A couple of weeks ago I led a retreat day for a local group. The reflections of the day were focussed on what God expects of us personally and as a parish / Church community.
Personally, all that God hopes for us is already built into us as desire. In our efforts to satisfy this desire we often grasp at what we think we want. We indulge the want, then minutes later we are looking for something else. We thought that this would bring us satisfaction but we are still restless. There must be more?
The good news? There is more!
A healthy person will realise that what s/he thinks s/he wants right now is probably not what they really want at all. When we think we want chocolate and a beer, it is really good friendship that we would prefer.
When I think i need the company of another person, I may fail to realise that it is really a felt sense of the presence of God with me, that I truly seek.
The evil spirit has mastered this technique of deception, by suggesting to us that this thing or that person will make us happy. But our experience tells us that most of our conscious longings are misleading. We are created for something much more than that which first attracts our attentions.
As St. Augustine said in the fifth century: ‘you have created us for yourself O Lord, and our heart’s are restless, until they rest in you.
You may recall the C.S. Lewis quotation I published in this newsletter a few weeks ago. Take a moment to ponder it again.
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Sin is simply a willingness to settling for anything that does not deliver what it promises. God promises everything to us as gift, and gives everything. We want for nothing more. All is gift.
Back to the retreat day.
As we reflected together it was clear that we all slip into the ‘bigger is better’ way of thinking. Over the years I have been to many Parish Council meetings where the key project has been to get people to Mass.
People think this is a daunting task. It is not! I bet you anything you like, that I could fill every Church of the Hurunui and even the Chatham Islands, not just once but several times every Sunday. Impossible you think? Not at all. How would I do it? In fact, if you name the age of the people you want me to fill the church with, I could manage that too!
If you wanted me to fill the Church with teenage girls, I would call Justin Bieber in. to sing a couple of songs at Mass. If you wanted a church full of middle agers, I would twist the arm of a few All Blacks to give an ‘inspirational talk.’ See, not difficult to fill a church on a Sunday…
…but we know this is not the point. Perhaps my example is a bit extreme. Let me offer another.
Some church communities seek to attract people by being ‘inclusive.’ This requires letting go of the fulness of life God has called us to, and settling for what is more easily achievable. The presumption here is that the Church is our Church, and that we are free to create it in our own image.
But the Church is not our Church. It is also not the bishop’s church or the pope’s Church. In the same way the parish is not our parish. It is God’s parish and we are God’s people.
There is a wonderful freedom in this. We do not have to invent or create ourselves. All we need to do is to be faithful to what God has called us to be.
This means that if I have difficulty with Jesus’ teaching that I must love my enemy, I can’t simply discard or disregard the teaching. Nor am I called to alter this teaching to make it more ‘user-friendly’ in order to attract more people to the parish.
Our prime goal as a parish community is not therefore to fill our churches with people. Our central mission is to be faithful to all that God has called us to be.
But we have to face an overwhelming fear in the face of this task. The fear is that we want to be big and strong, powerful and influential. If what we say is unpopular then some will leave us and others will not be attracted.
This was exactly the situation that Jesus faced. Yet he remained faithful to all that he knew his Father was asking of him.
And, quite beyond all odds, this technique of gentleness and meekness confounded all who used methods and techniques of power and aggressive manipulation.
Sadly, too often, the Church too has used the techniques of the world to bring about change. The results may be temporarily satisfying, but never lasting. And then a saint like Francis of Assisi comes along in the Middle Ages and quietly feeds the poor. The results are not only immediate, but 800 years later Francis is probably the most universally popular saint.
And so back to the mustard seed. Pope Benedict is thinking that the church must grow smaller (in numbers) in order to be more effective. His point: we must not fall into the trap of thinking that it is our skill and our creativity that builds a parish.
“Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intense struggle against evil and bring good into the world – that let God in.”
interview with Pope Benedict
Instead we are called to face our fear of what looks like failure (in the eyes of the world), and not be afraid of a simple and meek intimacy with God.
As the pope suggests, this may mean that (for a time at least) our parishes are very small and even grow smaller. But our calling is not to be big or successful. We are called to faithful to God.
And the good news of history is that wherever people are faithful to God, they have not only survived, but grown (from the most insignificant of seeds) to become the most splendid tree of all.
“The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning
“She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members….
“It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek . . . The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain . . .
But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. People in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”