God beyond all understanding, origin and end of all that exists, aid me now in my search in You, and for You. Guide me home. Amen.
Problem: It occurs to me that I do not have the same sense of Christ’s presence in me, to me, as I did or thought I did in years past. My quest for God has been far more focused on the movement of consciousness into the divine unknown than a reflection of God incarnate. In usual terms, my way has been more apophatic than cataphatic, although these two modes are inseparable: the way into God without images, and the way into God through images. Christ is the unsurpassable Image of the unseen God. The desire to move from the seen to the unseen, from God as revealed to God “beyond all telling” has long been at work in me. Had it not been, why would I have entered a monastery to “seek God,” the Benedictine way?
As a young man, I prayed, invited Jesus Christ into my soul, and I believe that He entered. The experiences in the early days were intense, fresh, ever-different, and truly life-changing. What has happened to these? The ways that I have experienced divine Presence-Absence have surely changed over time. At this time I will not try to recount some of these experiences for at least two reasons: I have done so before; and I do not think that writing about them is truly beneficial. God has unique ways at working on and in each person, and I do not want to give any impression that His ways with me are normative, or to be expected. What I can say is that over time, these modes of experience have changed considerably. It seems clear to me that God knows what we need, when we need it, in order to draw us into a more authentic life in Him and with Him As Cardinal Newman wrote, “God knows what He is about.” Indeed, He does. We often do not. We grope in darkness—a darkness that is or can be so deep that we often overlook divine workings in us, to us, for us, around us. How blind we often are. How blind am I? “What would you have me do for you,” Jesus asked. “LORD, that I may see again.”
I have been blind to divine workings. What we call “Christ,” or what I call Christ in my consciousness, is not gone or lost at all. God works on me as He wills, as He knows best. As an example, for several years—and perhaps still—I have been strongly drawn to the quite undeveloped Oregon coast to gaze upon the ocean, which for me is an extremely powerful, visible image of the unseen God. I utterly love the Ocean, because it overwhelms me. No one can master the Ocean. “It” (if we dare call the Ocean an “it”) draws one away from self into unknowing, into a realm far greater than anything one can know, understand, grasp. And so I have been drawn back to the Ocean time and again in my life, including in recent years.
When I was suddenly expelled from my home and priestly ministry in Kalispell, Montana, in 1995 (after working there only six months), I experienced God’s healing love through the compassion, kindness, and practical wisdom of Fr. Steve, who at the time was serving as a priest in the Bitterroot. Having felt spiritually abused by the local bishop (who acted harshly on a number of us), I needed to experience God’s love through the personal, brotherly care of an elderly priest. I was Christed through this one man at the time, because that is what I needed to undue the damage done by the uncharitable, heavy-handed bishop and some of his clergy. Again, “God knows what He is doing.” I am thankful for my experiences in Kalispell, and fully trust that the LORD who led me there never abandoned me at all. Not only did I experience Christ’s healing love through a brother priest; even more importantly, perhaps, in the long run, having been thrown out of my home in western Montana, I was led to a very important insight: I have no permanent or lasting home anywhere in this world, so being removed is secondary. Rather, my one home is in God beyond this world. As I suddenly realized, “I have no home but God,” and “God is my home forever.” That is what matters. The all-wise, all-good God brought much good to me out of human evil and foolishness (including my own): I realized that no matter where I am, God is in me, with me, for me, and “my dwelling place forever.” That insight makes a huge difference, especially as so many persons are afraid of change in their lives, afraid of being “thrown out,” or losing their family and friends, and so on. In the wise words of Fr. Steve, “When you are thrown out, just shake the dust off your feet and say, `I’ve been thrown out of better bars.’” Indeed, I have. My home is in God, and only temporarily and for a little while do I live here.
Some friends were surprised when I recently moved from Great Falls to the little town of Sheridan, in the south-western part of beautiful Montana, near Virginia City. I was a little surprised that I had the courage to return to live in the diocese from which I had been ejected by a bishop. But he is long gone, and I am retired—and not as a diocesan priest. Rather, I remain a monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey, and am free from the machinations of diocesan politics which seem to me both endless and uninteresting. Men will be men, and the scramble for status and power is ever at work in human hearts; one must constantly seek to guard against seeking power, status, or wealth. These pursuits are the ways of the world, not the way of Christ. If you doubt this, examine the life and writings of St. Benedict, St. Francis of Assisi, or St. Teresa of Avila. These giants among human beings knew well what is truly worth seeking, and what is worth letting go. God alone is truly worth seeking “with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul.”
And so I came to Sheridan, where I now live. The loss of closeness to friends and former parishioners affected me, and still does. Some of us are still in fairly frequent contact, thanks to the wonders of “modern communication,” including the cell phone and the internet. These really are very useful tools for “building community,” for “keeping in touch” with friends and loved ones, as well all know.
Still, I must deal with a problem. As a single man (and a monk), I have long noticed that I make few if any friends except through my duties as a parish priest. A priest makes his home in and with his parishioners. They become highly important to his personal, social, spiritual life If they do not invest themselves in their parishioners, what is the priest doing among them? A parish priest gives himself in love to his parishioners, as they need it for their growth in Christ. Well, once I retired, I lost that ever-present, ever-demanding way of befriending people. Most of my former parishioners were quickly out of my life. A few have kept up our bonds. As another wise and good parish priest, Fr. Lou, said to me, “Paul, once you retire, most of your parishioners will forget you. Even ones you thought were close friends. It stops when you retire.” He was right. A few friends remain, but far more disappeared from my life. In reality, I retired and was removed from their lives. And so I am virtually alone.
Hence, when I moved to Sheridan, I came without friends, and without my avenue to make friends: active priestly ministry. Fortunately, I have two former parishioner-friends in the area from my short stay in Kalispell, Steve and Carol; otherwise, I came to an area knowing virtually no one. Soon Steve and Carol and I began a form of priestly ministry by setting up and sharing in an adult faith class, in which we listen to one another and communicate our lives in Christ Over time, I may be open to doing a little pastoral work in parishes, but that remains to be seen; I resist getting swallowed up in diocesan politics in any way. To use the cliché, “Been there, done that.” My remaining time on earth is too short to waste with petty jealousies, rivalries, liturgical squabbles, doctrinal modes of existence, and so on. Thanks be to God, I am a free man: free to seek God in love and in truth. Well, I’m free to a degree; everyone has his or her baggage that weighs one down. Part of my baggage is the need for genuine friendship; it is difficult to find, and surely so for a homeless wanderer in this passing world
And so I remain a Benedictine monk, one called to “seek God” either in community, or in solitude, or in a balanced life doing both. Now is the time, it seems, for me to seek God in solitude and peace as foremost in my life. I will still have some contact with former parishioners, but above all, I must keep learning to “be alone with the Alone,” and to find my center and my joy in God, beyond knowing, in searching love. To this end, I know of several foremost activities for me:
to pray as I am able to do so;
to study—seeking God through the writings of philosophers, prophets, saints, and others;
to write to assist myself and others on the journey of the soul into God.
Finally, I am no hermit, nor was I meant to be. I need and value good friends in Christ. Love is the way by which one becomes one with God. There is no other way. My present task is to find a workable balance between seeking God alone and sharing Christ with others Getting this balance right is my foremost task now.
—Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
14 January 2020
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