Wednesday, October 23, 2013

They Have Run The Race! (Mostly) Old Priests on Retreat!

They are 69 Catholic Priests searching their souls for a touch of God or preparing to meet Him face to face.   They are in a quiet seaside retreat  house on America's eastern coast.  They are mostly old,  white haired or bald often with rheumy tired eyes rimmed with discolored pouches. They carry canes to keep from falling or hunch over walkers for balance.     They have sagging mid-riffs.   Something  pastoral  over the years has sabotaged their youthful intent of  exercise  and firm "Cores". Some have semi-humps on their backs almost symbolizing the years of carrying others' burdens and crosses.
Some carry small oxygen tanks as they reach for that precious piece of air.  Some of them try to deny Time's ravage and bravely struggle and fib a bit that things have not really changed!  They hobble with stiff legs and try to thumb their noses at the dreaded reality of aging as they painfully genuflect before the majesty of God.  One can almost hear the muted "ouch" as they manfully do the expected rubric.
They come to the Mass, the center of their lives in sacred vestments, and they praise their God with croaking grotesque voices in amateurish singing----which even to an unbeliever with a tad of insight is incredibly beautiful.  These are true believers.  It is a case of Our Lady's Juggler*.  Externally not much.  Before God, glorious.                                                                       
They sit for hours before the Blessed Sacrament, with eyes fixed upon their God, oblivious to the often meaningless swirl going on in the streets outside. All have been activists in their lives but have apparently learned that sheer activism without this deep anchor of personal union with the Master is superficial and possibly ephemeral.  As I watch I get the palpable impression of another dimension!  Spiritual masters have often warned against the evil of comparison. But it is exceedingly difficult not to wish some kind of  "getting like those guys".  I am a priest for a relative eon but I seem so far from their powerful love of Jesus that I struggle with a kind of spiritual despair! Yet one can learn just by watching them......even standing close to  hear even mundane and  apparently banal  talk.
 For these few days  they are focused on the meaning of their lives without the  superficialities of the Grind ----the demanding role of the Catholic priest in a world almost totally seduced by hedonism and baubles, a world which generally has no real idea what  priesthood means to these sons of  Melchisidek. Yet they have a serenity which is so hard to define that only metaphor can touch –“Nescio quid".      Have they been touched by God in this brief encounter?  What is happening?       Everyone is unceasingly pleasant - even courtly.    What is this beautiful quickness to open heavy doors for faltering hesitant near dendrite dead oldsters? Or the easy greetings for even those they are meeting for the first time?
The dynamic between the few younger priests and the old is touching.  There is almost a tenderness akin to the glowing bond between grandfather and grandson.
Nevertheless, there is something deeply shared by these men which smacks of the eternal, the transcendent. The young priests are bright and shiny and confident. They are filled with the energy and bright hope and easy gait. They think of activity and achievement—and rightfully so. This is part of the charm of the young. The old priest is battered and slowed and shaky but filled with a specific gratitude only possible after years of living “In Persona Christi”. When the two, old and young, interface, it is a beautiful thing to see. In such a spiritual, psychological, profound climate, there is a kind of relaxation to be fully oneself, to be with others like oneself, beyond nationality, skin color, accent, education, rank, achievement. There is no need to impress. Only a need to be fully alive as to what one is!        
Is it that years in the priesthood bring a kind of Carlo Carretto** mood?  Does a slowed down old priest see the disappointments and the hurts and the failures in a different way as set against the great backdrop of eternity?
 In the midst of such ruminations about complexity, the thought surfaces: How does one associate this  truly superior group of men with what has been called the “scandals of the priesthood”? The thought correlates with cognitive dissonance or huge oxymoronism!  Gut reactions or mature intuition could probably arrive at a conclusion as accurate as professional psychological studies. With a seasoned background of both the theological-anthropological insights of Original sin and the psychological experiences of research, Church and secular studies on the question have reasonably testified that such unpriestly behavior is statistically rare and unlikely among those who follow the sensible recommendations of the Church.  While it is sad and tragic that the comparatively unfaithful few did great harm to Christ’s Church, it is also sad and tragic that the beauty of priests’ lives like those on this retreat are so blithely hidden and rarely mentioned. These priests described above, as human, gifted with the priesthood of Christ, have stumbled some time or other in their lives. But they, as priests, sought God’s Mercy and were reconciled. Rather than detract from the “Power and the Glory” they were given, they like Peter and Magdalen and Augustine and millions of others became closer to Christ than ever.

I, the writer, was also on this Retreat, and at 92 years of age , ordained for 65 years, was probably the oldest retreatant in the group. But old as I am, I am still capable of being inspired by the sheer goodness I saw among these Men  of God. No one is loopy enough to speak of “perfection” in this life but Growth is real and possible. I stood beside real priests and breathed in the refreshing air of what can be!

  *  Our Lady’s Juggler by Anatole France
**  Carlo Carretto:  Italian 20th Century Spiritual Writer

James B. Lloyd CSP, PhD
Record: African Missionary, Seminary rector, Convert instructor, NBC TV interview Host, Seminary Professor: Dunwoodie, NY and Huntington, NY,     Chair: Iona College, Graduate School for Counseling, Archdiocescan Director of Courage, NY)  Retreat Master 8 priests’ retreats.   Authored 3 books.
 Psychologist in practice 45 years
Licensed: New York State 
Doctorate:  NYU