Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Glory of God

Annunciation to the shepherds

"Interesting, how the glory of God is related to the good will of his people," Abbot Thomas reflected. 

After a few weeks of pilgrimage, everything begins to look the same. In a sense, we begin to feel like residents on alien soil. Had the human heart been so inclined, it would turn so easily to other matters and forget the goal altogether - to find God in the places where many can no longer find him. But something more than human is at work here. There is a power that warms the blood in the veins of the city of David, and it keeps everything alive. 

A few knocks on the doors of the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Sabbas got us nowhere. An exchange of Arabic words, "Abuna...something, something, something" can be heard from behind the doors, but entrance was forbidden this day. If you thought these holy places stood as an effigy of a past life gone by, you couldn't be more wrong. The monastic heart is still beating in the desert, even on the aged and sharp ridges of Mar Saba, where John Damascene once lived. They thrive on their long and ascetic tradition, an anomaly almost lost to our western sensibilities.

Our sojourn then led us to Shepherd’s field where we had Mass in the remains of an old cave made chapel. Just above and off to the side is the main octagonal-shaped church designed by none other than Barluzzi. 

Shepherd's field

Beyond the site and toward the horizon, you can almost make out the roof top of the Church of the Nativity. There, on the threshold between news and deliverance, one gets a sense that we are here, the place where the shepherds became the first to hear about the birth of the true Shepherd, and where the liturgical hark was heard for the first time on earth, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will!" This ephemeral event heralded the joy of a father over the birth of his son. 

We leave to find God in the places where many have gone before us. We do this knowing all along that we will have to leave behind the familiar, which acts a lot like a rib cage to a heart that longs to expand. Maybe we come to know it best when we travel away from home for an extended period of time. 

Our experience is all the sweeter when we know that we will be travelling back home again - never the same. Yet, much like Jesus himself, we find no place to rest our heads, except in the company of the most unlikely people, no place to call home but in the kindness that hastens in the time of need, no sense of the familiar except in the crutch of our brothers' arms. It is interesting, indeed, how the glory of God is related to the good will of his people, since it is the good will of others, and thus the glory of God in man, that makes us all a people fully alive.

The Greatest Gift...
(Reflection after Mass at Shepherds Field)
Clay Elmhorst

I can't help but wonder what it must have been like, to be sitting in the middle of nowhere, on a hill a field, or in a Cave, with the smell of sheep –listening to them bellyache about the cold wind...
And I can't help but imagine what it must have been like looking out towards Bethlehem, wondering what it’s like to have a non-shepherd life; to have real respectable work, status and money –wondering what it’s like to have other talents and skills, a successful farm or maybe be a fisherman.

To be a shepherd is something different. During the time of Christ, a shepherd is the last thing you would want to be; as Fr. Lodge said, "It is the Lowest of the Low.” Sometimes you face discrimination, sometimes rejection, and sometimes, you simply have no other place to go. "Here's a few Sheep," your Uncle says, (your only relative) “Good Luck.”

Even though you want to see how green the grass is on the other side, you know very well God Wills all things. And you know He's calling you to feed His lambs, tend His sheep, and feed them. You know very well, who you are; a lowly shepherd, and nothing can change that. (John 21)

And then something amazing happens. I can't imagine what it must’ve been like, to be sitting on a hill, pondering these things and have an Angel appear to you –with the glory of God shining around them. (Luke 2) I can’t help but reiterate the most important part of this scene; “Of great joy, and for all people." And lastly to hear," For today in the city of David a savior has been born, for you who Is messiah and Lord…O what a sight it must’ve been, to see a myriad of angels, hundreds if not thousands, singing and praising to the World,

“Glory to God in the highest, an on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests”

   -It seems life as a shepherd is not so bad after all...

Last year, when I was on a thirty day retreat, I had an experience I would never forget. During the first week of this retreat, I was taken on a silent journey (literally) through St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises. Using the spiritual senses, a director and Holy Scripture, I had to spend 5 hours a day, 7 days a week, on simply being quite. I had to immerse myself into the mystery of Christ, and the only way to do that was one hour at a time, in silence –it was painful. Around the 5th day, I found myself in the nativity scene, where my director kept asking me, who I was, what I felt, and overall what I was doing there...
In the exercises you are taken into, very quietly and subtly, the Word of God; almost at times placing your whole being into the Gospel scene. Using the spiritual senses you become in-tune with Scripture –literally. Sometimes these meditations can take you far, sometimes they don't at all, and sometimes you can experience something mystical...

When I entered the infancy narrative, I was either a character in the passage, an angel standing by or myself in modern clothes. At this particular scene I entered the cave as a shepherd; an ordinary smelly shepherd. All my senses, my perspectives and energies where channeled through the shepherds eyes, it was through the shepherds lowly heart that I contemplated these meditations.

Upon entering the cave, my attention was solely on Mary the Mother of God. I was so overwhelmed by her beauty and poverty, my breath stopped. She was humble and simple, and I couldn't bring myself to look up at her. Because of the smell, and the memory of past sins, I only let myself see fleeting glimpses of her –this it seemed, made her laugh. Her presence was very modest; full of love.  Mary the little Mother was simply Immaculate.

At first I didn't enter, as all I could think of was how bad I smelled; remembering my sins an all the reasons I shouldn't be there, I wanted to turn away. And then it was Mary, who in all her love, pleads for me to come in –to come see her Son. After two days meditating on this scene, I finally allowed myself to enter the cave.....letting go of everything. After two days, Mary was no longer alone, but there holding Jesus. And it was there, with her same laugh and smile, she offered him to me. In all my unworthiness and insecurities, my smell and the memories of past sins, I kept refusing. Bundled up in his swaddling clothes, I struggled to allow myself to hold the Messiah.

When I came to, Mary kept pleading, "Please, it’s Ok," all with her laugh and constant smile. It took time, but soon after I let go of everything, and allowed myself to hold our Lord. I felt fear in holding the maker of Heaven and Earth. (Maybe like that of the shepherds on seeing the angels) My arms trembled, my body froze and my heart simply beat frantically; as if my whole being knew itself, the Divine Power it was holding.

At first I couldn't see Our Lords face, and it took me many hours afterwards to finally allow myself to be able to. I don’t know why, but His face was just too bright. It seemed I had to adjust and let myself “take in” the Reality of what I was doing. When it became easier, I eventually saw the face of God –Emmanuel. In all his littleness and humanity, I finally began to appreciate what it means, "For in Him God is With Us."(Mt 1) When I could make out his features, there he was...the little boy who saves. It was so quiet…there was peace, joy and silence. It was amazing.

   -It felt like going to Perpetual Adoration after a Good Confession

And then He let out a giggle, and Mary had to cover her mouth from laughing too hard. I smiled too. And from that moment on, it became easier and easier to hold the Messiah. After a while, I was looking forward to spending time with him; always the same place and time. I will never forget those hours visiting the Christ Child, and every moment afterwards hearing His laugh, holding His body, and seeing His face.

When the meditations came to an end, I felt it time to move on. And yet, my heart didn't want to go. My director insisted, "you can always come back later.” I knew then, it was more than prayer, it was a gift from Christ Himself; and it became easier to let go of it. But before I moved on into the exercises, something Mystical happened –something mysterious and explicit. In that last hour in the cave, just before I was about to hand back O Lord to His Mother…I stopped. For in that moment, Our Lord did something he had never done before.

In all His beauty and brightness…in all His littleness and weakness...He held out his hands towards my face...as if wanting something. Without pausing to figure out what it was, (and for a split second wondering how exactly swaddling clothes swaddled) I looked up at Mary, startled...And she looked surprised too, holding up her hands up to her face.

With His hands outstretched, almost waving them to get my attention, Our Lord drew me in…I finally realized what he wanted me to do. And after a moment to conduct myself, I heard Mary say quietly, "Go ahead, its Ok," looking up to her, I then lowered my head to that of her Son.

In the stillness of that moment, where time and space seemed irrelevant…I felt the Christ Child place his two, tiny hands on my face, one on each cheek and pull me in towards him....face to face, I looked into the eyes of God...and the infant Jesus pulled me closer, and gently kissed my forehead...and when he was done, I heard in the recesses of my Heart, His Voice echo…”Become like unto me, O' Brother.”

To this day, that experience has left one of the deepest impressions on my person. Although a spiritual exercise, in my heart it was as real as if it physically happened; for in that hour, I truly believe my heart and soul, were totally in-tune with Gods. So much so, the spiritual experience left a physical impression –a memory.

To me, the Priesthood is the Greatest Gift of all…for in it they become uniquely close with Christ as True Brother –the Image and Sacrament of God. In Him, they become self-gift for the Church –as He was on the Cross. They are intermediaries of His Sacraments, and Intercessors of His Mercy. They are most importantly, Mediators of His Body and Blood. They continue His Ministry through the succession of His Apostles, and they help build His Kingdom.

Not a trillion dollars, the perfect life or fortune, could outweigh the gift of priesthood. For through the priest’s ordination and mediation, we physically receive God in the Eucharist; for in Him and for His Church, they are His gift to all. To me, the priesthood is the Greatest Gift, for it is Christ himself...to become a Priest for Christ, is to become another Christ....It is Gift and Mystery, all at the same time…for they truly are… In Persona Christi Capitis’

“Glory to God in the highest, an on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests”

 -It seems life as a shepherd is not so bad after all…