Slowly

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There are times when the burden of need and our own limitations might tempt us to become discouraged. But precisely then we are helped by the knowledge that, in the end, we are only instruments in the Lord’s hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength. To do all we can with what strength we have, however, is the task which keeps the good servant of Jesus Christ always at work. — Pope Benedict XVI

More conversation with the monk. I asked for advice on various topics and he gave it. We meandered around in the several times we met. I felt so blessed to be able to learn from him. Here are some fragments I meditatively wrote down later (which means I took his insights and expressed them in my own language).

Remember, Jesus always said ‘yes’ to the Father but He knew how to say ‘no’ to people’s demands. He received endless requests, but He was focused on His limited mission from the Father. Everything had to serve the mission. Walk around a tiny, backwater outpost of the Roman empire for 3 years, choose and entrust your whole work to 12 confused companions, visit villages to teach and work miracles, end up brutally executed. You have to determine your limits in achieving your mission and submit to them. Those who transgress their limits rarely stay long in a position. They skip around, starting new projects while previous ones fall into disrepair or vanish. They get exhausted, frustrated, bitter, angry, resentful and blame. And their’s blame to go around. But they refused to say ‘no’ so they pay the price.

In monastic life we take a vow of stability because we know it’s easy to get the “itch” to move on when things get tough. But we are very careful to make sure we don’t break our limits. We work hard, but the work is reasonable. Work is paced, not frantic. We move slowly but intently and consistently. When the bells ring for prayer, we stop what we are doing and pray. I know from the people who come here who are in ministry, who come to recover from burnout, that often it’s from the absurd responsibilities put on them — that they say ‘yes’ to — that cannot be sustained. Sometimes in the monastic literature this is called dissipation — the over-extension of ourselves into too many things, leaving us weary, unfocused, confused and subject to many temptations.

Even Jesus, being God in the flesh, was limited by His self-emptying in becoming man and could only accomplish limited good in His earthly life. How many sick, possessed, desperate, dying people longed for His touch? He knew that if He did well what He was sent to do, in the hands of the Father it would accomplish limitless good. The resurrection didn’t leave behind all of His life’s words and deeds, but filled them with immortality so that we can access them now sacramentally. It’s why St. Ignatius says that when we enter into a Gospel scene with prayerful imagination, we can experience the same grace those in the Gospel stories did. Jesus forgave the sinful woman, delivered the possessed man once, healed the hemorrhaging woman. But what He did for them He did, in God’s eternity, for all like them.

For Ignatius, the Gospel stories aren’t just nice memoirs that make us aware of how amazing Jesus was. Those stories, as God’s inspired Word, are themselves sacramental, are portals that grant us access to the same grace and encounter with Jesus. It’s quite amazing that the Catechism [1116] makes this connection by linking the story of Jesus’ healing the hemorrhaging woman to the seven sacraments: “Sacraments are ‘powers that come forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving.” This is no mere metaphor, but in a sense in the sacraments we, when we join that woman’s act of bold faith in Jesus, participate in that out-flowing of divine power she drew out of Him by touching the hem of His garment with faith.

But which of the people in the Gospel who encountered Jesus had any idea that their life in that moment was to become a point of access to God for all future (and past!) generations? Their limited, insignificant, nondescript lives God has used as living descriptions of His power to save in every age, giving their lives unlimited significance. Peter, the woman at the well, the Centurion, the Gerasene demoniac, the Syro-Phoenician woman. Or even Abraham, David, Moses, Bathsheba. All of them become permanent fixtures of grace in God’s masterful economy.

The even bigger point to me is this is also really the case with each of us. We call it the “communion of saints.” Our lives, everything we endure and achieve through our faith in Jesus has enduring significance far far beyond our tiny lives. It’s why saints become “patron saints” as some real event or personal characteristic of their lives has made of them a portal of divine grace for the rest of humanity. Each of us, if we are who God made us to be, opens a fresh spring of living water into the world that others can drink from. It’s why becoming a saint is the most effective form of ministry possible, as only saints can water the world with the divine Spirit. St. Therese demonstrates this so well, you don’t have to live long or achieve visibly impressive things to flood the world with God. Just learn to love God and neighbor well — peacefully not frantically — in your tiny place and leave the rest to Him.

It’s much easier to sleep at night that way.

8 comments on “Slowly

  1. Jennifer says:

    I am trying to soak in these incredible insights from your dear monk though it’s kinda like trying to drink from a fire hose. Of everything you’ve relayed, this especially stood out:
    “But which of the people in the Gospel who encountered Jesus had any idea that their life in that moment was to become a point of access to God for all future (and past!) generations?”
    Amazing, humbling, incredible insight! How great the Father’s love for us, individually and collectively – shaping us in His love and then using us to shape that love in one another. What a beautiful plan He has!
    I am re-reading my most favourite book, “The Reed of God”, and this resonates so much with her simple, humble thesis that we share in the vocation, each in our unique but mostly ordinary way, of birthing Christ into the world. I’m finding myself repeatedly astounded at just how marvellous (and even then I don’t know the itsy-est smidgen of how marvellous it truly is) this lively, fiery tapestry of the communion of saints quietly, simply, obediently sowing the seeds of the kingdom in the most ordinary, non-descript of places for His glory and for the love of souls. What a profound, humbling joy to witness this and to be called to do likewise. Lord, give me the grace!
    Thank you so much, Tom, for meditating, digesting, and sowing anew these words of a very wise man here for us.
    God love you!

  2. Abigail A says:

    Do you know the artist/title of this painting?

  3. Chandra says:

    Thank you, Tom! As practically every one of your posts does, this struck a deep chord for me. I needed to hear these words, and I need even more to take them to heart! You have reminded me of a favorite phrase I learned in Italian and which I carried with me for a long time after I spent a summer there: “piano, piano…” which, although it can be translated, “slowly, slowly” or “gently, gently” both sounds and, I believe, actually IS somehow richer than that sounds in English. The frantic quality to which dissipation so easily leads has something of an almost violent edge to it (at least the way it often gets expressed in my life) — an edge that needs to be met and melted by the gentle/peaceful slowness and compassion your words and that lovely Italian expression invokes. Softly, maybe is a better translation than either slowly or gently. Definitely a fitting adjective for St. Therese’s little way. I love the quote from Pope Benedict XVI, as well. And I think I will, indeed, sleep better tonight on account of having read this. Thank you!

    • Chandra — Thank you for this beautiful and meaningful response. Piano! I will not think of that word the same again now. I must say, if I can help you sleep better in this way, my work is successful. May it be so! Tom

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