In this Year of Faith, we've all been thinking about how to evangelize more effectively, and no group is more coveted in this mission than our youth. Word on Fire blog contributor Father Michael Cummins looks to Scripture for inspiration, and finds a lesson in two figures that we all would be remiss to ignore.
On January 31st, the Church celebrated the Feast of St. John Bosco – a saint who devoted his life to helping young people. This saint and his feast day have led me to reflect on my own experience of ministering to youth and young adults, especially in a time and culture that is “youth-obsessed.” We can readily see how this obsession is played out in all areas of society — the entertainment and news media industry, politics, sports, education, relationships, just to name a few. Yet, my own reflection led me to wonder how might this obsession with youth bleed into, and perhaps even negatively influence, the Church’s ministry to youth and young adults as they seek to claim their own Christian faith and spirituality?
I will start by stating that one of the core convictions I have gained in my ministry with youth and young adults is that young people do not benefit from older people trying to act young; rather young people benefit when their elders remember their own age and are authentic to whom they, themselves, are.
To use the language of Scripture: in our culture today, our young Samuels need the guidance of older and wiser Elis. For any person involved with young people, 1 Samuel 2-3 is a must-read. I have returned again and again to this Scripture passage for wisdom, and I have come to believe that Eli is an often unsung hero in Scripture. I would like to use this encounter between the young Samuel and the elder Eli as a means to share some thoughts.
In the second chapter of 1 Samuel, we are told that the Lord had withdrawn his favor from the house of the priest Eli due to the corrupt actions of his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. Yet the young Samuel “continued to grow both in stature and favor with the Lord and with men.” (1 Samuel 2:26) In the third chapter we find the famous scene of the young Samuel hearing the voice of the Lord, mistaking it for the voice of the old priest and going each time to the sleeping Eli until finally Eli catches on to what is happening and instructs the young man in how to respond.
For our purposes here I would like to focus more on Eli than Samuel. There are four things that Eli does that are worthy of reflection and emulation.
1. Eli has a relationship with the young Samuel while not pretending to be Samuel’s peer.
2. Eli was a man of prayer who was able to eventually recognize what was occurring and give good instruction to the young man.
3. Eli put what was in Samuel’s best interest before his own.
4. Eli trusted in God.
The fact that the young Samuel is comfortable in seeking out the elder Eli each time he hears the voice of the Lord witnesses to an established relationship between the two persons, yet nowhere is there expressed any confusion between their differing roles. Eli knows who he is and therefore he is comfortable in his own skin and he has no need to pretend to be something that he is not. An approach to Christian faith and ministry that needs to abandon itself and our great Christian heritage in order to chase after the world in the hopes of being relevant lacks maturity and therefore any real depth of insight to offer a young person who is searching. It might be flashy in the moment but beyond that there is just really not that much there.
What enabled Eli to be comfortable in his own skin and act out of his own authenticity was that he was a man of prayer. Like any true discipline, the fruit of prayer is only born after the establishment of a hard-fought battle for habit and practice. I would hazard to guess that what enabled Eli to finally recognize what was occurring for the young Samuel was a lifetime spent devoted to the often mundane work of daily prayer. An approach to Christian faith and prayer that seeks to manufacture “spiritual highs” at all times rather than developing the daily discipline of prayer is more about addiction than honest Christian spirituality. Such an approach is, in fact, a disservice. The life of Christian faith, more often than not, grows gradually and through daily habit.
Eli not only knew what the Lord’s call for Samuel meant for the young man, he also knew what it meant for him and his family. Frankly, God’s calling of Samuel meant the end of the road for Eli and his own sons. I do not think it out of place to believe that this thought must have crossed Eli’s mind, along with the temptation to intentionally misguide the youth. Yet, Eli did no such thing. Eli put Samuel’s best interest before his and that of his own sons. This will forever be in Eli’s favor: to let go of self for the good of another takes a mature and wise heart.
My experience has been that wisdom is sorely lacking in our world today, and one way that this can sadly be witnessed is when members of an older generation cannot let go of their own interests, needs and particular viewpoints in deference to what is in the best interest of the younger generation. I would guess that one of the reasons behind many younger people no longer defining themselves as religious is their own experience of their elders’ inability to put the needs of others before their own. The “elders” in this context tending to be a generation of people, I would think, that would more readily define themselves in terms of being “religious.” When young people no longer define themselves as religious, are they forsaking religion per se, or are they reacting against impoverished examples of religion being lived, which they have experienced? True maturity is found in not always needing to put oneself first in order to seek and value the good of the other. It is this type of maturity that truly aids the next generation, as we witness in this encounter between the elder Eli and the young Samuel.
What enables this letting go is a profound trust in God. Eli had such a trust. Following upon God’s revelation to Samuel, Eli requests that the young Samuel inform him of all that had been spoken by the Lord, holding nothing back. Samuel shares all, including the ending of Eli’s house. Eli responds, “It is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him.” (1 Samuel 3:18) Eli’s trust in the Lord was perhaps one of his greatest gifts to the young Samuel. A faith obsessed with pursuing youth and relevancy lacks this depth of trust because it is a depth that can only be achieved by negation and passing through the dark night of the senses. At this point, everything Eli had been about was negated, yet he is able to offer this profound statement of trust in the Lord. In the end, may God’s will be done.
A friend of mine once shared that it does the Church no good to chase after the world. Yes, we live in the world and we must seek to encounter and dialogue with it, but it does no good if we are co-opted and lose our own soul in the process. Eli, I believe, has a lot to teach us about helping the young to find and know God while, at the same time, remaining authentic to who we ourselves are.
Fr. Michael Cummins is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Knoxville, TN. He serves as Vocation Director for the diocese and Chaplain to the Catholic Center at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, TN. Fr. Michael is a member of the Community of Sant'Egidio.
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