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Online Retreat "Living the Eucharist" - Week Four
This is the fourth and final installment of a four-week online retreat focused on the spirituality of the Eucharist. The mystery of the Eucharist is not only something we celebrate, it is also a reality that we seek to live as followers of Jesus. You are invited to read the following reflection and make use of the recommended Scripture readings and reflection questions for your prayer during the week. We suggest that you take 20-30 minutes per day to pray with the Scripture passages and the questions. The other installments of this retreat can also be found on our website.
Week Four: The Eucharist and the Gift of Peace
As a priest one of the prayers of the liturgy that has come to mean the most of me over the years is the prayer for peace: “Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles, ‘I leave you peace, my peace I give to you.’ Look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church, and grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom, where you live forever and ever.” Amidst the ordinary stresses of life and ministry, I find myself uttering the words of this prayer with special intensity when I preside at the Eucharist.
I am always struck by the gospel words of peace spoken by the risen Jesus to his frightened and confused disciples. The Gospel of John captures this well. On the evening of the first day of the week, the risen Christ comes to disciples who are in a tomb of their own – sealed away behind locked doors. As he stands in their midst, his first words are “Peace be with you.” A week later, when Thomas is present with the other disciples, Jesus visits them again and utters the same words. There are so many other words that the risen Lord could have spoken to these followers he had called his friends. One has to wonder why he did not say, “Where were you when I needed you most? Why did you desert me in my darkest hour?” But that is not his greeting; it is simply, “Peace be with you.”
In his Letter to the Colossians, Paul enumerates a list of virtues that he thinks should infuse the lives of disciples of Jesus – compassion, humility, forgiveness and so forth. Then he says, “And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body” (Col 3: 15). The peace of Christ is something to which those who make up the body of Christ in the world are called. The peace of Christ is a kind of vocation within a vocation. In this final week of our retreat, we will focus on Christ’s gift of peace in our lives, particularly on ways in which we can increase our openness to this gift.
Cardinal Bernardin and the Gift of Peace
Catholics on Call is part of the Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Center for Theology and Ministry at CTU. The memory of Cardinal Bernardin serves as an inspiration to all of us who work here. I believe that Cardinal Bernardin’s book, The Gift of Peace, is a treasure that has much to teach us, especially about peace. I will focus on it in this retreat reflection, and I invite you to read or re-read this compelling book when you have the opportunity to do so.
Writing about his journey through surgery and postoperative treatment for cancer, as well as the trauma of a false accusation of sexual abuse, Bernardin says that he prayed to God for the grace to handle those experiences without bitterness or undue anxiety. He writes, “God’s special gift to me has been the ability to accept difficult situations, especially the false accusation against me and then the cancer. His special gift to me is the gift of peace” (96). Further along in the book, after the news that his life expectancy was less than a year, Bernardin recalls what he said to the media about his situation: “While I know that, humanly speaking, I will have to deal with difficult moments, I can say in all sincerity that I am at peace. I consider this as God’s special gift to me at this moment in my life” (135).
When I was recently re-reading Bernardin’s book, I wondered what it was that he did that created an openness – a disposition – to receive this gift of peace from the Lord throughout the tumultuous final years of his life. As I thought about this question, three recurring themes from the book stood out for me: his commitment to personal prayer; his efforts to let go; and his desire for reconciliation. It seems to me that these commitments that Bernardin made paved the way for his experience of Christ’s gift of peace at the end of his life. I believe that they also have something to say to us about opening ourselves to this gift in our own lives.
Commitment to Personal Prayer
Bernardin is very honest about a challenge that some of his own priests presented to him while he was bishop of Cincinnati. The cardinal reports that in those days he was not setting aside sufficient time for personal prayer. He says, “It was not that I lacked the desire to pray or that I had suddenly decided that prayer was not important. Rather, I was very busy, and I fell into the trap of thinking that my good works were more important than prayer” (5). He recounts that a group of priests with whom he was having dinner urged him to set aside more time for prayer. As a result of that conversation, Bernardin decided to give God the first hour of his day, to spend time with God in prayer and meditation in order to open the door ever wider to God’s entrance into his life. He says that this practice put his life into an entirely new and uplifting perspective.
Throughout The Gift of Peace, as he relates the difficult experiences he endured during his final years, Bernardin returns to this theme again and again. He describes how difficult it was for him to pray after his surgery. He wanted to pray in the hospital, but he was too distracted with the physical discomfort to do so. Bernardin says that he told friends who visited him in the hospital, “Pray while you’re well, because if you wait until you’re sick you might not be able to do it” (67). He speaks of the way in which his regular time of prayer in the morning helped him to stay connected with the Lord throughout the remainder of the day. Bernardin encourages us to “keep plugging away” (98) at prayer even if it does not seem to be going very well. He affirms that “if you do give the time, little by little you become united with the Lord throughout your life . . .” (98). The cardinal writes, “Without prayer, you cannot be connected or you cannot remain united with the Lord. It’s absolutely essential” (100).
Bernardin’s book reflects the honesty of his conversation with the Lord. He practiced a key principle of prayer that Bishop Robert Morneau has often expressed to young adults and partners in his presentations at Catholics on Call: “In prayer I must bring this me to the living and true God.” We are called to bring our real selves to the Lord in prayer, not the self we show to others or the self we hope to become someday when we solve all of our problems. So our dialogue with the Lord needs to be reverent and honest at the same time. In prayer we come before the God who created this vast and ancient universe and who knows us better than we know ourselves. We also come before the God who in Christ has invited us into friendship with himself. Thus we can and should speak with God about everything that is happening in our lives. As Bernardin testifies in his book, through this reverent-and-honest dialogue, practiced on a daily basis, we dispose ourselves to receive Christ’s gift of peace.
Cardinal Bernardin begins his book with a section entitled “Letting Go.” And the challenge of letting go, of learning to entrust himself more fully into the hands of God, runs throughout his reflections. He admits that this was an ongoing struggle for him, as it is for all of us. Bernardin remarks, “Still, letting go is never easy. I have prayed and struggled constantly to be able to let go of things more willingly, to be free of everything that keeps the Lord from finding greater hospitality in my soul or interferes with my surrender to what God asks of me . . . I have desperately wanted to open the door of my soul as Zacchaeus opened the door of his house. Only in that way can the Lord take over my life completely” (6-7).
In a reflection on the mystery of suffering in the book, Bernardin says that “our participation in the paschal mystery . . . brings a certain freedom: the freedom to let go, to surrender ourselves to the living God, to place ourselves completely into his hands, knowing that ultimately he will win out! The more we cling to ourselves and others, the more we try to control our destiny -- the more we lose the true sense of our lives, the more we are impacted by the futility of it all” (48). Bernardin suggests that “it is in the act of abandonment that we experience redemption, that we find life, peace and joy in the midst of physical, emotional and spiritual suffering” (48-49).
I find that this principle of letting go is easy to talk about and hard to put into practice. The motto to which I am more accustomed to living by is: “It’s never too soon to start worrying” (!). But, as Cardinal Bernardin teaches us, the ability to entrust our lives and our projects to the Lord enables us to live emotionally and spiritually healthy lives. This does not mean abdicating responsibility for our lives. It does not entail minimizing the gifts God has given us or neglecting the responsibility to use those gifts as well as we can. But it does mean recognizing that we belong to God – and all that we are and do belongs to God. And ultimately it is God who is in charge of the world and of our lives. This recognition helps us to check an excessive need to control people, situations and outcomes.
The ability to let go enables us to recognize that maintaining relationships with significant people in our lives is essential, no matter how busy we may be. Those relationships keep us human and healthy. The capacity to let go also implies a necessary detachment from the results of our endeavors. The familiar adage attributed to Mother Teresa contains a lot of wisdom: the Lord does not call us to be successful, but to be faithful. Letting go of the “success” of our projects – however we define success – is terribly difficult at times. But it instills a certain freedom and peace in us when we are able to do it. Cardinal Bernardin’s words about letting go represent an important dimension of his witness to the gift of peace that he received from Christ.
The Desire for Reconciliation
Bernardin’s well-known meeting with the man who falsely accused him of sexual abuse points us to a third dimension of his witness to the gift of peace. He writes about his desire to meet with Steven Cook after the accusation had been retracted. He says, “. . . I felt deeply that the entire episode would not be complete until I followed my shepherd’s calling to seek him out. I only prayed that he would receive me. The experience of false accusation would not be complete until I met and reconciled with Steven” (34). When they did meet for a conversation he told Steven that he had prayed for him every day and would continue to pray for his health and peace of mind. In reflecting on their experience of celebrating the sacrament of the sick and the Eucharist together, Bernardin says, “Never in my entire priesthood have I witnessed a more profound reconciliation. The words I am using to tell you this story cannot begin to describe the power of God’s grace at work that afternoon. It was a manifestation of God’s love, forgiveness and healing that I will never forget” (39). Bernardin related this event to the work of the Good Shepherd: “to seek to restore to the sheepfold the one that has been, only for a while, lost” (40).
In striving to become reconciled and reconciling people we open the doors of our hearts to Christ’s gift of peace. Reconciliation is not usually a simple or easy process. It is a process that is made up of many small steps. Often it begins by simply praying for the grace to take the first step. And, as Cardinal Bernardin shows us, it entails bringing the people with whom we are in conflict to our prayer. It can also be a frustrating process, especially when the other person(s) has closed the door to reconciliation with us. But cultivating a reconciling heart, and taking the steps we can to reconcile with others, allows Christ’s gift of peace to take root deep within us.
At the end of his book, Cardinal Bernardin offers these observations: “What I would like to leave behind is a simple prayer that each of you may find that I have found – God’s special gift to us all: the gift of peace. When we are at peace, we find the freedom to be most fully who we are, even in the worst of times. We let go of what is nonessential and embrace what is essential. We empty ourselves so that God may work more fully within us. And we become instruments in the hands of the Lord” (152-3). Bernardin’s path to receiving this gift of peace included three personal commitments: his commitment to personal prayer; his efforts to let go; his desire for reconciliation with others, even the man who very nearly ruined his life. I would suggest that our own path to a fuller realization of Christ’s gift of peace includes these same three commitments. And Bernardin is certainly right in his final observation: when we are at peace we find the freedom to be most fully who we are as disciples of Jesus.
For Prayer and Reflection
Day One – Read John 20: 19-23 – The first words spoken by the risen Christ to his disciples are words of peace. Picture yourself sitting in that room with the disciples, behind locked doors. Imagine the mixture of emotions they must have been feeling – fear, doubt, shame (for abandoning Jesus during his passion), etc. What is it like for you to hear Christ’s greeting of peace? Ask Christ for a greater portion of this gift in your own life.
Day Two – Read Colossians 3:12-17 – We read this passage during the second week of retreat. This time focus on verse 15, Paul’s words about the peace into which we are called as members of the Body of Christ. What does it mean to you to be “called to” peace? What are the greatest obstacles to experiencing Christ’s gift of peace in your life? Ask for the grace to face these barriers to peace.
Day Three – Pray Psalm 127 – This brief but beautiful prayer speaks of God’s blessings. It points us to the primacy of grace in our life with God. It is a psalm which relates to the challenge of letting go. The psalmist reminds us that, though we need to use our gifts and to act responsibly, ultimately it is the Lord who must “build the house.” God pours gifts on his beloved even while they sleep. In which dimension of your life do you struggle the most with letting go? When does your desire to control people, situations and outcomes cause problems for you and others? Ask for the grace to entrust your work, relationships, hopes and dreams into the hands of God.
Day Four – Read John 21: 15-19 – This is the famous story about the “rehabilitation of Peter.” It is an eloquent testimony to the gift of reconciliation offered by Jesus. Jesus creates the atmosphere of hospitality that is needed for reconciliation by preparing breakfast on the seashore for his disciples. Then he engages Peter in a dialogue and commissions him to take care of his followers. To this disciple who had three times denied him, Jesus invites him three times to reaffirm his love. How has Christ welcomed you at times when you have denied him in word or deed? In what ways in Christ inviting you to show hospitality toward someone with whom there has been tension or conflict?
Day Five -- Read Ephesians 3: 14-21 – Paul’s moving prayer for the Christians at Ephesus is an appropriate way to conclude this time of retreat. We may think of this prayer as articulating Christ’s desire for each of us. In your prayer, ask for “the strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”