Sunday, January 7, 2018

Wherever God leads me...

Here's a video of my last Rector's Conference, delivered at the start of our January Retreat.


Lord Jesus, gentle Shepherd,
you are the way, the truth and the life.

Lead me, guide me 
and give me the grace 
to follow the path you have chosen for me.
Help me to trust 
in your presence and your strength,
my Lord and my God,
for ever and ever. Amen.

Five years ago, our beloved Pope emeritus spoke of Christmas as the season of “the luminous mystery of the coming of the Son of God, the great "Benevolent Plan" with which he wants to draw us to Himself, to help us live in full communion of joy and peace with Him…” by which he “invites us once again, in the midst of many difficulties, to renew our awareness that God is present: He came into the world, becoming a man like us, to bring His plan of love to fullness. And God demands that we become a sign of his action in the world. Through our faith, our hope, our love, He wants to enter the world again and again He wants to shine His light in our night.”

The Nativity of the Son of God, then, reminds us that God has called us to his particular plan for our lives, to “letting go, surrendering to the ocean of God's goodness.”

And how do we discern God’s will for us? By praying “that the Lord gives me the desire to do his will……And when I know God’s will, praying again…to follow it. To carry out that will, which is not my own, it is His will. And all this is not easy.”

And it was not easy for any one of these men, none of them having any idea of what God had in store for them, but each of them called to be obedient to God’s will.

As they were, so you are. And what does God have in store for you? Is it power and glory, authority and respectability? Or is it suffering and sacrifice, the jeer of the angry crowd and the unfair press? Is it comfort or deprivation? Fame or ignominy? Who knows?

But I’ll bet you have come to suspect at times, that following somebody who was stripped, beaten and crucified is not necessarily the most secure path to power and respectability. Especially when he looks down from across the screaming crown and tells you to love others in the same way he has loved you.

It’s what the two Saints we celebrated right after Christmas went through.

Two Christmas Saints
I think of the protomartyr Stephen, good Deacon that he was, fearlessly preaching Christ Jesus in the synagogues, before he was falsely accused of blasphemy and condemned to death.

The last thing this young deacon would have expected was a crowd of his co-religionists, unable to control their anger, dragging him outside the city and trying to hit him in the face with rocks.

Imagine what that would be like, to be unjustly accused of heresy, dragged outside the house and killed as great big stones cracked your bones. And the last thing you hear is your fellow believers damning you to hell. It would be surprising at least.

Just as surprising as what came of our patron, the Apostle and Evangelist, John. Here is the beloved disciple, who as a young man fell asleep on the Lord’s shoulder at the Last Supper, stood with Mary at the foot of the Cross and afterwards took her into his care. He was the first Apostle to reach the empty tomb and the author of the fourth Gospel. After the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin went to Ephesus where he wrote three epistles.

Tertullian tells us that the Romans persecuted John fiercely for the rest of his life. Domitian tried to kill him by poisoning a chalice of wine, but the poison was so frightened of him that it crawled out of the chalice in the form of a snake.

Then the Emperor tried boiling him in oil, but again, our patron emerged unscathed. Having survived that, the old man was exiled to the little Island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation and died an old man in exile.

He didn’t exactly expect what God had in store for him. He was as surprised as Vincent and Jeanne would be a millenium later.

Saint Vincent de Paul
Vincent was born by the River Paul, which is perhaps where his family name came from. At the age of fifteen his father sent him to seminary and was ordained four years later. He expected an uneventful life of scholarship and pastoral ministry as a respected member of seventeenth century French society. He had no idea that God had something else in mind.

On his fifth anniversary of ordination, returning from inspecting an estate he had inherited from a rich relative,

he was captured by pirates and sold as a slave. Over the next two years he was sold to a fisherman (which didn’t work out so well because he got sea-sick), a physician (who died) and an ex-priest with three wives who had converted to Islam. Vincent re-converted him (they were in Istanbul at this point) and returned with him to France, where he was freed and found that he had been entirely changed by his enslavement. He now heard God calling him to a radically mission to the poor…the ones every else would forget.

His enslavement had taught him what was truly important he wrote:

“It is not enough to give soup and bread to the poor. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good-humored. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting master you will see. And the uglier and the dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.”

And this: “Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.”

It’s still a long story from there, but let it suffice to say that if God had not led him into slavery half-way across the world, he would have probably ended up as just one more aristocratic French clergyman of the seventeenth century whom no one would ever hear about again.

But God had something else in mind. He needed to make Vincent little so that he could do great things through him, so he could love the ones whom everyone else had forgotten and teach the Church to do the same.

God wrote straight with this crooked-line named Vincent, just as he does with us.

Saint Jeanne Jugan
And then to the time of the French Revolution and Jeanne Jugan, whose father died when she was four. Her mother struggled to feed the six children and to secretly provide them with a Catholic formation. So little Jeanne learned from a young age to herd sheep, sew and spin wool. She could barely read and write.

Jeanne eventually went to work as a kitchen maid and a nurse, until she met the elderly Françoise Aubert and the teenage orphan Virginie Tredaniel and the three of them rented a house and formed a Catholic household of prayer, teaching and care for the poor.

Then she met Anne Chauvin, a blind woman with no on to care for her. She brought her home, put her in her own bed, and went to sleep in the attic. That was only the beginning. Within two years she had packed the house with a dozen elderly people for whom she and her companions would care, day and night. Next they rented a nearby cottage and before you knew it there were forty. Then, thanks to Jeanne’s begging in the streets, the Little Sister of the Poor opened three more houses, and more than one hundred women joined her new order.

But then things changed. The Bishop appointed Father Auguste Le Pailleur to supervise the work of this new order. Father Pailleur, a man of some ambition, removed Jeanne from authority and ordered her to do nothing but beg for money on the street. Twenty-seven years later few acknowledged the old blind lady who lived in a room on the third floor as the foundress, as Pailleur concocted a story about how the whole enterprise was his idea in the first place.

Jeanne was honest with the ambitious priest who had been chosen as her superior "You have stolen my work from me,” she wrote to him early on, “but I willingly relinquish it to you.” When novices would ask her if she was really the founder, she would reply, “They will teach you all about our Congregation in your classes, Dear.” And in her diary she wrote: ”In our joys, in our troubles, in the contempt that others show us, we must always say, ‘Thank you, my God,' or ‘Glory to God' "?

Jeanne died at the age of 86, not as an adored and glorious founder, but as the sweet old nun who seemed happy with whatever God would choose for her fate.

Now imagine Jeanne when she first left home to work as a Kitchen maid. Imagine her when she took in Madame Chauvin. Imagine her when the Congregation thrived and imagine her at 86. God chose the road. She just agreed to walk it, willingly and with joy.

Young Stephan, the Hellenic Deacon, never thought he would be the first martyr and John did not plan to be boiled and die in exile. Vincent did not set out to be a willing slave to the poor, nor did Jeanne think she would start a great religious work which perdures in Somerville and Enfield and Latham to this day. But God had something else in mind.

And each one of these men and women died a happy death. Knowing that they had simply done what God had asked them: picked up the crosses he sent them and got on with it. Giving all to God in an act of love, in imitation of the perfect sacrifice of him who did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but who took the form of the slave, being born in the likeness of a little child, and who offered the perfect kenotic sacrifice upon the altar of the cross. And what does this God have in store for each of you? Fame or ignominy? Admiration or infamy? Success or abject failure? In the end, it really doesn’t matter, does it?

All that matters is that we obediently follow the way he has set out for us, expecting only that his love and his grace will get us through. For we are not made for ourselves, but for him who first breathed life into these bodies and who teaches us how to live and to love in his name. We know not where the road leads. All we have to do is follow it. Just like these three:

Thank you.