Saturday, January 24, 2015

Setting your vocation in the context of devotion

St Francis de Sales spent his life in the midst of turmoil during the time of the Reformation, the 16th century religious, political, intellectual and cultural upheaval that splintered and divided families, friends, and nations like little before. Even today it is hard to get our minds around the bloody events of that time. During all of it Francis de Sales is known for his deep faith which allowed him to respond with a gently approach to the religious division that was tearing the fabric and security of those he served. He was sought out by many to be their spiritual director as he acknowledged that everyone comes to peace and devotion from different places. He also is known for his writing on the topic of spiritual direction and spiritual formation, particularly the classic, Introduction to the Devout Life.  The following is found the the beginning of this classic as well as in the Roman Breviary of the Office of Readings on January 24th, his feast day.

When God the Creator made all things, he commanded the plants to bring forth fruit each according to its own kind; he has likewise commanded Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each one in accord with his character, his station and his calling. 
I say that devotion must be practiced in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and by the married woman. But even this distinction is not sufficient; for the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular.
Tell me, please, my Philothea, whether it is proper for a bishop to want to lead a solitary life like a Carthusian; or for married people to be no more concerned than a Capuchin about increasing their income; or for a working man to spend his whole day in church like a religious; or on the other hand for a religious to be constantly exposed like a bishop to all the events and circumstances that bear on the needs of our neighbor. Is not this sort of devotion ridiculous, unorganized and intolerable? Yet this absurd error occurs very frequently, but in no way does true devotion, my Philothea, destroy anything at all. On the contrary, it perfects and fulfills all things. In fact if it ever works against, or is inimical to, anyone’s legitimate station and calling, then it is very definitely false devotion.
The bee collects honey from flowers in such a way as to do the least damage or destruction to them, and he leaves them whole, undamaged and fresh, just as he found them. True devotion does still better. Not only does it not injure any sort of calling or occupation, it even embellishes and enhances it.
Moreover, just as every sort of gem, cast in honey, becomes brighter and more sparkling, each according to its color, so each person becomes more acceptable and fitting in his own vocation when he sets his vocation in the context of devotion. Through devotion your family cares become more peaceful, mutual love between husband and wife becomes more sincere, the service we owe to the prince becomes more faithful, and our work, no matter what it is, becomes more pleasant and agreeable.
It is therefore an error and even a heresy to wish to exclude the exercise of devotion from military divisions, from the artisans’ shops, from the courts of princes, from family households. I acknowledge, my dear Philothea, that the type of devotion which is purely contemplative, monastic and religious can certainly not be exercised in these sorts of stations and occupations, but besides this threefold type of devotion, there are many others fit for perfecting those who live in a secular state.
Therefore, in whatever situations we happen to be, we can and we must aspire to the life of perfection.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Pondering Distance and Withdrawal - Nouwen & Girard

The Gospel reading today, January 14, 2015 included this verse from Mark 1. 

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.  – Mark 1:35

If you have visited this blog you know that I am a student of René Girard. The scope of mimetic theory and 'the scapegoat' encompasses about everything human: memory, language, ritual, violence, love, culture, person-hood, it is all there.


I have always had a special place in my soul for the words of Fr. Henri Nouwen.  Many years ago he wrote a meditation on the passage above, Mark 1:35.  It’s found in his book, Out of Solitude.

My inclination is when reading and a nugget-of-wisdom jumps out, I often, in my mind, connect it to another nugget-of-wisdom that had lodged in my brain sometime earlier.  By bringing these nuggets together and discerning I am often left with awe and gratitude for those who help open our minds to a revelation that there truly is something greater here... So I give you to ponder, first Nouwen's reflection on Mark 1:35 and then below is Girard's quote. How have you contemplated the many paradoxes in your life?

Henri Nouwen:

In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.”  In the middle of sentences loaded with action – healing suffering people, casting out devils, responding to impatient disciples, traveling from town to town and preaching from synagogue to synagogue – we find these quiet words:  “In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.”  In the center of breathless activities we hear a restful breathing.  Surrounded by hours of moving we find a moment of quiet stillness. 

In the heart of much involvement there are words of withdrawal. 

In the midst of action there is contemplation. And after much togetherness there is solitude.  The more I read this nearly silent sentence locked in between the loud words of action, the more I have the sense that the secret of Jesus’ ministry is hidden in that lonely place where he went to pray, early in the morning, long before the dawn.

In the lonely place Jesus finds the courage to follow God’s will and not his own; to speak God’s words and not his own; to do God’s work and not his own.  He reminds us constantly”  “I can do nothing by myself  . . . my aim is to do not my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (Jn 5:30).  And again, “The words I say to you I do not speak as from myself: it is the Father, living in me, who is doing this work” (Jn 14:10).  It is in the lonely place, where Jesus enters into intimacy with the Father, that his ministry is born.

I want to reflect on this lonely place in our lives.  Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our lives are in danger.  Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening, speaking no longer heals, that...

...without distance closeness cannot cure. 

Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our actions quickly become empty gestures.  The careful balance between silence and words, withdrawal and involvement, distance and closeness, solitude and community forms the basis of the Christian life and should therefore be the subject of our most personal attention.

Powerful reflection! I read this meditation many years ago and it still nourishes my soul. The paradox is part-and-parcel to the mystery. And now the quote from Battling to the End by René Girard:

... one can enter into relations with the divine only from a distance and through a mediator: Jesus Christ. This contains the whole paradox that we have to deal with...

The imitation of Christ provides the proximity that places us at a distance. It is not the Father whom we should imitate, but his Son, who has withdrawn with his Father. His absence is the very ordeal that we have to go through.  (pg 119-120)