The Gospel of John 1:1-11:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life, and that life was the Light of all mankind. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that Light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the Light; he came only as a witness to the Light. The true Light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him. He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him.
During these reflections I hope to give you some insight into what I experienced during my retreat last fall. I am going to be writing in the first person, using words like “I” and “me” to convey what it is that the Spirit “gave to me” during my journey. The ideas I hope to convey are, on one level, meant for me and the furthering of my own personal movement toward God. But, on another level, I am convinced that they were meant to be shared, which is why I am presenting them for your consideration.
Although I am writing in the first person, you are invited to put yourself in my place. I can believe that what I am describing is universally applicable, but you have the responsibility of discerning this for yourself. You need to decide whether what I am describing applies to your personal circumstances and to what extent. When you read the words “I” or “me,” do not relate them to me. Read them as if “I” and “me” is you and decide for yourself if these sentences describe your own experience and journey.
This week was the third Sunday in ordinary time, year C. The gospel began “a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.” This applies here. I am an individual part of a greater body. I must consider the Word and allow it (Him) to speak to my individuality. The Word applies to all of us, but the needs of each differ at any moment in time. One mystery of the Word is that it speaks to the needs of each of us eloquently despite the differences in our circumstances. The challenge is to fit the Word to my situation, my talents, and my calling so that it (He) continually moves me closer to God and my salvation.
These reflections originated in my journey, so it might be helpful to think of the overarching idea of “journeying” applying directly to them. If Penance, Poverty, and the Will of God were thought of as physical locations, the first stop on the journey would be Penance. The road from Penance leads to the Will of God, but it passes through Poverty on the way. As you observe my journeying, please be open to the idea that Penance, Poverty, and the Will of God are not individual locations that are connected by a vague and wandering path through the wilderness. Instead, they are intimately connected by a well-defined road that leads directly from one to another and beyond.
The beyond, the ultimate destination of this highway is a healthy, productive, and eternal encounter with God.
Just to be clear, If I understand and practice Penance properly, it inevitably leads me to a life with Spiritual Poverty at its center.
If I embrace Spiritual Poverty fully, it in turn inevitably moves me toward an undeniable desire to embrace the Will of God and make it the focus of my daily existence.
Living a life aligned with the Will of God is what will then take me to the ultimate location that I am seeking, which I might define as Heaven, but I prefer to think of as eternal encounter with God. This is because the encounter happens not just in Heaven, but now as well. I should be looking for opportunities to encounter God for the entire length of the journey.
The flow of this journey from Penance through Poverty to the Will of God is the essence of what the Spirit gave me during my retreat and it is at the core of what I hope to convey through these reflections.
The road I wish to describe, however, does not begin with Penance. It begins with a frank recognition and acceptance of what it means to bear the human condition through this earthly life conferred on me by God. I must honestly acknowledge the essence of my being. Conveniently, there is another beginning which can help me understand this starting point, and that is the opening of the gospel of John, which I have quoted above.
The first thing I must accept is that “through Him all things were made.” All things, by definition, includes me. “Without Him, nothing was made that has been made.” Without Him, I would not exist.
And not only was I initially created by Him, but His creation of me is ongoing. His Love sustains me moment by moment in my earthly existence. My worldly life will end the moment He, in His Wisdom, chooses to use His life-giving Love to transfer me from here to whatever awaits me.
My identity as a creature, as something Lovingly created by God and fully dependent on God, is fundamental to understanding the starting point of the journey.
Repetition of the word “Love” is not accidental. Love brought me into being and it nurtures me endlessly. I am created by Him and for Him through His Love. My essential and eternal purpose is to return His Love to Him and thereby to participate enthusiastically and willingly in His plan to increase the amount of Love present in the Cosmos. The purpose of all His Creation is the expansion of Love. The purpose of my individual Creation is to contribute to that expansion.
But Cosmos is not the right word. I do not know what word to use. I am not sure the right word exists. By Cosmos I mean God in the broadest and most limitless sense my feeble human imagination can conjure. The purpose of Creation is the expansion of Love within the full and complete effusiveness of God. He is Creation. Creation is He. I might say the Cosmos and God are intertwined, but even that suggests a degree of separation that is incorrect. They are one and the same and Love is another name for them. They are already limitless, and yet, they are building, growing, and expanding and God asks me to participate with Him in that work.
He has no boundaries, but I still must think of Him as ever increasing. As each of us returns His Love in thankfulness for our Creation, as the overall amount of Love present in the Cosmos expands, He expands with it to both contain and diffuse all that Love. The cycle is repetitive and circular. He uses his Love to create. We return His Love as an expression of gratitude for our Creation. In the process, more Love comes into being, but He does not hoard that Love to Himself. Instead, He returns it to us again and again, using it to Create more and more.
Love is both the fuel and the product of an engine of Life and Light that God placed into motion at the beginning of History, maintains through current times, and projects into the future. He is always increasing as Love is always increasing and it is this perfectly constructed engine that energizes and guides the entirety of His Conception.
And all of it is Good, for, as Francis wrote for us in The Praises of God,
You are the holy Lord God Who does wonderful things. You are strong. You are great. You are the most high. You are the almighty king. You holy Father, King of heaven and earth. You are three and one, the Lord God of gods; You are the good, all good, the highest good, Lord God living and true. You are love, charity; You are wisdom, You are humility, You are patience, You are beauty, You are meekness, You are security, You are rest, You are gladness and joy, You are our hope, You are justice, You are moderation, You are all our riches to sufficiency. You are beauty, You are meekness, You are the protector, You are our custodian and defender, You are strength, You are refreshment, You are our hope, You are our faith, You are our charity, You are all our sweetness, You are our eternal life: Great and wonderful Lord, Almighty God, Merciful Savior.
Does that make sense?
He is “the Good, all Good, the highest Good.” This is without question.
However, the same cannot be said about me. The second thing I must accept as part of the human condition that defines the starting point of the journey is this: I often fail to fulfill my end of the bargain.
My primary responsibility in the order of Creation proclaimed by God is to return His Love to Him. All too often, however, in my sinfulness, I forget not only that responsibility, but I forget about God completely as “the worries of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth” grow and choke out the seeds of Love planted in my heart on an ongoing basis by the Spirit.
I forget or ignore the immense Love that brought me into being and that sustains me moment by moment. Instead, I find myself full of deception and self-focus and I begin to think of myself as my own creation. I am in control and my destiny will be determined by me, not by the God who, no matter how much I deceive myself, I remain dependent on.
In terms of the beginning of the gospel of John, I do not “recognize and receive Him as He comes to that which is His Own.”
The world was made through Him. He was and continues to be in the world. The world and everything in it, including me, belongs to Him. And yet I barely remember to thank Him. I barely spend any time with Him. I am always distracted away from Him. The greatest benefit of my trip was the ability to set aside, at least for a little while, most of my worldly distractions. I was able to concentrate on Him much better. At times I was able to simply sit with Him or walk with Him or read with Him without having to worry about all the normal anxieties of life. I cannot tell you how refreshing this was.
But as soon as I got back, Christmas intruded on the peace I hoped to maintain. That sounds like a horrible thing to say, but I know from personal experience that Christmas is a superlative example of what I am describing. Christmas is meant to be a time where I prayerfully focus on His Advent, His coming into the world. Instead, it is the season most full of distraction, the season where I fail most consistently, completely, and spectacularly to set aside the concerns of the world in favor of simply being with Him, just the two of us, away from everything that separates instead of unites us.
My intentions start out good. I want to honor Him in the season. But somehow, the preparations become the focal point and He gets lost in the rush to get everything just right so that maybe, at the end, I can find a couple moments to be with Him. At best, my good intentions wind up being ninety percent about preparation and ten percent about prayerfully celebrating His Advent. That is how it is, and it seems impossible to get around it.
And then, as soon as Christmas is over, I find myself trying to catch up on every worldly thing that got neglected during the Season. The enemy is very good at what he does, and I am very poor at resisting him. Worldly distraction is always present. There is always something pending that seems too pressing to ignore. “If I can just get such and such behind me, then I can concentrate on God!” But such and such never ends, and the enemy is always calling me to the next relentless distraction.
My sinfulness persists in ways that I often fail to realize. I am so set in my habits that what started out as willful recurs on autopilot. I careen through life wrapped up in and diverted by earthly concern and my ability to “recognize and receive Him” withers away from deflection and inattention.
I am a sinner. On the highway to Heaven, I am a pothole, a detour, or a roadblock. In the engine of Life and Light, I am the burr that keeps the cogs from turning or the dirt that gums up the works.
Or, in terms of the OFS Rule, I am frail. Article seven states:
“Human frailty makes it necessary that conversion be carried out daily.”
This describes my human condition perfectly. I am weak, fragile, and feeble. I am easily manipulated and sidetracked. I have great intentions, but most often I lack the fortitude to see them through. I am imperfect, helpless and in need of bolstering.
I am incapable of healing myself and I need the assistance of the God who created me, the God whom I must depend on. If I do not recognize and accept this, my journey toward Heaven and salvation will be derailed before it ever starts.
The third thing I must acknowledge at the beginning is that, fortunately for me, God, in His All-Loving Wisdom, is aware of my need. He understands my sinfulness and my dependency. In His Mercy, He makes provisions to send me help.
Therefore, as the opening words of John remind me, He sends “the true Light that gives light to everyone” into the world. This Light “shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.” It is “the life that is the Light of all mankind.”
God sent Jesus into the world as an antidote to my sinfulness. Not our sinfulness, but my sinfulness, specifically. If I were the only person that He ever created, still, in His Mercy, He would have sent Jesus to me to make my salvation possible. I may be an individual part of a greater body, but God is individually concerned with the salvation of this individual part. He wants me to be saved. He wants me to enjoy the eternal encounter with Him that is Heaven. He Loves me unconditionally and He sends His Son into the World to save me!
This is an astounding thing to consider. I must recognize and accept that I am unworthy of this action by God. The accumulated weight of the sins of my life ought to make me repulsive to Him. It ought to make me unlovable to Him. If He was like me, He would distance Himself from me, not seek to draw closer to me. He would look at my case and toss me aside, knowing that I am unfit to be remembered by Him, let alone to be admitted into His presence for all of eternity.
Instead, He sends His Son into the world “not to call the righteous, but to call sinners.” To call me. He sends His Son to be a True Light that shines against my darkness, more than bright enough to overcome that darkness if I will simply turn toward the Light and believe in Him. He sends His Son into the world to call me back from the brink, to make forgiveness feasible, to make redemption and salvation possible.
And He did not do this once. He does it every day. Every day He sends His Son into the world tens of thousands of times as Mass is celebrated. Every day the sacrifice of the Son is remembered, recreated, and repeated as the Eucharist is blessed on the altar in the hands of the priest.
St. Francis affirms this in his First Admonition:
Behold, each day He humbles Himself as when He came from the royal throne into the Virgin’s womb; each day He Himself comes to us, appearing humbly; each day He comes down from the bosom of the Father upon the altar in the hands of a priest.
He further instructed his followers, in the Later Admonitions, to respect priests unreservedly, even if they are sinners. This is because they are the agents of His daily coming. When they consecrate the Eucharist, preach the Word, and administer the sacraments, they make Christ truly present to me in the world:
We must also frequently visit churches and venerate and revere the clergy not so much for themselves, if they are sinners, but because of their office and administration of the most holy Body and Blood of Christ which they sacrifice upon the altar, receive, and administer to others. And let all of us know for certain that no one can be saved except through the holy words and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which the clergy pronounce, proclaim, and minister.
Jesus comes to the entire world, every day in every location, to continue His saving work. He is tireless and indefatigable. He never rests, but instead works continuously, around the globe and around the clock, to ensure the salvation of as many souls as possible.
Beyond the Eucharist, the Son is also truly present in Scripture as the Word. I have always recognized the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but it was only because of the reading I did on my trip that I came to recognize the true presence of Christ in His Scripture.
In his book on Lectio Divina, Seeking His Mind: 40 Meetings with Christ, Father M. Basil Pennington, O. C. S. O., put it like this:
If one enters the abbatial church at St. Joseph’s Abbey (and this is not the only place one will find this), one will always find two lamps burning: one burns before the tabernacle, proclaiming the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic; the other burns before the sacred text enthroned in the middle of the choir, proclaiming a real presence of Christ the Word in his Scriptures. The word abides in the Bible ever ready to speak to us. Our Bibles should never be just put on the shelf with other books or left haphazardly on our desks. They should be enshrined in our homes and offices, proclaiming a real presence.
I can be strengthened not only by the Body and Blood of Christ when I partake in the Eucharist, but also by Christ as the Word, ever present in Holy Scripture, particularly when I practice Lectio Divina. I can pick up my Bible, invoke the aid of the Holy Spirit who was promised to me by Christ and by my Baptism, and I can truly encounter Christ at any time I wish by reading the Word.
And finally, God is also truly present in His Creation. “Through Him all things were made.”
The reason I can appreciate beauty is because this faculty allows me to recognize Him in every aspect of the physical world He has so Lovingly placed me in.
On my trip, my attentiveness was freed from most of the distractions that normally cripple it. This encouraged many meaningful appointments with Him as I traveled through His Creation. I can recall these encounters as if I am still in the moment:
- He is present in the reflection of the trees on the gently rippling water as it enjoys the same cool breeze I feel on my face when I arrive in southeast Arkansas late in the afternoon on the first day of my trip.
- On Port Aransas Bay, He lights up the night sky with a full moon that, when I take a picture of it through a cloak of wispy clouds, gives off a spectacular aura that somehow does justice to every shade of red in the rainbow. I can only experience this startling sight because the technology of my phone captures light my eyes could not otherwise see. This technology is only available because He makes it possible.
- The shallow water that barely trickles around my feet as I stand in the center of the Frio River reminds me that He is responsible for the dry season that cycles through the hill country of Texas every year. I wonder, when the spring rains fall and filter down through the maze of scenic hills surrounding the river valley, will I be able to stand in the replenished river in the spot I now occupy? Or will the depth or the rush of the water make it inaccessible to me? Thankfully, the river, no matter what state it is in, reminds me that He is always accessible.
- The aquifers flowing beneath the desert in eastern New Mexico source their water from snowfall that melts off mountains visible far to the west from a rock face above a cenote that serves as an oasis of life in an otherwise barren landscape. Erosion of limestone that is the remains of the creatures that lived in the sea that once occupied this barren landscape creates subsurface voids that cause the structural collapse that allows the subsurface water to fill the crater that is the cenote. These miraculous sequences are surely evidence of the exquisite detail He employs to fashion the wonders of nature that are just as surely meant to continually call me back to awareness of Him.
- Mount Graham thrusts eight thousand feet above the valley that holds my campsite in eastern Arizona. The road that leads to the top of the mountain is so curvy that I turn back before I reach the top because of the disorientation I feel at the vastness that greets me over the edge of every turn. The might, grace, and glory of that landscape physically repulses me, but still my spirit is inexorably drawn to it. The potent solidity of the mountain reminds me of the Loving steadfastness of my Creator. The mountain seems as if it has been there forever, watching over the landscape below. He has been there forever, watching over me and every other element of His Creation.
- On the last evening, I sit in awe as He sends the setting sun reflecting off the cliffs across the Colorado River from my vista in western Arizona, blessing me with an original shade of orange that forces me to thank Him for every blessing He has ever brought into my undeserving life. It seems as if that color was created just for me, so that, despite the vastness of every scene I passed on my journey, I would know that I was still the focus of His enduring Love.
As a Franciscan, I of course feel obligated to give recognition to some birds I met along the way.
- Brother Roadrunner walks up to within a foot of me as I stand motionless watching him dart about catching grasshoppers with an agility I cannot follow with my naked eye. The ranger watching me watching him asks, “How did you do that?” Roadrunners are notoriously skittish, but this one graces me so that I recall my spiritual father Francis, his reverence for Creation, and the joy it brought him.
- Sister Kestrel repeatedly crashes through the tree that shades my campsite in pursuit of a midday meal, but the unknown sister bird she pursues manages to escape. I think of the deep connectedness of Creation and the Canticle of Creatures so lovingly composed by Francis, and I stop and wonder at all the brothers and sisters I am surrounded by. Sister Kestrel is following her nature, but all too often, my nature brings harm to that I am responsible for nurturing.
I did not mention it above, but God is also present in the people I interact with every day. This means that the kindness of those I met along the way also manifested His Love for me in multiple ways.
- A man in New Mexico tells me that he sold his home in southern California and is journeying cross country in his RV as he seeks a new place to live. He has a YouTube channel. As he goes, he is visiting significant Catholic sites along the way and posting videos so his friends can see and appreciate the beauty he encounters in these places. He used to be on the security detail for a bishop, and he leaves a note on my windshield offering to put me in contact with a friend if I want to tour the cathedral and meet the bishop when I get to California.
- A man in Arizona stops and chats with me each day as he walks his dog in the evening. Unbidden, he is keeping an eye on my site for me when I am off hiking. We do not talk about anything special, but the gentle kindness of this man is striking. Somehow, after each conversation, I feel better about the world. It is a rare charism; one I have only encountered in people I knew to be holy.
There could be a hundred or even a thousand bullet points added to this list if I had the patience and the acuteness of memory to list every breathtaking example of His presence that I experienced on my trip. Today, I am reminded of it all again as I look out the window and watch a gentle snowfall slowly cover the ground.
He is present throughout His Creation while, at the same time, He encompasses it. It is an incomprehensible mystery to me. His constant coming and availability, when I take time to remember and welcome them, fill me with astonishment.
All this means that His Mercy and Forgiveness are not distant concepts. He truly came in the Incarnation. He continues to truly come in the Eucharist. He is truly present and available in Scripture as the Word. He is truly present in His Creation, which means He is truly present within me as a creature brought into being by His Loving Hand.
His presence is quite literally everywhere, and yet all too often, I find ways of sinfully ignoring Him.
But still He persists. He remains accessible to me in all these different ways. His mission of calling sinners to repentance is that important. My redemption and salvation are paramount. He insists that I find my way home.
Why? Because He Loves me that much!
There is one last aspect of beginning found in these opening verses of John that I wish to present.
John the Baptist came to us as “a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.”
The final aspect of beginning is this need to believe, to have faith.
I have been praying with the gospel of Mark, chapter five, the last few days. It contains one of the greatest expressions of faith contained anywhere concerning the power of Jesus, and the power of belief in Him as the Son of God capable of healing all our sufferings and iniquities. This story speaks to the healing of a physical ailment, but it also speaks metaphorically to the healing of our souls from sin. (Mark 5:25-29)
“And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped, and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.”
“If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” This is the saving power of belief in Jesus. The woman has looked throughout the world for healing for her suffering, but she has not found it. In fact, the harder she looked, the worse her suffering became. But when she just comes close enough to Jesus to touch his cloak, she is healed.
What is the response of Jesus? He turns to find out who has drawn power from Him. The woman is scared, afraid that this teacher might be like the other teachers, offended by her forwardness. But Jesus is not affronted by her audacity. Instead, He is moved by her faith. He tells her in verse thirty-four, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
This is not the only story where Jesus is moved by faith. In chapter one of Mark, a leper comes to Jesus full of belief and says to Him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus, “filled with compassion, reaches out with His hand and touches the man,” curing him.
In chapter eight of Matthew, just after Jesus heals the leper above, he encounters a Roman centurion seeking a cure for his servant. Jesus offers to accompany the soldier to his home but the soldier replies, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” He acknowledges the far-reaching power of Jesus and suggests that Jesus just heal the servant from where they stand. Jesus replies by saying “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” And the servant is healed at that moment.
Jesus responds to faith. He responds to belief in Him. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” Every time we sin, we are injured, and we die a little bit. But every time we embrace belief and faith in Jesus, it gives Him the opportunity to restore our health and life. This is the essence of a life well lived. We try, we fail, and we return to Him in search of His Mercy because we believe that in His overwhelming Loves for us, He will grant it.
In the same article of the OFS Rule where the frailty of the human condition is mentioned, it is followed immediately by this: “On this road to renewal the sacrament of reconciliation is the privileged sign of the Father’s mercy and the source of grace.” Grace is the ability to believe that in the sacrament, Jesus can and will heal our souls from the damage they have taken due to sin.
This is the attitude of faith that I must carry forward into the rest of these reflections. I must pray for my faith to be increased. I must return to these stories often and refresh my belief in the healing power of Jesus. I must have faith that Jesus wants me to make progress in my relationship with Him. He wants me to experience His Mercy. He wants to forgive me.
He wants to make me fully capable and fully qualified to participate in His Father’s plan for the expansion of Love. I am not meant to be a detour on the road or grime fouling up the gears. I am meant to be a fully functioning, healthy participant in the plan of God. One of many who uses her/his individual gifts and talents to serve the impeccable plan of God for the coming of the Kingdom and the salvation of all who are simply willing to, as John the Baptists testified, believe in the Light and the life that came and continues to come into the world.
This is what I am called to, and the healing power of Jesus can restore my soul to working condition whenever the wear and tear of this life makes it fray.
The woman in the gospels believed that “if she could just touch His clothes,” she could be healed.
I believe that when I encounter Him in the Eucharist, or in Scripture, or in His Creation, His healing power and Mercy are available to me.
He can make me whole.