Religious Life as a Journey and a Message of Hope
We have come now to the final reflection of this mountain meeting with the Lord and with ourselves over the past five days. All good things must end. No, I am not referring to my talks. I am referring to my stay in this beautiful, quiet place, along with the solitude and silence, the prayerful examples of all of you, and the receptive attitude that you all have given me.
To every one who is called to speak in public, some authors would advise the following three rules. First, have something to say. Second is, “stand up and say it.” The third and most important of all is, “sit down.” In my experience of 24 years, I sometimes do not follow these rules strictly. I cut corners and stay on longer on the second rule when I see one important thing on the part of the audience. Public speakers call it “audience sympathy.” You have shown me more than just audience sympathy. I don’t know whether you are just being polite or compassionate and merciful as the Lord, but that is beside the point. But there is one more reason why I refuse to sit down. You have made me president of the liturgical assembly, and I hold the microphone, so I would like to make maximum use of my 15 minutes of fame.
I made reference to the story of Thomas the Doubter in one of my talks. I would like you to know that I am very sympathetic to Thomas and his honest doubts. The last ten talks I have given are proof positive of that. I am firmly convinced of the fact that the best believers are those who struggled a little with their belief, who have a lot of personal investment in what they hold dear, for whom faith went beyond merely tucking cold, abstract truths neatly in a hermetically sealed compartment of the mind. Thomas’ faith was precisely not that. It wanted corroboration. It looked for support. It was a case of what St. Anselm referred to as “fides quaerens intellectum”- faith seeking understanding.
In our human tendency to focus on the negative, we sometimes do not look too kindly at Thomas’ doubts. This may well be the reason why tradition has given him the undying epithet, “the doubting Thomas.”
But I see more, not less. True to the main motif of the past 10 reflections I have shared with you, I would like to focus more on Thomas’ dream, and not his doubt. I like to cast my attention on his eventual development, not on his temporary faltering. I see in Thomas the careful circumspection of faith, faith that questions, not faith that is blind; faith that looks for further support, and more strength, not less. It is faith that is, like ours, simply and plainly human, subject to the normal and ordinary challenges posed by events, and the vagaries of time and place.
In this sense, for me, Thomas the Doubter is no different from Peter the Betrayer. Both were recorded to have had their own moments of weakness. One denied the Lord. The other doubted the Lord. But I would like to hasten to add one important detail. Both may have temporarily ceased believing, but both never stopped belonging. Believing and belonging … these are two intertwined aspects of the same attachment to the Lord. One builds on the other. One strengthens the other, but the temporary absence of one does not spell the total collapse of adherence and attachment to Christ. Thomas, who ceased believing for a while, never stopped belonging. He came, despite his disbelief. He came, precisely because he was looking for support in his faith. Vidimus Dominum, the other disciples told him. Thomas might as well have answered them, Desidero videre Dominum… Veni ut viderim Dominum. I want to see the Lord. I want to see his wounds. I want to touch his hands and his side. I came that I might see.
Peter the Betrayer thought better of his denials, all of three times. The Church that we belong to, the Church that we claim we love, is a Church of compassion. It is a Church where – lest you all forget – both saints and sinners belong together.
Compassion, mind you, breeds communion. The Risen Lord was the first to show this. “Thomas, take your hands and put them on my side. Touch my wounds in my hands.” Because of Christ’s compassion, the great divide between believing and belongingness was joined. Love shown so concretely is love that needs no proofs, no litmus tests, no surveys and evidences. Presence is evidence enough. And Christ’s love rendered all proofs useless and unnecessary.
Small wonder the response of Thomas made no reference to the wounds. He did not say, “I believe for I have touched.” No … his words were all in reference to the presence of him to whom he now pledges total, complete, and unconditional surrender: “My Lord, and my God!” We know the rest of the story of Thomas the Doubter. In his turn, he spent his whole life becoming what Scriptures say of those who saw the Risen Lord – witnesses. It was in turn to tell others: “Vidi Dominum.” And we all know what his witnessing led him to – martyria.
Yesterday, I made reference to Rabbi Byron’s claim that we all need to re-appropriate our wonder-working tradition as leaders of the faith. You might be asking what I may be referring to mostly. If you have followed my thread of thought over the past ten reflections, I am not exactly referring to being the miracle workers that the apostles were, doing spectacular healings, and grandiose miracles. That type of wonder working was more proper of the early, incipient Church, during the vitality of the beginning.
I am referring to something more achievable, more realistic, more sedate, and ultimately, more necessary. I have made reference to the fact that religious life as we present it now to the postmodern world may appeal less and less to young people. If we present an anemic picture of religious life as a glorified, more intensive version of lay spirituality, then we are not doing wonders. Thousands and thousands of lay people already are living their own equally valid version of a lay spirituality that has helped and still helps the growth and fecundity of the Church. By far the greatest thing that happened in the aftermath of Vatican II is the rise of so many covenanted communities of lay people in the world, who, while living in the world, still attend to the affairs of the Kingdom. They evangelize with passion and dedication. They build houses for the poor and organize communities to help them become not only worthy dwellers, but capable builders of their own communities, and architects of their own future. In a world of cynicism, despair, despondency, growing and worsening poverty of all kinds, many lay people have, indeed, become the wonder-workers that we used to be, that we are called to be.
But I suggest that that is not primarily the type of wonder-working we are called to do now. Being social workers has never, and ought never to be the end-all and be-all of our religious life. We do not need to be priests and religious to be that. But being professional men and women living holy lives based on the evangelical counsels, while journeying with a world of poverty, ignorance, discouragement, and lack of hope is what our wonder-working ought to revolve around in.
I am referring to us being living signs and beacons of hope. Priesthood and religious life that is open to wonder-working is a life that is open to hope. It is a life that transcends the sordid reality of a sinful world. It is a life that is willing to guarantee through personal and collective witness that life could be better, that society could be better, that there is a finality to everything in this world, and that that final chapter has been written in blood by the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Years ago, the great preacher and writer Fulton Sheen expressed so well what I am referring to:
Human nature everywhere, whether in the priesthood or out of it, makes one set of plans, and either God or events or someone in authority negates them. Life it seems, is like Sisyphus who pushes a stone up the mountain only to it roll down again. If other persons do not contradict our hopes, some impersonal fate seems to do so.
Earlier, I have shared with you a little of my personal passion, how others, especially superiors, may have trampled on my dreams, and left me holding an empty bag. I was in the throes of my narcissistic rage for a long while. In retrospect, even that painful chapter in my life has been a blessing. But that blessing is something one would rather not have to undergo at all.
Moltmann speaks about the very same experience in the life of Christ. Christ, on the night before he suffered, had withdrawn in order to be united in prayer with his Father. He prayed. No … he pleaded … If it be possible… Moltman says that “Christ’s request was not granted." God, his Father, rejected it. Moltman speaks of the true passion of Jesus Christ which began with the prayer in Gethsemane which was not heard, which was rejected through the divine silence; for his true passion was the suffering from God.
As priests and religious, most of our suffering really in one sense comes from God. No … not that God is the author of our pain, but in the sense that most of our pain really happens because we care for God, we care for his kingdom, and we try do His will. In the long run, we really suffer for God. We suffer because we are driven to do things with the best interests of God in mind. And in the depths of our pain, we cannot but utter with and like Christ, “My God, my God, why? … Why? Why have you forsaken me?” Moltman sees in all this the beginning of true hope.
At the point where men and women lose hope, where they become powerless and can do nothing more, the lonely, assailed and forsaken Christ waits for them and gives them a share in his passion.
This is what faith really is: believing, not with the head or the lips or out of habit, but believing with one’s whole life. It means seeking community with the human Christ in every situation in life, and in every situation experiencing his own history. Good Friday is the most comprehensive and most profound expression of Christ’s fellowship with every human being.
Beneath the cross of Christ hope is born again out of the depths. The person who has once sensed this is never afraid of any depths again. His hope has become firm and unconquerable: “Lord, I am a prisoner – a prisoner of hope."
You all have come from the plains to do this mountain-meeting with the Lord. If you remember, when the Lord is hard pressed on all sides, when crowds are literally all over him, asking to be touched, to be healed, to be saved from all sorts of maladies, the Lord would invariably and periodically go up to the mountain or to a deserted place to pray. I would like to think that he applies what some authors now call “oscillation theory.” To avoid what some others call “compassion fatigue,” the only way is to find replenishment from the Lord in prayer. Donald Messer, apropos this writes:
The danger of compassion fatigue ever threatens. Difficulties occur because of the stubborn intransigence of the evils we deplore. We tire from the constant struggle against seemingly intractable forces. To use the words of St. Paul, ‘we grow weary from well-doing.’
But believing and belonging, holding on to what is good, keeping together despite the differences that separate us, is the primary wonder-working ability that attracts followers. This is the wonder-working capacity that we need to explore and glory in – the wonder of the grace of consecrated life, a life that may not be popular, but a life that will remain valid a symbol of what, ultimately, we all long to possess – God, and His promises.
I would like to sum up all that I have been trying to tell you over the past five days (plus one). I have been talking of transcendence. I have been leading you to hope. I have been exhorting you to go on, walk on, march on, never mind if what we are going to, sounds more like the Emmaus of disappointment and sadness of two disheartened disciples. I have been inviting you to become what St. Paul finally attained: “For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance” (2 Tim 4:6-8).
Donald Messer reports about Loren Eiseley who talked about his own suffering from a dry emptiness, and a massive sense of futility, and a foretaste of annihilation. Despite this, he woke up each morning at dawn and observed shell hunters scavenge for treasures by the seaside. He spoke about “a vulturine kind of madness” which overcomes these collectors. They would scoop out living specimens, favoring starfish, and put bag loads of them in boiling cauldrons. But one morning, he saw an even more astounding sight. A man, framed by a huge rainbow at dawn, was picking up some things and then would toss them into the ocean. He was picking up hapless starfish, raised stiffly on their legs, caught out of water by the rapidly receding tide. As he picked one, Eiseley said, “It’s still alive.” “Yes,” the man said. “The stars throw well. One can help them.” Eiseley later wrote: “I nodded and walked away, leaving him there upon the dune with that great rainbow ranging up the sky behind him. I turned as I neared a bend in the coast and saw him toss another star … For a moment, in the changing light, the sower appeared magnified, as though casting larger stars upon some greater sea. He had … the posture of a god.”
Eiseley ends up “joining the star thrower on the beach, spinning living starfish beyond the danger points, beyond the ‘insatiable waters of death,” writes Messer.’ “He joins the company of the star thrower, not as a scientist but as a fellow sufferer. By loving life, even the lost ones, Eiseley points to a God who not only creates unfathomable worlds of nature but who is also the God of the lost ones.”
We are called to wonder-working. And we are called to do this by joining the company of the star thrower, who is Christ. Hope is what we specialize in. Hope is the arena we move in. We see stars, despite our scars. We proclaim new life, in the midst of death. We deliver good news, beyond the so many bad news.
I end with the few Latin phrases I have quoted for you. My own, first of all … per agrum, ad sacrum! And two more: Ad augusta, per angusta! Ad astra, per aspera. As one who has been journeying on in this adventure called priesthood and religious life, I have learned the wisdom behind the words of St. Augustine: SOLVITUR AMBULANDO … things are solved while walking.