Blog di FORMAZIONE PERMANENTE MISSIONARIA – Uno sguardo missionario sulla Vita, il Mondo e la Chiesa MISSIONARY ONGOING FORMATION – A missionary look on the life of the world and the church
When St Dominic gave the friars the habit, he promised them “the bread of life and the water of heaven”. If we are to be preachers of a Word that gives life, then we must find the “bread of life” in our communities. Do they help us to flourish, or merely to survive?
Shortly after I joined the Order, the Province was visited by fr. Aniceto Fernandez, then Master. He asked me only one question, the traditional question of all visitators: “Are you happy?” I had expected some deeper question, about preaching the gospel, or the challenges facing the Province. Now I realise that this is the first question we must put to our brethren: “Are you happy?” There is a happiness which is properly that of being alive as a religious, and which is the source of our evangelisation. It is not an endless cheerfulness, a relentless bonhomie. It entails a capacity for sorrow. It may be absent for a time, even a long time. It is some small taste of that abundance of life which we preach, the joy of those who have begun to share God’s own life. We should have the capacity for delight because we are children of the Kingdom.
If we are to build communities in which there is an abundance of life, then we must recognise who and what we are and what it means for us to be alive, as men and women brothers and sisters, and as missionaries.
We are not angels. We are passionate beings, moved by the animal desires for food and copulation. This is the nature which the Word of life accepted when He embraced human nature. We can do no less. It is from here that the journey to holiness begins.
Yet we are created by God in his image, destined for God’s friendship. We are capax Dei, hungry for God. To be alive is to embark on that adventure which leads us to the Kingdom.
We need communities that will sustain us on the way. The Lord has promised “I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36.26). We need brothers and sisters who are with us as our hearts are broken and made tender.
Every wise person has always known that there is no way to life that does not take one through the wilderness. The journey from Egypt to the Promised Land passes through the desert. If we would be happy and truly alive, then we too must pass that way. We need communities which will accompany us on that journey, and help us to believe that when the Lord leads Israel into the wilderness it is so that he “may speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2.16). Perhaps so many people have left religious life in the last thirty years not because it is any harder than before, but because we have sometimes lost sight of the fact that these dark nights belong to our rebirth as people who are alive with the joy of the Kingdom. So our communities should not be places in which we merely survive, but places where we find food for the journey.
To use a metaphor which I have developed elsewhere, religious communities are like ecological systems, designed to sustain strange forms of life. A rare frog will need its own ecosystem if it is flourish, and make its hazardous way from spawn to tadpole to frog. If the frog is threatened with extinction, then one must build an environment, with its food and ponds and a climate in which it can thrive. Religious life also requires its own ecosystem, if we are to live fully, and preach a word of life. It is not enough to talk about it; we must actively plan and build such religious ecosystems.
This is, in the first place, the responsibility of each community. It is for the brethren and sisters who live together to create communities in which we may not just survive but flourish, offering to each other “the bread of life and the water of heaven”. This is the fundamental purpose of the “community project”. This will only happen if we dare to talk together about what touches us most deeply as human beings and as religious. Nicodemus asks how one can be reborn. This is our question too: how can we help each other as we face transformation, so as to become apostles of life?
The first characteristic of the apostolic life is that it is a sharing of the life of the Lord. The apostles are those who accompanied him “during all the time that Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (Acts 1.21). They were called by him, walked with him, listened to him, rested and prayed with him, argued with him, and were sent out by him. They shared the life of the one who is Emmanuel, “God with us”. The culmination of that life was the sharing of the Last Supper, the sacrament of the bread of life. Though one left early because he had too much to do.
The apostolic life is therefore for us more than the various apostolates that we do. It is a way of life. Yves Congar OP wrote of preaching that it is a “vocation that is the substance of my life and being”.(1) If the demands of the apostolate mean that we have no time to pray and eat with our brothers, to share their lives, then how ever busy we may be, we will not be apostles in the full sense of the word. Meister Eckhart wrote: “People should not worry so much about what they should do; rather about what they should be. If we and our ways are good, then what we do will be radiant.”(2).
But this apostolic life necessarily tears us apart. This is its pain and the source of its fertility. For the Word of God, whose life the apostles share, reaches out to all that is farthest from God and embraces it. According to Eckhart, the Word remains one with the Father while boiling over into the world. Nothing human is alien to him. The life of God is stretched open to find a space for all that we are; he becomes like us in all things but sin. He takes upon himself our doubts and fears; he enters into our experience of absurdity, that wilderness in which all meaning is lost.
So for us to live the apostolic life fully is to find that we too are torn open, stretched out. To be an apostle is not just to tell people about God. It is to bear within our lives that distance between the life of God and that which is furthest away, alienated and hurt. We have a word of hope only if we glimpse from within the pain and despair of those to whom we preach. We have no word of compassion unless somehow we know their failures and temptations as our own. We have no word which offers meaning to people’s lives, unless we have been touched by their doubts, and glimpsed the abyss. I think of some of my French brethren, who after a day of teaching theology and doing research, take to the pavements at night, to meet the prostitutes, to hear their woes and sufferings, and to offer them a word of hope. Jordan of Rivalto, in the fourteenth century, tells people not to be too hart on the friars if they are bit “grubby”. It is part of our vocation: “being here among the people, seeing the things of the world, it is impossible for them not to get a bit dirty. They are men of flesh and blood like you, and in the freshness of youth; it is a wonder that they are as clean as they are. This is no place for monks!”(3)
So the apostolic life does not offer us a balanced and healthy “lifestyle”, with good career prospects. For it unbalances us, tips us into that which is most other. If we share the life of the Word of God in this way, then we are hollowed out, opened up, so that there is the space and the silence for a new word to be born, as if for the first time. We are people of faith who reach out to open our hearts to those who do not believe. Sometimes we ourselves will be unsure of what it all means. We are like the apostles, who were summoned by Christ, and who walked to Jerusalem with him, knowing that he alone had the words of eternal life. And yet they argued as to who was the greatest, and often had no idea where they were going.
So the apostolic life invites us to live a tension. In our contemporary society, this tension can easily become a simple division. We can become people with two lives, our lives as religious in our communities and the lives we live in our apostolates. This is because of the way that work is perceived today. If this happens then the beautiful, painful, fertile tension at the heart of the apostolic life is broken, and we may become simply people with jobs who happen to go back to religious hotels at night. Let us see why this is a particular challenge we must face today.
Contemporary western society fragments life. The weekday is separated from the weekend, work from leisure, the working life from retirement, at least for those lucky enough to have a job. You can be a history teacher in the day and a parent at night and a Christian on Sunday. This fragmentation can make it hard for us to live unified and whole lives.
Increasingly work is professionalised. For the preaching of the gospel we will often become qualified professionals. One can even get a diploma in preaching or a doctorate in pastoral studies. None of those whom Jesus called had graduated in “apostleship”! There is nothing wrong with this professionalisation. We must be as qualified and professional as those with whom we work. Yet we must be aware of the seductions of becoming a “professional”. It grants status and position. It locates us in a stratified society. It gives identity and invites us to a way of life. We may bring in a salary to the community. How is this doctor, professor, pastor, to be a mendicant, an itinerant religious friar or sister? Does it leave us free for the unexpected demands of our brethren and of God?
Finally, in western society, the work ethic has triumphed. It is what justifies our existence. Salvation not by works but by work. The unemployed arc excluded from the Kingdom. Whatever we may preach, sometimes we too believe that we can save ourselves by what we do. Though we may preach that salvation is a gift, do we live as those for whom life, and the fullness of life, is a gift? Is that how we regard our brethren? Do we compete to show how busy and therefore important we are?
So to be a missionary is to have one’s life prized open. We have somehow to share in the Exodus of the Word of God, who comes forth from the Father to embrace all that is human. Sometimes this Exodus may carry us into the wilderness, with no apparent way through to the Promised Land. We may be like Job who sits upon the dung heap and proclaims that his Redeemer lives. Only sometimes we merely sit upon the dung heap. If we let ourselves be touched by the doubts and beliefs of our contemporaries, then we may find ourselves in a desert in which the gospel makes no sense anymore. “He has walled up my path “(Job 19.8).
The fundamental crisis of our society is perhaps that of meaning. The violence, corruption and drug addiction are symptoms of a deeper malady, which is the hunger for some meaning to our human existence. To make us evangelisers, God may lead us into that wilderness. There our old certainties will collapse, and the God whom we have known and loved will disappear. Then we may have to share the dark night of Gethsemane, when all seems absurd and senseless, and the Father appears to be absent. And yet it is only if we let ourselves be led there, where nothing makes any sense any more, that we may hear the word of grace which God offers; for our time. “Grace shows itself where we break through despair into the affirmation of praise.”(4)
Faced with void, we may be tempted to fill it, with half believed platitudes, with substitutes for the living God. The fundamentalism which we so often see in the Church today is perhaps the frightened reaction of those who stood on the edge of that desert, but did not dare to endure it. The desert is a place of terrifying silence, which we may try to drown by banging out old formulas with a terrible sincerity. But the Lord leads us into the wilderness to show us his glory. Therefore, says Meister Eckhart, “Stand firm, and do not waver from your emptiness”.(5)
How can our communities sustain us in this apostolic life? How can we support each other when a brother or sister finds themselves in that wilderness, when nothing at all makes any more sense?
The apostles did not apply for the job! We give our lives so that we may be sent out on mission. In most of our communities there is the regular rhythm of going out in the morning and coming back at night. But we are not just going out to work, like a professional leaving his house. It is the community that sends us. And “on their return the apostles told him what they had done” (Luke 9. 10). Do we listen to what our brethren have done in the day when they come home in the evening? Do we give them the chance to share the challenges that they meet in their apostolates? We are out there, in the parish or the classroom, for them, on their behalf, representing them. The community is present here in this brother or sister.
How can the prayers that we share together, morning and evening, be not just the common fulfilment of an obligation but part of the rhythm of the community that send out and receives back its members? Do we pray for and with our brothers in their apostolates? If not, then how can our community be said to be apostolic? It may become just a hostel.
In our communities we should be able to share both our faith and our doubts. For most of us, it is not enough just to recite the psalms together. We need to share the faith that brought us to the religious life and which sustains us now. This is the foundation of our fraternity. Perhaps we can only do this tentatively, shyly, but even so we may offer our brothers and sisters the bread of life and the water of heaven”.
We must also be able to share our doubts. It is above all when brother enters that wilderness, when nothing makes sense any more, that we must let him speak. We must respect his struggle and never crush him. If a brother dares to share these moments of darkness and incomprehension, and we dare to listen to him, then it may be the greatest gift that he could ever give. The Lord may lead a brother into the dark night of Gethsemane. Will we go to sleep while he struggles? Nothing binds a community more closely together than a faith that we struggled to attain together. This may be in a theological faculty or a poor barrio of Latin America. In wrestling together to make sense of who we are and to what we are called in the light of the gospel, then we shall surely be astonished by the God who is always new and unexpected. We may even be surprised to encounter and discover each other, as if for the first time.
“In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation of our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another”. (I Jn 4.10f)
All apostolic life is a sharing in that redemptive love of God for humanity. If it is not, then our preaching will be at best a job, and at worst an exercise in manipulation of others, the propagation of an ideology. Perhaps in some countries the churches are empty because the preaching of the gospel is seen as an exercise of control rather than the expression of God’s boundless love. So to become alive, abundantly alive as evangelisers, means discovering how to love well. “My vocation is Love”.(6)
But one could put it the other way around. For us religious, learning how to love is inseparable from being caught up in the mystery of God’s redemption of humanity. This is our school of love. Today religious formators all over the world are beginning to face the question of “affectivity”, a word I dislike. How can we form those who join us so that they may love well and fully, as chaste religious? Most of us had little or no formation in facing our emotions, our sexuality, our hunger to love and be loved. I do not remember ever receiving any formation in this area. It seemed to be assumed, or perhaps hoped nervously, that a good run and a cold shower would solve the “problem”. Alas, I cannot run and I dislike cold showers!
It is not enough to hope that all will be well if we recruit well-balanced young men and women, free of obvious emotional disorders. Would well balanced people lay down their lives for their friends? Would they leave the ninety-nine sheep and go and look for the one that is lost? Would they eat and drink with prostitutes and sinners? I fear that they may be too sensible. Commenting on St John’s gospel, Augustine wrote “Show me a lover, and he feels what I am saying”. (7) It is only those who are capable of love who can possibly understand the passion of the apostolic life. Unless we let ourselves be caught on the wave of that immense love, then all our attempts to be chaste may end up in being exercises in control. We may succeed, but at the risk of great damage to ourselves. We may fail, at the risk of terrible damage to others. So unless our apostolic impulse and our capacity for love are deeply integrated, then they become a matter of either controlling others or myself. But Jesus let go control of his life, and placed it in our hands.
Loving humanity may be very admirable but it may seem like a pale and abstract substitute for that deep and personal love for which we sometimes hunger. Is it really enough? And we may feel this all the more in contemporary society in which the dominant model of love is the passionate sexual love of a man and woman. When we feel this urgency, then can we be satisfied with loving humanity?
That passionate, spousal love is indeed a deep human need. It may also be an image of our relationship with God. But there is another complementary tradition which is perhaps more typically for us. It is at the heart of John’s gospel. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lays down his life for his friends.” So this is what the mystery of love looks like, someone giving away their life for their friends. Here we see a love that is profoundly passionate, in Jesus’ relationship with the disciples, with the prostitutes and publicans, the sick and the lepers, and even the Pharisees. It is a passion whose consummation is the passion that leads to Golgotha. Is not this as passionate as any love affair?
Our society may find our way of loving incomprehensible, since we have apparently rejected the typical experience of love, the sexual union with one other person. We may feel that sometimes ourselves, that we have missed out on “the big experience”, and that we have not lived. But St Thomas Aquinas taught that at the heart of the life of the God who is love is friendship, the unutterable friendship of the Father and the Son, which is the Spirit. For us to live, to become unutterably alive, is to find our home in that friendship and to be transformed by it. It will overspill into all that we do and are. Our communities should be schools of friendship. Are we always sufficiently good and gentle hearted towards each other?
The culmination of our loving will be a dispossession. Those whom we love we must let go; we must let them be. Does my love for another give them freedom to make their own lives and leave me free for the mission? Does my love for this woman, for example, help her to grow in her love for her husband, or am I tying her life to mine, and making her dependent? This painful but liberating dispossession invites us to become peripheral to the lives of those whom we love. We should find that we disappear from the centre of their lives, so that they may forget us and be free, free for someone else, free for God. This is the hardest thing of all, but I firmly believe that it can give us more joy than we can ever say or imagine. It is when our sides are opened up, so that living water may flow out.
We even have to be dispossessed, in a sense, of our own families. We will rightly love them and delight in their love for us, but once we make our religious profession we should be free to go where the mission needs us, even if it is far from the homes of our family. That is part of our poverty. Now our first belonging is to the Mission and the preaching of the gospel.
If we let the love that is God touch us, then we shall slowly become alive. It may seem safer to remain dead, vulnerable, untouchable. But is this so? “Nature abhors a vacuum. Terrible things can happen to a man with an empty heart. In the last resort it is better to run the risk of an occasional scandal than to have a monastery — a choir, a refectory, a recreation room — full of dead men. Our Lord did not say ‘I am come that they may have safety and have it more abundantly’. Some of us would indeed give anything to feel safe, about our life in this world, as in the next, but we cannot have it both ways: safety or life we must choose.” (8) If we choose life, then we shall need communities which support us as we come alive, which help us to grow in a love which is truly holy, a sharing in the pouring forth of God’s Word.
Above all we should offer each other hope and mercy. Often we are drawn to the religious life because we admire a religious brother or a sister. We hope that we will become like them. Soon we will discover that they are in fact just like us, fragile, sinful and selfish. This can be a moment of profound disillusionment. I remember a novice complaining of this sad discovery. The novice master replied to him, “I am delighted to hear that you no longer admire us. Now there is a chance that you might come to love us.” The redemptive mystery of God’s love is to be seen not in a community of spiritual heroes, but of brothers or sisters, who encourage each other on the journey to the Kingdom with hope and mercy. The risen Lord appears in the midst of a community of timid and weak men. If we wish to meet him we must dare to be there with them.
Above all we will need our communities if we fail in love. We may fail because we enter a time of sterility when we feel ourselves to be incapable of any love, when our hearts of flesh have been replaced by hearts of stone. Then we will need them to believe for us that: “Hidden within the deepest self — no matter how treacherous one has been or how corruptible – hidden within the deepest self the seed of love remains. (9)
Our communities must be places in which there is no accusation, “for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down” (Rev. 12.10). We may sin and feel that we have destroyed our vocations. If God can make the dead tree of Golgotha flower, then he can bring fruit out of my sins. We may need our brothers to believe, when we cannot, that some failure is not the end, but that God in his infinite fertility can make it part of our journey to holiness. Even our sins can be part of our fumbling attempts to love. All those years of Augustine’s sexual adventures were perhaps part of his searching for the one who was most beloved, and that chastity was not the cessation but the consummation of his desire.
In our growth as people capable of love, we may sometime have to pass through the wilderness. This may be because we feel ourselves incapable of love, or because we fall in love, or perhaps fail in our vows. If the apostolic life leads us to the bewilderment of Gethsemane, where life loses all meaning, then crisis in love may confront us with the solitude of the cross.
The experience of loneliness reveals a fundamental truth about ourselves, which is that alone we are incomplete. Contrary to the dominant perception of much of western society, we are not self-sufficient, self-contained beings. Loneliness reveals that I cannot be alive, I cannot be, by myself. I only exist through my relationships with others. Alone I die. This loneliness reveals a void, an emptiness at the heart of my life. We may be tempted to fill it with many things, food, drink, sex, power or work. But the emptiness remains. The alcohol or whatever is merely a disguised thirst for God. I suspect that we cannot even fill it with the presence of other people. A room full of lonely people changes nothing. “The awfulness of this loneliness shows itself precisely in the fact that all share it, none can relieve it.” (10) When Merton fell in love, then he discovered that what he was looking for was perhaps not his beloved, but a solution to the hollow at the centre of his heart. She was “the person whose name I would try to use as magic to break the grip of the awful loneliness of my heart”. (11)
Ultimately I suspect that this loneliness must not simply be endured. It must be lived as an entry into the loneliness of Christ in his death, which bears and transforms all human loneliness. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” If we do that, then the veil of the temple will be torn in half and we shall discover the God who is at the heart of our being, granting us existence in every moment: “Tu autem eras interior intimo meo.” “You are closer to me than I am to myself”. (12) If we take upon ourselves the cross of loneliness and walk with it, then it will be revealed that the modern perception of the self is not true. The deepest truth of ourselves is that we are not alone. At the deepest point of my being is God giving me the abundance of life. St Catherine describes herself in the Dialogue as “dwelling in the cell of self-knowledge in order to know better God’s goodness toward her.” Profound self-knowledge reveals not the solitary self of modernity but the one whose existence is inseparable from the God who grants us life in every moment.
If we can enter this desert and there encounter God, then we will become free to love unpossessively, freely, without domination or manipulation. We will be able to see others not as solutions to my needs or answers to my loneliness but simply there, to be delighted in “Therefore stand still and do not waver from your emptiness”. It was at the foot of the cross, where Jesus gave his mother and the beloved disciple to each other, that the community of the Church was born.
The person who is touched by the abundance of life loves unpossessively, spontaneously, joyfully. His heart of stone becomes a heart of flesh. This deep transformation of our humanity implies, according to our tradition, both study and prayer. Jordan of Saxony tells us that they are both as necessary to us as food and drink. Through study we remake the human heart. We discover that “intellectual illumination which breaks forth into the affection of love”.(13) Both study and prayer belong to the contemplative life to which every religious is called.
When a child is born, its parents immediately begin to talk to it. Long before it can understand, a child is fed with words, bathed and soothed with words. The mother and father do not talk to their child so as to communicate information. They are talking it into life. It becomes human in this sea of language. Slowly it will be able to find a place in the love that its parents share. It grows into a life that is human.
So too we are transformed by immersion in the Word of God, addressed to us. We do not read the Word so as to seek information. We ponder it, study it, meditate on it, live with it, eat and drink it. “These words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deut. 6.6f). This word of God works in us, making us human, bringing us to life, forming us to in that friendship which is the very life of God.
Some friends of mine adopted a child. They found him in a vast hospital ward in Saigon, an orphan of the Vietnamese war. For the first months in the ward no one had had the time to look or speak to him. He grew up unable to smile. But his adoptive parents talked to him and smiled at him, with a labour of love. I remember the day on which he first smiled back. The Word of God nurtures us, so that we come alive, human, and even able to smile back at God. A community that offers life will be one in which we find that Word of God treasured and shared. It is not enough just to say more prayers.
As the child is fed by the words of its parents, then it makes the liberating and terrifying discovery that it is not the centre of the world. Behind the breast there is a mother. Everything is not at its command. It discovers itself as part of the human community. In the conversation of our parents, we discover a world in which we may belong. So, too, as we are nourished by the word of God, we are led into a larger world. The good shepherd who has come that we may have life and have it more abundantly, is the one who opens the gate, so that we may come out and find large open spaces. In prayer we make an exodus, beyond the tiny shell of our self-obsession. We enter the larger world of God. Prayer is a “discipline that stops me taking myself for granted as the fixed centre of a little universe, and allows me to find and lose and re-find myself constantly in the interweaving patterns of a world I did not make and do not control”.(14)
As a child grows up, it will stop screaming and become capable of both speech and silence. It will learn both to talk and to hear. So too for us, building communities of prayer implies more than adding another psalm to Vespers. We have to create environments in which we can both speak and hear, rejoice and be silent. This is the ecosystem that we need if we are to flourish
The exodus from the Egypt of self-obsession is a moment of ecstasy. We are liberated from the dark and cramped little world of the ego. Like Miriam after the crossing of the Red Sea we will surely be exuberant. We exult in having entered the wide open spaces of God’s friendship. David danced wildly before the ark; Mary exulted in the Lord, and the marvellous things he had done for her. The prayer of the evangeliser should surely be exultant, ecstatic. We are called “To praise, to bless, to preach”. When the psalms say “Let us sing a new song to the Lord”, then let us do so! Do we celebrate the liturgy, and exult together in the Lord who has done marvellous things for us? Do we regard it merely as an obligation to be fulfilled? It is an obligation indeed, that most solemn obligation which comes from friendship. We delight to do things for our friends.
Eckhart wrote that “the very best and noblest attainment in this life is to be silent and let God work and speak within”(15) There is no friendship without silence. Unless one has learnt to stop, be quiet and listen to another, then one remains locked in one’s own little world, of which one is the centre and the only real inhabitant. In silence we make the wonderful and liberating discovery that we are not gods, but just creatures.
This is the silence that prepares the way for a word of preaching. Ignatius of Antioch said that the Word came out from the silence of the Father. It was a strong, clear, decisive and truthful Word, because it was born in silence. He “was not Yes and No; but in him it was always yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor 1 l9f). Often our words lack authority, because they are yes and no; they hint and nudge; they are coloured by innuendoes and ambiguities, they carry little arrows and small resentments. We must create that silence in which true words can be conceived and shared.
How can we rediscover such a silence in ourselves and in our communities? In my experience there is no way other than simply taking the time to be silent in God’s presence every day. For this contemplative silence we need each other’s support. We need communities which help us to grow in tranquil silence. A Buddhist monk told Merton, “Before you can meditate you’ve got to learn not to slam doors”. Each community needs to reflect upon how it can create times and places of silence.
This is not the depressing silence of the morgue which one sometimes found in the past, the silence which shuts out other people. We hunger for a silence which prepares for communication rather than refuses it. It is the comfortable silence which comes before and after we share a word, rather than the awkward silence of those who have nothing to say to each other. When I was a child, my younger brother and I often went into the woods, to look for animals and birds. The secret was learning to be silent together. It was a communion in shared attentiveness. Maybe we can find that, as we listen together for the word that may come.
Jesus summons us to have life and to have it abundantly. This is the good news that we preach. Yet we have seen that in answering that summons we may find ourselves led into the wilderness. As preachers of the word, we may discover that we have no word to offer, that nothing makes sense anymore. As those who preach the love of God, we discover that we are desolate, alone and abandoned. As those who are invited to find ourselves in God’s own life, we will be confronted with our mortality. We are creatures and not gods, and we must die. Then we may cry out like the Israelites to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? “ (Ex.14.11) Then we must “stand firm and not waver in our emptiness”, trusting that life will be given.
How are we to sustain and encourage each other as we face mortality? First we must stimulate each other with the freedom of Jesus. Knowing that the Son of man must die, he turned his face to go to Jerusalem. This is a freedom that I have seen sometimes in the brothers and sisters, giving away their lives. In the years before he was assassinated, fr Pierre Claverie OP, Bishop of Oran in Algeria, took the road to Jerusalem, as he refused to give in to threats and leave his people. In 1994 he said in a sermon, “I have struggled for dialogue and friendship between people, cultures and religions. All that probably earns me death, but I am ready to accept that risk”.(16)
Jesus’ freedom in the face of death found its culmination in the night before he died, when he took his body and gave it to his disciples, a gesture of astonishing liberty. This is what it is given to us to do together, in the face of mortality. I remember one Easter morning at Blackfriars, joyfully celebrating the Eucharist with a brother dying of cancer. All of the community was crammed in his room. Afterwards we drank champagne in honour of the resurrection. The Eucharist should not be the centre of our common life because we feel that we are united, or even so that we may come to feel so. It is the sacrament of that abundant life which is purely a gift, the “bread of life”. We receive it together, offering each other food for the wilderness.
We live out the meaning of that Eucharist in setting each other free, infecting each other with Christ’s immeasurable freedom. It may be in the small freedom of forgiveness freely given, or letting ourselves break some old pattern of life, of taking a risk. We let go. As Lacordaire wrote “I go where God leaves me, uncertain of myself, but sure of him”. In all these ways we let ourselves be caught up in the sweep of the Spirit coming forth from the Father and the Son, crying within us “Abba Father”. As Eckhart says “We do not pray, we are prayed”. Yet it is also our entry into freedom and spontaneity, when we become most alive. We let ourselves be caught by the movement, like a dancer who gives in to the rhythm, and finds in it grace and freedom. We can drop that terrible seriousness of those who believe that they carry the world upon their shoulders. Then our communities may indeed be places in which we will begin to know the happiness of the Kingdom.
25 February, Ash Wednesday 1998
(NB: text with cuttings and adaptations)
(1) Dominican Ashram March 1982, “What is my licence to say what I say?” p 10
(2) Die deutsche Predigten und lateinischen Werke Stuttgart 1936 vol V p 197
(3) Prediche del Beato Giordano to Rivalto ed A. M. Bisconi e D. M. Manni Firenze 1739 p 9
(4) Cornelius Ernst OP op cit p 72
(5) Sermons and Treatises trans M O’C Walshe vol I London 1979 p 44
(6) St. Thérèse of Lisieux Manuscrits autobiographiques Paris p 226
(7) In Jn 2.6.
(8) Gerald Vann OP op cit p 46ff
(9) Paul Murray OP “A Song for the Afflicted” unpublished poem
(10) Sebastian Moore OSB The Inner Loneliness London 1982 p 40
(11) John Howard Griffin Thomas Merton: The Hermitage Years London 1993 p 58
(12) St. Augustine Confessions 3.6.11
(13) ST. 1.43, a 5, ad 2
(14) Rowan Williams ibid p 120
(15) Walshe op cit vol I p 6
(16) Sermon after the death of Br Henri and of Sister Paule-Hélène la vie spirituelle October 1997 p 764