“Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.” – Pope John XXIII
Dear Pope John XXIII,
Congratulations on your recent canonisation four years ago! I hope that all’s well with you in Heaven and that you’re enjoying yourself immensely with the communion of saints as well as the perpetuation adoration of our Lord, God and master, Jesus Christ.
I must be honest: I write to you today not because I have loads to share with you nor do I have any particular prayer intention that require your assistance. Pope John XXIII you must forgive me: I hardly know you and only just read about you the other day whilst completing the book The Ascent of Mount Carmel: Saint John of the Cross Reflections by Friar Marc Foley, OCD. That being said, after chancing upon one of your quotes and reflecting on it deeper in prayer, I must say that I felt a stirring in my heart to get to know you better. I will share your quote momentarily but before that, I just want to say that I’m moved by how light-hearted you seem to be. Reading up on you has allowed me to get a better sense of who you are. Yet, most – if not all – of the quotes that I’ve read about you seem to paint you as an exceptionally jovial and joyful person. Pope John XXIII, your personality speaks to the depth of my heart simply because you don’t take yourself too seriously; you seem to exude a distinctive childlike aura that I find deeply alluring – one that painfully reminds me just how “adult” I’ve grown to become.
Help me out here: how is it possible that a man of your stature and with such immense repsonsiblities can maintain such a lighthearted composure and a distinctive lightness of spirit? How is it possible that being a pope in an era puncutated by turbulence and turmoil could still make some of the following comments– “men are like wine – some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age”, “a peaceful man does more good than a learned one”, “it often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the Pope about it. Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope”, “whoever has a heart full of love always has something to give”, “see everything, overlook a great deal, correct a little”, “never hesistate to hold out your hand; never hesistate to accept the outstretched hand of another” and “the feelings of my smallness and my nothingness always kept me good company”? How were you able to articulate all of those things?
And while I know that I will not get an immediate answer from you now (although I’ll be happy to receive some form of response either in prayer or through your interecession for me to Jesus), I can safely assume that you must have been a man of deep prayer. Indeed, only with such steadfast conviction and child-like faith in the Lord could you be so at peace with the chaotic world and so at peace with yourself. Your life teaches me that in order to recognize the peace in the world, we often have to (re)claim the peace of our innermost beings. Of late, the converse has been happening far too often in my life: the inner chaos that I have experienced have spilled-out to my immediate and external surroundings. Your peaceful disposition reminds me that life is often times messy and prayer helps us to manage (and perhaps eventually embrace) that mess within ourselves and within others as well. Really, then, is that not a way of holding space for one another? Is that not what the essence and epitome of love is – embracing another for who he/she is, with all his/her mess? Thank you for reminding me about that.
Lastly, thank you for the following quote:
“Practical experience has now convinced me of this: the concept of holiness which I had formed and applied to myself was mistaken. In every one of my actions, and in the little failings of which I was immediately aware, I used to call to mind the image of some saint whom I had set myself to imitate down to the smallest particular, as a painter makes an exact copy of a picture of Raphael. I used to say to myself: in this case St. Aloysius would have done so and so, or: he would not do this or that. However, it turned out that I was never able to achieve what I had thought I could do, and this worried me. This method was wrong. From the saints I must take the substance, not the [accidentals], of their virtues. I am not St. Aloysius, nor must I seek holiness in his particular way, but according to the requirements of my own nature, my own character, and the different conditions of my life. I must not be the dry, bloodless reproduction of a model, however perfect. God desires us to follow the examples of the saints by absorbing the vital sap of their virtues and turning it into our own life-blood, adapting it to our own individual capacities and particular circumstances. If St. Aloysius had been as I am, he would have become holy in a different way.”
Suffice to say, dearest Pope John XXIII, you are a very wise man. That very passage got me interested to get to know you better. Although I know not what “practical experience” you were refering to, but similar to you, our dearest Father in Heaven has also been gradually chiseling and demystifying my “mistaken” “concept of holiness” that you speak about. Very much like you, and from as long as I can remember, I seem to have wrongly assumed that to walk ever so nearly with Jesus – indeed to allow Him to make me holy – was for me to be someone other than myself. I had to be an alter Ignatius, another Augustine, a replica of Francis. Little did I know that holiness resided within me – my truest self, that is. Your wisdom reminds me that unless and until I embraced the “me” that God created me to be – the “me” with all the faults and failures, all of the idiosyncracies and inordinate attachments but also, all of the gifts, talents and unique features that was generously graced by God – my desire to be in complete union with Jesus, that is, my desire for holiness, would always be futile. Holiness, in other words, is contextual.
In the final analysis, then, I am (and will never be) you, dearest Pope John XXIII, nor will I ever be like one of the saints in Heaven. And that is perfectly okay! For I am me, and you are you, and somehow or another, we are all created in the image and likeness of God. Thank you for reminding me about that. It is quite a liberating sentiment, really. Continue to enjoy your time in Heaven and if possible, please spare a thought for us, here on earth. Remind us daily to not take ourselves too seriously and to be contented in the daily engulfment of God’s grace and love for us.
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Christopher Chok