Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Get on the Road to Discipleship - A guide by Dr. Gary Knight

Father Bob Bedard, founder of the Ottawa-based Companions of the Cross, was known for the quip “be one who’s sent, not one who went !”. A friendly retort “be one who’s called, not one who’s stalled” will need to wait, while we look briefly at this important character of the disciple: a discerning spirit. Again, like nearly everything else, this is a continuing goal of formation more than it is a prerequisite for being a disciple. The only discerning prerequisite is that of James and John who thought it may be good to ask Jesus “where do you dwell?”. Every disciple should start with that question; because when Jesus says “come and see” it is the first step of seeing something new, and of walking with Christ.
Seeing something new is just what Jesus promised, in some humour, to Nathaniel who’d been convinced of Jesus’ lordship in that Jesus had seen him spiritually communing with God under a fig tree. “You will see greater things than these” Jesus said to a man whose character was already so advanced that he had no deceit (or conceit, which is self-deceit), and had ‘seen’ that Jesus must be the messiah. ‘Greater things’ would mean Jesus curing lepers, raising persons from death (Lazarus, the widow’s son, the little girl Tabitha), he Himself rising from the tomb, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Jews and Gentiles alike. Nathaniel Bartolomeus - the son of Tolomeus (Talmai) - would see himself raised from death into glory.
Discernment is a marvellous faculty of the soul growing in grace, or conformity with the mind of Christ. It is often described as ‘light’ or enlightenment: enablement to see something new. Sometimes it is to see something old and even hidden, in a new light. Not all that discernment gives to the disciple’s mind is about good things: it is as often about bad things newly seen to be avoided.
A positive example is the ‘light’ dimly dawning for the woman at the well, who said “I see that you are a prophet” when Jesus recited her (extra)marital history.  A negative example is Jesus discerning what was in the hearts of the questioning Pharisees on more than one occasion. A modern example is finding (as pope Benedict did) that ‘pluralism’ may look on the surface as harmless as diversity; but if it means ideological pluralism it is found to have a monolithic secular agenda against the truth.
A place where the surface scripture suggests Jesus did not ‘discern’ is where he asks a question “why did you strike me?”. But seen more deeply, His adroit discernment was what the abusive temple guard needed to ask himself: “if I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but if not, ask yourself ‘why do you strike me’?”. If later the guard should soul-search, he might have been saved like repentant Peter.
Discernment is closely linked to and taught by the Word of God, which saint Paul describes as keener than a two-edged sword, able to pierce between the marrow and the bone: the marrow which is hidden from view made clear to the anatomist of the joint. It pierces and brings to light the hidden thoughts of many, as the prophet remarked about the Word nestling in Mary’s arms. All of which is to say that no disciple can develop or hone a trustworthy discerning character without daily meditating on the Word of God: scripture in its entirety and the words of Jesus in very particular.
Even the inspired words of the Church as expressed in the prayers of the divine liturgy beget discernment. Attending to all these words and actions of Jesus and His body (for to speak is still a bodily gesture) is to ‘ponder them in the heart’, as Mary constantly did. The fruit of heart-felt pondering, such as experienced by the disciples at Emmaus, is bright discernment. “Did our hearts not burn within us?” It is why Augustine so perceptively urged “I would that all would think in their heart”. Otherwise,  we remain quite undiscerning.

Patience is sometimes called the crowning virtue, because if it is truly cultivated as an indelible character, it means no less than an intimate share in the passion of Christ. Those two words ‘patientia’ and passion are closely linked. To have patience with someone, or (equally important) with oneself is to wait upon the Lord. The death of Christ was not quick and summary, as he in his human nature might have wished, but long and tortured. He endured it patiently, even while ‘pressed’ or ‘vexed’ at its long coming, ‘waiting on the Father’. After having to feel the most abject abandonment, as sin on the cross,  He could say “it is finished”.
Disciples must learn to have patience with themselves and with others. One might feel impatient with a brother whom he’s already forgiven seven times; but the Lord counsels to do that stretch at least seven-fold more, signifying an indefinite number of times. A prisoner feels most impatient when he does not know when or if he will be released, with ticking time chaffing in his shackles. Likewise those who testify to the sanctity of life, and are kept at bay or in confinement by unjust laws, can barely endure the test of patience. But real patience is one of those signs that provokes others to ask “what can be the reason for your hope?”.
Patience in the disciple is developed by all the other exercises, since nothing changes solidly in any short order. We may read into this a supernatural law: there is a problem of evil, and its only recompense is an endurance with the Lord. The final prayer of any aspiring soul must be, Lord, help me endure: grant me that grace of final perseverance. It is the fulness of patience taken to the end, or what saint Paul calls the ‘finish line’. Not a few marathoners would die enroute, and Paul would say that they too had crossed the finish line and won the laurel.
The only ones who don’t ‘win’ are the ones who drop out of the race. In worldly terms, even dropping out is no loss if it means resuming again or entering a later race better prepared. The  analogy limps, in the spiritual walk, because to opt out of the hike for heaven is to accept the peril of being overrun by the wolves of the night.
But the borrowed truth is twofold. One: persons who formerly abjured the faith under fear and duress, but who recant and return to the fold, are welcomed by God with open arms. Two - and this similar - the disciple who backslides by any number of ways: imprudence or misuse of discernment, carping at obedience, impatience for reward or consolation a long time missing, is equally in peril.  Again though, should he or she repent, seek Mercy, and by grace resume their trek, they will be aided on and none of their delay held against them. What matters is to finish, and it is imprudent to risk delay. Thus patience and vigilance relate to prudence, the better part of wisdom, which of course is a principal gift of the Spirit.

Just about everyone has to eat the humble pie of failing to correspond fully, every day, to the calling of holiness. As the Lord says, whoever denies that he or she is a sinner is a liar.  As an aside .. you might wonder how that applies to sinless Mary or even Jesus, but there is no conflict because, while they never could have affirmed sin, they never undertook to deny it. “If I testify to myself, my testimony is void”. Even had they declared their sinlessness they wouldn’t be liars, but the point is, they didn’t. “The Lord has had regard for the lowliness of His handmaid”; and (to Satan’s invite) “you shall not tempt the Lord your God”. Many of Jesus’ challenging sayings, like “who is my mother?” and “shall the dogs be fed?” - can be better understood with that uncritical outlook, now so unpopular among biblical exegetes, to the great confusion of many.

Now, what character do we find in a person who has fallen back, like nearly anyone, but finds themselves saved from the downward spiral, or strengthened to confess and morally muscle on with increased resolve and sore memory of lessons learned? The distinctive character of this ‘realignment’ is Joy !
Joy is not just happiness or gladness. The circumstances under which we struggle as Christians, including persecution, injustice or long illness, are often very unhappy. But Joy is supernatural, a kind of reward in Peace and Assurance that Jesus is mine, as the sweet revivalist hymn goes. It gives a stamina for ongoing hope that nothing else can explain. As St. Peter says, be ready always to answer those who will ask ‘what is the reason for your hope?’ [1 Peter 3:15]
Is Joy given only at the finish line? Decidedly not ! Blessed assurance is transmitted in reverse time as it were, from the realization of victory in Christ, back to the disciple still on the track, and not alone. It is a joy to be in the race with God invisibly yet palpably at one’s side. Who was it that salved my wounds with balm when by my own fault, or lack of vigilance, I ran into that pit of vipers? Jesus. Who was it that gave me hope to get myself back to the race, however disgraced in my fall, and covered me with a clean tunic? Jesus. Who has plotted this race including the forks in my road and my vicissitudes, and will see me to its happy end if I but keep on trusting? It is the Lord.
We’ve already said that peace and joy are intimates. The saying “preserve your soul in peace” is a guarantor of continued joy. This peace-filled character of joy is the visible and perhaps most compelling provocateur of that question from others “where comes your hope?”. Some of course will still say with hate or envy that it is both folly and madness. You’d seem to be out of your mind to have any joyful peace when striving to find resources for war-torn refugees, dying by the thousands of disease and dehydration in camps; or when giving pro-conscience witness despite draconian measures in a nazified state to silence it. But you do, and sooner or later that will prompt someone - preferably not the thought-police - to say, “where do you dwell?”. A disciple of Christ will say “come and see”, for “one thing do I ask, this alone I seek: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life”.

You sometimes find that responsible people with whom we must cooperate are, let’s say ‘pragmatic’ or down-to-earth to a fault. Even many a bishop is this way. A great caution about things spiritual is a good thing, coming from so many years of Christian history all too peppered with aberrations and excesses from ‘enthusiasm’, superstitions, ignorance of complex social and church factors, and countless other lurking dangers. The great concern is for wisdom not to be derailed by prideful presumptions or outlandish vanguard actions that have no rear-guard supply of grace.
Father Bob Bedard’s expression of this due caution, “be one who’s sent, not one who went” is an excellent precept. Yet, today there is also the extreme danger of compromising with secularity (which pope Benedict rightly called ‘aggressive’) that amounts to quenching the Spirit. If prodded by the Spirit, St. Paul advises “do not quench it”. My friendly rejoinder to father Bedard “yes, but if called, be not stalled” was something that he acknowledges in his own life, perhaps too long as a teacher or basketball coach. It is well received by anyone who’s developed an adept sense of where the Spirit leads and urges us. Caritas Dei urgit nos.
Caritas Dei is love, and to be Spirit-led is to be led by Love. To know Whom one is following, is real Joy. So, because of our weakness of discernment, it generally is better to be one who was sent than one who went; but being one who went is also excellent if the Spirit prompts you. This can easily be mistaken for or slip into activism per se, but as Saint Katharine Drexel said “we can trust God to take care of the master plan when we take care of the details”. The Spirit didn’t back Paul’s wish to go to Asia minor (and just imagine how different later Turkish and Arab history would be if he did), but He did back up his ventures the length and breadth of the Mediterranean. The Spirit confirmed nearly every word and deed of this man so in love with Christ, so over-joyed to have been found.
After a prayerful formation period, when Paul’s wish to enter Turkey was opposed by the Spirit, he like the horse in hand was not too stubborn to be turned aside. Four symbols or figures exist for the gospel writers, and if there were symbolic room for the ‘apostle untimely born’ (though not a gospel writer, and anyway Luke was his scribe) we could suggest a horse for Paul: a horse well-seated by the Holy Spirit. The bovine Ox is not so very far from the equine: with four hoofs it too  has great ‘understanding’, and can charge - especially with wings !

In the archdiocese of Quebec city, the oldest diocese  in Canada if not North America, the 216 churches in operation in 2011 (down greatly from the prior generation) are now 67, slated soon to be slashed to 37. In other words some 1 in 6 of the parishioners a decade ago - when the 49th international Eucharistic Congress was held in Quebec City - now attend church there. It is fair to estimate that ninety per cent of the children of nominally Catholic families in Montreal and Quebec know nothing true of the faith, and have no belief, while two generations ago most of them did.
The fallen away constitute a massive crop, spoiling for obdurate reversion back to tares when they had been golden wheat. To heed a harvest call, at least for the rest ready to fall, requires much circumspection. Given the pedophile and other abuse scandals in the Church, as well as the aggressive growth of paganism, one is caught between a tsunami and a volcano, and ‘redeeming the time’ in prayer is called for. But it also requires the zeal and boldness of Paul, infused with and led by the Spirit.
For years before that Eucharistic Congress, the Church was calling for the stirred-up gifts of the Holy Spirit.  After baptism, we came to ‘second’ the commitment made for us, to a bishop who ‘seconded’ it as well with the unction (Christening) of the holy Spirit. Still later, because of immaturity and dullness, the gifts may have needed stirring up by something like what Charismatics call ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’.
Father Bedard was asked about that, the questioner troubled with writings of Cardinal Suenens (cf. the Malines documents) which seemed to equivocate between confirmation and a ‘sacramental’ experience of quickening. Father Bob agreed that an easy read and acceptance of the roots of Charismatic renewal - historically an outgrowth of Catholic Action - is not for all. And if not for all, then the ‘born again’ consolations are not a sacrament. That said, the baptized Christian is to be ‘born from above’. One way to grasp that is to think of Baptism as one’s ‘second conception’, present life as gestation, and death in the Lord as new birth into Heaven. To fail to bring good account to the second birth is to suffer the ‘second death’ of perdition.
Popes who began to support the charismatic renewal, starting with blessed Paul VI, always expressed caution that adherents must work hard at retaining a Catholic identity. Three years ago a high-ranking Evangelical, unimpressed with priesthood or Mary or the promise of salvation after death, boasted “if you are involved in a Charismatic service today, in ten years’ time—inevitably—you are going to end up in one of my churches”. He speaks from well proven experience. It is tempting to say ‘unfortunately so’, except that it remains worth hoping that some who’ve left the Church in Quebec have indeed gone on to be fed on Scripture by evangelicals.
Father Bedard knew that Catholic identity requires close adherence to the Holy Spirit in liturgy. The same point was made almost a century before by Jean-Baptiste Chautard, cistercian author of The Soul of the Apostolate, an answer to the tendency to secular activism in Catholic Action. A preface to the classic includes this prayer (an ‘NIV’ type translation):
O Divine Fire, stir up in of all those who have part in Thy apostolate, the flames that transformed those fortunate retreatants in the Upper Room. Then they will be no longer mere preachers of dogma or moral theology, but men and women living to transfuse the Blood of God into the souls of others.
At confirmation, with character impressed by God, we are anointed ‘royal priests’, mandated to nurture and develop, or stir up the gifts of the Spirit. What is mandated is not automatic. Each anointed Christian (we won’t claim only Catholics fill the bill; but if not they, then whom?) is to develop character into the fullness of the ‘elect of God’. If the Spirit is the giver of saving gifts, He is the author and perfecter of everything that we need to be. Dom Chautard’s motto was “God Alone”, and clearly he was a disciple. The call to discipleship is to deepen not only the evangelizing or defending gifts, but to acquire like him the ability to mentor other souls.

In these brief reflections we have not expressly mentioned knowledge, fortitude, piety and the rest, or the wonderful attributes of love (“kindness, gentleness, displeasure at wrong” etc.). But these all come from the Holy Spirit as grace, which we can simply treat as a gratuitous share in the divine life of God.
A disciple cannot be anything if not a full-fledged Christian who appreciates, seeks, and tries to develop those gifts and virtues from week to week. And one who does not enough care to shun, with God’s help, vices, even vanity, sloth, gluttony and other outgrowths of self-indulgence and pride, is far from being able to avoid the mortal threats. Snakes on the path can hook their fangs into these very attachments, and cannot if we lack them. We keep in mind that the path lies largely in darkness, and if lit, it is often by a false or chimerical light: one cannot trust progress to oneself. If for that reason alone He sends us on in company, at least in twos and fours.
We trust implicitly our safety to the One who must often place blinders over equine eyes, lest we spook and buck or rear up, backing into snares; or we balk like stubborn mules thinking it safer to remain stuck in the valley of serpents. If “our hope is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth”, why should we ignore His firm spurring forward with a steady gait, or his gentle steerage on the reins to take a new link of the route ? Those of us He’s directing over the treacherous landscape may not all be taking the same links, but we may be sure we are making for Heaven and rescuing other strayed brumbies on the way.

Let it be said of all disciples that when the Lord said, “come and see”, we replied: I was full of Joy, alleluia, when I set out for the house of the Lord.

To His throne our Lord will not return a last time without the harvest, and there our pasture will be pleasant.   

“Even so, come Lord Jesus !”
The following reflection, by Dr. Gary Knight, on discipleship is a 'guiding text' originally developed for a series of five prayerful gatherings and discussion, covering two topics per meeting. It was piloted at St. George's Catholic church in Ottawa during the 2017-18 Advent & Christmas season, and was found edifying.  It is offered here by the author and his fellow disciples as a resource for other groups, or for individual reflection and encouragement in their growing discipleship.

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