Monday, July 10, 2017

I have just returned with my fellow pilgrims from a three day Ignatian silent retreat in Saint Louis. There is something amazing about avoiding using your voice to communicate for several days, especially when you’re someone like me who speaks entirely too much. (click the link to read more)

July 9, 2017

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 100

ZEC 9:9-10

PS 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13-14

ROM 8:9, 11-13

MT 11:25-30

I have just returned with my fellow pilgrims from a three day Ignatian silent retreat in Saint Louis.   There is something amazing about avoiding using your voice to communicate for several days, especially when you’re someone like me who speaks entirely too much.  While the retreat has moments in which you can freely share in fellowship, for the majority of those 60+ hours we avoid speaking and attempt to listen.   The last time we went on this journey was powerful, this time I felt God sweeping me away in a current reminiscent of the mighty Mississippi whose banks we had the privilege of meditating on.   I feel already that I will be going again next year for this time of reflection.

By all standards, it is the perfect weekend.   A private room with a private bath area.  Someone else planning and cooking every meal.  Free snacks, lemonade, and coffee available twenty-four hours a day.    An immaculate, rolling hillside with scenic overviews, life-size stations of the cross, and meditative statues and artwork.   Two different chapels in which to spend time with Jesus in the sacramental presence.  Mass daily along with access to confession and anointing.  No distractions, just peace, and solitude.  I found myself often on a specific overlook staring out at the river and listening to the birds and animals move through the trees below.  Even the rumbling of the passing train below was soothing and familiar.

For those of you who remember last year and its lack of deer for me, the next detail will make sense.   As we arrived, before we even turned into the property, a young doe stepped out of the trees and greeted us.  I saw her, or at least another very like her, several times throughout the weekend.  A red fox often greeted us early in the morning.  A squirrel would come close enough that some of us even said it seemed to want to be fed.    A large hawk often flew overhead.  The beauty of being in God’s creation on such an intimate level is overwhelming at times. It’s no wonder that this retreat is so powerful and moving.

In all of that, I have only grown more certain in my calling to the diaconate.  Being close to Christ in his sacramental presence, singing and praising in adoration, and joining in community prayer and Liturgy of the Hours with other aspirants, candidates, and Deacons only brought me joy and comfort.  I felt God speaking to me on a deeper level and more personal than any time in the past, and even had a day of complete dryness in which God reminded me through a brother that most great journeys begin in the desert.  This whole weekend though culminated in a stark realization.

My life is often full of hectic work and running.  I spend my days driving to do errands, deliver people to where they need to be, and other such tasks.  As a man who cannot work outside the home, my day is often filled with more than I can handle around the house.   I too often grumble and complain about all of this and how it seems to stretch me thin.   So here I am on this weekend, with no tasks that must be done.  Simply praying and living in an almost monkly fashion.   By all the standards of what a fulfilled spiritual life should be, it should have been perfect, right?  I found myself missing something though.   My wife.   My family.

Jesus in the Gospel reading talks about his yoke.   He speaks about how that his burden is easy and his yoke is light.   Then he went on to die a horrible death after being deserted by almost all of his friends, family, and followers.  He died the death of the most heinous of criminals.  Naked.  Alone.  In pain that wracked his body with each breath.   By all earthly standards, he was a failure.   Throughout his ministry, he reminded us that this, the cross, is what we too must take up.   That’s the light burden?   That’s the easy yoke?

I understand more fully now exactly what that means.  Our lives, especially for those of us living in an active life outside of the walls of a sanctuary or monastery, are not going to be easy.   They are going to be filled with random events, illness, setbacks, and weaknesses.   There will be honey do lists, work to be done, a family to support, and laundry that has to eventually be washed and put away.   Life is full of burdens.   We already have a yoke on our shoulders that religion would seem to only increase the weight of, to give more rules and obligations.  Yet, it’s supposed to be easier.  It’s supposed to be lighter.  It gets that way when we add Jesus.   It gets that way when we add love.

You see for all my complaining and moaning, for all those times that I fret over everything that needs to be done, my life is not complete without them in it.  It’s who I am.  First and foremost, I am a husband and a father.  That is not a burden to me.  Taking care of our four lovely daughters is a gift.  It’s something that makes me feel complete and fulfilled.   The love that fills my heart to overflowing each time I think of my wife and children turn those everyday tasks into gifts.   It should bring a joy to my heart to do things for them.   It should be an easy yoke that I choose, one that is filled with love.

Father Arroyo, the Jesuit Priest who led our retreat,  spoke about how that a yoke is designed for two oxen.  They work together in tandem.  He even compared it to marriage, how that when we work together we can move the family along as a wagon.  That’s a good image.  Another image that came to mind this weekend was the image of my wife and I on one side, two becoming one, and Jesus on the other side of that same yoke.   It’s when we walk with love, with the incarnate love of God, that the yoke becomes a pleasure.  It’s our own ego, our own selfishness, that prevent us from seeing that and only worrying about me, me, me.

I was meditating one night on the word harrowing.   I had this image of a plow digging into a field and smoothing over the ground, with a farmer who bent down occasionally to pick up a stone and remove it from the planting area.  I had just finished meditating on stations of the cross reflection that spoke of how the cross has to penetrate our stony hearts and break off the pieces one at a time.  That it is the cross that turns our stony hearts into fleshly ones.  In that meditation, it says the harder the stones in your heart the deeper the cross has to penetrate.  Then the image swept away into a picture of Jesus using the cross to furrow the soil of my soul.   In it, he began to pull out large stones, show them to me, and tell me what they were.  

Many of those stones were grumblings, complainings, and not recognizing the great gift that my serving my family truly is.  As each stone was removed in my mind I began to wonder what my goal was the last time I had been there.  So I flipped back to the first day of this year's retreat and looked to see how I answered the question Jesus proposed to me in the first meditation: What do you want?  “To radiate peace and joy to my family.”   Then I flipped back just one page, to the last day of the retreat in 2016.  The last line said, “I want to be the kind of man who radiates peace and joy to the world around him.”

The stones were in the way.  My friends, who if not your family, deserves to be treated with that sort of love and respect?  Service.  Jesus calls us to be servants and to take on his yoke.   That is what it means to find your vocation.   Each of us is called to something.  For some, it is marriage, to another religious life, yet another the priesthood, and still yet virgins and consecrated men and women.    You will not find your joy and peace in the easy paths of this world.   Rapture does not occur simply from giving into the pleasures and sensual nature of sin.  It is in traveling down that less-traveled path, the one you were created for, the one God calls you to each and every day, that you will find everlasting happiness.

“For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”  Saint Paul knew this all too well.   It is in disciplining our bodies, our minds, and our wills that we find peace.  Even in small matters, we must grow in our ability to keep our lives on the tracks.  By avoiding that extra piece of cake, spending more time in prayer and less on the television, giving up a Saturday to spend with a family member who is alone, or reaching out to the margins of society and giving a hand to those in need;  that we find even more fulfillment than any amount of money can buy.   That’s what it means to live by the Spirit.  To attempt to make God’s will your own.

I have no doubts in my mind that God called me to be married and to live that as my primary vocation.   I also have no doubt in my mind that Jesus is calling me to be a servant to the Church as a Deacon.  My first responsibility though will always be my family.   My primary job is to help get my wife to Heaven.  That isn’t a burden.  Raising a family, taking care of them, and journey with them in hopes they can follow Christ is also not a burden.   It’s a light yoke.  One filled with love.  A love so strong it is a person.  The Holy Spirit who guides the yoke of Christ on our shoulders, and helps carry the load.   May we learn to harrow out any stone that remains in our heart, that we might be a fertile soil for Christ to plant the seeds of his kingdom in.   That is where we fill find true rest for our souls.  Heaven doesn’t have to wait for the life after this one to start being our goal or our experience, we can taste it’s fruit here and now if we just let go and let God.

His servant and yours,
Brian Mullins

"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock, and my redeemer. - Psalm 19:14