Thursday, April 9, 2009

"This living spring that I long for..."

Among the poems of St. John of the Cross there is one entitled “For I know well the spring that flows and runs”, a mere eleven verses. It is a song of a soul who rejoices in knowing God through the darkness of faith. The ninth verse reads: “This eternal spring is hidden in this living bread for our life’s sake, although it is night.

God the Beloved, Amado, as John of the Cross refers to God, is the eternal spring, the always-abundant fountain of living Water and Life which is Godself. It is an image evoking Isaiah’s exclamation in the 55th chapter: “...everyone who thirsts, come to the waters...”, as well as Jesus’ own exclamation in John’s Gospel, at the Festival of Booths: “Let everyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers
of living water...’
”, referring, as John the Evangelist notes, to the Spirit who is the very Love in Person existing between the Father and the Son.

In his poem John of the Cross sees this Love who is Godself hidden under the outward signs of “living bread for our life’s sake”: the Eucharist, in the Bread and Wine. This is the first reality which we celebrate on this Maundy Thursday: God’s gift of Godself -- Love -- to us in Jesus under the human signs of life-giving nourishment: bread and wine, become Jesus’ own Body and Blood. It is truly an incredible mystery! A mystery almost too hard for human beings to accept. John the Evangelist, in fact, records that a serious division arose among Jesus’ compatriots, and even among his own disciples, when Jesus proclaimed: “ flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:55) “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day...” (John 6:54)

We need to recall what Jesus said earlier: “...let the one who believes in me drink...Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” John of the Cross expresses this kind of faith by the phrase “...although it is night”, repeated in each verse of his poem. In this life we know and experience the living God who is Love only in darkness, in the “night” of faith. Our human powers are simply unable to grasp or directly comprehend the living God. Jesus, knowing this by sharing our human nature, loved us “to the end.” He gives us Godself -- Love -- in a sign: the Eucharist or Thanksgiving which he institutes at the Last Supper.

Jesus, who knew that “he had come from God and was going to God”, further shows us Godself in another sign, the second reality which we celebrate on this Maundy Thursday: in his humble example of washing the Apostles’ feet. He gives this to us as a command, really, a mandatum (thus the word Maundy), of how you and I “also ought to wash one another’s feet”, i.e., to give Love -- Godself -- to one another through a ministry of service and humility. To drive home the message, Jesus even loves us all “to the end” by giving us Godself -- Love -- through the crucifixion, giving up his own physical body and blood, even to death. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you...I am giving you [this command] so that you may love one another...” (John 15:13-14; 17)

When I read this passage, I remember my late friend and former Provincial, and the Moderator General of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, of which I was a member, Fr. Daniel Schaefer, C.PP.S. (shown above).  “Danny”, as most people in the Community called him, was Dean of Men at St. Joseph’s College, Rensselaer, IN, when I arrived there in 1955. Often referred to as “The Great Stone Face”, he could bring an auditorium full of obnoxious and noisy students, “clowns”, as he called them, to absolute silence simply by ascending the bleachers and standing there. Once you got to know Danny, however, you realized that underneath the gruff demeanor was a huge, warm, loving heart of the purest gold. He was, and is still remembered and spoken of, as one of the most humble and quietly holy men in the Community.

Years after I’d left the Community and not long after Danny died in November, 1991, a priest in the Community shared a recollection from over 20 years before which, in his words:

...began in St. Anthony’s Rectory, Park Falls, WI, when Fr. Danny was substituting so that the pastor might be able to take a vacation...

One hot and very sticky day, Fr. Danny answered the front door bell. A poor man stood there, and was talking to Father as I entered the back part of the rectory and headed up the back stairs for the second floor. I presumed that Fr. Danny would simply give the man something from the large clothes box which was always kept inside the enclosed rectory porch. But I had not reckoned with the great heart of charity that the future Provincial and Moderator General would reveal years later...

...although they did not see me, I saw Fr. Danny and the man enter the pastor’s room on the second floor. My curiosity grew to the point that I went down the corridor towards that room. As I rounded the corner on my way going down the stairs, I saw in a flash an amazing thing...

There was Fr. Danny washing the feet of the poor man, tenderly drying them, and then clothing them with a new pair of socks and a brand new pair of shoes -- Fr. Danny’s own shoes! What love of neighbor in action...

John of the Cross ends his poem thus: “This living spring that I long for, I see in this bread of life, although it is night.” We, too, see in the Eucharistic Christ, under the signs of bread and wine which we receive, “this living spring” which each of us longs for, in the darkness, in the night of our faith: Godself, eternal Life and Love, spent entirely on us who are totally undeserving and helpless. We, too, come to realize that Jesus’ admonition-in-action to wash one another’s feet, to be willing to lay down our lives for any sister or brother, can happen only through the power of that same “living spring” for which we all long in the dark night of faith.

The question which Jesus asks you and me this day is: “Do you know what I have done for you?

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