02 May 2014

'Stay with us . . .' Sunday Reflections, 3rd Sunday of Easter Year A

Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-11, Museo del Opera del Duomo, Siena [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)                                  

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,  but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth,who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,  and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning,  and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.  When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”  That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.  They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”  Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Rembrandt, 1648, Musée de Louvre, Paris [Web Gallery of Art]

From 1968 until 1971 I studied music at Manhattanville College, Purchase, New York, not too far north of New York City. At the time it was run by the Religious of the Sacred Heart. In 1968 the college dropped 'of the Sacred Heart' from its name and for many years now has not been a Catholic institution, though that's another story.

One morning during Lent in 1969 I was walking across campus to class - I was a campus chaplain for my first two years there and lived in the chaplains' house - and met a student name Betty coming from one of her classes. We were in some classes together. Just to make small talk I asked her what she was planning to do during the Easter vacation. She told me that she and three or four other students were planning to go to a parish in rural Kentucky to help with various activities there. As I had no commitments for Easter Week I asked her if I could come along.

So I found myself travelling the 1,200 or so kilometres to Lancaster, Kentucky, on Easter Sunday or Easter Monday, and met for the first time a wonderful priest named Fr Ralph Beiting. His parish covered three and a half counties and the four county towns. There were only a handful of Catholics in the area and the remnants of anti-Catholic feeling. Most of the African-American people in the area were poor but so was a large percentage of the white people.

That Easter Week I spent most of my time cleaning the parish hall in St William Parish, Lancaster, and helping to get things ready for the summer programmes, which included Bible classes for children, summer camps for children outside two different towns, and home-to-home visitation. There were students, not all of them Catholic, from one or two other colleges in the north-eastern USA. All went about their menial tasks cheerfully.

I had no summer commitments that year and returned to Lancaster for six weeks when every thing was in full swing. I spent most of each week at the summer camp in Cliffview, which overlooked a narrow lake. Each week from Monday morning till Friday afternoon a group of children came to Cliffview, boys one week, girls the next, nearly all from poor families, black and white. Very few of these were Catholics. They had many activities, including trips on the pontoon boat. The person in charge while I was there was a religious brother taking a break from his academic work in another state. The rest of the staff were mostly college students who had come, some for a week, some for two, some for a month and some for most of the summer. 

There were some older volunteers involved in other activities, including office work. Much of that had to do with the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP) which Father Beiting had started in 1964. I spent part of the week in Lancaster helping in this and also on the home-to-home visitation, which we did in pairs, just as the Legion of Mary does. Now and again people turned us away but most were gracious as we told them we were from the Catholic Church and wanted them to know about the various activities in the parish.

CAP still serving the poor in the USA after 50 years

It was doing office work that I discovered something about myself that I had been unaware of. Some of the students and older volunteers, none of whom had met me before, felt free to open up with me. I also learned that I didn't have to have ready answers for them. I had an ability to listen to individuals and this was to become central to the way I have lived as a priest down the years, especially in counselling, in spiritual direction, in hearing confessions, in giving retreats.

I learned something else too. Each person has unique gifts and we're not meant to compete with one another, or to envy one another, or to dismiss the gifts that God has given each of us. One of the priests in the parish had a wonderful way of relating to children but was pretty hopeless with teenagers and young adults. Father Beiting was a great motivator and organiser of young people, calling on what was best in them, channeling their idealism and faith into activities that proclaimed the Gospel directly and indirectly. Without these God-given gifts of  his none of us would have been there.

Yet if you needed to speak to a priest to talk to at a very personal level you probably wouldn't go to Father Beiting. On the other hand, I realised that if I had been in charge of all the activities that he had organized they either would never have got off the ground or, if they had, would have collapsed rather quickly!

I made life-long friends through that summer in Kentucky. Some years later, by God's grace, I was able to intervene, perhaps the only person who could have done so, when one of those friends was attempting suicide. Those six weeks were a 'foundation' experience in my life. I discovered so much about the joy of being a priest, about the importance of friendship, and many other things besides. I'm not a person who wants to go back to the past and stay there. I'm quite happy living in the present. But if there was one event I could re-live it would be those six weeks in the summer of 1969.

The story of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, a road that can take us in many directions, all of them leading us to the Lord, reminded me of my experience 45 years ago. The two disciples welcomed the stranger they met on the road, not having the faintest idea who he was or of the grace they would receive.

When I stopped for that brief chat with Betty on my way to class I had no idea that it was to be a door to a whole direction in my life as a priest, a door to new discoveries.

We just never know when Jesus will join us in our daily activities. But if we want him to be part of our lives we will welcome him when he comes to us, even if at first we don't recognise him. It may be only when we look back and reflect on some event that we will have a 'Were not our hearts burning within us' moment.

The welcome of the two disciples extended to their persuading Jesus to eat with them: Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over. I remember many years ago in Ireland when someone returning to Dublin from another part of Ireland where I was visiting not only offered to take me there but persuaded me to go to his place for something to eat, which I hadn't intended or desired as I was rather tired. But I agreed and it led to him opening up to me about many things and to going to confession. Again, the Lord joining two disciples, not on the road to Emmaus but on the road to Dublin.

It has been my experience that the Lord usually reveals himself in events that in themselves are not particularly significant. Most 'small talk' conversations are such. But it was through such a conversation that Jesus invited me to make a particular journey, from New York to Kentucky as I initially saw it, that has richly blessed me through others, and others through me. 

Fr Ralph W. Beiting (1 January 1924 - 9 August 2012)

This video was uploaded less than two months before Fr Beiting's death. He was still doing street preaching up to the summer of 2011. He was a wonderful priest.

Pied Beauty
by Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ

Glory be to God for dappled things —
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                Praise him.

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