December 7, 2012

Make Sure You're Right

On Saturday nights some of the friars here watch a movie on TV. Last Saturday it was Falling in Love (1984, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro). Not my kind of thing at all, but I sat through it because it's the sort of movie that's good for foreign language practice, with lots of scenes with just two characters and slow, predictable dialogue. To be honest, it made me feel a little homesick, structured as the story was around rides on the Metro-North Hudson Line. I know it well. When I was at the parish one of my standard day-off itineraries was to take the #2 bus to 242nd St., where I would take the subway into Manhattan. After the last stop of whatever it was I wanted to do, which was often a pilgrimage to the altar of St. Thérèse at St. Patrick's Cathedral, asking her prayers that I might learn how to be a good religious, I would go to Grand Central and take the Hudson Line back to Yonkers Station, where I would catch the #6 bus back up to the neighborhood of the parish.

Well, the images must have stuck in my heart because last night during meditation another Metro-North memory came into my prayer. It was an evening in the winter of 1994, and I was traveling from New York on the New Haven Line. Of course the New Haven Line is also dear to me as the context of many adventures over various stages of my life. I don't remember if I was going home to New Haven or on my way all the way back to school in New London. I was a senior in college at the time. It had been my third meeting with the vocation ministry of the OFM. My first meeting was with a kind of regional vocation director in Hartford, but there wasn't much to it; I think it was just a screening thing. For my second meeting I had gone up from New London to Arch St. in Boston to meet with the real vocation director, an old gent of a priest who was retired from military chaplaincy. But this meeting had been a little odd too; mostly he just expressed his relief that I didn't present as overly strange and then catalogued some of the curious characters he had met in his current ministry. But my third meeting was wonderful. I went down to St. Francis of Assisi on 31st St. and met with the assistant vocation director, who struck me was a wise and spiritual man. (I was fortunate to have him assigned to me as a spiritual director when I was a postulant.) We talked, I prayed, I worked the famous bread line in the terrible cold of the early morning. Returning from this visit on the train I prayed from my Shorter Christian Prayer and read from Julien Green's God's Fool: The Life of Francis of Assisi, which Father had given me. I was so happy, so full of dreams and excitement for the Franciscan life, so fervent. In some ways, I feel like I was a better religious then than I am now; more prayerful, more detached, more poor, chaste, and obedient.

Eighteen years and many twists and turns later, have I lost something?

It's a hazardous thought.

I say that because the reflections and discernment that follow on the thought are very delicate and not so easy.

On the one hand, you can't go back. First fervor goes away and you have to let go of it. The flesh longs for the interior consolations and lush experiences one has at the beginning of the journey because it doesn't understand that God gives these only to get the soul to the point where he may offer her the real nourishment of the broken and forsaken Body of Christ crucified in the 'uninteresting wilderness' of quiet prayer. Certain forms of feeling energetic go away too, until you only have your weakness to offer to God. Finally, you get to the point where you even feel sacrilegious asking for the graces you need because you know you won't accept them anyway, and this is the true sorrow of compunction. And in the midst of these sorts of trials it's easy to want to go back to a place where everything felt fresh and exciting and the heart delighted in every pious sentiment. You can try it, but after a while you will feel even more sick and empty, and you will know that you are trying hard to lie to yourself. And this knowledge is the mercy of God resting in your heart.

On the other hand, though, there are genuinely valuable things that get lost, compromises with the world and with sin that get made, interior fatigues that creep in and harden the heart. There are forms of doublethink one learns in religious life, such that you don't even think any longer about things that were totally confusing when you first encountered them in your innocence. But you never get away from them, because God in his mercy puts them back in your face each time somebody totally new comes around and asks a question. For example, as goes the famous line of one candidate for the Order, now a successful public official, "If this is what you guys call poverty, I'd hate to have to see chastity." Over time one also realizes that there are subtle vainglories, gluttonies, idolatries, and unchastities of the spirit that the flesh is just as happy to have in the place of the more gross and obvious forms of sin. Indeed the devil is happier for you to indulge these latter, because it helps him make you into the sort of person that is a counter-sign of God's Kingdom and the sort of character that makes religion odious to humanity.

1 comment:

Judy Kallmeyer said...

Remember that He said, "I will not leave you or forsake you." And it reads the same way backwards: "You forsake or you leave I will not."