Companions on the Way
by Fr. Jack McArdle
The Spirit is not given to the individual, but to those who are part of a believing community. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he brought the body he had with him. He sent the Spirit to 'complete his work on earth'. A spirit cannot do anything. An evil spirit needs somebody's hand to plant the bomb, and somebody's tongue to tell the lie. The Spirit of God needs the human voice to speak a word, and the human ears and heart to hear that word. The onus for any power for change does not rest on the speaker or the listener. When both speaker and listener open their hearts, the Spirit empowers the words spoken and heard, and the human heart is enlightened, formed, and transformed.
I am asked to provide my hands for placing on the sick, and any healing that takes place is totally the work of the Spirit. I myself cannot heal, nor am I asked to. I provide the physical element, and permit the Spirit to work through that. When I go to pray, I show up, and invite the Spirit to take over. Words, of themselves, say very little. I meet someone who asks me how I am, and my answer can be simply "OK". I meet someone else who asks me the same question, and I sit down and tell that person, at some length, just exactly how I am. The different responses result from the spirit in the words of the enquirer. I felt that one person was simply greeting me, while the other really wanted to know how I was.
It is the spirit in the words that give them meaning. I can say a prayer, but, if the Holy Spirit is not in my words, I am not praying. I could teach a parrot to say a prayer; but I could never teach a parrot to pray. When the Spirit came upon Mary, Jesus was formed within her. When the Spirit came upon the apostles, it bound them into a unit, which we call "Church", or, in reality The Body of Christ. I must live, and breathe, and have my being within the context of being part of a body. "The bread is one, and so we, though many, form one body, sharing the one bread."(1 Cor. 10:17).
I have a responsibility to the community to which I belong, and there is no scope for unattached individualism. Even if I decide to go up to a cave in the mountain, and live as a hermit there---which could be a wonderful thing to do, if that is what God's is calling me to do---I still need the approval of the Christian community, before I can be sure that this is of God. A hermit, in the Catholic Church is described as 'a man or woman who feely chooses to live in solitude, in order to praise God, and pray for people.'
This form of life has re-emerged in recent years, and, in recognition of the fact, a special Canon was introduced into the Code of Canon Law in 1983. This states that hermits are recognised by church law as dedicated to God in consecrated life, if, at the hands of the diocesan bishop, they publicly profess by a vow the three evangelical counsels(poverty, chastity, and obedience), and then lead their particular form of life under the guidance of the bishop. (My foot cannot go for a walk on its own!).
One of the conditions in forming a body is that all the members be different. If we were all the same, the body would be all heads, or all feet! Just imagine this scenario: I read the gospels for the first time. I am really impressed, and I wonder if this teaching would work in reality. My reflection on the possibility brings me to a point where I am prepared to experiment, to give it a go. I round up a group of people, probably friends or work-mates, who agree to be part of the project. I explain the idea of the body, which helps highlight three or four vital issues:
- Each one is different, and needs to be different, if we are to form a body.
- Each person must be prepared to accept that all of the others are different.
- Each one represents a particular gift that is unique to that person.
- While each gift is unique to the person, it must be made available to all, if we are to be united as one.
- It is only when all the parts are made available that we can possibly complete the body.
"Just as a human body, though it is made up of many parts, is a single unit, because all those parts, though many, make one body, so it is with Christ. In the one Spirit we were all baptised….and one Spirit was given to us all to drink. Nor is the body to be identified with any one of its parts. If the foot were to say 'I am not a hand, and so I do not belong to the body', would that mean that it stopped being part of the body? If the ear were to say 'I am not an eye, and so I do not belong to the body,' would that mean that it is not a part of the body? If your whole body was just one eye, how would you hear anything? If it was just one ear, how would it smell anything? Instead of that, God put all the separate parts into the body on purpose. If all the parts were the same, how could it be a body? As it is, the parts are many, but the body is one. The eye cannot say to the hand 'I do not need you', nor can the head say to the feet 'I do not need you.'" (1 Cor. 12:12-21).
Another way of looking at this is to think of a Christian community in terms of a mirror which I take off a wall, drop on the ground, and shatter into many pieces. Each potential member of my Christian community is represented by a piece of that shattered glass. Each person reflects a different perspective of God, forming community happens when each person makes available to the group the piece of the mirror that each possesses. When all the pieces have been put together, then, and only then, do we reflect the Face of God.
Let's look at this another way. I take the engine of a car apart, and I hand a part to each member of my group. Of course, the parts are different, and some perform more important functions than others, but no one part can propel this car by itself. The building of community is to invite each person to make available the particular part possessed by each, so that, together, the car is reassembled and running again. It is interesting that Communism was centred around the same general idea, with one very central and core difference. There is a world of difference between a system being imposed by a government, and a group of people being inspired by the Holy Spirit to come together, and to form a unity. This is not done by dictat or government proclamation. In the case of the Christian community, it is people who share a common vision, who are enlightened by the same Spirit, and who are called to a common vocation.
My role within the community is best fulfilled through service. "The greatest in the Kingdom are those who serve", Jesus told his disciples. "When Jesus had finished washing their feet, he put on his garment again, went back to the table, and said to them 'Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I, then, being your Master and Lord, have washed your feet, you also must wash one another's feet. I have just given you an example that, as I have done, you also may do. Truly, I say to you, the servant is not greater than his master, nor is the Master greater than him who sent him. Understand this, and you are blessed if you put it into practice.'" (Jn. 13:12-15).
In the eyes of the world, the great people are those who lord it over others, who possess the power, authority, and influence to ensure that others serve them. Mary, Our Mother, is a wonderful and very real example of extraordinary power, accompanied by humility, faith, and genuine human love. It is unthinkable that she would want to have one over on Elizabeth, Simeon, or Anna, and that she would demand some sort of subservience which she considered her due, because of the privilege that was hers. She was never in any doubt where the source of her many great blessings was. "He that is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. (Lk. 1:49). (Someone said one time that an atheist is someone who is feeling grateful, but has no one to thank!).
Mary remained with Jesus on Calvary, while most of his fair-weather friends ran away. As she gathered with the apostles in the Upper Room, to await the coming of the Spirit, it in inconceivable that she would have anything other than very very gentle, understanding, compassionate, and encouraging words for the apostles. She was behaving towards them as they would be expected to behave towards others, once the Spirit came to empower them. All of these inner dispositions of humility, service, and responsibility towards others are directly the result of the working of the Spirit within our hearts. It is not a question of the Spirit forming the body, and then going off, allowing the body to function as it will. Pentecost is but the beginning of a process. When the Spirit came upon Mary, there began within her a process of gestation that resulted in the body of Christ being presented to the world. Through the work of the Spirit, we are now in the that process of gestation, until the body of Christ is formed with us. "Little children, for whom I am in labour until Christ be formed in you."(Gal. 4:19).
When I was growing up, I considered it my greatest responsibility to do everything within my power to ensure than I went to heaven when I died. I still consider this a very laudable goal, of course, even if my approach would be entirely different. In the account of the ascension of Jesus, we are told "As soon as Jesus said this, he was taken up before their eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. While they were still looking up to heaven, two men dressed in white stood beside them, and said 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven, will return in the same way as you have seen him go there.'"(Acts 1:9-11).
In other words, instead of looking up into heaven, begin to look all around you, because Jesus said that it is there that we will find him now. "Whatever you do to the least of these, I will take as being done to me"(Mt. 25:45). In other words, instead of concentrating on getting to heaven, my Christian vocation asks me to do what I can to get heaven down here. There are people around me living in hell. "Make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred let me sow your love. Where there is despair, let me bring your hope. Where there is hunger, let me bring your food." It is more difficult to get heaven into people than to get people into heaven!
In today's world, it is difficult to think of a parish as being a community; rather it is a community of communities. The days of belonging to a large homogenous group, all marching to the beat of the one drum, are over. Within every parish there is now emerging many smaller and different entities, e.g., SVP, Legion of Mary, Charismatic Prayer Group, Bible Study Group, Centring Prayer Group, etc., etc. As in the Early Church, once again, people are beginning to gather together in their homes for prayer, for Eucharist, for sharing the Word of God.
Not everybody is free to avail of one of these groups, but, for those who can, I strongly recommend it. As a matter of fact, I will finish this section with the following thought: If you say to me "If I come across a group of people who are radically living the Gospels, I will join them", I will be forced to reply "No, that is not how it works! When you are ready to radically live the gospel, you will come across such a group, and, if there isn't one, you'll set up one! If you're not ready, you will never find the group, even if there's one next door to you!"
Let's keep in mind that the general theme of this book is our journey back to the Garden. This chapter is intended to remind us that I must not venture out on my own! On many occasions I had the privilege of accompanying pilgrimages to different shrines, and places of significance in the Gospels stories. I was always impressed how a group of people assembled at Dublin airport, each one knowing probably one other person in the group, and the transformation that had taken place among that same group when we returned to that same airport. We had shared time, experiences, and a common journey over the previous week or two. There was a tangible sense of bonding within the group, with talks of reunions, being in touch, exchanging photographs, etc. It was as if they didn't want to go their separate ways again. When we all arrive back in the Garden, there'll be no 'separate ways' anymore.
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