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From Mary to Philip Neri: Lessons in Detached Cooperation

September 8, 2021


“All of God’s purposes are to the good, although we may not always understand this we can trust in it.”St. Philip Neri

Philip Neri was neither the first nor the last saint to remind us that God’s purposes, though far beyond our comprehension, are “always to the good” and trustworthy, but he said it perfectly and succinctly. If we have faith, Neri’s words apply a mysterious balm of consolation during challenging times, times when we don’t understand why sad, harrowing, senseless, tragic, or just plain weird things are happening to us or to others. It is a balm of reassuranceone that reminds us that we are given opportunities to cooperate with a divine plan that is yet unfolding, and thus to co-create within that plan as best we can. 

“As best we can” means, in part, settling ourselves downputting away our panic, letting go of our anger, if we can, in order to recognize and accept that sometimes bad things, unjust things, are permitted in order that something else, something new, something completely unexpected and good, may yet come forward. This is, of course, the great message of the crucifix: the brutal injustice of Jesus’ torture and execution were permittedpainfully, earthshakinglyin order that he might be resurrected and glorified as the Messianic victor and defeater of death.

As I write this, my family and I are still trying to deal with the destructive aftermath of Hurricane Ida, and I am also dealing with a medical issue. St. Philip’s reminder points me, helpfully, to the crucifix, which points me, helpfully, to the Resurrection, which reminds me that both cooperation and co-creation involve a willingness to submit to the discipline of detachment. My house is in some ways a wreck; I am once more given a chance to detach from the over-importance I attribute to material things and “stuff.” My health is questionable; engaging in treatment will require trust but also cooperation with whatever realities and options are before me, and yes, detachment from any illusions I might wish to harbor in the secrets of my heart.

So, I love the quote from Philip Neri, and I keep it ever before my awareness, but I do approach it with an attitude of humility touched with just the tiniest bit of wry insouciance. “Yes, yes, God has a plan! Yes, I trust in it! And how convenient that it’s all ‘a plan’ I can ‘trust in’, if I want to believe it!”

Except I do want to believe it, because to me it makes sense of otherwise senseless things. 

Today, Catholics and Orthodox Christians remember the Nativity of Mary, an event for which we rely upon apocrypha and tradition rather than Scripture for information. Mary was a daughter of David, born to Anna and Joachim. Catholics believe that Mary (meant in the divine plan to be the Ark of the New Covenant) was born free of original sinpristine and flawless as an Ark must be in order to contain the power and Being of the Creator, and thus all-Creation, within. It is impossible to consider the words of Philip Neriand the truth behind themwithout recalling Mary who was both created and prepared for a purpose within the plan, yet still had free will; she could still have said “no” when the Angel Gabriel brought the Creator’s message to her.

Never allow anyone to diminish Mary,. Always remind them that her “yes” was the spark that allowed the whole pageant of our salvation to move forward. Joined to the great “yes” that was God’s word of creation, Mary’s assent cooperated and co-created within that “yes”, so that—like the still-expanding space, born of the Big Bang—God’s will for us and his reclamation of us could continue to expand as well through Christ Jesus.

The Theotokos deserves all of our reverence and appreciation because she understood the great paradoxical secret that Philip Neri hints at: It’s not about us.

We are born for a purpose, yes, but that purpose has never been about what the earth-bound and worldly would have us believe. We’re not here to “self-actualize” or to “make our mark.” Certainly we should work to develop our God-given potentialities, and in doing so, we will help ourselves advance toward the abundant life that Jesus has told us God wants us to have (John 10:10). But the bottom line is that our existence, our purpose, our gifts, or our weaknesses are all meant to cooperate with God toward the fulfillment of his plans—not just for each of us but for the culmination of creation itself, from which we do not live separately. 

We are reminded of all of this in today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:28-30)

The passage points to everything that has come before or ever will come, including you and me and everyone we love or hate and every gift we possess or yearn for, and it brings it all back to Christ Jesus for the purposes of God. Our cooperation is important; it matters. 

But it bears repeating: ultimately it’s not about us. Thanks be to God, it’s not about us. This is the knowledge, the ancient secret, that makes us free. Amen, and Amen. The truth that sets us free.

Come, Lord Jesus, and direct my focus away from my self, that I might best see you and become a true co-operator with the divine will and the creation which is all to the good. In this way, I become part of the good news which is eternal and for all the people. Gloria in excelsis Deo! We are free at last. Amen.