+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of the most difficult things for many of us to do is to “take flight” when the situation calls for it. It’s not always been so. Though we are wonderfully created in the image of God—though we are indeed moral creatures unlike anything else under the sun—human beings are still in a sense “animals”, and anyone who’s studied animal behaviour will have heard of the “fight or flight” mechanism. Certainly, earlier in the history of the human race, we were, like any other animal, largely controlled by reflexes which would determine if a fight (perhaps with a mastodon or a person from another tribe) was winnable and, if not, our reflexes would set us into flight.
Over the millennia, with the development of civilization, this natural response came to be suppressed and to be cast as cowardice. “Run Away” is not a very inspiring battle cry, unless, of course, you’re Monty Python’s version of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Retreat is seen as a negative thing, an embarrassment when necessary and to be avoided at all costs for the sake of honor- or something like that.
Thus, we might find the response of the Holy Family in this morning’s Gospel to be initially less than inspiring. The machismo of our modern sensibilities might not align with Mary and Joseph’s response to the threat of Herod. Joseph didn’t organize a militia of sympathetic Bethlehemites; he didn’t sit on the porch swing, shotgun in hand, daring Herod’s soldiers to step onto his property. The Holy Family ran away.
It’s too bad that our natural response is what it is. It’s too bad that we have a hard time seeing how brave Joseph and Our Lady were to pick up the Christ Child and retreat to an unfamiliar place, and to sojourn there, without knowing who would help them or how they’d survive, but only knowing that it was God’s will that they go.
In truth, sometimes the bravest action, the action God desires for us, is flight. Despite the Monty Python joke, sometimes “run away” is the most valiant battle cry. Too often we hear on the news or even from personal acquaintances, stories of battered women, who are frightened to run away, the tyranny of whose Herod-like husbands has instilled a degree of fear which immobilizes. In those sorts of situations, the choice to flee is both courageous and unimaginably difficult.
My oldest friend whome I’ve known since kindergarten would not be here, unless his father had made a courageous decision to run away. He was among the hundreds of thousands of Indo-Chinese who, persecuted by a Communist Government, got his family on a rickety boat that they might escape imprisonment, torture, and potential death. That doesn’t sound like cowardice to me; it sounds like courage.
Examples of courageous decisions to flee could be multiplied. However, most of us, though I suspect not all, have been fortunate enough to be spared extraordinary situations like abusive families and oppressive governments. Even so, most of us find ourselves in situations where a brief retreat of our own, a brief sojourn in Egypt as it were, is necessary.
Perhaps the most common case I’ve seen among my friends and acquaintances, is the need for spiritual retreat. So many of us these days are stressed to the brink all the time. In some ways “workaholism” is the disease of the American middle class today. I’m not suggesting that one ought not do one’s job and do it well, that one ought simply to run away when things get tough, but sometimes we permit our physical, emotional and spiritual health to suffer because we cannot but be busy all the time. In these situations, perhaps the best thing is to retreat to a place of calm and of prayer. There’s certainly a balance to be maintained in this regard, and we cannot engage in avoidance or laziness, but the overworked, overstressed person today must permit himself or herself periods of quiet and calm and reflection in the midst of his or her busy life in order to maintain a good and gracious disposition at work and in the home and in all of the other places in which we live and move and have our being.
I like to take retreats at monasteries, but some people are more inclined to go out into the woods or stay at home. The important thing is that we give ourselves a little time to flee from the terrible nonstop rush of things in order to spend quality time with God on God’s terms.
And just like the Holy Family on their retreat, our retreat may present itself as the context for a certain kind of peril. Perhaps it will not be the peril of not knowing how we are to survive, but rather the danger that when we do quiet down and listen to God for a while, He might demand something new and different from us. He might make it clear that His will for us is a radically different course in life. Too often we subconsciously avoid listening to God because of this very real possibility. But like the Holy Family, and like all those who flee awful situations for the good, we must approach our own flight, our own retreat, with courage and with faith that God’s will is to the good.
And we can take heart in the fact that however treacherous the path may seem, God makes it safe for His people. God said to the prophet Jeremiah “I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble.” God will do the same for us if we only let Him, if we only trust Him to make the path smooth, if we only determine to flee to Him when He calls us.
+In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.