God’s visiting card
Chris Gleeson SJ
In mid-January this year I enjoyed the privileged opportunity of attending the annual Centre of Ignatian Spirituality course in Rome. It was truly an international event. There were some 110 participants from 45 countries—60 Jesuits, 30 religious, and 20 lay people.
Despite the language difficulties, the variety of cultures ensured that our morning liturgies were wonderfully rich. Indeed, as we sang and prayed in diverse tongues, we were actively embracing the conference theme of ‘accompaniment in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius’.
On one of the Saturday mornings of the three-week conference, we were given the chance to visit the Ignatian sites in Rome. Our guide was a Maltese Jesuit priest from the Gregorian University who shared with us his prodigious knowledge. He showed us where Ignatius lived, his favourite street corner for teaching religion to the children of Rome, the hospitals where he and his companions tended to the sick and lame. At the end of the tour, our leader celebrated Mass for us in the rooms of St Ignatius. In his homily referred to us as ‘God’s visiting cards’. It is an intriguing term and I have been reflecting on it ever since. What can it mean?
Pope Paul VI once greeted a group of Christian pilgrims in Rome by telling them that, as pilgrims, they had a very important role to play. After all, they might be the only gospel that many people in the world would ever read. On another occasion, he also said that young people will listen to witnesses before they will listen to teachers, and to teachers, only if they are witnesses.
Being ‘God’s visiting card’ must surely have something to do with being a witness to God’s love and life. Indeed, as I was giving out communion to a young lady at St Ignatius’, Toowong, recently, she said to me with a broad smile, ‘I loved your gospel today, Father’. I hope she meant that my homily on the difficult challenge to ‘love your enemies’ was good news for her. Being God’s visiting card means being good news for others.
Author Robert Fulghum, who has written such classics as All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten, (Uncommon thoughts on common things, Ten Speed Press, 1989, rev. ed. 1994) had this to say when he got himself a new business card:
What counts is not what I do, but how I think about myself while I’m doing it. In truth, I have a business card now. Finally figured out what to put on it. One word. ‘Fulghum.’ That’s my occupation. And when I give it away, it leads to fine conversations.
What I do is to be the best Fulghum I can be. Which means being a son, father, husband, friend, singer, dancer, eater, breather, sleeper, runner, walker, artist, writer, painter, teacher, preacher, citizen, poet, counsellor, neighbour, dreamer, wisher, laugher, traveller, pilgrim, and on and on. I and you—we are infinite, rich, large, contradictory, living, breathing miracles—free human beings, children of God in the everlasting universe. That’s what we do.
Before and after the conference in Rome I was able to visit my young brother and his wife who live in the little village of Stockbridge south-west of London. We were celebrating the Eucharist together one Sunday, and I reminded them of the words I spoke about our Mother, Doreen, at the Mass of Thanksgiving for her life in 1994.
I referred to the second volume of historian Manning Clark’s autobiography, The Quest for Grace, where he writes about the difference between people who are life-straiteners and those who are life-enlargers. The straiteners are those who have a very measured, narrow view of life and want to contain it, while the enlargers are those who love the banquet of life with a passion and want to share it with others. Doreen Gleeson clearly belonged to the life-enlarger category and as such was manifestly one of God’s visiting cards.
In chapter 10 of John’s Gospel we hear Jesus saying, ‘I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full’. It is one of his constant themes. In the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, we learn that ‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life’. John the Baptist brings us great comfort in reminding us that ‘anyone who believes in the Son has eternal life’. Jesus refers to himself as ‘living water’ and the ‘bread of God’, and anyone following him ‘will have the light of life’.
One of our great Jesuit Brothers, John Stamp, was fond of leaving copies of Madonna in buses and trams on his travels around Melbourne. He wanted to share the good news with the wider community. But Stampy himself was such good news that he left traces of God everywhere he went. If we are life-enlargers and life-givers, we will be God’s visiting cards wherever we journey. A blessing on your visiting!
Robert Fulghum grew up in Waco, Texas. In his youth he worked as a ditch-digger, newspaper deliverer, ranch hand and singing cowboy. After college and a short time with IBM, he returned to graduate school to complete a degree in theology. He served for 22 years as parish minister in Unitarian churches in north-west USA. He also taught drawing painting and philosophy in Seattle. He is an accomplished painter and sculpture, as well as a singer and guitar player. He turns 70 this year. See his personal website www.robertfulghum.com.for more information.