Both Jesus and Paul are doing what all great men and women do when they are either departing from their followers or dying – they have their final say. This can be partly an apologia pro vita sua, summing up what their life has been about and what has motivated it.
Such a person will then turn to the community who have followed him or her and, with great compassion and love, try to say something that will help them to manage the transition of their parting and the long-term future.
There will be sentiments of gratitude as well as important advice and words of encouragement. Sometimes they elicit promises from the followers to be faithful to the way that has been taught to them. Leaders are anointed. Life must go on.
All of this is not easy. The French proverb ‘partir, c’est mourir un peu’ comes to mind. The raw emotion is made plain in the moment of Paul’s disembarkation which we hear about in tomorrow’s first reading, which is the sequel of today’s.
These powerful moments of parting resonate down the centuries. We can still read them today and be powerfully moved. We can hear the words of wisdom and take them to heart in our own time and place. Words which were intended for people of a particular time and place become timeless and continue to motivate people generation after generation.
I suppose the classic example of this in secular Western literature is the account of the death of Socrates and how he addressed all his friends and supporters with such courage and wisdom before drinking the hemlock in the prison in Athens.
For Christians the last supper discourse in John’s Gospel is the model – Jesus announcing his departure and what this means for the disciples. And we remember that this is not the departure of a peaceful death; it is a catastrophic and traumatic one. How to prepare people for that!
Let’s consider something from Jesus and something from Paul, for ourselves.
The Lord says many things in this discourse. One which obviously is relevant to us as religious (and Christians of course) is the saying about what eternal life is — ‘to know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’
The religious is the one who gives up all to know God in Christ. In that sense we are all contemplatives, whether we seek God in the cloister or the classroom as Joan Chittister has argued.
I remember a young woman who was considering the religious life once saying to me in a rather offhand manner, ‘Of course, I’m completely besotted with God!’ A good start I’d say, being even a bit crazy about God and willing to sell all for this pearl of great price, the knowledge of the one true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.
And when we think back to when we were in what today we would call a process of discernment, we probably remember that somewhere in the middle of the tangle of our immature motivations for this way of life, there was this rather romantic, extravagant, ointment-pouring desire for intimacy with God.
Sandra Schneiders reminds us that religious life is a way of life specially tailored to enable certain people find God. Not that other lifeforms are unsuitable for that quest, but religious life is suited to a minority for whom God will be found without the mediation of marriage but with the support structure of the vows and common life.
It’s not for everyone. It’s analogous to the call of the artist who feels they just have to follow this path; they just have to.
· Story of Philip Petit. People like Petit are in a minority
The artist analogy leads us into the obvious point to consider from Paul — witness. The artist does not exist just for him or herself. Without art human life would not be fully human. Without art we would lack a whole area of human inspiration. We would not reach for the transcendence which beauty prompts within us.
Hence, the artist has a vital social function — to bear witness to our humanity in all its dimensions and to challenge us to strive towards a vision. This is clear in any art gallery, in any anthology of poetry and in great music, which moves or disturbs or inspires us.
So, we religious, are God’s artists who are called not only to seek the vision of God, or to find God, to use the more prosaic phrase of Ignatius. We are also called to share that vision, like artists who make their artwork available for the people.
·I like those stories of the Oblate artist Frans Claerhout who apparently gave lots of his work away. Obviously, this left him open to exploitation and it drove the Oblates crazy, but the generosity with which he shared his vision and gift is rather moving. So, one frequently finds a Claerhout in unexpected places, everywhere from the University of the Free State to rural convents. A wonderful metaphor for the open-handed generosity of religious life and the proclamation of the Gospel for free, which is part of the prophetic dimension of apostolic religious.
Well, I hope not too many of us here are discerning their vocation, but I’m sure we all seek a return to and renewal of that original desire to know God and to share that knowledge freely.
Certainly, we have to attend to the nuts and bolts, to issues of leadership, and even to the statistics — our ages and our numbers. But we can get obsessed by these things.
· ‘Count your forces.’
After an unsatisfactory conversation like that you feel imagine the things you should have said, like ‘What do you mean by forces or force?’ or even, quoting Stalin ‘How many divisions does the Pope have?’ You know that the numbers are not the point because the Lord can feed five thousand with seconds to spare from five loaves and two fish.
He knows that we can only offer what we have, but if we do so with full-hearted, ointment-spilling generosity he’ll handle the rest.
(15th May, 2018)