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Tuesday, 10 February 2015 10:13

A call to humility

Mark OConnor 150The line "It’s all over - it’s all about to begin" seems to capture the future of consecrated life in the Australian Church. The grace of humility might well be the one thing we religious pray for in this special year, called to arrive at an inner poverty of spirit and openness to Christ, writes Marist Brother Mark O'Connor in this piece he writes for CRA's Reflection Series on the Year of Consecrated Life.

There is a memorable line taken from Irish playwright Brian Friel’s classic play Philadelphia Here I Come, spoken by the character Gar ‘O Donnell as he reflected on his intended journey to the United States. ‘It’s all over - it’s all about to begin’.

It’s a line that captures the essence of what it is we believe about life and death. Perhaps, it also true about the future of the vocation to consecrated life in the Australian church. It is certain new paths will be trodden as consecrated life is lived in fresh ways into a new century. A new apostolic collaboration of lay and religious is emerging that points to a deeper living of the Gospel for our times. Our Tradition, after all, is a living river and always dynamic! The Spirit was promised us by Jesus to teach us many new things. (cf. John 16:13).

This is a reason for rejoicing! For at the heart of Christianity and the charisms of our founders there lies the paradox; that in letting go there is finding; in departing there is arriving and in death there is life.

At the same time, we also take heart, direction and inspiration from our heritage as consecrated religious. All of us know and have lived with in our faith journey, so many wonderful witnesses to "the Joy of the Gospel". Our sisters and brothers who have gone before us have shown us the way forward.

I think of two Marist brothers in particular. When I entered initial Marist formation at Bendigo 43 years ago, I came to particularly admire the two older brothers living with us - Brother Albertus and Brother Prosper. Neither one of these lovely old men seemed capable of bearing a grudge.


Later, I learnt that they had actually both experienced their fair share of difficulties in religious life. But by the time I came to know them, they each had arrived at the ‘evening’ of their lives with a quality of graciousness and simplicity that was almost luminous. 



Apparently, however, at some points in their lives, they had both received considerable 'fraternal' criticism because of their so-called 'eccentricities'. I have since come to appreciate that you get a great deal of that type of reaction, in subtle or not so subtle ways, wherever people live in close contact. As Pope Francis tirelessly points out: gossip and negativity are very real dangers for Christian life especially amongst religious.



Given the human condition, this is understandable and unavoidable. However, humble brothers like Albertus and Prosper would respond, after a moment’s confusion or perplexity, with smiles, friendliness and kindness – as if nothing had happened. One might say that, for them, no thing had really happened. When people are truly humble, not just working at it, it is virtually impossible to insult them. There is nothing there to insult.

And so for us. Whatever is to come in the future experience of consecrated life - we do know the Spirit of Jesus is always present in holy, authentic and humble people. That is a constant that will never change. The grace of humility might well be the one thing we religious pray for in this special Year of Consecrated Life.

Yes, religious have contributed greatly to the building up of the Kingdom of God here in Australia. The dedication and self-sacrificial loving service of so many has worked wonders in the lives of so many Australians - especially the young, the poor and the suffering.

Yet we also know, only too well, that as part of the Church in Australia we religious are in constant need of conversion. In recent decades we have become vividly aware of the scandal of our sinfulness. Especially our mistakes and failures dealing with the pathology of sexual abuse are immersing us in the Paschal mystery, whether we like it or not.

Perhaps we are now on the road to true humility. We, disciples of Jesus, are all called to arrive at an inner poverty of spirit, an inner nothingness and openness to Christ. Whether we arrive there as a result of our sins (more usually), or as a result of our virtues, matters not at all, provided we become poor with the poor Christ. Struggling through this ‘becoming’ process, with our eyes fixed on the poor Christ, is a large part of our inner journey in a special year like this.

Martin Laird OSA, in his book Into the Silent Land, describes it poetically as ‘the liturgy of our wounds’. Unquestionably, it is a long and demanding task for most of us. It certainly is for me. Laird reflects on our deeply ingrained tendency to recoil from our own brokenness, to judge it as others have judged it, to loathe it as we have been ‘taught’ over a lifetime to loathe it. In doing this we avoid what God, in Christ, draws close to and embraces. In my experience of religious life, such self-hatred is not uncommon. Some are just better at 'hiding' it than others. 



Laird quotes Thomas Merton who expresses all this movingly: “The Christ we find in ourselves is not identified with what we vainly seek to admire and idolise in ourselves – on the contrary, he has identified himself with what we resent in ourselves, for he has taken upon himself our wretchedness and our misery, our poverty and our sins. … We will never find peace if we listen to the voice of our fatuous self-deception that tells us the conflict has ceased to exist. We will find peace when we can listen to the ‘death dance’ in our blood, not only with equanimity but with exultation because we hear within it the echoes of the victory of the Risen Saviour.”



God meets us then at that precise point where we are most in need, in our poverty and brokenness, especially in what we resent most in ourselves. 



Georges Bernanos, in The Diary of a Country Priest, put it this way: “How easy it is to hate oneself! True grace is to forget. Yet if pride could die in us, the supreme grace would be to love oneself in all simplicity – as one of those who themselves have suffered and loved in Christ.”



Br Albertus and Br Prosper were humble men who did just that. They were each able to love themselves in all simplicity.

I pray that in this special year all consecrated women and men are given this grace of humility and love of themselves and each other in Christ. May future generations who live the Gospel through following our founders' charisms - be blessed with the same gift from the Risen One. For the Spirit goes on breathing....