Monday, April 27, 2015

The Shepherd through his Sheepdogs

There are times in life when we clearly see and hear the Good Shepherd. 

It may be the hand on our back, compelling us to do the right thing when everyone else is taking the easy way out.  It may be the still, small voice deep in our heart, giving us just the right words at just the right time for just the right person.  It may be the peaceful presence which surprises us time and again in our prayer, filling us with consolation and strength to continue our journey.  It may even be one of those dramatic crossroad moments, when a new direction for our life presents itself, as if personally predestined for us from the dawn of time.

However, if your life is like mine, most of the day-to-day guidance from our Shepherd comes through his well-placed and persistent sheepdogs.

The Shepherd's sheepdogs help protect the perimeters.  They reign in his beloved little ones and keep his flock in close community with one another.  Our sheepdogs may take on different forms at different moments or stages of our lives, but their bark is unmistakable as long as we haven't wandered too far afield. 

We may hear our sheepdog through encouraging words from a friend or colleague, when a task seems too daunting or the day seems too draining.  Our sheepdog may speak through the words of some spiritual reading, which seems to leap off the page as if written directly for our particular situation. Our sheepdog may take the form of family obligations or commitments we've made to friends, which stretch our capacity to love and draw us out from our too-small selves.  We may even see the shadow of the sheepdog in the form of a mysterious doctrine or confounding moral teaching of the Church, which keeps nipping at our conscience for further examination.

Our sheepdogs strive to keep us in the green pasture, where we can drink clean water and enjoy the security otherwise known as the state of grace.  They help keep us away from rocky cliffs or places where there might be treacherous footing.  They also warn us of the wolves that long to drag us away from our Good Shepherd. 

If we have strayed, of course, our sheepdogs can seem to turn on us.  We can experience their protective care as harsh or demanding because, the closer we are to the darkness from which they want to protect us, the more urgently they will call us back into the fold.  This is nothing personal and is certainly not meant to condemn us, but love sometimes demands such passion.

The more attuned we are to the signs of our sheepdogs, the more in step we will be with the will of the Shepherd.  And the more free we will be to flourish.  This is the freedom of the kingdom of God:  Not a freedom from constraints which would justify us doing whatever we feel like doing, but a freedom for excellence which helps us be perfectly who God created us to be.  This is how the faithful flock walks through the often dark valley and yet fears no evil. 

Our sheepdogs always remain as signposts and guides, even when the Good Shepherd throws himself among the pack of ravenous wolves on our behalf.  Unbeknownst to his beastly enemies, this very act of the Shepherd enables the sheep to run free.  And, as the faithful flock quickly learns, the Good Shepherd always returns transformed and triumphant, even if wounded, in order to pick up his little ones and place them on his shoulders.

As we await both the surprising visits of the Shepherd and his definitive return in glory, may we heed our relentless sheepdogs with humility and gratitude--


P.S.  In honor of a shepherd who was a selfless sheepdog in his own right, you might consider revisiting a brief blog posting by Cardinal Francis George entitled The Wrong Side of History; here he elaborates on his famous quote about the destiny of his successors (dying in prison, publicly executed, then rebuilding society from the ruins).  The good Cardinal encourages us to circle back on the fundamentals of the Christian life, which alone can help reclaim the full dignity of the human person.

P.P.S.  In case you missed the coverage of Cardinal George's funeral, "The only thing we take with us is what we have given away" is a must-see homily :)