A 38-year old man writes to his mother for her birthday:
‘Dear Mama, .. I have just one desire, to give you joy in these times which are so dark for you. I want you to know that I think of you and Dad many times every day, and I thank God that you are there for me and for the whole family. I know that you have only lived for us, and that you haven’t had a life for yourself. .. That my Maria is with you, is a great comfort. I thank you for all the love that has come from you to me here in my cell, over the past year, and that has made things easier for me. I believe that these tough years have only served to draw us ever closer together. I wish you and Dad and Maria, and all of us, that the New Year will bring us, at least here and there, a glimmer of light, and that sooner or later we will be able to rejoice together. May God keep you all healthy! .. Your ever-thankful Dietrich’
How we flourish, precisely when times are tough, is what the prophet Jeremiah and the psalmist are telling us in our readings today. They use the picture of the fine tree, branches with buds and then leaves. Even in times of drought and extreme heat, it flourishes, provided the roots hidden underground are deep. These reach the water, down below. Jeremiah and the psalmist were writing for people who needed encouragement. The people they were speaking to were experiencing political collapse, the loss of all that kept them together as a people, for they faced exile in a foreign land. ‘Trust in the Lord’, Jeremiah tells the people. ‘Blessed are they who hope in the Lord’, says the psalmist. When the big heat comes, when apparently there is no nourishment from the rains, they go deeper, like the roots into the earth, and there they find the water that keeps them going. Deep down, inside themselves, there the Lord is waiting for them.
Dietrich, the chap who wrote the birthday letter to his mum, can give us hope and guidance, too. He was writing in the final days of December 1944. He was here in Berlin, in the Prinz Albrechtstrasse, the Gestapo prison. He was living with the prospect of a death sentence. A few months later, within a fortnight of war’s end, he was in fact executed. A bleak scenario indeed. Dietrich was a man of deep faith, and of prayer. Faced with the Nazi regime, his faith gave him courage to work with others to keep alive a community of hope. He dug deep from the well of faith and companionship with Jesus. He rooted himself in the Lord, letting himself be nourished by the story of how God accompanied the people in all their wanderings, as related in the Bible. Through small group work, through talks and letters he shared that nourishment with others. He let the Lord show him the way, whatever the cost to himself, his fiancée Maria, and his family. He trusted that the Lord would provide him, and them, with what was needed. In the darkness of his prison cell, he could find the words to offer hope and love to those sorely tried. Because of his deep rootedness and focus on the Lord, he could keep others and their needs at the centre of his attention. Dietrich is one of those who point us to how calamity, collapse, the cruelty of systems, the indifference of others, may not have the last word.
Our situations may not be as intense or as dramatic as that of Dietrich. But we all face times when our plans don’t work out as anticipated. We live with disappointment, with failure in various forms. Others cannot be relied on to meet our expectations. Some people must live with great insecurity in their lives. However we all face the uncertainty that illness brings. Can we let Jesus draw us ever deeper to Himself? Where is our heart set? On what, and on whom do we centre ourselves? Can we ask the Lord to change whatever in us needs changing? We are God’s work of art, and the potter is always at work on us the clay, moulding and remoulding, shaping and reshaping. Are we open to the Lord’s continual attention and hints to us as to how we are to grow? Like Dietrich, do we want give life to others, even when we feel our own situation may not be easy or comfortable?
Jesus speaks to us of those who are poor, those who weep, those who are hungry. They are blessed. They are blessed because they know they cannot manage alone. They are not proud and self-sufficient. The Lord walks with them in their loss and hunger. He does not ditch them. This is good news. Once more Jesus is inviting us to align our hearts with his. May the Spirit guide us to the living streams that do not disappoint, and remove what blocks us from digging deeper.
Brian Mac Cuarta SJ