peter claver: hidden with christ in god

(fr. Cyprian)

On September 9, we have the option to celebrate a rather remarkable saint, Peter Claver. He was born in Spain, joined the Jesuits at 20 years old, and, partly due to the urging of a lay brother named Alphonsus, asked to be sent to the colonies of New Spain, in Colombia. He was deeply disturbed by the treatment of the African slaves that were being brought over for the mining industry there, in spite of the fact that three popes had by this time condemned slavery. When he was solemnly professed in 1622, he signed his final profession document in Latin as: Petrus Claverth, aethiopum semper servus––“Peter Claver, servant of the Ethiopians forever.” He is known as the “slave of the slaves.” He was preceded in his ministry by another remarkable Jesuit named Alonso Sandoval. You must remember, to enslave people you have to somehow convince yourself that they are not really human. What’s remarkable about this Alonso Sandoval is that he studied the rituals, language and culture of the African peoples, so much that when he returned to Spain he wrote a book about it. So, obviously he thought of them as human beings. But Peter Claver went one step further: he would head for the wharf as soon as a slave ship entered the port, board the ship and go down below to minister to the incoming in the rat-infested, disease laden filthy holds of the ships. He did this for forty years, and it’s estimated that he catechized and baptized 300,000 of them.

The two readings that we coincidentally had for that day couldn’t have been more perfect for Peter Claver. The first was from Paul’s letter to the Colossians (3:1-11), which I love, especially the phrase, well beloved to monks of all sorts: you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. I like to render that “your true self” or “your real self is hidden with Christ in God” or “our real self is hidden in God––with Christ.” And we are to look for our true selves, our real selves, there––in God. But God is not somewhere far away. I think we can get thrown by the idea of the things that are above that Paul calls us to, and not the things of earth. I seem to keep running into this phrase the past few days––“the ground of our being,” and “the ground of our soul,” especially among people who are studying Meister Eckhart. God is the ground of our being, and our real self is hidden there, in the ground of our very being, hidden with Christ in God.

I often like to think that the way there looks just like the point of destination, in other words, as AA says, we just have to “Act as if…” We have to act as if we were there and someday we’ll be there. And so Paul in this section gives us lists of how to act “as if.” There are really two lists here in this snippet from Colossians. The first are sins of the body and passions to avoid––fornication, impurity, greed, etc.; and the second includes sins that arise in the mind or intellect––anger, malice, slander, abusive language. We are not just being renewed in our bodies; we’re being renewed in our minds, according to the image of our Creator, Paul says, and that image is imprinted in the ground of our consciousness too. I love how we pray in the Yoga tradition for non-violence of thought, word and deed. Not just deeds and words––but even getting rid of malice of thought. That’s what has died too or is supposed to have died.

There is another way that we can get thrown by the idea of the things that are above and not the things of earth. That is only a first moment. In a second moment we are called back to our physical and mental beings renewed, our bodies refreshed and brought into right relationship in some way, and our minds are renewed too, with the power of the Spirit. But then there is another step too: it’s not just about my individual salvation! It’s about building a world of justice and peace. It’s not just about going to heaven; it’s about building––and being––a faithful family here on earth.

There is a section of the Vatican II Instruction on the Contemplative Life called Venite Seorsum that ties right in with that day’s gospel, Luke’s version of the beatitudes (Lk 6: 20-26). Speaking of the spirit of the beatitudes, Venite Seorsum says that “If the spirit of the beatitudes, which animates the discipleship of Christ, is to vivify any and every form of Christian life,”––we assume in this context it wants to remind us that the spirit of the beatitudes is also upposed to vivify the contemplative life––then “the life of the contemplative testifies that such can be put into practice even during one’s earthly existence.” It’s not just about heaven. And it further says that this witness “will exercise a more forceful influence on people of our times to the degree that it is collective, or rather, social.” In other words, it’s also not just individual: “It is not, in fact, the witness of the individual that attracts people of today, but the witness, fruit of a life led together with others… which, in virtue of its continuity and vigor, confirms the validity of the contemplative community.” That’s what confirms that our life is valid, if we show that we can come out of our cells and live life together, build koinonia. And then it goes on to quote Paul VI who refers to Monte Cassino, the birthplace of Benedictine monasticism, as “‘a small, ideal society in which at last reign love, obedience, innocence… in which prevail, the spirit, peace, and—in a word—the Gospel.’” Ah, that’s it, as good a description as I can imagine of a Christian community and a Christian monastery. Monastic life, religious life, is not just about fuga mundi––fleeing the world, and it’s not even just about me finding my real self hidden with Christ in God. It’s about me then being renewed in body and mind, and building a small ideal society in which love, obedience, and innocence reign, where the spirit of the beatitudes is the charter, a little village where the spirit and peace of the Gospel prevail.[1]

And that brought me back to the saint we were celebrating, Peter Claver. Yes, it is estimated that he personally catechized and baptized 300,000 slaves during his 40 years of ministry. But what is equally if not more important than the catechesis and baptisms, is that he would then follow up on them to ensure that they received their civil rights and their rights as Christians. It wasn’t just about their souls going to heaven; it was also about justice on earth. He did the same with sailors and traders and conducted missions out in the countryside, again returning every spring to visit those he had baptized, making sure that they were treated humanely. That’s because when we find our real self hidden with Christ in God, we then start to be able to see that same real self hidden in those around us as well, and see with God’s eyes––and do something about it. Our whole moral theology as Catholics is based on that––that every human person, even the lowliest and the poorest, is an imago Dei.

And that reminded me of yet another Vatican II decree, the one on the “Apostolate of Lay People,” a marvelous section of which we had heard at Vigils that morning. It teaches that if “charity is to be above all criticism,” then “one should see in one’s neighbors the image of God to which they have been created,” and one should see in one’s neighbors “Christ the Lord to whom is really offered all that is given to the needy.” In other words to see in one’s neighbor their real self, hidden with Christ in God. That’s what makes us want to ensure that “the liberty and dignity of the person helped [is] respected with the greatest sensitivity.”

There is a little more in that document that is not absolutely salient to these readings and this feast, but it flows from it and is too good not to mention, especially in the light of the dying embers of colonialism and our constant tendency toward Empire Building. The document on the Apostolate adds this note: “Purity of intention should not be stained by any self-seeking or desire to dominate.” And then this, which I think is a very subtle but important point: “The demands of justice must first of all be satisfied; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity.” In other words, it is not an act of charity to fulfill the demands of justice! That’s why they are called “demands.” And so, “The cause of evils, and not merely their effects, ought to disappear.”[2] First comes the justice that is due to others who are in the image of God, in the spirit of the beatitudes; and then charity is added on top of that.

And so we pray with Peter Claver that we might discover our real selves hidden with Christ in God; and that that discovery would lead us to see it in others too, and spur us on to build a little society, even here at New Camaldoli, in which love, obedience, and innocence reign, where the spirit of the beatitudes is the charter, a little village where the spirit and peace of the Gospel prevails, as Paul says, ‘til there be no Greek or Jew, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all and in all.

[1] Venite Seorsum, V.

[2] Apostolicam Actuositatem II.8


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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this informative homily… growing up one of my closest friends was named Sandoval. I wonder if the Jesuit Sandoval was lurking around and influencing my vocation to Africa!

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