Saturday, May 29, 2010

John Michael Talbot: Mission in Pittsburgh

This week I had the completely unexpected pleasure of taking part in a two-day mission led by John Michael Talbot at a Pittsburgh parish. The pleasure was unexpected because I learned it was happening only about 30 hours before its beginning. But it was also unexpected in the sense that one can never anticipate exactly what the Spirit of God has in mind in this sort of encounter. We can imagine what we will, but God always seems to have a better surprise up His divine sleeve.

I am left with a burning sense in my heart, and yet another occasion where I feel the need to put words to the ineffable. Let me try running at it this way:

At one point in the mission, John talked about his community, the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, in both its monastic and domestic expressions. He talked about its charism, and the charism of the larger movement of God of which he sees them as a part: the New Monasticism. He said there are many new monastic communities emerging primarily in Western Europe. His was the first in North America. These are not the Benedictines or Cistercians of the past, but new expressions of monastic life, and they are drawing people in large numbers. He stated that a primary characteristic of this New Monasticism is integration of expressions that some in the past might have thought could not blend together, for example, charismatic and liturgical worship; marrieds and celibates; Catholics and Protestants.

I have to admit that as he spoke I was filled with the same kind of longing that I felt 17 years ago when I made up my mind to explore joining his order, in the monastic expression. I don't at all regret my week or two at the monastery, but God did make it very clear to me that that wasn't where my life was headed. Not even the domestic expression of the order seemed... in order for me. I think this probably isn't the only time that I've mistaken the glimpse of something very valuable to me, a charism that awakened something in me, powerfully, with a specific and immediate call of God to my life. In some degree of a like manner I have met the Militia Immaculate, the Discalced Carmelites, a charismatic covenant community, and most recently Direction for Our Times and Communion and Liberation. All of these have given specific and needed formation for my life.

And yet. And yet... what?

John Michael gave a bit of his testimony, a much abbreviated version of the testimony I have posted here. He recounted an experience in which the Lord told him (this event was essentially his conversion to Catholicism, in the 70s) that the Catholic Church was His original Church, but that it had been sick and had almost died, but that the Lord was going to raise it up again, and He wanted John Michael to be a part of it. I had heard him recount this in the past, but when I heard it this week, I was struck with the memory of my own most intense personal interaction with JMT from the 1993 pilgrimage. As a brand new Catholic, I was struggling with the deluge of "Catholic stuff" I was experiencing on this trip: rosary beads, holy water, statues, genuflections, holy objects, holy places.... I didn't get it. It was painfully foreign. I was in culture shock. And it all felt like deadness. I knew that somewhere the Catholic Church had amazing springs of life, but I couldn't see them and I couldn't feel them, and I didn't know who to believe or where to look. I prayed an "atheist's prayer" about it, telling the Lord I didn't believe in holy places or holy objects or special graces connected to them, but if He wanted to convince me otherwise, He was free to go ahead. It was in Bethany, at the Church of the Tomb of Lazarus, that I was completely... I don't even know what word to use... completely undone by the Lord. His grace just came and dismantled my heart, and He reached right down into my doubts and my fears and proclaimed boldly to my entire being "I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who lives and believes in me will live, even though he dies. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." It was also the only time on the pilgrimage that John Michael served as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. I was literally hardly able to stand as I took the chalice from him. He spoke afterwards to the assembly in a way that helped me grasp what was happening to me.

I recount all of this simply because I saw only this week how that pivotal moment in my life whose impact has stayed with me, not just as a memory but as a constant reality, was very much a re-echoing of the call Jesus gave to John Michael. What I mean is, even though I knew God had called me to be a Catholic, I experienced the Church sometimes as dead, as frustrating, as sick. But what really shook me to my core and made me feel so terribly small and even unable to stand in that Mass was this overpowering awareness that God had called me here, (me, the experiential atheist!) to the Church, to share His life: to bear it to others. That is, after all, the only call there is from Christ.

And yet... and yet... what?

The same eyes that met mine in Bethany met mine again Thursday, and John said "Fan into flame the gift God has given you."

I want to say that I don't even know what that is. But I guess perhaps the closest I can come to capping this all off with some closure is that what I took away from this two-day mission is that everything that has happened in my life thus far is of one weaving, with meaning. But again, this isn't a meaning I give to myself; it's not a calling, a way, a path that I like and therefore I choose. It is what the Lord brings about and the Lord calls me to. And it seems to me the Lord wants me paying attention to Him.


Marie said...

the photo is courtesy of JMT's Facebook page:!/johnmichaeltalbot

Erin said...

Sounds like a beautiful experience! You were at my mom's parish and she also spoke very highly of the mission. :)

Marie said...


As much as I love my own parish, the beauty of the building of St. Bernard's is enough to make me want to return for Mass one day.