When I was stationed at mater Dolorosa Retreat Center in Sierra Madre, CA, Fr. Pat Brennan, CP, needed a liver transplant, and after he received a new liver, he was in recovery for a while before he returned to full-time ministry. During this period, when I was in his office, I got to see some of the many letters and get-well wishes he received. One of them had a quote from Thomas Merton, which I would later put on my wall of quotes. This is the quote:
“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on…you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as you gradually struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
Thomas Merton’s focus on relationships came to me because I see in our Scripture readings for today consideration of three relationships important to a Christian disciple: God and me, God and us, and I and we. In our Gospel reading from John, Jesus invites His disciples to have an intimate relationship with Him and the Father, with the promise of the Holy Spirit: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him…. I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
In our second reading from Revelation, that same idea of relationship comes up, but it is not only with individuals, but with a community, a people. The author has this vision of the “holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” The city has a wall with twelve gates on which are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. The twelve tribes represent the Chosen People. Similarly, the wall had twelve courses of stones at its foundation, on which were inscribed the twelve names of the apostles. Here, the twelve apostles represent the people of the New Covenant in Jesus. In the vision there is no need of a temple, “for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.” The relationship here is so intimate with the people that there is no need of an external building to represent the presence of God.
And in our reading from Acts, the community of faith resolves its first major conflict, between those who held that the Gentiles becoming Christian had to be circumcised, in other words, be Jews first, and others, notably Paul and Barnabas, who held that there was no need for them to do this. This resolution of the conflict highlights how we are to relate to each other, and the rest of the world.
These readings call us to enter more deeply into all of these relationships, because, in fact, they are all interrelated. Jesus tells us that whoever loves Him will keep His word, which is to love each other, even to the point of forgiveness and loving our enemies. And if we were to love as Jesus commands, as a people, a community, then what could we see in our world! In our reading from Acts, the community, in discernment of the Spirit, saw that they were to refrain from putting undue burdens on each other. Perhaps a good thing we can do when we make choices about how we will relate to another or to some issue in our lives is to consider whether we are putting an undue burden on someone else, or even an undue burden on the rest of creation.
Fr. Phil, CP