Holy Spirit Province Saint-Esprit
Franciscans of Canada - Franciscains du Canada
Ordo Fratrum Minorum
By Theodore Splinter, ofm
It is the end of January in Killarney. I assume so in Canada, as well 🙂
Last week we took a drive around the Dingle peninsula. We had a guest speaker with us for one week, and on the Friday afternoon it was decided that we would take the afternoon off to go sight seeing. I was very happy because I have always enjoyed car rides, and it was a rare chance to get out and see more of Ireland. The Dingle peninsula reaches out into the Atlantic on the west coast of Ireland. We were driving along the south side of it, looking across a large bay to another peninsula. At the tip of Dingle we parked and looked out at the Atlantic to the west, and across the bay to the other peninsula to the south. I felt very, very small. Everything in my life seemed to shrink. My life seemed very short, as compared to the length of time this peninsula has stood in the wind and rain coming off the Atlantic. It was an interesting experience.
Last night we had a (belated) Christmas and New Year party for all the volunteers at the Friary church. All the readers, eucharistic ministers, flower arrangers, the choir, the sacristans, the mass office workers, and our cook were there. It was a nice night of appreciation for them. It was held at a nice hotel in the area. One of the other novices and I decided to walk home rather than drive. It was a dry, calm, and relatively warm night, and we thought it would be a good way to walk off some of our supper. We had a very good conversation as we walked. One thing I mentioned was that in my business life I could always lay down at night with a feeling of peace, knowing that I had tried hard that day, and had put in sufficient effort. I may or may not have gotten all of my work done or accomplished anything substantial. But I had worked hard and tried my best to be honest and fair to my customers and employees. I could always rest easy knowing that I did everything that could be reasonably expected of me to do. In postulancy I also tried very hard to do everything that was possible for me to do, and thus I also rested at night with a sense of satisfaction.
Now, in Noviciate, things are quite different. I have a daily schedule, and it might feel tiring, but there is no outward accomplishment to be seen. If I look at our cook or our maintenance man, I am almost embarrassed by how easy my days are. But it is a different type of challenge. In business I could focus outwardly, and it was easy enough for me to assess what needed to be done and then do it. There were often tougher decisions, or difficult situations, but I could usually just push forward and get through.
There is no way to “push forward” in noviciate. It is not a question of pushing. It is not a test of will power or fortitude. It is not like we have to get up super early, wash ourselves with a bucket of cold water, toil away at tasks, and kneel on cold hard floors to pray. There is no physical austerity required of us. The challenge comes when I am sitting in class, mentally criticizing someone or something, and then the guest speaker tells us how criticizing others is a sign of walking in the flesh, versus the spirit of God. I recognize what I am doing, and I say, “damn, he’s right. And that’s me”. It is very easy to see how other people lack understanding. I may be right about them. But it is not their fault. For me to criticize them reveals more deficiency in me, and how far I still need to go.
So, here I am. I have no outward work to do. I have no tangible responsibilities. I have nothing to hang my hat on at the end of the day. I have nothing to feel satisfied with. My task now is to look at my tendencies in mind and heart, see who I am and how I am living, and accept the need to change. I have to see myself, every day, in all of my pride and ambition, and do my best to curtail myself.
There is also an increased intensity of prayer in noviciate. I do not get to live my life the way I want to all day, then spend 30 or 45 minutes with God in prayer at night. I have to think of God at times of the day when I would be more comfortable just stewing within my own mind, or focusing on my own activities, undisturbed. We meet to pray the divine office five times a day, plus daily mass. We also have spiritual classes which can be quite “hard hitting”. I can just coast through many of the prayer times, if I want to. But I love God. God is everything to me. I cannot just coast through an entire prayer session without at least trying to become genuinely prayerful and worship the Lord in my heart in some way or another. I cannot be perfect in this obviously, but I at least have to try.
The challenge in noviciate, therefore, at least for me is the erosion of my personal space and sense of self justification. I am not bothered by the proximity of the friars and novices. I grew up with siblings, and I always worked with others. It is the proximity of God which is the challenge. It is a blessed challenge! And a joyous one, for which I am extremely grateful. But it is a challenge. I imagine it might be similar to moving in with a spouse for the first time. Or maybe it could be like retiring from work and suddenly being with your spouse all the time, without the individual life of work. It is not that you are unhappy to be with them, it is just that you were accustomed to your own time and space.
All of this is working results though. I am realizing my destiny. It has always been daunting to think that I need to somehow become perfect. Or, that I need to let go of all of my desires and ambitions. People say “God loves you as you are” but I know that does not mean I get to stay as I am, which is an egotistical mess, for all eternity. I don’t want that. I want to be better. But it’s hard.
God has started showing me the way. He has also started showing me the result. It has happened in amazing ways. It has happened by Him awakening the need for love in my heart, and then Him filling that need with His love. Self restraint is hard. It is hard to resist your desires. But it is easy to love a pure and sincere person who loves you. I have always been a bit of a lone wolf. I have considered myself a solitary mountain climber, leaving the world behind, turning my face toward the Lord, and relentlessly climbing the spiritual mountain. Noviciate has been a sobering experience. It has made me question my ability to climb an anthill, let alone the spiritual mountain of the Lord.
The biggest miracle is that God has caused me to pine for true love for the first time in my life. I have had dreams of spousal love and then awakened, thinking “I want that. I never knew what it was before”. I have had dreams of having children, holding them, picking them up when they fall. I have had dreams of having a partner. I dreamt of having a partner, and all I wanted to do was go off and be with them. There was no sex. It was not even attachment. It was just that I valued our time together. It was as though our duty was to spend time together, just the two of us. All of these dreams had me confused, until I opened up to God. I said to God “I want this type of love. But I know I am not meant for marriage. I guess….. You will have to give it to me?….Can we have that love?” And, that has been the answer. That has been the answer to everything. It is not a mountain to climb. I do not have to resist desires. I do not have to be firm in austerities. I just have to turn to God, in need for love. God answered, and…. well….it is good!
I am not always home. But there is progress. I am slowly sinking more and more into God’s arms. Sometimes it is out of this world, and I am over the moon. Sometimes I am back to the old, lone wolf. But God has shown me that the answer to everything lies in relationship with him. The judgment of others melts away. The desires lose their appeal. The mountain becomes a meadow. Everything becomes perfect in the arms of the Lord. Even time has no sway when one is rapt in loving God.
I am coming to the conclusion that the most important thing is to realize the need for God’s love. I experience God’s love when I need it most, when my need of love overrides every other thought and desire. The challenges of noviciate, and the challenges of a reasonably austere life help one to experience that need. I now believe that I should always reserve some need for God’s love. If I satisfy all of my own wants and desires, I can go back to living as a lone wolf. I need to remain present in my need for God’s love.
God pierced me to the heart so that only He could console me. What a great favour He did me! I hope, going forward, to continue to sink deeper into His arms. When we are together it is impossible for me to care about anything else.
Killarney Ireland, January 26th, 2019