Our Lord loves you and loves you tenderly; and if He does not let you feel the sweetness of His love, it is to make you more humble in your own eyes.”
–St. Pio of Pietrelcino
I happened on this quote today and it set me thinking about a remarkable conversation I had with an elder priest this summer about his long work with retreats. This priest has led literally thousands of retreats around the world over nearly 50 years, including retreats to the homeless, troubled teens, prisoners, engaged and married couples, priests, nuns, and addicts of every sort. As we talked about his countless experiences over the years — some eye-popping ones! — he noted that among retreatants there were two constants that crossed all cultural, ethnic, language and national boundaries. I will attempt to summarize, in the first person, his two points here:
1. I believe the hardest core-belief in the Christian faith for each individual Christian to receive and believe is that God loves them. It sounds so simple, but it is absolutely true. If I had to identify what is the recurring revolutionary moment for people in retreat experiences, it’s when they feel, taste, receive God’s infinite, particular, personal and unique love for them; or as I like to say it, our life is upturned when we embrace the truth St. Augustine summarized so succinctly: “God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love.” Imagine that! Creator of the billions of galaxies. Also, I find that it’s only when they really taste divine love for themselves, in their own specific way, that they are moved to “heartily” repent for their loveless sins and not just avoid guilt-producing legal infractions; and more, they find a new desire kindled to “run in the way of God’s commandments.” The revelation of God’s love comes to us in all forms, some dramatic, some subtle, and often in very unexpected ways. One man I remember in Korea, who had suffered much in the war, was looking at a tiny flower growing out of a sidewalk crack in an out-of-the-way place, and suddenly he fell to the ground as he sensed God’s immense concern for tiny details; and all at once his whole life, especially the shadows, showed itself to be under God’s loving gaze. For others who were walking by, that itty flower is forgettable, but for this man it was the sign that God has never forgotten him. There’s a line in Pope Benedict’s Inaugural Mass that captures this sense well:
…only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.
2. Thoreau says it well when he remarks, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and what is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” The beauty of retreats is that they allow people of faith the time and a safe place to open their desperation to God and allow Him to transform their confirmed resignation into firm hope. These people for so many years seek every imaginable solution to their pain and loneliness, to the void of meaning, and try to seize control of life with a white-knuckled grip kept safely away from God. They’ve never prayed from the heart, been vulnerable to God in prayer. And many of these folks have been “religious” for years, though the problem is they used their religion to perpetuate their need to control, to hold on, and really they know deep down inside they don’t really trust God will handle things. That’s what’s insidious here, that they use all the right language to cover the truth up, using the things of God to protect them from God! It’s sad to see. But…for me…there’s nothing more beautiful than watching them open their tightly bound fists to God’s healing light, to be vulnerable to God, to encounter a God who’s not safely locked away in the distractions of His celestial business, but is absolutely interested in our pain, is with us in the trenches, co-suffering with us in Jesus so that He might save us. And how dangerous to control-freaks a saving God is! Those who give God the opportunity will discover that “God saves” is not hollow religious-slang, but a phrase that describes the most unimaginably wonderful divine work of love that is wholly dedicated to our well-being. In fact, it is the Name of God-made-flesh, Jesus Christ, who carries our burdens.
These words, as I wrote them, drew me to pray John Henry Newman’s stirring prayer, Lead Kindly Light, the text of which, along with a lovely youtube sung version, I will leave you with:
“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.”