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.

Conversion

I write this on the feast of St. Paul’s conversion, January 25. And what a conversion was that!

It’s my opinion, produced by experience, that I am repeatedly called to conversion. For me, there was one very big one, so big that I remember the date, place and hour. It was October 4, 1998, in Santa Fe (Holy Faith) at the noon Mass being celebrated at the Diocesan cathedral of Saint Francis. It was the fourth centenary of the Franciscans in the New World. The large number of Latinos at this Mass guaranteed that the liturgy’s music would indeed be celebratory. The contagious joy and enthusiasm of the parishioners acted upon me like Paul’s blinding light: powerfully and instantly converting me, bringing me back to the Faith that I had abandoned 21 years earlier.

Let me say it again: we are repeatedly called to conversion — not necessarily in a grand fashion, but in small doses, mini lights that invite us to make Gospel decisions.

  • Shall I respond harshly to this person to let her know I don’t appreciate her criticism of me?
  • Shall I turn a punishing frown at the guy who practically knocks me over with his shopping cart?
  • Shall I get out of bed for weekday Mass, tired as I am from staying up late to watch a movie?
  • Shall I give in to the “sadness of the noonday devil,”* or will I accept the call to bravery in performing those uninspiring tasks that wait for no one but me to finish?

These are the little conversions, the tiny steps that follow at a great distance from the footsteps of Christ. These are the mustard seeds, the tiniest available, that I’m invited to plant and tend carefully and steadily until they explode into trees, housing flocks of birds.

The Gospel call of the Apostles has always intrigued me. I used to lament that I was not around to be called to discipleship (not that as a woman I’d have been called anyway). There was a kind of magnificence to being called, to being lifted out of the drab dullness of daily drudgery to follow this great healer, preacher, teacher; to view the wonderment of the crowds and to be so intimately connected with the greatness of this man! For me, discipleship represented the best kind of greatness.

Before his call, Saul too had a kind of greatness. He was a leader in the gradual but persistent elimination of heretics who arrogantly claimed fellowship with a blasphemous criminal (as if this were something to be proud of!). Saul’s task: bring them back in chains, let them imitate their master, even to submitting to the same end and manner of execution.

Given his powerful personality, this saint-in-the-making required a proportionately powerful show of God’s great mercy. A mere hint or two wouldn’t be enough. Saul needed a blinding light, a certitude that would impel him to undertake the most trying conditions. In spite of all his sufferings – he recounts shipwrecks, imprisonments, beatings – he considered them as nothing, and himself as the least of the Apostles. Indeed, his new name – Paul – means poor and small. Only in his acceptance of this smallness and the cross could he find true glory.

No wonder “little” Thérèse’s doctrine set the world on fire. Goodness, even holiness, was now presented to the hoi polloi as readily available even to the least of us. This young woman, formally educated only to the sixth-grade level, was named a Doctor of the Church for having taught this humble approach to God. Her longing to be a missionary, even to be a priest, was far beyond the possibilities of her circumstances. She recognized that all God wanted of her was fidelity to what was right in front of her: undramatic daily chores; crabby people; simple prayer which she often slept through. Each choice brought her one step closer to the One she loved “madly!”

How simple are my choices! Not easy, and certainly no longer grandiose as I grow slowly but surely into the reality of insignificance. All that remains is to be totally focused on the desire for the one thing necessary and a dogged determination to live the Gospel.


acedia.jpg* The “sadness of the noonday devil,” a spiritual condition called acedia is a gloomy combination of weariness, sadness, and a lack of purposefulness. It robs a person of his capacity for joy and leaves him feeling empty, or void of meaning.