Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

Humanity seems prone to pass judgment on the days of our lives, usually based on how days turn out to please us or not. As though they exist to serve us personally. Remember Tevye’s line in “Fiddler on the Roof”? Snapping at some merchant begging excuse for a delayed delivery, he kvetches: “Because you had a bad day, why should I suffer?”

We often lament a vacation, a wedding, a sports outing that was “ruined” due to “bad” weather. St. Teresa of Avila, for one, would have no such carping. For her, there was no such thing as bad weather. “All weather is good because it is God’s,” she would affirm. Yes, easy for her to say (we might say), because she was a mystic. But maybe she was on to something.

Teresa was no stranger to days with difficult turns. “Oh my Lord! How true it is that whoever works for you is paid in troubles!” Then she adds, “what a precious price to those who love you if we understand its value.” At another time, reflecting on the spiritual life, she noted that weather of all kinds is inevitable. Nature brings terrifying storms and gentle breezes, dark nights and brilliant sunrises. So, also, in the spiritual order. 

Since I am away on retreat as I compose this reflection, I can report that, for me at least, starting this annual routine is like beginning a diet: the hardest part is the first day. I came with a desire and a promise to spend my time just listening to God. Arguably agenda-free. So, I was hoping that since I was being so generous with my time, ready to put aside talking and texting, God would just swoop down and fill me with spiritual consolations. What happened the first two days was quite underwhelming. I felt nothing but nothing: a wall, a cloud, a thud.

I should have known. This has happened many times before. God takes time to let us get settled so that we can really come to the point to admit we are out of steam, like a fast train coming to a dead halt. Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751) said it this way: “He is there in a kind of annihilation… Where there is nothing left that is created, or human, there is God. The more destitute of all things, and divested of self you become, the more you will be possessed by God. Make for yourself a spiritual treasure of this very poverty by a continual adherence to the will of God. From the time you begin this practice, you will become richer than any of those who possess the greatest gifts of joy and consolation.”

A good friend of mine, a young layman who has spent serious time on mission work in some of the most poverty-stricken areas of the world, tells of how he found this truth in the lives of people living literally on a garbage dump in Mexico City. They have nothing materially, but they are rich in awareness of God’s presence. What’s more, he himself has experienced Jesus there in them. The secret is not in the poverty itself. Remember, when Jesus answered the soul-hungry rich young man, he offered two graces. The young man freaked out when Jesus first invited him to let go of everything. He missed the second and best part: “and come follow me”!

Yes, this was probably a “bad” day for that restless soul. But why? Jesus was offering him sunlight: himself, his presence. The man chose to remain in the I-cloud, so to speak, of himself and his own stuff. Yes, I know I may be sounding starry-eyed here, but the sun is always there even if the clouds at times suggest otherwise. Even monsoons eventually dissipate. 

So, I had two “bad days” to start my retreat, wondering when God might break through, resisting restless temptations to “do” something, which I had sworn off. The spiritual landscape then changed. Dramatically. It was about 9:15 a.m. I am at a Benedictine Monastery and had joined the monks at 5:30 A.M. with Vigil, then Lauds. An hour after a simple breakfast and Mass, I was feeling I had done all the “holy” things. My prayers were in. But I was not feeling very “spiritual.” In fact, I could liken my state of paralysis to the predicament of Han Solo, stuck in that muck in an episode of “Star Wars.” Living and partly living, as T.S. Eliot might say.

Apparently, that’s just where God needed me to be. Suddenly, biblically, on the third day, outside my window, a swarm of swallows exploded — I have no other word for it — out of nowhere, soaring, looping and diving in droves with total glee and abandon. “Free as a bird” was suddenly more than a metaphor to me. This was pure joy, an exaltation of these tiny angels, reveling in flaunting their simple selves. Recall Jesus spoke of the “birds of the air,” who “neither toil nor spin,” but are fed by the heavenly Father. Well, for the better part of an hour, I was entranced by this revelation. Since then, it seems, the saints have been chattering away full voice: “Did you see this? Have you noticed that?” I can’t tell you how many of them have been flooding my mind with memories of their deeds and good counsel. Monica and Augustine, John Vianney, all the Teresas, and other saints in my life — some yet to be canonized.

Well, the swallows had a good day that morning, and I caught their attitude big time. One reason I am writing this is not only to encourage my dear readers as well to “wait for the Lord,” but to log a written record that I can come back to when I forget that God is most available to us when we come to our wits end, settle down, or just shut up. Seems I heard Mother Angelica say something like that once. Prayer is more about listening than talking. And it takes time to quiet down in our noisy nonsensical world. Our minds can be so full of worries about projects, plans, to-do lists — all the stuff we consider so important. Yet, if we dropped dead, they would persist. Others would inherit, as we ourselves do, those re-cycled charges heaped on our laps. Like the notorious holiday fruitcake no one wants or eats, but keeps getting passed around, how many of our cares are make-work, to convince ourselves that, “keeping busy,” we control our lives as we pass around trifles that neither save us nor bring us joy.

The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas — another saint that has been talking to me — after all his scholarly volumes, in the twilight of his life deemed them just “so much straw.” We can be thankful no one took his advice and burned them, but he became a saint not because of what he wrote, but whom he adored: “the Lord alone is my delight,” as the psalmist says. 

I don’t know what my voices may say tomorrow, but after the first two days, in monastic “silence,” it has become quite raucous spiritually. We eat meals silently here, with only the designated reader’s soothing tones. The halls are quiet. Nights are still. This has rekindled in my heart the conviction that life — real life — springs from within. The swallows certainly got my attention, but the music they were singing spoke to my soul, launching a spiritual tune-up that every heart needs from time to time, to realize we are surrounded by grace, and the lives and the voices of saints to remind us. There are no “bad” days.

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