call she has as a Christian to be living there proudly presents herself as a descendent of a cousin Mary went to the hill country to visit in nearby Ein Karem. Shouldn’t the same hold true for Rome, Assisi, Santiago de Compostela, Ars? Dry bones?
September 19, 2011, St. Januarius, Bishop and Martyr
For most of these days of my retreat, the Second Reading from the Office of the Day is taken from a sermon on Pastors by St. Augustine. In Saturday’s (24th Week in Ordinary Time) excerpt this great Doctor of the Church (not a martyr himself) advises me of my duties toward the Christian as a shepherd, all Christians needing support and encouragement, no Christian being exempt from trials and perhaps even from martyrdom.
“But clearly one who is weak must neither be deceived with false hope nor broken by fear. Otherwise he may fail when temptations come. Say to him: ‘Prepare your soul for temptation.’ Perhaps he is starting to falter, to tremble with fear, perhaps he is unwilling to approach. You have another passage of Scripture for him: ‘God is faithful. He does not allow you to be tempted beyond your strength.’ Make that promise while preaching about the sufferings to come, and you will strengthen the man who is weak. When someone is held back because of excessive fear, promise him God’s mercy. It is not that temptations will be lacking, but that God will not permit anyone to be tempted beyond what he can bear. In this manner you will be binding up the broken one.”
Apart from preaching, I cannot help but think of the priest’s role in the sacrament of Reconciliation or Penance, where Father can indeed encourage even strengthen or firm up the lame or weakened limb. If you think about it even for a second, it is not hard to recognize and apply to pastoral ministry in any place, day or circumstance the example of the Patron Saint of Parish Priests, St. John Maria Vianney. He certainly had found his way to the Lord’s side in the garden of Gethsemane and used Cyprian’s counsel to prepare himself and the flock entrusted to his care for imminent struggle: “…we are doing all we can to exhort our congregation, to give ourselves unceasingly to fastings, vigils, and prayers in common.”
Gethsemane is the locus of the Christian life and it is a place of exchange not only in a vertical if you will arrangement, where shepherds do their part for the sheep and are thereby themselves encouraged on their trudge like the Cyrenean, but it is indeed horizontal and communitarian, at home and even in the city square, the work place.
“By that shared love which binds us closely together…” My sister told me about a neighbor of theirs in Switzerland who is for her and many others in their community a light and a bulwark, a woman afflicted with MS, bedridden and dependent on her husband and others, paid and volunteer, for all of her daily and nightly cares. She repays all abundantly with a witness of courage and gratitude, Christian woman that she is, she is fully aware that we live our lives in the garden with Jesus.
When duty calls her husband away from her side for more than an overnight this woman usually checks into a nearby nursing home to facilitate her cares. On a recent stay there, she met and befriended a German woman who had embraced Buddhism and was seeking meaning in her life through service to others. As our lady prepared to return home and was saying goodbye to the woman with whom she had shared a thoughtful and worthwhile dialogue, she asked permission to offer an observation. The most notable accretion from Buddhism of this German lady was a constant and implacable oriental smile. Our friend politely suggested that if she truly wished to serve those in need, those who suffer, that she should not smile all the time; this would enable her to draw closer to others. Maybe it is a European thing but I can remember years ago frequenting an indoor pool at a health spa near Bonn, Germany and being accosted in the warm mineral waters by an elderly man, who may or may not have had the kind of aches and pains for which the doctor had prescribed my visits there, as he barked at me (a perfect stranger) objecting to the smile I had on my face.
September 20, 2011, The Memorial of the Korean Martyrs
In an early sermon in the collection of the homilies of St. John Chrysostom on the Gospel of St. John this fearless preacher classes vainglory as the vilest, the worst of all passions because it doesn’t have even the most fleeting pleasure to its account. We’re not talking about St. Paul’s crown of leaves for the winner of the marathon here; we’re talking about self-deception striving for recognition or approval from the crowd or rabble which doesn’t know its right hand from its left. There is an interview on CBS 60 Minutes with the rapper Eminem, which can offer the alert or thinking person some insight into the misery of an entertainer’s rollercoaster ride certainly to nowhere and which leaves this man, having regained his sobriety, more than diffident about the approval of his fans. It would seem that although America’s got talent it doesn’t have much good sense when it comes to the desperate chase after vainglory.
MAGNIFICAT magazine today offers a brief life of another one of the Korean Martyrs, St. Joseph Im Ch’I-Baek, a 43 year old husband and father. He had hesitated to embrace the Catholic faith together with his wife and children, but shortly thereafter a father’s love brought him to his son’s side in prison, brought him to faith and baptism, let him lead the way and strengthen others by the firm testimony of his own martyrdom.
September 21, 2011, St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist
As the Gospel for today points out, Matthew the new convert is already leading everyone he knew to the banquet with Christ. He follows unreservedly and reaps an immediate harvest. On my travels this summer, Volume II of Explorations in Theology, Spouse of the Word by Hans Urs von Balthasar has been my companion. The book is looking more dog-eared from travel and being stuffed hurriedly into my carry-on than from my pondering as I read, but we are plugging ahead with some benefit. I have not failed to note time and again von Balthasar’s references to the grace of Baptism as a seed planted by God through the ministry of His Church which sprouts and grows mysteriously in its own good time. Sometimes from infant baptism, it unfolds with the age of reason; sometimes regardless of the moment of reception it bears fruit when least expected as a heart finally accepts the invitation to come along to the vineyard. Matthew’s initial conversion was abundantly fruitful and yet only a foretaste of his work as an evangelist and apostle/martyr.
In conversation with a dear friend and contemporary he shared with me an exchange he had with his younger bishop at home in the diocese this summer, commenting on the list of priestly retirements in the diocesan newspaper. There were seven or eight of them retiring and each had his own article recounting a life of rich and varied pastoral ministry. My friend’s home diocese is much bigger than my own. He told me he had quizzed the bishop on what these retirees all had in common besides their age; all had gone through the diocesan minor seminary; all had said “yes” to Jesus’ call the first time at age 13 or 14. The community, if you will, had openly and actively prepared them all for greater things from a tender age. The generous landowner of the Gospel parable had called them to work in the vineyard at daybreak; they accepted and went; the community carried them and prepared them with fastings, vigils and prayers in common. The communion of saints was very much at work. I think this too is Cyprian.
At home this summer, a woman maybe eight years younger than me, whom I can’t say I had ever known in my youth, introduced herself as the daughter of a couple already long deceased who had been good friends of my parents. The connection made, I marveled at the resemblance between her and her mother and told her not only of how her dad had given me a summer job at age 16 but how he had discretely, without my knowing it, kept me away from power equipment on that job, not wanting to risk the fingers and hands of a future priest (even at age 16!). Nice tears were shed. All of a sudden we can have an inkling of a little world written big, written great, a world of faith gifted with Simon of Cyrene moments and ponderous insights.
Not long ago on 15 September we celebrated Our Lady of Sorrows, which offers a choice of either the Gospel of Mary’s sorrow at the foot of the Cross or of Simeon’s prophecy in the Temple as she presents her Baby Son in fulfillment of the law and is told of the sword of sorrow to pierce her heart. I think of those icons of the Infant King holding tight to His Mother as angels hover nearby bearing the symbols of His Passion. Gethsemane, Blessed Angela of Foligno would say the Cross, was never far from Him from even before He took His first steps.
September 22, 2011,
MAGNIFICAT takes as its point of departure for the meditation of the day proud Herod’s curiosity about Jesus in the Gospel for Mass, “John I beheaded. Who then is this about whom I hear such things? And he kept trying to see him.” The meditation quote is from St. Bernard of Clairvaux:
“The first step of pride is curiosity. How does it show itself? Now you begin to notice that wherever you are, standing, walking or sitting, your eyes are wandering, your glance darts right and left, your ears are cocked. Some change has taken place in you, every movement shows it… Are the eyes never to be raised at all? Yes, but only for two reasons: to look for help or to help others. David raised his eyes to the mountains to see if help would come to him. Our Lord looked out over the crowd to see if they needed his help. One raised his eyes in misery, the other in mercy – two excellent reasons. If when time, place and circumstances call for it, you raise your eyes for your own need or your sister’s or brother’s, I certainly will not blame you. I will think all the better of you. Misery is a good excuse. Mercy is a very commendable reason… Satan fell from truth by curiosity when he turned his attention to something he coveted unlawfully, and he had the presumption to believe he could gain it. Curiosity was the beginning of all sin and so is rightly considered the first step of pride.”
If you are like me that thought comes welling up again: “This is all too morose! What ever happened to the freedom of the sons of God? Is there no place for making a joyful noise? …for strumming a guitar? …for patting away on some bongo drums or something?” (I beg pardon for my irony!) St. Robert, come to our aid! “May you consider truly good whatever leads to your goal and truly evil whatever makes you fall away from it. Prosperity and adversity, wealth and poverty, health and sickness, honors and humiliations, life and death, in the mind of the wise man, are not to be sought for their own sake, nor avoided for their own sake. But if they contribute to the glory of God and your eternal happiness, then they are good and should be sought. If they detract from this, they are evil and must be avoided.”
Community… an essential exchange with our hearts set on the world to come… And what comes next, this side of heaven? I guess in a time of transition from the islands to the prairie it would be dishonest to deny the question. It asks itself and demands some response at least, even as it has always been part of Gethsemane, of that exchange in faith and in prayer, fastings and vigils, which prepares the martyr by stirring him or her on to heroic virtue and granting the strength to face the final test in the midst of the brethren.
Wouldn’t it be enough for me or for you to recognize your role as a Peter, James or John at His side in the Garden?
DEO VOLENTE EX ANIMO
PROPERANTES ADVENTUM DIEI DEI