Stepping Back to Come Closer – Pastor’s Reflection (June 18, 2017)
Here we are at the last big celebration of the parish year. By convention we try to lay off at this point and take a programmatic siesta until Holy Cross Day (September 14) bestirs us back into vigorous common life. Parish life gains health from this hiatus. It’s not just that we need a rest: we also need to absorb and integrate nine months of intensity. Such a remove makes for deeper living. I have learned this lesson from my experience and from my self. Standing at the cusp of summer allows me to explore the paradox of introversion that has shaped my life and ministry, for at this time we give people permission to uncage their inner partier, and also their inner hermit.
On Fridays in summer these two kinds of release become palpable to me. I love to walk Midtown at 1 or 2 pm and watch the laughing, luggage-bearing crowds empty office towers and fill cafes and Jitneys. It brings me such joy to observe their happy anticipation of a weekend at the beach: more satisfying yet is the knowledge that they are leaving, and I am not. By Friday evening another lively scene will have absorbed them at journey’s end and I will have my city to myself. The sparkling crowd offers such delight, but its departure even more. Having observed them on Friday, I can think about them on Saturday, and by the time they are sitting in front of me on a Sunday I might have something helpful to offer them. To people-watch is to people-love. To go away and think about them is to love again. To come back to them with a homily offers yet a third love.
On those Fridays, as the river of happiness flows past me down Park Avenue toward Grand Central I gain a fresh perception of my love of people and, at the same time, my need to have some periodic distance from them. Without significant conflict these two stances have been neighbors in my heart since childhood, as they are in many other introverted hearts. Articulating their relationship has provided the real challenge. When I was about 10 or 11 my mother said to me, “Why do you keep your door closed so much? You shut out the people who love you.” I do not remember having any good answer to that question: now I realize that time apart is what gives me the wherewithal to express love. Indeed, I have come to see how introversion offers gifts to those who possess it and to others. One of the mottoes of our Order captures the evangelical fruitfulness of my temperament: “To contemplate, and to share with others, the fruits of one’s contemplation.”
If we unpack this phrase we get the insight that stepping back can be as loving a posture as drawing near. The practice of “cloister” teaches this wisdom. For religious, authentic withdrawal neither stems from fear, nor seeks an escape. Rather, it claims a vantage point for loving. I am a preacher who also goes home to a cloister and so it is imperative for me to understand how profoundly loving and withdrawal complement each other.
In a homily the other day I made an observation about a particular practice of generosity, and one of the hearers responded, “Well, yes, I do this, but I never think about it.” I answered that this was my job. I am the one who stands back, beholds the beauty of your life, and helps you to see it.
Here lies the beautiful relation of love and rumination. I love you enough to go off to my room and think about you. In summer, Central Park will suffice for that room, or Riverside Drive, or perhaps Park Avenue in the evening. Such urban cloisters help the ministry of preaching, but they also can help lots of other people. In an age of instant response don’t we need to recover the space for reflecting before communicating? Perhaps the silence of summer will call more eloquently this year. We have more to ponder than usual, and our times need loving response, even if they have never noticed it.
As we submit this bulletin on Monday, June 12, I am sad to report to you that Fr. Chris Johnson will be leaving St. Vincent Ferrer Priory and will now live at Rosary Hill Home in Westchester County. Many of us have profited from Fr. Chris’ wonderful preaching and compassion in the confessional. Please pray that in this new chapter of life he will come to know even more intimately the God he has proclaimed to many others.