,HAVE you ever thought of various compartments of history as untidy bundles made up of countless multi-coloured strands of wool that seem to be inextricably tangled? The outward effect is forbidding and mystifying, but the fascination begins when you find the ends of one of the strands and start pulling. You never know where you are going to end.
When applied to the life of the Church, one seems to see various members of Christ's Mystical Body attached to each other, despite the barriers of time and space, by these long and precarious threads. And as Evelyn Waugh brought so subtly in Brideshead Revisited it is the "touch upon the thread" that reveals the hand of providence and the basic pattern behind an apparent jumble of meaningless loose ends.
Take the case of an ugly and ungainly Italian peasant born at the end of the eighteenth century. To be persecuted by certain less liberal minded Protestants was bad enough; but to be ridiculed by fellow Catholics was perhaps the greatest cross this "fool for Christ's sake" had to bear.
He was a saintly bloke of the most unusual kind: the last person you might think (having spent most of his life somewhat obscurely in southern Italy) to bring the Passionists to England. Pull the thread a bit more and we find him not only opening the Order's first monastery here (at Aston, Staffs., in 1841) but also receiving one John Henry Newman into the Church!
His name was Dominic Bar beri, hero extraordinary to Fr. Alfred Wilson whose recent death it is very sad to record : an important and colourful part of this particular thread ostensibly coming to an end. In fact, one hopes, it is merely the starting point for many other threads to take up the trail and weave themselves into a multitude of further providential patterns though they may look to us like nothing more than hopeless tangles.
Fr. Alfred Wilson was nothing if not a Passionist after the mould of Dominic Barheri, whose biography he wrote. Of Fr. Alfred's many "images' that of spell-binding retreat-giver will probably be longest and most vividly remembered.
He had a strangely compelling, other-worldly intensity when preaching that was yet supremely human.
He could electrify seminary audiences with his candid comments on the implications of celibacy as related to the positive aspects of dedication and sacrifice. He could lift a retreatant out of profound depression by stressing not necessarily the consoling aspects of religion which produce instant joy, but the revealing aspects of faith which produce lasting hope.
To reveal — the person to himself — was in fact the service that Alfred Wilson managed to perform over and over again, and in so self-effacing and apparently effortless a fashion that one thought one had done it all oneself! He more than once brought back to me a remark which had shocked me as a schoolboy when one of the Jesuit teachers had said "I hate retreats don't you?" One year, giving the retreat himself, he explained the reason: "Retreats reveal all — or at least they should."
In this age of "shared prayer", group meditation and discussion and the countless innovations of modern days, weekends, cite. of recollection, is there likely to he less self-revelation? Are modernstyle retreats less likely to "bite hard" into the soul than conventional ones? Not necessarily, 1 can't help feeling.
ACTUALLY there is a reported boom in the retreat world of today, I'm told; a fact which I don't find surprising. It makes me break (almost) a longstanding "house-rule" against the publication of verse — self-imposed in order to avoid having to adjudicate on the merits of submitted material without having the necessary qualifications for so doing.
So impressed was Fr. Cornelius Mullaney of Blackhill, Co. Durham, by a well-known Jesuit retreat house in Sunderland, that he burst into verse on the subject; the final stanzas of his poem are:
"Eyes down," "Time up" The Daily Cry "No Solitude" you say.
"Is there a haven anywhere, Far from this deafning fray"' There is a Haven calm and, still Alive with peace for all Go on! Retreat! A day or two: Find God in Corby Hall!