A few days ago we began Lent.
I want to share some reflections with you that have been with me during these days, and that I have already put before the seminarians.
Lent invites us to leave behind the image we have of ourselves, to encounter God and to be able to find our I in him. It is he who opens wide the true dimensions of our personality. It is he who teaches us what the good would be for our lives, and what are the paths to reach it. Of course, in this transition we have the impression of dying. Fr. Giussani commented countless times on this experience of mortification as being like death. It seems like you have to leave everything.
Sacrifice is to leave space for the Other. To let the Other occupy a space in my life, to gradually enter my life until he fills it completely, until he becomes my I: it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me (Gal 2,20). Sacrifice is to leave space for Christ. It is the Passover, the passage from the apparent to the real, from the devil to God, from the I as the meaning of everything to God as the meaning of everything.
The purpose of Lent is not mortification, but that each person would find himself: the one who loses himself, finds himself. Sacrifice is the path which is necessary for our nature, which is inclined to evil and division, to be able to discover its identity.
But it is not a sudden passage. It requires much time. The common meaning of sacrifice, which is by no means trivial, is suffering. Why do we think of these two words as strongly connected? Why does making a sacrifice cause us to suffer? Because it involves a change. It is a sacrifice, because it is the passage to a greater good in which we do not yet fully perceive the light. But God guides us and fills us with consolation.
In the eleventh chapter of The City of God, St. Augustine says that the one sacrifice is communion. The one sacrifice is the passage to communion, to be able to say: “you are my I.” The one sacrifice, therefore, is love. It is the great revolution introduced into the world’s history first by the prophets, and then by Jesus. His love makes possible every sacrifice to affirm the other, even the sacrifice of one’s life. This is why the Church identifies virgins and martyrs with the highest form of love, because virginity and martyrdom testify that the greatest joy in life is to affirm the other, to affirm that everything is the other.
The little Lenten sacrifices we did as children made no sense except from this perspective: to affirm the fact that the other is everything. Likewise, the sacrifices that the Church invites us to live during this time of Lent, such as fasting, almsgiving and prayer, are not a renunciation, but an affirmation. In this sense sacrifice is an anticipation of the Resurrection.
Sacrifice, then, is the path to communion, it is the space we open to the Beloved. It is also true that in the supreme moment in the history of the world, sacrifice and communion are two words that indicate the same reality: the Eucharist. In the Eucharist we come to perceive that sacrifice is already communion, it is already everything, because sacrifice is to make space for the Other, and this is already everything.
(Letter sent to the priests of the Fraternity of St. Charles, February 2010)
in the photo: Way of the Cross in Siberia
Friendship is the most beautiful thing in life. I don’t know how one could live without it. The pope has said that with baptism we enter a community of friends, who will accompany us until death. This is precisely what we have been studying during these days, looking at one of the best known mediaeval fathers, Aelred of Rievaulx, who is sometimes called the Bernard of England. He writes that friendship is first of all a pedagogy. Secondly, it is a stairway to friendship with God. His whole pedagogical structure is based on this: if you are a friend of God, you will be a friend of human beings; if you are a friend of human beings, you will approach God. Of course, this means a path of great humanity, freedom and respect.
This morning we were commenting on a statement of Cardinal Scola: “The relation with the other is always both an embrace and a clash.” The other is different, he is otherness. If you truly want to enter with respect and fidelity into that otherness, you must accept suffering. The experience of friendship, then, passes through suffering. Authentic friendship respects otherness. This means to accept what is different with gratitude, because the different completes me. This risk of mutual belonging is described well by John Paul II in Novo millennio ineunte: “The other is part of me.” I must love my brother to the point of intuiting his desire, and going out to meet it. The other is never a stranger, he is part of me. He is necessary to my path of conversion, necessary for my progress in life. We are always moved at this level, and precisely this level means friendship.
Friendship is not merely a pat on the back. Friendship is to commit oneself to the good of the other, a passion to walk together, a desire to will the same things. In our order, we are beginning to use a term again that we coined 30 years ago, but which didn’t have much success at the time: the term “common vision”. A community must move according to a common vision, or it will not be able to formulate that purpose that is essential for a full acceptance of everyone. This means a risk of friendship, of trust, of giving the other credit; an acceptance of difference as richness, even if it may hurt me or cause suffering. Now we have the joy of seeing that things have progressed. Aelred says that friendship is the only pedagogy for living together: I like you because you are here, because you exist. You are necessary for my conversion, my sanctification, my walk towards God. I like you because God has put you in my life. It is a much deeper reality. I cannot conceive of a different way.
When I first entered the monastery, the silence was extremely rigorous. You couldn’t say even a single word. The only possibility for communication were the famous hand signals that expressed what you wanted to say. I can’t say whether it was hard or easy, it’s just the way it was. I remember two basic things that made a taste for silence possible for me. First, night prayer, the time dedicated to the vigils in the middle of the night, the office of readings and the nocturnal lectio. To be able to await the dawn as a sign of the encounter with the coming day, with Christ the light: this anticipation was almost palpable in the atmosphere. Even if someone were incapable of silence, it was an education in savoring something that was of the essential to the night and essential to night prayer. Second, slowly realizing (I am speaking of almost 50 years ago) that silence did not hinder communication. I remember my joy one day when I was able to recognize my sisters by the shoes they were wearing. I could name each of them from their shoes! It was a taste of the possibility of a much deeper communication.
There is another aspect that goes back to the experience of the first Lents. There was a lot of work then, because we only worked in the fields, and food was scarce. We got a boiled egg at Easter and Christmas – the rest of the year it was vegetables, pasta and a bit of cheese. During Lent we even went without that. Of course, the silence made all this weigh on us more heavily. Toward the end of Lent, a wave of giggling began in the novitiate that went on forever. We giggled in every room and every corner… it was non-stop laughter. Perhaps from that moment I understood that silence was this possibility of communicating, in the midst of such essentiality, the joy of being alive. This has always remained with me as a great joy. Today, silence is very different. First, because we no longer work in the fields. Work today requires explanation, mutual clarification. Dialogue has become part of relationships among the Trappists. The hand signals have disappeared; words are used when necessary. What has remained, however, and is something that fascinates me, is the use of words only for what it is truly worth saying, for saying what is essential. Using words for chatting, like most people do, makes no sense to us. We continue to teach an essentiality in relationships that gives words the weight they should have, meaning that superficiality is excluded and we gradually enter a reality of greater content. This is only possible, however, if there are some truly strong moments in life. For us these are above all the nocturnal times, when the silence in the universe of creation truly enters you, even through the pores of your skin.
If one lives silence, he ends by loving silence, and understands that silence is truly a music, because it gives you the possibility of perceiving all of reality in a way that noise never can.
Faithfulness to origins and mission
One must be very faithful to origins. If someone has not known how to receive, he will not know how to pass on. We have experienced this often in our foundations. Which have been our most successful, our most beautiful foundations? Those that have remained faithful to their roots, never betraying the originary source of their consecration, their ministry. In these places there is truly a common vision. Vitorchiano has handed on to them a vision, a life, a purpose, a way of being, that they have lived completely. In doing so, the original sisters of the new place have assumed this vision, transforming it into something unique to that place, though still universal.
I want to recommend to you that, wherever you go, don’t invent anything. Propose to the people the proposal you have received. Make sure that the people intuit, recognize and see in you the grace that has formed you. For us, the possibility of maintaining a unity among our foundations depends on the consciousness of having received something unique, extraordinary, essential and strong, that has shaped our lives, giving them meaning. It is this that we simply want to live in the place where the Lord calls us.
Of Jewish origin (through his mother); an Islamic scholar; formerly a Buddhist adept. Now, a Catholic priest in the Holy Land, after working in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. If you wanted a poster boy for the postmodern concept of globalization, you could find it in this missionary from California, a “beanpole” of almost 2 meters (“6 feet 2 inches, to be exact”) who can’t be missed in the alleys of the Holy City. He is Fr. Vincent Nagle, priest of the Fraternity of St. Charles, stationed in Jerusalem since 2007. After first teaching English at the Catholic University of Bethlehem, he then headed the Catholic parish of Nablus: “The patriarch sent me. No priest would look after the place,” he says. He is now the assistant pastor at Ramallah in the Palestinian Authority, also serving as the spiritual father to two houses of Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s sisters.
“I am certain of Christ.” Padre Nagle often repeats this phrase, which manifests a faith rooted in long experience. But what can it mean in the Holy Land – that place of contradiction, of division among Christ’s followers, crisscrossed by perennial hatreds between individuals and peoples? “Here Christians are 1.3% of the population, and one can feel isolated. But I can’t come before Christ and think of myself as other than being in an ongoing experience. Often I say to myself: if I am here in the Holy Land, it is not to improve the situation of Christians, but because Someone sent me. I see this from the changes in the lives of some of those around me: when there is someone who no longer has reasons to live, and at a certain point he finds them, I know Whom he has encountered. When I see patriarch Twal confronting impossible questions and then, after a night of prayer, go out ready to face the situation, I understand that I am certain of Christ”.
This “Christian certainty” has its roots in Fr. Vincent’s life story, which is colored by adventure. “I was born in San Francisco into a family with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, the 6th of 8 children. The first 4 received a Christian education (Catholic school, parish, etc.), but the four younger ones, myself included, much less so. My dad had begun to have “problems” with the Church, given his far-left orientation. I was 4 when the family moved to the country, still in California, near the sequoias. It was there that 1968 hit … three years earlier was ’65, when there began to be hippies and flower children. My mom followed a guru; at 15 my oldest sister became a fervent Buddhist, and for years, I went to Buddhist meetings. We were immersed in the spirit of the times.”
Vincent began high school near San Francisco, and a friend who attended a Catholic parish invited him to a meeting: “But the content of the faith wasn’t there. The Church in the United States at that time was soaked in the dominant progressive culture.” The awareness of being Jewish remained very alive in the young Californian: “When they asked me if I was going to join the army, I said no. But I added: for Israel, yes! My mom instilled in me a strong Zionism: I knew all about the Holocaust, the Nazi persecution…”. Vincent then began to attend college: “I understood that there was Someone in the world, that religion could not be reduced simply to living together happily, that there was something that could change people’s hearts. A priest said to me that this was Jesus Christ. I had never read any Christian authors, because I thought they weren’t worth my time, so convinced was I that they were ‘anti-human’. Then my mom’s guru, during a discussion on the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, blurted out: ‘But of course it’s true! If we have come from the divine, we must return there with our bodies.’ It was at that point that I began to read Christian writers.”
Vincent continued his studies at the University of San Francisco, which is a Jesuit university, but he found little of Catholic inspiration there. He signed up for humanities, devouring the classics of western thought. After finishing his studies, he went to Morocco to teach English, from 1981-1983. “My colleagues were members of the Muslim Brotherhood (one of the most important organizations in radical Islam, ndr). It was they who forced me to take seriously the question of God. I remember one night when we were talking, they said to me: God is God; he is not according to your idea of him.’ And I understood simply that He is God, and I’m not. I had done a lot of Buddhist meditation, but I had never prayed. I wrote to my mother, asking her to send me something to pray with: she sent me a missal from a Catholic goods store. Later I found a rosary, and began to use it.”
Vincent then experienced a rather intriguing parenthesis: from 1983-1985 he taught English to Saudi Arabian spies at a secret center near Riyadh. Then, back in the U.S., he studied literature at Berkeley. There he encountered his old milieu, that of the American left: environmentalism, the homosexual movement, supporters of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. “I read the writers of the Catholic dissent, Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx. But I felt I was onto a treasure, a diamond that was in the Church, even if it was covered by 30 feet of mud – but it was there. And I wanted to know more. I understood that many of those around me had no interest in this diamond – they only wanted to remake the Church. I looked for someone who would help me rediscover that treasure. I began to spend time with some traditionalist Catholic students, but this began to make me always angry at progressive Catholics, because I thought they wanted to destroy my treasure. It was at that point that I met Communion and Liberation. For me it was precisely – a liberation! I understood that everything about Christianity simply boiled down to a question: come and see!”
From there, everything flowed for Vincent like a waterfall of grace: he entered the seminary of the Fraternity but, having already studied theology in the U.S., was directed to study Islam at the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies (PISAI), where he had Maurice Borrmans and Samir Khalil as teachers. Then he was transferred to the U.S., where he was a hospital chaplain, and finally to the Holy Land. “I am certain of Christ.” After such an adventure, the certainty of this truth for Fr. Vincent is a diamond to be invested in over time.