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1. To recognize at the heart of the present

“Keep on winning well in those little daily contradictions that trouble you, and direct the best of your desires to this. Know that, for now, God wants nothing more from you than this; and therefore, do not waste your time wanting to do anything else. Sow not your desires in another’s garden, but take care only to cultivate your own well. Do not desire to be what you are not, but desire to be in the best way what you are. Direct your thoughts to perfect yourself in this and to bear the crosses, great or small, that you will find in the place you have been assigned. And believe me: this is the great secret and the least understood secret of the spiritual life. Everyone loves what is to his taste, and few love what is in accordance with their duty and the taste of our Lord. What is the use of building castles in Spain, if we have to live in France? This is an old lesson of mine, and you understand it well.” (Letter to President Brulart's wife, June 1607)

Choose a present to love or choose to love the present? We could summarise in these words the question Francis de Sales addresses to one of his Philalethes in a letter of 1607. In fact, echoing from century to century, the question posed by the saintly bishop of Geneva comes down to us, forcefully addressing our hearts particularly during this Advent season that prepares us for the Lord’s Christmas.

The sharp words of Francis de Sales reveal to us at the same time the deepest secret of holiness and help us to unmask one of the most frequent and insidious temptations that often lurks in our path. The saint of loving-kindness, with a tone that is at once delicate and decisive, lets us clearly understand that the only garden in which the seed of holiness, sown by God’s grace and guarded by our freedom, can grow, blossom and mature is one and only that of our present, of the here and now.

It is the here and now of our time and space, of our living conditions and health, of our ties and affections, of our work and the thousand circumstances of daily life, of our smallness and our faith always on the move. It is a present that sometimes seems cramped and at other times reveals incredible surprises, a present that is always imperfect and undermined by the passing of the days, a present that is, however, the only true, concrete and real time of our life, the time in which our life is at stake. It is not always immediately evident, recognisable and visible on the surface that the presence of God represents the true and authentic wealth that our present holds.

It is, in fact, a wealth that is both profound and precious. It does not impose itself and does not seek spaces of prominence, but in a discreet and concrete manner, tenaciously chooses not to withdraw but to continue to inhabit and bless this time, not transforming it into another time but transfiguring it, for what it is, into a time of grace.

Francis de Sales knows this very well. He knows very well that if we do not recognise God’s visitation in today’s events, we will hardly recognise it in tomorrow’s events because tomorrow when it arrives, will also be called today. At the same time, the Savoyard saint knows very well the temptation to escape from the present which, in one way or another, knocks at the door of our heart. It is the suggestive temptation not to live in the here and now, to surrender in the face of the apparent monotony, aridity and sterility of everyday life, in order to look elsewhere and otherwise for a more promising garden, more suitable to host and welcome our journey of holiness. Varied and colourful can be these destinations of our flight elsewhere.

Sometimes we take refuge in the past, idealising and regretting the beauty, often idealised, of a time that is no more. At other times, we lean towards an imagined and imaginary future, dreaming of it without those harshness and imperfections that instead accompany us in the present. At other times still, we long to seek refuge or escape into a different present, real or virtual, where it seems to us that conditions, situations and circumstances are much more conducive to our journey of following the Lord. Faced with these temptations that he knows very well, the Bishop of Geneva points us with mild resolve to our present, lived without discounts or loopholes, as the only real and concrete space in which it is possible to meet the Lord, the only place that the Lord chooses and in which he does not cease to visit and bless our lives.

Being in the present is certainly not easy, and recognising the present as the place where the Lord comes to meet us obviously does not mean petrifying existing reality into a cold and glacial stillness, in which nothing changes and nothing mutates. The secret that the holy bishop delivers to us is much deeper and more precious.

Francis de Sales suggests that it will never be possible for us to meet the Lord elsewhere that may be perfect but is certainly abstract and unreal but it is possible only in this present, as it is, in its lights and shadows, in its chiaroscuro and even in its contradictions. It will never be possible to meet the Lord if we do not recognise Him in the folds and wounds of reality, in the garden of our life and our history, in that France which, while seeing the thousand advantages and merits of a hypothetical Spain, is the only true ground of our life.

Only in this way will it be possible to experience that the Lord does not come to meet us because we inhabit a present made perfect by our own efforts, but meets us, where we are, because He infinitely and simply loves our life.

The Lord does not ask us to be other than what we are or to go elsewhere than where we are but rather asks us for the humility to welcome His coming in the poverty of this present which, like the manger of Bethlehem, is the only place where God asks us to be housed. And it is precisely from this experience, from having recognised in the Lord the guest, often unnoticed in our daily life that we receive the strength to walk and grow in holiness.

Holiness therefore is not, as we often think, to replace this present with our life and our history, with another present, radically new and totally different, which erases in an instant, as if with a stroke of a sponge, what we are and what we have been, to make room for a new beginning that presages better possibilities of success by starting again from scratch. Holiness is not even, by dint of our will and our efforts, trying to make progress, to grow and to improve, as if God, after having given us a path to follow, were waiting for us at the finishing line, interested and intrigued to assess the effectiveness of our efforts and the resilience of our perseverance, as if somehow, we had to deserve and earn His love by dint of our efforts and achievements.

The secret of holiness that Francis de Sales reveals to us is actually something infinitely more beautiful and greater, something infinitely more divine and immensely more human. Holiness is not attempting, by force of will, not to be what we are and to be other than what we are, denying what God has willed, blessed and loved our unrepeatable uniqueness. Holiness, on the other hand, is precisely living this present. It is, striving to be what we are in a perfect way, not as the goal of our efforts, but in the light of discovering and recognising ourselves, with infinite and never exhausted wonder, privileged recipients of God’s eternal, infinite and faithful Love that knows no hesitations or second thoughts, to the point of giving His very life for us.

It is precisely this knowing that we are gratuitously and infinitely loved by God, called to respond and not to chase after His Love, that allows our life to flourish in true and authentic holiness, in reflecting, in a unique and unrepeatable way, in a way that is and will be ours alone, in the features of our face the features of the Lord’s face.

The Love of God, His presence beside us, His dwelling in this very daily life, does not magically transfer us to a different present, but radically transforms and transfigures this present, renewing it, making it flourish and bear fruit in all its potential and possibilities for goodness, light and joy.

In our lives and in our present, as Francis de Sales clearly shows us, if we have the courage to inhabit it and dig it out, we will discover that God does not discard but redeems, does not condemn but purifies, does not give suggestions but loves. And this is precisely the secret of holiness. Not having to make an effort to blossom in order to be loved but being able to blossom thanks to the fact that we have already been loved infinitely, without ifs and buts, not sent back to the sender because of our faults, often the result of the wrong choices of our freedom, but redeemed and radically renewed by the greater Love that has loved us to the end, that is, to death and death on a cross. Holiness is not to be other than ourselves, but to become, through the daily weaving of grace and freedom, fully ourselves, what we are called to be, that is, not as we dream ourselves, but as from eternity God has dreamed and does not stop dreaming of us. All this cannot be experienced elsewhere but only at the centre and heart of this present, inhabited, animated and loved by God.

2. ...the loving presence of God...

From the Gospel of John (John 13: 1-17):

Before the feast of Easter Jesus, knowing that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During the supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given him everything in his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God, got up from the table, laid down his clothes, took a towel and wrapped it around his waist. Then he poured water into the basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel with which he had girded himself. Then he came to Simon Peter and the latter said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “What I do, you do not understand now; you will understand later.” Peter said to him, “You will not wash my feet for ever!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you will have no part with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands and my head!” Jesus added: “He who has bathed, has no need to wash except his feet and is all pure; and you are pure, but not all. For he knew who would betray him; therefore he said, ‘Not all of you are pure.’ When he had washed their feet, he took his garments, sat down again, and said to them, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me the Master and the Lord and you are right, for I am. If therefore I, the Lord and the Master, have washed your feet, you also must wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye also should do as I have done unto you. Truly, truly, I say unto you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor one who is sent greater than he who sent him. Knowing these things, you are blessed if you put them into practice.

It is the presence of God at the heart of our present that makes our present, even in its inevitable and unpredictable imperfections, the place where our holiness is called to flourish. God’s presence at the heart of our present gives us the grace and strength to be present to our present, living it in the presence of the One who, eternally present, loves us and constantly accompanies us with His Love in our daily lives. It is God’s choice to inhabit our time that makes our time habitable, a place where it is possible to receive, recognise and give back His Love. In this journey of ours which, by leading us to inhabit our present, helps us to escape the ever-lurking temptation to seek refuge elsewhere, a privileged time is certainly that of Advent.

Advent is the liturgical season that the Church offers us every year to prepare ourselves, walking in communion and community, for the mystery of the Lord’s holy Christmas. Advent is an absolutely special time of grace, a time that is given to us so that we can renew our awe and reawaken our wonder at the most shocking and unpredictable event of all time, an event that has changed history forever.

A philosopher of antiquity stated with unshakeable certainty: “One thing is certain. No other god ever came down here!”. Faced with this affirmation that categorically excludes that God can in any way come close and make Himself present to the present of mankind, there arises the unexpected and unprecedented mystery of Bethlehem that the evangelist John condenses in these words that from age to age never cease to echo in history: “the Word became flesh and pitched His tent among us” (Jn 1:14).

In the cave of Bethlehem, God, by His free choice of Love, does not remain far and distant. He does not send man a messenger or a code of behaviour but becomes man by being born of the blessed and ever virgin Mary. At Christmas, God the Father sends His only-begotten Son into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit, not to condemn the world but to save the world in His Love. This is the mystery of the Incarnation that we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas, the mystery of the Love of God who, in order to save mankind. He does not hesitate to involve Himself personally in human history, crossing the boundaries of the eternal and coming to dwell in the heart of time, of history, of the present of every man. It is in Christmas that the Son of God, of the same substance as the Father, comes to dwell in the heart of our present, so that every man, at the heart of his present, may encounter the wide-open heart of God. In Christmas, God, by becoming man, does not decide to recreate from nothing “another present”, but chooses to renew and recreate our present with His Love, which overcomes all distance, loneliness and abandonment.

With the Incarnation, the Eternal for Love of man becomes ‘nomadic’, accepting to come and dwell among us, pitching His tent in our time, so that each one of us along our own path can discover and experience that we are constantly and daily accompanied by Emmanuel, the God-with-us.

It is this same Love that brings God to become man in Christmas, that is manifested and fulfilled definitively in the Easter of the Lord’s death and resurrection, in His giving His life ‘for us and for all’, for the salvation of every man. In the mystery of Christmas and Easter, events that perhaps seem so different and distant to us at first sight, the same logic of Love pulsates and the same infinite and boundless Love of God for man lives.

It is precisely on the cross that God’s Love is unveiled and revealed in all its incredible and infinite depth. It is a Love that loves to the end, without discount and without second thoughts. It is the Love that chooses to inhabit the last place, the place of the one abandoned by God, so that no man, even the most distant, far and desperate, will find himself excluded from this embrace of salvation that is forever wide open to the heart of the world. After Easter, there has never been and never will be, until the end of time and history, a present in which God is not present, a present in which, if we accept to welcome the gift of Love that is always offered to us, we cannot touch with our own hands that God loves us and saves us. It is precisely for this reason that God’s Love might also be present at the heart of our present to the end, that the Lord, on the night when He was betrayed, gave us and handed over the Eucharist, the perennial sacrament of His Love for us.

It is precisely for this reason that the Eucharist is the greatest treasure God has entrusted to His Church, the source and beating heart of the life of the Christian community and the journey of every child of God. In the Eucharist, the gift of Love experienced by the Lord on the cross does not remain a memory locked in an ever distant past but in the power of the Holy Spirit, it becomes present at the heart of our present, reaching out to our lives in the here and now of our time. In the ‘daily bread’ of the Eucharist, broken day after day for our salvation, the Lord’s cross, the sacrifice of God who sacrificed himself for our salvation, crosses and breaks the boundaries of time, becoming a living source of Love that we can draw upon in our present. The Eucharist is the place where we discover who we are in God’s eyes, beloved children for whom the Father did not hesitate to sacrifice His only Son, so that no one might be lost and all might be saved.

The same sacrifice, the same cross, the same infinite Love in the Eucharist is made present in this time and in this space so that, to the ends of the world and of time, every man can experience and receive God’s salvation. It is the Eucharist that, by making present the cross of the Lord and planting it at the heart of our present, gives us the grace to be able to inhabit and live this present of ours, without shying away to elsewhere, as a time of grace, in which to recognise and encounter the face of God. Then we understand the words of a Church father who, comparing Christ to the beloved of whom the Song of Songs speaks, saw in the Incarnation, the Cross and the Eucharist the three ‘leaps of Love’ with which God in His Son chose to make Himself present in the present of every man.

It is the words of the evangelist John that allow us then to gather, even in our poverty, four sparks of this infinite Love that we are called to receive every day in the Eucharist. As we know, John, unlike the synoptics, in recounting the Lord’s Last Supper does not narrate the institution of the Eucharist, but gives us the scene of the washing of the feet in which the Master and the Lord, on the night in which He was betrayed, loved His own to the end, stooping to wash their feet. It is this gesture, forever impressed in the pages of John and in the heart of history, that reveals to us the profound meaning of the Eucharist, of which the washing of the feet constitutes the ‘explanation’ that the Lord Himself offered us.

a. The gift of presence: In the Eucharist, the Lord today, here and now, makes himself present at the heart of our present, not elsewhere. In it, God does not give us advice or directions but chooses to show us His Love in the most radical and profound way there is, that is, with the language of presence. To love is to become present and to be present and it is precisely here that Salesian spirit is rooted. God is not content to tell us or give us something but in the Eucharist, he chooses to come, with all of himself, to inhabit this present time, not another time. Presence, the sharing of time, is the basis and foundation of all Love. With the Eucharist, God does not choose to inhabit our past or our future but makes the here and now, at times so harsh and arid, the privileged time in which He meets, loves and saves our lives.

b. Sacrifice: God’s presence in our present is not a distracted, indifferent, curious present. It is not a touch-and-go. In the Eucharist, God does not come to take a look at our present. He does not appear at the window of my history for a quick inspection of the building site of my life but bursts into my life with all the charge and empowering force of His Love that did not hesitate to sacrifice Himself for me, to the end, to my last breath. The presence of God that the Eucharist unleashes at the heart of our lives is not a lukewarm, timid and inert presence. It is not a sleepy and distracted presence. It is a burning fire of Love. It is God Himself who, to save my life, does not hesitate to sacrifice Himself. In the Eucharist, our present is not reached by vague promises or generic reassurances, but is reached by God’s gift of infinite Love, of a God who has involved himself in my story to the end. God loves me and chooses to pay the highest cost, the sacrifice of Himself. He chooses today to surrender and give Himself so that in this present, man may have life and have life in abundance.

c. Communion: Too often we, Christians, think that walking with God is a private matter, a matter for each one taken individually, a private affair, not something that opens up the horizon of a walk in the community. Yet the beauty, often overlooked and forgotten, of being a Christian is precisely that of belonging to the Church, to a community of brothers and sisters in communion and on a journey as a people, as the family of God. It is precisely this gift that today springs from the Eucharist. It is from the Eucharist that the Church is born and lives. The communion of those who, discovering themselves loved by the same Love, walk in love as the Lord has loved us.

The Eucharist is not something that is given to me and for me, independently of others. This is not and cannot under any circumstance be the logic of Love, much less God’s Love! Love does not divide but creates and recreates unity, weaving relationships and reknitting even those bonds that for so many reasons may have been loosened or even broken. By receiving the Eucharist, the Body of Christ, given for us and for all, we receive at the same time the grace of being members of the Body of Christ, the Church of which Christ himself is the Head. It is not possible to belong to Christ and not find oneself belonging to His Body. It is precisely in the Eucharist that we are given a community of brothers and sisters to love and to be loved. Beyond all sympathy and opinion, we enter into communion with those next to us who have received the same gift of Love, even if they are strangers. It is, discovering that we are loved by the same Love and called to love one another with the same Love that we have received that makes us touch with our own hands that the Eucharist makes us one Church, entrusting us with brothers and sisters to love.

d. Witness: The Eucharist, as we repeat in every celebration, is not only given for the ‘you’ of the disciples and the Church, but it is given ‘for all’, to gather in one Love the children of God who are still dispersed. The Eucharist, the cross of Christ that engages and renews my life today, does not enclose me in my ego and does not enclose us in an elite group, in an exclusive club. The Eucharist, which makes us discover ourselves loved and makes us Church, inserts us into the same movement of Love that pulses in the heart of God. It is the Love that has no peace until someone, even if far away, distant and alone, has experienced the beauty of knowing and experiencing oneself loved as a child.

The Eucharist does not lock us up but launches and relaunches us into the world, as a community, to ‘tell’ those who have not yet encountered that Love that we have received. It is the Eucharist therefore that makes us witnesses of what we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands. It makes us witnesses capable of praying, giving ourselves, precisely because we have become one with Jesus, to speak to the Father with the same intimacy and confidence as His Son. It makes us witnesses capable of building and rebuilding fraternity precisely because we have become one with the Church, to build and rebuild relationships in which we welcome and accompany one another as brothers and sisters. He makes us witnesses capable of becoming living service precisely because we have become one with the heart of the Son, to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty, often with small gestures rather than big speeches, to fill our daily life at home as at work, with the sweet and delicate fragrance of Christ.

It is precisely for this reason that Don Bosco placed the Eucharist, the Love of God that makes itself present at the heart of my present, as one of the fundamental and indispensable pillars of the Preventive System. For Don Bosco it was a profound conviction, experienced on his skin. It is in the Eucharist that the orphans of Valdocco, the abandoned and perilous young people of yesterday and today, were able, can and will experience the infinite Love of a God who, even when we no longer have anything or anyone, loves us like a Father, because He is a Father who gives everything for us, to the end, to the last breath of His life. It is this profound conviction that emerges strongly in the dream of the two pillars that summarises the cornerstones of Salesian spirituality. The Eucharist is a presence that emerges, as a free gift of God, right at the heart of this stormy and tempestuous present, not elsewhere. God makes himself present today, here and now, not elsewhere, allowing us to anchor our ship to the pillar of His Love given for us on the cross and given again every day for us in the Eucharist, the only safe harbour of our present.

It is not just a pillar to which not so many small solitary ships, led by isolated helmsmen, dock and anchor, but more at the Eucharist, the great ship of the Church, led by the successor of Peter, finds its berth. Finally, it is not a luxury ship, reserved for a privileged few, that finds safe harbour! It is rather, as emerges from so many other dreams of Don Bosco, a raft, a lifeboat, like those that ply our seas and seek our shores and our cities in search of hope and salvation. At the column of the Eucharist, there are no luxury ships docked but rafts that, perhaps at risk of sinking due to the raging storms and are about to reach their end, sinking and drowning, seek open and welcoming places, outstretched and solicitude that cannot stop. Thus it takes aboard those who, due to the infinite circumstances of life, risk sinking and drowning.

Don Bosco writes:

“In the middle of the immense expanse of the sea, two sturdy columns rise from the waves, very tall, not far from each other. Above one of them is the statue of the Immaculate Virgin, at the foot of which hangs a large sign with this inscription: ‘AUXILIUM CHRISTIANORUM’; on the other which is much taller and larger, there is a HOST of a size proportionate to the column and below another sign with the words: ‘SALUS CREDENTIUM’ (MB VII).

For personal prayer and meditation

  1. In my daily life, do I love the ‘present’ I have or do I choose and desire a different one?

  2. Do I seek progress and improvement through my own efforts or do I entrust each day to the Lord, letting Him accompany me in my choices, actions, difficulties and joys?

  3. Do I live the Eucharist as an infinite gift of love and does my heart feel touched when I receive Jesus?

  4. Does the Eucharist make me a witness to communion and able to fill my daily life ‘with the sweet and delicate fragrance of Christ’?

Monthly Commitment

Every morning when I get up, I will make as my first gesture a sign of the cross, asking Jesus to help me live that day well and in his company. During the week, while receiving the Eucharist, I will ask the Lord to stir my heart so that it may become aware of His presence

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