First Steps

This has been a year of mixed blessings for Mt. Saviour Monastery. We lost two brothers, Steven and Justin. Yet I do question words like “lost.” That word in particular expresses the opposite of a monk’s goal, which is to be found by Christ and to remain where He is.

I guess the Holy Spirit wanted to balance things for us, so I was delighted to learn that we have not one but TWO new postulants. Seeing one of them at Mass recently, I put myself in his sandals (so to speak), wondering what thoughts might be going through his mind as he takes the first steps on his journey to intimacy with Christ.

I remember how I had first felt on my return to the Church, how my new beginning revived the zeal of my youth and my desire to share my renewed joy in the Faith. Certainly Christ, like a new postulant, must also have had feelings of happy anticipation.

Jesus was not a green lad when he started his ministry, but a mature man of 30. When he plunged into the Jordan, it was as one with a crowd of converts. Converts because they were responding to John’s urgent call to change their way of life. baptism-of-jesusJesus stepped into a river muddied by the many sins that had been washed from the throng of repentant men and women. I think he must have been stunned to discover that individuals like him also experienced this strong call to holiness. He must have said to himself: I want to be a part of this transformation! Maybe even more, since what I’m hearing within me, what I’m given to understand is how truly close God is to each of us on this earth, and that He longs to accompany us on this difficult journey!

I think with wonder about those long days and nights he spent in the desert, praying and pondering what it means to be a child of God, about what is meant by the teachings of Scripture, the writings and traditions of his people. Fully human, Jesus must have been in the position of questioning what God wanted of him. Whatever it was, he desired it with all his being, both human and divine.

The temptations
If he were to leave his family, his friends, and his livelihood, what would be left? He might be like some people who considered preaching as a career that could assure him of a comfortable living. Why, given his talent with words and speaking, he would never go hungry again, accepting invitations to dine at the homes of the wealthy. As the darling of the Creator, he would be assured of protection and safety all his life. He would be admired and praised by all. His fame would spread far and wide. He might even be made King! Knowing the ill-treatment meted out to the prophets, he might have thought he’d be the exception. His teachings would be so new, so transformative, that they would be universally accepted.

Isn’t this how we’ve felt when we started out in our careers, full of enthusiasm and self-confidence?

Our new postulants at Mt. Saviour must be close to half my age but hopefully with twice the wisdom. The teachings of Christ bring us feelings alternating between child-like joy and the certain dread of hardships, followed by their actuality. Since this was the road Jesus decided to take, we can expect the same as we aspire to holiness.

First steps are so crowded with hope and fear, along with the need for support, strength, and wisdom. Fortunately, our heavenly parent knows that beginners need much encouragement, so he fills them with a grateful wonder at having been called. This confidence is too soon followed by a sense of emptiness and doubt.

Jesus’ family thought he was out of his mind and tried to drag him back home. The fickle crowds wanted to make him king when he performed miracles, but scoffed at his impossible teachings: Be happy when you’re poor, when you mourn, if you’re meek. This is not what most of us want to hear. The most difficult teaching had to do with giving us his body and blood to eat and drink. “Will you also go away?” he asks his disciples. Peter gives the perfect answer: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Early as it was in Peter’s discipleship, he knew that there was spiritual health and salvation only in what Christ taught and modeled: total love for God and neighbor; being the servant to others, not the Master; seeking first the Kingdom of God in sincerity of heart; letting go of all that keeps us from that goal.

And so, as we welcome our new brothers to the Monastery, let us pray that the faithful and loving spirit of Christ will enter them and remain with them – and us – always. Let us provide an ongoing example to each other as true followers of the Gospel.

How to tell them?

One of the hymns at Mass today was, Rejoice and be glad: yours is the Kingdom of God.

I couldn’t help thinking about Jesus and visualized him as he delivered this astounding message to the poor about, of all things, a kingdom!

I picture him as an idealistic, enthusiastic and brilliant young man, full of compassion. He has recently experienced a baptism by another holy man and has heard the unmistakable message of approval from the heavenly Father. He’s about to select a handful of men who will help him spread his teachings of the Kingdom to many others.

He is ready. Even while working full-time as a craftsman, he has studied sacred Scripture, prayed over it, and has been given to understand its deepest secrets. These “secrets,” however, are not to be withheld from the poor and uneducated. They only need his tender talents to explain, in down-to-earth terms, the noblest mysteries of the Divinity.

Along with Jesus’ teaching abilities are his God-given powers to heal the sick in body and mind. Such power gives credence to his astounding lessons on how to enter the Kingdom of peace and love. For while the lessons are not difficult to understand, they’re mostly the very opposite of what people have been taught.

Jesus must think to himself: how can I present these teachings in such a way that unscholarly people can understand?

Then, after more prayer, he realizes that the poor and the simple have much in common with one another, and that focusing on what they have in common will be the way to teach them.  He therefore devises skillful parables where the situations and characters illustrate (sometimes negatively) the kind of behaviors that prepare them to enter the kingdom: stories of masters forgiving slaves, of slaves not forgiving co-workers. Of men working throughout the day, only to see others getting the same payment after just a few hours of labor. About buying a field where hidden treasures were found by accident. About a woman relentlessly pleading with a judge for justice.

Jesus has lived and worked with people for years and knows that many of them really have a sincere desire to do what God wills. But they’ve been given so many rules that they can hardly remember all 600-plus of them. They already have so much on their minds just to provide the basics for themselves and their families. Nonetheless, religious leaders have taught them that failure to obey the Law would lead to their expulsion from the temple, their only hope for salvation.

An almost endless workday prevents them from studying the scriptures and the law. Not to mention the other unending problems: illness in the family; their own illness; dealing with the many who want to cheat them; dealing with the many who simply hate them for a variety of reasons or for no reason at all.

Too many problems. Too many laws. Is there any way to get out of this maze, to find a clear path to peace?

  • What is God’s will? Which are the most important laws?

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said [in reply], “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

  • How do I decide whether to obey a law or to give help where needed?

 Again he entered the synagogue. There was a man there who had a withered hand. They watched him closely to see if he would cure him on the Sabbath so that they might accuse him. He said to the man with the withered hand, “Come up here before us.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” But they remained silent. Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and his hand was restored.

  • How do I treat people who are just miserable to deal with?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father.”

  • How can I ever atone for my sins?

People brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.

  • How can I find true peace?

 Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’”Living water

Rivers of living water . . .

Jesus, who wants all to be with him in the Kingdom, has eased the path for them and for us: I am the way, the truth and the life.