Reading Philippians Chapter 3 v 6-14
“Because of Christ I have come to consider all these advantages that I had as disadvantages. Not only that but I believe nothing can happen that will out- weigh the supreme advantage of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. For Him I have accepted the loss of everything and I look on everything as so much rubbish if I only have Christ and be given a place in Him.”
St Paul here is telling us of the tremendous difference that came into his life when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Acts 9.
Paul was a Pharisee, he hated the church, he assisted at the death of St Steven and he persecuted the Christians as far as Damascus. On the road he met Jesus. He spent some years in the desert coming to know Christ and His story. Then he return to Jerusalem to meet some of the Apostles and checked out the history and meaning of Jesus.
Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus was that Jesus is risen from the dead, He is the Messiah, He lives in the Christian Community now and today. And when he, Paul was persecuting the community he was persecuting Jesus Himself. Jesus lives in His Church and in the heart of the believing disciple. He lives within us. Paul had discovered the risen Jesus. He had discovered where Jesus was and made friends with him. Now his whole life is dominated by that relationship and love for Jesus.
During a retreat a person like Paul invites us not only to know about Jesus or even understand Him but also to feel within ourselves the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
St Bernadine of Siena was a great preacher in the 15th century. He tells this story. If you came to a town and entered the central square of the town and found there a lot of excited people. You notice that a young man had just been hanged by the police that morning. Many people were standing around, looking at the dead body hanging limp on a gibbet. You would make enquiries and you will be told that this young man robbed people and he had badly beaten someone. He was caught by the police, sentenced to death and was now dead. You may ask who is he? And you might discover that he is from a distant city. You do not know him but you know his story. You look at the sad scene and then you move on about your business. You know about what happened.
But Bernadine invites us start again. You find the same scene, a young man hanging in a middle of the town square, people around laughing and talking, children playing games beneath his dead body. You enquire and you are told how he has robbed and beaten someone, he is now executed by the police and after enquiring you discover that this is a man from your own village. You know his family, you knew some of his brothers and sisters perhaps. Now you will remain longer time standing and looking because you know something about this man. Now you not only know but you understand.
St Bernadine takes us back again to the square to find a young man executed. It is the same story. You ask who it is and you are told; Don’t you see, approach and look– he is your brother, your father or your son. Now you will feel within yourself the terrible disgrace and suffering of the poor young man who had been executed.
St Bernadine said that there are differences in knowing. He said most people know things about Christ, some people then understand something about Christ and just a few people, saints, feel something for Christ, they know him deeply in their hearts.
The aim of this retreat is for us to move from knowing to understanding and even to feeling with Paul the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
Faith is a new way of feeling and understanding, a new way of hearing the word of God and the presence of God in life. Imagine a young boy who wa born deaf, a child of a large family. He is an intelligent bright boy but he cannot hear. So he learns many things by watching his brothers and sisters in their normal lives. When he is twenty years of age his brothers take him to a disco or a dance. Here for the first time he receives a great surprise. At a particular moment many young people who have been sitting around suddenly start jumping up and down, he sees him dancing. After a while he is invited to join in. He cannot hear the music but he imitates them and so he dances but he is out of step. When the music stops he continues dancing because he cannot hear the music. In a sense faith is hearing, its hearing the music of God’s call. Many people will not understand our way of life because they are not hearing the same tune that we hear. The tune we hear is that which Paul heard, the tune of experiencing the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
We too because of our busy priestly life can fail to hear the tune. The tune is crowded out. There is so much noise in our world, there is a lot of resentment in our hearts. We are very angry people deep down. We worry about health and finance, our parish responsibility. We have plans for amusements and comfort. We have to think about our families and those who come to our door. On retreat we leave behind some of our anxiety and once again hear the tune.
For Paul the religion of his time all was dominated by the law. Are we dominated by the law? Paul experienced the beauty of Christ. He saw the love, the charity and the goodness of the early Christian community which prayed, which read the Word of God, which went to the Temple, which cared for the poor and needy, which shared the breaking of the bread/the Mass. He touched the beauty and radience that Christ makes when He enters into a community. Acts 2 v42.
Paul encountered first-hand the courage of the early church. There is zeal for the things of God. He witnessed the martyrdom of St Steven. Paul was filled with a peace within himself what he describes as, “The eye had not seen or the ear had not heard what God has prepared for those who love Him”. Paul speaks of being lifted up as if he went to heaven and having revealed to him the mysteries of eternal life.
And all this happened to Paul not by his own efforts but by the grace of Jesus Christ. Paul has been saved by Jesus Christ.
We too are saved by Jesus, but do we allow him to embrace us with his salvation. Paul was not only saved, however, but he was also spent. People save money but we also spend money. So with our faith in the grace of God we are saved by it but we also need to spend it. Paul had seen beyond death. And so he spent himself listening to and inspired by the tune of the love of God.
Paul belonged to Christ. I came to South Africa in January 1971, four years later I went on my first holiday to Ireland. In the meantime my brother’s third child was born. This child was three years of age when I saw him for the first time. This was a fine healthy, good looking child but he was very autistic. He refused to enter to any relationships with people or to recognize their presence with any sensitivity or feeling. My brother arranged to have the child taken in by the Sisters of Charity, a congregation to which my sister belongs. Here the child was cared for.
When I arrived in Ireland my brother took me to see his child. I went to the door of a large hall and inside on the carpet were some 40 children playing and sleeping and fighting and doing all things that children do. As I looked at them I did not know which child was our child, and I said to myself, “They all look the same to me”.
Then my brother entered and he walked across the hall and picked up his little son and brought him to me and placed him into my arms. I felt a tremendous transformation in my own heart. I had said they all look the same to me but now this child was totally different to every other child. Why? Because this was our child, this was my nephew, this was our little son. He belonged to me. I felt a great empathy, a great pity as I held him because I knew that he would not be able to live a normal life, I knew he would not share the family’s life like a normal child, we would always stand around and make plans for him. He would always be a little child and never an adult person.
What I wish to say is that the transformation that took place in me was the movement from my head to my heart. In my heart this child belonged to me. I knew, understood and felt this love and belonging.
God is belonging. This is a very important word. We must use this word in our spirituality and above all in our prayer and faith. Belonging helps us to understand Christian vocation.
Yes, God is Belonging, for God is Trinity. Therefore God is relationship. St Thomas Aquinas when he speaks about God at the beginning emphasizes the unity or oneness of God. In the Franciscan tradition, however, following St Francis and St Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus emphasizes the Trinity. That is God is belonging. The essential nature of God is that Father, Son and the Holy Spirit belong to one another. So we can say in the beginning was belonging , in the beginning was community, in the belonging was relationship.
I say the word can be a great power in our prayer life. For we all know belonging. It is something in the very essence of our soul. It cannot be measured although scientists today can measure everything from grass growing to the distance to the stars. But is there anything more real or concrete than belonging.
Look at a mother and the love she has for her retarded child. If that child is rejected by the other children in the playground the mother is deeply hurt because the child belongs to her.
When I was in Besters in Ladysmith the exam results were read out to all the Primary School children in December. Now and again a child failed. This child was devastated. But if the parent were beside the child , if the parent embraced the child that child was able to endure the failure. Through a felt belonging this child was healed.
Even hens will die to protect their chickens from the fox. Even the sheep will die to protect the little lambs from the dogs. Belonging is at the very heart of life.
The opposite of belonging is alienation which Karl Marx wrote so eloquently about. Alienation is the root of our murder and violence, it is the source of vicious cruelty. It leaves people isolated and often close to suicide.
So therefore we need to become aware of our own experience of belonging to people we love. Then we need to utilize that sense of belonging in our own prayer to experience what be mean to Jesus and what we mean to God. That is how Paul felt. Paul knew Jesus, Paul understood Jesus and Paul felt Jesus, he belonged to Jesus. He knew that he meant a lot to Jesus, we mean a lot to Jesus.
Priestly life therefore is not a lonely life but is built on belonging– belonging and love and community. The supreme advantage in being a priest is belonging to God, being the companions of Jesus, the very instrument of Jesus, to be the very presence of Jesus among people.
When we go to the whole Bible we find certain majestic scenes stand out. God is one, God is searching for us, longing for us, God expects us to respond to him. And God makes a covenant with us. That is, he makes a marriage with us. We are married to God, we belong to God. Let us start here and try an experience this belonging , this love, because it is on this foundation that we can talk about priestly life, celibacy, joy and Ministry.
Archbishop William Slattery ofm