The Gospel of Mark 4:26-29:
He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
It is mid-January. Last fall, I spent forty days and forty nights on a personal retreat driving through the southwest United States, camping out of a van. I started out on a picturesque lake in southern Arkansas and wound up in the western desert of Arizona, right on the Colorado River. In between I spent time on the Texas gulf coast, in the Texas hill country, in the desert in eastern New Mexico near Roswell, and in the desert of eastern Arizona near Safford. At each location I stayed in a state park campground. Each place, in its own way, was a unique and beautiful expression of the splendor of Creation.
My days were spent primarily in prayer, spiritual reading, and hiking. I tried to avoid anything that was “touristy.” Other than grocery shopping, attending Mass, and fixing one meal a day, I had no responsibilities to distract me. I did not have to worry about even the simplest things like taking out the garbage, bringing in the mail, or paying the bills.
It was wonderful. If you can arrange this freedom for yourself, even on a smaller or shorter scale, I highly recommend it.
The inspiration for what follows was given to me during this trip. I do not view it as my idea, and I did not start the trip with this result in mind. It is not a series of insights that welled up inside me of my own accord or planning.
St. Francis of Assisi was fond of saying “the Lord gave me ………….” In the first paragraph of his Testament, he says it about his road to the life of Penance:
The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards I delayed a little and left the world.”
He then repeats it multiple times in various forms as the Testament unfolds:
Afterwards the Lord gave me, and gives me still, such faith in priests ……………… And after the Lord gave me some brothers, no one showed me what I had to do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel……………The Lord revealed a greeting to me that we should say: ‘May the Lord give you peace.’
This is how I feel about what follows. The Spirit gave it to me. I was called to journey through the southwest by Him. The books that I read in preparation for the trip were suggested by Him. The books that I took along and read as I traveled were selected by Him. I cannot take credit for anything other than being a (hopefully) humble and willing conduit who actively prays for relationship and encounter with Jesus on a regular basis.
I do not claim to have experienced some deep and profound encounter with God before, during, or after my trip. Whatever progress I am making is not spectacular, but slow, steady, and methodical. I confess that I yearn for an overpowering, mystical encounter with God that would set aside all doubt through a single, unquestionable experience of divine revelation. But I also understand that such an encounter cannot be forced by me and that it might not even be in my best interest. Lessons learned through patience and trial and error may be exactly what I need.
I trust that the path I am on is charted by the God whose Love for me is more profound than I am capable of understanding or expressing. If a stunning encounter becomes what is best for me at some point, He will determine the timing. If a slow and patient development of my faith is what He chooses for me, then so be it. I will work at resolving myself to His Will and, in what might seem to be a paradox, once I make sufficient progress on that front then, perhaps, He will choose to reveal Himself to me in more marvelous fashion.
Or perhaps not. He will exert His Will for my life as He sees fit and the only proper response I can make is to accept His judgment, follow His lead, and be grateful for every blessing that He does bestow on me, for they are many and they appear often.
I do believe that being a humble and forthright searcher for God is something that has merit. It is an act of correct orientation that acknowledges the nature and role of the creature in relationship to her/his Creator. If more of us accepted this true expression of what a human being is instead of believing that we can be God ourselves, perhaps the culture we live in would not seem to be careening toward disintegration at light speed. Perhaps we would not find ourselves stuck in a quagmire of accelerating division and self-deception that seems likely to destroy the prosperity that the Grace of God has showered upon us in the last hundred years.
It is not hard to imagine that God grows weary of the arrogance and insolence of mankind in general and seeks our correction as a result. We likely should feel fortunate that something much worse than Covid has not been sent our way, although if we do not remember or relearn how to embrace Penance and Poverty soon, we should not be surprised if our situation deteriorates in other, more profound ways.
We, including me, surely deserve it.
Several of the books that I read as I traveled were focused on the prayer discipline of Lectio Divina. This specifically Christian style of prayer goes back to the earliest days of the Church. It is our version of the meditation and contemplation techniques that the influence of eastern religion has made so popular in our culture.
About halfway through my trip I began applying what I was studying. I would read one chapter from the gospel of Matthew each morning several times, trying my best to allow the Word to speak to me. I sought not to force my will on the words, but to let the words work on me in whatever way God saw fit. It is an approach to prayer that begins with passivity, which is often hard to maintain. Not only must you not actively seek, you also must manage the inevitable distractions that intrude into this quiet space. Whatever extraneous thoughts arise as you are praying, you simply acknowledge and then dismiss as gently as you can.
As I read a chapter over and over, I tried to find the one verse that seemed pertinent to the developing experience of my journey. Then I took that Word forward into the day, focusing on it as I hiked through the desert in the morning after my prayer time was complete. As I walked, I prayed ten or so repetitions of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) and then I recited the Word for the day multiple times. I repeated this sequence the entire length of the hike, which most often lasted an hour or longer. This led to the word arising unbidden in my consciousness later in the day, and when that happened, I tried to be conscious of hesitating and acknowledging the presence and impact of the Word in that moment.
Again, the idea is not to impose my interpretation on the words. Instead, the hope is that as the words repeatedly roll around in my consciousness, they will inform and shape me not just for the day, but for all my days to come. The expectation is that constant exposure to Scripture will open my heart to God’s Will and allow His Word to become what defines me in the long run.
When I arrived home in early December, I was still working my way through the gospel of Matthew. The distractions of Christmas made it difficult to maintain my discipline. When I finished the gospel of Matthew, I spent time jumping around in the gospels, concentrating on the stories relevant to the Nativity of Christ. This worked for a while, but when my sons arrived home for the holidays, I found that I could no longer resist the distractions and I lost my discipline for the remainder of their visit.
Once the holidays had passed and life returned to normalcy, I inserted this morning prayer practice into my home routine. I also tried to maintain the discipline of the daily hike, although that is not as easy in northern Indiana in January as it is in the southwest in the fall. I moved from reading Matthew to Mark with one important change. Instead of forcing myself to get through a chapter a day, I was allowing the Word to have more control. I read a full chapter to start with, but my repetitions were focused on only the piece of the chapter that caught my attention as the prayer progressed. I was also allowing myself to stay with a given passage for more than one day. As a result, I was taking multiple days to get through a chapter, and I was taking multiple Words from each chapter.
At the same time, I was also beginning to contemplate the writing that is begun by this Introduction. I forwarded an outline of this material to my Secular Franciscan fraternity and to the priest of my home parish with the suggestion that it be presented as a Lenten Retreat. Both agreed so I happily have no choice but to engage with this material and get fully prepared for these presentations.
I am currently reading and contemplating chapter four of the gospel of Mark. This chapter is full of references to seeds. It includes the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Growing Seed (above), and the Parable of the Mustard Seed. I have been with the chapter at least a week and I am finding it reluctant to let me go.
It has suggested itself as a mechanism for reflecting on my adult faith journey. I promise not to be too long winded about my past, but the reflection this chapter of Mark has brought about is pertinent to my subject and it winds up being a good introduction to my topic. Plus, it only seems appropriate that you know a little more about me since I am asking you to consider my deeper reflections.
I see my faith story as beginning with a seed. I was in my early thirties and my first child had just been born. The Spirit took this event as an opportunity to begin to work on me in earnest. I am a cradle Catholic, but my life up to that point had been irreligious. My main thought concerning God went along the lines of, “I may not have the answers (yet?), but surely You could have done better in devising this life You created for me. I have too much stress, distress, and unhappiness for this to be the best possible solution for what a life should be like. I know You could have done better!”
I believed in God, but I did not believe He knew what He was doing. I trusted my judgment more than His, and I wanted to be in control, to be my own God so that I could make my own arrangements. (I recognize this only in retrospect. I never would have described myself like this then. I would have thought myself a much better person than I was.) I wanted my life to be nothing but joy and happiness and without any hardship at all. My disdain was so great that I can even distinctly remember going to the priest for prenuptial counseling, and in the one-on-one interview he did with me, telling him in an arrogance that dismays me now to remember it: “Getting married in the church is not important to me, but it is to my fiancé. That is why I am here.”
When my son was born, my attitude began to change. I still had no idea what the answers were, but I was willing to accept the possibility that I needed to reinvigorate my faith life if I was going to be a good father to this beautiful child that had been entrusted to me. This is the first spiritual seed I can remember responding to seriously in my life.
I do not see how it could have begun with me. It is best described as an uneasiness that was placed in my heart by the Holy Spirit. I am forever grateful that the Spirit also placed in me the good sense to embrace this uneasiness and let it guide me forward. It was this seed that grew into a life’s faith journey that allows me to recognize that God loves me unconditionally and that, in grateful response, I am willing to attempt this writing at His request.
The passage above speaks of a “man scattering seed on the ground.” In this line, I see the scatterer as the Holy Spirit placing seed after seed in our lives.
The next line speaks about how “the seed sprouts and grows” whether the man sleeps or rises. “The man does not know how” this sprouting or growing takes place. This describes me perfectly. I can look back and recognize the seed that was planted in me at the time of my son’s birth, but how I came to nurture that seed is beyond me. It was not me, but the Spirit, who ensured this, and how the Spirit accomplishes such a thing, I cannot tell you.
The Spirit led me toward spiritual direction, and I met a Holy Cross Sister (Gertrude Anne) who gave me prayer guidelines very similar to the ones I have described above. This changed everything for me. The very first thing she asked me to do was pray over some simple words. “I am the Bread of Life.” I sat in Our Lady of Loretto church at St. Mary’s College for a week with those words and the depth and richness of their meaning overwhelmed me. I was hooked that fast and have been, in some ways, trying to figure out how to replicate the magic of that early experience ever since.
I cannot tell you how that sprouting and growth in my prayer life took place. If I knew, it would not be so hard to duplicate. I was not in control of it. I did not read or study some texts and learn how to delve layer by layer into these Words. I did not listen to Sister’s words, take them to heart, and put them into practice. At that stage, I had received the barest of instruction. My reaction to those simple words happened in the first week after I met her. There was no way I could have mastered what she told me. She had barely begun to work with me.
I made myself available and was changed, and the change that took place was not of my own doing. To this day I do not know how it happened and I surely never will during my sojourn on this earth. It was the Spirit who worked this in me and how my psyche was rewritten in a matter of a couple days, or maybe even just in that very first hour, will be a mystery to me forever.
The verses go on to speak about how “the soil produces grain-first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.”
I went to Sister for spiritual direction for about eighteen months. In that time, my prayer life blossomed exponentially from the blessings of that first week. My commitment and confidence grew as Sister gave me additional material to consider and as we discussed what I was experiencing in my prayer. She guided me, but the development of my prayer from that initial seed into a fully formed fruit was still, at its core, the work of the Spirit.
He was with me continuously, always taking what Sister gave me and opening it in wondrous ways so that I never grew bored and never doubted that I was on the right track. He guarded me against becoming arrogant. It would have been easy to become prideful and to believe I was doing this myself, that I was the source of my progress. But those thoughts never came. He protected me from myself by maintaining my sense of wonder at what was happening to me. My experience was so astonishing that I knew that someone as wretched as me (remember how I believed myself fit to judge God’s plan) could not be responsible for the Grace I was experiencing.
God’s plan for me was in motion. The only thing I can claim is that I cooperated. And that, I think, is also largely the Spirit. We know Mary to be Immaculate. I do not claim to share that status with her. But I think that somewhere, in those early days, I said a good enough yes that the Spirit felt He could protect me with some very small measure of the same protection He provided to Mary.
I can’t recall ever doing so, but I must have said a yes in my heart that allowed the Spirit to protect me from myself as God’s plan for this season of my life unfolded. My yes allowed the Spirit to restrict my freedom, at my request, enough that the seed of uneasiness that had been planted in me could grow to full fruition.
Thus, this seed did not fall on the path and get snatched away by Satan. It did not fall on the rocks and shrivel up at the first sign of adversity. It did not fall among thorns and get choked out by the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth. (In fact, the execution of my worldly responsibilities suffered during this time. My meetings with Sister happened during the workday. I snuck away from the office to meet with her, and I prayed in the morning, arriving late to work when the prayer kept me longer than I planned.)
In short, as the verse suggests, this seed grew to fruitfulness and was harvested.
It seems like I should be able to end my story now with “………. and I lived happily ever after.”
But the truth is, it did not take long after I stopped visiting with Sister for my prayer discipline to break down. I grew overconfident, thinking that I had the spiritual component of my life handled. I was too content, or immature, or even foolish to understand how to maintain what had been built. My son began to grow, and I had a second son, and then a third, and the demands of life escalated. I drifted away from the gains of my first spiritual success gradually. When I look back now, I can see that I did not realize things were slipping away until they were gone, and I did not have the wherewithal to truly miss them. I eventually stopped going to Our Lady of Loretto for prayer in the mornings and, in my pride, convinced myself I was good without the discipline of regular prayer.
In short, “the worries of this life” crept in and took control and I spent some time sleepwalking along the spiritual paths of my life.
Fortunately for me, the Holy Spirit kept some seeds from that first harvest and sowed them anew. I am sure He tried multiple times, with some seeds falling on the path when I missed them completely. There were times when concern for my faith life would surface and I would attempt to reestablish my prayer routine, only to have it quickly shrivel in adversity or be choked out by the concerns of the world. I did not become a bad person by any current cultural norm, but I was not the person that I had learned and yearned to be during that first period of fruitfulness.
But the Spirit never stopped trying and never gave up. Eventually, He sowed another seed of uneasiness that I could not shake. I went to see my pastor (who was the Director of Vocations for the Diocese) for advice and inquired about the Deaconate. He told me that the responsibilities of fatherhood needed my full focus and that I should not consider that vocation until later in life. (The second time I investigated the Diaconate, which was after I became a professed Franciscan, I was told that only candidates who spoke Spanish were being considered. It seems I am not meant to be a Deacon and I have surrendered that desire, at least for now.)
Father did, however, suggest a couple other options I could explore that he thought would be less demanding. One of these was the Secular Franciscans. It took me some time to follow through and the first couple times I called my messages were not returned. It turned out that the Spiritual Advisor was in ill health and unable to keep up with the needs of the fraternity. Despite these false starts, the seed of my second unease never faltered. I continued to call sporadically, a new Spiritual Advisor was appointed, my call was returned, and the seed of a Franciscan vocation began to prosper.
This experience was similar in many ways to the first. The wonder and mystery of the first experience was reinvigorated by the formation I was offered. I again found myself astonished at the perspectives that God was opening before me through the example of St. Francis of Assisi. In particular, the Franciscan theme of Spiritual Poverty resonated with me. I found that in some sense I had already adopted the Franciscan point of view, I just never knew that “Franciscan” was the proper label for it.
Again, I could not tell you how I arrived at that point of view. That was a seed that had grown in me and reached fruition without my ever identifying it. I just knew that when I started hearing about Spiritual Poverty, it was something I needed to embrace and understand. Money was already unimportant to me. The Spirit knew before I did that the opportunity of Franciscanism would come to me, that He wished me to embrace it, and therefore He prepared me for it without making me aware that He was working within me.
I never doubted my vocation as a Franciscan during formation. When the process was complete, I did not hesitate in becoming professed. One advantage of this seed is that its commitment is life-long. Where once I fell away from my prayer discipline, now I at least have a monthly meeting and a fraternal community to help me with accountability.
I have served as a Formation Director on both the local and regional levels. That has helped keep me engaged in my spiritual life even though, when I look back, it seems I have done the bare minimum of what could have been done in those roles. I do not claim to have reached a high level of proficiency in my spiritual life. My discipline is still poor and there are long stretches where I do not live my prayer life as consistently as I should. I have tried multiple times to engage what I believe to be a vocation as a spiritual writer, but I have not been able to sustain enough momentum on that front to test whether this is a true calling.
I am much more mature than I was twenty-five years ago when I first sought spiritual direction. It is unlikely that I will become overconfident in my approach to my spiritual life. But I still have a long way to go. It was only as I prepared for my trip that I realized that my lack of discipline is so indefensible that I cannot realistically expect to have the supernatural experience of God I yearn for. If I am honest with myself, I am not prepared for such an encounter.
I like to imagine becoming a saint, but I also realize that I am so far from holding the intensity of Holiness this would require that it is hard to imagine there is enough time in my life to make such progress.
I like to think at this stage that I have enough sense to recognize how very far I must go, and to know that the only way to get from here to there is to be carried. It is only the Spirit that can bring my life to a complete fulfillment of its purpose. It is only He who even knows for certain what that purpose may be.
But, then again, the Holy Spirit continues to plant seeds in me all the time. I believe the impetus toward my southwestern journey and the subsequent call toward this writing is just such a seed. I suppose that if He has not stopped planting seeds, He has not yet given up on the possibilities of what the rest of my life might become.
In the past, the Spirit changed me in the space of a week, or maybe even an hour. I said a good enough yes that he helped me with discipline and progress. Perhaps that can happen again. As the verses say, I do not know how the spiritual seeds of the Kingdom sprout and grow. But I know they do so according to the plan and Will of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And I know that They will bring them to fruition and harvest them for the good of the Kingdom when Their Time is fulfilled.
I have at times succeeded in the task of simply making myself available. When I was describing my approach to prayer during my trip, this is what I was practicing. I want to let the Word work in me and not get in the way of what the Word has planned for me. I seek the Spirit’s assistance in being able to do just this. This is the yes that I am now attempting to say to Him every day.
If He Wills it, this current seed will also be brought to full fruition.
All I can do is align myself with God so that His Word and Will might be done to me and fully fulfilled through me.
Understanding how to do this, then, is the goal of what follows.