The People of God as Temple
Should one seek God in solitude or in human relationships? It is widely accepted that both ways are valid. With regard to solitude, think of the anchorites of the early Christian era; with regard to human relationships, think of the worker priests of the 20th century. Or we can think of St. Thérèse of Lisieux as a model for contemplation and St. Francis Xavier as a model for action.
There is a third possibility, which is to seek God in solitude and social contact, trying to find an appropriate rhythm of alternation, like the ebb and flow of the tide along a beach.
Without minimizing the spiritual benefit of solitude, here I would like to explore the possibilities of seeking God through contact with people. Is there not a spirituality that comes from relating to people, especially the simplest of people? I would like here to pay tribute to the many simple people who, by being who they are, have helped and are helping me to be a priest and a religious.
Who will deliver us from sadness?
People are suffering today. We priests and religious do not suffer in the same way. For example, we lack neither work, nor material goods, nor access to health care, nor the means and opportunities for our ongoing formation.
In recent times people’s suffering has increased. We are in danger of enclosing ourselves in a cocoon, like a silkworm, and of settling into our priesthood and our religious life as a refuge, thus remaining in comfort and security.
It was not to the religious but to the simple people of Corinth that Saint Paul wrote: “ We are the temple of the living God, as God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them and I will be their God, and they will be my people’” (2 Cor 6:16: Ezekiel 37:27). Enclosed in our cocoon, we condemn ourselves to live in different forms of sadness: that of lack of communion with the majority of people; that of living in houses surrounded by walls; that of avoiding the challenges of the Gospel and suffocating in us the compassion of the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:25-37); that of not losing our lives in order to save them (cf. Mark 8:34-35).
Without realizing it, we find ourselves in the wrong camp. We thought we were in the camp of the apostles and could repeat Peter’s words: “We have left everything and followed you!” (Mark 10:28), but in fact we are still, or again, in the camp of the rich man. Like him, we keep God’s commandments and, like him, we are challenged by Jesus: “Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me!’” (Mark 10:21). Enclosed in our cocoon, we react like the rich man and arrive at the same result: “At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad” (Mark 10:22).
However, a certain sadness can also be a grace. In the Spiritual Exercises (SE) of St. Ignatius, in the first rule of discernment of spirits, he states, “[With] people who go from mortal sin to mortal sin […] the good spirit […] causes pricks of conscience and feelings of remorse” (SE 314). It is in this line of reflection that we speak of the “grace of sadness.” The good spirit gives rise to sadness to make people feel the evil that exists in isolation.
It is a healthy thing for a religious who lives a life separated from the people to feel distress over the situation. It is not necessary for all religious to remain in almost daily contact with the people. Think of community leaders, institutional leaders, researchers, and the like. It is not a question of changing their work or their kind of life. But if God gives them “the grace of sadness,” they will experience love for the people as a lack, as a dimension of their life that they have had to sacrifice and for which they feel a kind of nostalgia.
The Jews, during their exile in Babylon, prayed not to forget the temple. Similarly, the religious who is far from the people may pray thus, “May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem, my highest joy” (Psalm 137:6).
God prompts us who are far away to seek more contact with people and to seek Him more consciously in such contact. For them, and for us, we now continue our reflections.
How to break free of the silkworm cocoon?
Living with people in a parish, a neighborhood, clinic or school is challenging. In addition to the efforts to adapt and the eventual learning of the language if in a country not one’s own, there are “problems” to deal with. Whether we want to or not, we live in the midst of “problems” we witness directly or that people bring to us: hunger at the end of the month, illnesses that manifest themselves at critical times, storms that have destroyed a house, or a young man arrested by the police.
If we are to prepare the ground for seeking God in contact with people, here is a very simple piece of advice: “Let us remain open to problems!” However, we must immediately add: “without allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by them.” And, in addition, “without pretending to solve them.”
It is not easy. Who among us would dare to write on the door of his office or room, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28)? In any case, we are often tempted to write the opposite: “For your pains and difficulties, turn to someone else.” And yet here we touch on a critical point in our Christian life. This goes beyond the contact with ordinary people we are talking about: it concerns the whole of our relationships. It brings into play “this one command: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14).
Breaking free of the cocoon means being prepared to submit to a kind of expansion of oneself. Our selfishness is like a spring that, each time it is pressed, tries to retreat and return to its initial position. Usually, in organizing our time or our work, we establish limits within which we feel secure; and if someone comes to us with a problem, they upset our well-defined “inner map,” disturbing us, putting tension back in the spring. In other words, we have to get out of ourselves to open up, and this is the precondition of all true love. It takes dynamism, work and courage. The result is a real expansion of the self, to embrace an exposed but free existence, a life given.
Is there a search for God in this attitude that we have called “openness to problems”? The search for God is in fact the progressive acceptance of his love. We want to give him more and more space, because we see that this is the noblest goal of human life. This self-expansion of which we have spoken allows God to enter our hearts, and sooner or later his love will make its presence known. The self-expansion that accompanies genuine love for others intensifies the gift of self to God, even if in some cases this is not experienced consciously. Even for those who do not realize it (“Lord, when did we feed you?”) the Lord makes his words heard on this earth in one way or another: “You have done it to me”; “Receive your inheritance, the Kingdom” (cf. Matt 25:31-46).
I realize that I am saying something that is not at all obvious. When we agree to take the trouble to visit a sick person, we do so in order to bring comfort and help, and what matters is to show affection for that sick person, who is different from Jesus Christ or God. But it is also true that we make the visit driven by someone greater than the sick person. If he or she looks at us with gratitude, consolation certainly comes to us from that gratitude, but also from further afield.
This experience, which we dare to call the “experience of God,” is perceived in different ways. One Christian told me, “When I leave the hospital after visiting the sick, I feel like a king!” For others, this experience is something like the “burning heart” of the disciples walking to Emmaus. For me, after so many years as a pastor, these are no longer the great flames as at the beginning. But many experiences have led me to have this unshakable certainty: in Masses with the people, in meetings and prayers in the neighborhood, in contacts with distressed people, the presence of the people provides a peace, a security, a kind of quiet joy that comes from a very profound reality. I can find no other answer than the words of Paul: “For God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:17).
At their school
So far we have talked about the hidden presence of God in the service offered to people. But there is more. There is what the people teach us about God and his Kingdom. By being with the people we can receive “ongoing formation.” Let us not forget that God has something in store for us that we will only find with the “least of these.” Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Luke 10:21).
Living in an attitude of service, but without having a disciple’s heart, is a possible trap. We all know people who “work themselves to death.” They give themselves body and soul, spare no effort to rescue the sick or teach. And they end up drained and exhausted. What’s wrong with that?
There are several factors that can lead to such excesses. Among these, there is pride which is a plague in our lives, and it can creep into the way we serve without our knowing it. We pursue a self-image of total generosity, but the idea that we might receive something, even spiritually, from those we serve does not even cross our minds. In the end, it is a matter of taking the ideal of service to its ultimate consequences: accepting that we are the “servants” of others and that they are our “masters” and, as such, can guide us, teach us, and give us their help.
I recognize that this is a field in which I still have a lot to do: to approach people with a disciple’s heart; not only to serve, but to welcome, to learn and to receive. These qualities are acquired through a thousand small gestures: being interested in people more than in work, learning the names of those you meet, asking their advice, observing them in order to admire what they do well, listening to their point of view, getting to know their children. In a word, it is about entering into relationships with people with a poor man’s heart, and this is not easy.
An unexpected consequence of such an attitude is making friends, and this is the real wealth is found. In short, who evangelizes whom? From the initial attitude of being missionaries sent to the poor in order to evangelize them, we pass to the attitude of letting ourselves be evangelized by them: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (Jas 2:5). So, in summary, the truth is that we evangelize each other.
What is this Gospel that people proclaim to us? It is not possible to put it into writing, because writing would empty it of its human warmth. All that can be done is to suggest ways of identifying the hearths where the Christian life of the people shines forth and where the religious can find light and comfort.
‘Hope against hope’ (Rom 4:18)
Being in relationship with people means coming into contact with illness and death. In my parish I have had to witness many situations involving malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. In many of these cases the disease has caused the death of people who should not have died: children, young people, adults.
Sometimes one is faced with a violent death. Jean Kisenda suffered from diminished mental capacity; he had the habit of entering houses just to browse, without taking anything. He was part of the group of faithful who never missed Mass, even during the week. The only things he took from the sacristy were some liturgical vestments, which his mother later brought back to the parish. Some time ago, he went for a walk in another part of the city. Two days after his disappearance, we learned that he was dead. He had been mistaken for a thief, beaten cruelly, and petrol had been poured into his ears. His mother had seen him a few hours before his death. Jean’s two responses that she related to me were: “I forgive all those who have hurt me” and “I offer my soul to God.” Like Jesus, Jean was punished unjustly. Is it just by chance that he repeated Jesus’ words of forgiveness and self-offering on the cross? People suffer and die, thus prolonging Jesus’ passion.
Yet these tragic experiences are lived in hope, just as Jesus lived his passion in hope: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46); “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Sometimes people speak of fatalism. But where is the fatalism in the case of a woman who for two years devoted herself body and soul to caring for her husband who has AIDS? Her fundamental attitude is, “I don’t give up praying.” I went to visit the couple on the evening of the last day of the year. Just as everyone was getting ready to celebrate the New Year, I found them with their youngest children reading the Bible.
I have the impression that people’s suffering puts us in direct contact with the sacred. It is terrible, of course, but there is also something engaging there. Is it the presence of Jesus who prolongs his passion in them? Is it God’s grace that compensates for the suffering so often caused by injustice and oppression? I do not know. It is a mystery, before which one always feels very small.
Faith that sings
Not everything, however, involves suffering. There are also the bright colors of Sunday clothes, the children playing and having fun, the family celebrations. There are also the great liturgical celebrations or the groups that gather to pray.
For a few years now, I have realized that there is a paradox in my life: as a priest, I should be inducing people to pray, but in reality, the opposite is happening. At first, I felt that I was simply driven to pray longer. For example, after Mass, some parishioners would express their disappointment to me because “it didn’t last long enough.” Now I realize that people are also teaching me how to pray. A spontaneous reference to God is possible in all circumstances: we make the sign of the cross before eating; a woman says, “God bless you,” instead of saying, “Thank you!” when someone helps her put a load on her head. All this is a sign of a familiarity with God that shows how divine sonship is a lived reality. There is also the spirit of adoration and thanksgiving, an acceptance of God as Lord, whose will is unconditionally accepted. There is the demand made full of trust. As regards this last aspect, people report many examples of graces received from God. This may seem naïve, but the examples are real and illustrate how God actually answers their prayers.
On the road to communion
A religious who comes into contact with people and willingly serves them inevitably becomes popular. Very soon the religious is known in the neighborhood, is given a nickname, children run and shout a greeting in the street. But popularity is a bit like an alcoholic drink it goes to your head and produces a momentary joy. It is a joy to be known and appreciated by people, but popularity is not a remedy against the loneliness of the heart.
Deeper than popularity among people is friendship with some, and deeper than friendship is communion with someone. The bonds of communion are also a cornerstone in the spirituality of connecting with people. I know from experience that communion is born and grows in collaboration. One collaborates in helping the poor, in catechesis, or in grassroots communities. Little by little one discovers that some dedicate themselves to the ideal of the Gospel more generously than to themselves.
I always experience great consolation from this discovery. Very often the admiration that this ideal arouses and the opportunities to share it give rise to a very deep understanding. There are, at this level, privileged bonds of charity. There is something more than the simple joy of working together or having an affinity of feelings: there is the awareness of “drinking from the same source” and of sharing what gives meaning to our lives; there is the presence of God and the search for God experienced as a common task.
In communion we find all the qualities of friendship, but its origin and its dynamism come from the shared love of God. People who have the grace to have access to this kind of relationship experience among themselves, in the deepest way, the joy of service and welcome that I have tried to illustrate. When you are together, you experience the joy of helping one another and you feel supported by others. When we separate, we know that the unity of the ideal lived in common is stronger than the distance created by separation.
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (Jas 1:27). We have been seeking avenues of service in the direction indicated by the Apostle James. Without ignoring the courage and energy needed to remain attentive to people and their problems, we wanted in this article to emphasize the concept that they are a source of grace and that God lets himself be found there.
Not every aspect of this subject has been addressed, and I don’t think I have expressed entirely correctly the spiritual richness of those who live out the Kingdom of God in the midst of enormous material difficulties. There is, yes, some aspect of the sacred in them, and our respect for them can never be enough, “for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:17).
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no.9 art. 1, 0921: 10.32009/22072446.0921.1