Twenty-two years ago today a dear friend was ordained to the priesthood.
We had entered the seminary together but shortly thereafter a serious illness, requiring major surgery and a prolonged period of isolation in recovery meant he was absent from the seminary for three years.
The journey both of physical recovery and resumption of studies was long and the best indication of the spiritual impact of that can be found in the Scripture passage he chose for his ordination card: “It is when I am weak that I am strong.” [2 Cor. 12:10]
His priestly life is marked by a particular awareness of the poor and suffering and the great joy his presence brings.
As tradition cries out with joy on such an anniversary: Ad multos annos!
May he and all priests have many more years to minister to God’s people.
In chapter five of his encyclical Caritas in veritate, Pope Benedict notes that, “One of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation.”
Isolation can be self-induced, obviously because of some squabble with a family member or friend where usually we place all blame on the other and pull away; isolation can be simply because we are a stranger in a new school, place of work, neighbourhood, country or are overwhelmed by a sense of being a minority; some forms of isolation are imposed due to illness and either we are isolated because of the danger of contagion or simply because being single, elderly and such no one comes to visit us in the hospital or nursing home, or prison and even within prison there is the infamous ‘hole/solitary’ where isolation is rather definitive.
Nations in dispute, at least the more powerful ones, will impose, or try to, various forms of economic isolation to bring the recalcitrant nation to heel.
There is also the isolation of unexpected circumstances, or vocation, for example the expectant mother carries the new life within her and no matter how supportive her husband may be there is a type of isolation; the Holy Father himself, by the very nature of his sacred office is the one and only Pope and no matter how supportive those around him may be, a type of isolation is very real, no doubt particularly acute these days.
When, as is the right and natural order of human life, children become adults and leave home, the parents enter the real crucible of isolation, especially when the now adult children marry and form their own families.
For many, old age and its procession is a pilgrimage ever more deeply into the crucible of isolation.
So, in this crucible, can it really be true that it is indeed when I am weak: weakened by circumstance, misunderstanding, lack of a loving other in my life, illness, absence of family, stranger in a strange land, in prison, homeless and alone in an alley, old age home – yes, can it really be true that indeed it is when I am weak that I am strong?
No, not if the emphasis is on ‘I’!
It is important to recall St. Paul makes this declaration after revealing his struggle against self-reliance and pride following graces given, his struggle against pain and suffering, temptation, a type of seeking to isolate himself from spiritual warfare and while Christ reassures St. Paul, and each one of us that “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”, the key is all must be about Christ and for Christ, for only with and in Christ can we be strong.
Thus it is only after enumerating the infirmities, reproaches, needs, persecutions, distresses, in which sufferings St. Paul finds his joy for they are embraced “...for Christ’s sake.”, that the truth can be declared that it is indeed when we are weak that we are strong – not self-strength, Christ strengthens us.
Here I must ask myself two questions: first, if I am in the crucible of isolation, am I trying to get out because it hurts, or am I seeking, like St. Paul, to rely on Christ and embrace this for His sake for as long as He wishes me to as a form of expiation and intercessor prayer in and through Christ for those for whom isolation is constant pain?, and second, have I chosen to isolate anyone from my life because of wounded pride, or a failure to love?
Pope Benedict in the above mentioned paragraph adds: “If we look closely at other kinds of poverty, including material forms, we see that they are born from isolation, from not being loved or from difficulties in being able to love.”
I will admit being exiled because of a false accusation, with increasing old age meaning many of my generation, family, brother priests, friends are gone, living thousands of miles away from my home of over forty years, with my foster-son more and more, rightly, occupied with his wife and growing family, and the necessary and holy type of isolation required of even the urban hermitical life, there are days when the crucible of isolation is such a scalding fire I want to flee, wander around in some crowd, anything but to be isolated – in a word I want to be strong and shake off weakness!
Then, and this is the grace of Jesus coming across the storm tossed sea and grabbing my hand before I sink, the phone will ring or a letter or email arrive or I will open my brievery and gaze upon a friends ordination card – in a word I am being called out of myself into the isolation, as it were, of another who needs time, attention, prayer, love.
As Pope Benedict reminds us: “As a spiritual being, the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God.”
Jesus call us to such relationship with Him and with others, to such maturity of loving as He loves when He reminds us in the “I was” sayings in Matthew 25:31-40, assuring us the gift of heaven is ours because even if we are in the crucible of isolation we step out of ourselves towards Him in the person of our brothers and sisters and because our loving service is gift to Him in them we will be granted the eternal opposite of isolation: communion of love with Him forever!