Getting to know God
Low Sunday brings to my memory a pious tradition of my own country. On this day, in which the liturgy invites us to hunger for spiritual food — rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite, to desire the spiritual milk, that is free from guile — it was customary to take Holy Communion to the sick (they did not have to be seriously ill) so that they could fulfil their Easter duties.
In some large cities, each parish would organise its own eucharistic procession. From my days as a university student in Saragossa, I remember frequently seeing thousands of people crossing the Coso in three separate contingents made up entirely of men, thousands of men!, carrying huge burning candles. Strong and robust men they were, accompanying Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, with a faith that was greater than those candles that weighed so much.
Last night when I found myself awake several times I repeated, as an aspiration, the words, quasi modo geniti infantes, as new-born babes. It occurred to me that the Church's invitation today is very well suited to all of us who feel the reality of our divine filiation. It is certainly right that we be very strong, very solid, men of mettle who can influence our environment; and yet, before God, how good it is to see ourselves as little children!
Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite: like children just born into the world, cry out for the clean and pure milk of the spirit. How marvellous this verse from St Peter is and how appropriate that the liturgy should then add: exsultate Deo adiutori nostro: iubilate Deo Iacob: leap with joy in honour of God; acclaim the God of Jacob, who is also Our Lord and Father. But today I would like us, you and I, to meditate not so much on the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, which draws from our hearts the greatest possible praise for Jesus, but on the certainty of our divine filiation and on some of the consequences deriving from it for all who want to live their Christian faith nobly and earnestly.
For reasons that I need not go into now (but which Jesus, who is presiding over us here from the Tabernacle, knows full well) my life has led me to realise in a special way that I am a son of God and I have experienced the joy of getting inside the heart of my Father, to rectify, to purify myself, to serve him, to understand others and find excuses for them, on the strength of his love and my own lowliness.
This is why I want to insist now that you and I need to be made anew, we need to wake up from the slumber of feebleness by which we are so easily lulled and to become aware once again, in a deeper and more immediate way, of our condition as children of God.
The example of Jesus, every detail of his life in those Eastern lands, will help us to fill ourselves with this truth. 'If we admit the testimony of men,' we read in today's Epistle, 'the testimony of God is greater.' And what does God's testimony consist of? Again St John tells us: 'See how God has shown his love towards us; that we should be counted as his sons, should be his sons… Beloved, we are sons of God even now.'
Over the years, I have sought to rely unfalteringly for my support on this joyous reality. No matter what the situation, my prayer, while varying in tone, has always been the same. I have said to him: 'Lord, You put me here. You entrusted me with this or that, and I put my trust in you. I know you are my Father, and I have seen that tiny children are always absolutely sure of their parents.' My priestly experience tells me that abandonment such as this in the hands of God stimulates souls to acquire a strong, deep and serene piety, which drives them to work constantly and with an upright intention.
Quasi modo geniti infantes… It has made me very happy to spread everywhere this attitude of being children, little children of God, an attitude which enables us to savour those other words we find in the liturgy of today's Mass: 'all that is born of God overcomes the world'; it conquers difficulties and achieves victory in this great battle for the peace of souls and of society.
Our wisdom and our strength lie precisely in our being convinced of our littleness, of our nothingness in the eyes of God. But at the same time He himself is prompting us to get moving, to proclaim confidently his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, even though we have errors and miseries, provided, that is, that, as well as being weak, we are fighting to overcome our weakness.
You must have often heard me repeat the following advice contained in Scripture: discite benefacere, for there can be no doubt that we need to learn how to do good and to teach others to do the same. In this, we have to begin with ourselves, by striving to discover which particular good we should be aiming at, for each one of us, for each of our friends, for each and every man. I know no better way of considering the greatness of God than to start from this inexpressible and simple fact that he is our Father and we are his children.
Let us take another look at the Master. You too may find yourself now hearing his gentle reproach to Thomas: 'Let me have your finger; see, here are my hands. Let me have your hand; put it into my side. Cease your doubting, and believe;' and, with the Apostle, a sincere cry of contrition will rise from your soul: 'My Lord, and my God!' I acknowledge you once and for all as the Master. From now on, with your help, I shall always treasure your teachings and I shall strive to follow them loyally.
If we go back a few pages in the Gospel we can relive the scene in which Jesus retires to pray and his disciples are nearby, probably watching him. When Jesus has finished, one of them boldly asks him: 'Lord, teach us how to pray, as John did for his disciples. And he told them, When you pray, you are to say, Father, hallowed be thy name.'
Note the surprising thing about this reply. The disciples share their daily lives with Jesus and there, in the course of their ordinary conversations, Our Lord tells them how they should pray. He reveals to them the great secret of God's mercy: that we are children of God and we can talk things over with him and spend time with him, just as trustingly as a son does with his father.
When I see how some people set about the life of piety, which is the way a Christian should approach his Lord, and I find them presenting such an unattractive picture, all theory and formulas, plagued with soulless chanting, better suited to anonymity than to a personal, one to One, conversation with God Our Father (genuine vocal prayer is never anonymous), then I am reminded of Our Lord's words: 'When you are at prayer, do not use many phrases, like the heathens, who think to make themselves heard by their eloquence. You are not to be like them; your heavenly Father knows well what your needs are before you ask him.' A Father of the Church comments on this passage as follows: 'I understand from this that Christ is telling us to avoid long prayers, not long as regards time but as regards the endless multiplicity of words… For Our Lord himself set us the example of the widow who, by dint of supplication, conquered the resistance of the unjust judge; and the other example of the inconsiderate individual who arrives late at night and who, through insistence more than friendship, gets his friend out of bed (cf Luke 11:5-8; 18:1-8). With these two examples, he is telling us to ask constantly, not by composing endless prayers, but rather telling him of our needs with simplicity.'
In any case, if on beginning your meditation you don't succeed in concentrating your attention so as to be able to talk with God; if you feel dry and your mind seems incapable of expressing a single idea, or your affections remain dull, my advice is that you try to do what I have always tried to do on such occasions: put yourselves in the presence of your Father and tell him this much at least: 'Lord, I don't know how to pray. I can't think of anything to tell you.' You can be sure that at that very moment you have already begun to pray.
The piety which is born of divine filiation is a profound attitude of the soul which eventually permeates one's entire existence. It is there in every thought, every desire, every affection. Haven't you noticed in families how children, even without realising it, imitate their parents? They imitate their gestures, their habits; much of their behaviour is the same as that of their parents.
Well, the same kind of thing happens to a good son of God. One finds oneself acquiring — without knowing how, or by what means — a marvellous godliness, which enables us to focus events from the supernatural viewpoint of faith; we come to love all men as our Father in Heaven loves them and, what is more important, we become more fervent in our daily efforts to come closer to God. Our wretchedness, I insist, doesn't matter, because we have the loving arms of our Father God to lift us up.
Have you noticed what a great difference there is between a child falling and a fall by an adult? In the case of children, most falls are unimportant; they are always falling over! If they do start crying, their father tells them: 'Look here now, men don't cry.' And the incident ends with the child trying earnestly to please his father.
But what happens if an adult loses his balance and falls awkwardly to the ground? If it weren't so pitiful, his misfortune would provoke merriment and laughter. Besides, the fall may have serious consequences and, if it's an old man, it might even give rise to a fracture that will never heal. In our interior life, it does all of us good to be quasi modo geniti infantes, like those tiny tots who seem to be made of rubber and who even enjoy falling over because they get up again right away and are once more running around, and also because they know their parents will always be there to console them, whenever they are needed.
If we try to act like them, our stumbling and failures in the interior life (which, moreover, are inevitable) will never result in bitterness. Our reaction will be one of sorrow but not discouragement, and we'll smile with a smile that gushes up like fresh water out of the joyous awareness that we are children of that Love, that grandeur, that infinite wisdom, that mercy, that is our Father. During the years I have been serving Our Lord, I have learned to become a little child of God. I would ask you to do likewise, to be quasi modo geniti infantes, children who long for God's word, his bread, his food, his strength, to enable us to behave henceforth as Christian men and women.
Be very childlike! the more childlike, the better. I speak from my experience as a priest, who has had to pick himself up many times in these past thirty-six years (how long and yet how short they now seem to me!) which have been spent striving to fulfil a very precise requirement of God's Will. There's one thing that has helped me always, the fact that I am still a child, and I am always climbing onto my Mother's lap and finding refuge in the Heart of Christ, my Lord.
Serious falls, of the kind that can do great damage to the soul, at times almost irreparable damage, can always be traced back to the pride of thinking oneself to be grown up and self-sufficient. In such cases, people seem almost incapable of asking for help from those who can give it: not only from God, but also from a friend, or from a priest. And the poor soul, alone in its misfortune, sinks into confusion and loses its way.
Let us beseech God, right now, never to let us feel self-satisfied, but rather to make us grow ever more desirous of his help, his word, his Bread, his consolation and his strength: rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite, foster your hunger, your ambition to be like children. Believe me, it is the best way to conquer pride; and it's the only way to make our conduct good, great hearted, divine. 'Believe me, unless you become like little children again, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.'
The scenes of my student days come back to me again. What a demonstration of faith it was! I can almost hear the liturgical singing, breathe the smell of incense, see those thousands and thousands of men, each with his own misery — but each with a childlike heart; a little child who may perhaps be unable to lift up his eyes to meet those of his father. 'Know and see that it is an evil and bitter thing for you, to have forsaken the Lord your God.' Let us renew our firm decision never to forsake Our Lord for the cares of this world. Let us increase our thirst for God, making specific resolutions for our daily conduct, like little ones who recognise how needy they are and who therefore keep looking and calling for their Father.
But, let me go back to what I was telling you before: we have to learn to behave like children, we have to learn how to be God's sons. At the same time, we have to pass on to others this outlook which in the midst of our natural weaknesses, will make us 'strong in the faith', fruitful in good works, and certain of our way, so that no matter what kind of mistakes we may make, even the most embarrassing, we will never hesitate to react and return to the sure path of divine filiation which ends up in the open and welcoming arms of our Father God.
Which of you here does not remember the arms of his father? They probably weren't as caressing, as gentle and tender as those of his mother. But our father's strong and powerful arms held us tight and safe and warm. Lord, I thank you for those tough arms. Thank you for those strong hands. Thank you for that sturdy and tender heart. I was going to thank you also for my errors! No, you don't want them! But you understand them, and excuse them and forgive them.
This is the wisdom God wants us to practise in our dealings with him. This indeed is a good mathematical lesson to learn to recognise that we are really a zero, but that our Father God loves each one of us just as we are, yes, indeed, just as we are! I — who am nothing but a poor man — love each one of you as he is, so just imagine what God's Love will be like! That is provided we struggle, provided we are determined to bring our life into line with our conscience. a well formed conscience.
When we examine how our piety is and what it should be like, that is what specific points of our personal relationship with God need improving, if you have understood me right you will reject the temptation of imagining fantastic feats, because you will have discovered that Our Lord is quite happy if we offer him little tokens of love any moment of the day.
Try to commit yourself to a plan of life and to keep to it: a few minutes of mental prayer, Holy Mass — daily, if you can manage it — and frequent Communion; regular recourse to the Holy Sacrament of Forgiveness — even though your conscience does not accuse you of mortal sin; visiting Jesus in the Tabernacle; praying and contemplating the mysteries of the Holy Rosary, and so many other marvellous devotions you know or can learn.
You should not let them become rigid rules, or water-tight compartments. They should be flexible, to help you on your journey you who live in the middle of the world, with a life of hard professional work and social ties and obligations which you should not neglect, because in them your conversation with God still continues. Your plan of life ought to be like a rubber glove which fits the hand perfectly.
Please don't forget that the important thing does not lie in doing many things; limit yourself, generously, to those you can fulfil each day, whether or not you happen to feel like doing them. These pious practices will lead you, almost without your realising it, to contemplative prayer. Your soul will pour forth more acts of love, aspirations, acts of thanksgiving, acts of atonement, spiritual communions. And this will happen while you go about your ordinary duties, when you answer the telephone, get on to a bus, open or close a door, pass in front of a church, when you begin a new task, during it and when you have finished it: you will find yourself referring everything you do to your Father God.
Rest and repose in the fact of being children of God. God is a Father who is full of tenderness, of infinite love. Call him 'Father' many times a day and tell him — alone, in your heart — that you love him, that you adore him, that you feel proud and strong because you are his son. All this implies a genuine programme of interior life, which needs to be channelled through your relationship of piety with God, through these acts (which should be few, I insist, but constant) which will enable you to develop the attitudes and manner of a good son.
I must also warn you against the danger of routine — the real sepulchre of piety. Routine is often disguised as an ambition to do or to embark upon great feats, while daily duties are lazily neglected. When you see this beginning to happen, look at yourself sincerely before Our Lord: ask yourself if the reason why you may have become tired of always struggling on the same thing, is not simply that you were not seeking God; check if your faithful perseverance in work has not fallen off, due to lack of generosity and a spirit of sacrifice. It is then that your norms of piety, your little mortifications, your apostolic efforts that are not reaping an immediate harvest, all seem to be terribly sterile. We find ourselves empty and perhaps we start dreaming up new plans merely to still the voice of our Heavenly Father who asks us to be totally loyal to him. And with this dream, or rather nightmare, of mighty wonders in our soul, we become oblivious to reality, forgetting the way that will lead us most certainly straight towards sanctity. It is a clear sign that we have lost our supernatural outlook, our conviction that we are tiny children and our confidence that our Father will work wonders in us, if we begin again with humility.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is of seeing, up in the mountains near my home, those signposts they planted alongside the hill paths. I was struck by those tall posts usually painted red. It was explained to me then that when the snow fell, covering up everything, paths, seeded fields and pastures thickets, boulders and ravines, the poles stood out as sure reference points, so that everyone would always know where the road went.
Something similar happens in the interior life. There are times of spring and summer, but there are also winters, days without sun and nights bereft of moonlight. We can't afford to let our friendship with Jesus depend on our moods, on our ups and downs. To do so would imply selfishness and laziness, and is certainly incompatible with love.
Therefore, in times of wind and snow, a few solid practices of piety, which are not sentimental but firmly rooted and adjusted to one's special circumstances, will serve as the red posts always marking out the way for us, until the time comes when Our Lord decides to make the sun shine again. Then the snows melt and our hearts beat fast once more, burning with a fire that never really went out. It was merely hidden in the embers, beneath the ashes produced by a time of trial, or by our own poor efforts or lack of sacrifice.
I do not deny that over the years people have come to me and have told me with real sorrow: 'Father, I don't know what's come over me, but I find I am tired and cold. My piety used to be so solid and straightforward, but now it feels like play acting…' Well, for those who are going through such a phase, and for all of you, I answer: 'Play acting? Wonderful! The Lord is playing with us as a father does with his children.'
We read in Scripture: ludens in orbe terrarum, that God plays over the whole face of the earth. But he does not abandon us because he adds immediately afterwards: deliciae meae esse cum filiis hominum, my delight is to be with the children of men. Our Lord is playing with us! So when we feel that we are just play acting, because we feel cold and uninspired; when we find it difficult to fulfil our duties and attain the spiritual objectives we had set ourselves, then the time has come for us to realise that God is playing with us, and that he wishes us to act out our play with style.
I don't mind telling you that the Lord has, on occasion, given me many graces. But as a rule I have to go against the grain. I follow my plan, not because I like it, but because I've a duty to do so, for Love. 'But, Father', you ask me, 'can one put on an act for God? Wouldn't that be hypocritical?' Don't worry: for you the moment has arrived to play out a human comedy before a divine spectator. Persevere, for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are contemplating your act; do it all for love of God, to please him, although you find it hard.
How beautiful it is to be God's jester! How beautiful to act out such a role for Love, with a spirit of sacrifice, not seeking any personal satisfaction, but just to please Our Father God who is playing with us! Turn to Our Lord with confidence and say to him: 'I don't feel like doing this at all, but I will offer it up for you.' And then put your heart into the job you are doing, even though you think you are just play acting. Blessed play acting! I assure you it isn't hypocrisy, because hypocrites need a public for their pantomimes, whereas the spectators of our play, let me repeat, are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Most Holy Virgin, St Joseph and all the Angels and Saints in Heaven. Our interior life involves no more show than this, it is Christ who is passing by quasi in occulto.
Iubilate Deo. Exsultate Deo adiutori nostro. Praise God. Leap for joy in the Lord, our one and only help. Jesus my Lord, whoever doesn't understand this, knows nothing about love, or sin, or wretchedness. Do you know what it is to be lifted up to the heart of God? Do you realise that a soul can face his Lord, open his heart to him and tell him his woes? I do it, for example, when God takes to himself people who are still young, who could still serve him and love him for many years here on earth; because I just don't understand. But my lament is one of trust, because I know that if I were ever to slip out of God's arms, I would stumble immediately. So, right away, calmly, as I accept the designs of Heaven, I add: 'May the most just and most lovable Will of God be done, be fulfilled, be praised and eternally exalted above all things. Amen. Amen.'
This is the way of doing things the Gospel teaches us; it is a clever move and a very holy one, the source of the effectiveness of our apostolic work. This is the fountainhead; from it our love and our peace as children of God flow and it is the way by which we can transmit affection and serenity to mankind. If only we do this, we will end our days in Love, having sanctified our work and found in it the hidden happiness of the things of God. We will go about life with the holy shamelessness of children and reject the shame, the hypocrisy, of grown ups, who are afraid to return to their Father after experiencing the failure of a fall.
I end with Our Lord's words of greeting, as found in today's Gospel: pax vobis! 'Peace be with you… And the disciples rejoiced at the sight of the Lord,' of this Lord who accompanies us to the Father.