I have a strange mixture of sensations every time I land at Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome. On this occasion I have a brief flashback to the very first time I landed there, and to the sight of the sun-browned landscape of late August. It all looked so foreign: the wall of heat encountered on leaving the plane, and in the distance, the hazy outlines of what I now know to be the Colli Albani, the Alban Hills where I was to spend so many periods of retreat at the English College villa on Lake Albano. It was, I remember, only the second time I had been on an aeroplane and I was arriving in the Eternal City to begin a new life and seminary formation. Each arrival, then, puts me in mind of the greater distance of time and experience travelled since, of the spiritual journey.
This is not the nostalgic, self-congratulatory emotion it might at first sound. Yes, it is undeniably important to count one’s blessings and there have been many – most of all, the gift of priesthood. But the purpose of staying with the recollection is really to apply what happened as one might apply liniment to a muscle to strengthen it and stop it hardening. For this was, at the time, the arrival to something wholly new and in some ways fearful. It was an exciting prospect, but in many ways an unknown one which involved leaving behind many valued securities and certainties.
God’s Providence is rather like a jigsaw: only when most of the pieces are in place does it begin to become recognisable for what it is, instead of many random pieces which do not necessarily seem to resemble anything coherent. Only now, many years later, does that first stepping off the plane make sense in the eventual picture. At the end of our exploring, says TS Eliot, we will arrive back where started and know the place for the first time. So my feelings are not nostalgia for some idealised time of perfection, but rather a genuine experience of recognising that there was a tentative, nervous quality then to something which now seems to have had a powerful and sure undertow of God’s loving care, directing it in ways which, at the time, were so subtle that I was not able to recognise them, not having the picture on the box, so to speak.
Reflecting on what God has done in the past enables one to look forward with the knowledge that God’s presence is dynamic: he does not abandoned his people. This is why the prophets are constantly recalling what God has done for Israel. Not to glory in the past, but to learn from it that God keeps his promises, and so to incite the faith, hope and love which allow us to seek him in the mysteries of our history and circumstances, rather than imagine that his mercies are not for the likes of us, his wonders are on hold.
For I find that as I get older change becomes more difficult. It is not as if one hits a plateau where change no longer unsettles. In fact, I think the tendency is to grow more fearful, more set in my ways. I think perhaps this is because every big change makes one realise that the greatest change of all is drawing nearer. That undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns is just beyond the horizon.
I recognise that the particular subtlety of spirit, infused by grace, which allowed me to step into a whole new life with confidence in God’s plan, has seized up somewhat, that I have become risk averse and comfortable with the status quo. I detect in myself something of the lazy servant who wants to hide his talent in the ground rather than let it out of his grasp to risk and speculate with it.
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