Dear friends in college and beyond,
“Shape up or ship out!”
The first time I heard those words, I was about ten years old. I was with a friend in the St. Anne’s Parish auditorium, waiting for the play Camelot to begin. My sixteen-year-old sister was in the play, sponsored by the parish Sodality, and I had to attend. But my friend and I had been joking around before it started, and now neither of us could stop laughing – loud enough apparently, that the program moderator, a tall man with a booming voice, had to walk down the aisle to shut us up. We didn’t really know what his words meant, and we were so nervous that we were tempted to laugh even more, but we “shaped up” nonetheless!
The word “shape” has so many uses in the English language:
Shape up or ship out! . . . Get in shape! . . . We’re in good shape! . . . This idea is really taking shape!
I would like to reflect briefly on a less common use: “What is the shape of my life?”
Last year, my younger sister gave me a page-per-day calendar of Catholic quotes. I have really enjoyed this gift-that-keeps-on-giving as a new spiritual gem shining its light on my soul each day. On December 8 (the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary), I read this quote from Caryll Houselander (a mid-20th century spiritual writer who wrote a beautiful book about Mary called the Reed of God. Actually, I think she was also quoted recently in another of these letters):
Our Lady said “yes” for the human race. Each one of us must echo that “yes” for our own lives. We are all asked if we will surrender what we are, our humanity, our flesh and blood, to the Holy Spirit and allow Christ to fill the emptiness formed by the particular shape of our life.”
On February 2, we will celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. It is also the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life and the conclusion of the Year of Consecrated Life. The Gospel is from Luke 2:22-23:
Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord.”
The dictionary defines consecrated as “dedicated to a sacred purpose.” What is the shape of your life? Well, at Baptism, each of us was consecrated to the Lord, similar to the way Jesus was presented in the temple by His parents. Our life is already consecrated, dedicated to a sacred purpose. We can think of consecration as the “shape” that God fills in each of us. Like Mary, we are called to “allow Christ to fill the emptiness formed by the particular shape of our life.”
As consecrated religious, the Brothers’ lives “take shape” around the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability; around our daily times of prayer; and in the family spirit we share at meals and in many other ways in our community life.
Blessed William Joseph Chaminade once wrote,
It was in the womb of the Blessed Mary that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and there he was formed in our likeness. It is also in the virginal womb of Mary that the elect must be conceived by the operation of the Holy Spirit and formed by the maternal care of Mary to the likeness of Jesus Christ.
Blessed Chaminade’s words are sometimes difficult for our modern ears to grasp, but he really has a beautifully balanced sense of how our lives “take shape.” Like Mary, we can actually give birth to Christ also. The Holy Spirit uses Mary’s love to form Jesus. Christ is formed or “takes shape” in us through a kind of “alchemy” of Mary’s love, the events of our lives, and our own collaboration with the Holy Spirit. The more we are open to Mary’s love and to the work of the Holy Spirit, the more we give birth to Christ – bring Christ into our world, to the people we love and live with – in our own unique, personal way. That is the “shape of our life”!
“Shape up or ship out!” Harsh words indeed! But if you’re anything like me, perhaps your spiritual life could use a little shaping up. What better time than Lent, which begins on February 10. Let us reflect this Lent: “How will Christ fill the emptiness formed by the particular shape of my life?” May we all take advantage of the graces Lent offers through the Sacraments of the Church, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist. Maybe you can take a pilgrimage through one of the Holy Doors (The Diocese of Rockville Centre has designated four pilgrimage churches.) during this Jubilee Year of Mercy. Finally, I invite you to consider adding a small devotional prayer to your daily routine this Lent: perhaps a decade of the Rosary; or Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55); or the following prayer to the Holy Spirit by St. Augustine, which I find particularly helpful:
Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy.
Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy.
Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy.
Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy.
Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. Amen.”
The practice of such devotions can help us to be open to the special work the Holy Spirit wants to accomplish in each of us.
May the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit be glorified in all places through the Immaculate Virgin Mary. Amen.
On behalf of all of my Marianist Brothers,
Bro. Peter Heiskell, S.M.