Fr Peter CSWG on the lessons of August for the religious life
August is often known as the “silly season”; but in recent years it has become the focus for several major Christian youth festivals. This year we saw the spectacle of World Youth Day in Krakow, which drew young people from all over the world. Nearer home we can vaunt our own equivalents for all traditions of Christians – beginning with the Walsingham Youth Pilgrimage and New Wine in late July and early August, and ending with the Greenbelt Festival over the Bank Holiday weekend.
All of these events attract thousands of young Christians and others from all over the UK and beyond: for worship, song, poetry and dance, theatre, and drama. The atmosphere that takes over is electric, brimming with the vibrant energy of youth, and this all hopefully overflows back into the parishes. Excitement, adventure, anticipation, hope: these are the earmarks of the festival spirit, the Spirit of God hovering over creation and especially over His Church, filled with the hope of the resurrection life.
Very much to the heart of the aspiration of youth is the hope of a peaceful living together of nations and peoples and faiths, the alleviation of suffering – especially that caused by greed and thoughtless prejudice – and the evils of trafficking and slave labour. In other words, a better, healthier, and safer world; and one in which no one goes hungry or homeless.
Youth festivals, by their very nature, are about highlighting the ideals of a generation and awakening common goals in life. The longer-term work of steady, patient faithfulness through life has still to be grafted onto the perspective. There remains the question for all the participants at the end of such events: how to re-locate and re-apply all their hopes, all the enthusiasm and energy, into the life of the Church and into the rest of their lives?
Perhaps part of the answer to the question lies in the liturgy of the Church during August. This too evokes an energising inspiration, similar to the outdoor festivals, pivoting as it does around its two central feasts: the Transfiguration and the Assumption. Both speak about the final goal of humanity and of the transformation of our human nature into the new humanity of Jesus Christ, already begun in Our Lady and the saints, and life in the kingdom of God where peace and harmony are the norm. Yet talk about such a goal is not enough; there has to be inspiration and dialogue for discerning with young people how those hopes can be firmly rooted in a practical action in life, in a way that can be taken up now and kept up throughout life.
Such a way is outlined by the other saints’ days that are sprinkled liberally through August, starting with the silent but powerful witness of the Curé d’Ars and closing with the martyrdom of St John the Baptist. Between and around them lies an array of glittering names – Ss Dominic, Clare, Laurence, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Maximilian Kolbe, Bernard, Bartholomew, Monica, Augustine of Hippo, and Aidan. It’s a mixture of both the steady witness of ‘white martyrdom’ – the repeated offering of self in lifelong faithfulness – and the more immediate single offering in ‘red martyrdom’, expressed in all generations of Christians, and still being expressed today. In both cases it is the witness of the Christian Way of dying to our egocentric self-centre, in order to be born again in Christ. Both represent this common witness: one open and visible; the other quiet, hidden, generally unnoticed and unremarked.
So August, with its festivals and liturgy, becomes visibly and tangibly a celebration of God’s generosity to his people. They are a gift from God to express our response to this generosity in our lives and hearts. It naturally awakens in us – or, strictly, God it is who awakens in us – a corresponding desire to be generous in return. Just as with those saints named, we discover that such generosity works itself out through the steady Christian witness of on-going faithfulness in prayer, and true worship and obedience.
Religious life – in both its monastic and apostolic expressions – acts out a living icon for the Church of this steady faithful ongoing act of self-giving to God, and faithful prayer that witnesses to His power and sovereignty through the offering of the whole of life back to the Giver of Life. It presents visibly to the world an invitation for all human beings to love and serve their Creator, to honour and worship God their Maker, to obey His commandments, and to live in harmony with His will. It is to hold ever-present before the whole human race the hope of reconciliation of its divisions and conflicts, and lasting genuine peace through the working out of mercy towards one another.
In the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12.13-21), Our Lord tells a story about someone who is terribly and entirely egocentric, completely bound up in himself. The man thinks only of himself, and of acquiring more and more things for himself without the least thought for sharing it with those who have little or nothing. We are told that life is not for feathering our nests, or lining our pockets, but is found in giving ourselves for others and by responding to those in need. Such self-giving can only come through a life already given over to God. He also issues a warning for us all, and ends by charging us that we find the true wealth of life in being ‘rich towards God’. Life finds its fulfilment (and all its happiness) through ‘losing’ it, to give to others. That remains the eternal truth at the heart of the Christian mystery, and the perfect Christian Rule of Life.
The Revd Fr Peter CSWG is a member of the Community of the Servants of the Will of God