This me, here and now, is the one that Jesus loves, not some cardboard cut-out, good ‘brother’ but a flawed, wounded, damaged seeker, for whom all these experiences had all been part of the shaping process, writes Marist Brother Robert O'Connor.
Irene, a remarkable Cenacle Sister, was my lecturer and guide during a period of renewal at Loyola University of Chicago some years ago now. Despite regular times of Spiritual Direction together, it was not until she guided me through an eight day Retreat as part of the programme, that she challenged me to “leave aside the books, even the reading of the scriptures” that filled my days, to simply sit in the garden or prayer room and ‘be still’; and when next we met for direction she posed the question that has stayed with me for many years now “Tell me about little Robbie!”
Bemused for a moment, at the time, but having pondered this experience many times since, I came to see where she was keen for me to go: out of my adult, controlling, somewhat arrogant duplicitousness, to try to recapture something of the innocence, simplicity, exuberance and passion of the journey from small boyhood to adolescence, to mature adult, that had brought me to the time and place we now shared.
Memories flooded in; memories I had not visited for a very long time; memories of family delights and sadness, of fears and anxieties in the years of my young life. I even recalled that fateful day in kindergarten when ashamed of asking to ‘go to the toilet’ I wet my pants – the embarrasment of the occasion revisited me even amidst the chuckles of memories shared. Then there was the early evidence of a degree of entrepreneurship as I marketed the tiny loaves of bread (scones!) my mother had prepared for me - aged 4 - to load aboard my tiny wooden cart and to ply trade up and down our street – just a penny each!
On my return home from the USA, and some few years later, during the Great Exercises of St Ignatius, my director Sister Marnie Kennedy suggested I take the story of the Samaritan Woman [John 4:4-26] for my hour of meditation one very balmy afternoon.
Aridity was the name of the game that day! Discomfort and a desperate need for coolness were the preoccupying emotions that still come back to me. Despite constantly re-reading the story, desperately trying to ‘switch on’ to the sense of place and persons in the story – nothing, absolutely nothing was happening!
Until, out of nowhere, unannounced, unaccounted for, many of the ‘skeletons’ of my past began to rattle around in my memories – limitations, recklessness, infidelities, shallowness, and a great sense of shame descended on me! With the hour almost completed I decided that a good way to rid myself of these unwanted distractions would be, to one more time re-read the story – slowly and with feeling!
What astounded me then and has continued to be a gift of memory, was that when I opened the Scriptures to re-read the episode, the words that my eyes first lit upon, was the sentence from the Samaritan woman to her neighbours in the village: “come and see a man who has told me everything I have ever done!”
It was a moment of one of those gifts, that are not all that uncommon in the Great Exercises – a moment of insight, illumination, and liberty. There were many emotions and not a few tears that afternoon and for some days to follow – a sense that this me, here and now, is the one that Jesus loves, not some cardboard cut-out, good ‘brother’ but a flawed, wounded, damaged seeker, for whom all these experiences that life had served up, had all been part of the shaping process; that the person Jesus loves unconditionally is not just the person of these latter years but indeed, the puling infant, the charming toddler, the emerging risky adolescent, the confused and weak young adult, the stumbling arrogant young religious – all of which each one of us probably is and has been. “I have called you by your name, you are mine….I have carved you in the palm of my hand…and I love you!”
Yes, Irene’s question was and remains for me deeply relevant, as I continue to reflect on what the journey of my life has been, how at each stage it has meant to be, and how each stage has been relevant and gift!
Jesus invited each of us at a certain time in our lives to “Follow me!”
At no time did he suggest we had to be perfect, just willing to “come and see!”