by Fr. Pat McNulty.
One cloudy day, I was sitting on the ground outside the poustinia in great turmoil and pain. I was trying to make some very difficult decisions in my life, and I was feeling a desperate need for a sign from God.
Suddenly the sun came out. Then a bird flew up to me and perched on my fingertip. He stood there for a moment, then looking at me, he walked right up my finger to the palm of my hand, picked up one of the sunflower seeds I was holding, and flew away.
The next thing I knew, a whole bunch of birds, like a choir of angelic hosts, came to my hand and flew away one by one until every sunflower seed was gone. Then, like in a well-orchestrated Cecil B. deMille Bible movie, the clouds covered the sun again, and the "angelic hosts" disappeared.
I was stunned! Was I finally on the edge of the world of the mystical? Would visions come next? (Oh, surely not me, Lord. I am so unworthy. However…. Blah. Blah. Blah.)
I was a visitor to Madonna House at the time, and I returned to the U.S.A. without telling anybody about my "extraordinary" experience in Combermere. It was, however, very instrumental in my decision which eventually became my disaster. But that is another story.
Some time later, during another visit to Madonna House to lick my wounds, I saw a Madonna House lady standing in the middle of the apple orchard. She was holding out her hand and in a high pitched voice was repeating over and over, "Chick-a-dee-dee-dee." In no time the little birds were coming from everywhere.
"Maybe she’s a mystic too," I thought.
Then other people walked towards her and very soon there were four or five "feeders" and half a million birds.
"Come on Lord, they can’t all be mystics!"
As I later learned, those little birds were chickadees and at Madonna House over the years, they have been patiently taught to come for sunflower seeds. It is now quite ordinary for chickadees to come and eat out of anybody’s hand if it contains of sunflower seeds. It has nothing to do with the extraordinary.
If I had been Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone, better known as Francis of Assisi, I might have figured it out too, but I was just little ole P.J. McNulty from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and in my ordinary world, a zillion little birds don’t fly up, perch on your fingertips, and eat out of your hand.
It was an extraordinary experience for me—not quite mystical but close. Anyway, what’s so wrong about wanting to be a mystic?
The answer is not really all that complicated. Over many, many, many centuries, the Church has learned, often the hard way, that there is nothing more certain to lead you away from a full, healthy, "in the flesh" life of Christian faith and off into spiritual arrogance and confusion than running away from your ordinary life in the name of extraordinary and/or mystical experiences.
It is so common a trap that all spiritual directors will tell you to avoid the extraordinary like a plague because, in the end, it will plague you to death. Ordinarily.
OK, Lord, so what is a good ole Catholic boy like me to do? Am I stuck in the boring ordinary until the Parousia?
Not if I know my faith tradition. For us, the predicament has been forever resolved in an extraordinarily ordinary fashion: we follow where the Son of God has gone—to dwell among us "in the flesh." Now we can encounter God as a Person, in the flesh, through sacraments, sacramentals, and the revealed Word of God.
"Yes, but, what about Nature and Beauty and all of that other good stuff? Isn’t God there too?"
Again, the answer is simple: God, who created us, knows something about us that we do not know, something about our flesh as well as our spirit that is deeper and more sacred than nature or beauty and "all that other good stuff."
By becoming man, living, dying, and rising in our flesh, the Son of God bridged the gap between him and us, not with mere beauty or poetry or things common to the human spirit, but by revealing the Divine, the truly Extraordinary, that is now in ordinary created things: ordinary bread and wine now made sacred in Eucharist, water now made sacred in Baptism, oil now made sacred in Anointing, Reconciliation now made sacred person-to-Person, Man and Woman now made sacred as one in ordinary flesh in Matrimony.
Because of the Incarnation, because God took on our human flesh, we can now live an ordinary life at the very heart of all Creation, not by merely being spiritual or poetic about it all, but by seeing everything that is ordinary through the extraordinary eyes of the Son of God made flesh.
That is mystical in the best sense of the word. And for that we have all been created and redeemed.
That’s great, Father Pat, but what about us simple, everyday Catholics?
Oh, but anyone who is simple enough can be amazed by how God takes ordinary flesh and turns it into extraordinary life in our midst everyday. What about the candles and color and song of our liturgical seasons? That’s what God uses to put ordinary flesh on this extraordinary relationship between him and us.
What about our sacraments? When we use ordinary water to drink or wash do we ever say, "Thank you, Lord, for the extraordinary gift of my Baptism?" When we are at table eating ordinary bread and wine at a meal together, do we ever think of the extraordinary gift of Eucharist?
And what about our everyday life? When we turn on a light in a darkened room, do we ever say to God, "Thank you for dispelling the Darkness in our ordinary life, Lord Jesus?"
During Lent do we ever wear something purple to remind ourselves of this season of repentence? Do we ever think of fasting during Lent, not in order to lose weight, but so that Christ can teach us something extraordinary about hunger for him?
The examples are endless if we are ordinary enough, "mystical" enough.
Let’s walk together through Lent this year with a sense of spiritual adventure. Let’s be on the look-out for anything and everything "ordinary" which God uses to make the extraordinary visible to us. Let’s look for sacramental life and signs everywhere—in our houses, as we drive our cars, at our places of work, in the grocery store, at the gas station, on the telephone. Everywhere!
Let’s use our magnificent faith-imagination and discover how much of the Divine Extraordinary there is in our everyday ordinary Christian life. We might even see angels sitting on the tips of our fingers.
You never know: that’s how ordinary our Extraordinary God is.
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