Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The feast of James Otis Sargent Huntington - November 25, 2020

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Randy Greve, OHC

Holy Cross, West Park, New York
November 6, 1915
My dear brother: 
When I became Superior of our community two months ago, a large amount of correspondence was handed me by my predecessor in office.  Among these letters was one from you, dated November 3, 1913. In it you make some enquiries about our Community, and imply that you have, at times at any rate, had some thought of making trial of the Religious Life. 
I do not know just what information was given you, or if you felt that your questions were satisfactorily answered. And, of course, I do not know what is your present state of mind.
But two things are very clear to me. One is that the needs of the Church in our time and land cry loudly for the increase of Religious Communities, for the devotion to God in the Religious Life of numbers of men, both laymen and priests. The other is that, if a man has received from God the high privilege of entering a Religious Community, he does himself a very great – probably an irreparable – injury, and injustice, if he lightly turns away from it. Will you let me say a word to you in regard to both these points?\ 
1. The Needs of the Church 
Consider what responsibility rests upon the Church in this country. It is nothing less than the conversion of America to the Catholic faith, the uniting of all the divided sections of this great nation in a common belief in God, and a common effort to carry out His Will, as He has made and is making it known. This, I say, is the responsibility of the Church in relation to the American nation, and to the whole world. You are a member of the Church. The responsibility rests on you. What are you going to do about it? What contribution have you to make? God may have made it plain to you that His plan for you is that you should marry and bring up a family of children to serve Him, and to work for the Church and for the country. He may have called you yourself to be a lawyer, a doctor, a soldier, a merchant, a sailor, an engineer. If so, well and good. But if you have no such definite call as would preclude your entering a Religious Community, then is it not at least likely that it is in such an association that you can do the best for your Church and your country? In how many enterprises men are realizing the power and effectiveness of combination! Men join together to mine coal, to build railroads, to manufacture automobiles, to publish books, to slaughter their fellow-men.
Is it only work for God, work for souls, work for the highest interests of humanity, in time and eternity, which shall continue to be done by isolated individuals, in hap-hazard, hand-to-mouth ways, with no concerted action, no thought-out plans, no economy of effort, no leadership or statesmanlike action? For God’s sake, let’s get together!
2. Then your own needs. 
You were created for union with God, to know Him, to love Him, to share His life now and forever. To fulfill that purpose, for which you exist, you must strive to be like God, as He revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. You must aim at perfection, to be perfect as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect. That means hard work. Can you do it better alone, or with others to help you? When Our Lord was on earth, many people listened to Him and tried to do as He said. But to some His call was, ‘Follow me’. He chose some to be with Him, to live as He lived, to be strong against the world by sharing His poverty, joyful by having His friendship in a life of chastity, free by giving up their own wills in loving obedience to Him, ready to go anywhere and do anything at His bidding. 
Christ still calls some to ‘vow perfection’ by promising to follow Him in poverty, chastity, and obedience. Is He not calling you? Is there any other way in which you can be sure of ‘acquiring perfection’, of attaining to God and having Him as your portion forever? Of course it is a hard life, in some respects the very hardest. To get up before five o’clock every morning, to live on the rations given you with no choice as to your food, to pray, in chapel or in your cell, four times a day, to work under orders, to go where you are sent, to do as you are told whether you like it or not, to bear humiliation, to fast, to be ridiculed by the world, and to keep on at all this as old age arrives, and to die in harness at the end – this is not an easy life. But is it a harder life than Jesus Christ lived? And isn’t it true that those who live it wouldn’t exchange it for anything the world can give, that it is they who keep their freshness and elasticity, who have brightness in their eyes, a smile on their lips, warmth in their hearts? Is it not they who see the fruits of their sacrifices in the salvation and sanctification of other souls? 
At any rate, don’t play fast and loose with a call to be an intimate friend of Jesus Christ. If you believe He wants you in the ranks of the Religious Life, make up your mind once for all, and come as soon as He opens the way. If not, do whatever else He has for you, and may He bless and help you to do it with all your might. We shall continue to have you in our prayers. 
Faithfully in our Blessed Lord, 
James O.S. Huntington
Superior O.H.C.

I quote this letter in full because his own words say more than a paraphrase ever could.  What a passionate and inspiring summary of his life and an insightful glimpse into this remarkable man. My heart fills with hope as he paints the vision of who we are to be and what our lives here mean.  These were not just words to him.  He believed and lived this to his last day.  He is again freshly present to me in these days. He clearly and prophetically articulated the call of the Church in the modern world. He integrated personal prayer with matters of justice. He advocated for the vulnerable and marginalized.  He believed in the power of interdependent community life as the source of mission and renewal.  The specifics are different for us, but our questions are not much changed from his. 

Father Huntington was, to use a phrase from Theodore Roosevelt, a “man in the arena”.  That is what a monk is to be in his mind – no sideline spectator or armchair critic to the needs of the time, but always ready and eager to plunge in and serve.  Yet he harbored no fantasies about this life, knew full well the difficulties and the obstacles.    The struggles were plentiful (there was never quite enough money, never enough vocations).  He yearned for a wide and lasting legacy in the Church when the Order’s very existence was not guaranteed.

Saint Paul speaks in Galatians of boasting in the cross “by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” This mystical language of Saint Paul is at the front of Father Huntington’s mind in his letter.  Within the risks and unknowns was the cosmic vision of life in Christ.  Through our acts of love and service we proclaim that we here on this quiet piece of land on the shore of the Hudson River in New York, USA in the year 2020 are partnering with God for the renewal of creation, the salvation of the world in and through us.  Both Saint Paul and Father Huntington remind us that only by being crucified to the world are we living in reality, which is a deep mystery: exaltation in humiliation. Fullness in hunger. Freedom in obedience. New, resurrection life in dying to the false self.  
In her biography of Father Huntington, Vida Dutton Scudder recounts a brief but telling anecdote about him. 
“On one occasion”, she writes, “a friend, finding him plunged in deep sadness over the defeat of his earnest efforts in some specific matter, asked him how the failure of his prayers affected him. Father Huntington paused a moment. Then he said gravely: ‘I still praise God for granting the prayers of other men.’ Presently, his features illumined with a solemn glow, he added: ‘And ever, forever, I praise Him for what He is.’”
I am prone to turn saints into super-humans who could rise above unimportant emotions like sadness, whose faith in the good working of God’s good will made them immune from the fleeting concerns of us mere mortals, enraptured as they were in the heavenly vision.  But of course, great leaders such as Father Huntington are very much human, have egos – sometimes very large ones – and wills and agendas and want to get their way, which is usually a good and holy way.  James Otis Sargent Huntington did not always get his way.  The most interesting thing to learn from the lives of saints is what they did when they did not get their way. I catch myself equating thriving with doing what I want, having a certain kind of agency over my life, feeling content about that.  What I know from experience is when I feel stuck, when things do not go the way I want, when I would rather be doing something else, I do not like that very much, but it is then that growth really happens.  Let someone tell me “no” to something I really want to do, and then things get interesting.  My definition of what is important is biased. I want to see our Order grow and thrive, but I don’t want to refill the paper towels.  But it is in those times of uncomfortable growth, by God’s grace, that a deeper reality is disclosed to me – and with it a deeper invitation.  “The world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”  I cannot offer for crucifixion what I don’t know about myself, what is repressed or avoided. I cannot allow to be converted what I do not own. Being crucified to the world is not becoming numb to its joys or sorrows, but even more present to all of the experiences of life.  The paper towels are part of my conversion, too.
We are recipients of a call and as people of passion and commitment bound and vowed to reflect the reign of God and bring it to earth. Inherent in that very call is the encounter with all in and around us which inhibits and blocks the good we see and the good God desires.  If part of what we are about is to imagine what could be, dream what is not yet, work for what we will never live to see, are hearts will get cut and squeezed and wrenched and share with the saints the stifling constraints of these bodies of death because we will always come up short.  Love, and then wait for your heart to break. Then conversion really begins.
The sadness which Father Huntington felt so deeply so often, which we feel at various times, is human and therefore holy.  We are to welcome it, be present to it, pray with it.  But that sadness is not the end of the story. It cannot pass judgment on our work, undo our love and service.  It is real, but there is something more real than the sadness.  The bedrock under the soil of sadness, beneath the acedia, despair, desolation we experience about our vocations, our work, whether it matters, whether we are making a difference, is the crucifixion of our wills in union with the Crucified Lord.  As a soul unfurls, the capacity and availability for the breadth of human emotion and experiences blossoms.  And at the cross I lay my emotions and experiences, my gifts, my vision, my work, my plans, so it is all there crucified to me and I to it.  The needs of the Church and the world and my soul, what was done and left undone, all that is me which has been given to me by the Crucified One is offered back to the author and source, and with him laid in the tomb and there, in a wonder and beauty and mystery beyond our imagining raised new – finally and forever whole and pure and perfect.


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