I was recently speaking with a parishioner who lamented the state of affairs here in our parish. He noted how many people had ceased going to church and didn't seem to be interested in any social activities. I've noticed that myself. I talk to people who tell me they get nothing out of church anymore--they don't experience God's presence. Later on I came across the following story:
There was a monastery, once part of a great order. It had entered into a period of decline, first closing all its branch houses and finally ending up with only five monks in the motherhouse.
Deep in the surrounding woods there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used as a hermitage. One day when the rabbi was in the woods, the abbot decided to visit him and ask if, by any chance, the rabbi could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot to his hut. But when the abbot explained his problem, all the rabbi could do was commiserate with him. "I know how it is. The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one goes to synagogue anymore." So the old abbot and rabbi wept together. When the abbot had to leave, they embraced. The abbot said how wonderful it was that they had finally met. But he failed in his purpose. Was there nothing the rabbi could say--no piece of advice?
The rabbi responded that he had no advice. "The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you." With that the abbot returned to the monastery and told the other monks of his visit.
For months the monks pondered the rabbi's words. What did he mean? Could he possibly have meant that one of the monks was the messiah? If so, which one? It must be the abbot, they thought. He has led our community for years. On the other hand, it could be brother Thomas. Brother Thomas is a holy man. It could not be Brother Elred! He gets too crotchety. But when you think about it, he always seems to be right. Maybe it is Elred. Brother Phillip couldn't be the messiah. Phillip is so passive--a nobody. Yet Phillip is always there when you need him. He just appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the messiah. Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did mean me? O God, not me!
As each of the monks contemplated in this manner, they began treating each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one of them might be the messiah. And, just in case it might be himself, the monks began treating themselves with extraordinary respect.
During this time people still came to visit and picnic in the beautiful woods. Sometimes they wandered into the monastery grounds and would stop to meditate in the chapel. They began to sense the aura of extraordinary respect that permeated the monastery. Without knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently. They brought friends and their friends brought more friends.
Then it happened that some of the younger men started to talk more and more to the monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. Within a few years, the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi's gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.
Sometimes we tend to look to the extraordinary to discover the Lord. Some people think they need to go to the mountains or meditate at the seashore. Others wait for the Lord in some spectacular event. In reality, the Lord is with us all the time.
It may not be easy to discover the Lord in the parishioner who is always negative, or the one who offends our sensitivities. Surely the Lord would not come late to everything, and it's hard to see him in those who are always angry. Where else can we find him?
Grace is the presence of God--the presence of God in us. Each one of us. Just maybe we can capture the joy of our faith by seeking the good in each other. Just maybe we can experience grace by seeking the God in each other.