I put the picture up here above my desk. I had been thinking of putting a crucifix there, to help me remember to work hard at my current obedience and unite its trials to the Lord's Sacrifice, but this picture of the extra mile is just as good. Of course it reminds me to pray for the little girl and her family, in thanksgiving for their devotion and good example, and to remember the basic goodness of children, but I think that God is also inviting me to reflect on the hard teaching of this gospel.
I remember going to one of my very first meetings with a formation director in a very agitated state. I had only been in religious life for a few days, but I had already seen a lot that had confused and scandalized me. The director gave me some saving advice: in each case I should ask myself what the Holy Spirit had asked me to look after, and leave the rest to God. If some aspects of religious life did not seem very religious, or even appeared irreligious, I should remember that the Holy Spirit had not asked me to be a superior or a spiritual director, and that only my own soul and my own religious life was my worry. I need not be scandalized by anybody's behavior, because it wasn't my concern.
This bracketing strategy saved my vocation, and enabled me to finish religious formation (on the second try) to become a perpetually professed friar and ordained priest. But many times strategies and behaviors that we learn in order to survive at one moment of life become maladaptive later on. I'm wondering if this is what God is telling me through the little girl's picture of the extra mile. I am grown-up religious now. I am a priest. Perhaps it's no longer enough to limit my attention to a narrowly defined set of concerns in my own personal obedience, to what, specifically and formally, the Holy Spirit has asked me to look after. Thank God that I have not (yet) been asked to be a superior or a pastor, but I do have a certain voice, a certain obligation to give good example in a way that I have not had before. Perhaps it's time to let go of interior bracketings and boundaries that help me to preserve my recollection and protect me from being scandalized, dismayed, or having to fight about things all the time. Perhaps I should look at my letter of obedience and ask myself what the 'extra mile' might be.
It edges into another reflection I've been having lately. I'm aware that statistically, I'm at a moment in my vocation when many guys leave. It's a well known phenomenon, and has been well-researched. I never understood how religious or priests could leave just a few years after final profession or ordination, but now that I find myself in that moment in my own life, I think that maybe I understand. Or at least I understand what would be the nature of that temptation for me. I'm not thinking of leaving, or, perhaps better, my temptations in this regard aren't relatively fierce for me at this moment. But maybe now I get it.
In religious formation and study for priesthood there are a ton of trials. They aren't the trials you had imagined for yourself, and nor are they the ones you would choose. But there is also a lot of reinforcement, and there is an increasing freedom and facility with the life as you move on. There are ceremonies that mark every little movement and achievement. Sure, you get up there and announce in your vows that you are renouncing this and that, and giving yourself over to God in this or that way, but there can still be some ego in it. I make this big, counter-cultural, glamorous decision to enter religious life. There are vows of renunciation and the ordinations of service, but they are still my vows and my ordinations. They are things that I do on some level.
Two or three years after all that, as all of the being made much of and the big days of ceremony and celebration fade into the past, a new challenge to self-renunciation begins to come into focus. God continues to invite me into a deeper renunciation of self, but now without the natural and supernatural encouragements that went with the initial training and initiation into this life. The experience reminds me of another gospel passage, Jesus speaking to Peter in John 21:18-19:
"Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, "Follow me."
Being in my second assignment out of formation feels something like that. The challenge is to remember that the invitation to the deeper renunciation of self is an invitation to glorify God through such a death.