Do you ever think about the hidden life of Jesus? I remember my postulant master, Fr. Robert of Divine Mercy, observing once that the Lord had lived 30 years in obscurity and obedience to Mary and Joseph before the 3 brief years of his public life. The hidden life of Jesus: hidden, that is, under the veil of the ordinary, the domestic—unrecorded because who, in dusty Galilee long before the days of Instagram, would have thought it was worth writing down?
Lately I have been feeling drawn to these thirty hidden years in the life of the Lord. And I can't help but remember my favorite scene in The Passion of the Christ—maybe you know it—where Jesus is working on a table, and Mary comes to ask if he is hungry. They joke around; he splashes her with water; she laughs in surprise and the inexpressible delight of a mother who loves to be loved by her son. That's all. A quiet day in Nazareth. How many days must the Lord have spent like that: His sacred hands busy with woodwork til sundown, a rhythm of prayer and work, play and work, eating his mother's cooking, practicing his foster-father's trade? Would those days have seemed endless in the Galilean summer? Or did he treasure each one of them, unutterable, unrepeatable wonder, glory of God in time?
At the end of this long winter, on the threshold of spring, I left my "Mount Carmel" in Silicon Valley to return to Portland, and for 14 weeks since, I have been laboring quietly in this mission ground the Lord has called me back to. I say "quietly" because, like Jesus' tables, much of what I have done this summer at St. Stephen's parish will never be known or remembered by anyone but God alone. How much time have I spent in finance council meetings, organizing files, sorting mail and answering phone calls—putting out tables and chairs for this or that event, setting up for hundreds of Masses, weeding flowerbeds, deadheading roses!
These are hidden tasks, menial tasks, and yet we know they can give great glory to God in proportion to the love with which we do them. "The value of the gift is the love of the giver"—and so my dear and beloved little Sister Thérèse Martin could become a saint by carefully folding her sisters' mantles, which they left haphazardly in the sacristy closet at Lisieux Carmel. In fact, our little hidden acts of virtue can give infinitely greater glory to God than the great deeds of the mighty and powerful, or the perpetual activity of busy and distracted disciples! What is important to God is not the grandeur or the multiplication of activities, but the disposition of the heart. (How many vain and lukewarm homilies by preoccupied priests, how many half-hearted, lack-love prayers on the lips, but never reaching the heart, must St. Thérèse's folded mantles have been worth in the eyes of God!)
Yes, the hidden life of Jesus and our great saints "hidden with Christ in God" should be examples for us, teaching us how to consecrate the everyday and the mundane to the eternal glory of the Trinity. But what about when we find ourselves lacking in love? "Love turns work into rest," says St. Teresa of Jesus, and rightly so—but when love is lacking, it seems like even rest turns into work!
The answer, of course, is to humbly begin again. We fall and get up. We fall and get up again. I cannot tell you how many times this summer I have been humbled to recognize my own lack of love, the frustration bubbling over in my heart at having to change all the altar cloths for the third time that day, or the wounded pride flaring up at some minor correction I'd received, or the self-righteous anger at having my prayer interrupted by some minor request that so-and-so really could have done himself faster than coming to ask me, and don't you know I'm trying to become a saint here?!—recognized it, I say, and begun again. "Lord, let me love you with your own love."
That prayer is the heart of it all. The moments that I have felt most "like a priest" in the parish have been those moments, quiet, personal, with just one or two others, when I am faithful to the movements of the Holy Spirit and allow Him to put certain words on my lips, or to move me, unimpeded for once by my pride and stubbornness, to approach somebody, to go out of my way, to touch, to listen. When Immanuel is with His people through me as His instrument. When I spoke some words to a woman in pain, words which I never could have devised or known to say on my own, and she cried and then said, pointing right at my heart, "There's a father in there. I can see it." Those moments, by their very nature, are few, fleeting, hidden. The hiddenness is the beauty of them, the intimacy is the majesty.
A year or two ago I remember writing a poem reflecting on my ministry assignment at that time, which was, principally, washing the floors and stocking the shelves at a food pantry, but on this particular occasion my partner and I were asked to put together some chairs (a task I repeated several times this summer in the rectory!) and break down some old furniture that was beyond repair. "How much of ministry / is knowing when to break / and when to build?" the poem began. "How much is simply saying 'yes'? / How much is nothing more / than being there / when you are broken down by a stray blow?"
And it concludes:
How much of ministry is in the spending
of time, or of energy,
strength, money, freedom, gasoline,
ink on paper, words on a screen,
or any other old thing:
poured out like fragrant oil
from an alabaster jar
on the feet of one you love
and not to count the cost?—or if you do,
as I do,
tally up the hours
but lay them down too
at the feet of the beloved
and let them value naught for you.
I don't claim that poem is very good—certainly it has no great artistic merit—but those last lines echo in my heart as I pray over my time in the parish this summer, reconsecrating everything that I have done here to God and offering it all back to Him in praise and thanksgiving for His goodness to this poor sinner. As seminarians, we live six or eight or ten years in our own Nazareths, a blessed rhythm of prayer and work, play and work, learning our fathers' trade: the care of souls. (How much I have learned from two good and holy priests this summer! Not "book learning"—that could fill a teaspoon, maybe—but the ways they have formed me will shape the rest of my life as a priest and a Christian man.) We live our hidden lives, learn our philosophy and theology, make our little hidden acts of virtue, touch a few hearts here and there (if we let God touch them through us, that is)—and all the while being formed and shaped, as the potter continually molds the clay on the wheel. All the while, though we don't notice it as the moments and days and years slip by, being transformed: "from grace unto grace and glory unto glory."
Almost as soon as my assignment ended, I left on a road trip to visit friends in California, and the highlight of this trip has been visiting my old monastery (how strange it feels to say that!) for a couple of days. In so many ways, it felt as if I had never left. I came right in the back door as if I had only gone for a walk that afternoon, rather than flown home four months ago. (Bella, the dog, jumped all over me like she thought I was never ever coming back, but then again, she used to do that every time I came outside even if I'd only been gone 5 minutes!) I sat in my old choir stall in the chapel, I helped the brothers set up and clean up for meals, we all rode in the van together to a Melkite Catholic Church for Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning, and we all watched a movie together until late Sunday night. The singing in the liturgy was still horribly off-key (not helped one bit by my presence!) The brothers were still telling the same jokes they had been in April, I pointed out in mock exasperation. Had I dreamed this whole summer? Would I look down and see I was wearing a brown tunic and scapular again instead of my black cassock?
But even though all the externals were exactly the same, this visit felt deeply different to the months I spent in Carmel as a postulant and novice. On the day I decided to leave back in April, I wrote exuberantly in my journal—the page practically glowing with joy—that I felt like I had gone "from the condition of slavery to the condition of freedom."
What was different in this visit to my old monastery? Me. I am different. No longer the seminarian who visited a year ago, longing to know and love God deeply and to live the spiritual life intensely, ready to plunge into Carmel both feet first! No longer the novice who was determined to persevere in the darkness and the dryness of the interior desert, seeking the Beloved of my soul, even though at every turn I found my heart was pounded more deeply into the dust. Through the many twists and turns of this year—from Mount Angel to Mount St. Joseph to the parish of St. Stephen, now again (if only for a brief visit) to Mount St. Joseph, and soon again to Mount Angel—God has been revealing to me where and how He desires me to live.
I am still figuring it all out, of course. What the Lord has revealed in this year will continue to deepen in me in the years to come. But both externally, and in an invisible, interior way, I am now precisely where God wants me to be, and I can take comfort in that, can put down roots securely and confidently in that, can flourish in that!—can accept the hidden life I am living now, and make my little hidden acts of virtue, because I know that God, who is Love, has called me to this—and what more could I ask for?
What more could any of us ask for than that?
Header photo credit: John Ivezic, St. Stephen Catholic Church, Portland, OR.
1 thought on “Reflections on Summer Assignment”
Oh Brother Matthew, while your acts (of love or at least of obedience) may not have been seen by all of us, your over-all work was appreciated! Especially at the festival, and especially now that you’ve been gone. I know Fr. Andersen has felt the loss of your presence greatly which means you must have been a huge help to him! Thank you for everything you do for the Lord and for us. You are missed already! My prayers go with you this year and I hope to see you sometime either on the hill or off!