Whether through asparagus or police cars, God has little ways of letting us know that He is always with us and sends us companions on our journey through life.
St. John of the Cross was on his last journey in this world in 1591, travelling from Penuela to Ubeda, accompanied by a lay brother. Upon arriving at the bridge crossing the Guadalimar, the brother suggested that John rest awhile in the shade of the bridge and that he have something to eat. John accepted the idea of resting but said that he would not eat. The brother insisted, asking if there were anything at all that John would eat. He responded that he could eat some asparagus. The brother would have thought immediately in the impossibility of finding asparagus at this moment under a bridge by the riverside. Suddenly he spied a bundle of asparagus resting upon a rock by the river! John told the brother to search for somebody who might have left them there; the brother could not find anyone. Just in case the owner should come back, John told the brother to leave some money on the rock where the asparagus had been found. Who had left the asparagus?
Centuries later in May of 2007, I was walking on a road surrounded by cornfields in the middle of nowhere in the state of Kansas, USA. I had gone to Kansas to help with parish summer camps in the Diocese of Wichita. I was going through training in a rural parish. The hall where we were staying only had one shower, and there were a lot of us in training. The priest who was training us told us there was a little house down the road whose owner offered us his shower. One evening when it was already dark, my friend Andy and I decided to venture down the road to take a shower. We left with our towels over our shoulders without knowing exactly where we were going. We knew that if we walked on that road, we would eventually find the little house that had a shower we could use. Since we were in the middle of nowhere, there were no cars to be seen nor noise to be heard. I told my friend Andy that I had always wanted to hitchhike, so if a car passed by, maybe we could try it. The likelihood of a car passing by became more and more obvious as we passed more and more rows of corn plants. I went a step further and told Andy that it would be even better if we could hitchhike with the police. (I had always wanted to ride in a police car). Suddenly we noticed headlights and a police car slowly pulling to a stop! The female police officer had the window rolled down. I thought she was going to warn us to be careful, walking in the middle of the road at night…. My surprise turned to utter shock when she asked, “Would you like a ride to where you´re going?” I knew Andy must have been thinking the same as I. It was as if someone had been listening to our conversation. Of course, I did not hesitate to accept the offer and we took our seats in the back of the police car. It was a dream that came true in the most unexpected moment.
Who had left the asparagus to be found by St. John of the Cross and his traveling companion? Why did police officer offer us a ride when I had just finished speaking about riding in a police car? Was this mere coincidence or blind chance? Was it fate or bound to happen? Was it providence? The Catechism speaks of “divine providence”: “The universe was created ´in a state of journeying´ (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it. We call ´divine providence´ the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward this perfection…” (CCC 302). God takes care of all His creatures, even the little details: “The witness of Scripture is unanimous that the solicitude of divine providence is concrete and immediate; God cares for all, from the least things to the great events of the world and its history” (CCC 303). We can be sure that God knew where and when a tired traveller would arrive without an appetite to eat anything except asparagus. God also knew how to surprise me. I went to Kansas without knowing anyone. The only thing I knew about Kansas was that they have a lot of tornados. I found a solid friend in Andy, who is now a seminarian, soon to be ordained. I also think the ride in the police car was a little gesture from God showing me that He was with us, even on a road through cornfields in the middle of nowhere: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8). Perhaps the examples I have used seem somewhat absurd. However, God knows each person perfectly and how to draw them closer to Himself.
As we pray in Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me…” On October 5, 2011, I had the opportunity to attend a Wednesday General Audience with Pope Benedict XVI, during which he commented upon this Psalm: “Those who walk with the Lord even in the dark valleys of suffering, doubt and all the human problems, feel safe. You are with me: this is our certainty, this is what supports us. The darkness of the night frightens us with its shifting shadows, with the difficulty of distinguishing dangers, with its silence taut with strange sounds…there is the risk of stumbling or even of straying and getting lost, and there is also the fear of possible assailants lurking in the darkness… ´You are with me´ is a proclamation of steadfast faith and sums up the radical experience of faith; God’s closeness transforms the reality, the dark valley loses all danger, it is emptied of every threat.”
Reflecting a little, there came to mind another event that took place centuries prior to my existence and prior even to the existence of St. John of the Cross. Two men were walking from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus, talking as they went about recent events: “And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.” Jesus appeared to be just another traveller like them, passing along the same road. He showed interest in their conversation: “What are you discussing as you walk along?” The men told the Stranger about the recent crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and how they “were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel…” Jesus then interpreted to them the scripture passages in the prophets that referred to Himself. Since it seemed as though this Stranger was going to continue His journey further, the men insisted that He remain with them: “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” He graciously accepted the invitation. While at table, the Stranger “took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.” The two men then recognized the Stranger: “He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread;” but He had suddenly disappeared: “Then they said to each other, ´Were not our hearts burning (within us) while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?´” (Luke 24:13-35).
Jesus comes to meet us along the road of life as our companion on the journey, giving us His own Body and Blood as nourishment in the Eucharist: “When the disciples on the way to Emmaus asked Jesus to stay ´with´ them, he responded by giving them a much greater gift: through the Sacrament of the Eucharist he found a way to stay ´in´ them. Receiving the Eucharist means entering into a profound communion with Jesus. ´Abide in me, and I in you´ (Jn 15:4). This relationship of profound and mutual ´abiding´ enables us to have a certain foretaste of heaven on earth. Is this not the greatest of human yearnings?…Eucharistic communion was given so that we might be ´sated´ with God here on earth, in expectation of our complete fulfillment in heaven” (JP II, Mane Nobiscum Domine, 19). Infinitely better than Popeye´s spinach or asparagus, Jesus gives Himself in the Eucharist as food for the journey towards our heavenly homeland. Better and safer than a ride in a police car, Jesus comes to meet us on our journey: “Faith demands that we approach the Eucharist fully aware that we are approaching Christ Himself” (Mane Nobiscum, 16). The prophet Elijah, exhausted from journeying in the wilderness to the point that “he asked that he might die,” was encouraged by the angel of the Lord: “Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you” (1 Kings 19:7). The Lord says the same to us, offering Himself as our nourishment.
Through God´s providence, we come into contact with others who can help us as companions in our pilgrimage in this world. Pope Benedict has spoken of the importance of having what he calls “travelling companions” on the journey of our life as Christians. He gives us examples of these companions: “I am thinking of a Spiritual Director, a Confessor, of people with whom it is possible to share one’s own faith experience, but I am also thinking of the Virgin Mary and the Saints. Everyone must have some Saint with whom he or she is on familiar terms, to feel close to with prayer and intercession but also to emulate. I would therefore like to ask you to become better acquainted with the Saints, starting with those you are called after, by reading their life and their writings. You may rest assured that they will become good guides in order to love the Lord even more and will contribute effective help for your human and Christian development” (General Audience, 25 August 2010).
Our Blessed Mother Mary accompanies us in a special way with her maternal love and intercession: “By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers… until they are led into the happiness of their true home (Lumen Gentium, 62). Pope Benedict XVI invites us to contemplate Mary in the mystery of the Visitation: “´In those days´, wrote St Luke the Evangelist, ´Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah´ (Lk 1: 39). Mary’s is a real missionary journey. It leads her far from home, impels her into the world to places alien to her daily habits; in a certain sense it stretches her to her maximum capacity. Here, also for all of us, lies the secret of our lives as men and women and Christians. Our existence as individuals and as Church is projected outside ourselves. As had happened to Abraham, we are asked to come out of ourselves, from where we feel safe, to reach out to others in different places and surroundings. It is the Lord who asks this of us: ´You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses… to the end of the earth´ (Acts 1: 8). And it is once again the Lord who sets us on this path beside Mary as our travelling companion and caring mother. She reassures us, for she reminds us that the Son, her Jesus, is always with us as he promised: ´I am with you always, to the close of the age´ (Mt 28: 20)” (Address, 31 May 2010). With the help of Jesus in the Eucharist and Mary, we are called to become travelling companions to help others get to our heavenly homeland.