From the Letter of Theodore James Ryken to Mr. G.N. Hermans (14 November 1844)
…Which person who has some experience of spiritual matters would desire that an angel come from heaven in order to make known God’s will, when it is possible to know it by following the ordinary way? Are not all obliged to follow their vocation? Would it not be quite wrong not to follow it? God does not have to give an account to anybody of His actions. If His Majesty wants to use an ordinary, simple and uneducated person – yea, a sinner; if God wants to make this person turn toward Him in view of a special work; if God does not take the direction which people think He usually follows. In all this His Majesty is completely free and nobody is entitled to disapprove God’s action, let alone oppose it. God chose uneducated men as his apostles. Saint Peter was a fisherman. Although he committed such a grave sin after his call, he was nonetheless destined for a lofty task. Who can ask an account of God and who can detect His ways?
…A little more than five years ago, we started from scratch, nearly without any material help, with little influence, and in spite of much opposition, criticism and slander. Nonetheless, the community did grow and it numbers at present seventeen brothers and nine postulants…. Is it not possible to see in this a gentle but strong action, something special, which is similar to the action of God’s Spirit who arranges everything without any hurry or rashness but gently, yet strongly?
“I was powerfully put in my place”…We have seen that in the Middle Dutch mystical tradition the phrase suggests a person’s return to God. Jan van Ruusbroec poetically describes it as a return to “the bosom of the Father, who is our own ground and our origin, in which we begin our life and our being.”
The same mystic calls this meeting place between God and us “the ordinary ground.” It is there where we understand in a more profound way what being human entails, where we become sharply aware of the finiteness of our being.
It is in this “ordinary ground” where we realize that “we are all members of a species that is not sufficient unto itself… creatures plagued by unending doubts and restless, unsatisfied hearts…and that of all creatures, we are the poorest and the most incomplete, whose needs are always beyond our capacities.” This is the inherent reality of our human estate – the very human estate which Jesus took upon emptying himself.
All of us are subject to this reality, the poverty that is innate in being human. Yet, “all too easily, we live alienated from the truth of our Being. The threatening ‘nothingness’ of our poor infinity and infinite poverty drives us hither and thither among the distractions of every day cares.”
To settle in this “ordinary ground” is to acknowledge our eternal neediness for God, to let go of the strong impulse within us to be individualistic and totally dependent on our own strength and efforts.
In this “ordinary ground” we will also behold the gifts that God has entrusted. These are not the gifts that we want to have or insist on having. Rather, these are the personal charisms which God invites us to discover, accept, nurture, and use for the renewal of the Church. Until we choose to settle in this “ordinary ground,” we could never truly put ourselves in the service of God.
“Follow the ordinary way,” counsels the Founder. Ryken invites his followers to embrace the giftedness of their being. In doing so, they will be able to render justice to God, “His Majesty,” who wants to use us for His own purpose. Thus, our gifts are not for the fulfillment of our own projects and ends. Ryken invites us not to take the way of the privileged and entitled, but rather the way of those who, happily resting in God, could appreciate the “gentle but strong action… of God’s Spirit who arranges everything without any hurry or rashness.”
Once they are truly “satisfied and most at peace with themselves,” they will not only be “deeply immersed in God” but also in “good works.” “The love of the truly ordinary persons will flow out to all,” according to Ruusbroec, “for they are the least hindered in love.”
Read the following poem, written by the Irish philosopher William Desmond (from God and the Between [Wiley-Blackwell, 2008]):
Does the poem give you a sense of being “put in your place” in relation to God? Your neighbor? Creation? As Brother Joe Pawlika put it in his talk on the Xaverian Life Form, “we Xaverian Brothers [as well as Associates and Colloborators] are faced with the challenge and opportunity to find our place in the world today – to rearticulate the Xaverian Charism in a manner that acknowledges the gifts and limits of our present situation.”
Read the poem again slowly.
How is God wooing you into life? What is your place in relation to God, Neighbor, and Creation? How do these relationships help define who you are?
Loving Father who reigns over all,
as we commemorate these days the memory of your servant Theodore James Ryken,
grant us, his followers,
a renewed understanding
of your deeper calls
to our religious family.
Give us the courage and vision
which you have graced our Founder,
to overcome our present fears and limitations.
May our daily labors
contribute to the realization of your Kingdom
today and for always.
Grant this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.