You Can Come Home Again
After Illness, a Marian Helper is Welcomed Back by Jesus
Editor's note: Dan Valenti, senior editor and writer for Marian Helper magazine as well as other publications of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, became ill in mid-December, 2006. He spent the next two months recuperating. He came back to work on Eden Hill Feb. 19. In this essay, Dan pens his impressions upon returning.
Coming back felt much better than I had anticipated. The day was cold (-1 when I left my house in the morning) but brilliantly sunny. Brother Sun had sent his warm rays into the interior of my car ... or was it into the interior of my heart? Both, as it turned out.
During the short drive up Eden Hill to the grounds of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, in Stockbridge, Mass., the familiar landscape passed by like the features of a dear friend you hadn't seen in a while. You never do forget. The grounds welcomed me — the tall, swaying pine trees; the statue of St. Joseph cradling the infant Jesus in his arms; the grounds blanketed in a quilt of fresh, Communion-white snow; the giant sculpture of The Divine Mercy that greets you at the top of the hill. Take a left at the statue and you end up at the National Shrine. Take a right and you find the visitors' parking lot. Go straight and you arrive at the Marian Helpers Center.
Three paths diverged on Eden Hill. I took the straight path, and that made all the difference.
As I pulled into the center's parking lot, the familiar cars were there; Dave Came's Subaru, John Foster's Toyota, and the many others. They had a subtle difference about them, seeming to extend a kind of greeting in the security of their mere presence. What was going on? Going in the building through the employees' entrance, Lynda Gunn, our receptionist extraordinaire, held the door with a "Welcome back, Dan. Good to see you."
It felt good.
I walked down the short hallway into my office. Things were as I had left them, or so I thought. I had come in briefly a couple of times during my convalescence to catch up on mail, phone messages, and to keep a modest stack from developing into a mountainous pile when I returned. The plan worked. My desk did not overpower me with backlogs of undone work except for the e-mail, that intrusive but necessary device of high technology that breeds like a rabbit and can annoy like a headache. I eased into my chair and took a deep breath, ready to plow through a couple weeks worth of messages. The menu included lots of spam, a junk-food diet that doesn't agree with me.
Then I noticed the picture.
In my office, a large banner depicting Jesus as The Divine Mercy adorns the eastern wall. It's been hanging there since my first day on the job. As I sit at my desk, the banner is in front of me and to my left. When I type on the computer — my eyes focused on the keyboard and screen — I can catch a glimpse of the image out of the upper left corner of my field of vision.
It's a comfort to have that picture there, and I've looked at it many times. Today, however, was the first time I had really seen it. Through lack of attention, you can look without seeing the same way you can hear without listening. When it comes to spirituality, I too often have been blind and deaf while physically healthy in eyes and ears (ah, the age-old story of the human race after the Eve-bitten apple ushered in the fall from grace).
So there I sat, in the first 10 minutes of the first hour of my first day back at work, looking at the image again, this time with a new awareness. From the banner, He gazed back at me in a way I hadn't noticed before, the almond-shaped eyes radiating a steady, approachable calm. The left foot was stepping forward, the right hand raised in a blessing, with the left hand pulling aside a white robe to reveal the red and pale rays streaming out from the glowing center of His heart.
Words cannot quite describe what I felt. Compared to the deft and razor sharp events of actual experience, words can be clumsy and blunt and fall short of the reality they are trying to convey. That's when analogy can help, a "this" in terms of "that" (what are the parables of Jesus but incredibly effective analogies, likely the greatest ever worded).
I experienced the dual-colored rays as something akin to atonal music — a soft, steady, soothing hum. Think low-volume Gregorian chant minus most of its rising and falling notes. In place of human voices, this "chorus" sounded more like rustled whispers, like a summer breeze gently passing through the leaves of a tree. Any musician would have trouble reproducing that tone. These aural rays could open the ears and melt the heart of the most hardened listener.
Afterward, I pondered long over what all this meant. Here is my conclusion: While Divine Mercy is meant for everybody, one accesses it individually through a decision, an act of will that assigns to a person the great responsibility of affirmation. In short, you have to respond to the opportunity. No one else can do it for you. I had knowledge of this, of course, but had I truly known it? Knowledge and knowing now seemed to me as opposite as night is to day.
Our God-given free will makes everything in our spiritual lives a conscious choice. We can choose to say "yes" or not. It takes courage to face this. It's an act of spiritual maturity, not for the callow, the lazy, or the faint of heart. If we choose "yes" and open up to Divine Mercy, we act individually and accept responsibility for our choice (when it comes to Jesus' invitation to trust in Him, few who hear of the offer actually say "no" but rather take the easy way out by ignoring it and not saying anything; this buys only temporary solace, though, because to decide not to choose is in fact a serious choice that has its own repercussions. I speak from experience. Been there, done that).
Then a blaze of insight hit me concerning a statement that spiritual directors, mentors, and grade-school teachers had been trying to drill into my hard head and calcified heart for years. Had I been the only person on earth, Jesus still would have gone through the entirety of His Passion for my redemption.
Such is the profound importance of our free will. Just one of us — a lonely, solitary person — made in His "image and likeness" would have been enough to trigger God's entire plan for Salvation. Spiritually, as it turns out, one is not the loneliest number.
When it comes to humanity, the crown of His Creation, God doesn't keep count. He ignores everything He knows about math. Though He knows the exact number of hairs on a person's head, He doesn't "measure" the worth of a soul or distribute a certain quantity of love based on the limitations of a specific number or set amount.
Just one person alone or six billion on a planet, it makes no difference: God knows the measureless value of the human soul and unconditionally pours out His love for us. His plan for us is about quality not quantity (although the quantity is infinite!) — the quality of mercy, which, as Shakespeare wrote, "is not strained but droppeth as gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."
Saint Faustina put it more succinctly when she wrote in her Diary that His mercy, which is love itself, is "unfathomable." It is also free and ever flowing, always available to be chosen and received.
The red and pale rays emanating from the image on the banner ("O Blood and Water which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus...") seemed for a moment to extend out from the border of the picture and deep into my consciousness. A stirring occurred. While my words had fallen short, fortunately there were other syllables upon which to rely. They were the familiar words under the image: "Jesus, I trust in You!" These five words explain exactly what a person must do to experience the goodness God has in store for each of us.
We need to trust.
What is trust? Father George W. Kosicki, CSB, a pre-eminent authority on Divine Mercy, calls trust "our faith, hope, and love in action. Trust is an action verb that takes in all three." Notice the word that Fr. Kosicki repeats: "action." Trust is not just a mental exercise or an abstract movement of the mind. That would provide too much of a cop out, a temptation few of us could resist. Trust is first and foremost something you do.
That you can't fake.
No one else can trust for you. Someone else might point the way and give direction, but you have to take the steps. They can talk the talk. You must walk the walk. It's one of the defining moments of a person's life to come to that fork in the spiritual path. That's because trust takes place in the space a person shares with the actual presence of God, like a point located in the common area of two intersecting circles (incidentally, you're never more present in that sacred, shared space than when you receive the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist).
You can boil it down to this: Deciding to trust in The Divine Mercy means nothing less than taking on God's will ... or not. Either way, you cannot come away unchanged.
Before it can be anything else, trust must first develop out of Jesus' offer (the invitation) that requires an individual response (the action). The legend says, "Jesus, I trust in You!" It doesn't say, "Jesus, we trust in You!" Conversion is an "I," not a "we."
But while the great gift of God's mercy isn't a collective experience as initially received, it soon becomes a collective affirmation as we share mercy with others through our prayers and deeds. We then learn the truth, the tight logic, behind Jesus' promise of "two or more gathered in My name." When we gather like this, Jesus Himself literally stands among us.
This hints at the source of the enormous power of the prayer Jesus taught to St. Faustina. The Chaplet of The Divine Mercy in part derives its ability to work miracles from this dynamic of trust as an action one takes in response to a sacred invitation. The action becomes a quality (mercy) that believers share equally with everyone, the faithful and faithless alike. The more you give it away, the more you acquire.
I think here of one of my favorites passages from St. Faustina's Diary, where she quotes Jesus telling her:
I am offering people a vessel with which they are to keep coming for graces to the fountain of mercy. That vessel is this image with the signature, "Jesus, I trust in You" (327).
These understandings represented a great step forward for me. It was as if I had become aware of my own unique set of spiritual fingerprints that The Divine Mercy could use to follow my progress in this veil of tears we call our life on earth. This would help keep me on course in my journey, and what might appear to be the mistakes, setbacks, and trials of life could be seen for what they are: automatic course corrections much like the guidance system on a streaking rocket. Ironically, the system exerts a force directly opposed to the rocket's destination. This keeps the rocket on target.
Jesus, of course, had known of this all the time (and has known it for all time). He was only patiently waiting for this slow-to-move spiritual slacker to catch up.
Consequently, I gained a greater sense of identity as a child of God. We are His sons and daughters, heirs to the Kingdom. My experience with the Image of The Divine Mercy on my first day back at work rescued this great fact of divine kinship from a tired spiritual clichÃ© through which I often sleepwalked, transforming it into a vibrant reality that may keep me awake and alert in a way that Jesus often advises in the Gospels.
I could now see the value of my two months away recovering from my health setback. It was an arduous recovery. When I could do little else, I spent much of my time decompressing, like a deep-sea diver recovering from the bends. This included a fair amount of time meditating, relatively free from worldly distraction and what St. Faustina called "the toil and monotony of everyday life" (Diary, 356).
My suffering threw me rough and tumble, head over heel, until I landed safely on an angel-placed haystack of fertile silence. Was this cushioning of a precipitous fall a coincidence? Not on your life.
I had been nicely "set up" for something to happen. When I came back to work and looked at the Image of The Divine Mercy, something did.
On Feb. 19, my office at the Marian Helpers Center on Eden Hill took in the delightful sunlight bounding off the alabaster snow and cascading in through the window. The radiance matched the mood perfectly.
Jesus had welcomed me back not just to work but also, in a way, back to life.