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Sunday, June 13, 2004

The Cross: when I freely accept to suffer for you, your burden is lightened and new possibilities open up.

Today is what we have called for over a millenium in the Roman Catholic Church the solemnity of Corpus Christi, or of the Body and Blood of Christ. Before Jesus ascended into heaven, He decided not to leave us orphans, and did two important things. He left us a means of remaining in touch with Him as still present on the earth - the Holy Eucharist - which at the same time is spiritual food transforming us with "transfusions of divine life". The second thing He did was to join the Father in sending down upon us the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, who enables us to live and act in communion with Jesus and as He lived and acted when He walked among us. Countless personal experiences and observations of others have convinced me of Jesus' True and Real Presence in the consecrated bread and wine, which have become and will continue to be (as long as the elements remain visibly bread and wine) the Body and Blood of Christ. It was a delight to parade around the church grounds with a monstrance putting the large Host on display, witnesses before the world of the "True Bread which has come down from heaven."

What attention to detail and energetic planning, followed by intensive preparation, collaboration, and nervous anticipation we invested in upcoming liturgies (church celebrations) and projects when I was in the seminary participating in preparation for priesthood. The intensity was similar when I was involved for some thirteen years in a week-long summer camp for adults - it was called "Manna" - that provided a week of Christian fellowship, conferences, outdoor activity, recreation, silent contemplation, and sheer fun.

As I look back on my day, I remember those times, as well as my initial shock on entering into parish ministry, when I discovered that it simply wasn't possible to invest such prodigious quantities of time and energy in liturgies that came back every week, and even every day. Over the years, parish ministry became an at times difficult but always rewarding and ongoing formation. As I learned to receive the collaboration of lay people, I picked up the skill of discerning what liturgies required more intensity of planning and preparation; while all the others were nonetheless fruitful and beautiful in the simple and spontaneous orchestration of all the participants. I discovered with delight that it is really true - Jesus, risen from the dead, really is the Messiah and the Lord - Jesus Christ actually is the living Head of a body composed of all the baptized, among whom I am a member.

Most Sundays, I take delight in being one of these countless moving parts in this vast living Body of Christ. At times, I can rest and allow the body to carry me along. At other times, it is my turn to carry the body with words, actions, or simply my caring and interested presence.

This afternoon, the Baptism Team and I baptized five new members of our Church - all infants - and it was a marvelous celebration. Many participated: a married couple with their young children who are part of our team, a choir of young adults who sang beautifully, a young altar server, the parents and godparents, and the entire assembly, and me, and of course, the Lord. Through all the activity of the liturgy, He touched many hearts and minds.

This is one of the marvels of the priesthood. We collaborate together, and we strive to do our own parts with excellence, but often enough there are little or even big glitches. Still, the result always seems to be far more than the sum of all the parts we have contributed. True excellence happens because God is present and is welcomed by people who gather together, and the Holy Spirit of the Living God mysteriously raises us all to a level of excellence that is not of this world. The excellence that is in God himself finds us, enters into us, and binds us all together for some timeless moments.... We become part of a supernatural happening, which ironically seems to unfold in such a natural way that is seems so proper and normal.

Sooner or later, for many of the people participating, there comes a moment where within them there occurs a convergence of sights, sounds, words, memories, meaning, that connects them to the infinite and timeless truth, goodness, and beauty that are in God - they are transported out of themselves into something, or someone, bigger - they become the joy and delight swirling around them.

Often, this moment of grace or communion happens when a person least expects it, or even comes on the heels of a conflict, pain, or misunderstanding, or emerges from the bowels of a great, deep, and intense struggle. Something like that happened today. It was an opportunity I could have so easily missed, because I was rushed by activity on all sides, I was hungry and tired, and I could so rightly have said, "Why don't you come back in a day or two?" I'm so grateful that the same One who orchestrates the faith celebrations in our Church filled me with a grace of sensitivity and compassion for this person, and I recognized the signs of struggle, pain, and helplessness. We agreed to meet after the next celebration.

Have you ever experienced a crisis - either at work, or school, or home, or in a relationship, or in the midst of a project - and you suddenly find yourself with few or even no options. You are trapped, and have nowhere to go. You look inside, you look around you, and you realize with horror that you are standing on the very brink of a precipice, which falls to unknown, unseen, unsuspected depths. One little push, and you might lose your footing and fall into the nothingness before you!

I agree with the Muslim expression (excuse the spelling) "Allah achkbah!" which means "God is great!" God is truly great, because I have seen so many times with my own eyes and heard with my own ears that without fail God is always ready to transform a precipice of disaster into a threshold of opportunity. Whenever I have encountered people in such drastic crises, it is not immediately apparent that they are on the brink of disaster. Moreover, I very often find myself in such an encounter when every fibre of my being is crying out to escape and go somewhere quiet, because I have been engaged in fererish activity, or have been on my feet for a good part of the day, or I have just been through several intense conversations already, or else feel hungry and faint, and the list goes on. As strange as this may seem, the moment that I accept to suffer whatever it is about the situation that I personally find difficult, the enconter begins to take a different turn in the direction of life.

It is the way of the Cross of Christ. In his own life, he too suffered all that we suffer, and yet He always remained available and compassionate, and He gave life to people in countless ways. From the very beginning, Jesus sent out his disciples to participate in this very work of his, and fully intended that in every generation we might do as He did and share in his joy at seeing the Holy Spirit fill people with his gifts and with divine life.

I share with you, the reader who may one day read these lines, the great joy I had today in seeing the Lord do it yet again for this person who came to me. What appeared as a hopeless precipice - I had to acknowledge to myself that on a human level I could see no way out, no solution, either - surprisingly opened up onto new possibilities that I could not have planned more effectively if I had had a week to think about it. When the person picks up or senses in their own mind that I may be short of time, or that they may be a burden, and so on, there is nothing to do but admit the truth; so I did. Once the person understands that I freely accept to suffer whatever inconvenience there may be, then they are freed from the burden, because I am freely and even gladly accepting to carry it. I found myself free to demonstrate how it is possible for me to choose what isn't the easiest path, which in turn allows the person to perceive that what seemed impossible to them might actually be possible - they too can accept to suffer if they first feel loved. That is what happened.

When we are surrounded by conflict, permeated by pain, filled to the brim or overflowing with anger and resentment, there may actually be no solution by directly attacking the people who seem to be enemies or the circumstances that seem to be insurmountable. A different paradigm may be needed - Jesus' new way of the cross - we can actually accept to suffer, and we can even make this choice gladly, when we can find love within us to drive the engine of such an apparently impossible decision.

Of course, it is humanly impossible - or seems so - to deliberately and consistently decide to accept to suffer a person or situation. Many health professionals would diagnose as mentally unbalanced a person who deliberately goes out seeking pain and suffering. But the focus here is not on the suffering, but on love.

It may not be up to the others to change first, and to remain fixated on this expectation is a deep trap. Often, it may be up to me to change. In this case, I won't be able to do it - I won't be able to accept or go on accepting to suffer people or situations - even for love of them - unless I first experience and know with conviction that I am loved... loved perfectly and unconditionally, and this is God's domain. God wants to love us - especially because we don't deserve it - and this is mercy, a quality of love that is particularly divine, loving those who don't deserve my love.

This whole approach, from the point of view of our contemporary culture, seems counterintuitive, because it is. It doesn't make sense, but that is precisely what makes it so powerful when a person allows themselves to enter into it, or to allow it to enter them. The first step may simply be to entertain the pleasant prospect of being loved by God, and the possiblity of then having the strength and freedom to choose to suffer out of love in order to accept another person without demanding that they first change in order to fit to my desired specifications. Such a solution appeals much more strongly and deeply to the human heart than the alternatives proposed by the inflamed imagination: revenge, unyielding hatred, ever intensifying anger....

I must say how delightful it is for me as a priest to be part of making the impossible so quickly and easily become possible, and what shows itself time and again capable to giving people strength and motivation to do the impossible, such as love their enemies, has to do with the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

Our sins hold us bound up and trapped in the bundle of our complex emotions, rationalizations, and misgivings. A priest can so easily lead a person before the Lord with a spirit of regret and repentant desire to change. They feel understood and become willing to admit their sin and turn it over to the Lord, and then He sets them free... so simply, so naturally. The person suddenly, gently, feels more normal, more themselves than they have felt in a long time, which confirms for them that they have begun to walk on the right path, and often a spontaneous and childlike joy erupts within them as they feel themselves lifted up by God into a realm of higher living, of nobler motives, of what until now may have only been dreamt of possibilities. They are becoming part of God's movement to make the world a better place by letting God make them a better person.

"Lord Jesus, I praise and thank You for the marvelous, simple yet mysterious way You are pleased to act in the lives of people through others. I ask the Father in your Holy Name to continue to pour the Holy Spirit into the lives and spirits of women, men, youth, and children throughout the world; that more and more people will accept to embrace the cross in order to love others as You love us - accepting to suffer others as You accept to suffer us - and so become part of your New Creation, and have the delight of drawing others with us into the divine life You offer to all mankind. Amen!"

Our Sacred History - God acts deep in our soul. "Look deeper in children and help them to hear God's voice, to notice and respond to his attraction."

I'm very much a neophyte in this exercise of web publishing, and am afraid I just wiped out a reflection on this topic. I clicked on the B for bold and got a coded phrase at the top of this box, but the entire text I had composed disappeared, and I couldn't find a way to recover it; so I guess it's gone.

Briefly, I was reflecting on a mother's remarks today about her first communicant relating that the host had tasted like cardboard. Her mom was dismayed and tried to refocus the child's attention on what's really important, but had a hard time recovering from the comment. I believe there is a veil of secrecy, or mystery, that hangs over what happens between God and the soul. I would never have become aware myself of anything happening at the time of my First Confession, Confirmation, and First Holy Communion, had it not been for Fr. Walter Lallemand.

When I was in my twenties and on retreat, he invited us to begin writing our own sacred history, explaining that the Bible is the sacred history of God revealing himself over many generations to the people He had chosen as his own, bringing them in time to be able and willing to accept and believe in his divine Son when He came to earth as a man.

Much in the same way, our life is a sacred history of God's dealings with us, filled with countless moments where God is present, speaks, and acts. Most often we are not aware of what Marie de l'Incarnation called the "touches" of the Holy Spirit, but at times we can become aware of them. That's what happened when I began that sacred history exercise, and remembered for the first time as an adult my experience of Christian Initiation at the age of eight.

If name had asked me at the time what my First Communion had been like, I probably would have talked about the kid in the lineup in the church hall downstairs who puked and how gross it was and almost made me sick too. We had all been fasting since midnight. As an adult twenty years later, I gained access for the first time to a memory of feeling a warmth inside me, a presence, which I also felt beside me. Someone was there, and someone was within me.

This awareness developed into an exercise I repeated, and the memory became deeper each time, and contributed to the ongoing process of discerning my vocation: God's call to me to follow Jesus with my life, and what to do with my life in following Him.

I sense a need to overcome the disappointment of apparently wiping out my first attempt at this blog entry because of the significance of this incident today, and a connection with a similar incident on Thursday night after the meeting of parents and godparents to prepare for the Baptism of their infants had just ended.

I was standing around in close proximity to the Blessed Sacrament with a family and the team couple, one of four teams, when the baby held by a mother standing in front of me began to smile and coo ecstatically. It was a noticeably unusual behavior for this baby boy, the parents observed, and I don't remember having seen anything quite like it myself. Without planning to do so, I found myself talking about how this is precisely the way that God touches a soul, even from such a tender age, and develops that soul's vocation, preparing it to respond to his call for a whole lifetime.

In fact, the Scriptures have abundant references to God knowing us personally from our mother's womb, knowing us from the moment of our conception, and even loving us and wanting us before we were conceived. He calls us by name. I encouraged the parents to be alert to all the little things that happen to their child, that nothing is insignificant, and to encourage their child to be attentive to the various ways in which God might touch his heart, mind, and soul with his light, power, goodness, beauty, and love. The parents' role is to have faith in the faith of their children, to strengthen their children by relating to them stories about their own faith relationship with God when they were children, and how that developed as they got older.

I don't know whether this second attempt captures the power and wonder that inspired the first draft, but I do wonder at the mysterious ways in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are truly present in the pure soul that welcomes them, how mysterious is their presence, action, and effect on each soul, and how with guidance and prayer the Holy Spirit enables us to become aware of God within us, to learn to recognize how God speaks to our soul, and to respond to his call.

In addition, I also wonder - as I have for 21 years now - how God uses a priest as a storehouse of things old and new - and draws from us, from me, those words I couldn't have planned to say to these two sets of parents. In both cases, the words brought them light to understand something about how God works in our lives in such a reasonable and sensible way, stirred up their gratitude for God's kindness and generous blessings, and encouraged them to not judge their parental effectiveness simply based on external observances, but put more trust in God's presence and action directly in their children's lives, as well as indirectly through them, their parents, and their conscientious participation in their children's lives and faith.

"Glory to You, O Lord, for your abundant grace, wisdom, and love, which You lavish upon us. Help us all discern our vocation, respond generously to this call, and live it out with our whole lives in the power of your love; that all may come to know, love, and serve You."