Today’s blog entry comes from Detroit seminarian James Houbeck:
When you get on a bus at six in the morning and arrive at your destination twelve hours later, you might react in different ways: frustration; exhaustion; elation; thanksgiving. When our bus pulled up to the little town of Ars, my first thought was: “Wow! What a beautiful little town!” Now, I think it is natural to think that anything is beautiful after sitting on a bus for twelve hours, but truth be told, I was instantly charmed by Ars. Now, since we got in so late yesterday and still had to celebrate Pentecost Sunday Mass, we did not get to tour much of it. Fortunately, Msgr. Trapp designated today (Monday) as a Day of Reflection, and so I would like to share a few thoughts about the town itself and a powerful experience I had during one of my Holy Hours.
First of all, Ars is the kind of place that when you drive through it, if you blink, you’ll miss it! It is an incredibly quiet town, and most of the shops, the restaurant, and other attractions close by or before 7 pm. The most prominent establishment is the Basilica here: it is a fairly small building on the outside, but it is marvelous inside. The entrance of the Basilica was once the parish itself where St. John Vianney served as the parish priest for 41 years. Inside there are several side chapels (including the confessionals where he heard Confessions for many hours a day), the main altar (in the added-on portion), and most importantly a chapel with the incorrupt body of the Saint.
- The first time I laid eyes upon him, I was reduced to silence. Although he died in the mid-1800s, there he laid in state, completely intact from what I could see. You can see his facial features, his hands, and the elaborate vestments he was buried in. This was the first time I had ever seen one of the “Incorruptibles,” and I was filled with tremendous joy. We then celebrated Mass right there in the chapel, the altar placed right under the coffin that bears his body. When Msgr. Trapp elevated the Lord’s Body and then the Chalice with His Blood, it was one of the most profound moments I have experienced in my life. This Saint, a man wholly devoted to the Eucharist, was right there in our line of sight, and it gave me an even deeper appreciation of the Sacrament.
Second, and returning to the Day of Prayer, I decided to do my second Holy Hour outside of the Basilica and right in front of the bronze Crucifix in the square. I realized that my prayer might be disrupted or interrupted, but I decided to spend time with Christ in this manner anyway. And so I sat down and began to reflect on several different Scriptural passages, all of which point toward or concern themselves with the Lord’s earthly ministry. I focused especially on Isaiah 40: 1-12, and what stood out to me was the ministry that I am called to do: prepare the way of The Lord and make the hearts of His people ready for Him. As I meditated on these, I began to think about how I could engage in this ministry: the people of God desire The Lord Jesus, not James Houbeck, and so how can I bring Jesus to them. Interestingly enough, my Holy Hour was then disrupted three times.
- First, as I was gazing at the Cross, a man and his toddler son slowly passed by me. I quickly glanced down at the boy, smiled at him, and the boy returned a kind smile to me. I was caught off guard: normally the little French kids either reeled in horror when I smiled with them or they turned away! Then as I continued to pray, this same little guy got on a little bike with training wheels and continuously rode around the circle where I was praying, looking up at me and smiling each time. Every now and then I would look down and smile, saying “Bonjour!” a few times, but I would then look back up at the Cross. After a few minutes of this, he ran over to his parents and they departed.
- Second, near the latter part of my hour, a brother Seminarian approached me and asked if he could talk with me. Even though I was at prayer I agreed and set aside my thoughts. We then proceeded to have a very powerful conversation for a few minutes, and as he walked away I was left in awe, amazement, and gratitude.
- Third, this same brother led to the most profound encounter: he greeted a middle-aged lady pushing a stroller by saying, “Bon Soir,” but it was only 3:25 in the afternoon! She kindly corrected him in French; I translated for him in English. At this the woman (Veronique) came up to me and began to converse with me in French. I mentioned where I am from, where I study, and that I am studying for the priesthood. After we introduced each other, I looked toward the stroller and saw that a blanket covered it. The woman very graciously pulled back the cover and proudly displayed an absolutely gorgeous one-month old baby girl (her granddaughter, Marie). I was breathless: she was absolutely wonderful to behold. We spoke a little bit about the baby, and Veronique mentioned that she wanted to have the baby baptized at the Basilica soon. Just then her daughter (I did not catch her name) approached, and Veronique explained who I was and how I will be a priest in a few years. The daughter was kind, but did not say too much. We chatted for a few more minutes, and before they left I promised them that I would pray for them; they said they would pray for me. I then spent a few minutes in prayer thanking The Lord for this incredible encounter.
What stands out most for me from this prayer experience is this: the Ministry of Presence. The Lord placed in my life people that needed something, even just a little bit of my time. In regards to the boy, all I did was offer my smile and attention, and that is all he needed. He did not want to talk; he just wanted attention. My brother Seminarian needed someone to listen to him, and I did; I sacrificed my prayer time, and we both benefited. Veronique was curious to know who all these Americans running around Ars were, and because I sacrificed my time, I not only informed her about who we were, but we had a tremendous conversation. Later on, as I reflected on the experience, I received a phenomenal gift from Veronique: she invited me into the intimate relationship between her and her granddaughter, Marie. She had no idea who I was; I was a complete stranger to her. And yet, she was gracious enough to show me this adorable child, and all I could do was marvel at such a beautiful work of God. One may argue that this is a typical grandmotherly act: showing off her baby. Nevertheless, she did not have to show me Marie, let alone stop and bother to see who I was. But, because I was available, The Lord rewarded me with this incredible gift (and the other two gifts of encounter as well).
And so, even though we have been in Ars only a few days, I am happy to say that the time has already helped me. If I am to prepare the way of The Lord and make ready the hearts of His people, I need to be present to them. I need to continue to develop my prayer and constantly seek to be in Christ Jesus, but I also learned that I cannot be so rigid so as to ignore the needs of others, little or great. St. John Vianney certainly showed us a shining example of how to be present to God’s people, and if he could work such wonders in this little town (and beyond!), can I not do the same wherever The Lord calls me to? Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!