Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Long Haul

The men eat in silence. They are on retreat and having, in some cases, made an annual retreat for over 60 years, they know the routine. Retreat is a time to listen to God who comes so often, as He did to Elijah (see 1 Kings 19), in “a tiny whispering sound.” He speaks in the silence of our hearts so it’s important to keep quiet.

I’m in the middle of an eight day retreat for the elder Jesuits of the St. Camillus Jesuit Community in Wauwatosa, WI. Someone back in the office asked: Are they any different after all those years of retreats? Is their holiness more tangible?

I’m sure they are different and that they are growing in holiness, but that may not be visible. I see their holiness in terms of perseverance over long years of ups and downs and struggles. Are the struggles over? Not necessarily. For some the struggles they experienced from youth remain. For others there are new struggles, especially letting go of the active work which gave such meaning to their lives, and surrendering health and vitality. In these struggles to surrender there are new opportunities to grow in holiness.

But if the struggles haven’t changed over the years, isn’t that a sign that one isn’t growing? Not necessarily. Holiness isn’t a feeling, nor does it mean total peace with no struggles, no temptations.

Blessed Mother Teresa is a good example of this. For decades she experienced darkness in her spiritual life and the absence of God. She showed us that holiness, like love, isn’t a feeling. Holiness doesn’t mean that you feel close to God. It can mean, as it did in her case, just the opposite. It's easy to love God and neighbor when you’re full of consolation and peace; it's another thing altogether to love God and neighbor when you’re "white-knuckling it." That minute of "pure" love without feelings is worth more in God's eyes than hours of prayer in the midst of consolation. I suspect holiness has more to do with action than interior feelings. And it may not be very apparent to others.

Our good friend St. Therese, who joined the Apostleship of Prayer when she was twelve years old—her Sisters in community wondered what they would say about her in the obituary that would be sent around to other Carmelite convents after her death because there was nothing that was remarkable about her and so little that was visible.

Last summer a Dominican Sister told me a story about an elderly Sister in her community. Every day as she went into chapel to pray with the other Sisters she would first go up to the statue of St. Therese in the chapel where it appeared that she was scolding her. The Sister telling me the story said she and another Sister went closer to eavesdrop. Here’s what they heard the elderly Sister say: "You! You wouldn'thave been so sweet and gentle if you had lived to be 92!”

I think a lot of holiness is simple perseverance, holding steady amidst the ups and downs and struggles of life, holding fast to the faith over the long haul.

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