BY JOHN RYAN
I like the story from my school days where there was a Brother who was especially attentive to the lonely and those of us who suffered from homesickness.
One evening he sighted a lad alone and somewhat sad. He approached him and quickly engaged him in conversation. Eventually he asked the boy how he was finding his school days. Quickly the young man said that while his boyhood years were exciting what he was really looking forward to was adultery.
Hopefully, a slip of the tongue and what he really meant was adulthood. Whatever about that it is a story that reminds us that life has its ages and stages.
Traditionally we talk of childhood, adolescence and adulthood. All of us in some way or another spend our lives moving through each of these stages and trying to weave them into some kind of integrated pattern.
Now I suspect many of us encounter something like this same developmental pattern in our spiritual life. There is a childhood stage, a kind of adolescent stage and an adult or mature stage.
Traditionally for spiritual writers the way of childhood is known as the purgative way and the main concern of a person there is to do the right thing. When we succeed we are rewarded and for failure we are punished.
From there we usually move to a more developed stage where we are concerned with making a difference in the world and we struggle to understand what makes life better for the majority of our brothers and sisters.
While in the earlier stage keeping out of trouble is the way we relate to God, here we are more inclined to see ourselves relating to God through doing things to bring order and peace to our world.
Many of us might see ourselves in such a place, and so before we go any further we need to note that there is nothing wrong with being in these stages. That is a great consolation for us all, I'm sure; nevertheless there might well be something missing.
At this point, aware of our many years of faithful service, we might become a little impatient and want to ask, ‘What then must I do to inherit eternal life?’ While the question is important the answer is tricky, very tricky. Tricky because seemingly there is nothing that we can do – nothing.
To enter the stage of spiritual maturity or adulthood the door way is not so much via doing but rather through receiving. -- Like Mary in the Annunciation story, all we can do is clear the way, empty ourselves out and let God have his way in our life.
Mary's words ‘Let it be done unto me according to your word’, and the words of Jesus on the cross ‘into your hands I commend my spirit; not my will but thine be done’ provide the clues for us as we look for our part in the process.
In words made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous this stage is all about letting go and letting God.
Critical for this stage is the call to loosen the tight grasp we are always tempted to take on our possessions; even our spiritual possessions, our virtues, our victories over evil and our achievements in prayer and good works.
As I'm sure you know the problem with all riches and possessions is that we tend to use them to fill the ache that is in the hearts of all of us for God. As long as we have some kind of crutch to lean on it is hard for us to make the jump and let go enough so that God can take his full place in our lives.
Even selling off all that we have, of itself, won't do the trick especially if we see our selling off as something that we have achieved or as some virtue that will put us somehow in God's debt or in high regard in the eyes of our sisters and brothers.
All we can do is let go, make a space and then call on God to come and wait patiently for his coming.
For most of us the Lord shows a special mercy and sends something that shocks us into letting go. Something like a death, a failure of some kind, maybe even a shameful failure that strips us of our pride and self-righteousness. For C.S Lewis, the English writer, such a moment came with the tragic death of his beloved wife which was so well described in the movie Shadowlands.
Lewis came to understand it well when he named that death as a severe mercy.
In some ways it is easier if God intervenes and strips us of whatever it is that we are putting into our lives to try to provide what only God's presence can provide. But however it comes; the letting go is always an example of the special blessing that belongs to the poor.
Fr John Ryan, a Sandhurst Diocese priest who lives in Canberra, has spent much of his 49 years of ministry working in renewal projects, especially with priests.
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