STRANGE the feeling within me this afternoon as I begin to write again. A feeling difficult to articulate, yet it is intense.
Perhaps this morning’s phone call from a dear friend, like several of late from other friends, triggered the initial feeling.
Each has asked the same question, a question which has dogged me these five months into the sabbatical: Have you finished writing your first book yet?
There are only four months left to this sabbatical and clearly this first book isn’t finished yet!
Yes, those could describe what I am feeling, but they would not tell the whole story.
It is more a sense of duty, a peaceful sense of duty now that I allow myself to feel it.
The duty is not the writing per se, for the sabbatical has never been exactly about what I might produce, on paper or canvas.
The duty is to be here, still and faithful, in the moment.
The duty is the duty of the moment.
If You Heavenly Father, Lord Jesus, Most Holy Spirit, grant there be enough moments to complete this book, or others, to finish that painting which leans against the wall near my desk, or others, indeed should You grant that anything I write be published, anything I paint be sold for the benefit of the poor, then praise be to You.
Should You grant that no matter how diligent I may be in the duty of the moment, not a manuscript is completed, not a canvas covered, not a book sold, not a painting bought, then praise be to You.
My heart understands, even if my emotions seem to put the lie to my understanding in heart, the purpose of this sabbatical is that I become more what I already am by Your Consecrating Will – priest of Jesus Christ.
All else is but means, and all is grace, praise be to You.
IT IS years from that summer when, through St. Sharbel, I was granted a healing miracle.
It is within the mystery of priesthood that I am here, deep in the forest, in this hermitage for a few days.
It is early evening.
The forest is still.
The valley in shadow.
The sharp blue sky now gathering about itself a shawl of grey cloud.
Beyond the hills, thunder’s growl announces the approaching storm.
Night is coming too.
I sit here in vigil candle light, penning these lines as I seek a receptive stillness of heart, mind, imagination, as the brilliance of Your grace in my life fills the memories of those years past when, grace flowing into my being like the now pouring rain on parched soil, nurtured me from death to life.
I am a living witness how it pleases You to use the weak, the fool, the sinner to confound the strong, the wise, the ‘saint’.
I am a living witness to the infinite bounty of Your Mercy.
This very bread I eat, spring water I drink, is tangible evidence of Your Fatherly care who adorn us through Baptism with a beauty which causes even the lilies of the field to bow in awe before the wonders of Your love.
My heart is moved this night with profound contrition for all the wasted years when, gorged on my abuse of the inheritance You gave, I fled from You Father, in such unseemly haste, giving myself over to idolatry and other addictions because, as Adam before me, I listened to the prince of darkness, the liar.
How easily we Christians say, true as it is, that You so love us You give us Your Only-begotten Son.
How rarely do we stand still before the immensity of that truth, the reality that sin cost the life of Your Only-begotten Son.
That we cost Him His life.
O Christ God You are indeed my everything.
O Christ God You are indeed fullness of Mercy.
My whole being leans into Your embrace with love. [Sg. Of Sg. 1: 2,3]
Hours have passed and I am awakened in the deep of night, profoundly aware of souls across the earth moving about in the furtive darkness on their desperate errands, seeking what I once sought, wasting their inheritance as I once wasted mine.
It is a few weeks since I started to write more of this in the hermitage — but that was neither the time nor the place.
It was the time and place to pray for my brothers and sisters around the world that they might open wide the doors of their being to Him.
Now I sit here in my little basement rooms in this house of the aged and dying, having watched images from space, taken from the Hubble space telescope.
What most strikes my heart about those images from so many millions of miles away is the contrast of beauty in the midst of what appears to us as such blackness.
It is like looking into the mysterious vastness of a human heart!
It is summer, the time of heat, humidity, haze, and of a type of human restlessness which seems to take hold, particularly, of urban dwellers at this time of year.
I suspect the great allure of cottage country is the deep seated need in human beings of a simple life closely connected to, touched by, the earth.
If only souls felt a similar urgency to be touched by You!
My heart is moved to recall with gratitude my last summer in that other city where I too was restless, a restlessness which was indeed a grace.
The restlessness expressed itself interiorly as a basic question: what am I to do with my life?
This motivated me to speak with my spiritual father not only about those bitter rooted addictions and inner-vowed stances which spawned such anxiety throughout my life, but also about what was I called to do by God?
This led to my spending more time with The Community, when I was free from work, and a greater fidelity to daily Mass, prayer, frequent confession, to meditating upon the Holy Gospels.
That summer too I rediscovered in a profound manner, in large measure through my devotion to St. Sharbel, the gift and role of Our Blessed Mother in my life, a presence which would be dramatically confirmed through another of the important women in my life towards summer’s end.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, indeed I would only discover this some years later while doing research in the seminary library for an essay, Pope John Paul II had already stressed, in his first Holy Thursday letter to Priests in 1979, the importance of the role and presence of Mary in the life of a priest:
…..in the midst of the People of God, that looks to Mary with immense love and hope, you must look to her with exceptional love and hope. Indeed, you must proclaim Christ who is her Son; and who will better communicate to you the truth about Him than His Mother? [cp]
Within my being that summer a possibility was emerging, a dream being reawakened, and it confused me, for it seemed to the depths of my being a most radical and, frankly, unrealistic dream.
From my earliest conscious memory this dream, this desire, nay this passion, had always been there, even when I was most deeply in the dark ignorance of atheism and hedonism.
In fact, in the most improbable of circumstances and from the most unlikely of persons — such as clients in the street clinic where I had once been a counsellor — I was frequently asked: Are you a priest?
That was the never forgotten dream: to be a priest.
The desire was returning, the improbability, given my age, my background notwithstanding, there was deep in me a growing certainty that this was my vocation.
In the last few weeks of the summer I had some vacation time and spent it with The Community where I would have frequent conversations with my spiritual father, finally confiding my dream to him.
I’m not clear, in retrospect, exactly what I expected from him. Certainly not an outright refusal, probably a reply along the order of, in a few years, maybe.
Astonishingly he simply stated: “This may be closer than you realize!”
Barely an hour later one of those special women in my life came to me and told me the superior of the women wanted to see me before I returned to the city. So I met with the superior and she outright asked me: “What do you think of Our Blessed Mother?”
I don’t remember my reply other than I know for sure I would have expressed my renewed devotion to, and confidence, in Our Blessed Mother.
Later, as I was about to board the bus back to the city, my friend came up to me again and gave me a book, a gift from the superior: TO THE PRIESTS, OUR LADY’S BELOVED SONS.