Grace and indifference
Teresa McCaffery reflects on praying for a grace you do not really want. What does the story of the wedding at Cana teach us?
Sometimes, in doing an Ignatian retreat, I am asked to pray for a grace that I really do not want. I am advised, if this is the case, to take the matter to our Lady in prayer. She, I am told, will go with me to Jesus to plead my cause and he will take the matter up with God. I never liked this system, it felt too much like flogging your way through a hierarchy of line managers. And why should I pray for something I do not want? I am being asked to pray for indifference to material things the better to bask in the love of God with Jesus Christ. What kind of love is that? I’m not a ghost, I need material things and I need to care for and about them. What about the Pope’s concern for the care of the earth? As usual the Gospel came to my aid.
The Marriage Feast at Cana
Imagine the marriage feast at Cana. Mary, Jesus and the apostles are guests. A shortage of wine is noted, and Mary brings this to the attention of Jesus who seems to refuse to help. She tells the steward to obey any instructions Jesus may issue (remember, Jesus is a guest, not the host) and he is duly told to ‘fill the jars with water’. Guests at a meal are expected to wash their hands and forearms carefully before eating. At a wedding large amounts of water would have been brought from the well for this purpose and used up. The luckless steward is now expected to refill the jars, for no apparent reason. Having done all that he is expected to hand a cup of water to the host, who is expecting wine. The water appears to have become good wine and a good time is had by all.
This story is not told in any other Gospel, but it contains many important lessons about prayer and faith.
Mary is a guest; she is not expected to keep track of wine consumption. I assume that she became aware of distress and awkwardness and traced its source to the lack of wine. I imagine that the host ordered a suitable amount of wine, but that some guests had made unusual inroads and there was not enough left for the others, making for embarrassment all round.
Mary makes Jesus aware of the problem, she does not tell him what she wants him to do. She takes his answer as a statement of fact, not a refusal. Now, in Jesus what you see is a lot less than what you get. In the Incarnation meditation Ignatius encourages us to imagine the Trinity as a sort of committee of three sitting in the clouds of heaven. They decide that Jesus should enter the situation of the people on earth and here he sits, guest at a wedding but still very much a member of that committee. Presented with this problem, and his own feeling that this is not yet the moment for miracles he shares their opinion. The Father, who sees the bigger picture in time as well as space realises that the imagery of love, commitment and joy is perfect, and the Spirit gives Jesus an idea…
A good master
The steward is a good servant, he does as he is told and keeps his opinion to himself. But he is being instructed by guests, not his master, and the idea of handing a cup of water to a host who is expecting wine does not appeal. He is physically capable of doing it, but not at all sure if that is wise. I wonder how he felt when his master commended him for his excellent choice of wine.
Praying for indifference – the bigger picture
Why would anyone go on retreat if they did not feel restless, embarrassed or distressed? Ignatius traces the source of this to our attachment to material goods and encourages us to pray for indifference. If I lend someone a book, and it is not given back, or if local children are seen eating the apples off my tree, I can become seriously angry, the calm peace of my otherwise holy life shattered. If I can rejoice in the fact that another person has had the benefit of reading my book, and the children are eating good, healthy food then loss becomes gain: their activity makes my day, instead of ruining it. In this lies the benefit of indifference. It is not about lack of care; if I did not look after my books and apples they would not be available for others, but as in the wedding feast, God enables me to see the bigger picture; my possessions are part of the total resources of the earth to be both cared for and shared.
But this is not simply about a strategy for psychological equilibrium any more than that all that wine at Cana was simply about making the party go with a swing.
Gifts from God
It is customary at weddings, and other meetings between people, for gifts to be given and received. At Cana God gives the party joy and peace, symbolised in a plenitude of good wine; on retreat we give God our attachment to material things, this also results in joy and peace, and may be symbolised in the actual loss of something precious. A happy marriage is maintained by the constant gift of each partner to the other. The presents we give each other on special occasions are symbolic of our love; of themselves they have no value.
This mutual gift of God and man is beautifully expressed in a poem by Robert Southwell:
Gift greater than himself God does not knowGift greater than his God man cannot seeThis gift doth here both giver given bestowGift to his gift let each receiver beGod is my gift, himself he freely gave meGod’s gift am I, and none but God shall have me
Mary’s appeal to Jesus about wine lifted a humble local wedding to the status of eschatological feast. Her intercession is our doorway into the blessed trinity, through her we become agents of the will of God.
And who is the agent in this story? Not Mary, not the apostles, not even Jesus, but the steward. Stewardship is the word we use to explain our responsibility to look after material things without keeping them for ourselves. This steward is perplexed because the wine has run out. Was that his fault? He listens to Mary. Does he know her and trust her? Does he know that her son is somehow special? He just wants someone to help him out. We live in a world that is chronically short of wine in this sense. We have far too much hunger and misery and not nearly enough peace and joy.
Ignatius, the raw recruit
Unlike the steward at Cana Ignatius is a raw recruit when it comes to doing the will of God. He has left his home, sorted out some family business, including the repair and decoration of a statue of the Virgin, and is now plodding along the road to Manresa mounted on a mule. He is zealous, but blind…not knowing what humility is or patience or discernment. He is overtaken by a Moor and tactlessly embarks on a defence of the doctrine of the virginity of Mary (years later he notes that in dealing with people of other faiths it is best not to start with contentious subjects!). The Moor is reasonable but refuses to accept, on mundane practical counts that Mary was still a virgin after delivering Jesus. They have been talking at cross purposes and eventually the Moor rides on ahead. Ignatius’ zeal is laced with pride and a residual feeling that violence is sometimes a necessary way to proceed. As he plods along, he starts to feel that he really should chase this infidel up and stab him, then he wonders if that is OK now he is committed to Christ. This inward debate eventually exhausts him, and he decides to leave the decision to God. How does he do this? He drops the reins and lets the mule decide where to go. The mule stays on the road to Manresa and the moor lives to see another day.
And what of the mule?
It is no surprise that the mule stayed on the road to Manresa, why would it change direction unless instructed? This little story is included, Ignatius says, for our spiritual benefit, and how important it is. He tells us in the rules for discernment that at times of confusion and desolation we should always take care to stick to any decision already made. Do not deviate from your chosen path because of doubts and distraction. And what of the mule? Surely that represents all that is mulish about us. We should thank God for that about us that is dogged and unwilling to change, these things make for stability and constancy. If God wants me to make a change, He will send an unmistakeable signal at a time when I am at peace with the world. The steward at the wedding could also take comfort in the fact that he was simply doing his job.
The wine at the wedding
So it is that when perplexed about how to find the wherewithal to do what is asked, we should imagine ourselves at that wedding. The grace we ask for, like the wine at the wedding will surprise us with its abundance