Posted February 08, 2012 in MH Robin Hood's Bay, England:
Carried on God’s Shoulders

by Cheryl Ann Smith.

You’d think that by now I’d truly believe in the Father’s love for me. One night when I was 18 and desperate enough to open up, he poured his love into every fibre of my being. I was so grateful for this outpouring of unconditional love that I drank and drank from the Fountain.

But as the years went on, I forgot that this had been a gift, and I tried to prove myself worthy of such love. I tried to earn it. The more I strove to be perfect, the more my sins and weaknesses glared. I almost despaired. Would I ever be worthy of such a love?

Another night, many years later, I awoke from a wondrous dream. Someone was playing a tape of what had happened at the moment of my birth, and it was a passionate outpouring of operatic song. Imagine Caruso and Pavarotti blending their finest tenor voices and multiply that by Infinity. That’s what I heard.

I awoke knowing that my Father was so overjoyed at my birth that he had burst out in a passionate love aria. Not because I had earned his love, but just because I existed!

Well, old habits die hard, and after a few years, the doubts crept back in. All seemed to be peaceful and fruitful, but where was the intensity of my previous prayer and fasting? The word I seemed to be receiving was: You are learning to abide in Jesus. That’s more constant and less reliant on specific times and types of prayer.

But was that really a word from God, or was I fooling myself?

A couple of months ago, just before Sunday Mass in a nearby town, I heard someone coming out of Confession exclaim, "That was like going to Padre Pio!"

During Mass, I discovered what she meant. That priest exuded love for God and the Eucharist, and with passion, he challenged us to open our hearts to Love.

After Mass, I met Fr. Giovanni, a retired Italian missionary, and in conversation with him, I discovered that he had some training in giving Ignatian retreats. He didn’t usually give them these days, he told me, but he would consider giving one to me.

And so, a couple of weeks ago, I landed on his doorstep.

We had eight days together, and my first lesson in love came when he picked me up at the train station. "You don’t have to worry about breakfast or lunch," I announced, "I brought my own food."

When we had e-mailed about practicalities, Fr Giovanni had said I’d be staying in the house where he lives with two other priests, and he would provide meals for me.

I pictured this 70-plus-year-old man opening a can of tomato soup and worrying about putting enough food on the table. I wanted to save him this trouble.

With a wounded and reproachful look he said, "You would deny me the delight of serving you? I want to cook for you."

Those words pierced my heart, and this was before I had even entered the house, let alone begun the retreat. Did my heavenly Father also feel deprived of the joy of taking care of me by my obstinate pattern of self-sufficiency? By my fruitless efforts to save him the trouble?!

Well, imagine my surprise when I was fed, day after day, with the most exquisite Italian cuisine I had ever tasted. This master chef did indeed delight in feeding me.

"Now, what can I make our queen today? Only the best!" No cans of soup for him. My paltry sandwich makings stayed in the fridge, unneeded, unheeded, and definitely inferior to what was offered.

Lesson #2 followed soon after. "How did you sleep your first night?" asked my spiritual guide.

"Well, actually, I didn’t," I admitted. "I’m not used to city noises. But I’ll get used to it." (The house is on a major thoroughfare, and busses, trucks, and late-night revellers seemed to thunder past all night long.)

"Ah, no," he exclaimed, "you must sleep." We immediately went to inspect two rooms upstairs.

I said I might try an upper room that night, and when the community was at supper (this was a silent retreat, so I ate alone after the others), I decided to just go ahead and move my things upstairs.

The next day when I informed Fr Giovanni of what I had done, I was again met with an injured, reproachful look. "You did not let us prepare the room for you? We would have made it ready and moved you ourselves."

Again I was convicted. It would never have occurred to me to allow these good priests to prepare another room just because I couldn’t sleep. I should be taking care of my own needs!

Then suddenly I realized the time had come: I needed to confront this perpetual battle in me between earning and receiving love. I retreated into the chapel and prayed before a powerful painting of Jesus kneeling before Peter washing his feet. With one hand, Peter tries to protest; with the other, he tightly grips Jesus’ shoulder.

I was like Peter. It was painful for me to receive the ministrations of this holy elder priest—and of Jesus. I should be the one kneeling before them, serving them. How could I allow such extravagant, humbling service?

But Jesus replied, "If I do not wash you, you can have nothing in common with me." (Jn 13:8).

With Peter, I burst out, "Then, Lord, not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well" (Jn 13:9).

And so it continued: "You are cold? Then we must turn on the central heating." "Here is my cardigan. The wool is from Italy; wear it while you are here."

So every day I wrapped myself in this vastly oversized mantle of warmth and luxuriated in the love of the Father.

Each night we would enter the chapel for a half hour of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament—30 minutes of silent, mutual love between me and my Lord.

One evening, as Fr Giovanni was tenderly placing the Blessed Sacrament back in the tabernacle, he suddenly stopped, turned around, and held before me the host in the luna. "Kiss it," he commanded. Later, he told me that he had heard Jesus say in his heart, "Take me to her. I want to kiss her."

"Did you know that that’s what the word ‘adoration’ means?" queried my retreat master, "It means ‘kiss of the mouth’."

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth (Song of Songs 1:1) is the supreme cry of love between our contemplative hearts and our all-loving God.

Not only does the Lord want to serve us, he wants to kiss us. Does he care about our sins and failings? Not a whit. Does he want us to make ourselves perfect so we’ll be deserving of his love? That just gets in the way. He wants only the flow of love between him and us.

My favorite line from the retreat came after a meditation on the Good Shepherd. As I described my prayer experience to Fr Giovanni, I complained.

"I could easily picture the Good Shepherd finding this bleating, lost little lamb and rejoicing to bring her back to the sheepfold on his shoulders. But I’m no longer an innocent lamb. I’m well into the last half of my life. I wish I’d just stay in the sheepfold instead of making him always have to find me and bring me back."

"Ah no, cara," Fr. Giovanni said, "The best place is on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd, not in the sheepfold. His shoulders are far more intimate. Each time, he delights in hoisting you on his shoulder and holding you fast and shouting out in sheer joy, ‘I’ve found her!’ Then he can rejoice with all of heaven that you are back from your little wandering."

For the umpteenth time since the retreat began, tears filled my eyes. What a tender, loving God, who wants only to love and serve us! He never gives up on us or even tires of our brokenness and sins. It is his joy to kiss us and to receive our kisses.

We are loved! Let us joyfully receive this unconditional gift—whether from our shoulder perch or resting on his heart or washing his feet with our tears. We are his.


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