Finding God in All Things
Dear Brothers, Associates and Collaborators:
Proposed by Ignatius Loyola, this simple belief caught my attention many years ago. It has aided and guided me, while it has also been extremely challenging for me. To find God in all things requires me to practice the discipline of daily reflection. Solitude is necessary for contemplation. Too many times, I have let busyness, other distractions and my personal agenda get in my way of finding God.
These past several weeks have, indeed, been very busy. I have traveled a lot. My travels have taken me to Louisville, Bruges, and Danvers. Some events were common and ordinary—visiting with and listening to our Brothers in Belgium, Danvers and Louisville. Other events were not common or ordinary—Brother Jozef Schamp’s Jubilee of 70 Years, Carlos Knockaert’s retirement as the first lay Headmaster of Saint Francis Xavier Institute for the past 18 years, Saint Xavier High School’s 150th Anniversary and Brother John Olsen’s funeral. Ignatius exhorts us to find God in all things. I did. In all the places I visited, I met men of simple faith, fidelity to our way of life and heartfelt generosity. My reflection reveals to me the deep and personal relationship with God that our Brothers and lay collaborators share.
What did I find in my reflections? Brother Jozef’s fidelity to our vocation, Carlos Knockaert’s commitment to Catholic education, his enthusiasm and joy of working with teachers and students at the Institute, images of many Brothers going out of their way to help each other in our retirement homes in Louisville, Danvers and Mariastraat, “retired” Brother providing volunteer service to people in great need, the joy of celebrating the trust in God that has shaped the Saint Xavier High School community for the past 150 years. What unifies these diverse events is the deep faith in God that some very ordinary people have. The following quote by Fr. Herbert McCabe, O.P. helps me to understand what Ignatius means about finding God in all things.
Faith is what is beyond the horizons of the humanly possible. Faith is about exploring into what people could never achieve by themselves. Faith is the mysterious need in us to get to where wecould surely never go. Faith, in fact, is about what we call God. (God, Christ and Us.)
The lives of two Brothers, separated by 129 years, exemplify what Fr. McCabe says about faith. The two: Brother Paul Van Gerwen and Brother John Olsen. Both have been in prayer and reflections these past weeks.
At Saint Xavier’s celebration of its 150th Anniversary, I was asked to speak in behalf of the Brothers. I chose to speak about Paul Van Gerwen due to his influence on shaping Saint Xavier as a Catholic school. The Founder chose Paul Van Gerwen to be the superior of the first colony Brothers to go to Louisville. Paul had studied at the Normal School in Saint Trond, Belgium and was viewed as a consummate educator. Paul Van Gerwen was St. Xavier’s first principal. In a portrait written shortly after his death in 1885, we read, ” Like all the first members of the Congregation, Bro. Paul was decidedly a man of prayer and it was the assiduity of the practice of the interior life which braced him up for all the difficulties he encountered. Described as a kind, gentle, humble and courageous, Paul’s faith led him “beyond the humanly possible or what he could never achieve by himself.” Two examples may help illustrate the courage Paul received from his faith and prayer life.
Let me create a scene. It took place in the late afternoon of August 6, 1855, less than a year after his arrival in Louisville. There was a knock on the door of the 3rd floor of Saint Patrick’s. It was a parishioner who was out of breath. He was sent by the Bishop to tell Paul and the Brothers that men were intending to set fire to their house because as immigrants and Catholics they were suspected of having ammunition in their attic. Imagine the fear that Paul experienced. At his very calm command, the Brothers left in two’s and slipped out the back way leaving their few belongings with the caretaker of St. John’s cemetery in Portland and asking him to bury the chalice. Paul’s words to the Brothers as they left were simple “Get out of the city and stay out of the city until dark.” (Brother Aubert, 165) The Brothers dispersed and lived with private families for several weeks until the troubles ceased.
Less dramatic but equally hard conditions plagued the first colony of Brothers. Due to the Founder’s lack of understanding of the value of the American dollar, he agreed to annual stipend of $130 per Brother which was simply not enough to buy food. Brother Paul approached Bishop Spalding pleading with him to raise the stipend, but to no avail. It meant one meal a day and fasting on days off from school. “The community subsisted on potatoes and an occasional piece of pork” (Brother Aubert, 161).
The dire poverty of the Brothers did not diminishing their passion. Just the opposite. It created a bond among them and between them and the poor they were serving. Eventually two Brothers were recalled to Belgium in 1856 and another two, including Paul, in 1858. Paul wanted to remain in Louisville. He was especially fond of the Louisville boys.” In a letter to the Brothers in Bruges, he wrote” I assure you I cannot remember having done so much good for the children as we are able to do here.”(Bro. Aubert, 161) Paul exemplifies Fr. McCabe’s insight, “Faith, in fact is about what we call God.” Paul would return as the superior of the second colony in 1860 and establish Saint Xavier Institute (now high school) in 1864.
The reflection I did on Paul provided graced moments. I am confident that I find God in Paul’s faith story. In a personal examen, I ask myself how would I have reacted if I were in that first colony to America? I get upset if there is no milk for my cereal in the morning! Paul’s relationship with God was the source of his simplicity and zeal. Paul’s example invites me to examine closely where my treasure is and whether that is where I want my heart to be.
Faith is the mysterious need in us to get to where we could surely never go.
Faith, in fact is about what we call God.
John Olsen’s mysterious need to get to where he could surely never go on his own is a result of his simple, humble and peace-filled faith. A quote describing Paul Van Gerwen easily translates to John. Whether in Danvers or Brooklyn, Silver Spring or Birmingham, whether in Kangemi or Bungoma, Baltimore or Houma, John, “animated by courage, came with faith, saw with hope and conquered with love.” I am sure we all remember his brief interview on the video first shown at the General Chapter in which he proudly declares that others are calling him the Energizer Bunny who just keeps going and going and going.
John had a gift for finding the margins of society no matter the country. John’s faith is animated by courage, the courage to face his personal issues and to turn his life over to God. He did exactly that. Whence his peace. Whence his mysterious need to bring God’s love to others. John understood what the mystics call the common. He never sought power, prestige or social position even though he held many offices that encourage those attitudes. He let nothing get in the way of his love of God, love of his Brothers and family, his love of those he served. John knew where his treasure was and there is no surprise that’s where his heart was. His ministry was clearly about his love of God and others. It was never about him.
My reflection during the time of John’s funeral led me to examine the times turn my life over to God. What is going on when I am able does that? What is going on in my life when I resist turning things over to God? John has given me a lot as a high school student, scholastic, confrère and friend.
In many cultures, the elders are venerated. I want to close this letter with the wish that each community spend time during November recalling the lessons of our elders who have gone before us. What did they teach us about God’s love, about being a human being, about being a Xaverian Brother? This is a quote that I think John would really enjoy. It tells us that the Every Ready Bunny is going, and going and going.
Wise men and big hearts never die in the African tradition, therefore, Brother John, you will always be with us until we make the last uneducated poor to have knowledge and the last addict to be a teetotaler. (From the eulogy written by Brother John Mary).