Posted by: mmreflections | May 10, 2009

Unexpected Moments of Restoration: May, 2009

“With age-old love I have loved you so I have kept my mercy toward you.  Again I will restore you and you shall be rebuilt.  Carrying your festive tambourines, you shall go forth dancing ….”  (Jeremiah 31:3-4)

This past month I gratefully celebrated the 46th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood with a Divine Liturgy of Thanksgiving for all the blessings of these many years and by praying for God’s blessing upon all who have in any way impacted my life’s journey or have been blessed in any way by my priestly vocation.  In reflecting upon the blessings of these years I found myself delighting in and joyfully remembering how in unexpected moments God intervened in my life situations or in the life situations of the people I had the joy of meeting along the way.  In those early years I seemed to work hard in the notion that all depended upon my efforts to grow spiritually and to help others grow spiritually only to find myself repeatedly falling short.  On many occasions discouragement seemed to be winning out and I wanted to give up.  At some point on the journey it seemed like my eyes were opened for the first time and I began to experience the mysterious ways of God who loves us with an age-old love and keeps his plans and mercy hidden until the right moment.  I found myself and others being restored and rebuilt in unexpected and delightful ways which brought about new songs of praise and thanksgiving.

 A  Sunday Divine Liturgy comes to mind from one of the first years of priestly service.  I had spent a great deal of time preparing my homily for this particular Sunday.  I felt very confident and convinced the efforts I made would bring about positive results.  As was my practice in those days my homily was neatly typed and set before me on the podium which I carefully read.  For some reason I deviated from the written words and made a brief off the cuff remark.  As I was greeting and talking with parishioners leaving the church that day, I was expecting someone to make some remarks about the wonderful homily I had prepared.  To my disappointment, no one had anything to say about my well prepared homily.  Just as the crowd of parishioners thinned out, one woman approached me with tears in her eyes.  She told me how blessed she was by the words I had spoken and how much they meant to her.  I asked her to tell me what I had said that so affected her.  She quoted almost verbatim the off the cuff remark I had made during the homily.  I returned to the parish house that day delightfully surprised and actually laughing at myself for thinking that my scholarly and well prepared words could match the seemingly unexpected remark that came from I believe must have been an inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  I have since learned again and again the God I worship has a wonderful sense of humor and indeed touches our lives in unexpected and mysterious ways.

It took me a long time to learn and to accept the fact that most fruitful experiences of my priestly life occurred, not in the church during the religious services, but rather in the one on one encounters with people I met in unexpected moments.  I had to learn repeatedly the mysterious ways of God and to pay attention so I would not miss the opportunities to be a ready instrument in his hands. 

One such encounter unfolded at the Community Center in a town near one of my parishes.  I usually took a lunch break a few times a week to go over to this nearby center to swim laps for about an hour as a form of exercise.  There was a young man who would usually come to the pool at the same time.  At most we would greet each other with a brief wave or some polite comment.  One day we finished our swim about the same time and happened to meet in the locker room.  He shyly approached me and asked me what kind of work I did.  When I told him I worked as a priest in one of the nearby parishes, he seemed surprised but went on to tell me he had once been a Catholic but no longer practiced any religion.  This was a comment I had heard repeatedly over the years when someone learned of my vocation as a priest.  I asked him what had happened to cause him to turn away from his faith and religion.  He went on to tell me his story; it was an account of divorce, drugs, disappointments and alienation from the sacraments.  He had a great voice and musical talents which had been lost.  I extended an invitation for him to come over to the church and talk more extensively about his situation. 

The encounter at the community center became a moment of restoration for this young man.  He returned to the church, celebrated the Sacrament of Reconciliation, received the Eucharist,  had his former marriage annulled, decided to continue his education, received his law degree and passed the Pennsylvania bar exam.  He met and married a lovely woman with whom he has two children.  He is very active in his church and has used his musical talents as a gift for his parish.  He has formed an association of Christian lawyers who are committed to practice law with the highest standards of integrity.  A chance encounter at a swimming pool was used by God for the restoration and rebuilding of a man’s life.  All I did was listen and observe God work in his mysterious way.  This young man was no longer seeking the Lord but the Lord was seeking him and touched him at just the right moment.  He has given me permission to tell this story.

 It has been one of the great joys of these many years of priestly service to discover and share in stories such as these over and over again.  In reflecting on these years it seems to me that nothing is by accident nor by coincidence.  We are all called to be instruments in God’s hands.  We miss many opportunities to be used  in the service of our God either because we are not paying attention or because we have false notions of what it means to be instruments in God’s hands.  I have discovered that many of us feel we need to preach to others or bring about changes in their lives or even change them to what we think they should be.  We forget it is only a power greater than we are who can restore or rebuild the lives of our brothers and sisters who are wounded and hurting. 

Oftentimes we add to the wounds of our loved ones  and people we meet by our efforts to do what only God can do.  Learning to listen with minds and hearts to people we meet often opens the door for them to experience once again the age-old love of God.  When we learn to listen without judgments, prejudices, or preconceived notions we are actually becoming instruments of God’s grace.  We will be delightfully surprised at the mysterious ways of God and will find ourselves singing new songs of praise and dancing a new spiritual dance in the Spirit.  Many seem to believe God is absent in our lives today.  Actually he is more present in the midst of our problems and sufferings than we can ever begin to imagine.  We are the ones who most frequently are absent because we become to preoccupied with the past or the future and fail to be present in the here and now where the Holy One is at work in our own lives and in the lives of our brothers and sisters.

 “This is the day the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it!”  This Easter anthem we sing is so appropriate for all year round.  Today is the day the Lord wants to work in our lives to not only restore us but to be useful instruments in his hands to restore others to the fullness of joy promised us and to which we are entitled as the sons and daughters of God.

      “Rejoice in the Lord always!  I say it again.  Rejoice!  Everyone should see how unselfish you are.  The Lord is near.    Dismiss all anxiety….   Present your needs to God in every form of prayer and in petitions full of gratitude.   God’s own peace, which is beyond all understanding, will stand guard over your hearts and minds.”  (Cfr.  Philippians 4:6-7)




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