Take Refuge with the Lord (plus a tribute to Deacon Michael Iwanowicz)

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11.28-29)

Taking RefugeThis lovely passage from the short Gospel for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time is an invitation which Jesus expresses in utterly clear terms: If you are weary and heavy burdened (by worries personal, of your family, for our country, for the earth itself) come to me; if you are tired out by all this and need rest for your soul, come to me. We don’t need to do anything extraordinary, we need just to accept this invitation.

This is an elemental part of our faith, to come to the Lord, give over our burdens, and let him refresh us. We find the theme in the Psalms, and so often in the Gospels: at the feet of the Lord, you will find safety and rest. Given our many woes today this is a welcome message: give over to Christ our worries and cares, all of them — and do it today. Then you can do the work to which the Lord calls you.

This is not a uniquely Christian theme by any means. To put this world in perspective by giving its care over to God, the reality greater than time and space, is human and divine wisdom. This instinct is deep-rooted in Jewish piety — e.g., “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken” (Psalm 55). The very word “Islam” indicates submission, surrender to God. In Buddhism, a core act defining the faith is taking refuge at the feet of the Buddha (śaraṇam).

In Hindu traditions, there are multiple examples of the invitation to come to the Lord — the God, in some cases the Goddess — and take refuge at the divine feet. In the famous Bhagavad Gītā’s ultimate verse of importance, Lord Krishna puts it this way:

Let go entirely of all your righteousness, and take refuge with me alone.

I will free you from your sins. Do not grieve. (Gita 18.66)

Or, in the Tamil language tradition of South India: the saint Nammalvar (9th c.), unable in every other way to find God, simply gives up self-salvation, and in the presence of the Goddess who ever mediates the presence of God, enters beneath the Lord’s feet:

“I cannot be away from You even for a moment,”

Says the Lady on the flower who dwells on Your chest;

You are unmatched in fame, the three worlds are Yours, You rule over me,

O Lord of the holy Vekaam temple where peerless immortals and crowds of sages delight!

With nowhere else to go, this servant has entered right beneath your feet. (Holy Word of Mouth 6.10.10)

South Indian followers of this tradition all it “going to refuge” (śaraāgati) or “laying down the burden” (bhara-nyāsa) or even most simply, “coming near (to the Lord)” (prapatti). Even today, followers of the Śrīvaiṣṇava faith live with the same goal of surrendering to the Lord. It is a deep value we can share interreligiously; it is a form of piety, but it is also world-transforming. (St. Ignatius Loyola had a version of it: "Pray as if everything depends on yourself; act as if everything depends on God.")

John in PrisonBut traditions differ too. What distinguishes the invitation in Matthew 11 itself is the long lead-up, the preceding 27 verses of the chapter:

1-6 John the Baptist, in prison and soon to die, sends messengers to Jesus: are you really the One who is to come? Am I to die for the right person? (Perhaps many of us are like John at the moment: does the faith really work? should I stick with it?) Jesus responds: See what I do, what I say, and judge for yourself. The Good News is happening all around you. You did not waste your life.

7-15 Though somewhat stern in his reply to John, Jesus then testifies that John was indeed the greatest of the prophets, the one who points directly to the Messiah; yet anyone who follows Jesus in utter simplicity reaches a state beyond that of John.

16-19 Most people found excuses for ignoring John, and now for ignoring Jesus himself.

20-24 Even the people of Israel, who should have known better, failed to listen to John, and hearing Jesus speak, failed to see what was right before their eyes.

25-27 But who can be blamed? To listen to the prophets and understand John, and to see who Jesus is: that is a gift of God, given not to the wise and powerful, but to the simple and pure of heart. Many, if not most, don’t have it.

All 27 verses are just a prelude to the invitation in 28-29. Here Jesus turns and addresses the listener, reader: in the time of decision, when people are deciding whether to listen or not, and many do not, it is up to you — you, who have just now been thinking about John the Baptist and heard the message of Jesus, do the simple and good thing: put down your baggage, come to me. You will find rest from all that wearies you. You can’t live out your calling carrying all that stuff on your back!

Jesus adds,

For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (11.30)

Robert de Niro gives up his burdenWhat is this “light burden”? In Matthew 11 it may ironically be the burden carried by John the Baptist: trust in Jesus, gamble that he is the One, even when you are not sure, even when you, John, could have declared yourself the Messiah and been cheered on by very large crowds at the Jordan River and all the way to Jerusalem. The light burden — just let go! — is to cast aside ego, stop making the faith more complicated than it is, stop judging yourself so harshly as to make your own judgments a barrier to taking refuge with Jesus. Come as you are, right now. John the Baptist did it, even while still questioning. Thomas the Apostle (July 3) did it, even while still doubting. Us too, in the endlessly long summer of 2020: let go, stop tripping over our own feet, accept the invitation of Jesus, let him take up our burdens.

All of this is deeply consoling, but it is not escapism. Once we've put our lives in God's hands, then the mission begins. (As in the picture just above, Robert de Niro cut loose from his mercenary baggage in that Jesuit classic, The Mission.)

In Memory of Deacon Michael A. Iwanowicz (with a full obituary here)

Deacon MikeI think Deacon Mike Iwanowicz would be pleased that I offer this reflection on his life and work not in a separate post, but as an afterword to a reflection on the Gospel for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time. As a deacon, Mike lived by the Word he served. He always listened so carefully. I myself am very grateful for this. He was attentive to my homilies over the years, sure to offer a kind and insightful comments. His last email to me on June 21 offered his clear and measured assessment of what my written homilies have accomplished, and why this series should continue.

As most readers know, Deacon Mike was a proud member of the first class of deacons in the Archdiocese of Boston in 1976, and until his retirement as deacon, devoted himself thoroughly to his ministry at Our Lady of Sorrows. He was always present at the Sunday Eucharist, serving as deacon at nearly every Mass, and he was there all week long too. He preached on occasion, always bringing into his reflections his impressive knowledge of Church matters near and far, and always drawing from the deep well of his personal experience as a family man, a man with practical experience in a way that many priests lack (though of course we are now blessed with a pastor, Fr. Frank Daly, who also has children and grandchildren).

I first met Mike when I started coming to the parish in the late summer of 1997. In those days he was the great collaborator and conversation partner of Fr. Robert Bullock. Together they studied and discussed the vision of the Vatican II Church. Together they worked tirelessly with the wonderful Catholics of OLOS to make the Church take root and flourish in Sharon, despite setbacks, most notably the sex abuse scandal that erupted in 2002. Through parish ministries, Bible study, book clubs and study groups, and of course preaching now and then, Mike worked tirelessly to grow the parish community. Most years, Mike preached on the Feast of the Holy Family, and that gave him a chance to reflect on his own family life, his beloved wife Pat, and their children of whom he was so proud.

our deaconAnd for those of us who were here at the time of Bob Bullock’s death in June 2004: who could forget how Mike stepped in the vacuum, and without fanfare gathered and led the parish for the four months before Fr. Scott Euvrard arrived in the fall? Some of you reading this will remember the Sunday in late summer when Mike gave a summary of where things stood, what the parish still didn’t know about when we’d have a new pastor, but how we were managing in the meantime. The response from the congregation was simple and straightforward: a standing ovation, prolonged applause, a showering of love and gratitude. Mike was a true deacon, true servant of the people of God, a true embodiment of what Church leadership can be when it is lived on the ground, as a way of life.

I am sure we will have a memorial at OLOS later on, when it is possible again to gather in larger numbers. But for now, I leave the last word to Mike. In 2010, during the decade when my blogs were being posted at the In All Things site of America magazine, I invited Mike to take over for several weeks, to speak of his life and vocation as a deacon. You can find the first one here and and the second here.