Fr. Peter Willi FSO

Putting the past and the future in God’s hands

On the 20th Anniversary of the death of Mother Julia Verhaeghe, foundress of The Spiritual Family The Work

Mother Julia died on the morning of the 29th of August 1997 while the Community had gathered for Mass in the church of the monastery in Thalbach. She gave her life back to God as, in the background, through the small loudspeakers, the voice of the priest could be heard speaking the words of the Consecration. She stepped out of this time into the eternal present. In the life to come there is no past and no future any more, only the eternal present.

As long as our life moves within the coordinates of space and time, there is past, present and future. Today I would like to pose three questions which concern us all: How do I stand by my past? How do I handle the present? How do I visualise the future? In answering these three questions, which naturally can only be fragmentary, we would like to find our inspiration from the Apostle Paul, the patron of The Work and of Mother Julia.

How do I stand by my past?

Mother Julia was fascinated by the attitude of faith of the great Apostle of the Gentiles regarding his own past. He realised, in the light of Christ, who appeared to him in front of the gates of Damascus, the full extent of his unjust and hateful behaviour towards the first Christians. He could have been shattered by this, or, because of his contrition and his self-accusation, he could have lost the will to live. He did not. On the contrary: He confessed: “I am forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:13). How was it possible for him to say something like this and become a great Apostle?

He could not have done this on his own. This admirable new beginning was only possible because he entrusted himself unconditionally to the mercy of God. He let himself be redeemed from his sin, he entrusted himself to Jesus Christ, his Saviour. He realised from his own experience: “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor 5:17). The resurrected and crucified Lord had cleansed him interiorly and made it possible for him to finish with his past and to continue his path in peace. There was not only a dark side to his past, there was also a lot of goodness: his fervour for God and the law, his loyalty to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, his quest for God. However, in a kind of mental blindness, he allowed himself to be captivated by actions which caused unbelievable suffering to Christians. Paul is a strong example of coming to terms with the past in faith. To see the past in the faith, it is important firstly to be grateful for everything good in life, for gifts and graces sent to us and for all the good works we can do. But there are imperfections, deficiencies and guilt in every biography. There are failings and errors, there are lost opportunities, there are wrong or missed decisions. There are dreams and plans that could not be fulfilled or that were not realistic. The past is different from one person to another. But who would not have a reason to give themselves to the mercy of God? People are so often blocked because they cannot forgive themselves or others, because they complain and condemn, because they analyse everything and cannot distance themselves from the probing “Why” question. Faith offered Paul a liberating path, faith offers each of us a redeeming path. This path is called: Devotion to the merciful love of God, submission of one`s own life to the redeeming strength of the suffering of Christ. There are more than a few people who wrangle with their past and who drag it with them like a burden. Christ, the Redeemer, however, opens ways into the future. Mother Julia once said: “We must surrender ourselves unconditionally to God's merciful love”.  When we do this, we can live in peace with our past.

How do I see the future?

The future often seems like an uncertain and unknown land.  Everything can abruptly happen differently than we had planned and thought. Nevertheless for Christians, a wonderful goal illuminates the horizon of the future. Paul headed for this goal and wanted to take many others with him, so that they could also reach it. He writes: “I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus” ( Phil 3:14). This magnificent goal of the eternal and ultimate union with Christ does not lie in time, it shines into time. This goal does not brighten up all the uncertainty and unfamiliarity in our paths through life, it says to us:  When you have loved in your life, then everything will change for the better. When you have lived with Christ and have remained faithful, then everything will lead to a joy that will never fade away. Paul was fulfilled with this assurance and wrote therefore to the Romans: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). These words are an inspiration, these words are an enormous driving force to grasp life. We see this in Mother Julia`s life. She wrote once to her spiritual director, that she expected the day of her death to be the most beautiful day of her life, yes, she was longing to meet the Lord face to face. But this yearning did not make her dreamy and inactive for the call to action and devotion to the here and now. Therefore she wrote: “This yearning does not hinder me in my mission in The Work. On the contrary, it allows me to live more kind heartedly and sincerely, astute and attentive to those whom I know, whether they are near me or far away. This yearning allows me to live with greater patience and loyalty….”.

Dear brothers and sisters, sometimes we look to the future with great confidence, sometimes with apprehension, sometimes we do not even think about the end of our lives and sometimes we are overcome with worry. Sometimes we feel strong and sometimes we recoil from ourselves. Recently a priest who, next year will be celebrating his golden jubilee, said to me: “When I was a newly ordained priest I was afraid that I would be unfaithful. Consequently, an experienced older priest said to me:” You do not need to be afraid if you remain faithful in the little things”. As Christians we can lay our future calmly in God`s hands, but we will use the present more attentively. And thus we come to the third and actually most important question:

How do I manage the present?

Do we find an answer in Paul? Yes, for example in the appeal: “making the most of the time” (cf Col 4:5). Neither the past nor the future are at our disposal. We can, however, regulate the present, the precious here, now and today. Mother Julia liked using these words: here, now and today. I have never experienced Mother Julia as a stressed person. Stress is an overloading of a person with a simultaneous experience of futility. The believer rarely experiences his life as futile and empty. He can give everything a meaning. He is not “stressed out”, even when he has a lot of work to do. Mother Julia carried the weight of life. Sometimes the weight was immense, but it never crushed her. She knew the very experience that Paul had so aptly defined: “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed“ (2 Cor 4:8f). Mother Julia did not carry the cross of a self made hectic, but the sweet burden of a loving human being. All the many initiatives of love have filled her days. The desire to do the will of God, and a life of prayer prevented her from becoming a workaholic, i.e. a person for whom work has become a drug. In Paul we find the wonderful words: “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance” (Eph 2,10). Everything depends on doing the good works here, now and today that God has prepared in advance for each of us. He has a plan for each of us.  We encounter this love plan of God in our everyday duties. When we let ourselves be led by the inner light of a pure conscience, then we can recognise, step by step what we have to fulfil in life, every one of us personally.

In September many start a new working year, a new school year, a new parish year. What has it in store for us? Some things we know, some we do not. God knows everything, and he will let us know, step by step, what is important for us. Let us start with faithful confidence and then continue with trust!  Let us utilise every day! Let us be on our guard not to defer things that we can and should do now. Let us not idle away the time. Let us not be distracted from the things that matter! The living days of the Saints did not have more than 24 hours, but they practised filling them with God`s works- in faith and love. It is possible for the believing person to live with the past, to enter the future with confidence and to use the present with a watchful spirit. I will finish with a word of encouragement from Mother Julia:” He is present for you in the task he gives you now. You must lay the past and the future in his hands and not worry anymore”.
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