Sunday, June 13, 2010

Retreat Report: The Eighth Day

In the Liturgy, Sunday is always the "eighth day," the beginning of a new cycle of days, like the first day of a new creation. And so today is, literally and liturgically, the eighth day for the retreatants: the last day of retreat launches them back into a new year of service. For this special day, the focus is on a prayer composed by our Founder in 1919. We call it the "Pact," because it is a kind of covenantal formula, even a pious "contract" with the Lord. The bottom line of the Pact is that God is calling us to something we cannot achieve on our own; therefore, we will give God all we have, and we will count on God to, in Paul's words, "make it all work out for the spread of the Gospel." 

So the penitent heart is a confident heart.

Paul is a great example of a penitent heart, not simply because he had something so dramatic to repent over, but because he did not let that realization block him from carrying out his call to be an apostle. “I am the very least, less than the least, of the holy ones” could have been a really good excuse to stay home in Tarsus and quietly end his days in prayerful solitude and self-effacing reparation. Instead, it was “I am the least of the apostles, not worthy to be called apostle, but anyway.... that is what I am” Evelyn Underhill wrote about the temptation to focus on discouraging self-assessments to the point that one is afraid to get involved in the Christian mission, because you know you'll only mess it up. If that's the case, she says, “the primary failure is in our relationship with God,” who's really the one who expects to act (p 225). And von Speyr (Confession, p ?) says that this is characteristic of the temptation to scruples, and that what it betrays is, paradoxically, that the person “underestimates grace...[because] he thinks there is such a thing as human sufficiency and adequacy. He overestimates himself because he thinks he's capable of lending his own words the proper weight.... He trusts God as little as he trusts himself.”

But the penitent heart is a bold, confident heart, like Paul's. The penitent heart is founded on love, not on fear—because what would it be afraid of? Losing the good it it focused on? That won't happen if you are focused on the “one thing necessary.” Punishment? “Love is not perfected in one who is afraid.” Loss or suffering? “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” Punishment? “Who will condemn us—Christ Jesus, who died and raised from the dead, who himself intercedes for us?”

What about failure? Over at Pixar studios, they have special project meetings for their multi-million dollar movies, and when they find mistakes, there is a general sense of satisfaction, no matter how far along the movie is. The director of Toy Story 3 said, “We know screwups are an essential part of making something good. That's why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible.” And the Design Director for the online New York Times told a graduating class last year, “Every success is the culmination of a series of failures. You cannot have success without failing. If you want my advice, fail early and often. Don't waste any time, get out there today and start failing.” You know what Primo said: “If you do things, you will make mistakes. But if you do not do anything, you are living a mistake.”

So the penitent heart is “half-blind” and prone to failure, with only enough light for one step at a time. The whole way is not clear. The penitent heart has to keep monitoring its direction, its movements. It cannot set its own path and stride confidently forward. No matter which way it turns, it finds that it is “weak, ignorant, incapable and inadequate in every way” (from the Pact). Flannery O'Connor wrote (MM 131) “I believe that the basic experience of everyone is the experience of human limitation.” And a few months ago there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about an art exhibit of the work of Tim Burton. (His characters include “Edward Scissorhands.”) The art critic said that the central theme of Burton's images is “ever and always the nobility of failure.... He seems to believe that all of us, even those who outwardly seem most successful, are infinitely frailer and more bruised than we care to admit, and it is this fact that constitutes our human dignity. But … Burton's art is somewhat happier than one might expect” (“In Goth They Trust” by James Gardner, WSJ 2/3/2010).

The Pact is not built on some extravagant spiritual notion: it is grounded in universal experience.

“More than ever in this culture of the success brought about by the media, we are forced, in order to evangelize, to rejoice in our weaknesses.... This ministry should be entrusted only to those who have decided to embrace the cross.... Our communication should be rooted in a twofold attitude: success and flight, immersion in media and solitude.... Without the cross we are unable to relativize our ego and without it people cannot see what animates us from within" (Babin, p. 30).

So our weakness is not a problem for the mission; it's one of the criteria! It is the presence of the Cross. Our inconstancy and weakness are not ultimate or absolute: the power of the Holy Spirit is. Even sin is already taken care of: “the worst has already happened, but it has been remedied” (Julian). “What is most helpful to the Church,” Pope Benedict wrote to priests about the scandal, “is not only a frank and complete acknowledgment of the weaknesses of her ministers, but also a joyful and renewed realization of the greatness of God's gift[s].” The focus goes back to God: God's call, God's grace, God's presence.

Books referenced:


Melody said...

Sister Anne, thank you for posting retreat updates - I have been following them and have found the topics to be very encouraging and extremely timely to my own life, as I endeavor to determine how best to serve God with my own life. I am not Catholic, but I read your blog regularly and get a lot of insight out of the things you write.

Anonymous said...

Melody's comments are a testimony to the power of the Word. The mustard seed of faith has found fertile soil.