July 2009

In Giving, Receive ©

As I reflected on a Sunday reading (Ez.2:2-5), I felt it applied to me in the humblest of ways. It was as though it read, “A spirit entered into me and set me on my feet…I am sending you to bring hope and joy to people who are filled with sadness and despair.”

In some way, this corresponds to my ministry to the bereaved, to leading missions and retreats, and to being in fraternal relationship with the people of Malawi, many barely surviving in one the poorest countries in the world.

Yet, it can be said that people such as these have been sent by God to fill us with hope and joy for they are truly people of hope and joy. But, who are these people that we should pay attention to them? What is this wisdom that has been given to them? What deeds of power are being done by their hands? Are they not the carpenter, the seamstress, the maize or tobacco farmer, the fisherman? The so-called developed world takes offence at them. (Cf.Mk.6:1-6)

To me, my friends in Malawi are prophets. Their very lives speak truth to my heart. Their welcoming smiles show me the face of God.

As a Franciscan and as a deacon, I am called by God to service. That is a grace, a great privilege. I find the truest meaning of love in the service of the poor, whether their poverty is physical, emotional or social. Service in preaching, or fundraising, or any of the tasks that I gladly do in God’s holy name is my loving prayer.

Love is the cause and consummation of prayer. Yet, true love is only expressed outwardly once it has been experienced as compassion. Compassion is not pity. It is love as shown by God in sending his only son and by Jesus in giving his life on the cross.

During a recent trip to Malawi, I read two books that drove this message home to me very powerfully, one by a Jewish psychiatrist and another by a medieval mystic. The first was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning and the second was an incisive commentary on Saint Bonaventure’s mysticism of the crucified Christ—not light reading, I’ll grant you, but I knew that I’d have a lot of time alone to reflect.

For him, Christ crucified is the very essence of all creation, humanity included, because it reveals the true nature of love and of our humanity. All of creation, including us, is the product of pure love.
Tell yourself that often. You are a beautiful work of pure love and made for love.

Saint Bonaventure affirms that connection with God, what he calls union with God, is the result of an ascent to God. In turn, union with the burning love of the Crucified sends us back down to our neighbour.

Both books also converged to make a point about what gives meaning to our otherwise absurd lives: love or service that is self-transcending. It is in giving oneself to a cause or a person that we become fully human and capable of experiencing true joy. In fact, I find real congruence between what Frankl calls our “will for meaning” and what I often refer to as “seeking and finding perfect or true joy.”

We all have a duty, need and, indeed, a desire to love in ways that are concrete, practical and just. Frankl says, “Human existence, as long as it is not neurotically distorted, is always directed to something or someone other than itself, be it a meaning to fulfil or another human being to encounter lovingly. What is called self-actualization is ultimately an effect, the unintentional by-product of self-transcendence.”

Think about this too: “Man is originally characterized by his search for meaning rather than his search for himself. The more he forgets himself, giving himself to a cause or a person, the more human he is.”

I reflected on why I was going to Africa, and why Crib and Cross Franciscan Ministries (CCFM) persists in keeping alive its Hope for Africa apostolate despite all the competition in the huge relief and development industry, I came to realize that it goes to the heart of what it means to be religious, to forget oneself, giving oneself to a cause or another person. Indeed, the two are one.

As I thought about our work in Africa, I realized that it is not just a series of projects. It is school of spiritual growth, for us and for all those who share in the mission with your support.

During my two weeks in Malawi, I saw with my own eyes what we have achieved and the joy and hope that it is brining to those living under the crushing weight of poverty.

In Karonga, I was met by some 40 late teens, for the most part young men and women made orphans by AIDS. They were students at the trade school that we built with the help of St. Thomas A Becket parish in Pierrefonds. As we drove from Mzuzu, we were greeted by singing students carrying welcoming signs. We heard speeches and songs, saw a skit on AIDS and shared a meal after touring the buildings that house carpentry and tailoring workshops.

In Mzuzu, I met Standard 8 students who were in the two-classroom block that we built you’re your support. Lunyangwa Girls Primary School has classrooms of 100. Those in their final year as in classes of 50 now, thanks to fundraising by the Catholic Women’s League at Becket parish. Because some students travel long distances and missing classes would jeopardize their chances of success, they express their gratitude by sleeping on the floor in their final semester in order to be sure to graduate.

Also in Mzuzu, I interviewed the headmaster and students at Marymount Catholic Secondary School for Girls where we built a computer lab, thanks to donations made by Queen of Angels Academy in Dorval. This will give them an edge in the struggle to change their lives. Despite the fact that this is one of the finest high schools in the country, 650 girls live in what we would call deplorable conditions. Also at Marymount, twelve students received grants from the bursary find that we organised through a national appeal.

One way or another, CCFM will continue that mission, focusing primarily on preventing AIDS, protecting orphans and educating girls.

Being authentically religious is not a question of being perfect, far from it. What Saint Paul says about himself, we can all say about ourselves. Each of us can boast of some weakness or other. (Cf.2Cor.12:7-10) Each of us endures at one time or other weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, though we don’t always do so for the sake of Christ, nor do we readily confess that when we are weak, we are strong. Seldom do we tell God that his grace is sufficient and that we are made perfect in weakness. If we did, we would grow in compassion for others.

Instead, we prefer to be elated. This is a weakness that we all share. For this reason, mercifully, God sometimes refuses to remove the thorn from our flesh, from our heart, or from our mind. Rather, he asks that Christ dwell in us, and that we accept his wisdom and power as sufficient for the worries of the day.

Whatever we achieve, the credit always belongs to God. Our only power, the witness of God’s Holy Spirit, is our free desire to help others to deal with their thorn, and to allow others to deal with ours. That is the true meaning of ministry and the true vocation that we all have.

I have been told that I have achieved a lot in my life. But lest I become elated, which is the word that is used by Saint Paul, more of my plans have failed than have been realized. I look in the mirror and find a very common man. Yet I also see a child of God, a beloved of God who endeavours as best he can by God’s grace to bring hope and joy to sisters and bothers here, in Africa and however God calls me to serve. Jesus proclaims, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor.” (Lk.4:18)

God has sent each of us to deliver good news of hope and joy. And to do this, rest assured that his grace is sufficient; his power is made perfect in our weakness.