We had a Gospel Reflection Group on Tuesday. Generally these groups tend to be a kind of ‘catch up’ as well as a means to think about the Gospel for the coming Sunday. It was just after the Jazz Mass. Everyone was glowing a bit because we had such fun. Also, it was the week after my reflection on the loss of my phone and other items. There was a number of compliments for me about the success of the Jazz Mass, and the value of the reflection in the face of a loss.
Now here is a story. A mentor of mine was in a human relations group in the 1960s I should think. There in the group a woman member paid him a compliment about his contribution to her learning. He, self deprecatingly, said something like ‘Oh, no, it was nothing.’ She then proceeded to slap him across the face saying ‘How dare you devalue what I have offered. I feel exactly as you feel now! Slapped down by your negative reply to something I wanted to offer you!’
Now ever since he told us that story, I have been careful to when people offer me compliments. Mostly I say ‘Thank you, what did you particularly like?’ or ‘Thank you! What I do is part of the service!’
But I do have to admit that when people offer me compliments, I actually feel a bit self deprecating on the inside! There was one time, after finishing my doctorate that I didn’t. I went around like the tigers in the children’s story ‘Feeling very pleased with myself’. That was a cause of genuine pride, because it was a good piece of work.
But on Tuesday it was different. I caught myself just beforehand thinking ‘Well, after three years of anxiety about residence permits, and some difficult times with the congregation while fulfilling our mission, and my sense of relief that after organising the Jazz Mass, lots of people came, I think I can say ‘I am really happy here!’ So when someone offered a compliment on Tuesday, it touched and echoed in me this sense of genuine contentment.
I was saying my prayers o Wednesday morning, when this sense of contentment washed over me, and I had some tears of relief about not only being ‘legal’ in Switzerland, but having ‘come through’ in the initial difficulties with being a new priest in a congregation.
One of the members of the group on Tuesday also said words like ‘You know, this is the only activity that I do where I structure into my life the time to reflect on the faith, and that there is no real set time limit. We go on till we’re finished.
I had also expressed my appreciation of the fact that in going on holiday to Greece, I could sit around and do nothing and also have time to reflect on the life of the congregation, recharge my batteries, and take in some new stimulation in the form of new images and sights that also offer the opportunity for reflection.
One of these was a picture of Jesus on the cross, either dead or more likely dying. This image is a kind of Pieta, but the thing that was different this time was that Jesus on the cross was held, cross and all by God the Father, with the image of the dove (Spirit) in between. This caught my attention because normally the Pieta figures are the ones of the dead Jesus, after he has been taken down from the cross, held by Mary, his mother. But this is a Pieta with God the Father and the dying Jesus.
I think that these two images reflect something of what was happening to me last week. The common image in both Pieta images is ‘being held’. But the image of ‘being held’ by the Father strikes me as ‘external’ in its sense. I liken it to the being held by the structures that I build into life: the decision to go on holidays (helped by my spouse), the commitment to regular daily prayer via the Daily Office, the regular reflection on the Scriptures each Tuesday, the regular Thursday ‘1000 words’ for this reflection. All these are a kind of structural ‘being held’ that represent the order in life that ‘puts us in the way’ of God .
The image of God the Father, holding onto Jesus in his agony represents for me the sense of being ‘held together’ by some boundary or structure while the active work of adjustment goes on. This is also what a community does. Like Thomas who was held by the Church community in his questing, so in the Church people with questions, or who have difficulties, or who need a few rough edges knocked off can be held in love by the community while that process is going on. That too is the meaning of Lent, were in olden times, people who were excommunicated could prepare to come back. It is a true sign of being Church if the possibility of a person’s being estranged, and then the possibility of growth followed by return is a real part of out life. This I think is true for us.
But the other image of the Pieta is the image of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus. This represents for me the internal work of attending to what is neglected or dead. Last week, it was the process of attending to the ‘dead’ sense of being at peace which allowed the flow of tears on Wednesday. Had I not done this, I might have, like my mentor, pushed away the feeling that was brought on by the compliment, and not really asked ‘what is that about?’This kind of work is the internal, attending that feels more feminine for me.
Both kinds of work are necessary and I am so glad that in my vocation as a priest, I have been given the opportunity for both.