I spent this past week on vacation with two other members of my community on Shelter Island at a retreat house for youth that we’ve recently closed and now are in the process of selling. It’s a place of memories for us, a summer paradise for swimming and sports and a vibrant place where thousands of young people over the years found spiritual nourishment in programs for the young.
Now, like so many other good places devoted to spiritual purposes throughout the county, it’s closing. You have to feel a sense of failure and disappointment. What’s happening, we ask?
Finances and personnel are the reasons we point to, but these don’t answer the question adequately. Our society has lost its interest in God. Not everybody, to be sure, but for many the search for God has fallen down the list of their priorities. As I write, I’m watching an instructor teaching children how to play tennis in this place where young people were once taught to pray.
Religious people like ourselves, supposedly the guardians and promoters of religion, wonder if we are to blame. On EWTN the other night, Fr. Benedict Groeschel seemed to think so; he criticized religious communities for their “worldliness” and there’s some truth in his criticism, but it’s not the complete answer by any means.
I’m reading Pope Benedict’s book “ Jesus of Nazarth” these days and there are two sections in it I find particularly helpful. The first, is his section on the Kingdom of God, and as I read it this place came to mind.
The Kingdom of God is a complex concept; the first disciples of Jesus were not sure what it was. They had kingdoms of their own in mind that they thought might fit the bill. But Jesus said his kingdom was not like theirs. If it were, his followers would have risen up to stop his enemies putting him to death, but his kingdom was not of this world.
Our kingdoms tend to be like those of Jesus’ first disciples. They may be treasured, holy, wonderful places in themselves, but they’re kingdoms of the world. Our temptation, like the last temptation of Jesus in the desert, is to hold on to them as if they were the Kingdom of God. But God lets them pass away so that we may search again. Is that what God is doing now?
“Thy Kingdom come,” we say in our prayer, not “My Kingdom come.”
The second section of the pope’s book I found helpful was his thoughts on “Resurrection Thinking,” (my phrase, not his). After the resurrection the disciples of Jesus did a lot of thinking about what had happened before. “When he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.” (John 2,22) Over and over the gospels tell us his disciples remembered something he said or did, sometimes they were terrible things like the events of his passion and death, but now they saw them in a new light.
They didn’t even delete their own sinfulness and lack of faith from the remembered story.
“The Resurrection,” the pope says, “teaches us a new way of seeing.” (p.232) We can look into ruins and see another life rise in them. “Behold, I make all things new.”
What will be the new life we see rising from here? The pope says “all” the disciples were involved in this “Resurrection Thinking.” It takes place through prayerfulness. A guide, the Spirit of Truth, is there to point our way to the future.
What’s involved today here at Shelter Island, and in so many other places like it, is more than waiting for a buyer.
Shelter Island is a beautiful place with a rich spiritual history. Much good has been done there and many young people have been nurtured in the faith over the years. Shelter Island stands with so many other cherished Catholic institutions that have served well and are now part of history. These institutions are important. They have their place, but there may be a lesson for us in their demise. Perhaps God is calling us to take a fresh look into what we are all about. Perhaps we are being reminded that our faith is not ultimately in institutions – good as they are – but in the person of Jesus Christ. Perhaps in this era of diminishment, we are being asked to reaximine our lives and prayerfully imagine a new future.