‘I am the Way’.
Our Gospel this week is taken from Our Lord’s farewell discourses to His disciples. He knows that their faith will be tested by the events of His passion and death and also in the living out of the faith after His resurrection. The Lord’s primary emphasis is on reassurance. There is so much in this Gospel I am just going to focus today on the words of Jesus ‘I am the Way’.
Some years ago, it was my privilege to stay in a Seminary in Tanzania for several weeks. We travelled with a missionary priest, Fr. Renatus, to the various out stations which his Spiritan Order was responsible for. These communities were outlying and far apart. The Massai are nomadic people, ever moving the cattle they graze, so we arrived at a time we would be expected. I was very impressed as the people started to arrive from various directions. They gathered in great joy, singing and in animated and excited conversation. I was deeply moved when I saw and old lady and a young boy arrive, the little boy was in front of the woman and they held a length of stick between them. The boy at the front and the elderly lady at the other end. I was told her eyesight wasn’t the best but though frail she was determined. She held tightly to her end of the stick trusting her grandchild to lead her safely. The boy was most considerate and let his grandmother’s frailty dictate the pace. I was told they had walked for three days to attend Mass. This story comes down the years to help me to understand Jesus as the Way.
The grandmother and her grandson completed their journey. Journey has been a powerful theme for us lately. We journeyed through Lent and accompanied the Lord in His Passion, Death and Resurrection; we walked the road to Emmaus; we followed the Voice of the Good Shepherd, and today follow the Lord Who is the Way. Journey of course includes the possibility of getting lost. I don’t know if this is true but it probably is: when a family is lost and dad is driving (pre sat nav days), he will stubbornly keep going ‘until he finds a sign’ as he’s pretty sure it will be alright and it invariably isn’t and they just become more lost. Or, the mother will say ‘please stop and ask someone who can direct us’. The latter seems the sensible approach. When we are lost we need assistance to find a way forward. We can bash on hoping for the best or we can admit we are lost and seek help. I was once lost in a rented car with a friend on the way to an airport on Spain. The first person we consulted can gave us a series of directions, turns and distances. We thanked the person and we were promptly lost 60 seconds later! In panic I then asked a driver beside me at traffic lights, you cannot imagine my joy when he took pity on us and said ‘follow me’. To be taken to our destination by a trustworthy person is the best way. This is why I have kept the memory of the little boy who assisted his frail grandmother to attend Holy Mass. St. John Vianney couldn’t find the parish of Ars and said to a little boy, “If you show me the way to Ars, I will show you the way to Heaven”. A little humility helps here. I have no advantage over the elderly Massai lady. We all need help and the older I get the more honest I am about my limitations. My resources are very limited, to say so is a strength not a weakness. On the contrary, it gives me access to the whole panoply of God’s divine resources.
Jesus’s way is twofold: a way of living (discipleship) and a way to an ultimate destination (Heaven). The Way of Living is exemplified by the little boy. He focused on his task to get his elderly grandmother safely to Holy Mass. He took food for the journey and cover to shelter them at night. He had sufficient resources and was by nature a brave little fellow prepared to fight off any danger. As Christians, we are all called to our duty of care. When God made us He put into His plan all the lives he would send our way, the people and situations He wanted us to attend to and would, in due course, meet us on the road of life. Like the little boy, we show we are followers of the Lord by leading others to safety and to Heaven. This is our primary task. We do not give directions, but proactively take people and accompany them to the eternity of God. In a sense we get to Heaven by leading others there. We need resources for the journey as the little boy did for three days he led his grandmother. We have the Holy Spirit and God’s Word to guide us; Divine grace given in the Sacraments, especially the Lord’s Presence in the Holy Mass to sustain us. We also receive courage and tenacity to stand our ground as would the little boy in the face of danger. We never walk alone.
The grandson let his elderly grandmother dictate the pace of the journey. No doubt if he travelled alone he would have completed his journey in a day or less. God does not rush us. Some of us are spiritually frailer than others. All is relative. Our Lord sensitively leads us to make progress without frustration. Once the disciples came back from evangelising in the towns and they couldn’t wait to get out on mission again. But Jesus knew that their enthusiasm ignored the fatigue incurred and He asked them to come aside and rest. We will get there, do not fear. God wants us to spiritually pace ourselves.
The Church was called ‘the Way’ before we were called ‘Christians’. Observers of the Christian community were curious. But it wasn’t the prospect of Heaven that outsiders sensed but just simply saw and were impressed by the way Christians lived. I ask myself: Why am I trying to be good? To get to Heaven? No. This sounds like what is in this for me. Fear of going to Hell? No. I could not live in negativity and always wondering if the scales of God’s justice were tipping me towards condemnation. No, I try to be good because it pleases God, my way of life gives Him joy. This is visible in the believer and some who see this will be attracted to it. We should not focus on Heaven as such. That is a trust issue. We need to ask the Lord every day to help us to do justice to our calling, duties, cares and demands. Each day well lived for God is the penny that looks after the pound of Heaven. In each day of loving and serving we can allow the reassurance of Jesus to warm lukewarm hearts and give new breath and spiritual energy. As for Heaven, can we not trust Jesus’s words that He has prepared a place for us, that it is ours? We must bear this conviction in mind as we face the demands of love, concern and witness. As we step into each day we step into God’s Way. The little way of St. Teresa of Lisieux: Small and not so small things lovingly and conscientiously done.
We must go out into the Lord’s day, in the Lord’s Way, confident and optimistic. We must have a durable fit for purpose reassurance that won’t fade when we hit a sufficiently difficult issue. This is what Our Lord is trying to create in the disciples hearts in our Gospel passage today. He wants them to have hearts that can’t be corrosively troubled. The elderly lady had, in her grandson, an irrepressible, determined, happy, trustworthy and loving life to lead her to Mass. As they travelled those three days, the lady was in good hands. I can imagine the conversations between a slightly confused grandmother and her grandchild. I am sure the little boy was patient with her mistakes as God is with ours. Authentic love always is patient and kind as St. Paul teaches us. The boy was alert to anything that might cause his grandmother to hurt herself; to facilitate her every step to be safe and sound. No doubt, the lady and the boy twittered away reassuringly all the time on the journey. They got there.
The Massai child learns responsibility at an early age and happily and confidently herds cattle that dwarf him. To be a believer is a call to responsibility, we must be like the little grandchild. Life has its challenges. Maybe the people who make it their task to helps others to find a way forward, or at least walk with them through the challenge are the most important companions of all.
Finally, I recall a wonderful friend I made in Stone, Fr. Jim Dutton. He served in the New Zealand Royal Air Force, he always smiled at my attempts to shine my shoes to his standard. He served as a missionary priest in Fiji. He travelled the length and breadth of the USA by Greyhound bus (to save on air fares) promoting vocations and raising funds. He came to our bit of God’s vineyard as Parish Priest of the Sacred Heart in Hanley and saved it from certain closure when all said it couldn’t be done. He finished his active priesthood as Parish Priest of Holy Michael’s at Aston. He retired to St. Mary’s Home and in due course went to the place God has prepared for all of us, the room with his name on it in eternity. He was persuaded to write a book of his experiences, he called it appropriately. ‘God Will Find a Way’. I totally agree with Fr. Jim. Again and again, I have found this to be true. We rest in the bosom of God for Whom all things are possible. We are always in His sustaining love and life. St. Thomas in our Gospel speaks for the world when he says to Jesus: “How can we know the way?”. We could just tell an enquirer and point or offer a greater chance of success and take them. The choice is ours. Remember to travel at their pace, they haven’t had the blessings you have received, be patient with them – you don’t know their story. They may only go so far with you and it will be left to another to help them to complete the journey. It is important that we simply play our sometimes small but not insignificant part. We are often just part of the solution. They’ll get there. The Good Shepherd is on the case.
We can only be a leaven of reassurance for those around us if we convincingly believe in God’s providential concern and protection. If you seem unsure, they won’t go with you. May God bless us all with confidence as each day we take another step along the way. I am reminded of the story of a lecturer who was visiting aid agencies in a war torn country. He was met at the airport by a young man there to collect him. As they made their way to the exit, the young man stopped to help a lady who was struggling to put her cases on her trolley, shortly after this, to help a confused traveller understand a sign of regulations, and almost immediately to show a wearied and parched traveller where the café was. He apologised to the teacher. He later explained he had he worked to defuse mines so that people could return to their homes. He said in his occupation he realized that his next step could be his last. As he took each step, it helped him to think a kind intention for someone in their difficulty so that if he was to die the last thought in his mind would not be fear of death or harm but of kindness and assistance to another. This attitude of each step being precious and the time between steps equally important marked his attitude to everything. He walked along the path of each day sensitively and vigilantly ever alert and just couldn’t break the habit of helping someone out if necessary as he took the next step. God willing, such people will always be there for us. The only time we can guarantee is the present moment. Tomorrow may never happen for us. We must live intensely in the ‘now’ God gives us. Let our time be a series of kind thoughts and actions in response to the daily on the opportunities God sends our way. Like the elderly Massai grandmother who relied on the agency of God’s love present in her grandson, we may be frail but we have a firm grip and we are determined.
God bless you all,
Fr. Gerard X