I’m on vacation in a little beach house, presently by myself. It was nice to wake up on a Sunday morning and watch CBS Sunday Morning, which I rarely get to do since my parish Mass schedule is in the middle of its air time. It’s one of those shows I like to sit with coffee in hand and watch “cover to cover” in an un-time-shifted format. I don’t know why I won’t watch it after the fact, but I think it has something to do with the connection made with a person presenting live.
Afterwards, I began to set up for Mass. I always bring a Mass kit with me, including a little travel chasuble that my dad made during my first year of priesthood. Before Mass however, I must confess a struggle that had been with me all week: even with friends, I felt alone. A deep interior loneliness overtook me which I first found perplexing, but in retrospect I realize I was partially setting myself up to experience. Thankfully, God uses even my bad decisions as a classroom.
The past few months have been challenging. Transitioning to a new family of three parishes is taxing – in a good way: learning new names and faces, determining the needs of the people, unpacking boxes and personalities, establishing routines and working relationships, and encountering a new experience: a parochial vicar – an assistant priest to help me.
My Facebook followers and family know my mother has been struggling to rebound from a series of major surgeries and adjust to life in a skilled care nursing facility, which is bringing about a new transition for both of us as I attempt to care for her household needs and finances, however small.
And, not to make this all about me, but these multiplied, concurrent experiences have brought me to the point where, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread*.” Needless to say, for about a year, I’ve been angling towards this block of dates on the calendar: The Beach House, it says longingly on my planner.
So, here I sit, midway through this vacation where I expected to find rest, relaxation, and peace. And until this Sunday morning, I had only been able to find two out of the three.
I made a dangerous gamble this trip, which I always know is potentially deadly: I stopped praying. I’m so exhausted! I kept hearing in my mind. And, like the sirens of Greek mythology who promise safety to sailors with their alluring music, all the while planning to leave their prey to starve and rot on the rocks, I heard in that phrase a subtle siren of misdirection into tapering off my prayer and attention to the Divine Office to obtain the antidote for exhaustion.
I remember the words of the Cardinal, Christoph Schönborn, who spoke at Notre Dame Seminary when I was a student, who remarked that it was all the rage in his time as a seminarian to experiment with so-called “alternative spirituality.” “One time, for a year, I stopped praying.” With eyes intent, he looked at us, as if making eye contact with each individual, and said, “…this nearly cost me my life. Do not, under any circumstances stop praying.”
Now, admittedly, I did not intend to make a laboratory of my prayer life on this vacation, but like so many, simply drifted out of the traffic lane and onto the shoulder, never intending to reach the ditch. And so, Saturday night, as I lay down to sleep, I realized that I was in fact more exhausted, less peaceful, and had arrived at the moment of aloneness-tending-toward-despair. It rather surprised me, actually.
I’ve had difficulty in prayer before, as we all must in order to grow more deeply in love with The Lord, and even struggled in “showing up” for prayer with attentiveness. But, recently weighed down with freshly hewn crosses, I have never quite arrived at this moment of silence without peace. It was a silence with no expectation of an answer – even prayer in desolation reaches out for a response from God. It was empty, it was unsettling, spiritual morphine. And I slept.
This morning, as I watched CBS Sunday Morning with as sense of accomplishment – Finally alone! Finally able to watch a favorite program without a schedule to keep! A communion with live television. – I made breakfast and relished my liberation, all the while knowing there was a thread of discipline which I could not shirk (nor did I want to do so, for that matter) – the absolute necessity of the priest offering Sunday Mass pro populo, an intention for my parishioners, which is a requirement of a pastor of souls.
And so, happily and surprisingly not reluctantly, I consented to do my duty. I waited an hour after eating, set up for Mass, vested, and began the entrance antiphon:
Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I cry to you all the day long.
O Lord, you are good and forgiving, full of mercy to all who call to you.*
Even the Mass had caught me red-handed. I had stopped crying out and was about to embark on a liturgy of duty and not of devotion. For this, God would not punish, but he would draw me into his mercy – now that I had rediscovered I was in need of it!
As I recited the Creed, I was brought low as I inclined my head – near to tears, as I met my parishioners who would profess this same creed several hundred miles away. This was the beginning of a communion, an ecclesia: God drawing an assembled and chosen people to Himself for the purpose of worship of something other than the empty god of relief-from-obligation.
Mass proceeded consolately through the Eucharistic Prayer, The Words of Institution, The Communion, and Post-Communion. But it wasn’t until I was packing my vestments away and folding up my Mass kit that I realized something had persisted past the final blessing. Peace.
The peace I thought for sure was to be found in not having to pray could never have been found there. It was only found in being in holy communion with Jesus, with my parishioners for whom I am obliged to pray, and even with my mom who lay in her bed recovering this morning. Peace comes not in depriving food from the immortal soul, but rather in allowing it to be fed by The Very Soul of The Son of God Himself with the food He sets out.
Jesus, who stands at the center of existence, draws all flesh to Himself. Unlike the mythological siren who can only call and not feed, Jesus calls precisely to offer super-substantial food.
The siren leaves the unsuspecting prey to rot and despair of rescue. The Lord draws the wave-tossed in to vivify and assure of rescue. He desires only that we call out for Him, not as an empty siren, but as a soul seeking communion – and even if we forget to call out, He waits to amaze us again with His mercy.
This was the general content of my post-communion reflection today. I wasn’t going to set it to writing, but was gently nudged to do so by The Lord who said softly, “Christopher, someone else is listening to that dangerous song. Write this for them.”
To you, whoever you are, do not stop praying! Call out! He is waiting.
P.S. Hah! And it’s the feast of St. Augustine today. Nice one, Lord. Nice one.