Many memories alter when filtered through retrospect. When you finish a trek it was not nearly as daunting as it seemed at the outset. How many have said that if they had known what was entailed in something they probably wouldn’t have taken the first step? But when they reached the summit and looked back, all they saw was the grace of the moment and the wonder before them. That experience triples when one survives something that came close to destroying.
Those and similar thoughts have been circulating in my brain lately as I celebrate the 50th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. Memories surface in the course of my prayer. Of late the experience has been akin to a long, dark night of the soul that was steeped in wondering if there would ever be a dawn. The possibility of such barrenness never occurred to me in the days of my youth. I was dauntless then, even invincible in those halcyon days of first fervor. There were thrilling, albeit, humbling successes that served to convince me that I was on the right path. This is what the Lord wanted me to do. I had a hand in the reformation of communities and the rebuilding of church buildings that came to mirror the vision that had emerged from the Second Vatican Council – at least as I understood the proclamations of the Council.
I was firmly convinced that my ministry was not about exercising power, but it was about empowering the Priesthood of the Baptized, encouraging lay participation in the sacramental and Liturgical celebrations. They were to share in the outreach ministry of the church, too.
I spent years in the classroom and thrilled as I witnessed emerging faith in young people as they wondered if the Gospel applied to them. It was my privilege to spend years in journalism where my love for the written word gave me an opportunity to announce the Good News from the printed page.
There was the thrill of Eucharistic Assemblies and the opportunities to preside and preach. That ministry was ever new. Each time a celebration began it was as if it were the first time. Together with those gathered, we broke open the Word to be transformed by it. We gave thanks to God and prayed over bread and wine as the elements of the sacrifice and the Assembly became animated by the Spirit and transformed into the Body of Christ. Time after time we were sent forth to be broken, distributed, and poured out in imitation of the One who initiated our faith by his invitation to Do this in my memory, and to Come, follow me.
Two things conspired to hurl me into the darkness. I believed I was invincible and therefore was able to serve 24-7, as we say. There was always plenty to do. I liked being busy. But I did not pay attention to the alarms that were going off inside me urging rest and relaxation. Naively I thought there would always be time for rest tomorrow.
I felt the call to minister to the wounded physically and psychologically. I remember the young man who sought shelter on the parish grounds. I discovered him sitting on the ledge of the Baptismal Font. He wept. He was homeless. He wondered if he could stay with us. So, he took up refuge in a shed on the premises and became familiar to many of the parishioners. He did not dress as most of the parishioners dressed, nor did he wash as frequently. But he became one of us until one night he disappeared. Months later a call came from Canada. He thanked the people of the parish and me for welcoming him and giving him time to heal. He said he would never forget. And he would pray for us.
There were others with psychological burdens. Borderline personalities. Schizophrenics. Narcissists. The delusional. They were all God’s children with Christ suffering within them.
Then came betrayal. In the beginning I thought I was in a nightmare from which I would awaken. There was no awaking, but rather a succession of ever deepening nights with dimming hope until it was over – my ministry and the life I had been living for over forty years. So began the dark night of the soul and my constant prayer for relief and restoration. All I heard was silence.
Years of wandering in the desert followed. Another image that seemed apt was that of floundering on the shoals with waves relentlessly pounding. I thought, surely this can’t go on forever. Surely there will be justice and restoration. But there was silence.
In the midst of that dark night I said goodbye to the land I knew and the people I loved and moved to a new land and began to live among a new people. A different me emerged. A few came to know my past, but for most I was an unknown quantity. I struggled with the faith community that was nearest my residence. To go into that Assembly was to experience a time warp. It was as though the clock had been rolled back. Nothing of the Council seemed to be in evidence. A few times I endured the Liturgy, grinding my teeth and wishing I could do something, anything to awaken the reception of the Spirit that I knew was present. When the Assembly was told that there would no longer be Communion from the Cup because with so many Extraordinary Ministers of the Cup, the people might lose sight of the priest, I knew that I could not return there.
So began a search for a faith community with which I could identify, a gathering where I could recognize those values by which I had lived and ministered, a place where all the Baptized were seen to be members of the Body of Christ, called to full, active, and conscious participation in the actions of the church. Finally that happened. In time I felt at home. I felt that I belonged there. This new and different person had emerged and been accepted.
A new ministry sought me out. I was asked to administer Spiritual care to Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers, and to exercise a bereavement ministry for the survivors when their loved ones passed. Grief does not always wait for physical death. I chair a Grief Before Loss group. The suffering of the patients and the faithful witness of the caregivers humble and inspire me. It is a privilege to try to ebb the tide of the numbers of caregivers that precede their loved ones in death.
The same is true of the experience of working with those suffering from Parkinson’s disease and their caregivers. What becomes patently clear is, we are all vulnerable. The Gospel obliges us to recognize and support the church’s call to recognition of the primacy of the poor and broken among us. The Social Gospel of the Church demands we recognize our responsibility to meet the needs of the poor and the vulnerable, to work for justice in their behalf, and not rest until their basic needs are met.
There you have it, where I am today. The trek has been humbling. There were times when I thought the weight would break me. More than a few times I wondered what the point was of getting out of bed to begin another day. Everything with which I was familiar had been stripped away. I can’t say I was like St. Francis and did this voluntarily. For me it was more like Jesus at the scourging. His garments were stripped from him. He bent his back to those who would beat him. I don’t mean this to sound like a pity party, but my perception of the Passion and Death has been forever altered.
Near the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus confronts Peter. It becomes a moment of healing and reconciliation. Remember, Peter betrayed Jesus when he swore that he did not know Jesus. Now, three times Jesus asks Peter, Do you love me? When Peter three times avows that he does love Jesus, the risen Christ speaks the words that now comfort me and give meaning to my experience.
I tell you solemnly, as a young man you fastened your belt and went about as you pleased; but when you are older you will stretch out your hands, and another will tie you fast and carry you off against your will.
I doubt Peter understood what Jesus was talking about that night on the shore of the lake as Peter savored the fish the Risen One had prepared following Peter’s fruitless night of fishing. He would understand in time. That would become the grace that would sustain him to the end.
I had long been taught that discipleship meant taking up a cross every day and following Jesus. Discipleship is a call to service and vulnerability. Discipleship ultimately could involve more than carrying the cross. It could involve imitating Christ in crucifixion. You will stretch out your hands and another will tie you fast and carry you off against your will. But it will not end there.
A few mornings ago I awoke in the realization that everything had changed. Nothing of the former life had been restored. But with a sudden breath I knew that I was free and at peace. The shackles fell off and, figuratively speaking, I leapt for joy. The dark night ended and I found the grace to forgive and let go. And the grace to love again, followed. They laid Jesus in the tomb, rolled the stone across the entrance and went away sad. For a time I had felt lock in despair and in a perpetual darkness akin to death. I had forgotten the promise.
Then came the dawn, an Easter moment that made all things new again. I am free in the One who died for my sins and rose that I might live in him. I do not wish my journey on anyone. But I have come to realize that something transformative happens when we are stripped of all we think we are and experience what it means to be bereft. We have to die before we can rise. Only then can we understand what it means to live in the freedom of the children of God that is ours in Christ and know that God loves us. That is the experience I pray will be yours, to know that you are loved by God who sees you as forgiven, identified with Christ, and meant to be the continuation of Christ’s presence through loving service. Know that in Christ you will be loved for all eternity.
And that will only be the beginning.
A lot of so-called religious art fails to inspire me. Perhaps that is because a type of piety is depicted often that I cannot identify with. The images of the saints render them as dower, epicene and effeminate. Untouchable and ethereal, in no way are they part of the world I inhabit. Insipid is a word that comes to mind. I don’t mean to be irreverent. Forgive me if this comes across as disrespectful. I am not an iconoclast. It is just that for me religious art ought to be so much more and ought to depict the struggle of those on The Way in such a way that their courageous character might emerge and inspire. I had the privilege to stand before a wood-carved statue of Monica, Augustine’s mother and ponder. The woman stood, head uncovered, staff in hand and faced into the wind that tugged at her hair and garments. She stood undaunted. The word valiant comes to mind.
If art is to inspire, our shared humanity ought to be represented. Granted those represented have gone to glory. Art encourages if we recognize the saints’ fragility and see examples of those who came to understand with Paul that I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me. And, apart from you I can do nothing. Christ is the only explanation for the success of those who walked in the trenches and engaged in the struggle – Christ, and the Spirit.
You have seen stained glass windows or oil paintings that are supposed to invite us to enter into the Pentecost moment. Think of the words in today’s first reading: And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, (a hurricane, perhaps) and it filled the entire house in which they were…and there appeared tongues of fire. Pentecost art often depicts a placid group in perfectly pleated and flowing robe, all too tranquil and free of agitation and disturbance. Imagine people caught in such a storm as Acts describes. Wouldn’t their clothes be ruffled by the wind? Wouldn’t fright register on a face or two? Wouldn’t at least one hold his hands to his ears against the noise? Would they all sit so calmly while the fire descended over them?
This moment is something new. Its significance would dawn as quickly as the blast of wind, understood in their transformation. Just as fire in the night over the tent signified the presence of God, the disciples in that upper room experienced the Divine indwelling the Spirit empowers. Then they would understand the Lord’s words: behold I make all things new. Their world, as it were, turns upside down and they come to realize that they will never be the same again.
One renowned spiritual writer remarked that she was surprised that safety equipment wasn’t distributed to people as they came into the church for Liturgy. Do they have any idea what they could be in for? Her question: What if it were to happen this time? What if we, the Assembly, were to see clearly what we believe happens when we baptize? How could we calmly watch as one of our beloved descends into this pool of abundant water that is both womb and tomb? Wouldn’t we tremble as the earth quakes and the heavens open as all creation pays heed to the Voice calling the one by name and declaring him or her to be My Beloved One? That’s what the Voice said of Jesus as he was baptized in the Jordan and the Spirit descended upon him.
Wouldn’t we need seatbelts and lifejackets if the Word washed over us and, broken open in the preaching, entered and transformed us? Wouldn’t we have to hang on for our dear lives if, as hands are raised over us and over the elements on the altar, if when the Spirit is invoked, like the bread and wine, our very substance yielded to be transformed into the continuing presence of Christ. What about our having to be broken and distributed to be Christ’s loving presence in the world? This action that is Eucharist demands all this of those who take and eat.
We celebrate Pentecost, the outpouring of the Spirit, the birthday of the Church. Should we experience the pangs, the labor pains, as this new creation is brought forth? Would that our icons and our Liturgical celebrations confronted us, shook us to the core, and called us to that new life that Christ’s dying and rising began. Much better that than being lulled into dreamland by romantic platitudes that have nothing to do with our times and our world. It is impossible to understand those who emerged from the first Pentecost event if they remain stoic.
My prayer is that our art and our rituals make us realize the wonder of the call and the impossibility of responding unless we yield and are empowered by the Spirit. Then we would stand in awe as possibilities dawned on us. Imagine what would happen if, as did that gathering in the upper room, we threw open the doors and windows and filled with Christ’s love and animated by the Spirit we rushed into the public square and spoke heart to heart to those we met there. How? Through acts of love by a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.
Of course we might have to pour out our lives to convince them. But isn’t that what Pentecost is all about?
There are two things to struggle with in celebrating the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord. One is watching as the Lord ascends up, up, and away. The other rises from the assumption that the event we celebrate is complete, a happening that is over, only to be recalled in our celebrations of faith. Both serve to distance us from what we are supposed to experience in this holy day.
We have grown used to thinking of Heaven as being way up there, probably somewhere among the stars and definitely out of our reach as long as we are earthbound. Thrones are there in Heaven where God sits and looks down on us from the ethereal regions. It is definitely other there. Recognize that the opposite is Jesus’ revelation in the Incarnation. The two realms, heaven and earth, divine and human are joined forever when the Word becomes Flesh to dwell among us. Jesus speaks of his abiding presence. Lo, I am with you always, even to the consummation of the world. With you does not mean a presence from afar. With you implies an intimacy that we only rarely come close to imagining. Where Jesus is, so too are the Father and the Spirit. Where God is, Heaven is. If we focus on the remoteness of Heaven, and therefore of God, it is transcendence upon which we focus. That serves to keep God and all things holy above and beyond us. Adoration becomes our primary response in faith.
The image of Jesus ascending and the clouds closing in to cut him off from our view is poetic. Many basilicas have ceilings with glorious replicas that fill us with wonder and awe. Well they should. But there are two dimensions to this faith life and journey to which we are called. Transcendence is part, but so is immanence. I have to confess to my need to focus on the later. Again, it has to do with the wonder of intimacy that inspires me. The image of the clouds shielding the resurrected Jesus from our view is important. His presence will no longer be a physical one. That was made quite clear by the experience of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The Stranger showed them that fellow journeyers might not recognize their companion. He showed them that his presence would be sacramental, to be recognized in the Breaking of the Bread.
Our celebration of Sunday Eucharist always renews the Emmaus experience. The sharing of the meal makes possible an intimacy with God and the whole Body of Christ represented by that group of celebrators we are, standing about the Table, sharing the One Bread and the One Cup. The image John uses at the beginning of his Gospel is important. The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. Jesus is among us as one who serves, not as one who wants to be served. That is god’s attitude, too. Again, in John’s Gospel, the icon is there. Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. He doesn’t lie back and wait for the disciples to wash his. Done for you, so out you do for one another. It is about service, about living in relationship, and about living the love we have learned and received. The Transformation of the World began.
With this imagery, are you reminded of Pope Francis? His iconic image is that of feet washer. His desire to experience a poorer church, ministering to the needs of the poor, rises out of a basic belief that what Jesus does, what Francis does, we are called to do too.
We do not find God primarily in church. We do not find Jesus primarily there either. We celebrate there the Presence found elsewhere. Many a saint journaled about the experience of recognizing Jesus in the most unlikely places and subjects. Those early mystics took to the desert and silence to experience Christ. In encounters with Christ, saints speak of that happening when they are among the poor, the imprisoned, the lepers and outcasts. The downtrodden seem to be the clearest transmitters of the reality. St. Francis kissed the leper, one whose type formerly had repulsed him. Bernard cut his cloak in half to give half to the beggar. Catherine and Theresa have their encounters, too. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta said that when she was ministering to the dying destitute, she was ministering to Christ in his passion. The lesson is clear. At least it ought to be, if we are willing to deal with the implications. Only then will the clouds part for us to see that Heaven begins in the here and now.
Here’s a second observation. The Ascension of the Lord is not a once-and-for-all action completed 2000 years ago for us to celebrate these many centuries later. Jesus ascends in an action that transcends time and therefore is timeless. That is true of all that Jesus does. His dying is ongoing. So, too, are his resurrection and ascension. In our Sacramental Celebrations we enter into them. Jesus does not suffer all over again, to die again on our altars. The whole Mystery is celebrated there. Our Communion is with the whole Mystery we are meant to live.
The challenge for us as individuals and as Church remains the same as it was in the very beginning. First, we must recognize the wonderful thing that happens to us in Baptism, when we are given a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of (Jesus Christ). This knowledge of Jesus Christ is one of union with Jesus Christ. Remember what Jesus said to Philip who at that point did not understand? Philip, those who see me see the Father. The challenge for the Baptized is to recognize that they are the Body of Christ. With a couple of word changes, Christ’s words ought to come forth from their lips to all they meet. There is no greater challenge for the believers than to see as their task to live so that those who see them see Jesus. Or rather, those who experience them recognize Jesus acting. That is almost as great as the challenge to recognize Jesus in those little ones, desperate ones, those in need of service.
If the faithful, the Body of Christ in the world today, follow the injunction to love one another as I have loved you, the world would be transformed in the experience of the Reign of God. As long as it takes, Jesus will continue his Ascension. The task will not be completed until time runs its course and all things are caught up in the Mystery.
This is not likely to happen while we are on our knees. This unfolding will happen when we are in the trenches, so to speak, doing the work, identifying with those to whom we minister, experiencing their poverty, supporting their waning hope, and reminding them that they are God’s beloved now.
We haven’t even talked about the need for this love to be universal. We haven’t mentioned the call to recognize that all people are related as sisters and brothers in this one God who creates all, lives in all created in God’s image and likeness.
Maybe we will take about that on another day. Or maybe we will experience that for our selves.