Christmas is a time of great grace for anyone willing to receive the inner, spiritual gifts. What follows, and it was to be continued, is the reflection of a diocesan priest shortly after his return from sabbatical on what "the demons" that plague all of humanity looked like in his particular experience. It is one of the signs that the Child born in the manger of Bethlehem's shepherds' fields 2000 years or so ago truly is the Son of God that simple observing the festival of his birth brings fresh freedom to those who look to Him with hope. May this account open up the window of your own human journey and struggle with "the dark side" and help you enter resolutely deeper into the light!
As Sam said to Rosie at the end of "The Return of the King", volume 3 of The Lord of the Rings, I too can draw a breath tonight and say, "I'm back." Sam had accompanied Frodo on his last journey, the one which led him away from Middle Earth to the eternal realm of the elves, the "undying lands" of Eressea and Valinor. The Elves, the Eldar, left Middle Earth when they had a sense that they had accomplished all they could for Middle Earth and its peoples, or else when they felt they could do nothing more in defense against the evils overtaking the world. For my part, I have come back from a sabbatical time - and liken it to a long stay in Rivendell, or better yet, Lothlorien.
It isn't so much that the people I left behind were so mortal and flawed or that the people with whom I stayed in Chicago were perfect and other worldly like elves or angels. No, it was more like I found a refuge among good and kindly people, in whom there was sufficient selflessness and where I found sufficient distance from all the constraints of the intensive life of pastoral charity and from the long breathlessness of life's journey to remember who I am, that I am loved, what road I find myself travelling in the great pilgrimage of life, and what are the most important things for which I most desire, in Jesus, to spend the time and energy that are given to me as a gift, day by day, by our heavenly Father.
As I sit here tonight and sense rising within me a full hearted "I'm back!" reverberating in my chest, it's perhaps because the grace of Christmas has overtaken me at last. There were, after all, 12 days of Christmas in the secular world of old, from Christmas to Epiphany, and today our Church kindly extends the Christmas season to the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, so I'm riding on the "extension" of those 12 days - today is actually the 15th day of Christmas. Sadly, the secular world today has lost considerable ground since the time of the secular society of Charles Dickens' day, the world of Ebenezer Scrooge. My own experience this Christmas certainly speaks eloquently of our mortal need for patience, to "wait for the grace" as it were. To understand what I'm talking about, let me review briefly the sequence of events as I have lived them these past few months, with a thumbnail view of the past.
When I first came to Becket, I left behind a considerably smaller congregation, but a wonderful people among whom I found a more wholesome life and a closer relationship with God. The very satisfying balance of life and routine I had come to know was all blown away by the greater intensity and activity of Becket. In addition, there were complications, and in response to these I applied myself to many practical things, such as responding to immediate needs and duties of the pastoral ministry, getting to know people and listening to their stories, heartaches, and hopes, applying myself to the consecration of the Church and Altar on the occasion of the 30th anniversary in 1996, supporting the initiative of parishioners and the development of the Alpha Course from 1997 on, participating in the formation of young men for the priesthood (Fr. Robert and Fr. Stephen), leading the Parish Think Tank and Pastoral Action Plan, reviving and saving Becket's Fania project in Honduras and World Youth Day in 2002, more fully sharing authority for administration with members of the Parish, and developing our understanding of and willingness for Discipleship and Stewardship.
What I thought I had before I came to Becket was an openness and listening to the Lord for what He is doing and wants to do, and by extension, what He wants me and us to do. In the whirlwind of activity, questioning, challenging, rich diversity of views, needs, talents and gifts, and of initiatives here at Becket - not to mention the difficult transition of the early 90's - I got so caught up in need to do so much stuff that I quite lost that stance of listening to and waiting on the Lord; without which life is hell, basically.
Hell is being trapped in a burning fire but not being able to get oneself out of it, and I suppose not even having the desire to get out. Actually, the real hell is also filled with anger and blaming of God in an attempt to escape accepting one's own responsibility for failures and sin. I give thanks to God that I never slid into actual Hell; however, I was caught in a trap. The intensity of life, activity, needs, pastoral ministry, planning for the near and distant future, social changes (Catholic schools), the neverending revolving door of lay leadership in the various groups and ministries, and much more.... all added up to a life that barely had time to think, let alone stand back to see the bigger picture.
Well, it's 11:19 on Saturday night, and part of my sabbatical grace is the renewed freedom to get real, get a life, hear and listen to the Lord, and pay attention to the body; so I must ask you to stay tuned for the next installment. However, not to leave you hanging too much, let me just say a few things more. In the title, I mentioned something about "unmasking the demon" and the grace of freedom to talk openly of the obvious.
Well, the obvious was that since before I came to Becket, I had begun to struggle with staying up late watching TV, and for the reasons given above, my condition just became worse after 1994. All along, I was patiently (this means in suffering and endurance by God's grace) praying and waiting for the power of God to draw me out of the "pit." It just didn't seem to be happening, though there were moments of grace, relief, and some progress. But I didn't understand what was happening to me, or within.
It took this sabbatical grace for the Lord to draw me up, and tonight is the first time I find within me the leisure of spirit to allow some of that grace to tumble out into the light of day. It would be too long to delve into it, but until next time let me just say, that between December 2003 and these days of Christmas 2004-2005, what has come into the light of day is that in my vocation as priest I have been - in the words of Archbishop Paul Cardinal Gregoire who ordained me - "like welded to Christ".
The heart of Christ agonizes still in the sufferings of each and every member of his Mystical Body, all the baptized; yet He also rejoices in the love of his Father. I too have felt both states in myself, but was mostly at a loss about where to start each day. There was just too much "stuff" and I wasn't praying enough, not listening enough to the Spirit speaking within me.... The first grace of the sabbatical was simply to leave, to get out of the rut, to go away, where I could more easily see the bad habits I had acquired and the turmoil of soul which deprived me of the peace and joy I had once known.
The sabbatical time was just long enough for this process to open up and for the Spirit to plunge his light and truth and healing love deep within me. I have returned with the conviction that I don't ever want to go back to the way it was, that I can't live without the Lord and spending a lot of time contemplating his love and beauty, and that my soul deeply desires to spend more time with people, with the Lord's "lambs".... walking among them, leading them, caring for and pasturing them.
This Noel finds me filled with joy and delight in the great gift of the Father who has sent us Jesus his Son, Emmanuel, who has come to dwell among us and within us. In his great light, all the demons are exposed for what they are, and I can now name the one which oppressed me for too long. It has many faces and many names: fear of not being able to do what is right, feeling sorry for myself, feeling excessively responsible, not asking for help or knowing how, the misery of those poor who grow up without all of life's skills, at the root - pride - and sloth, which is failing to act prudently or do at any moment the most important thing, which always begins with acknowledging God and turning to Him.
Time to prudently act on the sabbatical grace welling up within me and simply pray a bit before the Lord, and go to be. Goodnight.
to be continued....