By F. Luis Casasus, General Superior of idente missionaries
Commentary on the Sunday Gospel of 22-04-18 Fourth Sunday of Easter, Madrid. (Acts of the Apostles 4:8-12; First Letter of John 3:1-2; Saint John 10:11-18)
To feel safe is not the same as to experience peace. It is a sense of security against any current or future danger and it is manifested especially in the presence of hostile forces. The threat can be more or less real or imaginary, but you feel protected.
You might be at peace every time you are talking to a friend, but a friend will not always be able to convey safety to you in all key aspects of your existence; you know there are some issues you have to face alone.
In our spiritual life, this is also the difference between beatitude and quietude. Beatitude, true safety, is not found in the minimization of risk exposure or suffering, but in the presence of God when your life seems to be a major disaster.
In fact, the danger is always there. Accidents, wounded relationships, diseases and the effects of our sins gravitate around us. Let alone the inevitability of our death and the death of those who we love.
Perhaps you remember a movie by Woody Allen titled, Hannah and Her Sisters. Woody Allen played the part of a man who is constantly afraid that he will get some terrible disease. He is what we call a hypochondriac. As he comes into the movie, we see him on his way to the doctor. The doctor assures him that nothing seems to be terribly wrong, though some additional tests need to be made. Woody cannot calm himself over these additional tests. He is sure they will find something terrible. But his fears are unfounded. The doctor announces to him that all is well. In the next scene we see Woody coming out of the hospital, running joyfully down the street. He is celebrating. But suddenly he stops. He tells us in the next scene: All this means is that I am all right this time. Next time it will probably be serious.
Woody Allen’s character overemphasizes the danger, but very accurately conveys the reality that people needs to feel safe and none of us arrive to the heights of our security.
Most often, we look for security in some of our comfort zones. For instance, some scholars are extremely reluctant to undertake a promising research in new areas, because financing is uncertain, or perhaps it entails significant changes in their research habits, or they have doubts about their capacity in the new venture. Sadly enough, some religious refuse to be transferred to a new mission because an alleged or unclear health problem or because they believe they are irreplaceable in their current mission. We seek for security because we think that it will give us freedom, or a lifetime success. But if look for security in every aspect of our lives we end by limiting our capabilities. Ironically, the greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low… and achieving our mark, as the great artist Michelangelo said.
In his recent Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis says: Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations.
Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, is NOT talking about this kind of worldly security. Our deepest feeling of safety (Beatitude) is based on the realization that there is always a plan of God for us. And this clearly symbolized by this identity card of Jesus, as a Good Shepherd walking ahead of us and leading us by example, not just with his words.
* It is important to realize that God’s plan may be difficult for us to understand. Our Mother Mary could not fathom how she could conceive a son even before she had consummated her marriage to Joseph, but She begun to walk immediately and declared her full obedience to God.
We should note that the Holy Spirit always gives us a sign so that we can discern God’s will. The Archangel Gabriel pointed at the fact that Elizabeth had miraculously conceived a son, and this was enough to Mary. In our case it is not different, and we are invited to be more conscious of all the forgiveness and graces ourselves and our neighbors have received. In today’s First Reading, this is what Peter was encouraging the leaders and the people to do: Look at the good deed done to a cripple. Faith is not absolutely blind, rather we are looking away while miracles happen.
We do not really need “to see an angel” every day. Again, we read in Gaudete et Exsultate: I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbors, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence.
Peter was doing an intense effort to make the plan of God visible to them and how the stone rejected by them had become the cornerstone.
* The Good Shepherd binds us together in a way nothing else can.
All worldly associations, created whether with good or bad intentions, are fleeting and short-lived. We can build societies, unions and alliances based on human ingenuity and good will, perhaps to deliver great utility to many but, what is its eternal weight? God’s response to the quest for power and glory in Babel gives a road map for making right judgement on the true value of achievements: And they said, “Come, let us ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for build ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” (Gen 11:4).
As Saint Augustine famously commented, when we remove the love of God and justice, what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? (City of God, 4.4).
Human beings join together out of necessity, convenience, inclination for their own survival, comfort or all kind of interests. And this may have far-reaching consequences. For example, any social psychologist knows that crowd dynamics stems from a feeling of invincibility of the individuals when they are integrated in a group, a “contagion” of sentiments and an enhanced suggestibility, making them react in ways they would not have otherwise. Young people dancing in a club, or couples pairing up only “because they are happy together”, are other painful examples of the works of a world of hired men, who are not true shepherds and whose sheep are not their own.
The appeal of the Good Shepherd is directed to each and every human being, but the goal is to gather into one the dispersed children of God (Jn 11:52).
When Jesus said I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd, He was referring not only to different countries or cultures, but to many people close to us whose hearts are touched by the testimony of the apostle and on any given day will decide to follow Him. This is what happened many times in the Acts of the Apostles: Jewish believers who had accompanied Peter were all astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit should be poured out on gentiles too, since they could hear them speaking strange languages and proclaiming the greatness of God.
Yes, we are a community and Jesus draws us together to himself; our faith has to be shared. Even such an intimate thing as our repentance, is properly communicated in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and in our spiritual direction.
The gift of unity in Christ is very visible, because unity is the most difficult thing in this world, where we can see all possible kinds of division. All over, at all levels.
This is why our discords and lack of unity become the greatest scandal. And conversely, this is why our persevering life in common, with the grace of God, is so attractive, just us the union and fellowship of the early Christian community; and so much so that every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2: 47).
This unity, carried out by the movement of Christ within one’s own heart and by the work of the Holy Spirit, has also an immediate consequence within all of us, a sense of security and beatitude: The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? (Psalm 27:1-3).
What is the real and fundamental reason why our faithful and obedient response to the Good Shepherd, when we recognize His voice, gives us peace and unites us? Our Father Founder answers: Because this state of recollection and quietude does not divide, but rather unite because we all have the religious condition of being children of God (Mystical Conception of Anthropology).
Spiritually we want to have a sense of security, we want to know God will take care of us. We need to know that, sooner or later, In all these things we are triumphantly victorious due to the one who loved us (Rom 8: 37).
Safety is built on a deep trust. Of course, the next minute I can be unfaithful and betray God, but our spiritual safety, our mystical beatitude has some peak moments (called Regimen, like in the Flow Regimen of a river) where I feel that some particular virtue (faith, hope, charity, diligence, chastity…) has been impressed upon my heart and has become part of my life, a part of my being, not just an obligation or an objective. I would have to make much effort to put it aside. Even more, (at the ontological level), it is a call and a spur to be more in touch with the inner depths of my existence, to be more fully alert and awake to the person I was created to be. A College advertising campaign was centered on the slogan Let’s find out who you can be. Good idea! This is something we have to explore at all levels.
* Are we good shepherds? Many years ago a woman carrying a baby through the hills of South Wales, England, was overtaken by a blizzard. Searchers found her later frozen to death in the snow. Amazed that she had on no outer garments, they searched further and found her baby. She had wrapped them around the child, who was still alive and well. He grew up to be David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of Great Britain in World War I.
Jesus is clearly stating that we should lay down our life for the sheep. Giving one’s life does not only means the magnanimous act of “dying for others”, but especially to make use of all the opportunities to proclaim Jesus Christ to the world, to make Him known and loved; and to use every means at our disposal without being pushy or dogmatic, without throwing in a hectic activism, so that He will be recognized as the cornerstone of our lives.
First, we have to make friends before the Holy Spirit could make use of our testimony to make converts. This can take a long time, but the victory is assured. This was the case of Cardinal Van Thuan (1928-2002) who spent 13 years in a communist prison. Two guards watched him but never spoke to him. But he started his apostolate first, by showing gladness and by smiling. Then he began to tell stories about his journeys. That stimulated their curiosity and they asked many, many questions. Slowly, very slowly, they became friends and… the guards became Van Thuan’s disciples!
This is not possible if we do not experience in our prayer the urgency of the mission, the thirst and hunger of each and every human being, very much like Saint Paul: I could wish myself accursed from Christ, for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
An ancient monk objected to be raised to the episcopate on the ground that its external cares would rob him of the fine edge of his piety. His superior, to whom the objection was made, replied that it was far better that he should occupy himself with endeavoring to save the souls of other men, than in seeking to keep “a fine edge to his piety.”
Many of the lost opportunities represent situations where we can make the same mistake as the leaders of the people and elders: to judge than certain testimony or action was not important or even necessary, but perhaps it was intended to be the cornerstone for our apostolic life. Reject that thought, walk the extra mile, having spare oil for the lamps, not wasting a single minute, …Ignoring these opportunities are implicit messages sent to the Holy Spirit, which mean: In this moment, I am not available.
We all have the experience of being talking to a person who avoids all kind of eye contact, or looks out the window to the bird on the balcony railing, or is continuously checking for text messages…or is yawning and nodding off. We immediately realize that a profound dialogue will not be possible. Why would it not be the same if the Holy Spirit and I are engaged in apostolic dialogue (apostolic prayer) and I am tepid, as a hired worker?
Let us learn from the boy who offered the five loaves of barley bread, the cheapest of all bread and two small fish. In his humble offering, Jesus found the raw material for a miracle. And this is continuously taking place today. Christ says that we can recognize his voice. Let us pay attention, because He has always many things to say.
Unless I am ready to be mocked because of my faith, make sacrifices for the mission, and accept humiliation and failure, it is unlikely that my neighbor perceives me as one of His little shepherds.