Saturday, 4 January 2014

An "Aha" Moment

Bill and I are now halfway through our year of Candidacy, as temporarily professed Secular Franciscans. How time flies! As we journey through this last stage of formation towards Permanent Profession, we are digging deeper into the wisdom of St. Francis. This past fall has been a time of exploring themes such as Community, Conversion, Simple Living, Evangelizing, and Living a Prayerful Life with our little band of fellow travellers. It’s been a rich five months of reading, learning, listening and discussing many ideas. For example, our formation study text reminds us that as believers we are called to “choose the cross”. What does that really mean? One paradoxical facet might be that we have the choice to “put to death” those behaviours and thought patterns that obstruct us from receiving the fullness of life.  

As this New Year of 2014 begins, it’s a great time to think about the obstacles we have a tendency to “choose” (sometimes unconsciously) that impede us from living a life of peace and joy in God’s presence.  As St. Francis said, “No one is to be called an enemy; all are your benefactors, and no one does you harm.  You have no enemy except yourselves.” So many of our greatest, deepest, most abiding problems are inside, not outside, of us.  They might spring from our inclination to compare our situation to others with a jealous heart, or to obsess about bad things that might happen in the future, or to dwell with regret on the past, or to shy away from new opportunities because of fear.  These initial days of January are a perfect time, with open hearts, to reflect on some of the patterns behind our choices.  Could this year be a time of striking out on some new, brave, healthy paths?

I recently watched an inspirational “Net for God” video ( about a young Dominican priest named Fr. Jean-Joseph Lataste, who was sent to preach a spiritual retreat in September 1864 at a women’s prison in the southwest of France.  He was totally surprised to see the effects of grace in the lives of these rejected, discarded women, many of whom were prostitutes, and to see their readiness to forgive. When he held a night of adoration, he was profoundly moved when he saw hundreds of women in the prison praying devotedly for hours.  Silence was imposed on them every day in the prison, broken only when he was allowed to hear their confessions.  He was struck by the similarity in situation between the female prisoners and a group of religious sisters living in seclusion in a nearby convent.  The only difference was that one group of women had chosen their situation, and the other hadn’t. 

The women's prison in Cadillac-Sur-Garonne, France

He realized that the female prisoners would experience nothing but contempt after their release from prison. But what if they were given a new chance…a new choice? Fr. Lataste felt called to found a congregation where women, regardless of their past, could enter to live a religious life if they desired to devote themselves to God.  A generous-spirited group of Dominican contemplative nuns were willing to welcome these women coming out of prison into their community. The Dominican Sisters of Bethany was born, which now resides in several European countries. These communities continue to be places where former female convicts live a contemplative life in communion with other women religious.

God gave me an “aha” moment after I watched that video.  What if we “pretended” that the difficult situations that seem to imprison us, for whatever reason, were our own choice? Let me explain. I have always admired the choice that Henri Nouwen, renowned author and speaker, made when he decided to move to L’Arche Daybreak Community in Ontario in 1986, to serve as resident priest and help care for the disabled residents.  He stayed for ten years. One of his “jobs” while there was to be a caregiver to a severely handicapped young man named Adam. Nouwen called Adam “my friend, my teacher and my guide”, and credited Adam with renewing his faith and helping him find joy in the mere gift of human existence.  He wrote a book about the experience, called “Adam, God’s Beloved”. 

Henri Nouwen and Adam

 I must admit that sometimes I feel trapped by my situation caring for the needs of our son Peter, whose neurological disorders are frequently very debilitating and limit the activities we can participate in as a family. But what if caring for Peter was my deliberate choice, like the choice made by Henri Nouwen?  What if I had freely chosen to spend my life ministering to Peter, in a faithful response to a call from God?  When I look at my situation in that light, suddenly it feels more like a privilege, an adventure, a blessed vocation.  

What if we truly believed that God was with us in all the struggles we encounter in life, and that by His love, mercy and power He is able to redeem them for our good? What if we fully trusted Jesus with our whole heart as He invites us to follow Him and "choose the cross" - with a spirit of adventure, courage and even joy? What if it is precisely in the challenging circumstances of our lives that we will find the best opportunities for spiritual growth? It’s a perspective that might not only transform our own lives, but also transform our world. 

To quote another Francis - our Pope: "Remain steadfast in the journey of faith, with firm hope in the Lord.  This is the secret of our journey!  He gives us the courage to swim against the tide.  There are no difficulties, trials or misunderstandings to fear, provided we do not lose our friendship with Him, provided we make ever more room for Him in our lives." (from a homily on April 28, 2013) 

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