Thursday, May 14, 2015

the wisdom of our wounds...

There has always been a tension in my theology around action and contemplation - the outward and the inward journey - the commitment to justice and the calling to prayer.  Some know that I am drawn to those whose spiritualities embrace both - advocates like Elizabeth O'Connor, Richard Rohr, Henri Nouwen and Carol Howard Merritt - real people with wounds and wisdom who wrestle with this same tension. Recently Merritt wrote in a reflection on her own fear of being or becoming "irrelevant" that being faithful matter no matter what we feel like.

Apart from a few oddities, most of us are church leaders because we love God and want to do some good in the world. We want our lives to matter. And perhaps that’s the scariest thing of all. We can become afraid that everybody else is doing something of consequence, and our work just isn’t important, creative, substantial, authentic. It's just not [insert the latest churchy buzzword here].

But let me tell you, and let me remind myself—your work matters. You might be serving a church that has five people over the age of 80, and that matters. You might be smelling death all over the place, and that still matters. You may be completely clueless about how to turn around decades of decline and budgets that have been bleeding, but your work matters. You might not know how to reach out to millennials, but you're still doing a fine job.

We’ve never had callings that made much sense. We can’t always tell what we have accomplished at the end of the day. But even when we have nothing to point to, faithfulness matters. Am I saying that we're perfect? No. Am I saying that we do not need to change? Of course not. But many of us are doing the best job that we can, and we need to remember that it's also the job God has called us to. 

When I was much younger I felt this tension boldly but had no idea how to balance both - so I erred on the side of activism.  After my time as an organizer, however, I was burned-out and gave myself over to being a stay-at-home dad and student. Then it was off to seminary in NYC and another bout of activism around Central American solidarity realities (including six months in Costa Rica/Nicaragua.)  In my first church as pastor I discovered a Catholic retreat house - and reclaimed the writings of Nouwen and discovered the wisdom of Kathleen Norris - but still had no satisfying idea how to make peace with this tension. It has plagued me most of my 30+ years in ministry. Maybe you know this anguish, too?

The best clue - and discipline - that I ever practiced came about after my divorce in Cleveland under the guidance of Fr. Jim O'Donnell.  He was friends with Nouwen and Vanier and worked within the wisdom of Charles de Foucauld and the Jesus Caritas movement.  Two things about Fr. Fourcauld continue to speak to me:  First, after living a wild and assertive life in search for meaning - including a stint as a soldier in the French Foreign Legion - he sensed a call to the contemplative life; and second, he lived out his contemplative life in the Sahara of Algeria embracing a ministry he spoke of as "Jesus before his public calling and baptism." That is, an anonymous, quiet life of compassion, service and prayer among the poor. He lived in a cave (not my cup of tea but I love the solitude.) He celebrated the Eucharist everyday - mostly alone - on a stone altar. (Again, not my understanding of the Body of Christ but I value his adoration of the Lord.)

In Cleveland, under Fr. Jim's guidance, I would spend one over-night at their hospitality house - join the community for Eucharist - and then rest the whole next day in prayer, sleep and solitude. Once each month, I would retreat for 2 days as well.  The rhythm was to be: 1 hour each day, 1 day each week, 1 longer retreat each month and 1 week each month. I never got to the whole groove but it was a practice that helped me stay centered and calm.  It gave me the right balance between being active in public and resting in God's greater wisdom and grace in private. My hunch is that this balance is what I am moving towards again.

Foucauld's prayer of abandonment is not for everyone. For a time I found great solace in the
trust it evoked - it was important for me as a young man to practice letting go.

I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord. 

Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

At this point in my journey, as a much older guy, I find I am closer to Niebuhr's serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity 
To accept the things I cannot change; 
Courage to change the things I can; 
And wisdom to know the difference. 

Living one day at a time; 
Enjoying one moment at a time; 
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; 
Taking, as He did, this sinful world 
As it is, not as I would have it; 
Trusting that He will make all things right 
If I surrender to His Will; 
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life 
And supremely happy with Him 
Forever and ever in the next.

These two icons of Fr. Charles speak volumes to me: the first is at the start of his religious life as a young man while the second reflects him shortly before his death. When I look at the faces of these icons, I see how wisdom and trust came through his wounds - and in this I find solace and hope. 

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