April 21, 2018

Gaudete et exsultate: The Real History of the World

Pope Francis exhorts us, with the help of Edith Stein:
Let us be spurred on by the signs of holiness that the Lord shows us through the humblest members of that people which “shares also in Christ’s prophetic office, spreading abroad a living witness to him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity”. We should consider the fact that, as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross suggests, real history is made by so many of them. As she writes: “The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. But for the most part, the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible. Certainly the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed” (8)
This reminded me of something from Thomas Merton:
I wonder if there are twenty men alive in the world now who see things as they really are. That would mean that there were twenty men who were free, who were not dominated or even influenced by any attachment to any created thing or to their own selves or to any gift of God, even to the highest, the most supernaturally pure of His graces. I don't believe that there are twenty such men alive in the world. But there must be one or two. They are the ones who are holding everything together and keeping the universe from falling apart. (from "Detachment" in New Seeds of Contemplation)
One of the gifts of priesthood for me has been the opportunity to meet, usually in confession, some of these hidden saints. It is they, not the robbers writ large that one sees each day in the news, who are the protagonists of the true history of the world, which is the creation's pilgrimage toward full transfiguration in the Risen Christ.

This is one of the reasons why a priest needs to be reading the saints, because he will have to hear the confessions of Christians who are more advanced than he is in the spiritual journey, and therefore he won't be able to give counsel from his own experience. Rather, he will have to find appropriate counsel based on what he has learned about the spiritual life from his reading, even if he has not yet experienced these things himself.

Of course it doesn't make sense to point this out to a penitent as it would introduce an unhelpful focus on the person of the confessor. In any case the Holy Spirit often protects souls from a knowledge of their own holiness, and so pointing out the advanced state of a penitent's spiritual life would only make for confusion and other distractions.

Indeed, this way in which God hides the knowledge of holiness from someone is an expression of divine mercy, since such knowledge would bring with it other temptations and trials. The disciples on the road to Emmaus were kept from recognizing the Lord until the moment at which it served the Holy Spirit's purpose and the grace God willed for them. And the process is no different for other souls.

Sometimes I think it's also a little like when I took the GRE. When I was a Capuchin novice in good old Mt. Calvary, Wisconsin, I was asked to take the GRE as part of my application to Weston Jesuit School of Theology, of happy memory. So one very cold Saturday morning, I got up early and drove up to Oshkosh for this purpose. Now being a person who is getting older, I had never taken a standardized test on a computer before, and I didn't know that it was presenting questions based on how I had done with the previous ones. So at the end I felt as if I had struggled very much through the whole test and done poorly. But as it turned out, I was struggling at a level that was acceptable. I think the consciousness of our hidden saints is like that. They experience struggle and so don't imagine that they are particularly holy. But the truth is that they are struggling at a high level of holiness, just like I was failing at the GRE questions at a level that was adequate, apparently, for my application.

A mindfulness that the world is populated with these hidden saints, about whose presence Pope Francis reminds us, can support us in our own struggle for charity. The person next to us in chapel, or in our building or neighborhood or on the bus, or in front of us in line for something, might be one of these hidden saints, one of those who is "keeping the universe from falling apart." So when I experience the person as annoying, which happens because I, with my own sins and inattention to the spiritual life, have cultivated for myself a lack of patience and charity, I can try to remember that the affliction I am experiencing is not the truth and, if the person is indeed one of those hidden saints, might be the furthest thing from reality.

Therefore, since I can't know who might be one of those hidden saints who are living and guiding the true history of the world, it only makes sense to receive and hold everyone I encounter with the same reverence I would give to anything that is holy.

1 comment:

Louis M said...