Listening... In Ávila

When Bishop Talley approved my sabbatical travels in a meeting this time last year, he spoke one essential word: listen.

It’s a simple word and, as a trained and experienced spiritual director, he didn’t speak it lightly. Listening - when applied to the spiritual life - has a lot of applications.

For one, listening is a part of “Discernment.” Discernment is the spiritual exercise of asking the Lord which of several possible choices I should pursue. Ought I to become a priest or rather pursue marriage? Should I take the new job with longer hours or focus more on my family? Is the Lord calling me to more fasting or more learning or more... cardio? Listening is a key part of discernment as St. Ignatius of Loyola made clear.

Even moreso, though, listening is part of docility. Docility is the virtue by which I am ready and able to respond to the Lord’s specific direction for me at any given moment. Docility is being able to see someone in need, recognize their need and respond to it specifically.

Today, I’m in Avila. I have seen perhaps a dozen beggars. Most of them I walk by because they have every mark of the professional, sit-outside-the-religious-tourist-destination beggar. One, in particular, though seemed different. So him I helped while the others I passed by. Right or wrong, I acted in what I strongly believe was docility to the Holy Spirit.

Docility is something I’ve found myself preaching about a lot lately. My parishioners have frequently heard me advise the prayer: “Lord, if You make clear to me what You want from me, I’ll do it!”

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that from the very beginning of this trip - even during my drive from Tallulah, through Pineville, to Houston - docility has been on my mind.

Bp. Talley said listen. Fr. Sklar - who I visited in Pineville - told me to pay attention to the quiet voice of the Lord like Elijah did at the cave. In Reykjavik, docility led me to a fascinating encounter with the Rector of the Cathedral. In Ireland, I felt strongly led to exit the Cathedral by the back door even though I came in by the side. At the back door, I met two of the most obnoxious, drugged up, pathetic and pitiable women I’ve ever encountered. They wanted nothing from me and were hateful as can be. Still, that event was a powerful focus for prayer.

On the Camino, I immediately experienced two utterly unexplainble equipment failures. For one, my shoes - which I have been walking in and wearing-in for months were suddenly too small... My socks - which I have been walking in for months were suddenly too tight.

Within two days, I had blisters on my pinky toes which threatened serious infection. After four days, I had to take a break in Burgos. A doctor friend of Fr. Chris’ called in prescriptions! As we were on the train to our rest stop, I asked the Lord over and over what He was saying to me through this very inconvenient adjustment to MY plans.

When I tried to pick the trail back up, I managed to get a gigantic blister under my specially formulated anti-blister pad (Compeed). That’s not supposed to be possible. I also ran into a couple of other odd little bumps, bruises and equipment failures. Finally, as I said a little prayer in the tiny, yet marvelous Church at Hornillos del Camino, I heard the Lord more clearly.

When I mentioned this to Fr. Chris, he had heard the same sort of thing. We needed to separate and each of us needed to be docile to the Holy Spirit. He continued on the Camino and I set off for destinations unknown.

I literally had no plan - which is a big deal for me. I ordered a cab from the small village and spent the 20 or so minutes of my journey (during which the cabbie drove around 160kph\99mph) deciding where to go. I didn’t decide until I stood in front of the desk and said “Necessito ir a Ávila.” Thirty minutes later, I was on a train to Ávila and now here I am.

I spent about an hour today praying in front of a remarkable Crucifix in the Cathedral which was curiously in the shadow while the light from a beautiful stained glass of Our Lady, Queen of Heaven, all but blinded me. It was a remarkable moment of prayer... All about how the light of consolation can hide from us the truth of the Cross.

And so, I’m not on the Camino at the moment. My blistered feet are healing fine, but I don’t see me completing the Camino this time... And, shockingly, I’m OK with that. I’m still on this pilgrimage - this Camino - but I’m really trying to let the Lord be my travel agent.

I can’t claim that I’m some model of docility - I’m not. What I can understand, finally, is why the Lord led me to this time of travel. It’s here - away from my comforts and my spreadsheets and my highly organized life - that I need to train myself to listen as Bp. Talley instructed me. So much of the greatness of so many saints was their endless capacity for adaptation and their readiness to do whatever the Lord wanted from them even when it seemed crazy.

Thanks so much for your prayers thus far and please keep them up. Despite the physical injuries, the last few weeks have been some of the most wonderful and prayerful of my life.

Come Holy Ghost!