Read for what it is worth the scripture of the binding of Isaac has got to be one of the scariest in the Bible. Beginning with the call to leave homeland, relatives and his father’s house and ending with the call to sacrifice his dearest son as a burnt offering Abraham endured ten tests of faith in realizing his vocation. The first trials are met with questions and evasions but this the last is met with silent trusting obedience. But why would God ask Abraham to sacrifice the son through whom God’s promise was predestined to be fulfilled? This is a riddle that shakes us to the core.
If God deals that way with Abraham, will God deal that way with me? What if I am asked to sacrifice what is most dear to me? There is no logical way to solve this riddle. What we need to do when we feel that we can’t bear what we called to is to practise the silence and trust of Abraham.
Don’t focus on the sacrifice. Focus on God. This story is meant to teach us that we must focus on God and put into practice the obedience of faith trusting that God is greater than our idea of God and that sometimes our fears, anger and shame are what need binding and burning up.
The following is an invitation to embody this scene in a practical way: Enter into prayer and consider what you most dread that God will call you to. In silence and in as much stillness as you can try to explore the feeling. Not with your mind but to try to feel it physically and emotionally. It will not be a pleasant feeling. Feel it anyway. You will want to get away from the feeling. Stay put and lean into the feeling you dread. As you sit the feeling will burn you, let it. Don’t run away. Let your stillness be your altar. Your discomfort is the Ram of distortion being burnt up. You are becoming the promise. Keep this practice up and you will grow in freedom and peace and you will be a blessing to the Nations.
Fr. Mark Blom OMI
I was preaching about our need to spend time in the cave in order to be able to walk across the stormy waters to Jesus on Sunday. I have found the story of Elijah in the cave a powerful expression of the different dimensions of our humanity where we relate to God. The great wind symbolizes the mind, the fire our hearts enflamed with passion and the earthquake, the most physical, our body’s deep instinctual energy. “But the Lord was not in them… but after the fire the sound of a sheer silence.” We begin to know, love and serve God by learning the behavior, sentiments and beliefs of our community. But the time comes when those fountains are too shallow for our thirst and we are ready for a more direct practice of communion. By withdrawing from thought, refraining from passion and stilling the body we create an inner and outer posture of complete attentiveness to the God who is always attentive to us. Silence is the medium of this most intimate exchange. More can come of this silence than from decades of learning, devotions and social justice. I invite people to consider the chair as their potential cave of encounter with the Lord.
There is a beautiful ancient city in the south of France called Aix-en-Provence (pronounced X.) It was founded in the year 123 before Christ and named for its famous springs of water by a Roman Consul. It is less famous for the birth of a child who came to be known as Charles Joseph Eugene de Mazenod and who founded the Oblates of Mary Immaculate an international order of Catholic Missionary Priests and Brothers. The culture, people and faith of Aix shaped Eugene to become one of the treasures in the Church’s history of evangelization. Aix truly was the spot where a passion to evangelize those who were abandoned by religion infected others who carried the message of Jesus with a new compassion and zeal around the world. I am here for three weeks of reflection and training with members of the Oblate community from across the world who receive and form the young men who wish to enter our first level of formation: the pre-novitiate. As we share with one another we are feeling a common passion that links us all to our founder and which again wishes to spread the gentle power of Christ’s love to all those who long to experience the promise of the Gospel.
Fr. Mark Blom OMI
Over my years of working with the Oblates, it has been a real pleasure and privilege to be invited into their various communities. Whether it was Oblate houses in Aix-en-Province, Rome, Ireland, San Antonio, or the various Canadian and US Oblate retreat centres, the Oblates have always been warm and gracious. As the Oblate director of the Anglo-Irish retreat centre said to a group of us, “You are very, very welcome here,” and we truly felt that we were.
Oblates are noted for their hospitality. It’s an integral aspect of their charism: they seek to ‘draw near’ to those among whom they minister. Their Founder, Eugene de Mazenod, even as Archbishop of a major diocese, maintained regular pastoral visits to the sick in the backstreet slums of Marseilles, joked with the fish wives in the open air markets, and held open office hours every morning in his offices. Forgoing the upper-class diction of the rich, he spoke in the patois of the common people, scandalizing his family and the Church hierarchy, but endearing himself to the people.
Today, the Oblates are still to be found among the people. Their mandate is to go where the church has not yet been ‘planted’ or, where it is present, to serve those whom the Church touches least. Thus you can find them establishing churches in mission countries, working with First Nations people in remote Northern missions, reaching out to people in inner city parishes, and ministering to HIV and AIDS sufferers, among other things. Their ministries are as diverse as the people who need them, and wherever they are, they will be saying, “You are very welcome here.” And they mean it.
It’s a very special thing to find a real welcome in this world of ours. Mother Teresa once said “We’ve forgotten we belong to each other.” Oblate hospitality helps us remember.
Sandra Prather, HOMI
For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self… God alone possesses the secret of my identity, he alone can make me who I am or rather, He alone can make me who I will be when I at last fully begin to be… The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God… The only One Who can teach me to find God, is God, Himself, Alone. Thomas Merton
St Eugene de Mazenod spent much of the first 20 years of his life searching in vain for his place; for his purpose in life. Then one Good Friday, while praying before the crucifix, Eugene became aware of God’s deep love for him in spite of his sin. This experience transformed him, and he knew that no matter what, he was called to serve God as a priest to serve the poor.
How is God calling me to spend my life? What state of life will best allow me use the gifts God has given to me? Which career path will bring me true happiness and joy? Is there someone out there for me, or could it be that God is calling me to celibacy? These are the questions of discernment, and they are helpful questions that every Christian would do well to ask themselves, and yet, these are not the primary questions of vocation, because vocation starts in another place. The Christian journey, as revealed in all of Scripture, and in the lives of the saints, is not about the call of the individual Christian, but rather about the One who calls! And once we move our focus from what is God’s plan for me to who is the God of the plan, the question of my place in God’s plan often takes care of itself.
Fr Ken Thorson OMI
Last night, I experienced something of this same mystery of communion. The group sat in silence, Associates and Oblates together. Flickering blue and red vigil candles illuminated the Blessed Sacrament placed reverently on the small altar. The silence grew among us as we entered more deeply into it until it carried its own weight and became almost palpable.
Our evening together had been rich. A visiting Oblate missionary spoke to us about the Canadian supported Oblate mission in Kenya. His vibrant photos and lively story-telling brought the people of that country and the Oblates among them vividly alive. One of our Oblate Associates, a part-time prison chaplain, brought in a print of a wall mural that has been installed in the new remand centre in our area. The individual tiles of the mural were created by inmates at the centre. A professional artist arranged them into a composite picture of a person standing on a winding road, moving from darkness into light. It was a powerful message of spiritual hunger, coming from our incarcerated brothers and sisters.
Thus the presence of the world and the concerns of its people were present to all of us in that darkened room. Each carried their own inner prayers; together we carried each other’s and the world’s. Words were not necessary, needed or even wanted. Instead the silence itself carried our prayer. The sense of intimacy of being united with each other and Christ as He is found in the Blessed Sacrament grew as the silence lengthened. It said more than words could ever say.
Mystic Meister Ekhart wrote that there is nothing so like God in this world as silence. Last night, in the presence of my Oblate brothers and sisters, I experienced that deep communion, and I am profoundly grateful for it.
Sandra Prather, HOMI
It’s hard not to have a little hope. There’s quite a few ‘signs’ if you are looking for them. There’s the more visible and immediate ones: eschewing much of the pomp and ceremony of the position, the fancy capes, red shoes and elaborate pectoral crosses. His now renowned simplicity of life: riding the bus to work back home; refusing to live in the palatial papal apartments in favor or a room in the guest house. He has the common touch: phoning the newsstand guy back home to explain why he wouldn’t be getting the paper anymore; paying his own hotel bill. He likes to wade into crowds, talk to ordinary people, often departs from his scripted remarks, has simplified the sometimes extravagant rituals of Roman liturgy. What’s not to like about Pope Francis?
There’s the deeper sensitivities too: an appealing humility when he asks people to pray for him; his gentle washing of the feet of the young offenders, including, shockingly for many, the feet of women and Muslims; his respectful acknowledgement at a meeting of journalists that he realized many of them were not Christians so his blessing would be in silence; his regard for inter-faith leaders as he made quick connections with many of them, including the chief Rabbi I Rome.
But most of all, there are his consistent messages: we must be a church for the poor and of the poor. The Church’s consistent social justice message must become not only a preached reality but a lived one. Internal squabbles about protocol, prestige and position are destructive to our Christian witness. The Church of Christ must be a welcoming church, a church that reaches out in service to the poor, the disenfranchised and the oppressed.
Pope Francis reminds me a little of Bishop Eugene de Mazenod. Although Eugene’s background was the aristocracy, he had a heart for the poor. His ministry was to those to whom the ‘official’ Church paid the least attention: the artisans, peasants and workers, the youth, the prisoners, and the rural parishioners. As bishop, his main floor office in Marseille was open to anyone who wanted to come and see him. He was familiar with both the backstreet slums and the fish markets and their denizens. He was often taken to task by the ‘officials’ of the church for his fervor, willingness to reach out to people and his impatience with any protocol that blocked peoples’ access to God.
Eugene was a bishop for the people and he was well loved for it. Might Francis be a Pope cut from the same cloth? We can hope. . .
Sandra Prather HOMI
Good Friday approaches and the cross of Christ looms large over the world. It looms large in our hearts too: witness young Eugene on his knees before it. Bitter are his tears as he realizes that it is love which is pinning Christ to that cross. Arms outstretched, hands and feet nailed firmly in place, the innocent Jesus suffers the darkest and starkest experiences of human existence. Victim of our sin, subject to all our weakness, he enters and undergoes the darkness of abandonment and death.
The abandonment begins early: in the garden, while Jesus is at prayer, drowsing disciples are oblivious to the plight of their master. “Could you not stay awake even one hour with me?” Betrayal in the form of a kiss comes from one of his inner circle. He is arrested and imprisoned, as his companions flee and he faces his future alone. A few faithful women remain, but even they are at a distance. Jesus’ loneliness culminates on the cross, as he ‘takes on the sin of the world’ and experiences the deepest abandonment of all: “My God, my God why have YOU abandoned me?”
Isolation, doubt, fear and pain: they are the outer boundaries of human experience and Jesus undergoes them and surrenders himself to them. “Into your hands, Father, I commit my spirit.” Into the abyss of death, the unknown darkness, the terror of the night, he lets himself fall. Into the silence and the depths, he entrusts himself to his father’s love.
It pierces Eugene to the heart, this realization of what Christ has endured for his sake. He feels the darkness, senses the depths into which Christ must plunge. At first, he is stricken with guilt, but, gracefully, gradually, as he gazes upon the pierced Body, it is replaced by gratitude. It floods in as Eugene realizes that God has undergone this for HIM, out of love for him, in order to pierce the darkness that surrounds his soul, in order to break the boundary of death that touches his life and all human life.
For Jesus’ trust is not misplaced. As he lets himself go into the hands of God, the heavens seem closed. Three days pass by. Suddenly, shockingly, the silence of the tomb is shattered: resurrection. An atomic blast of love rolls away the stone. God’s response to the Son’s abandonment is new life – eternal life, transformed life. The temple veil, the barrier between heaven and earth, death and life, is torn in two and nothing is the same anymore. Death itself has died.
The cross becomes Eugene’s centre. He feels himself embraced by love, bound no more by the burdens that weigh him down. Saved! Redeemed! Free! The words sing in his heart and he is impelled into a new fervor of faith and new mission. He simply must ‘go and tell the others’ – all the others – the Good News of Jesus Christ. His life’s desire is to witness to the Love expressedon that Cross – Love’s Depths, Love’s Power and Love’s Victory.
Eugene remains before the cross; he will not pass by. The question is, will we?
Sandra Prather HOMI
Lent this year begins exactly one month after Epiphany Sunday. The ashes of Lent have gifts differing than gold, frankincense and myrrh but no less important. In the Prophet Isaiah there is a compelling expression that can enliven our consideration of the Lenten journey which is a call to our true vocation:
I will give you the treasures of darkness
And riches hidden in secret places. Isaiah 45.3
St. John of the Cross once spoke of spiritual transformation as a descent into a darkness of the senses, the affections and the mind. In other words when our mind, emotions and bodily thinking calm down and become still and at peace in the sensory deprivation. In that deprivation the shallower parts of ourselves get desperate and panicky.
But if we can trust this stillness we will experience a deeper form of peace than comes when we are filled with ordinary light. We begin Lent reading that we are to fast, pray and give alms. That we are to go to our room and shut the door and pray to our Father who sees in secret and our Father who sees in secret will reward us. Fasting brings a darkness to the manifold craving of our appetite. Almsgiving brings a darkness to our desire for power and for more and better things. And prayer brings a darkness to the selfish part of ourselves that craves attention for itself. Prayer surrenders the attention, control and craving to God.
The truth is that this is what we most truly desire. In this darkness there are treasures beyond our thinking, feeling and wanting which is why they are like secrets: they cannot really be told or explained only known. But they are very real and they come to those who trust God to be in the darkness and who are willing to feel their way through the emptiness to a new form of abundance. Dear Friends, trust the way of the ashes this Lent, let them help you to find your own soul treasures, treasures that will never fade away.
Peace, Fr. Mark