Thursday, July 20, 2017

Back in catch-up mode!

I spent the last ten days at our retreat house near Lexington and Concord; it's a place with a lot of history of its own, originally a Colonial-era farm (the original house is still there, and still occupied), then a farm for the Boston seminary, then the novitiate and training ground for the Maryknoll missionaries and finally...our own place to "come apart with Me and rest a while." I have lots of memories of the place, since I made a weekend retreat here as part of my discernment many decades ago, when the retreat house properties were virtually unchanged from its days as a farm. The cattle and horse stalls had been converted into (very bare-bones) "cells" that provided a bit of privacy, but also the company of many, many of the Lord's crawling creatures. (That did nothing to foster my spirit of recollection.)

As novices, we made our first eight-day silent retreat in that setting, if you can imagine that, and when a shipment of peaches came in from donors in the New Jersey farmland, we were the ones called upon to prepare the fruits for canning. In silence (well, we prayed a couple of rosaries out loud). After an hour or two, my hands began to swell and smart from the acid in the peaches, and the whole situation struck me as preposterous. I tried to hold back my giggle (no, really I did!), but Sister Christine caught the smirk and it was all over.

Yes, precious memories.

After the retreat ended and we novices (joined by the incoming group of pre-novices) gathered around a bonfire for an evening of pious recreation, I composed a song in honor of the soon-to-be demolished retreat house, using the melody of our community's "Hymn to St Thecla."
We have a retreat house
in Billerica.
It's called St Thecla's,
We love it so-o-o-o.
We've had it for many years.
It's about
Good old St Thecla's
--bugs and dead trees--
We'll be glad
when you get rid
of some of these...
Somehow they still let me make my vows two weeks later.

Anyway, this year I brought the drone over, to see if I could reproduce in some way the iconic photograph we have from about 1966. There was a bit too much glare for me to really see what was on the screen, but I got a video clip that almost gets it right:

This was the setting for the retreat reflections I offered on a Pauline theme, "Qualities of a Penitent Heart." (If you've ever been in a Pauline chapel, you've seen the words that so inspired our Founder, "Do not fear; I am with you; from here I want to enlighten; live with a penitent heart.") Here's something from the concluding talk, to give you an idea of what the sisters prayed with for eight silent days. Something must have clicked, because one of the sisters wrote me a little note: "In a strange way, I'm somehow looking forward to a penitent year ahead!"

Going Home with a Penitent Heart

From T.S. Eliot's "The Family Reunion"
I feel happy for a moment, as if I had come home.
It is quite irrational, but now
I feel quite happy, as if happiness
Did not consist in getting what one wanted 
Or in getting rid of what can't be got rid of
But in a different vision. This is like an end.

Gratitude, receptivity, virginity of heart (living from what Merton called “the virgin point”): these are the qualities that make a penitent heart possible; they are pre-requisites. Without this foundation, we cannot risk being "convicted." There's not enough foundation beneath our feet.

Then, to be poor, apostolic and confident: these qualities flow from the experience of being convicted--which holds a central position as "the" act of repentance, the "hinge" of conversion, so to speak.

"Cor poenitens tenete" ("Live with a penitent heart") is an abiding disposition, a readiness or alertness to make use of everything to turn more fully to God; ongoing readiness and availability for conversion. One thing is for sure: "Heavenward there are no limits" (Von Balthasar). Henri Nouwen wrote to Jim Forrest (but I'm sure he'd write the same to each of us), "Your heart is very deep and wide, and it cannot be just yours." I think that is a terrific way of saying, "Live with a penitent heart."

What is the "act" proper to the heart? It is love.

What is the act proper to a penitent heart? It is a particular kind of love. Repentance recognizes sin and the roots of sin and wills to renounce it all for the sake of love. And each of the qualities of the penitent heart can be seen as a different expression of love, and also as a different aspect of the love of Jesus. Jesus lived all these qualities, even taking our sins upon himself--"becoming sin"--so that they could be fully and knowingly repented of. 

Oscar Wilde ("Letter from Prison"?) writes about the penitent heart in a different way; a way I call the "transubstantiation of the past":
Of course the sinner must repent. But why? Simply because otherwise he would be unable to realise what he had done. The moment of repentance is the moment of initiation. More than that. It is the means by which one alters one's past. The Greeks thought that impossible. ... "Even the gods cannot alter the past." Christ showed that the commonest sinner could do it. That it was the one thing he could do. Christ, had he be asked, would have said--I feel quite certain about it--that the moment the prodigal son fell on his knees and wept he really made his having wasted his substance with harlots, and then kept swine and hungered for the husks they ate, beautiful and holy incidents in his life. It is difficult for most people to grasp the idea. I dare say one has to go to prison to understand it. If so, it may be worth while going to prison.

Continual conversion, ongoing repentance means not being stuck, not locked in or frozen in time. Hopefully in these past eight days each of us has felt a loosening of that one "stuck" area that keeps all our interior gears from moving freely and smoothly.  

The penitent heart is unafraid:
  • of its own poverty, when it finds itself without the resources to succeed in life, because God is its one and supreme good: "I am confident and unafraid; my strength and my courage is the Lord" (Is 12).
  • of its failures or sin: because "God is greater than our hearts" (1 Jn 3:20)
  • of the future: because "all time belongs to him." The penitent heart has entrusted its whole past to the Lord's mercy, so it follows that the future is also held in God's mercy, his Providence.
The penitent heart is a disciple's heart: open, docile, available, flexible, responsive: not a fortress, steeled against any intrusion of grace.

The penitent heart is a mystic heart. Nouwen contrasts "mystic" with "moralism" in the sense of "what we can do humanly, by force of will, resolution, etc." And there seems to be a constant temptation to replace the fruits of the Spirit with some one or other "works of the law" whatever that law may be. Mystic means the "not I who live, but Christ"; the penitent heart knows deeply that "by myself, I can do nothing..."

The penitent heart is a "salty" heart: flavorful, pungent, penetrated with that certain something that alters the chemistry of whatever it touches--not "conformed to this world," then. When my actions, premises, choices, perspectives, interpretations, criteria of value or of esteem are indistinguishable from those of society (or of an offshoot of society), this is not salty. If I love, seek, admire and work toward the same things that the most worldly love, seek and strive form, I am failing to give society a new and Christian flavor, a new "imprint" as Alberione put it.

Bl. Columba Marmion said: 
"People are to be met with who...lose themselves in a multiplicity of details and often weary themselves in a joyless labor. ...
"... For years, their lives have been as it were cramped, they have been often depressed, hardly ever contented, for ever finding new difficulties in the spiritual life. Then one day God gives them the grace of understanding that Christ is our All, that he is the Alpha and Omega, that out of him we have nothing, that in him we have everything, for everything is summed up in him. From that moment all is, as it were, changed for these souls: their difficulties vanish like the shades of night before the rising sun. As soon as Our Lord...fully illumine these souls, they unfold, mount upward, and bear much fruit of holiness."

It is not too late for any of us. "Even if our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day." The Founder, in a year-end retreat in 1950 told the community: "Be sorry for sin: this must not only be written on the wall, but must be written in the heart." That same year, he exhorted the Paulines of then and maybe even more of now: 

It is time that we aim for heroism, because we do not know what the times ahead of us hold in store for us.

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