The day dawned cloudy but has cleared to beautiful sun. A walk up around the corner by Saint Patrick’s Church revealed air that feels like spring here in Brooklyn – light and fragrant, grace on the breeze. Passing the parish school front doors, there was a lot of noise escaping from within. I looked up and saw at a second floor window, above the front door, a mischievous 7 or 8 year old face pressed against the window; eager, I suppose, to engage the world!
A few steps further along, a hearse was parked in front of the church building. Venturing in, the casket was at the front of the main aisle, open, with two people standing nearby. A quick prayer for the deceased, and back out onto the street was I.
These two entirely ordinary vignettes – in that they can and do happen everyday – speak of the importance of the life and vitality of the local congregation to the whole church. In times of stress, discord, uncertainty, shock, if things are good up the street from wherever you are; if there the word is being preached and the sacraments celebrated; if there people in emotional or financial or other dire need are finding at least an open ear, then the foundation is sound. The foundation is sound.
From a sound foundation, a good builder can proceed.
Over the weekend, since I wrote about this significant moment and change in my life, I have received by so many avenues so many words of support, encouragement, appreciation, understanding and love. These words, and of course their speakers, have made this a weekend of true grace. And as theologians will tell you, grace in its truest definition is the actual presence of God. I am more grateful this Thanksgiving week than I could ever fully say, for your helping me to see that graceful and saving Presence.
I share here a bit more of what I’ve been writing during this time of transition. A wonderful friend and priest here in Brooklyn, having read the first part over the weekend. said to me, “You think a lot!” I can’t deny that. Not always effectively, but a lot. For me, it is a part of seeing the path. Then comes the heart willing to walk it.
A few months later [after my three months at Glenstal Abbey in 2005] I left the parish and priestly ministry, beginning a leave of absence that, with a few months exception, has endured since. In July of 2007 the possibility of a 30-day Ignatian retreat opened up for me. The four weeks of the Spiritual Exercises, with an experienced and marvelous director at Eastern Point Retreat House on Cape Ann, was an amazingly rich privilege. To spend that much time, in a beautiful space, simply open to the Lord Jesus in the Spirit, amazed me at so many levels. In the silence, surrounded by Scripture and a group of fellow retreatants, the palpable presence of the living God was almost overwhelming. There were almost innumerable gifts that emerged from that time and place. One of the most striking took place one afternoon. I was sitting on a rise behind the house, overlooking the Atlantic. Prayer had not been especially fruitful that afternoon. Eventually I simply leaned back and stopped trying. I was just there, in the sunshine, in the breezes, striving for nothing. In that moment, unbidden, I had an experience as near to the voice of God as I ever could bear to hear in this life. Though not an auditory experience, it was without doubt an experience of being spoken to by One other than myself. We each have that other voice within us that narrates our living, comments on other people’s behavior, and plans for our next moves through a day. This was not that voice.
By that day, I had been for almost three weeks consistently, and from the divine viewpoint perhaps almost desperately, asking, “What do you want me to do?” Throughout the weeks and the emphases of the Exercises, that question remained poised and quivering at the root level of heart and soul: “What do you want me to do?”
In that moment in the sunshine, an answer came whole and entire and unmistakable: “Do you not know that I love you? That I love you whatever you do, and will always love you? Simply choose. Do as you see fit, and trust me to love you. I call you to service. It doesn’t matter where you serve, what community, what church, what portion. They are all my people. Choose, and go. I will be with you.”
There was given in this ‘revelation,’ if I dare call it that, a sense of radical freedom. To know – to know – that you are loved absolutely and always, come what may, sets you on a foundation of surest bedrock. To know what you are called to do, and to feel the trust placed in you to do it well in the way that you choose to do it: that is a precious gift. It can only come as a gift. Standing on that foundation, and trusting in it, you cannot go wrong. You are free to choose.
That’s what I felt. That’s what I experienced.
People had been telling me this truth, and bits and pieces of it, through all the days of my life. But now, for the first time, it took root in me. And it has remained.
The very success that I felt at Boston College, and for which I will always be grateful, had the ironic side-effect, as I eventually recognized, of moving me again into a place of heavy engagement and busy-ness in life, day and night. One unintended result of this truth was that I found myself with neither time nor energy to attend in the least to the questions of heart that had moved me to leave priestly ministry. In the wake of that realization I was faced with a serious question: as good as this is, can I remain here then? Why did I leave ministry to take these questions of intimacy seriously if I am not giving them any consideration at all? What am I called then to do?
At that point I needed to give serious consideration to the possibility of returning to priestly ministry in the archdiocese of Boston. After all, I had made that commitment in 1983 not lightly, but intending it for a lifetime. And I did give that serious consideration. But here something difficult and vital entered in. When I look at the Church and its ministry in 2010, and 2009 and 2008, I see a reality, an emphasis, which looks and feels so different than what I knew in the days of my seminary education and earlier priesthood that I can hardly draw a line connecting the two.