Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Born in the shadows

February 3, 2009 by  
Filed under Pat Bearsley

“When God speaks to a soul, he says much in few words. For instance that phrase ‘unknown and hidden in the world.’”

There’s a wealth of meaning here, a richness for each one of us to tap. Every Marist has puzzled over these words because, in a sense, his very identity as a Marist depends on his grasp of them. Our whole mission is in these six words and our whole spirituality is hidden in them as well.

As our Constitution n.22 says, “Marists seek inspiration in the traditional phrase ‘hidden and unknown in the world.’ For Jean Claude Colin it best captured, in the light of his spiritual and pastoral experience, Mary’s presence in the Church.” We’ve already remarked on how for Fr. Colin, it was surprising how Mary, the Queen of heaven, the most glorious of all creatures, the most effective apostle, the Queen of apostles, could nevertheless disappear into the Church. It was his intuition that there was a link between the two things – it was by disappearing that she was most effective.

Colin was also certain that the Society was to be a hidden Society. “They say we must do good.” I say that in the present century we must so it as our Rule would have us do everything, tanquam ignoti et quasi occulti. We were born in the shadows, let us stay that way as far as we can” (FS. 89.13)  And again, “Let us bless God. The Society is a little tree which grows in the shadows, in the field of the Blessed Virgin.” (FS. 60.3)

In recent years, our understanding of the Hidden and Unknown has undergone a considerable evolution. For many years it was considered as espousing the hidden life, linked very much with the mystery of Mary at Nazareth and it was important that Marists should be hidden and obscure. Nazareth was the model and many of us can remember this. This is what we grew up with in our novitiate.

Then Fr. Coste with his important study in the late fifties, early sixties, showed us that the hidden and unknown is not just a factor in our spiritual life, it should also be the very keystone, the touchstone for our pastoral life as well, for our ministry and our apostolate. It should be a liberating force for us, something which makes us very effective in all that we do in the name of Mary’s mission.

Now our Constitutions have gone a step further and they’ve shown us that it’s more than just a pastoral strategy, but it links in very deeply with the paschal mystery itself. The example of Jesus in the Incarnation and Jesus on Calvary is an example of hidden and unknown. We’re now thrust at the heart of the Paschal Mystery, at the whole mystery of the Church and of what it’s on about. The spirituality of the Church too is hidden and unknown.

Now I’ve noticed that our present administration have also linked it through to the divinity itself. In the latest Intercom, we’re told that God himself is wants to be hidden in our world. Now these are really big ideas and they capture for us again the essence of who we are and what we’re on about.

Even in Fr. Colin’s time the force and power of the hidden and unknown was not really realized. Fr. Mayet could voice the following tirade about hidden and unknown. “May I be permitted to remark that Fr. Founder unceasingly said hidden and unknown – not dead! It is the hidden life that he praised, not a useless, sterile life; it is the nothingness of humility, of self-contempt, of modesty, not the nothingness of the tomb. While he repeated without ceasing ‘ignoti et occulti,’ he also repeated without ceasing that we are called to do great things for God. More, he even made his hidden and unknown the true basis for great deeds. How wrong would be those who, being of a temperament that is soft and peaceful, or fearful or pessimistic, or cowardly or lazy, would want to shut themselves up in their shell under the pretext that we must lead a hidden life. Corpses are also hidden and unknown; good-for-nothings are hidden and unknown too. Yes, it is the hidden life that Father extols, and to which we are called after Mary’s example, but it is life!” (ACTA V, p.63)

There’s the sort of dilemma all of us face. We are called to be hidden and unknown and yet we are also called to do great things, to do everything, to go everywhere, to be available to everyone. How in the world can you do that without being noticed?

First of all, I think we should realize though, that even in our Constitutions there can be a misunderstanding over a simple little word of two letters called “ut.” The Latin scholars among you will understand that “ut” can either mean “for the purpose of” or it an also mean “as a consequence.”

So often, we tend to think that the hidden and unknown is the purpose. We should do this so that we can be hidden and unknown or put it round the other way, we shouldn’t do that because we might be noticed. It’s as though our aim in life is to be hidden and unknown. That’s to make it preposive, the purpose, the goal of all our activity. The ‘hidden and unknown’ is a convenient tag, it’s not even our motto. Our motto is not “to be hidden and unknown.” Our motto is to do everything for the glory of God and the honour of Mary.”

The hidden and unknown is not something we aim for. We don’t choose our apostolates so that we can be hidden and unknown. And yet at the back of our minds, we’re a bit uncomfortable if we’re sort of making a show of things or we get our name on the front page of the Brooklyn Times. That’s not what hidden and unknown is on about. That’s quite good, I’ve got no problems with that. No, that little word “ut” to me should be translated as a consequence “the hidden and unknown is as it were a by-product.

The importance of numbers 49 and 50 in our old Constitutions, reproduced again at the very end of our new ones, is that list of virtues. There is the exhortation to spend yourself in every kind of apostolate. There is the exhortation that we must breathe in and breathe out the spirit of Mary so that we think and feel, judge and act as Mary does, then, as a consequence, they will be seen to be ‘hidden and unknown in the world.’

We don’t have to strive to be ‘hidden and unknown.’ What we’ve got to strive to do is to be like Mary, to do her work, to do it in her way and then, if we do that, then bingo! no-one will notice and that’s the way it should be.

So the hidden and unknown is not meant to be in the forefront of our attention, as though we must have it there and everything else is to be ordered that way, we are hidden and unknown. Forget it. Get about the work. Do the great things for God. Do them in Mary’s way, in her spirit and then as a consequence, like Mary, we will seem to disappear into the farthermost reaches of the Church. That’s what Colin intended and that’s the way it should work. It’s so clear in Constitution 49, if only we would read it correctly.

Fr. Colin urged it on us primarily of course because of the example of Mary. “Let them imitate our mother: she did not have people speak of her, the Gospel only named her four times, (I don’t think he can count) and yet what good she did! The time has come when she must make her power burst forth. As for us, let us have her spirit, let us do good” (FS.116.8). That’s the important thing, it’s having her spirit, let us do good and then ‘hidden and unknown’ we shall be.

The Constitutions go on, “They learn from him (Fr. Colin) and like him from Mary, how to approach the work of evangelization so that the Gospel may be received in all its power and clarity” (C. 23). We learn from Fr. Colin, (by looking back on our old roots,) and from him or through him, we learn primarily from Mary the secret of how to be powerful and do great good without being noticed.

We learn from Mary how to approach the work of evangelization, how to evangelize today so that the gospel may be received in all its power and clarity. That takes hard work on our part. Hard work in contemplating Mary. How did she do it? We’ve got very meager resources in Scripture. We’re not going to get it through Bible studies. We’ll only get it through contemplating Mary in the mystery of Pentecost and the mystery of Nazareth.

It’s only by that personal knowledge of her, will we as it were, instinctively know that this is the way to make sure that the gospel is heard clearly and without obscurity. “Look at the Blessed Virgin, (Colin said), see how she hastened the coming of God by her burning desire. When she learnt she had been chosen to be his mother, what an effort she made to cooperate. When Jesus was born, he was the object of all her thoughts and affection. After his death, her sole thought was the extension and development of the mystery of the Incarnation. And that is the sign by which precisely you can recognize a Marist. His sole thought is the extension and development of the Incarnation. His sole concern is the work of the Gospel, the work of the Church, the mission of Christ.” (FS. 60:1)

So Mary is the model of hidden and unknown, of the effective apostle. But our Constitutions urge us let’s go deeper, let’s take up that clue given to us by Fr. Colin and let’s look at the Incarnation. In Constitution 23 we’re given precisely that. “They learn from him and like him from Mary, how to approach the work of evangelization so that the Gospel may be received in all its power and clarity. Fired with apostolic zeal for the kingdom (all steamed up) they follow the Lord in emptying themselves of all self-seeking so that nothing will prevent the word of God from being heard.”

“They follow the Lord in emptying themselves,” a clear evocation of the great Christological hymn in the letter to the Philippians. That’s what we’re about. “Christ although he was equal to God, was not jealous of his position but was prepared to empty himself of his divinity to assume the condition of a slave.” (c.f. 2: 6-7) That was truly descending into obscurity and hiddeness. The condition of a slave in the time of Paul was the lowest condition of all humanity. It was almost a sub-human condition. Certainly, it wasn’t something that made the headlines. God himself was prepared to set aside the trappings of divinity and to take on our condition. Emptying himself and then, even when he did become human, he descended even lower to a shameful death, one that didn’t even make the Jerusalem Times. An obscure death. We have made it the centre of our lives, but at that time it was something which was completely hidden and unknown. The only ones who really knew were the ones who were putting him to death and Mary and a few women at his feet. The whole wide world carried on unconcerned and unknowing.

Yet how powerful that was. It is the Paschal Mystery which redeemed the world. The whole world turned at that moment. The whole world was saved by descending into obscurity and darkness. It is the most effective way to evangelize, it is the most effective way to save and we know that because it was Christ’s way.

There is mystery here, there is paradox here but we should be able to live with it and not seek to resolve it. It shouldn’t worry us if no one notices what we’re doing. It shouldn’t worry us if we feel obscure and neglected, even by our own confreres. Perhaps that is our Paschal Mystery, but it’s also our guarantee of effectiveness, Christ guarantees it.

Then indeed, perhaps God does want to be obscure in our world today. Perhaps that is one of the characteristics of the world in which we live. People do seem to resist the direct preaching of God at them. Perhaps being brought out into the daylight like that, is not the way God wants to be effective. Perhaps God does want to work through us and to hide himself in his ministers. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want to be compassionate, doesn’t want his mercy to get through but perhaps he doesn’t mind if the people don’t recognize that God’s working.

Our hidden and unknown taps into the deepest mystery of our Christian faith, which is a new insight for us, and one that we should treasure. It’s also where the Constitutions say that the ‘hidden and unknown’ is not just a Marist thing. Precisely because it is the secret of the Incarnation it is for the whole Church, it is for the whole world.

“Actively present in the local Church,” (this is Constitution number 18,) “Marists make a specific contribution to it by practicing and communicating an attitude of self-effacement and hiddenness in order to build up the Christian community.” It’s not something we keep to ourselves. It is indeed the way the Church itself should build community and spread the Good News because basically, it is Mary’s way.

“The Society of Mary is constituted in the Church as an apostolic religious community. The phrase “unknown and even hidden in this world” indicates the manner in which Marists engage in the apostolate and it does not hinder them from doing great things for God” (C. 136).

Let us contemplate the Incarnation. Let us contemplate Mary and then that will unlock for us the secrets of the ‘hidden and unknown’ in today’s world. But still, even though we may be convinced of that, we still wonder what does it mean? How do we resolve that tension of doing great things, saving souls and yet remaining hidden and unknown?

Colin gives us various clues. In one of his more remarkable statements he says, “We are living in an age when everything should be done in a modest fashion. The more modest we are, the more we shall be doing God’s work. Every age has had a certain arrogance, and ours has more than its share, an arrogance that has its source in unbelief. It is only by being unassuming that we can achieve success nowadays. We must win souls by submitting ourselves to them” (FS. 102:33)

By submitting ourselves to them. That is his version of self-emptying. In the list of the four cardinal virtues that the Marists should have – of humility, self-denial, ardent love for neighbour and ardent love for God– that self-denial one we’re not quite sure about. It sounds very ascetical but really, what he’s getting at again is the ‘hidden and unknown.’ The ‘hidden and unknown’ will only work if we can somehow or other forget self and identify with the other. We can only affect other people these days, win them for Christ, only by submitting to them, he says. In another memorable phrase, “Gentlemen, we are of no colour. We have to care for everyone” (FA. 202)

We have to care for everyone. I think he was thinking of political colours at that time, or the colours of a football club or something like that. But the point being that we have no colour, we are invisible but also we are available for everyone, because none of Mary’s children are to be lost.

The characteristic stance of Marists therefore, is to stand beside people. I’m talking metaphorically of course. So often we tend to think that we want to do good, we want to help people and in fact that is a very genuine Marist task, but we approach it I sort of think, like Father Christmas. We’ve got all these good things for these poor people and we come along and give them to them. It’s so easy to be paternalistic. That’s the sense of coming along to the poor person, there standing in front of them and saying, “Oh you poor person, here, take all these goodies.”

Immediately we are demeaning the other person, we’re emphasizing their need and we’re showing our superiority. All they can see is ourselves because we’re standing in front of them with all the good things they want and the only way they’ll get them is if give them to them. We’re making ourselves obvious, we’re not hidden and unknown.

But if we stand alongside the other person in their need, and together look out onto the world and onto the problem, we’re not noticed because we take on the perspective of the other – this is submitting ourselves to them, identifying with them. When together we look out from the same perspective, we disappear because the eye does not see itself.

None of you has ever seen your own eyes. Yes, we see with them but you’ve never seen them. That is the Marist stance, to identify with the others, to stand in the shoes of the others, so that together we may address the problem, together we may meet the need or whatever it is.

This is respecting the other person and this is disappearing. That’s how you remain hidden and unknown. They don’t notice you because you are identified with them. That’s the secret of the hidden and unknown. That I believe is what Colin meant by “submitting to them.”

Colin even had some other radical things to say. Colin was often fond of saying a dictum which he picked up when he went to Rome of all places. “Everything for souls” and he took it quite literally. Everything for souls.

And then there was that other maxim, “Rome was very useful to me on this point. It was there that I learned the maxim ‘Law was made for man.’ If I cannot save him with the law, I’ll try and save him without it” (FS. 163.2). He meant canon law by that – very heartening.

Everything for souls, and I’m even prepared to give up myself, my own cherished beliefs, my own personal agenda if I can win someone for Christ. “Everything for souls.” I’ll even give up the law of the Church if it means I can win someone for Christ. I will submit to them. That means approaching the other according to their agenda, not my agenda, as an apostle of Christ or a priest of the Church or whatever, or even as a Marist.

That so often is the problem in our evangelizing zeal. We know what we want to say, we’ve prepared our sermon and you’re going to give that sermon come hell or high water, whether they want to hear it or not. That’s not the hidden and unknown way. We must first listen, we must first discern where they are at, stand with them and face the world and the Church from that point of view. Only then can we win souls for Christ.

It’s so clear and yet it is so difficult because it does mean displacing yourself. It’s not self-effacement, it’s self-displacement, that’s the Marist virtue, so that you can wear the shoes of the other.

That’s why compassion is such a Marist virtue, more so than mercy. Mercy is the divine virtue. Mercy is that gratuitous love given that cannot be earned. The only thing that triggers mercy is distress in the other. That’s God’s attitude towards us. Compassion is not so much divine as marian, as human. It is the suffering with, it is the empathy with the other. An empathy that means one feels and can see things as they see them.

That’s the starting point for ministry and pastoral care. Seeing things, feeling things as they do. So when I’m visiting round in my parish, I might well have the agenda of trying to get the people back to church, but that not where they’re at. They haven’t yet got over the hurt the pastor caused them last year.

It’s very practical but it demands a displacement, a denial of self, so that one can stand in the shoes of the other. But the point is, we don’t have to aim to be hidden and unknown, its if we do that, people won’t notice because the eye does not see itself. If we see things as they see them, they won’t see us.

“We are a little tree in the shadows,” says Fr. Colin (FS. 60.3) and that’s how we should be. There’s the big tree there and its looking out into the wide blue yonder, we are just there in its shadow, looking out together, supporting, sustaining and hopefully bringing to Christ.

As the Constitutions make so clear, the point of the hidden and unknown in our apostolate is so that the gospel can be heard in all its clarity and power. Colin noticed that so often the biggest obstacle to the hearing of the gospel was the messenger. His solution was to make the messenger disappear. Constitution 136 sums it up for us so well. The hidden and unknown leads Marists to place themselves in the situation of those to whom they are sent and to put aside everything in themselves that might be an obstacle to the working of the Spirit.

The biggest obstacle is often the messenger. Our first duty is to remove those obstacles. So often in the Church, the Church itself seems to be the obstacle to the message of Christ. People are allergic to clericalism, they are allergic to being told what to do. They value their freedom. They don’t like to hear answers before they’ve asked the questions.

Now we can’t change that, that’s the way people are, that’s the world in which we live. I don’t care how much we wish it were otherwise but that’s the world we’re sent out to evangelize. The only strategy is to disappear, to be hidden and unknown so that Christ and his message of peace and salvation can be received as Good News, not bad!

Source: Fr. Pat Bearsley, Conference 6 Boston Province Retreat, 1994.

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