August 24, 2013

Perfect Faith, Imperfect Understanding

Some of this post I already wrote about four years ago. I apologize in advance.

A couple of things have come together in my reflection today: Jesus' encounter with Nathanael (John 1: 45-51), which we have as the gospel for the feast of St. Bartholomew today, and an outing I took with one of the friars yesterday.

After Mass yesterday morning, one of the newly professed friars came to my room and asked me if I had any plans for the day. I said that I was gloriously unscheduled. He suggested that we take a little trip to introduce him to St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, which he had wanted to visit. I was happy to go; I've always loved the place and besides, I wanted to pick up one of their wonderful amices.

Visiting the place and introducing it to my confrere reminded me of my first trip there back in the fall of 1995 when I was a novice with the OFM...a little field trip we were taken on, "to see what we're not," the novice master said. But I was also reminded in a strong way--such that I immediately suspected an inspiration--of my first real retreat at Spencer in the winter of 1999. That was the time when I was starting to think about vocation again. More specifically, I was thinking about priesthood. A permanent deacon I ran into on that retreat invited me to think about priesthood. He was echoing an old friend and also the sister who was in charge of the liturgical ministers at St. Lawrence in West Haven, Connecticut, which was my parish at the time. Thinking that such a 'cloud of witnesses' inviting me to think about priesthood was probably an invitation from God, I made an appointment with the vocation director of the Archdiocese of Hartford. Maybe this was it, I thought; my try at religious life not having worked out, maybe the real call was to the diocesan priesthood.

My interview went very poorly, much to my surprise. I thought myself a very fine candidate: still relatively young (26), active in my parish (lector, religious ed. teacher), and with a B.A. in philosophy already done. But the vocation director saw the truth: I hadn't really thought much about priesthood, and nor did I have much sense of what it was or what it meant. I surely knew that I had a desire for my prayer and for a more intense following of Jesus Christ, but it was vague. When the vocation director remarked that I hadn't said anything about 'uniting myself to the sacrifice of Christ' or about the Eucharist, I didn't even understand his objection.

In trying to pray through what the glorious failure of this interview meant for me, I picked up the writings of St. Francis and realized that I had second guessed myself too far; what I really wanted was to be a Franciscan after all.

This interests me years later because, having consented to the advice of my directors in letting myself become a candidate for Holy Orders as a friar, I have found enough sense and redemption in the priesthood to believe that God had willed it for me all along. I now see that God working the grace of priesthood in those days and before. But I didn't know it. Was I confused or wrong when I couldn't articulate my vocation in that interview? No. I was just ignorant--ignorant of the Catholic faith in some ways, but even more I was ignorant of much of what grace was up to with me. But my desire and my faith were in the right place, and probably my understanding was where God meant it to be, in order to guide me along the path that he knew was right both for my own salvation and for the best way to make the graces he has worked in me available for his Kingdom.

I was thinking about this in light of today's gospel for the feast of St. Bartholomew (John 1:45-51):
Philip found Nathanael and told him,
“We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law,
and also the prophets, Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth.”
But Nathanael said to him,
“Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him,
“Here is a true child of Israel.
There is no duplicity in him.”
Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”
Nathanael answered him,
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“Do you believe
because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?
You will see greater things than this.”
And he said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you,
you will see heaven opened and the angels of God
ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
I think it's a great encouragement for us to see Nathanael making a perfect confession of faith, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel" with only the very partial understanding of Jesus Christ revealed by his ability to see him under the fig tree. It means that an understanding that is partial, or even shallow, does not stand in the way of making a perfect confession of faith in Jesus Christ. So let us profess our faith boldly, knowing that our confession does not depend on our understanding, and that we too will receive the kind promise of Jesus that we "will see greater things" that what we might grasp at any particular moment in the journey.

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