Updated: Oct 13, 2020
I’m going to start this letter with an observation that seems about as far away from a deep spiritual insight as one could imagine: it sure seems like there are a LOT more chipmunks around St. Mary’s this year! They are every-where. Every time I walk out to my car, one or two are scurrying away. If I am out on the sidewalk in front of the priory, they are flitting under the bushes or taking off across the lawn. Basically any time I am outdoors any-where around the priory, I am seeing chipmunks. More and more and more chipmunks. It’s been this way since spring and shows no sign of letting up.
Now, I haven’t spent enormous amounts of time pondering this, but I have found myself wondering: are there really more chipmunks around this year? Or have there always been this many chipmunks and for some reason I’m just noticing it for the first time now? But recently I stumbled across an article that answered my question. The article stated that all of New England is seeing an explosion in the chipmunk population. Apparently the var-ious tree species that produce the seeds chipmunks store for winter food all had banner years last fall, which means the chipmunks had more food than usual stored up, and that combined with our very mild winter this past year meant many more survived the winter than usual. And on top of that, apparently chipmunk females are wired in such a way that in times of surplus food, their bodies actually produce double litters of babies. It is that “double litter” chipmunk baby boom that we are seeing currently.What if wenot physically, but spirituallywere like chipmunk mothers? What if we were so responsive to God’s grace that when the conditions were just right, we were “doubly fruitful” in the spiritual life? It’s an inter-esting thought. It also leads to the question: what are the conditions that would be “just right” for such spiritual growth? Thankfully the deep tradition of our faith gives us the answer, framed both in the negative and in the positive. In the negative, the great enemy of spiritual growth is complacency. When everything is “going well” and circumstances are normal and I am in a comfortable place, it can be extremely hard to grow my spiritual life. A few years ago, Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia famously observed a “kind of foggy worldliness has settled into the American Catholic soul.” This fogginess and complacency is closely linked to resting in our own com-fort. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminded us, “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” Comfort and greatness are enemies, not friends.
So if complacency and comfort (and often “normalcy,” to use that term) are the things that work against spiritual fruitfulness, then what are the conditions that produce it? If we look to the lives of many of the saints, we begin to see the answer. Suffering. Upheaval. Unexpected crosses to bear. Being stripped of worldly goods. Challenges and trials. Persecution. In short, all those things that break us out of our usual routines and out of our patterns of worldly security and comfort are the conditions that tend to produce the most saints. Those are the conditions that tend to lead to significant spiritual growth if we let them.
Would anyone disagree that these last months have been filled with all of those things? We went months without any sense of normalcy, and our attempts (as both a society and a Church) to regain that normalcy are only now in their infant steps. It is also clear that the “old normal,” if indeed it ever returns, is still a long way off. There will be plenty of challenges, changes, and upheavals during the weeks and months ahead. Some have been carrying unexpected crosses for many months now, and for others those asyetunseen crosses lie on the horizon ahead. I think each of us should ask ourselves the question: in the midst of the radical changes I’ve experienced in the last months, have I responded with an equally radical trust in God? Have these significant challenges produced in me significant growth in charity and the other virtues? Have these months, which have provided so many opportunities, produced a “double litter” of spiritual fruitfulness in my life? Or has my response to these conditions produced in me a “new normal” that is, in effect, a “new complacency”?
No matter what the case might be up until now, the good news is that every day is a new beginning. May we all work to attune ourselves to the opportunities that lie ahead to practice heroic levels of trust, charity, patience, and all of the other virtues as we continue to navigate this very different summer of 2020.
Fr. John Paul